Maintaining the Status Quo (on Games Criticism)

August 10th, 2014

Every now and then I come across a great quote that articulates something that’s been sitting in one of the dark corners of my brain, patiently waiting for that light bulb moment of articulation. One of the great things about this game design discussion group that I’m part of (more details here) is that such quotes come regularly. Here is one on games criticism:

“I think a lot of the criticism field is about proving authority through displaying how well you fit in the group. You do this by outward displays of intellectualism, which is easiest to manufacture by taking the simple and rendering it complex enough to justify your college degree. Since today’s game design culture is such a loose world of ideas with very little in the way of concrete knowledge, currying status among the critical community doesn’t mean producing results that others can reproduce and use–it means harnessing intellectual fads and making everyone feel good (read: smart). “Let’s come up with language that is less ambiguous and more concrete so we can more directly describe how games work and how we can do game design better” is actually at odds with this status quo, and thus needs to be said. It’s tempting to see a statement so close to our values and say “well, isn’t that obvious?”–it’s not obvious, though no one will argue the other side of it because admitting that games criticism is primarily a status game would damage the status communication mechanism that is games criticism and provide no benefit to the vast majority of games critics who would prefer to continue their effective status-gaining strategies.

Regardless, there are often kernels of truth and useful information to be gleaned from the needless verbal profusion of games criticism.”

The speaker sums up a lot of the ideas I was forming back in 2007-2008 when I first started writing and interacting in this space. Not much has changed since then and not much will change going forward without a critical language to ground our conversations and communities. What are your thoughts?

  • Although I agree with him that language in game design writings needs to be standardised and that a lot of it seems to be just vague comments about nothing in particular, I think there are more urgent problems to take care of first.

    Like grounding your examples with specific games rather than giving generic advice and opinions which can’t really be seen in action. That’s one reason I really liked your posts on games like Mario & Luigi Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team, cause they were about specific games and how they were designed.

    Or just writing about more genres and types of games. Cause most criticism tends to involve either:

    Puzzle games
    Fighting games
    Extremely old (aka NES era) 2D platformers
    Indies games three people on the planet have actually played.

    There needs to be more written about RPGs, racing games, 3D platformers and action adventure titles first. What good is clear language if people don’t write about most types of games to begin with?

  • regarding criticism of RPGs, I searched “mass effect” on and got nine pages of results here’s one page which covers a bunch of other RPGs, and incidentally, while looking for a good sample, I also ran across this post (also linked from critical distance) that covers a whole mess of stuff around the use of language in games

    so it’s not that it doesn’t exist. it’s just you didn’t know the right place to look 🙂

  • That’s still only a small sample though, compared to the kinds of games most game design blogs and articles seem to be written about.

    There’s also a bit of a lack of content about specific series and games, especially less well known ones (or single games released outside of a franchise). Or content about games made by non professional designers/developers, which could be interesting.

    But thanks for the links, I’ll be reading through them later.

  • @cm30:disqus You’re right. Language-aside, the conversations around games would be much more constructive if people grounded their arguments with examples. This would help put everyone on the one page.

    @IcePotato:disqus Yup. There’s no lack of quantity in writing on games. Thanks for the links.

  • You’re right that there’s no lack of writing on games. But I think there is a lack of writing about certain games.

    So while say, Super Mario Bros 1 might have three million articles written about how its designed, you can’t really say the same about Super Mario 3D World or Super Mario Sunshine. There are tons of articles about Bioshock Infinite or Portal or Papers Please, but pretty much none about Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon or Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze.

    That’s another reason I really like this site. Cause it writes about the Mario & Luigi series, as well as the Wario Land series, two franchises which have (in general) been overlooked by a lot of game criticism sites.

  • Yeah. I hear you there. There’s a strong focus on “high concept” games within the games criticism sphere. That is, primarily of games that communicate these high concepts through context more so than design (i.e. Bioshock, Journey, etc.). Personally, I am more interested in games with good design, as these games communicate their concepts through play (i.e. I can actually engage with the ideas as opposed to just looking at them).