There is a huge backlash against reviews right now in gaming, and in particular review scores. As part of the fallout from last week’s release of The Order: 1886 – a beautiful yet flawed game that has been receiving rather mediocre reviews from the majority of video game outlets – many have called out the act of reviewing as a problem within the industry. Much of this backlash is due to the general review score’s capacity to repudiate the hopes of enthusiasts – those who want something to be great when the critic voices the contrary. This isn’t the first time this has happened, by any means. Any time a game reaches a level of ‘hype’, but is in the end met with middling criticism, pitchforks are readied as the enthusiast army virtually marches, lambasting said critics on social media, website forums, and any other venue their voices will be heard. It is an echo chamber of disgust toward the act of criticism. How dare you attempt to derail my enthusiasm for a given product (though that is never the intended consequence)!
Yet here is the problem with this kind of vitriol: If games are inherently a form of art (an argument many a gaming enthusiast would agree with), then they are subject to the same level of criticism any other form of art receives, including the right to review.
Art and criticism
Now no critic would ever believe that the value of their commentary on a work of art supersedes the value inherent in the creation of art. To make a game takes months, if not years depending on its scale. It is a level of commitment to a project that only an artist could truly understand. The act of criticising a piece of art takes far less time and effort. But the act of opining on someone else’s art is not without its value either. Criticism serves the function of placing that piece of art within a greater cultural context. Any piece of art has value on its own, but it also has value as a cultural artifact, and that value is analyzed, scrutinized, and ascribed by the critic. The critic denotes a work of art’s place in the greater whole, establishing the standards from which culture’s barometer is formed, and art measured.
This practice has been carried down throughout the ages, since the poetics of Aristotle. English philosopher Edmond Burke wrote scathing criticisms behind the ideologies of the French Revolutionaries in the late 18th century, including his master work Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Literary criticism as we know it today is based heavily on the 19th century works of noted writers Matthew Arnold and Charles Augustin Saine-Beuve. Arnold, who was a key defender of critical detachment from mass opinion, articulated as much when he wrote: “But it is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service.” (That service being the greater understanding of the work of art and its place in the collective whole)
Art criticism, coined in the 17th century but not honed until the 18th represented a clashing of ideas between those who preferred classical forms of art and those who preferred the romantic movement. Critics fought constantly over the value of specific pieces of art, and through the division of artistic movements, the art world flourished as cultural interpretations expanded.
As we moved into the twentieth century, and more importantly the post-war world, criticism took on new identities as the field of criticism expanded to include a host of new peoples and ideas. Feminist criticism, post-colonial criticism, all of these opened up the basis on which works of art can be judged as cultural artifacts. One of the most noted post-colonial critics was Edward Said. In his landmark work Orientalism, Said decried western depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian, and African peoples as romanticised and paternalistic. They were representative of an old, imperialistic outlook, a problem that in many ways still exists today.
To this extent, Anita Sarkeesian, who has been maligned by the #GamerGate community, is delivering valid criticism on the gender politics of gaming and asking important questions that help us evaluate games in our current socio-political and cultural context.
I can go into so much more here as I find the history of criticism so fascinating, but I have probably already bored the majority of you, so I will leave it at the simple point that art exists on its own and as part of a greater whole. Both of these have different levels of value, and it is the role of the critic to ascribe the value of the latter.
Subjectivity, objectivity, journalism, biases, and all that…
Taking all of this context in mind, it is impossible to hope for objectivity in game criticism, especially reviews, due much to the fact that reviews are subjective reflections on the video game’s place in the greater cultural ecosystem. It is the ascription of value through interpretation and how any critic interprets a work of art is going to be molded and formed via their own personal and cultural context. People decry this fact, but it is by its very nature a fact. Hence no two games will ever be reviewed the same as the cultural context between criticisms (or critics) is never the same.
To this very extent, a work of art that is praised at one point in time, can be completely maligned when evaluated in a different cultural context. Think D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which had it’s 100th anniversary a few weeks ago. The film, whose plot centered on the heroic Ku Klux Klan, was a tremendous commercial success. History and cultural evolution have changed the value of this film, now seen as the most racist motion picture in the history of American cinema. The judgement of it cannot be removed from its subjective lens.
Much of the blame is actually placed on the use of number scoring as a metric. Websites such as Metacritic and Games Rankings collect these scores as if objectively calculated. Metacritic then ascribes a mean of its own calculation (weighting certain gaming sites greater value than others) and ultimately settling on a single score for the game. The problem inherent in looking at game scores as objective markers of value is that a review from one person in an institution would, by any reasonable circumstance, be given a different score by another. The fact that these sites do not give the game multiple review scores from multiple reviewers does nothing to remove the fact that any single score remains completely subjective. (We also do our own meta-analysis of game reviews here at Refined Geekery, though we often only highlight a few of the diverse opinions. This is not out of hypocrisy, but merely an effort to highlight the diversity of opinions that exists. We in no way believe these scores to be in any form objective markers of a game’s value.)
Yet, as I said in the beginning, we gamers live in an enthusiast culture. We read gaming websites, we subscribe to multiple gaming Youtube channels, and we watch endless amounts of preview coverage, press events, live-streaming, and more. In such a system where so much information is available to us at any given time, it is not our fault that our zeal gets the better of us. This, married with the divide between console loyalties, fanboyism, online anonymity, etc. creates an environment where scores are used as the barometer for which we rate not just the games but our choices in gaming as a whole. Negative reviews, especially in the case of first party titles such as The Order, carry the weight of their consoles on their shoulders, made worse that by the fact that negative reviews become ammunition for those on the other side of the ‘console war’. Say what you will about a negative Michael Bay review, but the end result isn’t people trolling Michael Bay fan forums (does such a thing actually exist?) with article after article about how he sucks. Yet such poison is not the result of the review, but how the various gaming communities have ended up using criticism to validate their own points of view.
Ultimately the gamer has final say on whether they are going to enjoy a game or not. You can pick and choose the reviewers you feel are most akin to your belief systems, yet even with such guidance, you still have the capacity to divide your opinion from those you usually hold dear. In the case of The Order: 1886, the great majority of critics seemed to believe the game was simply okay. Each came to this final delineation of value on their own merit and have ascribed the game a greater cultural value. This is not a permanent value. It has the right to change as time goes on and we look back at what it did well and what it did not do well. It is also not, by any means, your value. That is something that only your judgement can form. Yet, criticisms against the game may also cause a ripple effect throughout the gaming development sphere and push gaming in exciting and maybe even divisive directions. To whatever comes out of the aftereffect of the criticism laid bare this past week, it’s products will be evaluated, scrutinized and ascribed values of their own.
So to the critics of video game criticism, if there is any point that I can summarize my own personal beliefs with, it is that criticism does not look to censor or shut down ideas. Criticism test and debates ideas and moves them forward through introspection. It pushes against our own understandings and the way we view artistic works. Criticism gives ideas meaning and I truly believe that art has only flourished as a result of its existence.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar