The other reasons we don’t have more video game critics

Quick summation of last week’s First Person column over on Joystick Division: we don’t have many video game critics because we don’t have many video games worth criticizing. Criticism requires interesting subject material, and the vast preponderance of video games aren’t interesting.

That was an appropriate response to the popular sentiment I was considering, but there’s another way to look at this question: how many people who write about video games professionally, in other words who command audiences large enough to actually make video game criticism more a part of our regular landscape in the games press, actually have the TIME to become proper critics?

Criticism isn’t only about immediate reactions to new work, but can also take the form of far-reaching analysis of genres or works that are connected thematically somehow. I ran into this all the time in my film theory classes at Boston University, and I imagine that game design programs in the academy are undertaking similar activities for reasons both practical and theoretical. I think that anyone working full-time in video game journalism is hampered from following suit, either as genre specialists or the sort of authoritative, wide-reaching critics we see in the film world, mostly due to time constraints.

In my not-review of Pride of Nations for Joystick Division, I talked about the generally-accepted notion among video game journalists that massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) require their own experts in order to write proper reviews. MMOs are loaded with minutiae, and understanding the nuances that might differentiate one title from another is important for writing accurate product reviews of MMOs.

I raise this issue to point out the cause for this state of affairs: full-time video game journalists are generalists by necessity. They need to play all sorts of different games so as to be conversant about said titles.  It behooves anyone working in the games press to have as varied a working knowledge of as many different kinds of games as possible, in order to be able to write about the widest breadth of genres possible.

One of my ambitions is to become a bona fide expert on first person shooters. That sounds ridiculous, right? Everybody plays first person shooters! Isn’t everybody an “expert?” Not in the sense of thinking about them critically. I think most of us who have been playing video games for the last two decades can probably make surface-level assessments as to whether the physics are working properly, whether weapons are balanced, whether the enemies are properly challenging, etc..

In terms of being able to do far-reaching, big-picture criticism of FPS games, however, one needs to really understand the history of the genre, the background of how they were produced…and to have played almost all of them. And not just to have played them once, but to know them intimately.

I had a professor in film school who was the acknowledged expert on the filmmaker John Cassavetes. What made him an expert wasn’t just that he had seen all of Cassavetes’s work, but that the professor knew those films down to their smallest details. He knew more than most anyone else. That’s what made him “an expert.”

Video game genre identification seems to be breaking down now that design elements are reaching across titles. “RPG” elements, for example, like buying and selling goods, or leveling up characters, are appearing in games like Red Dead Redemption. I heard someone from THQ refer to “light RPG elements” in reference to Kill Team, a Warhammer 40,000-themed twin stick shooter, at E3.

There will probably be basic genres like first person shooters, third person shooters, sports games, platformers, brawlers, etc. for the immediate future, and achieving true expert knowledge in any of them, which is a reasonable precursor to becoming an established critic of a genre, might be a tall order for video game journos.

The idea of being a generalist critic of video games, the way Roger Ebert is a general critic of film, might be even more untenable because these sorts of critics have to watch a tremendous number of movies, and to really digest them and have time to think about them on a theoretical level.

My experience of video game journalism so far suggests that trying to keep up with all the games one needs to play, even as a generalist, is a challenge that precludes lingering with any one title for a very long time.

Film critics of renown see a LOT of movies, and that’s a tenable proposition because they’re usually no more than 120 minutes long. A film critic could sit down and chomp through three or four movies a day, taking notes during first viewings, and get a lot out of that experience.

The average video game campaign is 8 to 10 hours long and often has a multiplayer mode. Let’s say 15-20 hours to get the full experience of the average video game with multiplayer. And that’s not even digging deep, looking for all the easter eggs and hidden levels and bonus content.

Reflecting on this makes it sound even more ridiculous that anyone in the mass market video game media complains about the lack of video game critics. Who has the time to go back and play all the seminal titles of the past ten years, even, while keeping up with new releases, unless they’re getting only cursory looks at all these games?

And wouldn’t being a true “video game critic” require more than just a statement that you’ve played a whole bunch of video games? Isn’t depth of comprehension of all those individual works also required? Most reviewers have to fly through games in order to make their publish dates, and then it’s on to the next game. Consumer-facing games journalists may be the least appropriate people to look to as our official “critics,” not when we have developer-facing and business-to-business writers in plenitude.

There’s a very small set of people, outside of the academy or those members of the development community who have the time and inclination, who could potentially be popular video game critics: the most senior members of the video game journalism establishment. Some of them don’t write about video games anymore outside of the occasional column. Others are mired in consumer-facing outlets that don’t publish much, if any, criticism, and they’re all busy as hell from what I’m made to understand.

The fact is that we do have plenty of video game critics. They’re just not all big-name professional writers on huge outlets. One has to seek them out. Gamasutra’s “Critical Distance” roundups help out in this regard by regularly pointing out an extremely healthy amount of video game criticism.

After seeing the work of an acquaintance of mine highlighted on their most recent roundup, I further wonder what the complaints about wanting more critics and fewer reviewers are all about. Some of the people complaining have outlets they could use to publish the writers that Critical Distance points out every week. If they aren’t willing to do so, perhaps that points out a root problem as important as the lack of good material to criticize, namely the level of discourse that the mass market video game journalism audience is willing to tolerate.

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