From Games to Literature and Back Again: Examining Criticism

Before I begin this, I suppose I should take the time to introduce myself as it will provide the correct context for what I wish to talk about. I have been an avid "gamer", for lack of energy to come up with a better term at this moment, starting with the Game Boy Color I received for Christmas as a young boy all the way up to the current generation of consoles and my gaming PC I now own. In the start of my gaming days, was the number one website that I visited (beating out the likes of and whatever flash-game site was popular at the time) due to the amount of forum browsing and blog posting I would do on a daily basis. This led me to become completely enthralled in the culture of video games, especially the people that developed them, but even more importantly, the people that reported on them. By staying glued to my CRT computer monitor, I gained a sense of "knowing" these people that loved video games and talking about them just as much as I did.

What a cool job they have, I thought. I wonder how to do that.

So, I decided to figure it out for myself. First, what is it they do exactly? Well, they write and talk about games, right? Well, yeah, but they also analyze them and put that into the form of a review. But, sometimes a game is more than a review, right? They can't all be the sum of their parts, can they? That's true, and sometimes games aren't even games, at least not in the traditional sense. Then there are games that try to do something that breaks the conventions of their genre or even game conventions as a whole. How do you analyze that?

After having enough inner dialogue, I built up these and other conversations in my head that led me to question what a video game journalist really does. In the day-to-day, a video game journalist plays video games in order to write deserving reviews while they aren't tracking down news-worthy stories/press releases or interviewees for a piece to write up. Surely it can go beyond that. Video game journalists have the unique opportunity to play two roles in their job, or maybe two jobs in their role… either way; they have the opportunity to be both journalists and critics.

Wait. Let's take a step back in time again. I'm a college freshman and wondering what the hell I'm going to do with my life — a scary, daunting thought that all of us go through. I knew I loved video games, so why not make them myself? The sound of a car coming to a screeching halt is now playing in your head. I don't enjoy math or programming a whole lot and I'm not a brush-and-palette artist, so, now what? Well, all along I had this unconscious ability to write quite well, but it wasn't until I took a step back and reexamined my likes, dislikes, interests, skills, hobbies, etc. that I realized this about myself. I'm a pretty good writer, I thought. What can I do with that? That's when it all came rushing back to me — all those years spent reading about and playing games — that's what I could do with my life. So, naturally I switched to an English major and began taking English classes at my university and loved it.

Any English major will know what I am talking about when I bring up the term literary criticism. Those that aren't or weren't English majors in college may still know this term, but for those who don't, it is the practice of examining a work of literature (you know, books; those things you look at until you realize the only picture is on the cover) in a very critical way, sometimes through one of the several methods respected by scholars worldwide ("new criticism" examines the work and only the work out of context of its author or its historical background, for example). Literary critics make their living off of reading and examining works of literature and writing very detailed pieces about it, usually for the university they work for.

Flash forward to the present again and remember what I said about video game journalists having an opportunity to be both journalists and critics. Remember? You should. It was like two paragraphs ago. Anyway, the thing that struck me about being an English major in school was that no one seems to talk about video games in the same way that scholars talk about literature or even film. Of course, I'm making a generalization when I say "no one", but my point remains. The argument could be made that literature is far older and thus a more mature subject for criticism, but there are classes taught even at my small commuter university about film analysis and film has only been around since its inception in the late 1800s, making it far younger than literature.

So, why aren't video games treated the same way literature or film is when it comes to criticism? Is the video game industry unfit for critical and interesting points of view being brought into discussion that people are having every day, anyway? Is it a generational problem? In other words, have we yet to see people pursue a career as a college professor and video game critic, teaching classes like "Examining the Elements of Plot in Heavy Rain" or "Video Game Characters: Then and Now"? Perhaps the problem lies in the system of operations that the video game journalism industry has comfortably placed itself into. Since video game journalism started, little has changed about the way those that call themselves professionals report and write about games. This isn't to place any blame on any journalists in particular, but rather the entire video game journalism industry as a whole. Since I can remember, video game journalism has for the most part been about reviewing games, writing about hands-on time with the [unfinished] product, and regurgitating press releases.


Well, it serves video game companies because it is essentially free publicity for their product and it serves journalists because they need something to report on in order to stay employed. This is most likely a gross oversimplification of the state of the industry, but I do believe there is truth in there. Furthermore, it doesn't deter the fact that for too long has the journalism industry been conditioned to think that this is how things are done. Sure, this is how things are done, but it doesn't have to be how things are done. I and many others believe it’s outrageous that people still try to assign value to a game by way of a number, as if that is at all indicative of how good the game is. I don't believe that video game journalism, at its core, is about playing a game, examining its parts, and seeing how well it fares when the fingers start typing. Sure, that's a component of a video game journalist's job. I'm not arguing that reviews are worthless, in fact, they are worthwhile, but any self-respecting video game journalist has far more to talk about than how "good" a game is.

Before running out the figurative door, I would like to take time to mention a few outlets that I believe have taken strides to create great works of video game criticism. Those are Vox Games (now Polygon), The Penny Arcade Report, Giantbomb's Patrick Klepek, and many of the pieces written by Community Writers at Bitmob, just to name a few.

Are aspiring video game journalists doomed to fall into the same pitfall of those that came before them? Perhaps, but to just ignore the work that video game journalists have done since the start of the profession would be completely ignorant. "We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants" – Bernard of Chartres.

As a quick side note, if you know of any university level courses about video game criticism and the like that are currently being offered (at any university), let me know. I'm always excited to learn more about the subject and ways that people have focused their attention and studies on this thing we call video game criticism.

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