One of the hobby-horses I’ve been riding since the beginning of the Critical Gaming Project in 2007 concerns the paucity of actual game criticism in game studies discourse as well as popular game culture. On the one hand,  an unhelpful conceptualism dominates decisions about publication and course design in academic work, making intense focus on understanding and exploring the potentials (expressive, social, technical, etc.) of specific games hard to value and thus an unlikely prospect. [1]

On the other hand, popular game culture is dominated by industry/marketing discourse and stale ideas organized by market genre logics (thereby subjecting popular commentary simultaneously to the “tyranny of the new” as well as the old!), and myopic reception habits of self-identified gamers, both of which are great for churning out commonplaces in game review and news sites but not for sustaining inquiry or critical attention on single games over time. [2]

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A crucial component of Better Game Culture: criticism

In both contexts we haven’t really taken the games themselves seriously.  Academics have approached the study of games with the assumption that the individual games themselves have only marginal value. What seems to have mattered most is a general theory (of Play, Game, interaction, particular genres, Game Culture, Fun, etc.). There are many reasons for this, some of them actually good but most of them depressing (having to do with academia), all of them beside the main point here. Anyway, it never seemed to occur (or appear possible) to many scholars that a better, more intelligible way to get at those central ideas is through intense and searching analysis of specific games. [3]

Starseed Observatory : An Experiment in Taking Games Seriously*

The Starseed Observatory looks to be an interesting first step toward the development of game criticism with a game-centric focus. This is a site dedicated to developing a critical discourse on the recent indie game Starseed Pilgrim. There’s a lot that looks promising here:

  1. Focusing discussion through  a single game example rather than through general concepts about, dogmatic positions on, or approaches to Games;
  2. Valuing diversity of voices and capturing reception experiences together with more organized criticism;
  3. An implied structure of fostering and organizing debate on “details.” Of course, the devil will be in the details (of the site design), and much will depend on how they curate the materials and their editorial practices.

Starseed Pilgrim, the focus of the site

I’m cautiously optimistic pending further details, but even if this venture “fails” it can’t really fail, partly because it will provide a great resource for further study if it actually collects and curates the proposed material, and partly (and more importantly) because it is the right idea; at the very least, a good idea, one that is actually both needful and timely.

Notes

[1] Occasionally a game comes along with so much popularity, such as World of Warcraft, that its mere visibility in pop culture is enough to convince administrators or anthology editors to pursue a game-centric approach to a course or a publication. More often, though, legitimacy has to come from something already recognized as intellectually significant (a theory position or a sexy/hot button/timely topic). One can be taken seriously proposing a course of intensive study on Melville’s Moby Dick (though unsuccessful all the same, sadly), but Jonathan Blow’s Braid? (only if you work for a great program like UW CHID Program)

[2] One might entertain the idea that until recently games haven’t been worthy of this kind of work. There’s some truth to this. How edifying would a sustained discussion of Candy Crush or Diablo III be? But this claim misses the point by assuming that all the value of studying games is constrained by the explicit or apparent content of any game. The point is that you have to actually produce criticism and an example-centric discourse of critical and creative commentary in order to discuss this, and that there is value in methodical inquiry and the activity of criticism itself–for both the future of games as well as the gamers who are human beings in a society immersed in games.

[3] This is also a more democratic and accessible approach to teaching with games, too, because the ground of inquiry is not in the application of a largely alienating theory or familiarity with a technical discourse but rather the experience of the game itself. The process of inquiry make send one to history, to theories from media or game studies, social theory, politics, technical details, etc.

* This is not to suggest that game studies or game journalism hasn’t taken games as a general media or cultural form seriously, just not in this way, at this scale.

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