I suppose it would be best to open this blog up with a comic strip I got a short laugh from:
Out of the several areas gaming journalism has continually been under scrutiny over, the one I find the most fascinating to dive into would be game reviews. From the grand conspiracies about just how fixed review scores seem to be these days, with some proof coming in the form of the old Gertsmann/Gamespot controversy after their official score for Kane and Lynch: Dead Men released, or the fresher examples of reviewers “dragging in” socio-political agendas and the alleged tainting that does to their perception of a game’s overall quality. Although I want to jump into other aspects of reviews later on, I figured there was no better time to go for the throat on the most controversial aspect of them than during the month that has Valentine’s Day.
The first time this hit a nerve for me was after the paroxysms of gamer rage from some that went after Carolyn Petit's review of GTA V that had the "audacity" to give the game a nine-point-zero out of ten. The score wasn't so much the problem as it was the reasoning for one of the cons she found with it: the portrayal of women in the game slightly harming the overall experience. After going through the rigors of scrubbing my eyes out from the bile poured out just for bringing that point up, there was one intriguing question revolving around this critiquing issue that really extends to all artistic mediums at the moment: should a critic seek to strip all of their external influences from the work(s) being criticized or would such an examination feel artificial and dishonest by never bringing that into the fold? It’s an interesting dilemma to dive into, if I do say so myself.
The best place to start with this kind of question would be in the history of criticism. Surprisingly, for as long as paintings, literature, sculpture, and more have been around, the ‘art’ of critiquing something has only been around for a few centuries, give or take. During part of the Early Modern period, criticism took shape as being a way to demonstrate a critic’s own understanding, wit, and/or skill in interpreting the work being examined. The likes of Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope are some of these early critics you’d see make their claims about some belief or other with said work they were criticizing as the referencing point. Typically, you’d expect prestigious schools on artistic or philosophical thought would be the key places to examine other’s works with a similar purpose: looking at a modern work through a “humanist lens” or some other kind of Greek philosophical standpoint could be one example. What was never an expectation for these reviews at first was whether or not it would be worth a consumer’s time. Since art and culture was strictly relegated to the art and culture class of people back then, due to them having the rare honor of a good education—in comparison to today—and their decent wealth, it was understood that sect of people would see these works anyways so there was really no need for them to determine if it was “worth it.” Later on down the road, however, it became a much different story when aspects like expanded education and a much bigger middle-class made things like consuming culture something more people had a limited time to indulge in.
Naturally, having a mass of people interested to know what may/may not be worth their precious time came to what you typically expect today: consumer criticism that acted essentially as reportage. How’s the acting in X film? Is this the most technically proficient film of the year? How thrilling is Y book? You get the idea. It was all about getting a broad-based median of the typical audience and gauging what they’d think of this work, distancing itself from the antiquated artistic and philosophical ideals intrinsic with criticisms of the past. For a while, it was pretty normal to have the coldly-analyzed material for the likes of film, and games when that was coming into play, until that subtle revert back to critical theory ways of critiquing came slowly back into the picture. As seen visibly on the internet, the backlash can be observed by those objecting to the idea of any real-world issues, firmly-held beliefs of an artist, or validity of messages/themes having a place at all in favor of refraining from any outside forces infringing upon an examination of an artistic work for the sake of being “objective.”
Now, this isn’t to say the clear-cut mainstream criticism that you might’ve seen in old Ebert & Siskel type video reviews don’t perform an important function to a big audience; in fact, I usually enjoy using my opportunity for reviewing to be less about any –isms and more of just a passionate fan examining the qualities of a game/film/etc. and grading them as I see fit—with a bizarre grading criteria that no one can still wrap their head around! The problem that accompanied this mainstream journalistic culture in particular is the untrue idea of being able to whittle down a singular caste of movie-goers of what they perceive as being normal. It’s a reason why a small percentage of critics would use terms like “too smart” for a blockbuster like Inception; because that kind of depth goes against the grain of what they’ve determined is the median for that sort of audience. I know this is where the agenda-y complaints are going to crop up but I have to be honest in understanding just what exactly the skewed “normality” was for this time reflected by who most of the journalistic establishment of flim was conformed of: warm-blooded white males (yes, as opposed to cold-blooded ones). That doesn’t qualify as some kind of negative but rather as a means to broach the possibility that this arranged establishment contained askew views on what THEY thought to be pure, objective criticism simply because of being in a vat of people with mostly the same sensibilities as themselves already. [Note: the jump to film for this particular section is only because of its greater popularity regarding criticism and more accessible knowledge I’ve accumulated from it. With all things considered regarding the privilege it was to own earlier consoles back then (for those particular economic times), though, I wouldn’t be surprised if games criticism back then was very similar anyways.]
It’s easy to say someone’s dragging in their own "unprofessional points" or "agenda" unnecessarily into a criticism about hot topic issues when they’re something that you don’t often have to think about or have never been part of your life experience. With gaming subculture in particular, there’s the quick demand of asking “why talk about this and not focus solely on the game mechanics and aesthetic/technical presentation (?),” especially by those who’ve probably had the advantage of being reinforced through culture that they were some kind of a normal center. Not too long ago, I could be seen bringing up that same question. Being used to game and film criticism in the 90’s/early 00’s showed that pure objectivity was something to strive for and at times made me wonder why anyone would be so oversensitive into thinking topics outside the realm of the film/game/etc. itself should be brought up at all. Over time, though, my thoughts on the matter matured.
Reaching that understanding meant that I had to see there’s no such thing as normal in the real world and using averages holds no purpose to find that kind of center in an audience simply because that’s not how reality works. It made me acknowledge that I too have my own biased tendencies that are no less valid than those of other people. It demanded me to approach this situation from a wide-eyed perspective and going so far as to acknowledge that, when looking at it from a demographics perspective, I'm categorized in a group of people that's...had it much better than others as far as recent history is concerned. To somehow demand no critic ever take in a bigger picture account within their examination despite the fact an artist takes in their influences into their comprised imaginations for their artistic work now seems rather unfair. The honest deduction I can make is that this whole objective/biased dichotomy I can see brought up by a certain sect of gamers is a false one to make because these so-called “pure reviews” don’t really exist anyway (save for something like this making a point: http://www.destructoid.com/... ).
Whether its film critics having to bring up Orson Scott Card’s name for the Ender’s Game movie despite him just being a producer that was paid up front or, in contrast, a site like ChristCenteredGamer reviewing something like Gone Home and challenging the morality behind its thematic material, I’m not going to admonish anyone from deciding to bring their baggage of whatever socio-political/religious/etc. sphere into a review and determine said review has now become any less legitimate then mine, because that wouldn’t be true; in fact, looking at how things were done back then with what little research I did and schooling I recall about this, I honestly think that could be a great shot in the arm for the realm of games criticism as a whole. Using the platform of examining games in order to jump into a wellspring of different, relative critical theories and testy topics of this day and age can be a great advantage since said art piece in question can be a springboard for deeper realms of intellectual thinking. Honestly, I think game reviews could benefit much more from this than say...the constancy of demanding “fairer scores” because it opens up opportunities for us to be a more diverse and overall deeper-thinking caste of people—which can only make the news media’s interpretation of gamers only run even more sharply athwart than the present reality of most of us. With our constant demand for new innovations, new ideas, and new…new-ness to games, when did we arbitrarily decide to limit ourselves when it comes to criticizing them? And when did we also decide which techniques for critiquing a game was somehow inferior right off the bat based solely on their concept rather than their execution?
To be sure, despite the immature rants of some getting under my skin, this pervading topic certainly shows signs of the community bringing up more meaningful conversations in the years ahead, possibly within the comments section of this blog. For me, it’s as simple as this: when the ink has dried from ANY review that I see that’s now been brought into the marketplace of dissenting opinions, the only guarantee I can hope to see is that of the critic’s honest thoughts. And regardless of where an off-topic segway came from or what facet is being critically analyzed, I’ll take the kind of review that openly displays those up-front biases of a reviewer over a sterile evaluation every time.