This is a topic that I’ve written about before, but it continues to be a source of frustration, so I’ll give it another go.
Critical/analytical writing about games is almost never about the actual games. That is, despite claiming to be game criticism, it is built on the assumption (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) that games cannot be interesting as works unto themselves. Setting aside the role of authorial intent in interpretation for a moment, the problem is that games are treated as if no intent ever went into their creation; as if they are not the products of human beings deliberately participating in the artistic process, but merely artefacts for the critic to bounce off certain ideas. In the worst cases, one suspects that games have merely been chosen because there was funding for a “digital humanities” project; but even in many of the better essays, there is still the sense of the games not being engaged with on their own terms.
This is not a problem unique to games, of course, except perhaps in its degree. The issue is deeply rooted in contemporary tendencies in literary studies and academia in general. Artistic value is frequently no longer perceived in aesthetics or in illumination of philosophical or political issues (that would be the dreaded “metanarratives” we must all reject), or even in a harder-to-articulate visionary quality, but either in various forms of self-awareness (what does it tell us about art? what does it tell us about the author?) or, more recently, in various manifestations of identity politics (the work features a representative character, the author is representative of a group).
In games, this generally manifests as these types of essays:
- the game interpreted in regards to the medium of gaming
- the game interpreted in regards to authorship
- the game as starting point for autobiographical reflection
There are, no doubt, some games that are themselves made in the postmodern tradition, and so can correctly be interpreted in terms of “meta” issues such as their comments on the medium or authorship. It is, to be clear, my personal opinion that this kind of subject matter is insufferably dull and narcissistic; but it certainly does exist. So, however, do a lot of other things, and this is where the immense disservice current criticism does to the work of game developers sets in: games are almost exclusively interpreted only in these terms. That is to say, if there is something of value in a game, it must be either in what it makes us think about games or about authorship, or in how it allows the writer to reflect on an entirely unrelated issue; and generally this type of interpretation is forcefully imposed on a game no matter what else it might contain. Meaning, then, can only be found in the critic, never in the work itself.
In fact, to go a little deeper, there is an assumption evident in most such criticism that games simply do not or cannot have the same literary complexity (of ideas, of links and responses to the worlds of history, politics, and of course the arts) that one might expect of a novel. This means that critics never need to engage with the details of a game’s text; it means they never even need to consider the possibility of an accomplished work of interactive art existing, and can safely push any interpretation onto the material. After all, in this view, any type of academic interpretation is doing the game a favour, imbuing it with meaning it did not have by itself. This also means that the more complex and ambitious a game, the less likely are academics to engage with it; we’re more likely to get meditations on Flappy Bird. (Sorry, Ian.)
It is not particularly shocking or surprising to note that the vast majority of games are piles of steaming excrement, or that some games praised for their stories are superficial garbage. This is an obvious byproduct of the cultural and socio-economic situation we find ourselves in. But to stop at noting that is not good enough, because it is to suggest that the “spamming” encouraged by the logic of capitalism reflects something inherent about the artform itself, and that is simply false. Nor does it make any sense, as totalizing a system as capitalism may be, to assume that simply because games are produced inside this system (and at this particular point of degeneration and crisis), they are all somehow impossibly flawed. Human beings produce valuable work even under the worst of circumstances, even with the crudest of tools, and human beings are producing valuable works of art in this medium as well.
If critics want to write meaningfully about games, they need to begin with the premise that artists are consciously choosing this medium; that works of high quality exist or can exist; that works must be engaged with on their own terms. Artistic quality in a game is not a side-effect, an accident, an oddity that the clever academic has impressively managed to mine for a surprising insight into society; it is the result of the same artistic inspiration that produces a poem or a film or a painting. If a game fails to be interesting, it is better to discard it – as you would discard a terrible book without discarding the concept of the novel – and look for something more interesting.
There are real gems to find, if only someone tried.