Writing about games invites accusations of taking things too seriously. Criticism, it sometimes seems, is a dirty word. I don’t think that’s true. I think that whether you are praising something or condemning it, criticism is an act of love.
I suspect that the word “criticism,” when read in isolation, evokes a negative connotation in many people’s minds. An image forms: a parent or teacher scolding a child for small mistakes. Eat your peas, cross your t’s, and sit up straight, you little bastard. The image forms, because placing ourselves in positions where we can receive criticism of something we’ve made or enjoyed necessarily means assuming a place of vulnerability. The compliments never land as hard as negatives. We internalize the former without much fanfare; we spend sleepless nights obsessing over the latter. Conversations replay in our minds as we search, l’esprit de l’escalier style, for the responses that we could not find in the moment of criticism. When we see criticism of the things we love—books, movies, games—the process plays out as if we’d been personally attacked.
There is a reason “fan” is a shortened form of “fanatic.” To be a fan of something is to devote yourself to it. To love culture is to give yourself up to it entirely. Identities are forged and allegiances declared. This makes sense; art moves us in very real ways and it doesn’t matter if that’s Shakespeare or porno. There’s no such thing as “no redeeming value.” Created works evoke strong emotional responses. Luke Skywalker is not just a hero. He is the Hero to an entire generation of movie-goers. So it is with any art. Our personal responses drive our fanaticism. That fanaticism is, particularly now in age where more and more media is the product of a scant handful of corporations, a manufactured creation of marketing experts, focus-testing, surveys and formulas. Consumer culture and nerd culture is viciously shaped by corporations and companies who carefully construct their work such that people become fanatics. That’s the goal. Our emotions are strong but they are often accounted for by men and women in boardrooms. They’ve become very good at creating devotion, they are experts at securing our loyalties. And so we tie ourselves up in franchises, of which a startling amount of our culture is part of, and perceive criticism of our cultural touchstones as we perceive criticism of ourselves: an attack, a nit-pick. In the worst cases, criticism is perceived as an assault on our values.
Criticism is none of these things. Criticism, applied in good faith, is an act of empathy and kindness. It is a rejection of fanaticism. It rejects the schemes of money-men. It rejects the snobbish suggestion that there is “high art” and “low art.” Criticism is an egalitarian act by which all work is treated as equally valid. There is an exchange. That exchange is more respectful of artists and creators than blind praise. When we apply criticism to art, we enter a conversation. One where we examine why we were swept off our feet to begin with.
The tension of criticism is not the tension between compliment and condemnation. Rightfully applied, these things are not in competition with each other. They are two sides of the same coin. They are necessary components of holistically engaging with the things we love and, yes, sometimes the things we hate. Applying either in the excess is a mistake. If I were to talk about friendships, it would not be controversial to say that a good friend is one who tells the truth. Cheer too hard as a friend, and you can become an enabler. If you neg someone at every opportunity, you cause harm. These are the extremes, but, in friendship, “honesty is the best policy.” Criticism is an act of friendship. Yet, the mechanisms of corporate culture and franchise loyalty has poisoned public perception of criticism. Honesty is apparently not the best policy.
The blind faith of a fan hides an important truth about video games and most mass media: it is trash culture. That’s not a judgment on the quality of the culture. It is not, as one might reflexively think, an assault deeming culture as irredeemable or worthless. It is not a statement about how “good” or “bad” the culture is. When I say that culture is trash, I mean it in a very specific way. I mean it as Bennet Foddy says in Getting Over It With Bennet Foddy:
“For years now people have been predicting that games would soon be made of prefabricated objects, bought in a store and assembled into a world. For the most part that hasn’t happened, because the objects in the store are trash. I don’t mean that they look bad or they’re badly made, although a lot of them are. I mean they’re trash in the way that food becomes trash as soon as you put it in the sink.”
Digital culture moves at a mile a minute and even the finest of works—the ones deemed “important” by the culture—are fleeting experiences. They are trash in the sense that they are ephemeral and that pop culture, particularly video game culture, is built around the idea that media is to be experienced and then discarded. Art is finite and the culture is built around that idea.
Azeroth will end. The servers will shut down, every hero’s journey deleted. If we are lucky, it might survive in a storage locker or be reborn again in a fan project of recycled assets kit-bashed into fragile simulacra of the “real” thing. The internet captures pieces of their existence but games are not created with the expectation that they will last forever. Games are consumed. If you consume them fast enough on Steam, you can even get a refund. Games can nourish us in the moment, but they mostly exist to be discarded and become trash. Everything we make, everything we play rests upon the heap.
“When everything around us is cultural trash, trash becomes the new medium,” Foddy says. “You can build culture out of trash but only trash culture: B-games, B-movies, B-music, B-philosophy…. Everything’s fresh for about six seconds until some newer things beckons and we hit refresh.”
Video games’ fleeting nature makes criticism vital. Writers and YouTubers dive into the trash pile and perform an archaeology on what they find. Technical criticism and analysis contextualizes games as software. It picks apart the places where advancements are made and notes where flaws exist. One small step for file size, one giant leap for ray-tracing. In this sense, technical criticism places games within a history of emerging technology. Literary criticism assesses game stories as a matter of themes and writing. It analyzes scripts and places games within a history of storytelling. Tropes, cliché, twists and turns. Consumer criticism like reviews often isolate games in terms of economics. It proposes an ever-changing value estimation to determine the financial worth of a game to players. These things are not isolated from each other. A holistic approach to criticism, which we might call cultural criticism, puts all of these pieces into an even larger context. How do mechanics tell a story? What consumer actions surround the game’s release, and, more importantly, what are the material labor conditions by which it was created. What is being said?
That last question is difficult because it is subject to the biases and personal history of the critic. When we ask “what is being said?” there is a piece of the puzzle that also raises the question “what is being heard?” More often than not, this is where critics and gamers diverge. Holistic criticism understands that it is possible for many things to be said, some intentional and some unintended. There are messages placed in games by their creators and, more often than not, in the broader culture, these messages are given primacy. They have the weight of authorial intent and in certain cases hold the authority of “canon” in the balance. Poe Dameron is not gay. Disney said so. If this were the start and end of criticism, art would be in a dire place.
This is because art speaks by itself irrespective of the intent of the author. Dungeon and Dragons codes orcs within a visual language that echoes real life racist rhetoric. Orcs are the dark-skinned invaders at our gates, and they are crafted in a way that evokes historical rhetoric about “savages” that was deployed against black and native peoples. This is a truth of the text regardless of author intention—doubly so if your orcs get stat boosts to strength and, say, penalties to intelligence. The Elder Scrolls has a race of criminal cat-gypsies who are inherently better at being sneaky. I can’t ignore how this plays into real world persecution of peoples like the Romani, and yet I love Morrowind with all my heart and have played hundreds of hours of Skyrim
Pointing this out is not an assault on Dungeons and Dragons or The Elder Scrolls, nor is it a condemnation of the hundreds of thousands of people who have found joy playing those games. If Dungeon and Dragons was important to you as a player, it remains important even after this criticism. It is merely a reminder that games exist within a context. Cultural criticism, incorporating lessons of history and internalizing game systems, identifies this context and analyzes art within the time it is being “consumed.”
This sort of criticism meets the most pushback. The refrains are common. “Keep politics out of my games.” “Stop forcing your agenda on me.” “It’s just a game.” These demands exist within a sub-cultural framework that continually insists that games are art and should be treated as such. Schrödinger would be pleased. Games are art when they are somehow “serious” but apparently become something less once a critic touches them. I’m not unsympathetic to this idea. Games can function as catharsis and escape from the everyday. There is genuine value in that. The desire to keep games as games comes from a very real truth: living is hard. But gamers also seek, over and over, to validate their time spent with games and ask that games be treated as seriously as books or film. It is an insistence borne of the fact that games are a young medium and spent many of their formative years treated as curios or toys by the broader culture. Because games spent about two decades marketed as toys, there is a push for games to be seen as “legitimate” that other art doesn’t need to contend with.
There’s also the cultural baggage of the 1990s. Mortal Kombat, Doom and the Columbine Shootings, Jack Thompson. Video games were a popular scapegoat for politicians. They were responsible for the moral degradation of the youths, they rotted your brain and turned you into a violent killer. The campaigns of senators like Joe Lieberman ingrained a sense of persecution in gamer culture that has been imparted from the older gamers who experienced it down to players who were not even born at the time. That reflexive cultural urge, that chip on the shoulder, had created a culture where criticism is transformed into something larger. To call a game violent is to suggest it be banned. To call a creator sexist is to demand that all protagonists be female until the end of time. No critic ever asks for these things. The fears of an aging demographic, now a feature and not a bug of the culture, internalizes criticism as a call for censure.
I imagine some readers have jumped to the comments to defend the claim of games as “trash” explicitly because of this lineage. Video game players are deeply passionate about works they love, as they are seen as validating their passion and investment in the medium. That passion is commendable and understandable but misguided. It only serves to create an ecosystem of fanatics. This is the ecosystem that criticism necessarily opposes.
Many games are not “good” in the sense that they ripple out through society and transform the world for the better. They are good in immediate terms. They are valuable to the individual. They are often excessive, crass, and over-indulgent. They lack subtlety and opt for the same broadness as musical theater or pulp novels. In this sense, they are a different form of “trash.” They share the same aesthetic drive as Ed Hardy t-shirts and dollar pizza slices. People travel across the country for a tasty dollar slice. It is reliable, comfortable, and beautifully common.
Pauline Kael addresses this form of “trash” in her work Trash, Art, and the Movies:
“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense.”
Nioh 2 is a pulp experience. It is, in spite of its budget, the type of B-game that Foddy is referring to. It is also not unlike the “trash” that Kael is talking about. It is a game of magic crystals, big-breasted cat yokai, and predictable betrayals. It exists adjacent to penny novels and drunken karaoke. It’s not going to change society like The Jungle did and, in a few years, its online features will probably be disabled. Enthusiasts—myself included—will sing its praises but it will exist as a hobbled thing whose time is long passed. Who cares? It’s good! In the best moments, it is beautiful.The pieces work and a player caught in the height of its various combat systems achieves a transcendent form of movement on par with any dancer. It just so happens that the dance is in service of cutting off heads and gathering loot. If that experience resonates with a player, what does it matter to also admit that Nioh 2 will not be “important” to the rest of the world?
Criticism understands that most of the games we play and movies we watch are not world-shaking. They are not toppling regimes, redefining our understanding of art, or creating spiritual movements. It cares if a thing is “good” or “bad” or “important” only insofar as it can understand what it is doing to earn those qualities. It treats games seriously irrespective of these qualities. It does so knowing the inherent fragility of the medium and the limited impact of most works. It highlights the beautiful, rejects the banal and does so explicitly from a position of kindness. The dumpster diver returns from the cultural heap and finds that one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. Sometimes, it becomes their treasure. It becomes a thing that changes them forever.
That’s the trick. If you’re lucky as a writer, you won’t just bring context to a work or start a conversation with readers. If you’re lucky, you can walk away with some of the most important experiences and pieces of art in your life. None of this is possible if your criticism comes from a place of hatred. Anger, sure. Frustration, yeah. Hatred, no. Which is why criticism is not a violence and it is not the hallmark of stuffy assholes who hate art. It’s an expression of love. Love for the medium, love for the artists, love for the reader, and love for the self. Whatever negative feeling the word stirs by itself should be dismissed. People do this because they care. Understanding that is a skeleton key for writing and for reading. It’s never a competition. It’s a collaboration.