Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism

I recently saw a comment about an article on academic games criticism. The comment was an approving one: the commenter believed that the article was a fine example of an approach to games criticism that was not “weakened” by a method that focused on the player as a site of meaning-making.

I was furious. What made me so livid about the comment wasn’t that it was some lone graduate student tossing out an opinion that I happened to find objectionable. Quite the contrary: it was that this opinion is a widespread, domineering one. At its base is a fiercely-defended value: objectivity. According to this assumption, methods of criticism that focus on players and their subjective experiences are weak. That, in turn, must mean that strong methods locate meaning elsewhere—somewhere outside the dark subjective cave of player experience and in the bright objective world of game forms.

The pursuit of objective meaning is a holy tenet of much of academia. It is no less cherished by much of popular gaming culture (see, for instance, the rampant desires for objective, unbiased video game reviews). Even so, many cultural and media critics like to pretend we’re way past this whole objectivity thing. Everybody already knows that interpretation is subjective, we like say to each other. It’s obvious. We say it like it’s something that doesn’t need saying anymore.

But it does need saying. Sometimes repeatedly. Because, let’s face it: subjective player-centered criticism is still very much on the defensive, especially where video games are concerned. It’s still marginalized, still needing to justify itself, and still under constant attack from various sources and various angles. Many of these sources and angles are coming from positions of power that have interests in maintaining the status quo. Some of them are coming from fellow critics that still need convincing. And in case my fellow academics need some reminding: most of us aren’t going to receive fellowships or research grants for subjective criticism projects any time soon. That’s not what’s valued either inside or outside of the academic establishment. Objectivity is.

As an academic discipline, game studies has had to endure some growing pains where the strife between objective and subjective analysis is concerned. So too have online games criticism communities. So too has the popular gaming press at large. In fact, good luck finding a domain of gaming discourse in which this topic doesn’t arise. I recently tried to throw in my own two cents on the matter with an article in the Journal of Games Criticism. And last week, I was excited to see Shawn Trautman’s piece arguing for subjectivizing games criticism to an individual level, which got me all fired up to jump back into the debate again.

Given that this debate is ongoing and that I’ve lately been witnessing comments that either denigrate “weak” subjective methods or that wistfully muse about how wonderful it would be if there were actually widely-accepted subjective methods for game analysis, I want to return to the fray. So here, I’ll build on a few of Trautman’s ideas while revisiting and elaborating on some of my own.

To start, what I want to highlight is the act of play. Play is experiential and subjective. I think that many scholars and game players themselves often lose sight of this notion. But how could we study play in an objective manner? What could we possibly say about experiences of play that would be purely objective?

In his take on this issue, Trautman contends with the idea of playing games incorrectly. As he writes, “a lot of people still believe you can invalidate your opinion by ‘playing the game wrong,’ which means there’s still a specter of objectivity floating around the whole thing.” Deciding how to play a game is a part of one’s experience of it—and those decisions absolutely do not invalidate the experience or the resulting criticism of the game.

In my previous work, my take on differences in “how to play a game” hinged on the variability of playthroughs. Innumerable decisions (conscious or not) go into the construction of a single playthrough. A playthrough may never be stable from one play session to the next, let alone from one player to the next. But even with that in mind, what is at the core of subjectivity is experience and interpretation. Even if two players could have the exact same playthrough of a game and play a game in exactly the same way, they may still have radically different experiences with and interpretations of it. Once again, play is experiential and subjective—as is interpretation. Play isn’t merely a series of decisions of how to engage a game. It is action and affect and experience.

Putting play aside for a moment, the idea of subjective criticism isn’t unique to video games as a medium, by any means. Literary theory underwent similar growing pains, and has come to discuss the act of reading in ways that resemble the discussions of play that are only just starting to be considered. I’ve been reading pieces of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) this semester, and a few sections in his chapter on reception theory particularly stood out to me. Eagleton describes three successive periods in the development of literary theory: “a preoccupation with the author…an exclusive concern with the text…and a marked shift of attention to the reader” (p. 74). He notes that “The reader has always been the most underprivileged of this trio—strangely, since without him or her there would be no literary texts at all” (p. 74). I think we can trace a similar path in game studies—including that players (and critics-as-players) remain underprivileged in game analyses, even though without players there would also be no video game texts at all. I think we’ve only recently begun to enter this third phase.

Eagleton goes on to argue that “Literary texts do not exist on bookshelves: they are processes of signification materialized only in the practice of reading. For literature to happen, the reader is quite as vital as the author” (p. 74). Again we can draw similarities to games. Games do not exist without players; they are materialized in the act of playing.

Moreover, Eagleton provides an explanation of the process of reading according to reception theory. It is, again, a situation in which we can replace books and readers with games and players:

As we read on we shed assumptions, revise beliefs, make more and more complex inferences and anticipations; each sentence opens up a horizon which is confirmed, challenged or undermined by the next. We read backwards and forwards simultaneously, predicting and recollecting, perhaps aware of other possible realizations of the text which our reading has negated. Moreover, all of this complicated activity is carried out on many levels at once, for the text has ‘backgrounds’ and ‘foregrounds’, different narrative viewpoints, alternative layers of meaning between which we are constantly moving. (pp. 77-78)

Related to this, the general gist of my article on subjective criticism was this: Many approaches to studies of video games already understand players as parts of the game being studied and critiqued. When critics play games to study, interpret, and critique them, they are players of those games. The act of play and the position of a player is subjective, experiential, and influenced by personal identity. Similarly to the role of readers according to reception theory, players move through layers of meaning and interpretation as they play. Thus, the individual critic, the critic’s identity, and the critic’s subjective experiences of play can be understood as parts of the game being studied and critiqued.

Despite the similarities between the act of reading and the act of play, I argued that video games are different because the involvement of a player in a game materially changes what that game is. In the act of play, players not only activate a text, but create what that text is. The text is fundamentally incomplete without the player and the player’s experiences. For this reason, I tried to say, we should be more open to and accepting of games criticism involving the critic’s experiences and identity.

Trautman points out that although the idea of subjective criticism may be accepted on paper, there are perhaps different levels of subjectivity that are being overlooked or denied legitimacy. I wholeheartedly agree. He calls for subjectivizing to an individual level, which is an idea that I would also like to back and push forward.

Why should we subjectivize criticism to an individual level? Why do we need more subjective criticism?

I saw an image on Twitter of a slide from a presentation during the #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC this year (I believe that this particular slide was by Katherine Cross, but if I’m wrong, please correct me). On this slide was the declaration that we need more, and more variety of, research and criticism of video games. Given the context of the panel in which this appeared, I feel safe in assuming that the purpose of having a greater variety of criticism would be to open more opportunities for more voices—especially those voices that are currently marginalized and oppressed.

That is my own concern. I believe that subjective criticism can multiply and magnify voices that are presently ignored, overlooked, pushed aside, and oppressed. It can open routes for political intervention and ideological critique. It can bolster resistant forms of play that push back against the structures and constraints of games and forge new paths of experience and interpretation. It can fortify efforts to defy the status quo, to question what goes into the creation of games, to demand change.

Objective criticism invalidates individual experience. It invalidates resistance and experimentation and difference. It invalidates play. As the backbone of “strong methods,” it wields this power to impose standards, to dictate what is acceptable and what is not. It thus silences voices that fall outside its mandated norms.

At this point, I want to clarify a misconception: the idea that criticism is always negative. Despite the connotations that the word “criticism” may conjure up, game critics aren’t just sitting around viciously chopping games to bits. Many of us do what we do because we love games. And criticism doesn’t have to be criticism in the sense of being demeaning. It’s criticism in the sense that it is critical: it is reflective and analytic, seeking out layers of meaning and ways to make meaning. Criticism can be positive. It can be appreciative, excited, and admiring.

Along the same lines, when we talk about play, we also need to chase away the idea that play must be fun and unconditionally positive. Play can also be terrifying, harrowing, taxing, or just plain bad. When I play my favorite survival horror games, I’m not necessarily having fun. That doesn’t mean I’m not playing, though.

Play and criticism are not at odds, and more criticism needs to examine our experiences of play. We need forms of criticism that are flexible and malleable, ready to be adjusted to wealths of players and their wealths of experiences with wealths of games. We need criticism that points out flaws and successes, positive experiences and negative ones. We need criticism that refuses to be placidly spoonfed the stagnant status quo. We need criticism that takes into account the unfathomably varied identites and subjectivities and experiences of players and critics. We need criticism that contributes to struggles for meaning-making, that locates the process of meaning-making in players and critics themselves.

The idea of subjective criticism for video games is, of course, not new. A number of critics and bloggers have already been developing and using subjective approaches for years, and I admittedly feel as though I’m rehashing something that’s not particularly original. Still, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we’re far from having widespread acceptance of subjective criticism, whether in the academy, in popular writing, or in fan communities. We need more. More kinds of approaches, more methods, more voices. Only then do we begin to venerate games and what they can be. Only then do we begin to uncover what distinguishes games from other media, what makes the experience of playing a game so special.

References

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory: An introduction. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell.

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