games criticism

Video Games Exceptionalism vs. Media Specificity

Yesterday, I watched Heather Alexandra’s video “Video Games are Not Special.” In it, she argues against proclamations that video games as an artistic medium are special, unique, or better than any other artistic medium. To declare as much, she says, would be to overlook the histories and qualities of other artistic media. For instance, to insist that video games are defined by their interactivity would be to ignore the ways that all other art forms are also, in fact, interactive. Thus, video games are neither special nor unique, and we should stop saying that they are.

Her sentiment is one with which I’m familiar. Earlier this year, Brendan Keogh arrived at a similar conclusion in his blog post “Video games aren’t special. Video games aren’t unique.” Both authors share concerns with the lack of critical thought behind these gushing exclamations of “Video games are special! They do things that only video games do. These things better than other media. They make us better prepared to live in a world increasingly dominated by procedures and computation.”

But both of these pieces—and other claims similar to them—have left me feeling dissatisfied, unsettled by their conclusions. I think there is more to be said on the matter. So I want to talk a little bit about the difference between video games exceptionalism and media specificity.


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.