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Critical miss

One of the most disconcerting things about the world we live in is that it’s not quite how we perceive it. What we see is not necessarily what may actually be there because the brain sometimes makes faulty assumptions about the things our eyes take in. Betty Edwards demonstrated this easily with her drawing of two differently positioned tables which were apparently of different lengths as well. They were, of course, the same exact size but that seemed impossible before measurement. Optical illusions are certainly neat but there’s a greater point to be made here: we are easily fooled. That’s something to remember.

If we’re able to, that is. Another weird thing about us is we don’t really remember all that well because our memories aren’t foolproof either. Rather than accurate records, memories are reconstructions by the brain, adaptations based on actual events but not necessarily completely faithful to them. (Consequently, eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable forms of evidence in courtrooms.)

So, not only are we easily fooled by what we see but we have trouble remembering things as they actually were.

Given those considerations, we could be forgiven for having a lot of doubts when casting a critical eye on something. Indeed, making a judgment call about anything seems really hard.

Cue sad violin music.

For whom Bell toils

A man once performed at a Washington plaza on a Friday morning. It’s an interesting tale and it’s one best told by Gene Weingarten, who won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for telling it. You can understand why when you read it. It starts off describing a Candid Camera stunt Allen Funt might reject (something borne out by the immensely dull video recording of the event) and ends up saying something profound about human nature and how we perceive art.

Weingarten pointed to the importance of situational context but what it really comes down to is people need to be told what makes great art special. Most of what is widely considered to be great art today has had years, decades and even centuries of accolades and Weingarten himself expended a lot of effort informing the reader just why that performance at the Metro station was special. He pointed out why the artist was special, why the instrument used was special and why the pieces performed were special. Most of those commuters at that indoor arcade who walked on by without a glance did not have that information. The few who stopped to listen had an inkling. One had seen the artist perform and recognised him, two didn’t recognise the artist but had enough expertise to grasp there was something extraordinary about that performance.

Until we develop expertise in a field, until we develop enough confidence to make judgment calls of our own, we rely heavily on others to determine significance, to provide context, to point out subtleties — as Weingarten might put it, to provide the frame for the art.

Magical thinking

This brings us to gaming and one particular game critic.

Tom Bissell is an author, journalist and an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. He is best known in gaming circles for his book Extra Lives: Why Gaming Matters and his game-related writing for various non-gaming sites. Bissell’s main schtick as a game critic is constantly sneering at the quality of writing in games and, being a man of letters, he is well placed to cast judgment. A teacher of fiction writing and award-winning writer, he has a writing style that has been described by fawning admirers as “floppy-haired prose“. A non-writer might wonder if that descriptor is less than flattering. It brings to mind word wankery so appealing it compels the reader to reach out to muss the hair of the author affectionately before inviting him to shut up and go play outside. If Bissell’s writing appears so breezy and effortless, it is often because the thinking behind it is shallow and inchoate. This is game criticism for a gaming generation prizing style over substance.

A classic example of a Bissellism, combining as it does half-thoughts and a desperate scramble to justify a comically inflated opinion of Gears of War:

If the shooter is about a visceral connection between player and avatar, action and reaction, perhaps nosing a mouse along a felt pad was a poor approximation of the shooting experience. Perhaps the approximation of holding a big rattling piece of hot and deafeningly noisy metal made precision somewhat beside the point. Perhaps the messier controls of the console shooter actually had the potential to make shooting profounder, somehow.

Perhaps this is bullshit, somehow. The mealy-mouthed wording indicates even Bissell realises this is not a winning argument. Nevertheless he persists in making it, leaving the reader wondering how the Xbox 360 controller with its colour-coded buttons better approximates the experience of firing a weapon. The controller’s fuzziness in target acquisition necessitates a feature called aim-assist — the equivalent to a firing range instructor discreetly repositioning a misaimed weapon for the hapless shooter. Bissell’s arguments are often just as imprecise and, writing as he does for non-gaming sites, there is no editorial aim-assist to get them on target.

“You see? It’s not that hard … too-complicated …”

Case in point, Bissell’s review of The Witcher 2, a Grantland article that doubles as an excellent primer on Bissellisms.

It takes Bissell all of three sentences to make his first fuzzy observation: touting gaming’s cultural legitimacy based on freebies given to Barack Obama. There would be a stronger case if President Obama spoke at length about the CD Projekt game the way he goes on about b-ball or his obsessions with Entourage and The Wire but unfortunately, the 44th POTUS is no more game literate than his predecessors.

Bissell, the critic content to be a console gamer, then decides to share his observations on PC hardware noting that a six-year-old Dell with indeterminate specifications isn’t quite capable of running a 2011 PC game. This is not the revelation he thinks it is. To put it in terms a console gamer might be familiar with, this is like solemnly pointing out a 2011 Xbox 360 game doesn’t run on the original Xbox.

When Bissell begins discussing the game itself, he finds himself at a loss and has to resort to nitpicking and surface level criticism. This is understandable, however. He spent only six hours playing the game and was evidently in a state of befuddlement for most of that time. “The game’s combat feels ropy and insubstantial” is the standout line — a better breed of critic might feel obliged to point out why that’s the case — and this ropy and insubstantial piece of criticism is the clearest indication the writer of floppy-haired prose is sneakily taking advantage of a game-illiterate editor giving him a free pass.

It’s hard to argue with his disdain for dwarves or elves just as it’s difficult to argue with an overweening font hipster raging about Comic Sans since debating the issue would first require listening to the tiresome whingeing. If Bissell prefers a shooter with space marines over an RPG with dwarves and elves, that’s certainly his prerogative as a gamer. Perhaps the white male human has trouble relating to dwarves and elves and would feel much more comfortable around white male human characters toting “big rattling pieces of hot and deafeningly noisy metal.” As a critic, however, he’d best bring more to the table than complaints of elves with dumb names.

Magnanimously, he doesn’t begrudge The Witcher 2’s fans for enjoying it but he cannot resist a final arch dismissal: “What confuses me, I guess, is why so many look at this game and see a pinnacle rather than a careworn template fast-receding, to which we should be saying, ‘Thanks, and good riddance.'”

All this would matter little except Bissell does his writing almost exclusively for non-gaming sites and his judgment on all things gaming is likely deemed authoritative by a readership curious about the appeal of the medium. When Bissell begins lecturing about game design to that audience (“The art of game design, like the art of writing, is to communicate non-simple things simply …”), there is every reason to groan. This is another Bissellism, questioning one a priori judgment as he blithely makes another. Why should the medium limit itself in such a fashion? Should game design not take its cue from art itself and encompass a rich diversity of styles? Is there not room in this entire medium for the simple and the complex, the abstract and the real, the frivolous and the serious, the absurd and the profound?

The sine qua non of gaming is not simplicity. It is not even fun. It is interactivity, gaming’s great advantage over other media. Everything else should be open for consideration. To believe otherwise is to exhibit a singular lack of imagination. In this, Bissell is far from being alone.

Why game critics matter

This is one of the most exciting mediums around, rich with potential and possibility, yet it has fostered deeply conservative creators and consumers with rigid, blinkered views of gaming. The designer obsessed with monetising social pressure dismisses single-player gaming as a historical aberration; the theoretician encountering a game that doesn’t fit neat stereotypes of what games are rejects it as a game; the developer not up to the challenges of interactive storytelling declares narrative unimportant; the regressive wanting to recapture childhood pleasures insists all games must be simple; the stressed-out professional overwhelmed by work demands all games must be escapist fare; and the gamer with limited leisure time calls for shorter games. Instead of embracing diversity, the current climate in gaming is all about exclusivity and barriers.

Nowhere are the barriers more imposing than those demarcating the gamer from the non-gamer. Stung by criticism and cursory dismissal in previous decades, creators and gamers have adopted a “who cares, because if you don’t like it, you’re free to go to hell” attitude — the equivalent of a teenager yelling tearfully, “You don’t understand me!”, retreating to a room, slamming the door and playing annoying music as loudly as possible.

But if the non-gamer doesn’t understand the appeal of gaming after all these decades, whose fault is that precisely? Theirs for not understanding the unique pleasures of an interactive medium? To be sure, there will always be those intransigent detractors with eyes squeezed shut and fingers firmly lodged in their ears desperately clinging on to their ancient prejudices. However, there are others who are willing to listen and be convinced, and there is no one better placed to initiate these conversations and make the case for gaming — no one more qualified to provide the frame for the art form — than the critic.

Gaming is still awaiting its first great critic — someone who calls publishers and developers on their horseshit when they resort to carnival hucksterism in this, the golden age of game monetisation; someone uncowed by the prospect of taking on partisan gamers who throw screaming fits whenever their personal opinions aren’t validated.

And gaming badly needs a critic who challenges creator and gamer alike into venturing out of their comfort zones. Bissell, content to be cocooned in console-land, excluding himself from game experiences that don’t fit his simplistic views of what games are, sneering at dumb game writing even as he is left whimpering “too complicated” when games don’t presume to treat him like a simpleton, is not that critic. A medium that offers so much rich reward for challenge and exploration deserves better than someone so tremulous and incurious.

It is oft repeated that gaming is awaiting its Citizen Kane but that may not matter if gaming lacks an authoritative and influential critic capable of assessing that landmark game’s importance and incisively communicating its significance to a larger audience. Without that critic, both gamer and non-gamer might be like those oblivious commuters at the Washington Metro station on that Friday morning, hurrying past with their heads down while the violin plays mournfully for them.

Posted in Games.

15 Responses

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  1. Harbour Master says

    I had no idea you were going to take a baseball bat to Bissell when I started reading this! Personally, I’m on the fence – the L.A. Noire piece rubbed me up the wrong way and that put me off reading more of his pieces (to clarify motivation: I haven’t played L.A. Noire nor have any intention to).

    I can appreciate the necessity of critical specialism; the way that occasionally spills over into genre religion (or, at least, blinkered perspective) is unfortunate. But being a game critic with such broad experience is no easy thing. So many games devour more than their fair share of time. You can rewatch Citizen Kane many times over – pulling out all sorts of different interpretations – in the time it takes to play Skyrim ONCE. I have steered clear of Skyrim, more interested in my annual game diversity instead of being stuck in a monocultural rut for too long. How does one become well-read in open-ended, evolving MMORPGs? How do we deal with the beta problem – where the game experienced ceases to exists through Soviet revisionism (e.g. A Valley Without Wind)?

    A long shot, perhaps. I have to ask whether you read my piece A Theoretical War because the paragraph here about the different silos of gaming under “Why game critics matter” seems to overlap with some of the conclusions I made there. And some of your calls in that paragraph there burned a little, too =)

  2. Gobi says

    Ex-Computer Gaming World editor-in-chief Johnny L. Wilson goes into the importance of matching reviewer to game in his review of “Extra Lives: Why Gaming Matters” (which I linked to above). The FPS expert wouldn’t be assigned an RPG, for example.

    While genre specialisation is all well and good, I don’t think there’s any great need for “reactionary game critic” as a specialty.

    So many games devour more than their fair share of time. You can rewatch Citizen Kane many times over – pulling out all sorts of different interpretations – in the time it takes to play Skyrim ONCE.

    This is an excellent point.

    Citizen Kane was hailed as a great movie when it was released — Bosley Crowther wrote, “The returns are in from most of the local journalistic precincts and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been overwhelmingly selected as one of the great (if not the greatest) motion picture of all time” in 1941 — but its reputation today is actually based on reevaluations that appeared in the Fifties.

    For games like Skyrim, the buy/not buy reviews in the standard “cute intro/gameplay/graphics/sound/conclusion/score” format that appear on release day are going to be less important than the reviews that will appear much, much later. My hunch is the best appraisal of Skyrim, probably a multi-part RedLetterMedia-esque epic by a diehard fan of the Elder Scrolls series rather than a professional game reviewer, is going to appear on YouTube a few years from now.

    But there’s a related problem.

    How do we deal with the beta problem – where the game experienced ceases to exists through Soviet revisionism (e.g. A Valley Without Wind)?

    It’s not just a beta/patching problem and it’s not just a problem for game critics. The bigger issue is preserving game experiences as gaming moves towards the cloud and streaming.

    MMOs have given us a foretaste of this. No one can ever experience Thunderhead Keep, the Guild Wars mission that was the bane of PUGs, as it was originally designed by Ben Miller. When I describe how frustrating I found it in 2005, no one playing it today can relate to that since the mission has been nerfed so completely it’s actually dull now.

    Now game design may be iterative but George Lucas has taught us constant tinkering may not always bring about tremendous improvement and Star Wars Galaxies reinforced that lesson with its New Game Experience.

    So, preservation is potentially a huge problem for gaming for all sorts of reasons.

    I’ve not read A Theoretical War but I’m going through all three parts today.

  3. Harbour Master says

    No need to go through A Theoretical War if you haven’t, it isn’t really related to your subject matter (it’s on Ludology/Narratology) but ends up in a similar place. I was just struck by the parallels.

    Interesting review by Wilson – if you could have highlighted it more, somehow, like additional notes for reading, I probably would have clicked on it (as I’ve read reviews of Extra Lives previously).

    And also an interesting point about critical greatness being acknowledged some time later. I find that when I write about a game “at release” for topicality, it’s usually a lot less interesting than those pieces that I leave to ferment, and can pick up better on the overall relevance/importance a game. I’m much happier being late to the party nowadays.

    I’m aware of the broader problem of software being inherently unstable with constant connectivity enabling not just constant change but increasing fragility (online DRM/content). Constant OS patching continues to threaten any games built on them, as well. I brought this up when discussing “the present” with retro machine hobby-archivist Prof Steven Furnell at Plymouth University and he dismissed my concern as he was more interested in saving hardware but I think the software is turning out to be a more serious problem. It’s even worse when multiplayer is part of the experience (Demon’s Souls, Journey). I wish there were a general term to cover this. Am I just missing it?

    (I’d love to see a RedLetterMedia-style take on Skyrim. The only critical reviews that are probably longer than the source, but I’ve watched them all. Still waiting for my pizza rolls.)

  4. Amanda Lange says

    Found this from HarbourMaster’s link roundup, and he says it’s probably okay to ‘necro’ it. :)

    I see “gaming needs a critic” a lot. I admit I’m stumped about how to achieve it. Possibly it’s too lofty a goal for one person. To understand games, you have to understand a lot of things. It’s an easy medium to deliver “surface” observations on (Graphics 8.5, Sound 9), but a difficult medium to comprehend deeply. I was talking about this with a friend over e-mail earlier, and we kind of reached the conclusion that you really have to match the critic with the game. Something like a fighting game needs to be judged against the standards of and by experts in other fighting games. Bissell clearly likes shooters. He’s not so much on the sword and board fantasy.

    (I, on the other hand, am a huge fan of the latter, and could take or leave war-themed manshoots. Because of this, this theoretical project of an epic-length video review of Skyrim appeals to me deeply in my soul. I could see myself doing this if I had access to a video editing suite and some free time.)

  5. Gobi says

    My own view is a well-rounded critic is going to be more valuable. Someone struggling with the issue of violence in shooters today, for instance, might look back to Richard Garriott’s internalisation of the criticism he received for his early RPGs (his favourite criticism: “Satanic perverter of America’s youth”) and remind modern developers and gamers that Garriott’s response, Ultima IV, a game that still allowed sociopathic behaviour but now punished the gamer for it, was a critical and commercial success in 1985 and hailed by Computer Gaming World as one of the most innovative computer games of all time in 1996.

    I can’t help you with the free time aspect of it but the software required for recording and editing 720p/1080p YouTube videos isn’t all that expensive. Game recording software is either free or costs less than USD50 (DXTory is about USD45 and FRAPS is USD37). You can then edit the recording with Sony Vegas Movie Studio 11 (USD44).

    There’s a 19-minute video guide for the DXTory/Sony Vegas combination on YouTube.

  6. Amanda Lange says

    Cool, thanks! I have FRAPS already but was lacking in the editing software. I’ll check that out.

  7. Eric Brasure says

    While I agree with some of your criticisms about Bissell, I fear you might be missing the point of his writing. While there are many wonderful novels published each year, the mass of people could name one novel published last year: 50 Shades of Grey. The same is true of videogames, probably. However, there is a long and dense tradition of literary criticism and a culture that has built up around that, with awards and lovely book reviews inserts in major Sunday newspapers.

    If Bissell spends all his time criticizing the blockbuster videogame, he’s doing so not because he’s not aware that there are others out there. He’s doing it because for many (most?) people that play videogames, the blockbuster videogame is all that exists. Is that lazy? Perhaps. Does Bissell give me interesting and sometimes profound things to think about? Absolutely.

  8. Gobi says

    What would you think of a film critic who restricts herself to offering penetrating insight into blockbuster movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon?

  9. Eric Brasure says

    Would I like to read an article by Bissell on Cart Life? Sure. Do I think he could get paid to do it? Absolutely not. That’s a consideration, is it not?

  10. Gobi says

    See Jonah Weiner’s Dwarf Fortress article for the New York Times or Jason Fagone’s Jason Rohrer profile for Esquire. Are you still sure nobody would pay for a well-written article about Richard Hofmeier and Cart Life?

  11. Eric Brasure says

    Those are one off pieces, not the on-going columnist position that Bissell enjoys at Grantland. Certainly a writer can find places that will buy an article, but I still maintain it would be nearly impossible to write exclusively about those games.

    That said, maybe Bissell is just ignorant of this stuff. That’s certainly possible too, although I think it unlikely.

  12. JuntMonkey says

    “Perhaps the white male human has trouble relating to dwarves and elves and would feel much more comfortable around white male human characters toting ‘big rattling pieces of hot and deafeningly noisy metal.'”

    Am I correctly reading this as a strawman attack on Bissell for only liking games starring white male humans? It sounds similar to when hardcore RPG/adventure gamers criticize anybody who plays action games as moronic “pimply-faced adolescents”. Maybe I’m not reading it right.

    I haven’t looked at it recently, but I thought it was pretty clear from Bissell’s Witcher 2 review that he was tired of the traditional Tolkien-esque setting, perhaps much like you are tired of “humanity at war against aliens in post-apocalyptic cities” settings. What’s wrong with that?

  13. Gobi says

    We should hold game critics to a higher standard and expect something more substantial than the sneering of a close-minded partisan gamer.

  14. JuntMonkey says

    I don’t know, I think that a critic can be tired of genre conventions that haven’t changed in 50 years and wish for something innovative (I have not played The Witcher 2 so I don’t know if the criticism is accurate) without being close-minded. You seem to be engaging in something similar though with your apparent bias against “white men with guns” games.

  15. Gobi says

    You are unfortunately way off target in inferring that I have bias against “white men with guns” or a disdain for the “humanity at war against aliens in post-apocalyptic cities” setting from my suggesting “Perhaps the white male human has trouble relating to dwarves and elves and would feel much more comfortable around white male human characters toting ‘big rattling pieces of hot and deafeningly noisy metal.'” Dismissing a shooter because it featured a white male protagonist or any game because it featured humanity at war against aliens in a post-apocalyptic setting would be just as absurd as dismissing a fantasy game because it included elves or dwarves (or Comic Sans).

    Here’s a suggestion to get your arguments on-target: play The Witcher 2 to see how the game represented genre conventions. You would then be better placed to defend Bissell.