When new media and new art forms emerge onto our cultural radar, they often prove challenging subjects for the established critical community. Take film, for example—when it first filtered through into the mainstream in the early twentieth century, many of the critical movers and shakers of the time couldn’t decide what to do with it. Was this the emergence of a potentially powerful new creative form, or simply shallow amusement for the passive masses? A fair few years of struggle would pass before critics could offer an authoritative answer on that score, or before film theory established itself as a cohesive field of critical enquiry. The same goes for many other new forms with which we’re now quite familiar—pop music, modern art and even design have all been difficult for critics to deal with at first, although the question of newness, in design’s case, is always up for debate. In spite of that, design in particular seems to have struggled longest to develop a corresponding critical discourse; design criticism is still a relatively young field, and has faced a fair number of challenges during its evolution into an established and legitimate area of enquiry. Yet, thankfully for some, its position as the maverick upstart of the critical world might soon be usurped by the burgeoning field of videogame criticism.
This might seem surprising, given that most people aren’t even aware that videogame criticism exists. Whilst the medium itself has been around for the best part of five decades, and now supports an industry more profitable than film, videogames are rarely portrayed as a subject worthy of serious critique. Instead, we see little more than the gushing reviews in gaming mags, or the occasional column condemning them as a bad influence and the bane of contemporary youth culture. And that’s a pity. Set aside any preconceptions of their juvenility or silliness, and videogames are a fascinating subject for critique; they’re fundamentally different from other media, straddling the breach between art and science and offering up innumerable aesthetic and narrative experiences in the process. Not forgetting, of course, that they’re often damn good fun. In recent years, a burgeoning community of critics from a variety of existing fields have cottoned on to all this, and begun to build a body of work that explores the many facets of videogames—from how they work and how they affect us, to the impact they have upon contemporary culture and society. All this activity is creating a fascinating, multi-faceted field that could, tentatively, be called videogame criticism.
Yet the emerging discourse surrounding videogames is still suffering considerable teething troubles in its early years. Its diverse range of contributors, whose backgrounds span everything from literary criticism to computer science, have struggled to find an approach appropriate for their unique subject—they’re often stuck treating videogames as interactive movies, or playable books. These approaches often garner intriguing results, but at the same time they shoot slightly wide of the mark, failing to address the peculiar nature of videogames themselves. Add to this the ongoing struggle of critics to find an appropriate context for videogame criticism, or to develop an authoritative voice outside of certain specialist venues and academic journals (such as the now nine-year-old Game Studies), and it’s easy to see why videogame criticism falls under our radar. It’s not the kind of thing you’d often encounter in the mainstream press, or even within creative publishing.
Which leads us to the question you’re probably asking right now—what is an article on videogame criticism doing in a design magazine? It might at first seem somewhat out of place, but it shouldn’t, because videogames and design aren’t actually as unrelated as you might expect. Videogames are, of course, designed - aesthetically, functionally, experientially. That doesn’t automatically make them design, of course, but their creation employs many processes that will be familiar to people with an interest in design. It stands to reason, then, that those equipped to think critically about design and its processes, outcomes and impact—such as the readers of a design magazine, for example - might also be equipped to think this way about videogames, if their interest could only be piqued. And they might bring some valuable insights to the field, in the process.
This isn’t the only argument for the discussion of videogames and videogame criticism in a design context, though. We’ve touched upon a more robust reason in this article already—that design criticism, like videogame criticism, is itself a young field, relatively recent in the expansive history of criticism as a whole. Designers and design critics have faced many obstacles in recent years as they worked to establish a critical approach through which to explore and interrogate design, and to establish the discipline as we know it today. Indeed, it’s only in the past couple of decades that design criticism has really found its feet and developed that elusive, cohesive authoritative voice so essential for a mature critical field. In short, it wasn’t so long ago that design and design criticism faced similar challenges to videogame criticism.
Yet design criticism has made considerable steps towards overcoming its challenges. We now have a healthy culture of debate and discussion surrounding the practice and implications of design, and a body of interesting and insightful criticism that informs our understanding of its diverse and expansive subject. Granted, there are still improvements that could be made—just ask any eminent design critic, who‘ll likely have a list as long as your arm. What’s important here, though, is that the lessons we’ve learnt during the development of design criticism could potentially have an enormous impact if we found ways to apply them to videogames. By discussing videogame criticism in a design context, a dialogue could be opened between the two disciplines that allowed us to transfer our experiences and our knowledge, and shape the way that society understands both videogames and design. We’re one of the few fields yet to weigh in on the great videogame debate, after all, and it seems high time for that to change. Only time will tell what videogame criticism might look like in the future, but if, as it seems, it’s set to become the enfant terrible of the critical world, then design criticism seems well equipped to provide a fraternal guiding hand. All we need is a little push, to get us started.
It would be inappropriate, somehow, to end on that note without some recommended reading. If any of this has managed to pique your interest in the emerging output of videogame criticism, you’d do worse than to start with Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life, a novelistic look at videogames’ cultural impact across three international cities; it’s one of the most accessible pieces of extended, published critique out there. Equally interesting is Gamer Theory by media theorist McKenzie Wark, an ambitious book developed in iterations and originally published online. As you might expect, the Web holds many of the most interesting contributions to videogame criticism—with the added advantage that most of it’s free. Popmatters.com hosts a decent archive of thoughtful videogame archives penned by L.B. Jeffries, and elsewhere the work of games journalist Kieron Gillen is well worth tracking down. Finally, for a more experimental take on in-game critique, The Guardian has an excellent list of New Journalism-influenced games articles available on its gaming blog. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course—there’s plenty more out there. Happy hunting.
Originally published in Grafik magazine, issue 188.