On Game Centered Criticism

So I woke up yesterday morning and did some work and then read Twitter. There were some tweets that Patricia Hernandez made about games and games criticism.

So I wrote some tweets and she responded to them and we had a conversation about it. Then I made a Storify out of the conversation so it wouldn’t be lost to time.

If you want to get the full content out of what is about to come spewing out of my internet mouth, you should read some things first.

1. Darius Kazemi‘s critique of Killing is Harmless and Brendan Keogh‘s response in the comments of that post.
2. This post I made a long time ago about New Games Journalism.
3. There was an article on Kotaku recently that was about how we think that games writing is broken, but it really isn’t. For some reason I can’t find the damn thing. You should read it if you find it. Oops someone found it.

I’m having you read those things because I don’t want to just repeat myself, although I will probably do that anyway.

The discussion tends to go this way:

Someone makes an argument for looking at the game object when a writer is doing games studies. It could be anyone who starts it: “Maybe we should look at the way that game structures an event” could be the innocuous phrase that starts the wheel to spinning. The response is generally similar to the one that Patricia gave in the conversation that we had: “Why do you want objectivity? Games are partially composed of players, so why can’t we talk about subjective experiences?”

There are two arguments that have to be made here, first and foremost:
1. I am not making claims that we need to be objective in games criticism.
2. There is not a zero sum game between writing about games-in-themselves and player-centric criticism.

However, I am not unsympathetic to Patricia’s arguments. After all, she writes very personal articles about the relationship that she has had throughout her life with video games–most recently, she wrote about how Fallout 2 is intimately tied with her development in relation to her family. Skimming through the comments, there is rarely any negativity, and if there is it is routinely answered by a positive comment. There is an appreciation in the current video games criticism atmosphere for experiential writing. Without replaying history, we will just say that it is because there was a shift a few years ago into New Games Journalism as a methodology.

And New Games Journalism, which describes criticism far more than it does journalism, is fundamentally about the experience that the speaking subject has while embroiled in the spoken-for object that is a video game. There is a whole cadre of current writers who are doing this brand of criticism, and they are doing it well. I want to be clear here: this is a valid method. I like reading the pieces when they come out. Experiential writing where the possibility of objectivity is thrown out the window is totally cool with me.

There isn’t a better way to say this: video games are not merely what you put into them as a player. They are not a place to purely be experienced. They are enclosed systems that (sometimes) require a player to input actions in order to operate to their full capacity. For that reason, I think that Game Centered Criticism needs to be practiced. I guess I need to explain that.

I think of Game Centered Criticism as a more full exploration of the game-player assemblage that comes out of any individual act of playing the game. It is quite popular in games criticism broadly to make the claim the we cannot escape subjective experiences, and so we should privilege those subjective experiences in our criticism. The game itself becomes an extension of the human subject in that it becomes a phenomenon emitter that transmits a signal exclusively for human use.

The critical flaw that I see here is that games come to have no meaning outside of their human partners.[1]  New Games Journalism/Criticism is based on the solidity of this distant subject/object relationship. The experiential method of games criticism holds the game object at a distance and then proceeds to fetishize the moment where the human and the digital interact with one another–in other words, the human experience of play becomes the orgasmic payoff of video games’ existence.

Game Centered Criticism, as I am trying to articulate it, is about the human being dancing with the video game (I’m cribbing a metaphor from Robin Bernstein’s “Dances With Things,” which everyone should read.) The video game is a discrete being, with qualities all of its own that are not reducible to the human being playing it. The moment when the human comes into contact with the game is a moment of dance–the human bleeds into the game through choices, controller actions, and meaning-making. But that isn’t the only thing going on–the video game contains its own meaning-making, framing, and decision making process. Only a self-centered asshole would ignore their partner in a waltz, claiming later that he was merely someone there to be manipulated and contain meaning for the “real,” active dancer. That’s how we should think about our relationship to games–as cooperative practices where relations are created between distinct, and equal, partners.

As a method, Game Centered Criticism pays close attention to ways that games operate in close conjunction with players. Instead of writing about the internal human process of playing a game like Dishonored, Game Centered Criticism takes the game as its own self-supporting entity. Dishonored‘s diegesis and mechanics do not exist wholly for the player–rather, Dunwall exists for itself, and its own history, just as much as it exists for me to “read” it or interact with it. It has a life of its own. It has a complex universe and being that rewards careful attention.

Obviously, isn’t a conservative appeal for Old Games Journalism, whatever that was. This also isn’t a denigration of New Games Journalism on the whole. More than anything, I’m just kind of tired of games only having worth because they were transformative for a human subject. We need a critical toolbox that allows us to talk about the digital and material qualities of games-in-themselves, not just as extensions of human minds into ludic spaces where we get to vacation sometimes.

Game Centered Criticism doesn’t seek to force out a particular method of doing criticism. Instead, it seeks to give us more tools, more ways of giving voice to our nonhuman counterparts that allow for video games to be so damn affecting to us.[2]


1. There is a philosophical term for this, popularized by Quentin Meillassoux, known as “correlationism” that basically means that things in the world are trapped in a relation with the human subject as only existing for that subject (I am vastly simplifying this, read more here).

2. I couldn’t figure out a way to include this above: I think Game Centered Criticism is distinct from procedural rhetoric because of the way that it embraces a living game subject rather than a didactic machine. There’s space between Persuasive Games and Sicart’s criticism of procedural rhetoric, and I think Game Centered Criticism fits in that niche. That is a very short version of a (necessarily) very long thought.

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11 Responses to On Game Centered Criticism

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    I concurr. In so far, at least, as the (and correct me if I’m misapplying the term) phenomenological approach (i.e. working from internal experience outward to the moment where one does or does not connect with the thing as it relates to oneself–what it seems like you are describing above) has become so pervasive, especially among a group of young and upcoming (and literarily trained) critics, I think approaches like this are what is currently lacking, and thus what more people should currently strive to work at.

    I can’t help but think this has a lot to do with age, and how most of us, being at young and volatile periods in our lives, end up using video games as tools to critique and reflect upon ourselves, rather than using ourselves as tools for reflecting on and critquing the objects we’ve decided to concern ourselves with.

    As to the bias toward subjectivity, I think that the prevailing ideologies of the day have led us to become a bit too content with these constraints, as oppose to still struggling to get outside of them and expand our imaginations and try even if we fail, to still see/know/consider things beyond contexts in which they are always subordinate to ourselves (a messy and confused suggestion that I don’t know how to put better at the moment).

    The fact that people have such different experiences playing the same game does point to how different people are, but it can also point to the underlying qualities of the thing under examination, and serve as a mitigating tool against the constraints of individual subjectivity.

    Or something something.

    But yea, keep harping on this. It’s a view not often espoused, at least not without the same level of informed consideration.

  2. stevensukkau says:

    This is fascinating to me, and I am trying to brainstorm here, what examples of the kind of tools to better understand games has game centered criticism given us?

  3. I’m kind of in love with this piece–this and your “On New Games Journalism” articulate a LOT of things I’ve been thinking about and trying to say and I feel guilty as hell for not discovering your stuff earlier. I’m in the middle of working on my own piece about Hernandez’s Fallout 2 article because I FEEL very similarly to you about experiential criticism. I guess I’m going to have to write a response to your piece now, dammit.

  4. good post. i’ve become increasingly apathetic towards experiential accounts of playing games, at least as far as they’re considered criticism – because they don’t accomplish much of anything critically, even when they’re good pieces of writing. i’m bothered by the notion that people who play games are using these videogames to define themselves, to some extent, yet they either can’t or won’t recognize the presence of an author behind the whole experience, or what the experience might be about as a whole. they’re taking the most attractive parts of the illusion and throwing all the strange, messy bits away. game designers often don’t do much better by talking about making experiences to allow all kinds of player freedom, without owning up to the fact that they’re the ones who’re putting everything into those game worlds the first place. i talk about this a little bit in this piece (that is mostly about taking critics to task for extolling the virtues of “dumb games”):


    games have created an illusion so powerful that people don’t want to come to terms with the fact that they are illusions. i understand why this happens, in the cultural climate we’re in, but i find it a bit depressing.

  5. field balm says:

    This is an excellent piece – consideration of games as ergodic text or of the cyborgization of player-and-game I think will go much further than subjective experiential criticism

  6. I think there is a growing, undeniable tension in game criticism due to the injection of subjectivity into the critique. There are good and bad ways of doing this. The bad way is this annoying trend in game reviews where the opening paragraph blandly describes actions from the first person: “I am Corvo. I am an assassin.” It’s facetious, not to mention ludicrous, because at no point do you actually think you *are* Corvo.

    “I am the triangle orbiting the hexagon” is a silly thing to say, yet to describe the experience of Super Hexagon in an entirely game-centric way without reference to the subjective experience is equally counter-productive. It’s more illustrative for me to use an analogy like racing down a hill on a bike.

    The ideal point is game-centric criticism that also draws from experience. It’s fine if the criticism says something about the player, but it also must say something about the same. That’s where Keogh’s Killing is Harmless works for me as criticism, but other pieces (not naming names) fall short. Games writers are becoming adept at telling life stories, but not necessary using said stories to tell us about the game.

    Obligatory plug and self-defence: the first five articles in the first issue of Five out of Ten are all experiential, but I also think they’ve got a lot to say about the games in question.

  7. John Brindle says:

    I raise my glass to things and their independent life.* When I engage in criticism (‘criticise’) I am concerned with saying something about the thing which also holds true for others. I am concerned with establishing an argument which holds true across multiple subjective experiences (or is at least relevant to them all) and thus achieves common ground. I don’t think this is the only way to do things, but I think it’s quite important. I am trying to do justice to the thing, the artifact. That thing with all the code and weird bits hanging out the sides.

    I don’t want to pick ‘sides’ here, but a quick glance at the ‘family history’ tag on my blog, properly considered, will illustrate how skeptical I am of introducing personal matters into my criticism. This is in part because the kid behind John Brindle has nothing interesting to say about himself and everything interesting to say about what’s in front of him. But it is also because I am skeptical that the subjective in itself necessarily has value.

    That’s some question, of course. Does a personal, subjective account necessarily have value of its own, regardless of how ‘interesting’ or ‘worthwhile’ it is under any other topos? I’m not sure. I do know I tend to find some of them really enlightening and eye-opening, and some of them very boring. I suspect the divide between these two reactions correlates respectively with the divide between things that I (as a white mostly-straight male) have not experienced and things with which I am very familiar. Is that a little passive-aggressive? Your subjective experience is worth something as long as it teaches me something”

    By the way, relevant to this whole debate is a much-neglected piece by D.M. Cool who unifies new and old games journalism by saying our goal in relating subjective experience should in part be to provide ‘imaginary job descriptions’ of an entity called the Player Character – which Cool defines as the negative space the game provides for players to fill. http://gamingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/second-meditation/

    Take all this with a pinch of salt. I’m very drunk.

    *I am a pagan.**

    **Not really, but sort of.

  8. Jackson says:

    I would definitely like to see more of the type of criticism that you propose. However I have a slight quibble with this following section:

    “Dishonored‘s diegesis and mechanics do not exist wholly for the player–rather, Dunwall exists for itself, and its own history, just as much as it exists for me to “read” it or interact with it. It has a life of its own.”

    I think in most art, and especially games, each element IS made for the audience. I think if you take your idea too far, you start to get things like lore fetishizing and aversion to critique. For instance, one might say that “Corvo is a weak character” and you could respond with “Well that’s just who Corvo is, he’s not meant to be a good character for the player.”

    If you look at good criticism on books and short stories, you’ll see that almost every element is considered as to how it affects the audience. But rather than experiential, “It changed my life,” or “I felt this way when Hemmingway wrote this,” it’s much more concerned with how the themes are gotten across, what the purpose of each element is, and whether they successful or not. These are not objective statements, but I believe they are very valuable.

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