The state of the field

Contributed by Nick Capozzoli

Endeavor to write about the state of video game criticism, and one comes to find that the exercise becomes a microcosm of the field you’re trying to describe. You find familiar joys in the effort: testifying happily to the quality of others’ works, speaking with authority about a subject that was, until very recently, just your closeted little hobby. Negatives reveal themselves in turn. There are the frustrations with the industry’s inequities, and the inadequacy of your words to both convey and combat them. Dormant insecurities flare back up as well, racking you with indecision and self-doubts. Who is your audience? Have you gotten too navel-gazing? Is it presumptuous to think you’re even qualified to relate the state of your field in the first place?

The last one has been a real thorn in my side, silly as it may be. Any self-described game critic could faithfully relate the state of the field, of course–there are aren’t much more than thirty or forty of us. But it’s no wonder that imposter syndrome is on so many tongues. While analysis of video games has been going on in some form or another since the advent of the broader art, career criticism still has the look of a nascent industry. It’s undertaken primarily by enthusiasts, leveraging their experience in tangentially related disciplines. Works of criticism are still predominantly written for–and consumed by–other critics, and criticism performed for a lay audience is often met with perfunctory indignation. Game journalism of any type pays, at the very best, less than half of the industry standards in similar fields, forcing many journalists to supplement their income with other full and part-time jobs. Major online outlets are restructuring away from staffed positions to use cheaper freelancers more exclusively, removing seats at what was already a small (and fairly incestuous) table. Today’s game critics, absent reliable systems of advancement, overworked and underpaid, are as like to view any small measure of success with suspicion as they are to treasure it.

It’s easy to say that the state of the field is poor. What’s harder is determining whether it’s improving or declining, and at what rate. My inclination is that things are improving slowly, but there’s precious little precedent to lean on. With few exceptions, the most prominent mention of the state of game criticism has been by writers in other fields, asking “Why aren’t there any video game critics?” So, in the great game critic tradition, I’ve had to look to other mediums to orient myself. Recently at Indiewire, critic Danny Bowes likened the state of film criticism to a set of warring citystates. It’s a conscious oversimplification of course, doubtless the community there is not so monolithic. But if we adopt that analogy, it would be generous to suggest that our tribe has even a single citystate to its name. Game critics have been more like hunter-gatherers: following the freelance dollar migrations, subsisting on roots and berries and Patreon.

What would a game criticism citystate need? Walls, surely, in the form of a united front against the barbarians and trolls that seek to discredit individual critics and the field itself. Specialization, too, so that critics aren’t forced to wear many hats in order to survive. Perhaps a guild system, or something like it, to foster education and imbue the craft with a heightened sense of professionalism. Lastly, it would need scribes and annalists, to preserve the wonderful ongoing works that are so frequently lost to the internet’s shifting sands. It seems a lot to ask.

The question may be whether game criticism needs to build its own infrastructure, or if it can penetrate the bastions of existing mainstream outlets. In striking out from the blogosphere, critics have gained a few tenuous footholds the in print, video, and digital magazine spaces, but the vast majority of online video game discourse remains the purview of infotainment juggernauts like IGN and Kotaku. Most of them have an uneasy relationship with criticism, importing it for the odd opinion piece, but couching their game reviews in the language of consumer advice, agnostic feature lists, and surface-level analysis. Yet the review’s position as a buyer’s guide is more precarious than ever. Readers and viewers today have unprecedented access to video games in the stages before release, through widely-disseminated previews, demos, beta tests, and marketing materials. They’re also engaged, passionate, and more informed than many give them credit for. They need reviews that tell them why games have value, true enough. But the value of a game is not the amount of tedium it can stave off–it’s the meaning it can impart. If any semblance of the review as a buyer’s guide endures, let it be that.

What confusion gamers have about the review is wrought by game journalism’s own hand. There’s too much homogeneity, and too much attunement to the ebbs and flows of marketing cycles. Who is to blame for the stubborn canard of the “objective” review? Gamers? Or is it the industry that so reliably offers them a uniform take on every major release? Game criticism has the needed diversity, but it must be ushered to the podium, so that it might speak to the varied makeup of the gaming population. Only with a multitude of voices can we properly probe games for their cultural implications, combat design complacency, and finally see the art come into its own. A diverse, authoritative critical bloc would add more substantive disagreements to this artificial accord, so that we’re not all left arguing about whether graphics matter or if gameplay is more important than story or some other tripe in perpetuity. Mainstream editors bear much of this responsibility–to hire minority critics, to empower them to hold games to higher standards of minority portrayal, and to not partition problematic game content away from the body of a review, as though it weren’t a true part of the experience. The alternative is heat death, a leveling-off of all discourse that suffocates criticism and cedes readership to misanthropy.

Dramatic, I know. A popular slant on the video game critic is that they subsist on such negativity, but this is not true. If anything, criticism requires a sort of indelible optimism, a belief in the transformative power of words. An example here, a turn of phrase there–just so–and therein lies the key to informing and inspiring, or maybe even swaying a hostile mind. Every bit of praise is an affirmation, every gripe an assertion about what hypothetical successes could be had. Game criticism operates in service to forward momentum, to the worth and future potential of video games. It’s in that spirit of optimism that I was finally able to finish this piece, and to hell with that nagging imposter syndrome. Optimism overcomes all such barriers, from industry inequality down to writer’s block. I think of Jacob Riis, and the Stonecutter’s Credo:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

-Jacob Riis

So it went with this piece. A struggle up until the moment when all the barriers fell away and the words flowed free. Perhaps an inverse will hold true here, and the state of game criticism will come to mirror the writing of this, instead of the other way around. I hope that will be the case, that today’s critics will come to find some macrocosm of those feelings: the sudden knowing, the satisfaction of perseverance, and the surge of creativity, channeled by a supportive and coordinated community. And maybe get paid for it, too.