The critical process of games is different from the critical process of other media. Games can now be continually iterated on, even after they have been released, because they are usually entirely in a patchable electronic form – though board games also bear some post-release iteration by house rules. Criticism of any kind can be important at any part of the life cycle of a game. Games are not the technological artefacts that work or don’t work that we used to think of them as. They need a variety of perspectives to explore them, get inside them and rattle around in them. No one person will have the definitive experience of a game, and so it’s up to the creator to decide which critics they’re pleasing, if any.
Jay Rosen interviewed Brian Stelter from the New York Times in 2010 on whether he thought there was objectivity in American journalism. Stelter concluded:
“Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”
You might recognise this first type of journalism, ‘the mask of impartiality’, as what some of the games press attempt to do. There’s a certain grandiose ‘I’m above all this’ voice that is used to imply that the journalist or critic came to the table with no prejudices, views or interests apart from that the subject itself was worth reporting on – and the latter is a prejudice in itself. This pretence of impartiality is attempted because to denote that the voice is coming from somewhere is automatically seen as a weakness, when all it is doing is revealing that you, the reader of the piece, should be an active participant, and that journalism is written by people who are different from each other. It reveals other considerations that you need to take into account when reading it. Believe it or not, every single piece of reportage requires that you know that it is one of innumerable perspectives that could give you illumination on a subject. There is no definitive work on anything. Even some of my favourite critics and journalists, who I share values with, have let me down on occasion, and I have had to read around the subject to get a grip on what I really think about it.
One of my favourite pieces of writing about journalism is The View From Somewhere. It covers how every piece of reporting is not only a view from someone’s perspective, but is affected by the journalist’s presence:
‘A fair few articles I’ve filed from the frontlines of the global protest movements over the past couple of years have featured young men at moments of crisis and violence lighting up cigarettes dramatically, exhaling meaningfully and saying something cheesy and rousing. This is not a coincidence,’ Laurie Penny wrote.
Penny moves on to describe how not being a white middle class male journalist entirely changes the responses she gets from interviewees. This often means she gets a very different perspective on the world than is traditionally reported by the white male CNN journalist, for example. The very act of a journalist’s presence is changing the answers, tack and outcome of the interview.
This interview on Rock Paper Shotgun with Anna Anthropy conducted by Brendan Caldwell last year reveals that Anna might not have been ready to open up to Brendan, or was feeling distracted, or felt that the tack of his questions and perspectives wasn’t conducive to how she thought about her own work. That in itself is a useful finding, but less was said than when Anna spoke to me for this interview. She was much more open and relaxed about her perspectives and motives, and as a consequence was chattier. I suspect that it’s just that the feel of those interviews was entirely different for her, which isn’t really much of a reflection at all on the quality of either Brendan or I as interviewers, as we’re just interested in her response to her own work. When Brendan conducted further interviews for his Punk Is Not Dead column, he got further than I would have with those developers, simply because they were more familiar with each other’s work.
In a similar manner, when I conducted this interview with Rhianna Pratchett, our chemistry was good and much of the responses I received I had an opinion on. The responses I got from Rhianna fuelled my next questions, rather than having me feed from a rigid list, and on more than one occasion what I said in emotional response to Rhianna in turn affected which subjects she addressed next. In this interview, I was less of an interviewer, and more of a participant in a conversation, which is reflected in the final outcome of what you read. I even made a joke about my participation in the end, which again harks back to what I’ll call the Laurie Penny Effect (sorry Laurie) – the idea that it is important to know that the view is coming from somewhere. Transparency is the basis of trust. It is in my best interest for my reader to trust me.
There’s been a great deal made recently about how games criticism is ‘censorship’ when it is negative, and much of the blame for this often comes down to accusations of not being ‘objective’, having an ‘agenda’, or just a wilful misinterpretation of what a critic’s job is. As I have just explored, it is simply impossible to be an objective journalist or critic, or to be without an agenda or perspective. We all grew up being shaped by different experiences, being treated differently, and therefore different things are important to us. No opinion of a work is an act of censorship; rather it is a conversation between two different perspectives, a clash of two channels of communication. Having just had a long conversation on twitter with someone who is part of this new ‘criticism is censorship’ group, and having witnessed several other colleagues weather it, including Nathan Grayson, I thought I’d address this head on.
A variety of informed subjective views is valuable. It my job to supply you with one of those informed views. That is my entire raison d’être. To form a bank of people you can rely upon.
Whenever something that was not negatively critiqued in games in the past is focused on, usually to do with narrative or thematic choices, there is a cry of ‘censorship’ from a particular part of the internet. You may have seen this happen in reaction to the critical responses to GTA V, to Nathan’s Blizzard interview, on my response to Hotline Miami 2’s preview build, to Mitu Khandaker’s changes to Redshirt, and in response to changes that were enacted to The Stanley Parable after criticism. These are just the most recent incidents. These reactions betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what censorship is, and of what a game critic’s remit is. The situation also contains the irony of people criticising critics for criticising.
Censorship is when you are prevented from putting your art in public. A critic usually reacts to art that is intended for public consumption, though sometimes critics do have privileged or early access to allow time to affect opening day sales. In order to criticise something, 1) art is made available 2) the critic criticises in public. The criticism needs the art to actually exist in some form. Nothing has been banned or prevented from being said. In the UK, games can only really be censored by the Video Standards Authority, by the refusal to rate a game. This has happened in the past with regard to the previous authority, the BBFC, when for some time they refused to rate Manhunt 2, effectively censoring it from the public. That was censorship. Saying you think maybe that lady should cover her tits up because the men have all got clothes on is not censorship. It’s an opinion.
Since games criticism began, it’s been fairly de rigeur to criticise the mechanical parts of games mercilessly. When people talk about games criticism, they probably think of someone talking about systems and control methods and responsiveness. This is largely because in the beginning, games couldn’t tell stories for shit. Now that games are becoming more likely to have real narrative clout, we are looking more at what message those narratives are sending. To one critic of Redshirt, for example, the sexual harassment her character received from NPCs, though making a salient satirical point, was without warning, and wasn’t preventable, and was distressing. The developer took this on board and made changes because she wanted that particular person to be able to engage with her art. Mitu didn’t have to change her game. She could have apologised for hurting someone, admitted that this was a problem with her game, and moved on. Instead she apologised and made an effort to engage that person, and to change her game in a way that Mitu herself agreed improved it. This wasn’t necessary, but it did make it more likely for more people to enjoy her work.
This is called iteration. This is common practice in video games. Before a game maker releases their game, they become a critic of their own work and they make changes as required. They also will use QA teams to garner feedback on bugs, new features, or narrative content. Sometimes, as Jim Rossignol did with Sir, You Are Being Hunted, the game is opened up before release into a closed community of prospective players so that people can be part of the QA process and provide feedback. This is also a great way to check the game is having the effect on players that you predicted or desired. Developers are used to having themselves and others criticise their work, and iterate until they are happy to put their game out in public. Since patches are allowed to be put into games post-release, games are iterated on even after developers have put their game in public. Again, this is very normal. There is absolutely nothing unusual about this at all. It is all just a critical conversation which a developer continually participates in, and enacts the changes they think are improvements.
It’s the creator’s choice whether they would like to have a particular type of person engage with their work. If they receive negative criticism, and decide they are okay with alienating a particular section of the market, they can release it as is. If they decide to change it, it is the creator iterating on the model they already made so that it can be consumed by the target audience. You might recognise this in Bioware’s choice to give Mass Effect 3 fans a different ending.
It’s the critic’s job to be the first line of public feedback. We give our subjective views on what is important to us. Most of the time, creators are really grateful that something they are so close to has had nuanced feedback, because when you have worked on something for years it is difficult to know what people might place significance on. Sometimes you didn’t even mean to offend people with something, and you’re glad you got the opportunity to address it. Proposed changes to The Stanley Parable’s art were part of a critical conversation, where the developer made an informed decision about something people interpreted as potentially racist. This wasn’t even something professional critics picked up on before release. Developer David Wreden told Polygon:
“It doesn’t make or break anything about that particular section, and we always wanted the game to be something that could be played by anyone of any age. If a person would feel less comfortable showing the game to their children then I’ve got no problem helping fix that! It’s really as simple as that.”
It is entirely up to an artist as to whether they read criticism written about their work – hence Hollywood actors continually saying they don’t like to read reviews – as well as whether they take criticism on board if they do read it. The best criticism can illuminate something about a work that speaks to a great many people, or highlights something about the work that was never addressed before. As Jenn Frank wrote in her nuanced and excellent piece On Consuming Media Responsibly:
‘In the end the best hope we have, as advocates of a medium, is to welcome and encourage critical analysis, even when it hurts. Becoming responsible consumers is our last best chance at imbuing our chosen, beloved art form—video games—with the meaning it deserves.’
Criticism is necessary. Criticism is worthy. It is part of creation. Iterate.