Any creative system is populated primarily by three kinds of people: creators, critics, and consumers. Creators create, critics critique, and consumers consume.
Out of these three, critics get the most bad press. Where creators produce works and consumers view those works, critics occupy an awkward space in-between. Critics are not quite creators and not quite consumers, but rather a mixture of both; they create work, but said work isn't art and it isn't quite consumer feedback. This work is vital to the healthiness of a creative medium, but often goes unappreciated.
Naturally, this goes doubly so for game critics.
Types of Critique
It's important to separate out the types of critique when discussing criticism. There are three kinds of critique:
- Consumer criticism. This sort of critique focuses on price, time spent, and other consumer-related concerns. "Is this worth your money?"
- Surface-level criticism. This sort of critique focuses on basic critical concerns. "Is this fun?"
- Deep-level criticism. This sort of critique focuses on more careful examination, and often places something in a greater cultural context. "Why is this fun?"
Anybody can do consumer criticism, as it is by definition something a consumer can do. "Is this worth my money?" is a question every consumer asks whenever they purchase a game. As such, it's the weakest level of criticism. It doesn't require any sort of investigation, self-awareness, or critical thought. This is the majority of criticism you see from user reviews and some game-related outlets.
By comparison, surface-level criticism requires at least a small amount of self-awareness. You need to recognize that you are finding a game fun and the basics as to why you feel that way. Maybe it's pretty, maybe it hits the right buttons, maybe it's inexplicable; all you are looking for is basic attributes about a game's quality. Professional game reviews by and large fall under this category.
Once you reach deep-level criticism, you've begun to really understand how critical thought works. You understand the psychological manipulation behind design decisions and can point it out, and you often engage in deeper cultural discussion regarding games, such as talking about allegory or cultural context (such as sexism). This is the ideal all critics should strive for, and there are several great game critics that fall into this category.
Why Critics Are Important
You don't truly need critics in order to be a creative medium. Critics are optional, even if they are heavily recommended. Creatives can make their work and sell it to consumers without a single critic being involved, and there are plenty of creative mediums that do exactly that.
However, critics are important for a healthy medium. Without critics, creatives often lack the more detailed feedback that helps them improve and grow. Without critics, consumers won't have an understanding of the larger cultural context of the works they enjoy. Critics are best described as informers: they provide information to both creatives and consumers that improves the medium as a whole (hopefully, of course). Without critics, you end up with a medium with no self-awareness and no real progress.
This is why the bandied-about notion that critics are meaningless is foolish. You need critics that understand the medium, that rub elbows with creatives, and that interface directly with people. Otherwise you end up with a stagnant medium that refuses to grow and change. The vast majority of consumers are not critically aware, and they don't need to be. Everybody has something they want to focus their mental energies on, and that's perfectly okay. You can't expect the average person to care about the cultural context of Super Mario Galaxy, much less the entire medium as a whole.
A healthy relationship between developers and critics is not conspiracy or corruption. It is necessary for the continued progress of the medium, and that's why so many prominent older developers stand in support of critics against detractors that seek to silence them.
One of the most prevalent - and toxic - notions that springs unbidden from the consumer base is that critics should be "objective."
Part of being a critic is understanding, and to some extent magnifying, your personal biases. Critique is an inherently subjective way to approach media; there are no truths in art, after all. This notion that critics should be objective, or that a "biased review" is inherently a bad thing, belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how critique works. You don't aim to be objective. You aim to be reasonable and logical.
This is perhaps the most important part of being a critic. If a reader disagrees with you and they understood the logic behind the critique, that's fine. They obviously have a different opinion and that's a-ok. If a reader disagrees with you and they didn't understand the logic, that's either a failing on your part (you didn't explain it well enough) or on the reader's part (they don't have an open enough mind).
Logic is the only master a critic truly has. Not the cold, unfeeling logic of science, but the passionate, emphatic, emotional logic of art. People should understand why you feel a certain way, and you should be able to explain it to them.
I am not your mouthpiece.
This is the basic principle of being a critic. Your dedication is to the medium, not the audience. As such, you should not reflect the opinions of your audience, but rather your own opinions and biases. Often these align, and that's a good thing; every consumer should seek out a critic that speaks to them and echoes their viewpoint. However, critics are not obligated to fall in line with the general consumer consensus, because that's tantamount to censorship. Never hold yourself back because you're afraid of your audience.
Unfortunately, being an honest critic is often the path to poverty and humiliation, especially if you have a particularly controversial view of the world. If you examine games through a feminist lens, prepare to be hounded by hordes of people baying for blood. If you engage in deeper intellectual discussion about the mechanics of a game, prepare to be called an "intellectual" or "academic" as though they were slurs.
This isn't to say that the audience isn't important. They are. They just happen to be less important than the guiding principle of good criticism: speak your personal truth, and explain why it is true to you. If somebody ever tells you to fall in line or you will be punished for not following the general consensus, feel free to tell them off. They have no interest in engaging in genuine critical debate; they only want to see their viewpoint be the majority, their biases control the medium. There is nothing more harmful to healthy critical discourse than changing yourself to fit an audience that doesn't truly care about you.
Being a Critic
I've been a game critic for the better part of seven years now. I've covered countless indie and mainstream games for a variety of outlets, been invited to judge the IGF, and have even acted as manager and writing mentor for a number of people wanting to break into writing about games. While I'm tired of struggling to make ends meet, I can't say I'd do anything differently; I love games and I love dissecting and analyzing them. I learned through experience.
This is how you become a critic. Don't seek out a big site, don't appeal to the masses, and don't think "well, I need to find a mentor in order to become a critic." You become a critic by critiquing - hopefully deep-level critiques - and putting it out there for people to see. As you grow and mature, both as a person and critic, your biases will change and your viewpoints will shift and you'll gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the medium.
Being a critic is a thankless job that often ends in abject poverty, but it's also rewarding like nothing else. Be the critic you want to see in gaming, and speak the truth as you understand it.
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