Just yesterday I blogged that Patrick Dugan had provided a very insightful critique/analysis of the game Ayiti: The Cost of Life, and I complained that it was "a shame more games are not reviewed or critiqued with such insight".
No matter how absurdist the public response to Bully might seem to those deeply immersed in video game culture, the game community’s own responses are framed almost entirely within the language and issues of that public debate. Nowhere do game reviewers, players, journalists, or developers discuss the game’s meaning on its own terms—neither in praise nor riposte. We can understand this state of affairs through the lens of “seriousness.” On the one hand, the public detractors of Bully do take the game seriously, as a threat and a danger but not as a cultural artifact. The video game community, on the other hand, does not take the game seriously at all. It is allowing the legislators and attorneys and media watchdogs define the terms of the debate.
Now, I'm far from being the first to lament the sorry state of game criticism, but this pretty much nails it on the head. In my opinion, there are three main reasons the industry needs to develop and nurture a stronger community around game criticism and analysis.
Reason One: Protection
The first is that such critical analysis ultimately protects us from censorship. It is much harder for a small vocal group of center-leaning democrats to steal away the much needed 2% of the vote by preying on conservative fears about a misunderstood medium when they need to argue their case in face of a huge body of work from professional critics who in fact analyze all of the things these censors claim games do not afford the public. The cry that games are violent and have no redeeming qualities starts to look mighty far-fetched in face of fifty or a hundred thousand pages of critical analysis of those very qualities.
Without that critical analysis, the defence of, 'no there is something meaningful behind all the explicit violence' admittedly looks equally far-fetched. The argument becomes subjective and the Last Defense imparted by First Amendment protection becomes the only defence. It's a pretty strong defence, but anyone who knows fuck-all about games should know that this is not a good strategy. As much or more than anyone, we should know better.
Aside on First Amendment protection - while the US Constitution and First Amendment protection technically only has relevance to Americans, there is a functional dependence on US rulings relating to this issue that impacts the entire North American and European game industry (and to a lesser extent the Asian industry). If the sale of games is restricted in the US, it hits the bottom line of the entire industry very hard. Publishers who hope to sell 50% of their titles to a US market will make different decisions about the kinds of games they make if that market is heavily restricted. So while the rest of us technically can't do anything to impact US court decisions, we can contribute to the critical discussion that could ultimately create the insurmoutable barrier between a few desperate but vocal politicians and their crackpot lawyers, and the US Supreme Court.
Reason Two: Ownership
As Bogost points out, our responses to attacks on a game like Bully - indeed, even our simple reviews of it, are increasingly 'framed in the language and issues of the public debate'. Shouldn't it be the other way around? After all, we're the 'experts' here. We're getting sucked into arguments about what games ultimately mean by people who are functionally illiterate in the medium. It is exactly the same as if people who were illiterate (as in couldn't read) were trying to have certain books censored, and we were arguing with them on their own terms - again, claiming First Amendment protection and trying to assure them they are wrong. We shouldn't even have to listen to such people - never mind fight them on their own terms. If the body of critical and analytical material were of the depth and breadth it should be, then our illiterate challengers would be easily revealed as such. Additionally, in the cases where legitimate challengers brought forth legitimate concerns, the debate of such issues would be less subjective, less hysterical, and more compellingly argued with the assistance of critics who indeed know what they are talking about.
Now I'm not claiming we should take ownership of game criticism and analysis so that we can't be criticised. On the contrary - taking ownership of criticism and analysis greatly increases the depth and complexity of criticism, and forces us as game developers to make better games that have something to say. As Bogost points out, Bully in many ways fails to really provide a strongly compelling look at the difficult life of a teenage boy with weak social skills (I'm paraphrasing him - I haven't played it yet). Imagine if we were criticising the implementation of that design, rather than the existence of it? By taking ownership of the dialogue of critical analysis we light a fire under our own asses to make games that do provide important, meaningful, and entertaining perspectives on important things. Diffusing the capability of a bunch of wingnuts to argue with us over what we should be allowed to do is only a side benefit.
Reason Three: Feedback
As I mention above, critical analysis of our games improves our ability to make games. Of the 70 or so online reviews of Chaos Theory linked off of Game Rankings, I have read every single one of them. Additionally, I have read a dozen or more print reviews. Sadly, only about three or four of them even offered a single sentence of meaningful critical anaylsis. Admittedly, these are reviews not critical analysis, and they are intended as such. For the most part, the quality of reviews in the game industry is not too bad; but reviewing and providing critical analysis are two different things.
The point remains, that having worked as the creative lead on one of the most visible titles on the market, I was simply unable to find a range of critical analysis that helped me learn about how successfully the meaning I designed into the game resonated with its audience. It was a year later before I read one single meaningful piece of analysis on the game that was presented publicly, and boy was I happy to see it - and that was only a couple paragraphs about one tiny little element of the game. It's true that I occasionally find a student thesis in some dark corner of the internet, or I am sent an essay, or other peice of critical analysis that looks at certain aspects of my work, but this is excruciatingly rare.
On the other hand, I have had scores of meaningful conversations with friends and other developers about my games. I have learned a lot from them. But there is a painfully obvious bias in critical discussion undertaken with ones friends and colleagues. I would pay a thousand dollars cash to overhear two developers who played the shit out of my game tear it apart over beers in a bar. I am reasonably confident that I would make that thousand back ten times over with what I would learn from such an event.
So - there you go. We need more and better critical analysis of games - of individual games and of games as a medium. Sadly, even though I would love to take the time to write up my thoughts on any of a dozen games I've played this year, I just don't have the time. In fact, I don't even have the ability. There is an entire field there, and virutally no one is working in it. I try my best to help develop a design vocabulary which is useful for designers, and will hopefully - by extension - be useful to critics. It takes me literally hundreds of hours of my limited free time to come up with, research, write and present a tiny portion of this material in a formal way that is ready for other designers or critics to learn from, challenge and maybe even apply. It's all linked over on the right - take it - it's free.
I know there are other people working on this problem, and in fact - thankfully - the number of people working on this problem is growing. I suppose it is a problem that is being solved, but in my mind, the sooner we - as developers - start getting inundated with this stuff the better.
While Bogost's critical analysis of Bully is excellent and insightful - it is only partly that. It is also a critical analysis of the lame state of critical analysis of games. It's too bad he has to waste half his words chastizing us. InterestingLY though - it is the very fact that he has wasted those words, and that I have wasted this entire post on this topic that makes the point most compelling. We are this close to having an explosion in the field of game critical analysis. When Bogost doesn't have to spend half his time lamenting, and I don't have to spend five times as many words reiterating - when there does exist a small but noticable and steady stream of this kind of media analysis, all these wasted words will disappear and be replaced with more criticism and analysis. Bogost and myself and dozens of others will shift from complaining about not having the analysis to actually providing it. It's a tipping point. Once we reach it the slow linear growth of this kind of material that we see now will shift into a period of exponential growth, and we'll have arrived.
The sooner the better.