We Need More Sustained Criticism of Individual Games

The following post considers the current state of games criticism and argues for increased ludic and narrative analysis of individual texts.

It seems like ludic academics are not entirely amicable to scholarly inquiry into a single text. Browsing through the most recent volumes of Eludamos, Game Studies, Loading (SFU), and Games and Culture, only a handful of articles will focus on sustained analysis about an individual title, and those that do use individual titles often do so as a case study to prove the merit of a theoretical framework posited in the same article rather than as catalyst for sustained analysis of the text itself.

While I understand the reasoning behind this - discussing concepts is, after all, a far more edifying and - honestly - fun endeavor than sustained inquiry into an individual text, I find the relative lack of single text analysis to be disheartening. At times, sustained scholarly inquiry into a single text can shed light not only on the meaning of the text, but about the role of the text and of media as a whole in society and might help reshape the way in which we talk about genres as a whole.

Why do I make this assertion?

I will admit my own biases. I was trained in literary criticism. When one looks at literary criticism, some of the best criticism revolves around sustained inquiry into a single work - sometimes into a single unit of a text. Criticism is both an art unto itself and a catalyst for the improvement of the art which is the object of criticism. This is something that has been suggested by the likes of Aristotle, Wilde,  and Bloom. Arguably, criticism has encouraged the growth, development, and diversification of literary forms.

The same is true of film criticism. Whether it's mainstream critics such as James Agee, Joel Siegel, and Roger Ebert,  or academic critics like Jean-Luc Godard, Kristin Thompson, and Sergei Eisenstein, their commentaries on film and cinematography have pushed the medium beyond what it was originally capable of and into its current form. Certainly, further criticism will encourage film makers to push the boundaries of the medium even further. This trend can be observed in nearly any field in which a critic engages with an object. Whether it's Jeffrey Steingarten's eloquent commentary on culinary constructions or Kalefa Sanneh's criticism of music and music culture, the critic's engagement with an individual work or an individual element of the culture inevitably lead to tangible impact and the embetterment of art. Gaming, however, has very little sustained single-object criticism, and what little exists, despite being enjoyed by video game fans, is often dismissed or ignored by scholars and designers alike.

I have previously argued, perhaps clumsily, for the application of literary theory to individual video game texts. This was an early attempt at demonstrating longer, theoretically-based criticism of single video game texts. In addition to my own early work, there have been a series of books that critically consider gaming series as part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, an excellent reading of Spec Ops: The Line by Brendan Keough, and, as previously mentioned, a handful of articles analyzing concepts like linguistic conventions in Final Fantasy VII and the configurations of Lara Croft's design and her role as icon. However, again, this form of criticism is rare in academic publications.

Certainly, there are less formal venues currently delivering sustained analysis of single video game texts. Matthew Patrick's Game Theory series at times offers commentary that illuminates certain aspects of the games discussed and raises interesting questions about specific titles; his commentary on Chrono Trigger and the Bible and Final Fantasy and Religion are specially interesting. Likewise, in his series titled Errant Signal, Chris Franklyn engages in sustained criticism of individual game texts. However, series like these are few and far between and rarely considered as worthwhile criticism by anyone in the academe or the industry.

A common argument against sustained criticism of individual works is that video games are by nature different than film or books. Certainly, the ergodic nature of video games differentiate them from any previously existing form of media. However, this should not disqualify the need for sustained criticism. If the key difference between previous form of media and video games is that video games allow players to become active participants in the text, then perhaps it is prudent that if one is to engage in criticism of games, one might focus on the analysis of what makes them unique - play - rather than more traditional textual elements.

Indeed, there has been some sustained inquiry into the ludic principles of individual games, often by the same group of content creators who have commented on narrative and aesthetics of individual games. However, again, these comments are eschewed by the academic and professional communities on favor of broader, multi-textual analyses. It may indeed be time to change this.

There are currently a number of frameworks that we can use to understand the ludic dimension of games. Espen Aarseth famously suggested in his 1997 book Cybertext a model for understanding video games as ergodic texts. Since then, scholars like Jesper Juul, Frans Mayra, Ian Bogost, and Astrid Ensslin have suggested various theoretical frameworks to understand the ludic dimension of games. However, their frameworks remain largely unused. The number of procedural, cybertextual, or ludic readings of individual games is minuscule even when compared to the already small number of works that engage in sustained analysis of specific video games, with one of the more salient ones being Todd Harper's procedural reading of Persona 3.

More criticism of individual gaming works is warranted. The lack of a video game equivalent of Roger Ebert is often lamented. While the gaming intelligentsia continues to discourage or ignore sustained academic criticism of individual works, this lack of a gaming Ebert will continue to be evident. Indeed, criticism of individual works might lead to the improvement of the industry and of gaming criticism itself. With even the best of current criticism focusing on broad sets of games, discourse surrounding games and gaming strays from being a conversation about games and how they explore issues and topics into being conversations about something else entirely. In the end, sustained inquiry into the composition of individual game texts, I think, will help both criticism and development grow. By engaging with individual works, critics will gain new approaches for discussing a game's units, and by reading analytical and academic criticism of their own works, designers might be able to improve their craft.

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