The State of Games Criticism

We all seem to know that there is more to the aesthetic value of a game than the technology used to create it, or its overplayed story about space marines, but we seem to be increasingly bad at articulating what that value actually is. We can do better.

[originally published by Cerebral Arcade]

The game industry has been undoubtably shifting and maturing, and the last few years seem to have brought huge leaps in those directions. Film had been around long before it matured into movies, and even longer until those movies started thinking of themselves as anything more than entertainment for the masses. We are witnessing this shift in games right now, and even more remarkably, it comes at a time when the Web allows for a revolution in self-publishing. Anyone can write about anything. Anyone can find an audience. And yet, games have been lacking a criticality in the literature surrounding them that is only now starting to change.

The vast majority of games criticism (and journalism) is designed to help markets determine whether they want to buy a game. Major review outlets rattle off numerical scores to convince consumers that a game is or is not worth buying—an insidious kind of marketing for which game publishers will pay handsomely. These reviews focus on arbitrary categories, grading a game as they would a high school term paper: -2 for using last year’s physics engine, -1 for an awkward camera placement. Often the categories don’t reflect the things that gamers actually care about. If we ever want to eschew the games-are-for-adolescents image, maybe we should stop subconsciously grading them through the only metrics adolescents know. We’re adults now. We can do better.

The State of Game Aesthetics

We all seem to know that there is more to the aesthetic value of a game than the technology used to create it, or its overplayed story about space marines, but we seem to be increasingly bad at articulating what that value actually is. Games used to just be about fun, so it was easy to say that a game was fun or it wasn’t. But games are aiming for more artistic validation now, and the pleasure experience hasn’t always been “fun” anyway. World of Warcraft, for example, relies on the pleasure experience of pride in a job well done—you work really hard at grinding so that you get a reward that you can show off as a kind of status symbol; it’s hardly fun, even if it is pleasurable in the way mowing the lawn is pleasurable once you’re done.

Perhaps because of the serious investments of both time and money required to play a AAA title, the entire review system seems to revolve around an anxiety over whether a game is worth that investment.

When we talk about games, we talk about:

Genre: a categorization tool that exists solely as a marketing device to steer consumers toward the correct expectation of what they will get in a given product. For books and movies this is the narrative content and structure. For music its formal structures and instrumentation. For games, it’s mechanics.

Technology: Again, this is a category designed to curb the expectations of the masses. We’re finally beginning to see the end of real-is-always-better mentalities, slavish to high polygon counts and more reflective water. For some reason though, we still feel the need to include the engine in which games are made in our reviews. In a movie review, what camera you use for a given shot is only important in how that technology impacts the aesthetics of the shot.  Rather than commenting on how developing in Unity probably contributed to a game’s lighting setup, we only seem to care about whether the tools used were the top-of-the-line.

Gameplay: By which we mean “Are the mechanics good enough to hold my attention for the duration of the game?”  Things like “feel” factor in here, and too often it’s only in relation to real-world physics. The feel of a game takes designers a long time and a lot of fine tuning to get right. They probably had a reason. Why don’t we analyze these things? We talk about the gameplay in terms of “was it engaging?” but why not ask instead “How are the mechanics contributing to the politics and message of the work? Who has power? What are the underlying assumptions?”

Narrative: Perhaps due to its ties to film and other storytelling media, the reviews of narrative, though still usually written in the non-spoilery “it’s worth playing” tone, do at least engage some deeper issues. People picked up on Bioshock’s narrative connection to literature and philosophy, even if they did have to provide a reading list to get people on board. But narrative critique could be better too. Where are the close readings, a central pillar of literary criticism? Why should these all be confined to academic journals and conferences? Where are the analyses that move beyond a didactic look at what a game “is trying to say?”

Representation: One of the most increasingly-academic branches of mainstream games criticism, I must say that I am so happy to see some deeper analysis going on in this area. Games have been horrible at representation for a long time and that is finally starting to change in response to these brave pioneers.  But it could still be better. We now see some critics throwing around every “-ism” under the sun without analyzing in any great depth, especially in relation to mechanics or satire, and many things that we call satirical are not good satire. Likewise many things that we call sexist—I’m looking at you, Lara Croft—are much more complicated than “it’s rapey” or “she’s naked” and deserve real criticism*. That is they deserve a nuanced approach that considers multiple angles and points of view, otherwise we’re just doing a disservice to our cause. Without good criticism, it doesn’t matter how right we may be, our opponents will never listen if our arguments are not well-supported and we don’t offer alternatives.

*What then is “real criticism?” I’m not interested in perpetuating every critical tradition of the academy, even if I do believe there is much to be learned from them. By “real criticism,” I mean that we engage fairly with difficult issues, that we consider multiple points of view, that we look not just at a perspective or an argument, but beyond it to what assumptions are made, whose power is subverted, and whose stories are told. Most importantly, that we all–myself included–challenge our beliefs. We stop learning the moment we presume to know something.

After the season premiere of Girls, there were interesting and insightful readings of the show from several critics almost immediately. None of them were written as marketing stand-ins, but all of them had the effect of making me want to watch Girls to see if I would read the shot composition, character development, and dialogue the same way the critics had. I wanted to be involved in the process, even without anyone giving the episode a 9/10.

So this is where we are. Now it’s time to dive in and do the work. There are brilliant people already making steps in the right direction.

I can’t wait to join the conversation.

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