So this was a really quite interesting essay (which I’ve come to quite late) by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon about music criticism, and I think it has interesting stuff to say to games criticism too. I’m thinking here about that piece by Anthony Burch recently that was very much a case of him retroactively rejecting much of his previous work as a game critic in light of his newly gleaned experiences as a game developer.
After reading this essay, what I feel like the really interesting point Burch could have approached was something like what Parker and Croggon get at – the fact that a lot of what passes for criticism at the moment really is just “human reactions” and this kind of adjective salad that results from this approach:
rather than confront the possible meaning or significance of the artist’s choice of sample (whether or not they know exactly what is being sampled) and address how that might impact our understanding of and relationship with the work, we get a flurry of adjectives. The music is “romantic,” “mesmerizing,” “intense,” and the unknown orchestral sample is an opening onto something “personal and momentous.”
It’s the “feelpinion” version of criticism – and though it sounds a bit pejorative, like the authors of the piece I’m uninterested in shutting this type of work down. It’s great and important and even awesome – it should not go away – it’s also not quite sufficient for a really well developed critical perspective. The conclusion that Parker and Corggon reach is that it takes real work to develop that insight and expertise, and I think the error that Burch made was thinking that it took literal work – making games. He was really quite horrified at how dismissive he had been as a games journalist and how much he underestimated the work that went into even seemingly small issues.
But how the sausage is made is not always important, or even relevant. Just like how we wouldn’t really care about whether the musician inserted the sample with Logic or Ableton – that’s not the important detail to focus on, and it’s actually fairly telling that the games industry (as embodied, partially, by Burch) still cares a great deal more about how the “sample” is inserted than what that sample says or its history and place within a larger history and trajectory of games/music/etc.
But I also don’t know what forms of knowledge and experience, exactly, about games (or about players? game culture? developer culture? all of these things?) is important for a critic. I’ve read some really fucking great pieces that do design analyses and intensely detailed breakdowns of certain game mechanics that go nowhere near the development process, but which do really, really illuminating work to get closer to the heart of the game-object without obsessing over the utterly boring (yet downright impressive) technology. I’ve also attempted my own Latourian thick description style analysis with limited success. Frankly, I mostly couldn’t care less about how a game is made, unless it’s under conditions of exploitation.
The necessary caveat, of course, is that design thinking goes into the development process (or should) and that might be worth knowing about, but again that’s not the same as letting your knowledge of the very human, and very sympathisable, difficulty of just making games dull your critical faculties. Yes, making games is hard, but if you don’t like the conditions, change them, or do something else.