Video Games and the New Criticism
There are certain phases that many new media go through in the public sphere, particularly those with an entertainment or narrative edge. In the case of video games, their perception is much like the the medium of film. Public perception of video games has gone from passed off as merely entertainment, to being derided for their violence and it’s impact on society, to gradual recognition of its artistic merit as an art form. With scholarly criticism is just beginning to bubble up, I look forward to seeing branches of media departments and scholarly journals dedicated to video games.
Unlike film however, with its swath of broad appeal, gaming is still a niche market. Though the wii console, mobile gaming, and other innovations introduced the concept of casual gaming, broadening gaming’s mass appeal, the industry has begun to recede from this model. Nintendo still struggles to to sell their new wii U console, pumping out as many Mario games as possible (one of the easiest and mass appealing games franchises out there.) Rock Band and Guitar Hero were huge half a decade ago, likely due again to broad appeal of jamming in your living room. Nary anyone remembers or talks about those games anymore, leaving them unfortunately to be a novelty relic of the past.
It’s this return to niche market status that I suspect causes gaming criticism to suffer. There just aren’t as many people to talk about video games in particularly nuanced ways. Perhaps that’s a touch too simplistic, but it’s a suspicion of mine. As my dear old friend Alexius noted once to me, gaming criticism is more like tech reviews than anything else. It’s all about how they function as a piece of software. Look to IGN for their reviews which often segment out various elements of gameplay and how they evaluate them individually.
But on the other end, video game criticism is hampered by those emphasizing narrative over anything else. Armchair critics look only to the story of video games to analyze. While narratives can be a huge part of the overall theme and structure of video games, they ultimately review video games as films, ignoring the participatory aspect of video games central to the medium. Video games are a experiential medium, and its this area of interactivity where gaming criticism is desperately needed.
Add to this the problem of game critic payola. Also add the widening gap between homogeneous big title games (FPS, anyone?) and the sprawl of indie projects to leave no middle ground for projects to work on. It all coalesces into an era of growing pains for video games. Hopefully a new vision of gaming criticism will soon rise critiquing the whole experience of a game, rather than relying only the tropes of tech and film criticism.