“You Played That?” Game Criticism Meets Games Studies

By David Thomas, Margaret Robertson, Jose Zagal, Ian Bogost, William Huber

This was GREAT, amazing to be at and write some stuff down. A lot is paraphrased, so be warned these are not direct quotes. There was some stuff on almost everything from journalism, to reviews, to criticism (and fan criticism) and plenty of other things. Academics no doubt won’t be leaping to do more criticism immediately, but dialogue on it is important.

William Huber

Read early on Canterbury Tales, the concordance with the text which was a piece of critical writing on the text with a detailed description of the situations of the cantos. Tenure-winning text, a life’s work.

This isn’t coming out of academia now for games, it’s coming from fan communities, wikis and online groups. Not going to say what game journalists businesses are, since that is in the ecosystem.

Critically informed walkthroughs and interpreted strategy guides by academia perhaps.

Ian Bogost

Gone back into understanding media after being called up to this talk. McLuhan’s words on the subject – are we a post Mc… media? Just make the assumption on the media, that you don’t have to worry about the content but the properties of the medium – the electric light altered the ability to act, the printing press and so forth.

There are newer texts on the potential on games in general, never on a specific game. Social science view is apply media-ecology inspired questions. McLuhan in Laws of Media on the theory of mediacology; the 4 laws – want to treat game studies ourself as a medium, pushing it to an extreme is criticism. In order to do that, the received idea about how to study media is somehow wrong, at least partly wrong, and that content does matter at least in part.

Jose Zagal

A statement: Videogame reviews are a valid form of game discourse.

(Supposedly) Game reviews don’t describe fun, say that you need to buy or not buy the game, or the worth or value of the game. I’m here to defend game reviews as important.

Margaret Robertson

Worked on and ran Edge, so worked on game reviews, wrote for broadsheets and other magazines and two line game reviews for newspapers. Working now on production and consultancy side.

Still doing a fair amount of commenting, usually on “are games causing all the ills of the western world?”.

Was once an academic, fled because wasn’t good enough – daunting and insulating too.

Held back on saying all game reviews were bad, just that many are bad – the standard of writing of thinking and critical discipline is incredibly low. The way of reviewing is doomed because of many reasons. If Ian can create a field of criticism, there can be a whole area with the criticism of game reviews.

For Edge, it was non-disposable and was highly affluent people brought it, and it was more reviewed not just to say “buy this game” – stuff thought perhaps before the internet came along. The main thing is making sure you know if it is a good decision to get them game for yourself.

If got an axe to grind is to better integrate the spectrum, and have a higher level of standard across the board. Crossbreed opera critics and sport critics to get the people with the skillset to do this. Would love to see these people talk together more, the journalists generally have zero knowledge on the academia and where it is at – not that they don’t want to or don’t look.

David Thomas

Writing for games 12, 14 years ago, moved onto game reviewing and there wasn’t anything to look at the time to get information on. There is no crossover, putting on and pulling off hat, so there are people exchanges but no information exchange.

More and more interested in game critics be the point. Did the videogame Style Guide as a simple guide, with spelling, but also an essay on criticism. No one wanted 20,000 words on anything – short and sweet.

Academia needs to also use 1 verb, 1 noun to say 1 thing! (no semicolons!)

There is a lot of cereal box reviews – a list of ingredients (from Matteo Bittanti). Same with academia.

Also goes into “Do you like it?” and some critics stop before then. The Ebert and Siskel show worked because you know your taste because it was consistent. Most game criticism stops here. They might be witty, but never asked the question “What does it mean?”

A big broad open question. Fallout 3 for instance, where reviews tell you what’s in it, the cool parts, the history, some great stories – but what does Fallout 3 mean? It’s set after the apocalypse – in Washington DC – a clear political part there. Morality thing where you choose a trade and stick to good and bad. Pick a good question. Players also want to know how to think about it.

Why one game is better then another – both answered by review and critical meaning. Can be down to features, or down to a great new way of doing something.

Games do have a vocabulary but we keep forgetting it – structural vocabulariy about technical things like graphics and gameplay is there, but games are fun – so need a ludic language. Hopefully a link between game and academia criticism.


Jose – There are other features in Edge (as example was available) which are not reviews but things like Time Extent – doesn’t have scores, but describes it.

Margaret – When I was editor I added that. Was to solve a very simple problem – that once a game was out a game got no more dialogue. People were saying it was totally upside down. Was to be more reflective but also be bigger picture stuff – what does it tell us about all games, other games? Poor games are in a bubble but no reference to – history, even other games! Most of the mag is still things which haven’t happened yet, 6 pages out of 160 page magazine. Would be great to have more articles like this.

Ian – Jose, starting with “game reviews suck?” – is it true? Or sturgeons law?

Jose – It is basically true, the analysis was more on the level of writing. To find out which games are important historically you first go to reviews. There is also historical perspective in those reviews.

William – Most of the tone is anticipatory – most academia writing is not…

Ian – It’s only critical theory.

William – Exactly. Thinking of popular writing in other media which occupy the middle position. Wire magazine for instance, which has historical sensibility in it and not aimed at general people. Musicality is not always about the up and coming and new technology or platform. Will it be possible to reach a plateau about the games being the next thing. If we get to a technological plateau then we can get to that level.

Ian – In academia we don’t look back. Usually there are historical perspectives in other fields that are not game studies. And that there are seemingly only 5 games, or it is perceived as World of Warcraft studies.

Thomas – The two worlds – evolving academia and game criticism.

Margaret – This is a key point. As a previously doing history, the game space is very small compared to, say, medieval history, which is amazingly small. Even though it is limited there are huge deserts of ignorance – some in awe of, but a lot of the time is doing game history 101, and plugging people into things that has already happened. How we break people into this, is hard. Can’t understand the academic papers even if being an academic (and talking to the people beforehand) – a real disconnect and language barrier. Searching for journalism online is finding minimum wage for maximum page size – and burn out after the first few years, leaving to get a proper job, or have families. It’s what I did – burn out early on, but also mainly to get a proper job.

Jose – To put a spin on that – who on the planet plays the most games? A game journalist! Game academics don’t play enough games. Don’t play enough games with a strong enough knowledge of how to play them. How do we do that to have the insights we want to get.

Ian – Well known that cinema critics do films studies to learn about it more, and some go on to make films. Academia is a first contact source like this, are we creating paths for people who want to do popular writing on it?

Margaret – Who is going to step in? the mainstream media? They do humanized and in depth pieces on tough subjects. Doing an interview about a professional subject on a mainstream radio show – it was bliss, with a broader audience and worthwhile discussions and research. Done a piece for Wired on social games – hopefully more then a IGN piece, or an Edge piece which is for Edge readers. Need more meticulous and researched, so perhaps other people need to step in.

Ian – The notion of the public intellectual – we have a responsibility to take this thing, this popular thing, to bring it out to people more broadly – a moral obligation in some sense. Speaking on the radio is different to writing a long thesis but perhaps as a jornalee not journalist. Much more core to the effort perhaps, if Universities are part of the public good and not just a corporation ending with a .EDU.

David – Open sessions at USC, where academics, the developers, and students are there to look at a game. An interesting model – it’s easy.

Ian – It’s also local, and Universities are public by law, and so open communications in general.


Q – Can you give some specific examples of a current piece that you like that does a good job of game criticism. If you don’t think there are any in game criticism, something close.

Jose – I like The Time Extends in Edge. Well Played: Prince of Persia, by Drew Davidson, and book he’s released.

Margaret – A few years ago now, Randy Smith was a judge on a game awards thing that was being reviewed. Got through 7, and burned out on Resident Evil 4 – then got a transcript from a video, where his friend played it, and discussions went to parts where they just couldn’t communicate! Game player and game designer, so discussions like “This thing is awesome!” “Why is it awesome???” “Because it is awesome!”. Sometimes you just have to respect the subjectivity of that.

Ian – More journalistic writing – Steven Poole, and Clive Thompson. Beetles Rock Band criticism recently, a cultural situation of it. Interesting seeing what people don’t come, even if they’re good.

William – Steven Poole is good, has a free book now. Yahtzee Croshaw also has some good parts – certainly critical, if not great critical writing. Pulls back from his own bad taste sometimes too interestingly. Part of New Games Journalism wanted to find more parts which are not just awesome but are compelling for other reasons.

Margaret – Fun, fun, wretched fun! Hard word to work with. Lots of people break down the word, but it’s interesting how some games have moved on from typical notions of fun, yet they are still engaging. Cactus did a presentation on Games That Hate You, such as I Wanna Be The Guy, that humiliate and crush and disturb you. Struggle to use the term fun – and also Shadow of the Colossus – just fundamentally bad, badly implemented and hollow and it wasn’t until the fullness of the effect and understanding the deliberate intentions of the control scheme, it was something else, but not fun.

Ian – Related to media generally – that things should be revealed immediately the entire actions. The amount of material you have to read to keep up is literally impossible.

Jose – When would you get rid of scores on reviews? How can you compare a really funny film and a really horrifying film if both are good?

Margaret – Don’t ditch the scores. Don’t have one rule for everything. I love reviews with meaningful scores. The whole point is scores are very abstract, 8 units out of 10, not 8 points out of 10. A whole load of time at Edge was spent understanding the games and what they set out to do and what to score it. Knowing what to think about something historically, is important.

Ian – Isn’t that why we have words?

Margaret – That is why we can use numbers as well as words! The discourse when it revolves around metacritic though is a problem. Massive problem when it dictates wages and production scores.

William – I’d miss the flaming over the review scores.

Q – Is there a place for evaluating the message?

Margaret – There is another question beyond that, what does the designer think the game say? The player has a subjective response, but another layer of intention behind it. All of it is fascinating.

David – When you choose a game, you intend that that game is . Covering Madden game in a review, without listing features got it returned from the editor wanting features listed.

Ian – Another point – we don’t have editors in academia.

Jose – We have peer review.

Ian – A great piece on peer review in the Conical (NB: Not sure of the name of this website/place/journal/whatever) recently. Peer review in academia is dead broken. More broken then editors.

David – Editors review only on the basis of what the readers want, and shovel through if the readers don’t care.

Margaret – Used to have the editor process for things on paper, but now paper effectively is free there isn’t the time and money. It’s a shame that it happens, and it is a case of the market not caring so why should we.

Q – Going back to Canterbury Tales, Annotated Alice of Wonderland gives you a full FAQ, the book and critical information. The interaction between the text itself and the criticism. This criticism for games doesn’t include the game. No releases of the game has releases with reviews or criticism pieces. No extra stuff ever released. What if they don’t have to care if the market doesn’t care and include it anyway?

Ian – Two things – there is a work that wants that, and the idea of doing the criticism and adding it in there.

Q asker – Why don’t we do both of them. Linking these things together.

Ian – Are GameFAQs and Concordance the same?

William – Not getting Tenure for GameFAQ’s while someone is for Concordance. Old more of criticism isn’t done anymore. Can’t get a career doing the criticism of one piece nowadays. Can’t sustain it anymore.

Q asker – 1960’s release for the book. Films are doing it for Directors if not for specific films.

Ian – Are there scholarly tracks?

Q asker – There are in films.

Margaret – I want to revise my critical choice – the commentary in Left 4 Dead, best design 101’s ever. We are moving towards reflecting more, while it isn’t bringing in outside sources yet. The NVA is also now going to videogame directors commentary to video it, or mainly audio it. Some level of nostalgia, although at some point is a level of historical record. NVA trying to real cradle to grave – pre-production to release to marketing to response to everything else. Starting to get that but not getting that until now.

David – There are fan concordances. Metroid Database for instance for any bit of information.

William – Fan scholarship is an entirely new and wide topic. Writers for GameFAQ’s were not always just fans of one game, but filled a gap.

Q – A Dutch perspective – working for a newspaper when starting a PHD, the critical culture is so much different. Criticism is shopping guide – 90% is 18/19 year olds – they faint at press conferences. Basically fanboy journalism. Biggest problem is trying to act like a journalist – you can’t get anything done in the industry – and an institutional problem – if you want to level as an academic 0 points for newspaper stuff. No readers, here is a question – small market, 60million people do you have any tips for other markets?

David – If academics write critical pieces and can get it out there to fans they are hungry for it. Just not being produced, in a digestible package.

Q asker – I don’t agree. If you are truly critical about something they become hostile.

David – That is also true. You might also be more then a fraud. So part is having a thick hide – forgetting to use level up points in Mass Effect ,so had a mia culpa retraction piece on a review. One thing Rock Music reviews were just “It’s awesome” – while as game reviews are better then that (a little). There is a market for it, write it in a journalistic way, and put it online someone will read it.

Q (Dan) – Problem with that is academics won’t get you research grading or reviews. Fighting playing games in academia! Hard to take the area seriously.

David – Need peer review and editing in a journal.

Ian – Criticism isn’t academic review and advancement, but it is not useless – it might not pay off right away, but will build reputation and softer stuff. Promotion and tenure stuff is summarized as “fit” – how awesome you are.

Q (Jasper Juul) – Edge was pretty hostile to academics previously, as an academic to make one thing accessible is writing books – takes a lot of time but is worth it, examples like Henry Jenkins – a story first then the theory after.

David – Love the competition. You want the book “You’ve read that guys book about Halo?”. Gamers do care.

Margaret – Lots of companies on their knees begging to get into this stuff, asking what they should read – although it should be “what should I play?” – but in any case since they are not making games, there needs to be more ones for that.

William – Steven Poole cam close, and works on Fa├žade. Without numbers you get a hostile response.

Margaret – One reason stopped writing was the amount of hate email. Writing now for a supportive community is much better. There is an issue there. The score thing is interesting because when running a magazine, if there is a rubbish month, with low scores, you get feedback that it was a rubbish magazine – but if it is a large amount of good games released, the interesting ones make people say “great job, firing the old guys”. Good reviews make them feel good, bad reviews make them feel bad. The game community can be hostile and knee jerk.

Jose – Academic has problems with the game industry too, like game magazines.

Audience member – Kotaku did blackball Sony on this.

Audience member 2 – But they are *big*.

Jose – Someone did a little story (might have been lying) about getting reviews from the publishers which are copy edited then put in the magazine.

Audience member – There is the Gamespot thing, the independence issue, editor independence and so forth. Even the readers might not trust the reviews.

Margaret – Also coupled closely with advertising, and metacritic. There are both ways Gamespot advertising had the ordering advertising from them, or they’d cut the pre-orders on their site.

Ian – Those people don’t deserve the name journalists now.

Margaret – I know no one meddled with my editorial decisions, and equally you had issues when you rate someone a 3 and have to walk in and meet them the next day. Even with no commercial pressure it is a very nerving process.

Ian – Some large majority we are referring to game journalism is game writing not game journalism.

One thought on ““You Played That?” Game Criticism Meets Games Studies”

  1. this is fabulous stuff and definitely what I have been trying to do. Close-reading games like I was trained to read literature and films. Except no one will give me any money to do a postdoc in this country.
    Well, the established academics are beginning to do this so that’s at least heartening.

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