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Game critics: Are you experienced?

Gene Park's picture

Street Fighter II - Stephen Totilo's nemesis

Two articles (linked to below) touch on the subject of experience behind a game critic. The most recent example is MTV's Stephen Totilo not being adept at basic moves for Street Fighter II, a heralded and historically important game series.

As video games mature, so does its criticism. Totilo and N'Gai Croal (also linked below) bring a certain air of legitimacy in the mainstream media that many other writers in the industry lack.

However to maintain a level of balance and fairness, a critic needs to be very well rounded.

Doing a hurricane kick in Street Fighter is as basic for a gamer as what a film lover would do in citing a movie like Annie Hall or Citizen Kane.

Sure a gamer need not necessarily need to grow up in that era, or be heavily involved in the culture.

But imagine if a movie critic knew nothing of Annie Hall? Or Raging Bull? Imagine a videogame critic not even knowing how to do the most basic move in fighting games?
As long as the critic is forthcoming about it, I don't think any credibility would be lost.

However, and more importantly, I would know who to trust less.

GameCritics.com writer David Stone brought up the issue of video games requiring active participation, and cited Roger Ebert's limited filmmaking skills, or the lack of pro player experience from most sports broadcasters.

The examples he cites are true, but most critics or commentators are required to have a certain requisite amount of knowledge in their field. A young woman was just hired to be the weather anchor for a major TV news outlet in Hawaii. I don't know her well enough yet, but I don't believe she has a deep background in meteorology.

However I'm sure she'll be undergoing a crash course if she hasn't already. She'll have to learn the difference between a flash flood watch and a flash flood warning.

This brings me to another question: What exactly is the "requisite" experience for a game critic? How steeped in knowledge should he/she be?

For game criticism to break through the mainstream while maintaining credibility with its core audience, a critic or columnist must be well versed in all genres. Specifically for something like fighting games, Street Fighter II would be a must.

And why not try out some of the more rudimentary moves for that game? Is there no desire to learn? Where is the sense of discovery in mining a hobby's past? Are archaic graphics and gameplay systems that much of a barrier in a critic's responsibility to experience and taste all there could be? A music critic would never bookend his experience with his first album to his last. A proper critic would reach into decades of rich history, to obtain a larger understanding of the industry as well as context.

Sure games are a far greater timesink than an LP or Blu-Ray disc. But the games industry is working hard for mainstream legitimacy. Game critics, in turn, should work that much harder.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PS2  
Genre(s): Fighting  
Articles: Editorials  

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links?

Where are these links of which you speak?

Well said

Great blog, Gene. Hope we see more of these.

I think the one thing that hasn't been answered is the one question you posed. What are Totilo's credentials? What games has he completed? I didn't even hear about him at all until last year, when MTV started to get serious about having a gaming blog.

I still say we shouldn't judge Totilo until we know these answers. And I still stand by the idea that gaming is both skill and art, and having the theoretical knowledge of a skill doesn't automatically mean it can be performed. Just ask any practicing musician.

If, on the other hand, Totilo didn't even realize that Ryu could throw a fireball, then sure. That's bad.

Thought-provoking.

Hi, Gene,

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

I love video games. With lots of time and practice, I've completed lots of them. With even more time and practice, I can get gold medal rankings (in Shadow of Rome, for instance). However, I'm not good at them.

Enthusiasm and perseverance serve me better in some game genres than in others, especially games that are slower-paced and full of text. That doesn't mean I don't like, play, and complete fast-paced action games, or other kinds of games in general--just that a turn-based RPG fits very well with the set of skills I have.

For some reason, fighting games and first-person shooters fit that skillset especially poorly. So, like Totilo, I can't do a hurricane kick on purpose. Getting "better" at fighting games for me usually means doing good things without meaning to, but more and more often--in Street Fighter II, I've gotten pretty good at accidentally throwing people. In Mortal Kombat, which I have more experience with, I keep getting better at accidentally throwing projectiles. I've made the mistake of reviewing a couple of fighting games (one after the other), and won't make it again any time soon.

That said, I do believe that anyone who writes about games should always be learning about them, whether that's by playing games outside your comfort zone, educating yourself about something you don't know much about, etc.

So, to expand on your film critic analogy, I don't mind if a film critic hasn't seen Annie Hall or Raging Bull or (in keeping with the kinds of movies I used to review) Halloween. But if they feel like they don't even have to see those movies (i.e. have no drive to improve their knowledge whatsoever), then I'd have a problem.

Agree with Tera.

The question I have is: Does he not know how to pull off such a move, or can he just not do it reliably? Lord knows I still can't pull off a dragon punch reliably, but I know Street Fighter well enough to comment on it.

To illustrate your point

To illustrate your point Gene, Street Fighter-style games are based on the perception of martial arts created from Enter the Dragon and Blood Sport. With the current rise in prominance of MMA and UFC, the very definition of martial arts is changing and as I tried to point out in my review of Virtua Fighter 4, fighting games have failed to evolve with reality of what a fighting has become. Its our role as critics to point out these discrepancies, otherwise, the medium as a whole ends up looking silly to the rest of the world and we become limited like comic books. So yes, critics do need work harder.

Extreme standards

To demand that game critics should be "well versed in all genres" seems rather extreme. Most reviewers (regardless of whether they're working for mainstream magazines or niche websites) have more than one genre of expertise, and at the very least also have some superficial knowledge about most types of games available. But why would their writing improve significantly - and also be of greater interest to the general public and/or more well-established critics - if they were demanded by their editors to acquire extensive knowledge about ALL genres? It's unclear to me exactly why, to take just one example, a critic primarily reviewing Japanese RPGs need to know anything at all about, say, American flight sims...

Indeed, if gaining credibility within the mainstream is what you want it would probably be a much better idea to spend less time with games and more time learning about so-called "high culture" and conventional art and then write about gaming in a wider context; much like film critics like to discuss the implicit political "message" of a particular movie. For example, if you're able to write a piece on "Xenosaga: Der Wille zur Macht" which simultaneously reviews the game mechanics and discusses the impact of Friederich Nietzsche's philosophy on popular culture, this would surely boost your credibility far more in the eyes of mainstream critics than being able to boast about how many different types of video games you've played.

Also, the analogy with other forms of criticism doesn't hold up to scrutiny. It may well be true that most film critics have seen "Annie Hall", but presumably just having seen a particular movie a few times and written a review about it isn't enough to make you "well versed in the genre" as a whole. While it's probably easier to know more movies genres intimately than it is to know a lot about different game genres (simply because a game can take 20-50 hours to complete while a movie is usually over in less than 2-3 hours), I nevertheless have a hard time imagining that there are that many film critics out there who can write equally trenchant articles on, say, Woody Allen comedies, film noir, French New Wave, Danish Dogma, Italian Neorealism, Communist Era Eastern European filmmaking and so forth (it's not uncommon to read articles in which film critics admit that they've missed quite a few great movies that they feel they're "supposed" to have seen).

And if not even critics working with more established art forms are likely to ever live up to such demanding standards, then why should game critics be expected to do so? Why isn't in-depth knowledge about the particular games/genres being reviewed combined with an obvious talent for writing enough to make a game critic worth taking seriously?

Full disclosure: I've been playing games for 20 years (mainly FPSs, RPGs, RTSs, action adventures and platforming titles) and never ever performed a hurricane kick. Does that make me less of a gamer? Of course not; it merely means that I'm not a fighting game/beat 'em up expert and if I were a game critic I would obviously stay away from reviewing such titles...

Some scattered thoughts

When sampling someone's structured opinion, I am generally more interested in their residual impressions than the strength of the contextualization they may be able to bring to the subject. As long as the writer is able to describe what he has felt or thought, and why that particular content assumed a degree of significance to him, I am content - and require nothing more of the person who has competently penned such opinion.

Having said this, there is no denying that experience molds perception. The glee a person extracts from a game can become significantly diminished in another person who has experienced several iterations of the same concept or genre. The onus thus impends upon the reader to determine whether the platitudes lavished by the critic would still apply to his own perspective or if, alternatively, his superior and well-versed background would inhibit similar satisfaction. I'm guessing that is why explicit credentials disclaimed throughout the body of a review or by means of an accessory profile page are more than simple assurances: they are confidence markers and time savers that allow us to forge a continuous relation of trust with the person showing us his vision. It should serve as a universally acknowledged truth for both parts that the meaning of a work depends on one's ability to branch their reasoning into other areas of thought, either internal or external to the medium.

Going further, perhaps there is some merit in distinguishing between an honest expression of criticism of a game and a a set of ideas - originating from the analysis of at least one game - that are later developed into a thoughtful article or an academic study. If the first is a simple opinion, formulated to varying degrees of eloquence and success, the latter is an intellectual construction to which more than simple examinations of feelings or emotions are required. It would not be besides the point to demand that a person embarking upon this kind of endeavour should have a cursory and consolidated knowledge bank upon which he can draw. But, in good faith, how can I demand that someone providing me with his personal and honest opinion of a game have an experience larger than my own (or, if you prefer, one that I would be inclined to admire or respect)? Legitimacy of criticism and a personal evaluation of said criticism are two other frontiers best left conceptually separate, but which can nonetheless validly establish one's preferences.

The lines between the two aforementioned forms of expression (criticism vs study) are uncannily blurred. A common review will dissect a game's parts, score them as usual (however implicitly), then move on to the content and provide some transverse insights of the story of the genre. The reader is occasionally awarded with an explanation concerning the state of elation or disenchantment of the reviewer in relation to one or other anecdotal episode: this is rare.

I think this ties in to the topic of videogame journalism legitimacy, where I would point out that the insistence found in many publications to structure and opine around the mechanical aspects of a game is endemic of the same malady that keeps the medium from attaining its full prestige. There is an obscene amount of attention being paid to encyclopedic context rather than content, a trend made worse by the fact that it tends to assume the contours of mechanical contextualization instead of true and frontal examinations of content. The videogame critic is rarely immune to the temptation of comparing a game's mechanics towards those of a previous experience, without drawing the necessary conclusions as to why that comparison bears any relevance to the end value of his experience.

extraordinary post,

extraordinary post, Reharl... it's incisive and (IMO) quite accurate. I'd have to say i agree with nearly everything you said.

Kudos.

How many games have you made?

If for a critic to have an authoritative opinion about a game it is necessary they know something about the game or genre history, would it be fair to suggest that a critic's opinions on a game's production be rendered suspicious if they themselves have no background in game development?

I think this is a closer analogy to David Stone's observation about the lack of pro player experience from most sports broadcasters.

You'll often hear a critic comment upon the quality of a game's level design, but how often do they actually describe what is good or bad about it, or discuss the design techniques that have been employed or neglected? If anything, I think critics are too quick to fall back on their game knowledge and offer comparable titles as a means of evaluating the game in front of them, rather than analyzing it afresh.

Personally, I don't think a critic needs industry experience to write reviews (we don't want hundred-page post-mortems), but the outright arrogance that some exhibit when crossing the line from game criticism to developer criticism can be really startling.

Since working in the industry, I have noticed just how many reviews are filled with purely conjectural assumptions about how a game was developed. As a developer, these comments can be so cringeworthy and stultifyingly ill-informed that the critic's position as an 'expert' is immediately called into questioned.

Even if he can hadouken. :)

At the age of 19 I am just

At the age of 19 I am just beginning to set out as a games reviewer. Ever since I laid hands on an Atari and sat for hours playing Rainbow islands I have always known that I had a passion for games. I have played hundreds of titles over several console generations, but that alone doesn't give me the ammunition to critique. What does is what everybody has, an opinion.

It may not be the generalist view, but being able to articulate an idea into allowing people to read it, understand it, oppose it, support it or agree with it is the gritty core of what a critic's role is. It is to generate a point of view of your own, not to regurgitate or plagiarise.

Though I do play a wide variety of games on different platforms and through different genres, look at the news, read the previews/reviews, watch the trailers and get that same burst of enthusiasm every time I start any game. I still am of the belief that it is passion that writes the review, negative, positive and passive. A wide array of genres is always advantageous as to use the same 'one size fits all' policy will fall flat. By the same token though comparison is useful but again brings that yard-stick approach.

A wider knowledge of the games background, aim or portrayal could also be argued as invaluable. For example if I were a film critic I wouldn't wade straight into 'Zulu dawn' without buffing up a little on my history of the Boer War. As it wouldn't help pick apart the acting but almost certainly it would help me understand the film's motive, costumes, weapons, location or portrayal.

To sum up what I'm saying games are all different (even sequels), games are different and so are reviews. I'd hold passion as the best motivation for any conclusion to be drawn. Each gamer will have a critic they prefer, if it's style, content or focus. All critics have a place, and I hope to find mine.

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