Criticism vs. Reviews

In the past day, I’ve had the fortune of stumbling across two recent pieces that (as I said, apparently snarkily, in a tweet), illustrate the problems that come when people conflate “review” and “criticism” (and are really talking about reviews).  It’s one of those things that I care about, not out of some misguided noble quest to preserve the integrity of High Games Criticism (that amazing new art form that all the kiddies are tweeting about), but to isolate the two functions instead of muddling them.  Yeah, I am a bit of a systematic thinker.  It doesn’t bother me too much here, though.

Basically, I distinguish “reviews”, which tell you what’s worth buying and playing, from “criticism”, which models how to respond to a work.  I think this is a fair distinction, based on…oh right, reading a fuckton of games criticism and games reviews (I’ll have a citation or thousands for this, because it’s kind of central to my reading; I’ll go into this emergent distinction later).

So imagine my response when I hear something like the following (in reference to a spate of negative reviews of a recent release):

I believe these criticisms are more a product of the current state of games criticism than they are legitimate detractors that keep it from being stellar.

– Drew Dixon, “Dissonant Reviews: Miasmata“, Bit Creature, 2/20/2013

Yeah, I understand the point that is being made—that the culture of reception around games is hampered by false assumptions of equivalence—but a very large part of me bristles against calling this “games criticism”.  It’s a part of me that recognizes that whatever calls itself “games criticism” must be taken as such, but that objects to lumping in criticism and reviews.  It only leads to misunderstandings of “critical”: as a negative outlook as opposed to a framework of interpretation.

Something of a different tone that captures this same slippage of “review”/”criticism”, can be seen here:

While film criticism rarely reflects the taste of the broad public, and music criticism has little in common with the pecking order of the charts and heavy rotation playlists, the game industry sees a direct correlation between game reviews and sales.

– Peter Krapp, “Ranks and Files: On Metacritic and Gamerankings“, Flow TV, 12/18/12

The rest of this piece is fascinating as fuck, and worth a read by anyone interested in industry response to reception.  This line, however, stuck out to me (grad student bingo, just for saying “stuck out to me”) because of how game reviews were contrasted, falsely, to music and film criticism.  Obviously those established forms of criticism have a detachment from the monetary value of the work.  Whether this detachment is an illusion of immateriality or a real thing may be argued, and I think I might later.  What is not up for argument is whether reviews and criticism serve the same functions in response to a work.

I lied, it’s up for argument, because this post exists.  But.  Assuming that everything anyone says about games is “reviews” is as bad as what I did last year, which was assuming that anything anyone said about games was “critical discourse”.  Reviews tell us why it’s worth our time and/or money.  Criticism pins down why it’s important to society, that it appears now.  (To throw a wrench into the whole thing, journalism investigates the material conditions around it, and reveals them to us.)  All of these modes of response form an ecosystem that support the development and evolution of a medium, form, whatever you want “it” to be.

And here I must thank Christopher A. Paul’s excellent text, Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play, for helping me see some of the larger issues at work.

I care about words; I believe words have power (how many times do I need to say this, in every piece I write?).  For games “criticism” to exist as anything other than a purely nitpicky mode, it has to have objects worth studying.  For games to exist as valued cultural artifacts, there has to be a discourse that seeks to interpret.  It’s this cyclic dependence (throw in the importance of preservation of the object in question, and you’ve got something I may want to write in a year or two) of object and reception, this endless feedback loop, that constructs something meaningful out of a new form or genre.

Consider it Reader Response theory, writ large.

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2 thoughts on “Criticism vs. Reviews

  1. “Journalism never really gets misinterpreted as criticism or reviews” I think is what I said.
    Furthermore, as much as words have power, you can’t expect everyone to conform to your rigorous standards for nomenclature. We’re not all English majors. It’s important to remember that all three forms of writing on a media can exist and a piece can contain elements of all of them, and that sometimes people are just going to call things the wrong thing.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely interesting because, like you said, journalism seems to be pretty clear to people.
      And it’s less “use my words” and more “the fact that people don’t make a distinction actually hampers how we talk about games in public”, if that makes sense. Hmmm, time to make that into a larger post, maybe.

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