By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie
I’m a 34-year-old white male. Like many of my position and generation, my childhood cursus honorum was marked by a progression of beige video game boxes: PC, NES, Genesis, and then finally a Sega CD. Games mark my adulthood, too: I have played on average over 200 hours a year since 2013, according to the game client Steam. Video games are important economically, of course: the US games industry makes more than 20 billion dollars a year. Video games become movies: movies become video games. Games gobble up our increasingly besieged attention. Witness the legions of people playing casual games on their phones in buses and airplanes and waiting rooms. Two thirds of American parents play video games with their children every week—compare that with the forty percent of adults who go to church in that time period. ‘Gamer’ has become an identity, a subculture, and a market segment.
Yet there’s something disappointing and superficial about how we talk about video games. Take the game review. Indeed, the problem of the game review has become a subgenre of think-piece in its own right. Review websites give games unfairly favorable coverage in exchange for access and advertising from the big games companies; reviewers write under deadlines so tight they can’t fully understand the games they review. But these complaints miss the point. Game reviews today usually seek little more than to rate how good or bad a game is, they are merely points that add up to some future Metacritic score.
Is this lack of high game criticism really a problem? Media scholar Alexander R. Galloway finds it useful. It allows one to “approach video games today as a type of beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life, as yet unmarred by bourgeois exegeses of the format.” Because video games have not yet been endlessly criticized, theorized, and institutionalized, they can serve as an un-self-conscious mirror of the culture at large. There has been a fair share of games criticism, of course. It’s just that gaming culture seems heroically resistant to it, reveling in an unreformed cultural adolescence of guns, muscles, masculinity, and explosions.
The problem is that ‘we’—gamers, game critics, the cultural public, whatever—have misunderstood what kind of art video games are. We take for granted what makes video games fun and engaging, when the question should be the start of our inquiries. Before we answer it, our criticism is going to fall flat, because it’s going to be criticizing the wrong thing.
The big difference is that games, unlike movies or books, are not self-contained experiences. Instead they are interactions between players and complicated algorithmic systems. A particular game looks different, plays different, takes different amounts of time, is harder or easier, is familiar or unfamiliar, or is more or less fun or boring, depending on the player, the system they are playing on, and the situation they are playing in. (I am not discounting the importance of the viewing subject in other art forms, of course—instead I’m insisting that the interactive nature of video games makes the experience radically different for different people.) The search for an objective rating of a game is flawed, then, because it assumes that there is just one kind of way to play the game that can be summed up by a single rating. Sites like Metacritic implicitly operate on a kind of convergence theory of aesthetics. Although individual reviews may get ratings wrong, the wisdom of the crowd will get ratings right. But to assess the quality of a game is to assess a relationship—a relationship that varies widely between players. For example, when a game gets a bad review, its boosters will often complain that the reviewer just didn’t understand the genre. The problem wasn’t the algorithmic system, but the operator.
Similarly, criticism that looks only at the content of games while ignoring the play of games misses the point. In the Practice of Everyday Life, French philosopher Michel de Certeau made much of how individuals subvert the grid-like certainty of the planned, modern city by beating desire paths through lawns and day-dreaming while staring at ads on the subway. Modern consumers remix modern life, becoming “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” The pleasure of gaming foregrounds this pleasure. To enjoy the game, a gamer relies on (as de Certeau calls them) the “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things ‘hunter’s cunning’, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.” But criticism of content mostly looks at the grid, the background decorations that the player plays against—and so criticism of content can be too easily dismissed.
Take the Civilization series, an example of the 4X genre (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”.) In Civilization, the player takes control of a real-world historical civilization (Romans, Aztecs, Dutch). You settle cities, research technology, and wage war against other civilizations in a quest to conquer the world or escape from it on a mission to Mars. The content of the Civilization series has been the subject of frequent criticism—it trades in racist, imperialist tropes; it presents an inflexible stadial view of history; it relishes too much in war. And while this criticism is appropriate, it is hard to see what it seeks to accomplish. People play the game only in part for the content—much more, they play the game for the game itself: the development and slow unfurling of grand plans that are constantly hemmed in by the more powerful computer player; the pleasure of tending to your cities and people; the slow unrolling of new abilities and challenges; players play the game seeking a stage on which to display their own ‘hunter’s cunning.’ A criticism of the content of these games in other words is akin to criticizing the cartoon characters branding a Las Vegas slot machine.
We need to develop a new kind of high games criticism that directly confronts the play of the game, which is often more than a little rotten. On a personal note, every game I have ever loved has inspired in me an equal and opposite hatred. Over hours that have felt like minutes my beloved games have sunk me into bright well-ordered worlds with quests, objectives, enemies, allies, abilities, progression trees, and choices. In those games that have come to compel me, my actions have mattered in solid predictable ways—but my actions at the same time have been inconsequential and weightless. I look back on those 200 hours a year I have spent gaming as empty, if not really wasted. Why have I spent so much time in front of these enthralling glowing rectangles? Criticism of games needs to confront this pleasure that compels so desperately, this pleasure that is not so much entertaining as it is endlessly repeatable. Take the example of the proletariat of global gaming culture: the gold farmer, people in poor countries who make money by generating in-game currency, items, and characters to sell to people in rich countries. After working ten, twelve hour shifts, many of these gold farmers unwind—by playing video games. It is as if the power loom worker lets off steam by sitting down again at the power loom.
We can see the beginnings of this kind of criticism about video game pleasure in the game livestream. The genre is surprisingly popular. PewDiePie, who with over 61 million subscribers is the biggest YouTuber on earth, makes much of his content doing game livestreams. When popular rapper Drake livestreamed the game Fortnite this March, he was watched by over 635,000 people. The livestreaming service Twitch has about 600 million viewers annually. The genre seems like it would be difficult to get into for anyone except self-described gamers—but I encourage readers, even those who are completely unfamiliar with videogames, to watch a live-stream while they fold laundry or do something else mindless—it is an easy entertainment. (I recommend the videos by the team at Polygon.)
Good livestreamers exude an easy affability. Their pace is slow, trundling back over itself again and again the same way an idle conversation unfolds over breakfast—punctuated by panic, of course, by struggle, by explosions and kill screens, by bursts of explicative—but over time the struggle becomes generic and familiar, even comforting, as it slots into the predictable pattern of the game. The very best livestreamers offer examples of how to enjoy the games that they play. A number of games, like the Binding of Isaac, owe their popularity to streamers whose play demonstrated novel ways of having fun in the game. In foregrounding this subjective pleasure of the game, livestreamers open up the possibility to critique the relationship the gamer has with the system—to talk about the paths people walk in games, rather than the grid.
But this possibility has not by and large been taken. Video game writing can take a page from these livestreamers and begin to confront the subjective experience of gaming—instead of engaging in the vain search for some kind of objective game review, or some kind of politically potent content criticism. This might go some way of putting games where they belong, alongside movies, music, and all art—not as objects worthy of slavish veneration or puritanical denunciation—but as objects of power and danger.