[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Christian pop culture writer Richard Clark examines how game reviews often miss the point, and how an excessive focus on fun can result in "a denial of social responsibility on the part of both player and developer."
Among those who engage in the (admittedly tired) debate of whether or not video games should be considered a form of art, there are those who suggest that the sheer entertainment value of video games both precludes and requires that the medium be differentiated from any artistic endeavor.
In their view, games are meant to remain a form of amusement, and to attempt and achieve anything more ambitious results only in the detriment of a game's first principle: fun.
This commitment to fun at the expense of all else seems a simple actually has the potential to end up being a denial of social responsibility on the part of both player and developer. Known more famously as the “just a game,” defense, it treats video games as soulless and accidental combinations of textures, gameplay mechanics, and sound effects.
The “just a game” point of view isn't articulated outright nearly as much as it's opposition, precisely because those who maintain it don't see in-depth conversation about the “nature of the medium” to be all that important or helpful.
As a result, when reading various features and editorials, it can seem as if most game writers and journalists understand the emotional, moral and cultural relevance of story and experience driven games. And yet, when we look at the most foundational form of games writing in the industry, the game review, we see almost no reflection whatsoever of any such understanding.
Falling Short of Considering the Whole
Instead, what we find are masterly written descriptions of various game mechanics and their respective flaws. We find mentions of pacing, sound design, camera management, and level layout, while the content is mentioned only insofar as they help to draw out the game mechanics. If a consumer is interested in the tone or moral implications of a game, they are forced to take their best shot at reading between the lines.
Meanwhile, as gamers mature they often become more concerned with exactly those aspects of the game which are being ignored. Does the game contain nuanced characters or does it merely exploit common stereotypes? Does the game make the player reconsider our preconceptions about war or does it romanticize it? Are religious and spiritual issues dealt with fairly or are they glossed over in a way that distorts the issue overall.
Not all games call for these kinds of questions. Games like Tetris
, and Doodle Jump
make a deliberate attempt to place gameplay first. The story and characters truly are intended to be containers for game play elements. Recently, however, more and more games have sought not only to provide a level of experience and story-telling with their games.
Whether it's Alan Wake
's fear-inducing gameplay or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
's roller coaster style single player, games often utilize characters and ideas to give their game more weight or significance, even if they aren't seeking to make any particular point or deliver any particular message.
It's a shame, then, that the average consumer must wait days, weeks or months to read analysis at some of the more thoughtful gaming blogs, few of which get prerelease copies of these games as the more mainstream review sites do. For instance, when Modern Warfare 2
's formal reviews reached critical mass, it ended up with a Metascore of 94 with the lowest score being a 78. In general, game critics loved Modern Warfare 2
. Because of these rave reviews, most of us bought the game. Weeks later, however, bloggers began to express
various concerns about the ideas, the message, and the implicit political implications of such a game
Learning From Ebert and Friends
While I realize that there is a distinct difference in medium here, it's nonetheless apt to compare film reviews to game reviews in this case. Recently, Kick-Ass
received mixed reviews from film critics, and many of the judgments against it weren't merely because of technical deficiencies or even a lack of a solid script. The New Yorker asks
, “...when filmmakers nudge a child into viewing savagery as slapstick, are we not allowing them to do what we condemn in the pornographer--that is, to coarsen and inflame?”
Many films are slammed by critics for lapses in judgment that sound remarkably similar to some of the most common video game tropes, such as the Orlando Sentinel's description
as “an awkward blend of ultra-realistic violence, boundaries-bending satire and low comedy.” Does that remind you of a particular open-world video game
made by well-known and well-respected developer, Rockstar?
I simply find it hard to believe that the journalists doing video game reviews lack the same moral compass that seems inherent in the film, book, or music critic. And yet, every game that manages to provide great gameplay, replay value, and a noteworthy experience is universally lauded by video game critics. My suspicion is not that these critics lack a moral compass, but that they have suppressed it for what they believe to be the good of the “objective review.”
Consumers are told that review score aggregation sites like Metacritic only provide a partial picture of a game's worth, and that in order to get a better idea of whether they should buy a game they should endeavor to find one game reviewer whom they tend to agree with, and read the entire text of that review. This is a good suggestion, but one which still doesn't address the fact that many gamers don't share the same desire to suppress their moral, cultural and religious assumptions for the sake of enjoying a game.
Acknowledging What's There
As I mentioned in last month's column
, every game with a story, plot or realized characters also has an inherent worldview. There is no reason to believe that the people playing those games would merely leave their assumptions elsewhere when playing a video game. If the video game industry wants to have more thoughtful games, those writing about games need to encourage more thoughtful gaming. It’s not that reviewers should concern themselves with every possible stumbling block within a game, that they count cuss words or recount horrible violent acts. A simple solution is to simply acknowledge when and why a game felt inspiring, tasteless, disrespectful, immature, or wonderfully nuanced.
The landscape of people who play videogames regularly is broadening and become more and more diverse. There are those who appreciate Half Life 2's strong female presence
in Alyx Vance, those who appreciate the way Bioshock 2 deals with fatherhood
, and those who find God of War's violent and sexual content to be immature
. It's likely that those opinions might just be true enough to be called “objective.” At the very least, those opinions should be reflected in the same space that purports to tell us whether we will like a game or not.
Are games art? That's a semantics argument that's just not all that interesting anymore. But do games mean anything? Ask your wife that question after she's watched you rip off someone's head or have sex with Aphrodite. Ask yourself after you lost your son in the mall in Heavy Rain
. Those moments mean something, and even if the controls are tight and the graphics flawless, without that infused meaning, we would have very different opinions of them. Acknowledging these to other players not only makes them aware of pitfalls, but it increases our appreciation of truly great games as well.
[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).