Sunday, April 19, 2015

On Critics

Well, another day, another complete misunderstanding as to the role of a critic within the cultural context.

As usual, this spins from Anita Sarkeesian.  In this case, from her inclusion on the Time 100 Most Influential list.

Most of the comments I've read in my circles are either the trite (polite rehashing of GamerGate comments) to the other usual comment that artists make of critics - because she doesn't make games she cannot possibly be informed enough on the process to provide a complete and intelligent criticism of games.

This sort of commentary completely misses the point of a critic in the relationship with an artist.  Critics are informed, they are studied, and most of all, they represent a specific voice as representatives of good taste in a broader cultural context.  A good critic will do more than simply point out shortcomings either in form, style or taste.  A good critic will also point out when something works and representing a shift in form, style or taste.  More to the point, critics represent good taste talking back to the artist so that the artist can improve their craft. This analysis of play aesthetic is key because it represents a voice separate from fandom, a dispassionate voice who provides feedback so the artists can grow and create better works of art.

Is it good form when developers ignore player feedback? No. Why? Because the players represent the audience in play. I've lost count the number of times I've been told by developers far more learned than I that audience feedback is essential for tuning and balancing play.

Yet here is a critic pointing out feedback and is met with polite be firm denial.

This reminds me of the MDA method of game analysis.

For those that aren't familiar, it is a method of analysis used to analyze games.

MDA stands for Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics.

When a developer creates a game, they create the mechanics, tune the dynamics of play, and create a specific emotional response or aesthetic.  They experience this sequence from left to right.

Players and critics experience the sequence in reverse order. When a critic plays the game, they engage the emotional response to play, react to the dynamics and perhaps delve into the mechanics that create those dynamics.

When Anita and other critics engage with games,they experience a specific emotional response to the content provided to them. The critics response is based on whatever cultural perspective that they bring to the game. This is no different than any other player.

What this means is that a critic does not need, rather, they are addressing the aesthetics of play as they interpret it and respond accordingly based on the current standards of taste.

So, what does Anita do?  She responds to the aesthetics of play from her cultural perspective as it pertains to current standards of taste.

Why does that bother people?  Because it challenges several deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes of who consumes games. It is also much easier to attack Anita than it is to put together a coherent response. But this all side-steps the fundamental truth that the artist and the critic are a relationship that is required for growth of games as a true art form. If games are to be taken seriously as an artistic form, it means that games must conform to matters of taste. In that regard, the critic is essential. 

The critic is the curator of taste within our culture. The critic is to point out when a creator does something well or when the creator does something poorly, and inform the broader audience of these points.

It's time for the game industry and its fans to grow up. As long as I've been a developer, game developers and creators were sounding the clarion call that games are art. 

Now that they are recognized as such, these same developers and creators are upset when critics point out the deficiencies of games as they reflect larger cultural deficiencies when it comes to gender.

Take from that what you will...