Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

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4 Responses to Costikyan on the need for game criticism

  1. Andrew Plotkin says:

    And here I was just agreeing with the boingboing comments: I read plenty of game criticism.

    There's academic analysis: ( ) There's discussion of game mechanisms and how they evolve or don't through a genre: ( ) There the Zero Punctuation guy, who gets airplay because of his razor precision pinning games in the context of what you've played and why. It's not because of the dick jokes. Okay, not *just* because of the dick jokes.

    There is, not to pound the self-anvil too hard, us. (Have I linked yet on this blog to my fifteen-years-running analysis of graphical adventure games? ( ) I *call* them reviews...)

    If Costikyan had started out saying "Game criticism needs to overtake game reviewing in the mainstream media," I'd be right with him. But "There's virtually nothing we can point to today as 'game criticism'" ? Wrong decade, dude.

  2. Andrew Plotkin says:

    (I have approximately repeated this comment on Costikyan's blog post.)

  3. There is us, and you, and Nick, and all the rest, yes. I think I agree with all sides here.

    His arguments about the overrepresentation of a particular style of game review really resonated with me (as noted in my post), even if it wasn't the main thrust of his argument.

    I'm glad he started this discussion, even if half the responses are "Wait, what about X, Y and Z?" I mean, I hadn't ever run into Game Studies until just now...

  4. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Emily Short's reply to that thread is worth linking to separately:

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