Criticism, as defined by Wikipedia, and in its most basic form, is “the practice of judging the merits and faults of something or someone in an intelligible (or articulate) way.” You can critique a lot of things, not just media. You can critique a person’s fashion sense, a person’s writing, a meal, a day even. When somebody asks you how your day was and you say “meh” you are, in a very primitive way, critiquing how your day went.
When you watch a film and say “It was fun” you are critiquing your experience of the film and conveying to others what they could expect. You dug through your brain, found some words that fit together, and expelled them from your mouth to deliver a message to another and they received it. It’s a simple but complex act that adds to the sharing of opinions and personal anecdotes that drive everyday conversation. Language differs from group to group, but when you look at the overall picture, it all remains the same. In each instance, it belongs to the person who said it, whether originally or not.
Let’s think for a second about criticism.
Every time I begin to think of mass media criticism, my mind goes to my good friend Roland Barthes, whose words kind of float in my head and bob up and down randomly whenever I try and think about a video game I just played or a movie I just watched. He famously stated that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Whether you agree with this extreme view of the creations of works, there’s something here that resonates.
As he says of author-centric models of criticism in “The Death of the Author:”
“A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology: he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”
Can we think about the implications that criticism means nothing without the reader? Can we think about a film or a book that cares so little about what the audience thinks when in actuality, that’s who it is mostly for?
This is especially true of video games and even though critics in Barthes’ early 20th century world couldn’t have predicted the implications of an interactive medium where a player’s actions can actually mean a difference in a text, there is a certain retroactive ignorance that makes the entire endeavor feel slightly worthless. Without the opinions of an audience can something even truly exist as a whole?
There are tons of different categories pertaining to media studies and each one can create a varied opinion There are so many that you can take any one piece of media, let’s say Vertigo since I’ve seen it about one too many times, and dissect it independently in each and come up with a different interpretations of the film. There’s feminist theory, where you can look at Hitchcock’s film and see it as a prime example of the female being an object for the male obsessor, having little more than a basic personality and being interchangeable from one person to the other. You can look at it under auteur theory and find it to be a prime example of a Hitchcock thriller and see little bits of the man in each frame. You can view it under the contexts of genre and as film noir or a thriller or even as a personal reading of either. You can view it under a race lens, a psychoanalytical lens, maybe even a less formal lens like “hey this movie is weird because wow this guy acts unrealistically and oh my god did she just fall off a roof” (generally the more common response to Vertigo).
Looking at film theory as the prime example, we can see a sort of relationship between each of these sectors in that they not only work congruently to influence the legacy of media, but also provide ideas between the author and the audience.
Zachary Oliver over at TheologyGaming, wrote similarly about the role of critics, and while I don’t agree with his suggestion that “intimate familiarity does not help criticize a work effectively,” he does believe that all areas of engagement–whether it’s as a critic or an author–work together to influence a singular work.
An artist will use ideas, thoughts, and techniques they did not develop themselves. They rely on the thought of their own time, whether for or against it. We are always indebted to the past and to the people and ideas that surrounded it, and the creator is no different.
There are so many questions that people spend their entire lives just trying to answer them. Some people agree with Barthes. Others say that it is actually the medium that defines a work as it can shape an interpretation of the contents, something especially certainly true for video games.
There are even more still that don’t even bother with these kinds of things and just want to have fun and enjoy their media, consume it without thinking of implications, sit back and have fun. “It’s just a game” or “it’s only a movie” or “calm down it’s only make believe” or “go home Carli, you’re thinking way too hard about Game of Thrones.”
Which is true, I guess.
But criticism is inevitable
With so many varied responses to media, and thanks to a platform like the Internet, criticism is more widespread than ever. No longer is it confined to academic journals or magazines, but free to take on blogs, YouTube videos, and rants on Twitter, The language of criticism no longer belongs to people like Barthes, but to media empires and people regardless of education or social status. Media itself isn’t even tied down, with unrestricted spaces using their power to bring free film, books, television shows, to anybody, whether it’s legal or not. There’s a site I like to frequent called OpenCulture that posts free films, reading, and videos, focusing on the fact that the Internet is promoting a free and open culture and that we should take advantage of that.
That being said, why is it that there are people that seem to be against the spread of criticism?
The fact that there has recently been an entire movement partially dedicated to the abolishing of subjectivity and corruption in games journalism is astounding, considering what they’re really up against is the state of criticism not just in games but in media as a whole. I don’t want to get into it specifically but if you need a reference point, Forbes has a comprehensive one.
The “social justice warrior” is the one that reads works with a specific critical lens such as gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. They’re the person that wants to take a piece of mass media and dissect it using an alternative to basic “yay or nay” or “fun” standards, hearkening back to film theory traditions and accepted, formal statutes whether they realize it or not. It seems counterproductive for those that are actively fighting against what amounts to a whole criticism industry when these are the same people who want to use that criticism to decide whether they should play the games, or continue the discussion into their spaces. Each are working under their own views of criticism, which are then shaped by personal experiences, histories, languages, and any other number of factors.
When people look at games journalists and claim that they are working under a corrupt system, they are countering those that work professionally to decipher texts (because mostly games journalism is filled with critics, not journalists in the traditional sense). Inversely, they are fighting against the criticisms they would create, their own experiences when reacting to a work. The lenses the writer, the author, and the audience choose are up to them, and whether people like it or not, they are doing the same thing on a much smaller scale when they say “it’s just a game.”
But herein lies the struggle with criticism.
“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” Barthes said.
You can make any argument to determine what it means to criticize. I like Barthes and theories on author/audience separation, but others might not and that can become disagreeable. Not necessarily violent, but disagreeable. I don’t think that Barthes meant to suggest that it would spark wars, but in any case it has currently. Where different experiences can influence works on varied spectrum, different theories can also tear media down the middle.
I focused on Barthes here mainly because if I talked about all the other renown theories, I’d be here for weeks. There have been books written on such topics and each can exist on its own merits.
With that being said, maybe you can make the argument that those that say “it’s just a game” or “it’s just robots kicking the crap out of each other” is its own form of theory. They judge the work on its entertainment value. Sure it’s a more boring way of going about things since there is so much more out there, but whatever works.
Times like this I look at the Oscar Wilde quote I stuck at the top: “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” From each of our walks of life we contribute something different and no matter what we contribute to a work’s interpretation, we are still in the middle of critiquing it. We can both contribute to each other.
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