Criticising the Critics

Yesterday I started to read Tevis Thompson’s piece on Bioshock Infinite and Game Criticism Generally. And, like Tevis’ writing has done before, it made me angry so I tweeted some tweets:


Most of which I stand by. But that middle tweet “Don’t listen to critics, they are trying to make you love what they love” reeks of bullshit to me now. What should we fellow human beings be doing about art if it is not bringing eachother an experience that we will love? Of course everyone should be evangelistic about things they love. That’s a wonderful thing to do.

I do think that the world of painting and sculpture has been stolen from us by critics though, and here is why:

fountainI love contemporary art, part of the joy of traveling is that we get to explore contemporary art galleries from Tokyo to Istanbul to Paris to Vancouver but this love of contemporary art has come despite the established art world. For generations and generations painting and sculture was seperated into high art and low art. Low art was pictures of puppy dogs and sunsets, mickey mouse and advertising. High art was often oils, eventually abstract, basically whatever hangs in a museum. The divide was boolean and at the extremes the gulf was great: The Mona Lisa is a masterwork of great value, mickey mouse is common and not very interesting. Duchamp tried to smash down this wall. Pop art took a fire-ax to it. But both ended up being terribly horribly co-opted. Replicas of Duchamp’s Fountain (the original is lost) are displayed in galleries and have value whereas the average toilet urinal is not and does not. So while people have smashed at the divide between high art and low art it still stands, solid and unwavering. Staring any common-man who walks into an art gallery straight in the eyeballs.

monaLisaAnd this is the damage that the critical divide between “good” and “bad” art does, it stares you in the eyes whenever you walk into a gallery and tells you what you “should” like. What you can admit to liking without having someone more knowlegable than you chuckle at you. You can say you like the Mona Lisa for instance, and Mondrian and 17th century portraiture. Saying you like these will make the people around you nod their heads in a greement. No one will laugh at you, those are some acceptably high-art tastes. But does anyone who hasn’t studied art actually like those things? No. That’s why going to the art gallery is a chore and not a joy. Because the things that you are expected to like are only exciting to people who have poured their entire lives into art. Mondrian was incredibly exciting at the time but now his work has been co-opted and reshaped so much and so many times his original works are boring and stale. It is only if you are educated in what came before and after does the work become interesting so it is only interesting to people who have dedicated themselves to studying painting. Those are the people who decide what is good, who can defend their decisions, and the rest of the world looks to them to decide what to look at when they go to a gallery.

So people don’t go to the third floor of the Vancouver art gallery where the contemporary art is. They stay on the first floor where the Picassos hang. Never mind that you’ve seen those paintings a million times already, reproduced in ads and movies and magazines and online. Those are the high-status paintings and high-status in the art world is everything.

whaleBut the stuff on the third floor is amazing! It’s got no history, you’ve never heard of the artist and you’re not sure if it’s even “art” or not but god damn, hanging from the ceiling is a whole whale skeleton made of lawn-chairs! How cool is that!? Lets be honest, anyone can appreciate a giant whale made of lawn-chairs. If that’s too shallow for you then over in the corner there’s work that talks about modern local issues in a way that you can understand without an art education (as long as you’re from BC). It’s a minor miracle this stuff is even here, the Vancouver gallery is particularly good at exhibiting local artists who do work that’s interesting to a crowd with no art-education. On the other hand the MOMA and the SFMOMA are particularly bad at it. They play to what you are supposed to like, artists that critics have all agreed are good and important. But these artists are talking straight over our heads because critics are bored by the stuff we like. That’s not surprising, they’ve spent their whole lives looking at paintings. I don’t think your average art historian would get The Stanley Parable just like I don’t get the Mona Lisa. Insisting that we have the same taste as someone who has spent their whole life engaged with a medium isn’t productive and it’s what keeps people out of art galleries.

When I read pretty much anything Tevis writes I get mad because his writing oozes a certainty and an authority that I think is slowly building a wall between the Mona Lisa and Lawn-Chair Whales. But I was so wrong to call out all criticism as bad. Critics probably had something to do with getting Brian Jungen’s work into the gallery to begin with. Many games right now have a frightening relationship with race and gender and it’s incredibly valuable to have people pointing that out.

Realistically games aren’t going to go the way of paintings and sculptures anyway, they are of too much populist interest. More likely we will fall into the casual snobbery of films and music where the wall exists but is more permeable. I just love that right now, among my friends, Angry Birds is a “good” game and so is The Stanley Parable. No one feels the need to call one inherintly “better” than the other. That discussion, along with “is it even a game” and “what is art” isn’t useful and doesn’t need to happen.


p.s. I also think I have some insight into why players are horrible assholes to people who criticise games they like. In a disagreement between the casual enthusiast and the studied critic the enthusiast has almost no way to argue his point. Art is very hard to talk about. Why do I love the whale? I really have no idea, I can not express it in words. I think this helps explain why well written pieces that sharply criticise a popular game are met with angry invectives instead of anything constructive. These players want to express how much and why they love this piece of art but have no idea how to do that so they collapse into hurtful personal attacks in a horrible attempt to defend the thing they love. I studied film a little bit in university so I can express to you very clearly why the structural problems in Game of Thrones make it infuriating for me to watch. But what’s your comeback going to be if you haven’t? “Oh… I like it”. Being able to justify your position has an odd importance in our world, that’s why some art galleries have those rediculous little writeups filled with art-speak and high-minded ideas, because, “Holy shit, that looks cool!” is, for some reason, not enough for us.

If you do need a greater reason to like the whale: “Brian Jungen’s sculpture ‘Shapeshifter’ makes a statement about cultural hybridity and institutional displays of marine life in aquariums and natural history museums. Jungen, who investigates the intersections and fluid boundaries between Aboriginal and Western cultures, asks us to consider the skeleton of a whale, not an anatomically accurate whale, but a composite influenced by the forms of chairs and by actual whale species. With his choice of material – the ubiquitous monoblock plastic chairs found in discount stores around the world – the artist explores the potential for communication inherent in mass-produced objects in the context of a global economy. Many societies are fascinated by whales and have endowed them with special significance. Aboriginal groups consider the whale to be an animal of great spiritual power, while whales in captivity are popular tourist attractions. The title “Shapeshifter” refers to the spiritual process of transformation from human to animal or vice versa.”


8 thoughts on “Criticising the Critics

  1. Agree with everything you say, except for the very first tweet. I don’t think Tevis was saying people who liked the game were wrong. I think what Tevis said was that the reasons they gave for liking the game — or rather, since he was speaking specifically of reviewers, the reasons they gave for the game being “good” or “great” — were wrong, i.e. poorly or incorrectly argued. Which is why that post was both a criticism of the game *and* a criticism of critics. I never came away with the feeling that Tevis was criticizing players who enjoyed the game (though he clearly disagreed with them).

    1. “…the reasons they gave for the game being ‘good’ or ‘great’ — were wrong, i.e. poorly or incorrectly argued”

      I think a lot of this comes from people not being able to describe why they find something so fun. Why is minesweeper so fun? It’s very hard to put into words so reviewers come off as soft or not rigorous. It’s fun… I like it… that’s about it.

      I get it that “visceral” is not a useful regiourous description of anything. But at some point a lot of game experiences are not articulable beyond “Whoa, that was AWESOME!”. How do you review fireworks?

      Even if I were to articulate why I think Panel de Pon is so _amazing_ I’d mostly just be guessing. We don’t understand game design and the human mind enough to really reason about this stuff yet.

  2. I just wanted to comment on these statements: “I also think I have some insight into why players are horrible assholes to people who criticise games they like.”

    As well as: “These players want to express how much and why they love this piece of art but have no idea how to do that so they collapse into hurtful personal attacks in a horrible attempt to defend the thing they love.”

    I sent you e-mails a while back with some criticisms towards your personal art; a game you had your hand in creating, and the backlash to that was me getting one big cyber middle finger in my face.

    After spreading this news to everyone I know, it was brought to my attention that you decided to write some things about criticism in your blog, and here I am to make commentary.

    I know, the context is slightly different here, you’re talking about people getting criticism for things they love, but did not create, then they become offensive jerk-faces about it. I don’t wish to say I’ve never, -ever- been guilty of this myself. The last time I did such a thing, though, I was probably only 18 years old.

    It doesn’t matter if people like the things you like. I love cheesy horror film . . . my wife hates it. My wife really likes some sitcom (I never actually asked what it’s called.) that has some seasons of it on Netflix, and I care nothing for television in general. I do not feel insulted or anything of the sort that my wife does’t appreciate watching people in 80’s clothes being mauled by some machete wielding villain. Nor does she mind that I think sitcoms are an utter waste of time. They obviously aren’t a waste of time to her, because she enjoys that particular one.

    Slightly on the same path, let’s talk about people being critical of the things you love to create. I am a musician who was in a band for 3 years, of which we played shows in the Nashville area in that frame of time. I also independently released an album years back. Trust me, I’ve heard it all . . . from full praise to utter hatred.

    The praise was awesome, and I got more of it than I got anything bad, but the criticism was greatly appreciated. Not necessarily the, “OMFG ur muzik sux!!!!!11one”

    But the, “Hey man, in this song, that synth part sounds like you got lazy. It was uninspiring to say the least.”

    I’d go back and listen to it, and sometimes I found myself thinking, “Dude, that synth part -is- uninspiring! I guess I was just being lazy that session.”

    I was never offended if someone simply didn’t like it, because that’s the nature of the beast. There are so many styles of music out there, and so many different tastes, I’ll never please everyone. No one person is -wrong- for disliking my (or anyone else’s) music. And I’m glad to say that I never responded like an ass hat to those who shared their opinions with me.

    Now the ones that actually pointed out the uninspiring or unpolished bits, I usually thanked them. It made me better as a musician. At least I think it did.

    I look at video games as being the same. You have FPS’s, RTS’s, racing games, puzzle games, RPG’s, whatever you wanna call “Dear Esther”, et cetera. Should game devs listen to criticism that says, “Ur game sux!!!11one”?

    Probably not. It was more than likely just not that person’s style of game, and they’re not intellectual enough to realize that and also express it in a decent way.

    But it’s my opinion that anyone that meddles with any art should listen to technical criticism. Video games are an interesting art in that they’re also very much an interactive product. There are certain expectations set upon it, and when it’s not met it’s a bit like being ripped off.

    Allow me to compare it to buying a . . . blender. Yeah, a blender! Let’s say that the blender is advertised as being able to blend ice quite well, but fails at blending anything harder than peanut butter. Aside from this thing advertising itself as something specific, there is also a market standard in place. Most people, when buying a blender, would expect the thing (even the cheapest ones) to blend things that are harder than peanut butter. If such a thing happens with physical products, the company responsible for it usually issues a recall. Unless you’re Microsoft. (“What red ring of death? There’s no red ring of death. Sorry loyal customer, your Xbox is just going to stay broken.”)

    Video games though, are funny in that there can be a physical product that the game’s information is written on, but the end use item is just digital code.

    Look, I have to admit, I didn’t read the review from Tevis Thompson. So I don’t know what its nature is, but I can say from personal experience that I’ve run into a lot of games lately that have had some kind of technical or general content issues. I’ve been a gamer for 24 years and back in the old cartridge and disc days, a broken or shortcutted game could break a company.

    It seems since digital distribution took over the market, devs could release broken games and promise to fix it later with a patch. I feel like everyone held them to that standard at first, but got too used to seeing games release as being subpar. Now, it feels like devs are releasing crap games left and right, and not even promising to fix it later. As a matter of fact, when the issues are brought to their attention we get the middle finger or ignored completely.

    A friend of mine who is still actively in the music scene asks me a lot why I haven’t released another album. Hell, it’s been 8 years now. I tell him, because the next one simply isn’t ready. I don’t have a huge fan base or anything and I fully admit my first album release went mostly unnoticed in the grand scheme of things, but I still refuse to release something that is incomplete or of poor quality. I’m not even a little bit pretentious, and I take pride in the art of which I partake.

    To conclude; I think you’re kind of setting a double standard here, and apparently everyone with whom I’ve shared my experience with you agrees. As a matter of fact, I fully expect this comment to be deleted, ignored, or to get a great big cyber middle finger from you. But oh well, at least I said my piece.

    P.S. I’m totally on board with what you said about stuff you find in art galleries. I do love the classics . . . Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh, Parrish, etc. But from personal experience, some of the most creative stuff was made by people you’ve probably never heard of. I also thought the whale skeleton made of lawn chairs was cool as hell.

    1. Hey Christopher, I still don’t get the venom. I tried to be polite. I hardly think my reply to you:

      “Christopher, I’m sorry you didn’t like my game. Since I could not bring you joy I hope you find it elsewhere in life.”

      Counts as a “big cyber middle finger in your face”.

      I don’t see myself as setting a double standard. I think players should freely and happily share things they love and don’t love. I am very comfortable with idea of reviews. It is critiques that attempt to establish that something is objectively “bad” and should not be enjoyed that I don’t like. Attempts to build a wall around “high art” and keep populist works out.

      I’m not defending myself or my games in this post. No one has ever written such a critique of Incredipede or Fantastic Contraption.

      Anyway, I hope you do release your album when you’re proud of it and find success. I don’t mean that in some kind of middle finger way. I genuinely hope you find joy and success. I hope everyone finds joy, that’s why I make games.

      1. I have to say, this is 5 months too slow, but that’s what happens when you’re in the military and you become busy with it. I didn’t see a response within the first week and I assumed I wouldn’t get one. Then duty has called and this whole thing had to be put on the back burner for quite some time.

        But here I am though, 5 months later with nothing to do one night wondering, “Did I ever get any consideration from that post I made to that game dev quite some time ago?”

        Looks like I did. So here’s a response:

        I don’t see my initiation here as being venomous. I do feel as though I’m standing up for myself towards something I saw as being flagrantly rude towards me. I also see myself as trying to be empathetic and reasonable.

        You did, however, admit on 05 October 2013 that your responses to my e-mails were “terse”. This was on the Steam community forums. I think it’s easy to see that you being terse might have felt like “being brushed off” to me.

        Also, since I don’t seem to ever clean out my inbox, I found all the letters sent between you and me. I will admit, I was putting the pressure on, but I was not being dishonest in any way.

        In saying such, the quote, “Christopher, I’m sorry you didn’t like my game. Since I could not bring you joy I hope you find it elsewhere in life.” could be very genuine or insanely sarcastic.

        I took it to be the latter, if you hadn’t noticed. If it truly wasn’t, then I do apologize sincerely for taking you the wrong way. I suppose that is the flaw of the English language in writing; there is not tone by which to derive context. Also, I was already pissed off at wasting money on a game that seemed innately flawed to me . . . so yeah, there’s that.

        You do seem quite intelligent, so I’m going to assume that you understand how that statement (especially considering the letters leading up to it) could be taken into the context of a “cyber middle finger” in my face.

        As far as the double standard thing goes, this is where I do have to disagree with you whole heartedly. I think some things can be objectively bad. Like an automobile that has the chance to explode when you turn the key in the ignition.

        This hypothetical automobile can be very pretty to look at to most people, it can have amazing handling, it can be very comfortable to sit in, but the fact that it doesn’t act as a viable automobile due to its high failure rate makes it broken and therefore bad.

        Well, unless that’s what the makers are trying to do. But if they’re actually trying to make a good, working auto then they have failed and it is a bad automobile.

        Don’t get me wrong, I think perhaps “high art” gets too much exaltation just because it decides to play by all the rules, but “lesser art” is still praise worthy because it still properly functions as art; in that it invokes feeling and/or wonderment upon the person viewing it. If art, whether exalted or not, fails to captivate or summon feeling, then I have a difficult time giving it praise as a piece of art.

        Kind of like De Stijl. A lot of it invokes nothing in me (and many people I know) but I seem to find things like “Head VI” by Francis Bacon to be completely mesmeric.

        Both are considered abstract art, but I feel like one functions better as art than the other. But hey, this could just be a type of opinion. Maybe there really are people that think De Stijl stuff is truly brilliant and appealing and not just because it’s in vogue to do so.

        I dunno . . . I really didn’t mean to make this post turn into me sounding like an art snob.

        Anyway, if you mean what you say, I thank you for your kind words. I have found success, just not in my music. I work hard, which pays the bills quite well. My music production is meant specifically as a fun thing I do in which I hope others can also find enjoyment. If that happens, even minutely, that’s enough success for me, but I won’t be unhappy without it. I did get commissioned to write the theme song for an upcoming podcast, so there’s that. I imagine people will probably be more concerned with the content of the show than the intro and outro music though. Still, hopefully people will appreciate it as a befitting theme to the podcast.

        Anyway, in turn, I wish the same upon you. Despite my impressions of your game, “Incredipede”, I wish the best for you and any future endeavors you commit yourself to. Especially if you really aren’t half-assing it and you’re truly putting your best foot forward with it.

  3. I think you and Thompson agree more than you think; they just take a while to get to the point. From that article:

    “This means the old guard, and the old boys’ club specifically, has to go. Out with the fanboys and apologists and sycophants. Out with those who know a whole lot about videogames and not a lot about anything else.”

    “I want to hear every divergent view, every unpopular opinion. I want gaming to revel in dissent. We should marvel at a medium that allows us such room to play, to explore, to bring ourselves to bear on the experience and make it our own. A good review will honor this. It will say: This is what it was like for me. And in doing so ask: Now what was it like for you?”

    Thompson does advocate for a specialized group of “reviewers” that are better at this criticism than others, but I think that the piece is more iconoclastic and pro-subjectivity than it seems at first.

  4. Tevis’s write-up of bioshock infinite is spot on and well-argued. What he has to say might piss people off, but judging from the unmuddy clarity of his writing, he’s bringing a great deal of thought to what he’s saying.

    1. …unless you’re a woman that likes Bioshock Infinite. It’s disconcerting to be told by an admittedly middle-aged white man that you don’t exist. Just saying.

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