I’ve mentioned before that L.B. Jeffries is, in my estimation, one of the most capable videogame critics in the blogosphere. That is why I was taken aback by an essay titled The Trouble Shooting Review, in which he proposes a more technical approach to game criticism not unlike the one you would use to review a car. I want to think that either Jeffries misstated what he wanted to say, or perhaps that I misread it. I’m hoping that’s the case. In any event, I’ll use it as an opportunity to explain why games aren’t cars (in case you were wondering), and why the kind of technical analysis he seems to endorse is problematic for an expressive medium like videogames.
I’ll begin with two of the most baffling passages in his essay, which seem to summarize his general view as well as any other.
It’s easy to dismiss technical critiques like bugs or load times as irrelevant to a game’s value, but the notion of bringing them up still has merit. What can be gained by approaching a game review from a more technical perspective than things like fun factor or story? Looking at a game from a technical perspective really just means treating games like experience generating machines instead of experiences themselves. […]
A lot of what I’m describing is basically what you do when you’re reviewing something like a car (Peter Johnson, et al, “How to Write a Car Review”, Wikihow, 27 October 2009). You don’t just drive on paved roads, you take it down some dirt roads and maybe slam the brakes at high-speeds a few times. Maybe even take someone for a ride with you and see if the passenger side is fun. Applied to games, it makes the reviewer consider things like if it has co-op, then you should do your best to play it that way.
Let’s assume Jeffries is right to describe games as “experience generating machines” (truthfully, they can be called many things besides, but for now let’s stick to his fine term and agree that they are machines–figuratively speaking, since a game is not the same as the machine that reads them). Let’s assume, furthermore, that the goal of an experience generating machine is–what else?–to generate experiences. If this is true, then surely we must also accept the notion that an experience producing machine is only as good (interesting/powerful/profound) as the experience it produces in the player. Accordingly, Jeffries’s desire to treat games as “experience generating machines instead of experiences themselves” seems dangerously close to undercutting the entire purpose of the game.
In other words, games invite us to treat them as “experiences [in] themselves” first, and it is entirely beside the point to downplay this part of their nature on the grounds that such experiences have been “generated.” After all, every experience is generated by something. There is no such thing as a stand-alone experience. “Experiences themselves” are always the end result of external factors that frequently exist beyond our control or understanding. For instance, I could describe my first summer job as a teenager as a “wonderful, life-changing experience.” But why was this such a wonderful experience? What made it so transformative? That experience is not the result of nothing–surely, something must have made it a pleasant and transformative one. Maybe I was lucky enough to have a wise and patient boss; maybe I had great colleagues; maybe I met the love of my life in that job. One could cite hundreds of different potential explanations to support my recollection of that experience.
And yet, these explanations are secondary to the experience itself. They are my way of trying to rationalize something I have already experienced, not the other way around. Simply put: expereiences come first, then come the explanations and rationalizations.
This is also the case when we’re talking about videogames as experience producing machines. If the point of a game is to produce an experience, then how could we not give priority to the experience of playing it? Imagine if we applied that same reasoning to a painting. Say that the “point” of painting is to produce a visual. If that’s the case, then it would make no sense to approach a painting as anything other than a visual artifact. A painting’s worth is not determined by the materials that the artist used to construct that painting. One does not say that a painting is “great, unless we consider the materials involved in creating it.” That would make no sense. Of course, identifying the materials is an interesting and useful thing to know, because it might help to explain the causes behind our reaction to said painting. But they do not precede our value judgments on the painting–they merely help us to justify and rationalize those reactions.
Aside from being misguided and unrealistic, Jeffries’s approach risks courting the resentment of some readers. For it implies that the reviewer has somehow transcended his own initial experiences with the game and is therefore uniquely positioned to impartially dissect and predict the experiences of others, when in fact the opposite is true: i.e., our initial experience with a work often plays an essential role in determining not only what we think of the work, but also what we think of the public’s reaction to that work.
(A recent example of this phenomenon: many film critics and analysts explained the poor box office of The Hurt Locker by suggesting that the movie is simply ‘too heavy” for a mainstream audience that already finds itself coping with the grim reality of two wars and an economic recession. But if this is true, then what do we make of Transformers 2, which is just as violent and was also released during the same tumultuous period, only to make hundreds of millions of dollars? The answer to this riddle is quite simple: film critics saw The Hurt Locker and determined it was very, very good. They also saw Transformers 2 and determined that it was very, very bad. Accordingly, they politely blamed the audience for Hurt Locker’s failure and Transformers 2’s success by describing the former as “too heavy” and the latter as “easy escapism.” In other words, they assumed that the success or failure of either movie had nothing to do with their actual value as a work. Transformers was a success not because it did things right, but because it did things wrong. Conversely, The Hurt Locker was a commercial failure because of everything it did right! At this point, it is worth mentioning that there is nothing wrong with this attitude. My only wish is that more videogame critics followed suit.)
An ideal approach to reviewing an “experience generating machine” would begin with a subjective appraisal of ‘the affects’ or sensations that the game communicates to us as a player. Only after we’ve reflected and formed an opinion on these matters do we begin to search for clues that explain how the game was able to transmit those feelings in the first place. In other words, we do not determine that a game is “good” after evaluating how the experience machine works. To the contrary, we first determine that a game is “good” and then look to the machine’s structure in an attempt to understand why it “worked” for us. Looked at from this perspective, the study of “experience machines” is really a study of the self. It is a study of the conditions (both real and virtual) that must be met for certain feelings and sensations to be triggered within us. And if you accept the notion that emotional triggers are only as valuable as the emotions they trigger, then it becomes crucial to reflect on the value of the experience itself before getting down to a functional analysis of the game design.
This is also why the “car review” analogy just doesn’t fit. A car is not an experience or an experience generator. Yes, we may find that driving a particularly nice car results in a pleasurable morning commute. But in this case the pleasant experience is incidental to tha act of driving the car. One does not buy a nice car because the experience of driving it is worthwhile in and of itself (unless you’re Jay Leno, but no one wants to be him nowadays, lol). No, we buy cars because we need it to go places. Once we’ve made the decision to buy it, we might say to ourselves: “Hey look, it seems like I have some extra cash burning a hole in my pockets! And seeing as I’m already buying a car, why not use this extra dough to buy a really nice one, so that I can get to my destination more comfortably.” Notice how the need to buy a car precedes our decision to go for the one with the fancy features. The fancy features are just our way of making an otherwise necessary purchase more pleasant than it otherwise would be.
Games as “experience machines,” however, are designed for the express purpose of generating worthwhile experiences. We technically don’t need to play them, but those of us who recognize the medium’s expressive power and limitless potential actually want to, believing that our lives can be enriched in the process.
If not cars, then what else could these experience machines be compared to? Perhaps the well-known “game criticism as ‘travel log’” approach gives us a better analogy. Ideally, we play games for the same (ideal) reason that we travel: to experience an ‘alternate reality,’ to disrupt the monotonous flow of daily life, to unsettle our notion of what is ‘normal’ or ‘necessary,’ to engage others on their own terms, to learn from and experiment with different modes of being in the world, etc. There are times when these cultural exchanges require you to push the limits of what’s possible in the way Jeffries suggests. But oftentimes it is best to temporarily surrender to the experience itself and abide by the rules in place in the country we’re visiting so as to allow yourself to learn something meaningful in the process.
At the beginning of his essay, Jeffries suggests that reviewing games might be harder than any other kind of review, because our experiences with games tend to be more unique and varied than they are with any other medium. I think he’s right. Accordingly, I don’t want to suggest that this is somehow the definitive way to approach game criticism. Not even close. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that games are best understood as experience generating machines, though I certainly find that description persuasive and believe it applies to many types of games.
Rather than seeking to impose a single methodology on this endlessly complex medium, perhaps we should be embracing its many ambiguities and enigmas. We should be flexible, adapting our styles according to the games under review at any given time. Critical gaming “schools” will come in due time, but we shouldn’t be in any rush to get there. The fact that game criticism remains a largely uncharted field might make it more difficult to navigate, but it also allows us a degree of freedom that is no longer present in more established mediums.
So let’s enjoy this freedom while it lasts, for it might no longer be available by the time the next generation of game critics arrive. Once you adopt this attitude, you might even find that the medium’s many ambiguities are precisely what make it so interesting.
Pictured above: “Deep Horizon” by UBERMORGEN.COM