Critics don't need thumbs
February 29, 2008
When I ask students to reflect on a film or play and express those thoughts in writing, they nearly always produce something that looks like a review. I liked it or didn't like it. Thumbs up or down. Three stars. To most of them, this is how a critic engages with art.
I label this approach "Ebertism" (an admittedly unfair swipe at Roger Ebert) because it functions as a kind of consumer report. Students typically misinterpret the assignment because they operate under the impression that a critic's job is to help me decide how to spend my money. They mistake a critique for a review, and why shouldn't they? Reviewer and critic are interchangeable terms to most people, and we don't spend much time sorting out the differences.
Greg Costikyan is attempting to do just that. Costikyan has developed a reputation as the game industry's "voice of cynicism and despair." While his tone can sometimes be needlessly hostile or patronizing, he can usually be relied on to point at the thing that needs to be pointed at. Lately, he's been pointing at game criticism, and I think he offers a useful perspective. Costikyan draws an important set of distinctions between game criticism and game reviews.
Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.
Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator's previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).
You can read all of Costikyan's essay here.
I find Costikyan's description of a critic's role useful, but I think another role exists in the dynamic relationship between artist and audience - one that is neither reviewer nor critic, but operates somewhere between the two. In the theater we call this person a dramaturg.
A dramaturg is a servant of the creative process. While not an artist, he or she works collaboratively with the playwright, directors, and designers as a kind of critic in residence. A dramaturg helps an artist see the work in context with whatever the team decides matters: history, aesthetics, verisimilitude, translation. He or she functions as a conduit between the artists and the play itself, and also between the production and the audience. In a way, the dramaturg is the defender of the core mission, keeping everyone's eye on the ball, helping unify the vision, and helping pave the way for an audience to receive and understand it.
Is there a video game analog to the dramaturg? Does the lead developer on a project take on this role? Is such a thing seen as even necessary? I'm curious to know. It's quite possible to make good theater without a dramaturg, but over the last 50 years we've come to see this person as a highly valuable and necessary part of the production team. I realize video games are produced very differently, of course, but I wonder if such a person exists or would be perceived as valuable in the video game industry?