Games and media

Fish in a barrel

BoothbabesE3 killed my desire to play games. After three days of wandering two massive expo halls filled with games, I found myself gripped by a powerful urge to hug my analog family and flee into analog nature dual-wielding analog sticks equipped with analog marshmallows.    

E3 is about whetting our appetite to play video games, not recoil from them, right? What happened? I'll explain. Happily, my story has an upbeat ending.

As an event aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys, E3 can make a guy like me wonder if I belong there. It can also make one wonder if we've made any progress, aside from technical, in 30 years of game development.

We have, of course, but when you see a line of guys waiting for their chance to be photographed next to an unfortunate $12/hr shlub posing as Master Chief, or gameplay footage captioned with "After getting her groove on with the stripper pole, Juliet beheads some zombie patrons," you wonder. I'm not cherry-picking, folks. E3 2012 offered up heaping helpings of ludicrous flimflam. No point in imperious smirking. It is what it is. Fish in a barrel.

Belonging, and not
The fact is, I probably don't belong at E3. My first request for a media badge was turned down because the E3 organizers didn't consider Brainy Gamer "industry-focused"...and they're probably right. Nowhere in its requirements for media affiliation does E3 mention anything about game critics. A generous plea on my behalf from Ben Fritz at the L.A. Times secured my badge, and I was genuinely thrilled to attend my first E3. Even as I write this, I fear I'm being ungracious. I hope not.

Describing E3 as overwhelming is like calling a tornado "windy." It’s a pounding audiovisual circus. Sensory overload typically hit me after an hour on the show floor, so I regularly retreated to the media lounge to detox and gather myself for a few minutes. Then it was back into the breach for more ludic bacchanalia. Don't get me wrong. It was fun, sort of like gorging on the bucket-full of candy you bring home on Halloween as a kid. But when the bellyache hits, that Tootsie Roll don't look so good.

What, me worry?
It's easy to be worried about video games these days. CNBC wonders "is the videogame industry dying?" Nintendo reported its first annual operating loss in 30 years. Smart people who love games are concerned. Warren Spector says the ultraviolence has finally gone too far. "I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop." Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in the industry, and many still feel shut out or undervalued by the community.

Some people read my previous post as an anti-shooter rant, but that's not how I intended it. I have nothing against shooters per se. Halo 4 was easily one of the best games I saw at E3 this year, and I can't wait to see how 343 Industries implements its plan for episodic releases. The multiplayer demo I played was smooth and silky FPS-ness at its best.

The problem is homogeneity, and this year's event was essentially about watching publishers run one shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. Aisle after aisle of games with guns isn't ethically problematic. It's worse than that. It's boring."

Chorus of blues
This year's E3 was a bloated, discombobulated and, ironically, trifling mess. I'm hardly the first to say so. The Verge's Paul Miller laid bare the banality of the E3 press conference. Eurogamer asked "was E3 the grisliest games show ever?" Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft wrote an especially dispiriting essay on why, for him, this was "The E3 of Disillusion." Tim Rogers penned a 5700-word essay for Kotaku called "Allow Me to Apologize for E3 2012."

Tomorrow, the Game Critics Awards will be announced, honoring the "best of E3 2012." Of the 30+ journalists invited to judge the games at E3, only one is a woman (Fran Reyes, EIC of Official Xbox Magazine). With so many informed female and transgendered voices to choose from, it's inconceivable that E3's organizers cling to an outmoded old boys network of voices.1

It's tempting to read E3 as a barometer of the entire game industry. Nearly all the major developers are there (plus an increasing number of indies), and media coverage breathlessly delivers timed announcements as breaking news:

"Hey guys, you don't wanna miss this. We've got in-game footage YOU WON'T BELIEVE of the new Splinter Cell! This will undoubtedly be one of the best games you'll play next year!"

That's a game journalist describing six minutes of gameplay, demoed by a Ubisoft representative, of an unfinished game no one has yet played. News commingles with hype at E3, and it's often impossible to separate the reporting from the selling.

I may not be the target audience for E3, but I'm grateful I was there to see it first-hand. If you want to understand how the game industry works and what its messaging says about that industry, E3 is an essential place to be. It's not easy, but if you can see past the booth babes and fever-pitched hype, you’ll find some intriguing things happening at E3, mainly in the margins.

I met the 4-person dev team behind Papo & Yo and played their remarkably beautiful game. I chatted at-length with the lead animator of Klei's Mark of the Ninja, a game that looked and played like no other game on the floor. I played The Unfinished Swan with its creator, Ian Dallas, standing next to me, discussing what he's learned from watching people play his game.

Several AAA games impressed me too. I mentioned Halo 4 above. I also attended David Cage's live demo of Beyond: Two Souls, and I'm eager to play it, Heavy Rain comparisons be damned. Far Cry 3 gets more enticing the more I learn about it, and the Wii U looked and felt much better than I expected. At an expo full of sameness, Nintendo's booth was dotted with game ideas that felt fresh and fun.

Best of all, I'm happily playing games again, and I have E3 to thank for that too. I'll explain why in my next post. For now I'll just say that what I'm playing, where I'm playing, and how I'm playing have all changed for the better. More soon. Happy gaming!

1. According to Game Critics Awards judge Gary Steinman (EIC of Games Radar) on Official Playstation Blogcast, Episode 27.

Wholesome cacophony

CacophonyIf forceful writing inspires assessment and introspection - with a dash of outrage and resistance - Taylor Clark’s Atlantic profile of Jonathan Blow was potent stuff. I responded here, aided by 350 readers who contributed entries to my "Smart Game" Catalog. A hearty thanks to all who helped! More on that project soon.

Others posted their own thoughts - I especially enjoyed Matthew Burns’ reflections on the “mysterious barrier” designers face and Darshana Jayemanne’s essay for Kill Screen Daily, which expands the focus beyond “smart” or “dumb” to suggest we jettison our limiting thinking about games:

Inevitability and irreversibility--either there’s a straight line plotted out for you by an artistic genius, or it isn’t art... [I]t's time to jettison “nonlinear” in favor of a range of more specific terms... Thinking past “nonlinearity” will help us to explore videogames without either overstating their novelty or foreclosing on their future.

Clark himself returned with a helpful follow-up essay for Kotaku that clarified his position on why he thinks so many games are “dumb”: “What I wrote came not from ignorance or contempt, but from frustration with the state of big-budget gaming.” He goes on to explain why he finds so many games excruciatingly unsophisticated:

My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It's not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it's the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.

Voices voicing
If you write a blog called “Brainy Gamer,” I guess you’re expected to jump into these debates with both feet, and I’m happy to do it. It’s a dialogue worth pursuing because spirited deliberation on the nature of games signals an art form continuing to expand its own definition of itself. I continue to see an industry (broadly defined) responding to voices within and outside its circle of creators, and that’s a good thing.

Obviously, not every voice rings with clarity, but if you’re looking for insightful writing about games, it’s never been easier to find. Check out yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Papers, Rock, Paper Shotgun’s weekly compilation of essays on games, and you will find 12 (twelve!) stellar articles devoted to games written in just the last week. Critical Distance continues to comb the web for thoughtful writing about games, and it never fails to promote terrific pieces on games from a variety of perspectives.

The video game difference
Search for recent conversations about journalism, and you’ll find endless hand-wringing essays about the death of print media, the difficulty of monetizing online journalism, etc. Perform similar searches for film, television, books, and you’ll find the same thing. It’s a transitional period, and big media continues to spin its wheels, mired in rights management and distribution issues. The arguments are mostly about money, and analytical coverage tends to focus on ownership, licensing, profitability, etc. What Disney the studio makes, for example, gets less critical scrutiny than how Disney the corporation is run.

Video games conversations aren’t like that. Sure, you can find plenty of coverage devoted to earnings, digital distribution, and corporate health (with Sony and Nintendo in the crosshairs lately), but the vibrant dialogue exchange in the video game space is mostly about the games. Diablo 3’s visual style matters a lot to lots of people. What precisely constitutes an “indie game” can get folks riled up.

Say what you will about the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. From a political and sociological perspective (heck, let’s throw in rhetorical too), it was a fascinating picture of passionate and devoted content-consumers exerting influence and, more importantly, community ownership, on a powerful content-producer. Did BioWare surrender its artistic integrity? Do players have a right to demand an ending they find suitable? What does “game ending” even mean when applied to a branching narrative experience? These are genuinely interesting questions, and they’re typical of the questions that frame much of the broad and ongoing conversation about games. This, too, is a good thing.

It's good to ruminate
Lately I’ve noticed some writers leading off their essays on “games as art” or other ruminations on game aesthetics with something like “I know everybody’s sick of this topic by now, but…” That’s a shame. We should stop doing that. Yes, maybe we pounded the “Ebert hates games” nail for too long, and maybe we sometimes dig ratholes leading nowhere.

But Taylor Clark did us a favor when he decried “dumb games” because he sent us scrambling to prove him wrong and to define what makes certain games “smart.” When Tom Bissell wonders, as he did last week, “why so many look at this game [The Witcher 2] and see a pinnacle rather than a careworn template fast-receding” he drives Witcher 2 fans to their keyboards to articulate, with evidence from their own experiences, why he is wrong. I’m sure he knew this would happen, and that, too, is a good thing.

I wish we wrangled over the American Theater this way. That conversation occurs in cafes and at restaurant tables, but nowhere to the degree or depth that I see happen regularly about games. I can have a vigorous chat with my fellow academics at a theater conference, but, really, what’s the point of that? It’s an island we visit once a year, and then we all return home.

If Theater is high art in an echo chamber, and video games are low art in a cacophony, I’ll take the cacophony. The great video game conversation is happening 24/7 worldwide - rants, fanboys, and flamewars included. It's a wholesome cacophony and an irrepressible sign of life.

I got your smart games right here.


There's no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb… In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding. --Atlantic Magazine profile of Jonathan Blow, May '12

It’s hard not to see Taylor Clark’s recent Atlantic essay as a sharp slap in the face to all of us who don’t believe all video games are “juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy” and aren’t peering at the horizon awaiting the “Citizen Kane of video games."

Clark, presumably channeling his subject’s well-known contempt for mindless derivative design, berates the entire medium, industry, and community of gamers with a cruel flick of his pen. Predictably, the Twitterverse and discussion forums erupted in outrage, with angry gamers accusing Clark of ignorance, elitism, condescension…and worse. Clark's critique has validity, but his sweeping generalizations and dismissive rhetoric undermine his assertions and obscure an otherwise fascinating portrait of an important designer.

So, how best to respond to such an inflammatory essay? I have one idea that I’ll pitch in a moment. But first a few thoughts about Clark's assertions.

Mainstream media is always “dumb.” It’s easy to point at a critical darling like Mad Men and say “See how smart TV can be?” Do you know how many people in the U.S. actually watch Mad Men? 2.5 million. That’s a decent number for cable, but a meager 2.5 million viewers would get Mad Men canceled if it ran on a major network.

Twice as many people watch reruns of Jersey Shore than watch first-run episodes of Mad Men. Three times as many watch Judge Judy. As I write this, the #1 movie in America is Think Like a Man, and the #1 book is “Guilty Wives.” We consume lots of pablum. We always have. Why should video games be any different? Clark's contention that games are even dumber than dumb movies makes no sense to me. Dumb is dumb.

Clark is looking at the wrong games. I hope Mr. Clark will attend IndieCade or Games for Change this year. I hope he will chat with other designers besides Jonathan Blow about their design philosophies, priorities, and aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t bother with the Sid Meiers or Will Wrights. We’ve heard their ideas. Try a young, emerging designer like Chris Bell. Listen to him describe the game he’s working on (a game called WAY, which I’ve played), and tell me what’s dumb about his project.

So many questions. Why no mention of Minecraft, Portal, SpaceChem, Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, Bastion, or any strategy game? Why so fixated on narrative? Why no consideration for player-driven or emergent experiences? If “the form remains an artistic backwater,” exactly what form are we talking about? Discussing video games as a monolithic medium oversimplifies the wide (and still growing) variety of genres, play styles, mechanics, and interactive formats video games have adopted.

Maybe Clark is exhausted. I have a feeling this is the real story, and I'm sympathetic. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. We’ve played games from their infancy, and we thought they would matter more by now. We thought we would be long past the “art” question by now. We thought we would see more games for grown-ups by now. I watch the E3 press conferences, I walk into my local GameStop, I hear my students talk about games, and all I see are guns, guns, and more guns. It’s so easy to be disappointed. Clark quotes Chris Hecker’s lament, “It’s just adolescent nonsense.” Often I think he’s right.

But then Clark delivers another zinger, and I hear a gauntlet hit the ground:

It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.

Really? Clark further contends that “gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles” - Flower and Braid - to counter Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that games are unworthy of aesthetic consideration.


Let's Build Something
I think we can do better than that. We can respond constructively. I propose that we collectively build an informal "Smart Game Catalog.” Nothing official. No effort to be comprehensive. Simply an invitation to pitch a game you consider “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” and explain why you think so. If you disagree with Clark's bleak assessment, counter with a helpful response.

Vilifying Clark or defensively rejecting his characterization of games serves no useful purpose. There is more than a kernel of truth in his view of games as "juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy." Too many games are "plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels." Clark's generalizations may undermine his argument, but as I wrote about Jon Blow in my previous post, an artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it. Clark strikes me as a critic motivated to do just that.

Pooling our collective expertise and building an informal catalog of smart games may encourage Clark and others to consider games in a more nuanced way than his Atlantic article models. If nothing else, such a catalog will make a handy resource for players seeking smart games, broadly defined, to play.

Here’s a simple format for the catalog:

  • Name of game
  • Developer and Release Year
  • Platform (PC, Sega Genesis, PS3, Multi, etc.)
  • A paragraph or two (keep it concise) explaining precisely why you consider the game “artistic or intellectually sophisticated.” Apply rigorous criteria. You have one game to recommend. Choose the best one you know.

If you agree or disagree with someone’s choice of a particular game, say so in the comments here. I’m not interested in flamewars, so be civil and respectful. I’ll moderate your entries to avoid spam, so please be patient if the game you choose doesn’t appear on the list immediately.

Let’s see if we can prove - with specific titles as our evidence - that games can be more than “brain-dead digital toys.”

NOTE: After 365 submissions, I'm no longer accepting entries to the catalog. Thanks for your help!!

View the catalog.

View the catalog in spreadsheet mode (Choose View | List to sort and filter)


Loser We've seen a fair amount of euphoria emerge from the video game community in response to Monday's Supreme Court decision. The ruling has been hailed by various outlets as a validation of games as speech, games as art, and games as analogous under the law to other media like books and films.

Monday's ruling is unquestionably a win for games, but I'm not so sure it's a win worth celebrating. While I'm delighted that seven Justices saw fit to protect games under the First Amendment, their formal opinions on the case raise serious questions about their understanding of games and their ability to grasp the defining characteristics of the medium.

Even the Justices themselves express deeply ambivalent reactions to their own ruling, with Alito and Roberts issuing separate statements taking issue with Scalia's majority opinion, and Thomas and Breyer (who often collide on other issues) offering strongly worded dissenting remarks.

So, what on the surface looks like a landslide decision (7-2) is in reality three Justices who share Scalia's point of view (see my previous post for details) and four who take issue or strongly disagree with many of his assertions. As a matter of strict scrutiny constitutional law, games won the day; but as cultural validation, the ruling looks like a familiar a mish-mash of uncertainty and fear.

People (like me) who believe video games can be powerful artistic forms of expression will find much to be troubled by in Monday's ruling. Scalia's majority opinion goes out of its way to diminish the uniquely interactive nature of games - he equates them with Choose Your Own Adventure books - and in so doing he privileges the narrative dimension of games over their nature as complex systems that operate rhetorically very differently from literature or film.

Alito's response (which I find more thoughtul) worries much more about the extraordinarily immersive experiences games can deliver, and he expresses concern that we don't yet properly understand how this “new and rapidly evolving technology” works and why it should or shouldn't concern us.

Of all the Justices, Alito is the one who took it upon himself to research video games by playing them himself and observing their contents firsthand. He reports that “the violence is astounding”; he notes a preponderance of stereotyped minorities, and he cautions that “We should not jump to the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar.”

Again, Alito sided with the majority because the California law was poorly written and failed strict scrutiny. But his opinion strikes me as more valuable and informed than Scalia's because he accepts what so many of us have been saying for years: video games, at their best, deliver a substantively different experience than other media, and this experience can profoundly affect the player emotionally and intellectually.

Put another way, if Jim Gee, Ian Bogost, and Jane McGonigal are right (or even if they're only partially right) about the transformative power of games to impact human behavior, maybe we oughtn't be so thrilled about Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor lumping them together as analogous to other media, albeit with wiz-bang tech.

Maybe, as Alito and Breyer suggest (Thomas argues an originalist view that essentially ignores games), we ought to pay more careful attention to how games work and what they can do for good, ill, and otherwise. Doing so acknowledges that these newfangled electronic gizmos may fall under free speech protection, but they aren't movies and they certainly aren't books. California may have written an ill-conceived and unenforceable law, but that doesn't mean kids shouldn't be prohibited from buying games that may mess with their heads in ways we don't fully understand.

Ironically, maybe our case, as gamers who understand the transformative power of games, would be better served by a loss that acknowledges the medium's true nature, rather than a win from a court that states: “Even if we can see in them 'nothing of any possible value to society..., they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature.'”

SCOTUS Modern Elite Force 7 Rulez


Today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that would have restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. This landmark ruling - and I don’t use that term lightly - goes farther than any scholarly treatise, keynote address, or impassioned blog essay in settling the case for games as a medium of artistic, and, therefore, protected expression.

For many of us, designating video games as free speech is a no-brainer. But to the broader society at large, it’s still very much an open question, just as it was when the court struck down censorship against motion pictures in Burstyn v. Wilson, a case cited in today’s ruling and widely seen as a cultural milestone.

Why is today’s ruling so important? The obvious headline is that the court “legitimized” video games today. CNN declared on its website: “Supreme Court sees video games as art.” The Washington Post ran with “Supreme Court: Books as ‘interactive’ as video games.”

These are pithy takeaway messages, but they fail to account for significant and far-reaching issues emerging from Justice Scalia’s majority opinion. While it may be refreshing to think the Supreme Court considers video games art (I'm not sure they do, actually, but more on that later), other aspects of the ruling may be more consequential.

Distinctive communication
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas and even social messages through many familiar literary devices...and through features distinctive to the medium.” The ruling notes that while games share characteristics with other media, they must also be seen as possessing unique discursive powers worthy of protection. This is a welcome and surprisingly nuanced view coming from a set of judges, none of whom play video games.

Hobgoblin of interactivity
Today’s ruling dismisses the notion that interactivity, by itself, presents special problems. Scalia characterized as “unpersuasive” the claim that players who participate in violent action on screen are at risk, noting that “This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.” Furthermore, the ruling suggests that video games cannot lay sole claim to interactivity, noting that “all literature is interactive. The better it is, the more interactive.”

Games don't cause violence
The court examined research presented by both sides and concluded: “Nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology. ...Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”

Grandstanding fail
The ruling chastises California for selectively targeting video games while ignoring other media that routinely depict egregious acts of violence. He notes that such policies raise “serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” In other news, California State Senator Leland Yee vows to fight on.

The Playboy argument
Today’s decision also protects video games from the tyranny of the ‘moral’ majority. While the court displayed a clear distaste for games like Mortal Kombat (and an unmistakable elitism about its artistic merits1), the majority opinion reiterated its support for individual choice and interpretation. Quoting United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Scalia writes, “Under our Constitution, esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature...are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”

No obscene ideas
While the court recognized the State’s legitimate power to protect children from harm, “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. Speech...cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.”

Parents rule
At various points in the majority opinion, the justices express doubts about a ‘government knows best’ approach in this case. “...punishing third parties for conveying protected speech to children just in case their parents disapprove” is an improper means of aiding parental authority. The ruling goes on to note that “Not all of the children who are forbidden to purchase violent video games on their own have parents who care whether they purchase violent video games. While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want."


Today’s Supreme Court decision attempts to address many key issues related to video games, not simply the question “are games art?” In fact, a careful reading of Scalia’s opinion suggests that he, and perhaps others in the majority, may not consider games art at all. Scalia uses the term only once in his 18-page opinion (and it's a quote from a previous ruling). Nowhere does he argue or claim that video games should be considered art.

What the Supreme Court did say, unequivocally, today is that video games must be considered speech; and, therefore, must qualify for First Amendment protection. This, in a representative democracy influenced by powerful special interests, is a much bigger deal than the question of art.

I’ll return in my next post with a few thoughts on why I won’t be writing Justice Scalia a thank-you note just yet. I hope you’ll stick around.

1. "Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones."


Something for everyone


Look. We hear you. You want what you’ve always wanted, but you also want something new. You want things to look like they always have, but you want the buzz of the new... Contradictions? No problem. They come with the territory. But is it possible to ask, and is it even possible to deliver something for everyone?
                               --Reggie Fils-Aime, President, Nintendo of America 

The big E3 press conferences aren’t really press conferences at all, despite most media outlets referring to them as such. Sony calls its event a press conference, but Microsoft prefers “Media Briefing,” and Nintendo likes “Media Presentation.”

A press conference implies dialogue - an opportunity for journalists to engage the manufacturers and publishers who drive a twenty billion dollar industry. Such unscripted events can be hazardous for executives, however, as Geoff Keighley’s refreshingly tough interview with Reggie Fils-Aime illustrates. (Be sure to watch all three parts.)

These orchestrated gatherings are about sending carefully crafted messages to the press, consumers, and Wall Street: ninety minutes of hyperbole to claim the spotlight, frame the narrative, and fuel the hype. Conventional wisdom says Sony and Microsoft compete for the hardcore crowd, while Nintendo caters to the casuals, and that’s pretty much how things have played out recently.

Fail tale
But this year it’s a different story, especially for Nintendo and Microsoft. Nintendo, seeing flagging sales of its hardware, wants its core gamers back; and Microsoft, seeing an enthusiastic but limited hardcore base, has its eye on Nintendo’s casuals. Both need to expand their audiences, and both devoted major portions of their E3 briefings to proving how serious they are about succeeding. And both will fail.

They will fail for a variety of reasons, but the primary culprit is likely to be pedigree. Both of their E3 presentations effectively showcase Nintendo and Microsoft’s impressive strengths, and each painfully illustrates how they stumble when they venture outside their comfort zones. 

Watching Microsoft and Nintendo’s E3 presentations is like traveling from a UFC arena to a big-top circus tent. The tone and vibe of each is completely different, reflecting the cultures of each company, deliberately crafted over years of products and marketing. What’s more, their 90-minute show-and-tells can be seen as polar opposite examples of the same curious failure to persuade.

Open fire
For the first two-thirds of its briefing, Microsoft brought the guns. A nine-minute combat sequence from Modern Warfare 3 opened the show, followed by five minutes of “intense and visceral survival” featuring Lara Croft tied up, burned, impaled, pursued, and dragged from behind. Then “kick-ass action” in a Mass Effect 3 combat demo; tactical battle from Ghost Recon Future Soldier, followed by a Kinect-enabled weapon customization demo. 

We caught our collective breath with a seven-minute briefing on new Xbox Live features, but lest anyone doubt the service's bad-assery, the presentation concluded with a trailer announcing the arrival of live-streamed UFC fights. Then the lights dimmed for a Gears of War 3 trailer; a six-minute co-op combat demo with Cliff Bleszinski and Ice T; an ancient Roman battle in Ryse; and a Covenant/Flood-blasting montage from Halo HD. Sixty minutes of full-throttle male power fantasy whoop-whoop, and nobody does it better than Microsoft. I'm not sure if "better" is the word I mean here. I felt a little sick by the end of it, to be honest.

When the briefing finally shifted to other kinds of games, the mood in room shifted too. Kinect Disneyland Adventures was met with polite applause. The opening bars of John Williams’ Star Wars theme got a thunderous reaction...which quickly fell to silence as the dismal Kinect Star Wars game demo wore on. A new Fable title appeared promising, but quickly faded as the audience grew restless.

It’s tempting to attribute the lukewarm reactions to the fact that these games lack guns and gore. Xbox players want to shoot stuff real good, and these games look suspiciously casual. But such a reading misjudges the crowd sitting in that room. These games went over like lead balloons simply because they looked awful - regressive on-rails tech demos for motion-control - and this savvy crowd sniffed that out in seconds. 

Waggle haggle
If this year's E3 proves anything, it's that Microsoft is doubling down on its Kinect bet, and it will produce titles that use it, no matter what. While big games like Mass Effect 3 and FIFA are implementing Kinect in their own ways, the family-friendly Kinect games Microsoft showed at E3 took a page from the early "look what this thing can do!" waggle days of the Wii. When Tim Schafer walked onstage to present his colorful and charming Once Upon a Monster - including an onstage father/son combo that appeared to be having actual fun - it was like somebody opened a window to let the stink out of the room.

If Microsoft and its developers want to expand their market, they should commit to the same level of imagination, design savvy, and craftsmanship that their FPS developers devote to their games. Spend ten minutes with Kirby Canvas Curse or Super Mario Galaxy to see how well Nintendo and its satellites understand what that commitment means.

Of course, Nintendo has credibility issues of its own, and these emerged at nearly the same moment that Microsoft hit the wall: in the final act of its 3-act briefing. I'll return in my next post to discuss Nintendo's presentation. Who know, maybe I'll even get around to Sony's. The rhetoric of hype never fails to provoke me.

Valuable experience

Eugene  Critic2

Dan Cook has provoked a dust-up over at his Lost Garden blog with an opinion piece entitled "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." Ben Abraham responded on his blog, and Andrew Doull followed up on his. A flurry of Twitter posts took issue with Cook's assertions, and many commenters have responded directly on Cook's site.

I've enjoyed the conversation, partly because Cook seems more interested in discourse than diatribe, but mainly because it's created a wide open channel for discussion of game criticism: what it is, who should do it, and why it matters. I know some have grown tired of this topic (it re-emerges roughly every six months), but I continue to find it useful, and decidedly non-navel-gazy, when it encourages careful reflection on the role of critics and the function of criticism. 

Many journo/critic friends I admire have dismissed Cook's main argument, but I must say I find his thesis thought-provoking and worthy of consideration. In essence, Cook wants to see less experiential criticism of games and more writing that focuses analytically on the systems and formal design elements underlying games. In other words, he wants more writers with practical design chops producing criticism that advances the medium in "actionable" ways. I'll return to this thought in a moment.

Where Cook goes wrong, in my view, is devaluing criticism that fails to satisfy his criteria. While I agree there's a hole waiting to filled by the kind of writing Cook wants (though not as big as he suggests - plenty of critics have produced systems-focused games criticism), he fails to account for the useful functions and inevitable limitations of any single approach. He contends: 

The vast body of game criticism is written by people that I would consider partial game illiterates. They are dance judges who have watched Dancing with the Stars, but who have never danced.

I would suggest to Mr. Cook that we are all "partial game illiterates." None of us possesses the complete arsenal of skills or universal sensibilities to account for the full measure of a game, a painting, or a symphony. We bring the skills we own, and we do our best to hone them for the task at hand.

Even a critic/designer/scholar as respected as Ian Bogost - whom surely fulfills Mr. Cook's prerequisites - can produce deep systems-based analysis (see his Persuasive Games) that I personally find cold and detached from the powerful sensory and aesthetic dimensions of game design. Does this mean that Mr. Bogost failed to produce valuable analysis? Of course not. But it means his work has a limited value, appeal, and audience, just like all the work we produce...and, I daresay, all of the games Mr. Cook and his colleagues will produce too.

But what if there were a small group that wished to do more than talk about playing? Imagine holding your writing to the standard that asks you to ratchet forward the creative conversation.

Here again, Cook characterizes a vast body of writing (yes, much of it uneven and many games) as only "about playing." I could cite numerous critics whose reach extends far beyond experiential analysis (G. Christopher Williams, Simon Ferrari, Justin Keverne, Sparky Clarkson, and Mitu Khandaker come to mind), but let's say for the purposes of argument that most of us do write primarily "about playing." Isn't that precisely what we ought to be focusing on, from a variety of informed perspectives? From a strictly empirical standpoint, what outcome is more valuable than the player's hands-on experience with the game, with critical commentary on that outcome?

Writing clearly and insightfully (no easy task, I assure you) about the malleable, subjective reality of play should yield valuable (and, yes, actionable) information to the designers and developers who make the games we play. When I drive an automobile - and I'm not talking about test-driving here; I mean driving a vehicle over time and applying my rich experience as a driver attuned to the nuances of driving - my feedback on how that car performs should provide invaluable feedback to the engineers who made it.

I don't need an engineering degree to provide this feedback, nor should I be expected to diagnose the problems I discover. In fact, from the engineer's point of view, my lack of expertise as an engineer offers a welcome, distanced perspective. I hope you'll agree, Mr. Cook, that I can bring very different kinds of expertise - even some you may lack - and our various perspectives can complement each other in service of the evolution of this art form.

Sometimes a critic's most valuable function is saying a thing like nobody's ever said it. Saying it in a way that cuts to the bone. We need more of that kind of writing, and I'll gratefully devour it from anyone who wants to bring it, engineers and English majors included. We're all served by such writing. We needn't compartmentalize who benefits from what. I know many designers who regularly read my work. I suspect they're not looking for meat and potatoes design inspiration from me. I presume they find some other value in it.

We're all trying to 'ratchet forward the creative conversation.' You've suggested ways to do that, Mr. Cook, and I welcome your encouragement. But you should know that many of us have earnestly worked to improve our knowledge and understanding of the game development process. I and many of my colleagues attend GDC and other similar events each year, and the only real purpose (aside from fodder for a few posts) is to educate ourselves about the design process. We attend sessions, participate in workshops, and speak with developers out of a natural curiosity to understand. I know my own writing has been greatly informed by these interactions, and I'm always eager to learn more.

I would suggest to Mr. Cook and other developers that you consider your own responsibilities in cultivating an envrionment wherein critics can learn and grow. Game development, to a far greater degree than filmmaking, live theater, or other collaborative art forms, cloaks its work in secrecy in ways that are counterproductive to critical treatment. I understand there are reasons for such secrecy, and I'm repeatedly reminded of the economic imperatives developers and publishers face.

But if you want informed critics, then you must be willing to help inform us. Choosing one writer from one publication to go "behind the scenes" during development in exchange for exclusive coverage may serve a publisher's promotional goals, but it's antithetical to critical inquiry or dramaturgy. As long as the industry keeps us at arms length, it will continue to receive the fawning cursory coverage we lament. I long ago abandoned my hopes of meaningful conversation with designers during the pivotal stages of development. The list of off-limits topics and publishers' insistence on pre-approving interview texts made it not worth the effort. You have a stake in opening up the design process, but only you can open it.

I accept Dan Cook's encourgement to deepen my understanding of games from a designer's perspective, and I'm persuaded that I can benefit from doing so. I hope he and others will accept the value of experiential, comparative, theoretical and other forms of criticism as no less vital to the evolution of video games as an art form worthy of careful consideration from many points of view. I can tell you from first-hand experience that territorialism and boundaries of expertise have played pernicious roles in academia. We mimic those behaviors at our own risk.


Covered in brawn, mayhem, and steel

GI cover

Consumer magazines are tanking. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show yet another drop (-2.27 percent) in paid circulations through the first half of this year and an even sharper drop (-5.63 percent) in newsstand sales.[1] This decade-long slide shows no sign of stopping.

However, one publication has managed to buck the trend. Of the top 25 consumer magazines, Game Informer (4,364,170 verified subscriptions) saw the biggest increase in subscribers (+21.19 percent). Skeptics will say these numbers are inflated because GI's parent company, GameStop, includes a free subscription to the magazine when customers enroll in the store's Power Up discount program.

That may be true, but Game Informer is far from the only major publication to benefit from such a distribution deal, and in these horrific times for print media, who can blame GI for securing its survival? I'm happy to be a subscriber, if only to ensure that I received the October edition, featuring three gorgeous Saturday Evening Post-style covers devoted to Bioshock Infinite

But I'm not here to evaluate GI's merits as a game magazine. I'm more interested in its covers. I find myself increasingly repulsed by the images GI and other game magazines feature on their covers, and I'm struggling with what I fear those images say about today's games and gamers.

This won't be a diatribe. Game magazines and websites know their audiences and direct their visual appeals accordingly. Casual gamers rarely buy game magazines or visit their associated websites, so publications like GI, GamePro, and EGM target the so-called hardcore crowd and try to give them what they want. It makes sense to me.

That said, I don't think I've fully apprehended the degree to which weaponry, militarism, hyper-masculinity, and violence dominate the visual landscape of our games media. I mean, I know it, of course, because I see it all the time. I've written about it here, and it's a frequent topic of conversation with my students and colleagues.

But when I sat down today and began collecting images from magazine covers published this year, I was staggered by the the extreme narrowness, the repetitious drumbeat, and grotesque rigidity of the imagery. Yes, it's supercharged male power fantasy stuff, which is troubling for all sorts of reasons. But that's not what shook me today.

I look at these images and suddenly wonder why I'm here. It sounds overwrought and self-absorbed, but I can't help it. If these magazine covers (and the flood of similar imagery on analogous websites, advertising, and elsewhere) convey something truthful about games, American game culture, and the game industry, is this a place where I can feel at home? Are we really moving forward? Will indie games save us?

This week my students and I read the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case involving the sale of video games to minors (transcript here). Claims and counter-claims aside, one thing is clear. This case is being argued by attorneys who don't know much about video games before nine Justices who know even less. What they know, or think they know, emanates from perceptions derived primarily from mainstream media coverage of video games. Images like the ones below.

FYI, I've organized each magazine chronologically, January 2010 through the most recent issue. EGM and @Gamer began publishing mid-year, which is why you'll find fewer of them. I think you'll discover Edge Magazine (published in the UK) charts a slightly different course, but you be the judge.

Click on any image to enlarge.

Game Informer

GI-1001 GI-1002 GI-1003

GI-1004 GI-1005 GI-1006

GI-1007 GI-1008 GI-1009

Gi-1010-1 GI-1011


Gp-1001 Gp-1002 Gp-1003

Gp-1004 Gp-1005 Gp-1006

Gp-1007 Gp-1008 Gp-1009

Gp-1010 Gp-1011


EGM-summer10 EGM-1010 EGM-1011



Gamer-1007 Gamer-1009 Gamer-1010


Edge Magazine

Edge-1001 Edge-1002 Edge-1003

Edge-1004 Edge-1005 Edge-1006

EDGE-1007 EDGE-1008 EDGE-1009

EDGE-1010 EDGE-1011 EDGE-1012



When Abbie Heppe submitted her review of Metroid: Other M (2 out of 5 stars) for G4, I'm guessing she hit the SEND button and ran for cover. The backlash from fans was immense (459 comments, and counting) and personal ("It sounds like the reviewer had just had an argument with her boyfriend or something and was is a particularly "MAN HATING" mood when she played the game.") G4 removed a fair number of comments they deemed inappropriate, so there's no telling how many people stopped by to tar and feather Ms. Heppe.  

To be fair, Heppe received supportive comments as well, and many commenters defended Heppe's credentials and agreed with her point of view about the game.

In a nutshell, Heppe objects to the game's depiction of its protagonist, delivered via two hours of cutscenes narrated by the formerly silent Samus in a confessional "dear diary" style.

In short, you're asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.

Heppe also takes issue with Metroid: OM's controls, first-person mode, puzzles, and other elements; but her main complaint is that Nintendo and Team Ninja's effort to 'flesh out' one of the most iconic female characters in video game history has resulted in a depiction of Samus that's "insulting to both Samus and her fans." And that's where Heppe apparently crossed the line for many readers.

I'm struck by this brouhaha, not because it's new or especially rancorous. If you've seen one flamewar, you've seen them all. But it does illustrate what happens when a writer for a high-profile outlet chooses to address a game critically - I mean when he or she functions as a critic instead of simply a reviewer. All too often the backlash is severe and ugly. It suggests that, for a sizable portion of the gaming audience, genuine criticism is perceived as inappropriate, unnecessary, or even unprofessional.

Heppe engages Metroid: Other M on several levels, including as an evaluative reviewer. She observes, for example, that certain elements of the game's design don't work well (e.g. auto-targeting, sideways control scheme). She likes the combat, but she doesn't like the puzzles. As a "should you buy this game" reviewer, Heppe offers her take in a format familiar to anyone who's read these sorts of reviews from mainstream games media outlets.

Silly feminist and their emotions geting in the way of professionalism. [sic]**

When Heppe views Metroid through a critical lens, she applies a perspective and a methodology that informs her thinking. This is what critics do. Observing Samus as the embodiment of an empowered female hero - a perspective, by the way, that Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto reinforced in his GDC talk last March - enables Heppe to engage her subject in a rigorous, yet personal way. She applies standards of character construction that any responsible critic might apply, and she brings her own interpretive experience with Samus and the Metroid series to bear as well. Again, this is what critics do.

Heppe's approach is valuable because it contextualizes Samus as a fictional character in an unfolding narrative universe, and Nintendo has clearly gone out of its way in Metroid: OM to deepen our understanding of that universe and Samus' place in it. Heppe is meeting the game at precisely the point where its creators have lavished so much attention: Samus and her story. The game's first bit of dialogue, "Why am I still alive?" sets the stage for the story to come. Nintendo and Team Ninja stumble badly in their attempt to answer it, and Heppe tries to explain why.

The backlash takes a variety of forms. There's bald misogyny:

I'm not even a Metroid fan, I just think they should have a better criteria to rating games. Maybe they shouldn't be reviewing games during their time of the month?

Oh wah wah.. it's not empowering to women anymore.. wahhh...

Who are videogames like Metroid made for? Boys! (This isn't Cookin' Mama)

There's the familiar "it's just a game" argument:

To the reviewer I say this CHILL OUT! its not supposed to be some sort of deep docudrama geared and showing us all how to understand the inner-workings of women hood. ITS A FREAKING VIDEO GAME! You buy it to have fun not to make a political statement about our man controlled society.

There's the "stop shoving your political agenda down our throats" argument:

The female reviewer turned it into her opportunity to let loose her feminist and anti-sexism views about the story and said very little about actual GAMEPLAY, GRAPHICS, and all the things that really matter when playing A VIDEO GAME!

And you're trying to tell us that this game is sexist, are you freakin kidding me. I get so freakin sick of women claiming that something is sexist, even though it isn't. If it was a man it samus's place, would you call it sexist? 

And there's the argument that contends Heppe has no right to interpret the game:

The way I see it, the players of the game create these preconceived notions of what a Metroid game should be like, or how Samus should act and feel, and I'm here to tell you that you're all full of shit. There's only one party that can decide on what the content of a game is like, and that's exclusively THE DEVELOPER. In this case, it's Team Ninja and Nintendo.

I could go on, but I realize I'm shooting fish in a barrel. The point is that, all too often, the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.

In his keynote address at PAX last week, Warren Spector warned that marginalizing casual games and gamers will ultimately limit the industry's ability to grow and mature. I think he's right, but that's only half the story. 

Shouting down writers who adopt a principled, intellectual, political, theoretical or other disciplined approach to thinking about a game is ultimately no less self-defeating. There is no single "game culture" anymore, if one ever existed at all. There's a place for everyone at this table, and Ms. Heppe may have just helped the folks at Nintendo make the next Metroid a better, smarter game.

I have more to say about Metroid: Other M (hint: I somewhat agree with Heppe, but see the game as a failure of execution, rather than conception), but I'll save that for another post.

**All italicized quotes are taken from comments posted on Abbie Heppe's G4tv article.

Extra Lives

Extralives Tom Bissell's new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, hits the shelves today. It's a terrific read - funny, insightful, at times harrowing - and I highly recommend it. 

Tom was kind enough to share a few preliminary drafts with me, and I enjoyed watching the book evolve into its final form. He's a skillful writer who has managed to produce a text that speaks to serious gamers like me (and, I'm guessing, most of you), while remaining accessible to readers curious about the cultural value and appeal of games. 

He pulls no punches. Extra Lives is an open-eyed account from a self-confessed 'obsessed gamer' who loves the art, but laments how games often fall short of their tremendous potential.

In case you're not familiar with Tom's work, he's written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and he's published several previous books, including Chasing the Sea, and The Father of All Things. He was a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Tom Bissell will be my guest on the next edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, which will appear this weekend. I hope you'll enjoy it. 

Hyperbole of record


In the social media circles I frequent, Seth Schiesel recently unseated Roger Ebert as the punching bag of the moment. It's an interesting displacement when you stop to consider it.

Enthusiasts like me get bent out of shape when Ebert claims games "can never be art" (though, to be fair, his argument is a bit more subtle than that); but we get equally lathered up when the New York Times games critic succumbs to hyperbolic euphoria in his game reviews.

Ebert needs to wake up, and Schiesel needs to calm down, says the Twitterverse.

I mostly agree, but I also think it's possible to consider Schiesel's work in a more positive light. I'll give that my best shot in a moment. First, let's examine Schiesel's case file as a critic prone to gilding the lily. Yes, it bulges. Below are extracts from 11 of his reviews, published in the last 10 months, listed in reverse chronology.

Red Dead Redemption: " sets a new standard for sophistication and ambition in electronic gaming... The leading edge of interactive media has a new face."

Nier: "I cannot think of another single game of recent years that more faithfully represents the sheer intellectual breadth of modern video games."

MLB 10 The Show: "...perhaps the most finely calibrated, lusciously animated, fanatically detailed team sports game yet made."

Heavy Rain: " single-player experience has made me as genuinely nervous, unsettled, surprised, emotionally riven and altogether involved as Heavy Rain... Mr. Cage and Quantic Dream have put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought."

Bayonetta: "...more alluring and more powerful than any big-budget game to come out of Japan in recent years."

Dragon Age: "...easily sails into the ranks of the best single-player role-playing games ever made... masterly in its overall design and conception... I felt as engrossed and simply swept away as any game has made me feel in recent years."

Assassin's Creed II: "...provides an unparalleled historical adventure along the lines of an interactive Dan Brown or James Clavell novel... conveys the unmistakably buoyant sense of a team of developers maturing as artists and growing into the full flower of their creativity and craft... demonstrate(s) just what wonder this relatively new form of entertainment can evoke."

Uncharted 2: "...a major step forward for gaming... no game yet has provided a more genuinely cinematic entertainment experience... the kind of game that will justifiably drive people to buy new televisions... The designers at Naughty Dog have absorbed the vernacular of film and then built upon create something wondrous."

Brütal Legend: "...a deliriously inspired concept... No game so far this year delivers a deeper, more fully realized aesthetic experience."

Beatles Rock Band: "...nothing less than a cultural watershed... it may be the most important video game yet made."

Fight Night Round 4: "...a triumph... the greatest (boxing game) of all time. There has never been a more visceral, precise and natural electronic simulation of hand-to-hand combat."

Like many reviewers, Schiesel tends to evaluate games in comparative, rather than analytical terms. He appears to approach each game with a measuring stick that calculates the degree to which Game X  advances the medium, pitted against other similar games.

Applying this metric, Schiesel sees Beatles Rock Band as the greatest music game ever made; Fight Night Round 4 as the greatest boxing game ever made; Uncharted 2 as the greatest cinematic adventure game ever made, etc. - and maybe he's not far wrong with any of those assertions. Nier is another story, but that's another post.

In a still young, fast-moving, technology-reliant industry like video games, it's easy to perceive iteration as milestone. Compare Uncharted 2 to Tomb Raider and ponder how far we've come in little more than a decade. To long-time gamers like Schiesel (and me) who vividly remember playing such games, Uncharted 2 can feel like a certain kind of miracle. Schiesel conveys that gleeful discovery in his writing, and I admire him for it.

Of course, if too many games are deemed 'important' or 'unparalleled,' those distinctions lose their value, and Schiesel has probably rung his bell too often and too loudly. I wonder, though, how Schiesel's distinctive position influences his coverage of games. Writing about games for the most influential newspaper in the world, I suspect Schiesel may frequently see himself as an advocate for games in a traditionally conservative print media environment.

When I read between the lines of his reviews, I often sense Schiesel pleading with his readers (and perhaps his editors) to pay attention, abandon preconceived notions, and give these ambitious games the respect they deserve. He's an advocate journalist, in this regard, for a medium that could use a few more such people in high visible places.

Maybe the rapturous Red Dead Redemption review that appeared in today's Times is precisely the same one Schiesel might have written for a personal blog, but I suspect not. I don't know. Guessing at someone's intentions is tricky business, and I probably shouldn't be doing it.

The problem with hyperbole as advocacy is that it soon begins to sound like desperation. It's the parent who calls me to brag about his kid who's applied for a scholarship. The more superlatives he waves around, the more I dread meeting his kid.

I think many of us, me included, have occasionally fallen into similar traps when we discuss and write about games. We so want our place at the table. We so want the world to understand why we love games and why they matter to us. We so want this game to help us make that case. Sometimes our effervescence overflows. Leave it to gamers to call us on it.

We deal with criticism

Metacritic Some of my gamer pals monitor Metacritic scores like investors tracking a stock ticker. Last October, after writing a positive piece about Demon's Souls, I received a Twitter DM from a reader concerned that the game had "dipped below 90" on Metacritic...soon followed by an alert that the score had risen again to 90 and would likely "remain stable" there.

He was relieved because a 90+ score from Metacritic means "universal acclaim," whereas an 89 translates as "generally favorable reviews." As a player who admired Demon's Souls, he clearly felt invested in its score.

I've long dismissed Metacritic as a distorted metric, and I actively discourage my students from allowing it to influence their choices of games to play. If you're looking for guidance, I tell them, identify a few reviewers or critics whose sensibilities seem to align with your own and carefully read their responses to the games they play. Don't get handcuffed by a number.

Consider, too, that none of us is a jack of all trades. If you're looking for a thoughtful review of a Splinter Cell game, maybe Simon Parkin at Eurogamer is your man. If it's an indie game, maybe Rock, Paper, Shotgun has it covered. For an RPG like Dragon Age, why not let a staff of writers cover it from multiple angles, like they did at The Border House? If it's a sports game, the Operation Sports staff is probably all over it, and the readers there will happily chime in with their opinions too.

It's easy for me to casually discredit Metacritic as a flawed or overrated system, but there's no denying its impact on both the consumer and production sides of the industry. Despite my admonitions, most of my cash-poor students rely on it religiously. When new games cost $60 a pop, Metacritic functions as a vital resource allocation tool for them. On the other side of the ledger, I've been told by several developers that publishers keep a close eye on Metacritic scores, with some incentivizing scores of 80+ with bonuses. A disappointingly low Metacritic score, as one developer put it, "means people lose their jobs."

So what exactly is wrong with Metacritic? Other than harboring a general sense that it's flawed, I've never  taken the time to examine why I believe that's so. Would a closer look at Metacritic's system dispel that impression? I decided to examine how Metacritic functions as a review aggregator, focusing on aspects of its system that seem problematic to me. In a nutshell, here's what I find found.

  • Metacritic's method for meta-scoring video games differs substantially from the one it employs for movies, books, and music. Games must score 90 or above to receive a "universal acclaim" rating, but all other media Metacritic aggregates receive that designation at 81 or above. Metacritic claims this is meant to account for the perception that a 3-out-of-5-star movie is considered worth seeing, while a comparable 60 score for a game suggests that game is barely playable.

    Clearly, Metacritic is attempting to account for perceptions, as well as raw numbers, and this leads to some shaky methodology. If we're guided by perceptions of what numbers mean, should we also account for the fact that an Edge Magazine 9 bears almost no relationship to a 9?
  • Metacritic's conversion of all scores to a 100-point system is problematic at best. Here's how they explain it:

When you tell a computer to compute the average of B+, 45, 5, and *****, it just looks at you funny and gives an error message. When you tell a computer to compute the average of 83, 45, 50, and 10, it is much, much happier. Thus, in order to make our computers happy (and calculate the METASCORES), we must convert all critics' scores to a 0-100 scale.

The odd thing here is that sometimes Metacritic cares about perceptions and other times it doesn't. When a B+ is converted to an 83, that conversion simply doesn't work properly. I assign scores to students for a living, and I can tell you that not a single one of them would exchange a B+ for an 83. Metacritic's scale may be effective keeping its computer happy, but it does a poor job of translating the intended value of a letter grade review from a site like the Onion A/V Club.

  • Speaking of perceptions, Metacritic believes it can accurately read the minds of critics who don't assign review scores. Here's how they explain extracting a number from a film review by New York Times' critic Manohla Dargis:

...our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews--and we mean a lot--and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she's indicating a 90 and when she's indicating an 80.

Really? You can honestly do this? What methodology are you applying here? Do you count the number of positive adjectives she uses? I must say this one leaves me speechless.

  • Finally, Metacritic casts its net far too widely, and not widely enough, when it aggregates game review sources. 149 game review venues are included in its calculations, 3 times more than the number it includes for movies. Many of these sites seem questionable to me, with far too many poorly written or even ill-conceived reviews included in mix. On the other side of the coin, many fine critics and reviewers from distinguished and widely-read blogs are left out, presumably because they don't work for 'game review sites' or assign numbers.

Maybe that's for the best if such writers are to be given the Manohla Dargis treatment. If the function of Metacritic is to discharge bots, gather data, and crunch them for public consumption, then so be it. But if Metacritic aims to accurately reflect the critical response to games (which is what it claims), it needs a system for doing so that doesn't overalue me-too enthusiast sites and undervalue thoughtful evaluative writing about games that many of us read and produce on a regular basis.

I'm not suggesting Metacritic has no value or useful role to play. I'm simply suggesting that if we rely on it as a tool to guide our game-playing choices, we should know how that tool is built, and we should understand its limitations.