Bad at What? The Question of Skill and Games Criticism

by Kyle Stegerwald

We’re presenting this article alongside Joseph Hilgard’s piece today as paired examples of an emergent (heh) strain of game criticism; they both concern the act of game reviewing, but also suggest broader issues within game culture. -Karl

What does it mean to be bad at a video game, and what are you actually bad at when you can’t do something as simple as whack a stationary target with a melee weapon? What does it mean to be Really Good At A Videogame? What consequences does this have for criticism and design?

Here’s my theory. Books and games are similar, in that it’s possible to read a book and play a game, and maybe even reach the end of each, and understand very little about what the book or game means or how it works. In games, the problem is more clear-cut, in that there are mechanics encoded into the reality you’re working with. There is a right and a wrong way to do it, and you generally can’t reach the end of a game without figuring out some of it by accident. But if you want to be an authority, if you want to make a Quake video like this one:

you have to do a lot more than just scan some lines and turn the page. The difference between someone who plays Tribes by walking everywhere and someone who plays Tribes by skiing everywhere is a good example of what I mean: both people are playing the game, both people are ‘reading’ it and can tell others ‘I play Tribes,’ but only one of them has any sort of clue as to what they did and what it meant [eds. note: for an example of skiing in Tribes see here]. Ditto for someone who reads A Modest Propsal (‘yeah, I’ve read that.’) and takes it at face value. They didn’t get it, and this has real consequences. It’s not something we should just ignore or pretend is irrelevant, especially if the work in question is deliberately obtuse and difficult. James Joyce said that it took him years to write Ulysses, so he expected people to spend years reading it. As it turns out, people have spent entire lifetimes reading it, studying it, struggling to understand what Joyce was up to. It stands to reason that we should let games fuck with us and frustrate us for at least a few hours (without necessarily enjoying it) so that we can gain some level of understanding.

But in games it’s common to either ignore or attack someone who appears to be getting ‘too far into’ a particular game, or to imply that raw mastery is ‘impressive’ in the same patronizing insider-outsider way that people talk about someone who memorized the phonebook. It isn’t the same knowledge; skill in games resembles critical understanding in literature, and nobody sneers at someone who advances a well-reasoned opinion of a piece of literature by calling them a “minmaxer.”

A good example that most of you can probably use from your own experience is the phenomenon of making the transition from single to multiplayer in a strategy game (for those of you that don’t start with multi to begin with). Maybe you’ve never made as drastic a leap in understanding as the Tribes player who walked everywhere before discovering the jetpack, but I’ll bet playing online for the first time against a human was a pretty rude awakening, whatever the game was. Most strategy games (demonstrating the ‘emgergence’ principle discussed below) are almost two-in-one, one game being the single-player experience crafted by a developer who thought he knew his own game, and the other game being the actual game as it exists, as uncovered by the lords of the leaderboard through nonstop, merciless beasting.

This is why it’s so grating to read alleged game criticism that pretends that games are for some reason different than literature with respect to technical skill, and that the degree to which one has studied the object has no bearing on one’s authority to write about it. Have a look at this article on Mass Effect; it’s a great example of what I mean. The author details the accomplishment of something that a lot of players did without realizing that failure was even possible (that’s how easy it was). The article pretends to be rigorous, and it’s treated as some masterwork of game-playing by everyone in the comments section and by the writer himself. Why is it exceptional that someone beat a video game? Why do we have to act like playing and enjoying a game is somehow different from figuring out what is going on and increasing one’s skills? It’s the Minecraft syndrome rearing its ugly head again, where the kind of people who spend all day on TF2 servers actively idling for hats and playing music for each other over Mani plugins are now defining what gaming is all about. The equivalent in literary criticism is someone writing in excruciating detail about how they finally, against all odds, discovered that Jonathan Swift wasn’t proposing eating the Irish but was making an argument of striking subtlety and power aimed at the black heart of the British ruling class!

The beaten-into-the-ground argument about ‘emergence’ is this tendency taken to the Nth degree, where the the inability to understand the interactions governing a complex system is perversely understood as a virtue of the system’s developer. The people who throw their hands up after reading Ulysses don’t go on to write books about it. The people who throw their hands up after playing Mafia or Mass Effect or a hard wargame apparently think that they can. It’s gross.

Frank Zappa tells us that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Video games work the same way. The best way to review a game is still to either provide screens or, better yet, to tape yourself playing it. Most words about games are even more suspect than dances about architecture would be, since the entire culture has been up to its neck in corporate payoffs and grotesque academic backscratching since the very beginning, and nobody demands or cares about (or could get even if they wanted) ‘objectivity’ of any kind. If video game criticism has any future, then its products will increasingly come to resemble the Quake video at the top of this post: pure footage of someone who knows everything about Quake demonstrating their knowledge to you through the closest of hairs-width close readings. It’s like a word-by-word exegesis of a key passage in the Bible covered in manuscript sigils, or really good footnotes to a great translation. It tells you what you need to know and why you need to know it from a position of casual, almost effortless mastery. It’s the only position from which real criticism (not just player’s intuition, or pot-boiling review production) is even possible.

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  • LatinaPride

    “The best way to review a game is still to either provide screens or, better yet, to tape yourself playing it.”

    The Giant Bomb guys blundered into this completely by accident. I heard a story that the only reason they did the quick looks is because they wanted to save time on editing, but they ended up giving a more unadulterated look at the game. As a bonus, they arent even reviews, its just raw gameplay and their thoughts at the moment. Quick looks for games im interested in is probably the only bit of games “journalism” <- (sarcasm quotes, I hate that term) I consume.

  • Joseph Hilgard

    I have very fond memories of “Tom vs Bruce” – PC Gamer’s feature in which Tom Chick and Bruce Geryk would play a current title against each other, each describing what was going on as the game progressed. This sort of after-action report offered the reader a very clear view of the in-vivo dynamics of play. I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to critique, naturally, but I thought it was a marvelous way to get a closer understanding of a game.

    I like this article a lot.

  • Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

    I’m inclined to disagree that the greatest criticism of games is going to come from those who are most skilled at manipulating their mechanics, in part because gaming as a medium is more than just mechanics and in part because gameplay skill doesn’t equate to critical analysis.

    I’m of the opinion that the interaction between the mechanics and the player needs to be the fundamental core of game criticism, and I agree with the author’s supposition that criticism of a game would be incomplete without contributions from those who are the greatest masters of the system, but… are the only viable critics of Super Metroid the ones who can beat it in less than thirty minutes?

    Surely criticism of the game would be incomplete without discussing the atmosphere, the narrative, the exploration…

    We should absolutely come to know games as well as we can before attempting critique– but there’s more to know and familiarize oneself with than the mechanics.

  • Alan Williamson

    “What does it mean to be Really Good At A Videogame? What consequences does this have for criticism and design?”

    I think this is an interesting question, but you fail to answer it adequately. I’d like to see it approached in more detail though!

    One point I’d like to raise is that for some media, technical skill and focused attention make them more enjoyable: compare Bayonetta, Ulysses and Dream Theater with Mass Effect, The Hunger Games and… I don’t know, some kind of pop music (it’s not my field of expertise!) Our enjoyment of the former group hinges somewhat on our ability to tease the work apart: to hear each solo, understand difficult prose, or master a nuanced fighting system. The latter group are more about ‘enjoying the ride’ than battling with it.

    Quake Done Quick tells you everything and nothing about playing Quake. Sequence breaking in Super Metroid doesn’t explain the delights of playing Super Metroid. Completing Halo on Legendary is merely one player’s interpretation of the game.

    When you assert that mastery is the only way to ‘criticise’ games, you undervalue their holistic value, in the same way that you can describe a cell in terms of its atomic composition, but that doesn’t explain diffusion nearly as well as through chemistry.

    • Joseph Hilgard

      I don’t think that mastery is necessary, but reviewers need at least some form of competence at the way the game is “meant” to be played.

      If you don’t understand the game fully, it is impossible to report on game-breaking flaws in balance or degenerate meta-strategies. In reviews of Civ 5, nobody pointed out that the game always favored an uninteresting, stable strategy of building as many cities as possible. In his review of DA2, Rich McCormick has no idea that the story does not, in fact, react according to the player’s choices. Like Kyle says, you make it through the single-player, but do you really understand the system of play?

      I’d disagree with Kyle with regard to the importance of total mastery, though. The process of becoming a master is always more interesting than actually being a master. Like Raph Koster says, “Fun is the process, and routine is its destination.” Once mastered, the game is no longer interesting; it’s all used up. It would be nice, though, to see reviewers at least make it halfway up the skill curve – a near impossibility in the current Metacritic climate of split-second news cycles and the importance of being the first to give AAA Studio Game a 95/100.

  • kstegerwald

    I said that mastery is the first step, I didn’t say it was the end goal. I understand the idea of reading criticism from someone who has been playing Smash Bros in his bedroom for ten years is probably frightening. Some people play games very well and are totally incapable of talking about them.

    but I think people are not understanding what I mean by criticism- I mean probably the exact opposite of ‘enjoying the ride.’ there’s obvious value in someone telling us what they thought about a game just from playing it a bit, like most reviewers do, but it’s not criticism, in the same way that a book review isn’t a critical work about that book. there’s an obvious difference in depth that book people are more willing to tolerate than game people. I think that’s bogus and that’s why I wrote the article.

    I also totally disagree that by investigating something fully you miss the big picture. the definition of a good critic is someone who can turn investigation of bits and pieces into analysis of the whole.

    • Andrew Van Herik

      In that case, I think you may be conflating terms in your article. Reviewers, as you just said, are not critics. Game criticism, whether found in this piece by you that critiques the meta-universe of game writing, or in post mortem pieces, or in phenomenological breakdowns, or in youtube playthroughs with commentary, can come in many forms.

      It is valuable to point out the difference between reading a piece and critiquing it, but your rant about objectivity and mastery seems to say that high-level criticism is the only valid response to a piece of art.

      Some people just want to play it once (or only have the time to play it once) and write about how they feel about it. That’s different from a perfect playthrough, but no less valid a response to art.