The Mind’s Eye: In Defence of Subjectivity

by Alan Williamson

I learned the joy of owning a ZX Spectrum this week, but I’ve never played one. I felt the connection between Dear Esther and the end of a relationship I never had. I understood the fear of being an inadequate mother, although I am not a parent. It’s easy to see how a piece entitled “What’s wrong with game reviews?” would provoke games writers, especially those who subscribe to New Games Journalism, but Joseph Hilgard’s essay contradicts what I believe about the value of subjectivity in games writing.

Hilgard and I are both psychologists, and we both focus on video games. My undergraduate dissertation studied non-verbal behaviour differences in violent and non-violent games. Even with a science background, it is a mistake to treat game reviewing as an exact science, something that can be dissected and analysed, assigned scores and scales. There is no ‘Five Factor Model’ of gaming. That approach reminds me of when game review magazines had entire columns dedicated to scores: giving games separate marks for their gameplay and graphic fidelity which didn’t count towards an overall score.

Critics and readers alike question scores. How many times have you read phrases in review comments like “Reads more like a 7 than an 8″? Publications shift from percentages to twenty point scales, star ratings to letter grades. The games industry’s PR machine has grown around Metacritic like ivy, stifling creators’ intellectual growth for the sake of reaching the top layer of the gameforest. To answer Hilgard’s original question, what’s wrong with game reviews is our obsession with quantifying them. By removing the scores from reviews, we force the critic to stand by their words. It becomes silly for a critic to deride a game over 1500 words before writing an obligatory “quibbles aside” paragraph and then awarding a 9/10 score. Many argue that reviews still need scores, but I don’t agree, and it is a discussion well worth having.

New Games Journalism, which I take to mean subjective and experiential writing, is called “as interesting and helpful as a bore describing last night’s dream”. Firstly, most of my dreams are the stuff of science fiction legends. Once, I had a horrible dream where I was trapped in a house, running away from an unseen killer over and over again. If you’re bored by an Irishman enthusiastically describing his own murder, then you are incapable of excitement.

Is New Games Journalism boring? Game mechanics are boring. Reading a paragraph dedicated to ‘graphics’ or a description of the game’s controls is dull. Learning about the procedural computations behind AI is tedious; reading about the challenge it creates can be fascinating. Breaking games down into their constituent mechanisms tells us nothing about how good they are. Is Skullgirls technically superior to Streets of Rage 2? Probably, but who cares! Streets of Rage 2 is more fun to me. “Fun” is a valid way to describe a game. Unless you’re making the next Dear Esther and aren’t aiming for mere entertainment, making a game consistently fun is actually a pretty high benchmark.

One of my favourite games is Bayonetta. It is mechanically accomplished. I am aware of this mechanistic excellence because I’m not frustrated when I play it: I never feel cheated, my inputs never fail to correspond to Bayonetta’s beatings on the screen. The holistic experience matters more than the technical parts. You can dismantle a car and admire the construction of the chassis, but it’s not going to take you on an adventure in that state.

As I remarked on Kyle Stegerwald’s related essay on skill and game criticism, sequence breaking in Super Metroid doesn’t explain the delights of playing Super Metroid. It is a game of exploration, not exploitation. Games that focus on narrative journey across space and time, and you can only truly explore the same place once. Your perception of Tetris changes as you learn the rules, but the story doesn’t change: it’s still a thinly-veiled allegory on the inevitable collapse of Soviet Russia. However, your second playthrough of Mass Effect is a repeat trip through a largely linear narrative, and an untwisted plot can’t be twisted again.

Gamers of today enjoy more engrossing and intelligent stories, written by skilled authors and not programmers desperate to imbue agency in nondescript pixels, than ever before. To ignore this, to demand that critics focus on the ‘gameplay’, is a mistakenly objective approach to a subjective experience. Imagine if we described books in terms of their ‘bookread’, or films by the quality of their ‘movieview’, giving them marks out of ten for cinematography and special effects. It ignores the fundamental factor of all art that we know to be true: its subjectivity.

Games are subjective experiences. They can be mechanically broken, but as the cult status of Deadly Premonition tells us, some people like broken things in the same way you may like music that I find unlistenable. I didn’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3; maybe you did. The point is that this is nigh-impossible to objectively determine, despite what YouTube may tell you or no matter what scores we assign.

Even the ways in which we master games are subjective. Is playing Quake as quickly as possible a better way to play than I did, an intrepid explorer flirting with death and uncovering secrets? The ‘Quake Done Quick’ team are no more masters of that game than a multiplayer champion. Forza Motorsport players can master the art of drifting in sequence like a school of petrol-fuelled dolphins, or they can learn every curve of the Nürburgring and set a new lap record. Many games are as broad as they are deep, with multiple styles of play. It is unfair to claim a reviewer can’t properly criticise Skyrim until they’ve sampled every race and class, or can’t review Baldur’s Gate without a nuanced understanding of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset.

To feign objectivity in a review is to betray the reader’s intelligence. We must be honest about our subjectivity: we must bring our personal experiences into our writing and never be ashamed of them. By bringing subjectivity to the forefront, we make an important distinction from the ‘objective’ review: “I like this, but you might not, and that’s OK”. The aim of the critic is to fairly and accurately convey their subjective experiences. You can be biased as long as you’re open about that bias, because the reader is smart enough to make up their own mind. Whenever people complain in comment threads about how wrong a reviewer is, they are actively engaging in this process. This doesn’t excuse factual inaccuracies in writing, but it allows for personal preferences. Pretending these preferences don’t exist won’t make them magically disappear.

I am a reformed Sega fan, and accordingly my critique of Sonic Generations is going to be more harsh than that of a six year old boy. Who’s to say which is the better review? Alright, the kid’s spelling isn’t very good and their vocabulary range leaves a lot to be desired; but to the parent of a young child, it’s more enlightening than one written a twenty five year old man. It’s only through responding to personality in my critique that you can derive worth from it as a reader. There is no ‘one true review’ of any game, just like there isn’t one reading of a book or one ‘history’. Everything is touched and tainted by our experiences. In the case of scientific research or historiography, we seek to expunge this subjectivity to better understand objective reality. When we criticise a work of fiction, we should seek to embrace it.

Psychologist and philosopher William James said: “Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.”

It is the critic’s job to capture and convey feelings, because when it comes to describing art, it is the closest we can get to reality.


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  • Megan Townsend

    I quite love very much of this argument, not only because I myself am a critic (of literature and video games) but it also gets at the heart of why anyone participates in an arts discourse. But I think the argument could go further.

    Getting involved in any sort of art or non-utilitarian discourse automatically invites criticism as to why one bothers. “What are you going to do with that?” is the general question posed to myself and my peers. As though art needs to be used; as though it needs a focused and reductive purpose.

    However I do think criticism needs to be about more than thoughts and feelings. Critics interactive imaginatively with a text – be a book or game. Subjectivity is important as there needs to be an interrogative community for an artform for that form to really be considered an art.

    I don’t think art necessarily describes reality. It describes us, allows us to rearrange ourselves and rethink our reality. But perhaps to claim that it reveals reality is at once too big and too small a claim. Reality lies, paradoxically, in the spaces between art, the artist, the audience, and everywhere else. There is an ineffablilty (as much as I loathe that word) and inability to pin-point art and arts criticism and what it means to us. What it does for us. And that’s why we keep doing it.

  • Joseph Hilgard

    I’m glad to see your reply, Alan! I’m fine with the latter half of your article, but the particular paragraph where you hypothetically compare Skullgirls to Streets of Rage suggests a real problem with just how subjective (and potentially uninformative) you are willing to be.

    You say “Skullgirls may be mechanically superior to Streets of Rage, but who cares! Streets of Rage is more Fun to me.” This statement, “It’s Just Fun,” tells us nothing, like a food critic who simply describes food as either “yummy” or “not so yummy.”

    It also suggests that we evaluate game mechanics in terms of some bizarre platonic criterion of mechanic-ness, rather than how effective they are at providing fun and interest. You seem to have missed the portion of my article in which I say that it’s not enough just to list some mechanics, but that you have to understand the system of dynamics created by those mechanics, and whether that system provides for satisfying play. (Remember Hunicke et al 2004!)

    It is the critic or reviewer’s job to unpack the HOW and WHY of fun, because you are writing for an audience who is curious to know whether they will find the game fun (especially true for reviewers, who are something a bit different from critics). Streets of Rage is more fun – is that because of something to do with the game itself, or is it because you played it when you were in your early teens? Is somebody without a Sega childhood going to feel the same way?

    By unpacking “fun” into its constituent nuts & bolts, you better understand how subjective experiences are made. I am miserable at Starcraft, but I can appreciate its capacity for thrilling competition. As a newbie to the fighting game scene, I enjoy Street Fighter 4, but I can see why hardened veterans still prefer Third Strike. I adore Legend of Grimrock, but can see how it would be too challenging for some, and too different from the oldschool RPG mold for others.

    Good games aren’t prepackaged experiences. They are engines which create a diversity of experiences. Writing only about yourself and your experience is a shallow, self-centered way to critique. You have to understand the engine to predict what experience others will have.

    • Sniper_Catfish

      It’s completely true that the critic ought to unpack some degree of the “how and why of fun,” but the way to do that is not a list of nuts&bolts. Unpacking doesn’t mean lining up pieces and judging their individual quality with a number, it means exploring what was enjoyable, what wasn’t. If a mechanic doesn’t convey the narrative or theme it seems intended to? I’d criticize that. That doesn’t mean saying “this mechanic gets a 4/10,” it means thinking more deeply and subjectively than that.

      No, “it’s fun” isn’t enough, but “it’s fun because x and y: 9/10″ is a terrible solution to that.

      • Joseph Hilgard

        Right, so like I said in the comment above re: “you have to understand the system of dynamics created by those mechanics, and whether that system provides for satisfying play.”

        Or was there something I missed? I’m not sure what you’re suggesting as a better solution.

  • Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

    I think that part of the reason that this conversation is becoming prominent in the gaming community (aside from games having Arrived, It’s Our Time Now, etc.) is that gaming as a medium has probably more angles from which it can be evaluated than just about any other pop culture (or, you know, NOT-pop culture) medium in existence.

    I think maybe some of us are attracted to games as a medium (and to critiquing them!) because of the sheer number of axes on which they can be examined. We can look at visual aesthetics, musical and audio aesthetics, and just about any of the qualities on which we might evaluate cinema– but we can add to these all of the multitude of discussions we can have about gameplay mechanics, player-developer interplay, player agency… AND all of the different ways these elements intersect!

    I don’t think any of us thinks there is a “right” kind of games journalism, or even games criticism. I think that evaluating games from the perspective of someone who doesn’t strive for mastery is every bit as valid as someone who strives for complete mastery and understanding– so long as the author of the criticism is aware of their perspective and makes clear to whom they’re directing their critique.

    Furthermore, I don’t just think it’s a sliding gradient between “reviews of how ‘fun’ the game is” and “complete critique of mastered mechanics.” There are so many legitimate ways to engage with a game (a greater variety than that offered to movie-watchers or book-readers, I’ll dare to say) that it may be beyond us to offer a fully comprehensive and complete critique of a game for all audiences.

    (That said, I’ll get started on my Final Fantasy Tactics treatise posthaste so no one beats me to the punch.)