An interesting argument has surfaced in the game industry about why we bother to read reviews. Is it to judge a product based on a “mechanistic set of values,” or is it to understand what kind of deeper, emotional impact they can have on us — a focus on culture rather than consumerism?
This debate can be stretched to books, too — or movies or most any form of media, really. Why do we care about one person’s thoughts? Or are we more interested in the collective, the big picture that emerges after we’ve sorted through the individual bits of opinions?
(You can take a look at the Twitter conversation between the reviews editor of game site Polygon and one game designer to grasp the scope of this argument.)
For me, reviews of books or games, for example, come down to objective criticism. Most people seek them out for one reason: whether to buy or pass. Is it worth their time and investment? We only have so much pocket change to spare these days. A good assessment is important.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for subjectivity. Even if a book or game is technically sound (written or designed well), it could be absolutely boring. That’s why classics become classics — we study them, but nobody’s forced to like them. They can teach us about good technique, but that doesn’t equate to fun or strong emotional resonance.
Some sites and blogs are dedicated solely to how a product makes people feel — how they react to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but two problems tend to arise from that approach: 1) tastes vary, and 2) some people like everything and are afraid to say one negative word. Don’t even get me started on the bias that exists. You like a creator or talk to him through social media, which makes you timid when it comes to evaluating his work fairly and honestly. This is not the way to “assess” anything. That’s public relations.
I think the real reason we read reviews is to learn a little of both sides: whether a work is good and what we can expect to gain from it. We can read all the books in the world, but what meaning do they have if we never emotionally or mentally benefit from the experience — if we can’t learn something about why we respond to them as we do, or why we fail to connect with them? Games are the same way. We need to have a pulse on the medium and how it’s changing beyond graphics resolutions and genre conventions. What’s going on inside developers’ heads? Are they even reaching us anymore? Yes or no, what does that say about our society at present?
A similar case can be made for books. When we discover what bores or impresses us, we can better understand how we need to move forward as human beings. These are works of imagination; they reflect on the times, our fears, and our values. They make statements about ourselves whether they intend to or not. Some are big; some are small. But they’re just as worthy of our attention, for the sake of personal and communal growth.
The Polygon reviews editor, Arthur Gies, who was arguing on Twitter for analysis of “direct mechanical engagement,” said that “most games don’t move the needle in an emotional way.” I disagree. Whether they’re strictly concerned with gameplay over commentary or not, what we take from them is what matters. If no one appreciated games like Journey or Fez, if no one found deeper messages embedded in their worlds or were inspired to discuss them and what they say about our own state of being, then they wouldn’t be “artistic” at all. But even mechanics-driven games like Dead Space 3 can provoke some intelligent thought even if they merely factor into our feelings on violence and gore. That’s moving the emotional needle because it’s driving us to conversation about new ideas and perspectives.
And without interest in what sparks a reaction, what reason do we have for art — for creating at all? Can something be “fun and mentally satisfying” while not offering “any sort of emotional engagement”? Isn’t that a contradiction?