This excellent article argues for a more literary approach to games criticism, as opposed to the current model of breaking down games into their component parts (gameplay, story, visuals, etc.) and assigning a numerical score as a sort of shoppers’ guide. From the author:
Such a mechanical form of analysis overlooks that games are an expressive medium. Criticism—the kind that tries to get at what games are as a form, how they’re able to express things, and how they affect us as players—wants primarily one thing: to improve the medium as much as possible, and in all respects. As part of this, criticism also aims to deconstruct the medium, to understand how it ticks formalistically and how it is thus distinguished from all other forms.
I like to think I do a bit of both. I certainly break my reviews down into those traditional sections, but within them I try to examine what a game manages to express and how, and I don’t use numerical scores. Then again, I don’t do this for a living, so I have the freedom to look at whichever games I want in whichever way I want. Anyway, this is a good read for anyone interested in videogames, and especially for those interested in a career in the industry.
I think Polansky is bringing game journalism and game criticism together as if one forecloses the other. They are totally separate, and while they are both important to how we play and understand games, they rarely meet in the same arena (one on review and news sites, the other in journals) and can coexist peaceably. I don’t know if you’ve seen The International Journal of Computer Game Research, but it’s a great resource for “close readings” of video games and demonstrates the liveliness of the field, even if it doesn’t have the same popular presence.
EDIT: Some of her complaints from player-consumers (Games should be fun, how do I know what to buy &c.) are pretty much strawmen in this instance. They are complaints from players who are interested in a particular kind of information (game journalism) that neither includes criticism nor forecloses on criticism. For someone who isn’t interested in critique, what criticism provides is plain useless [pardon me, rather, has limited value]. For someone who is interested in critique, she’s essentially preaching to the choir.
EDIT EDIT: This isn’t to dismiss her essay, because it’s a nice piece of op-ed, but personally I’m past this tension over discourse, especially with the idea that videogames are art as if there was a debate going on.
EDIT EDIT EDIT: The fact that I’m amending this so much goes to show there’s a lot to be said here. Which is great for an op-ed piece, in my opinion. “Close Reading” is an interesting carry over from literary studies, as if we “read” games instead of “play” them. This is one area that Polansky doesn’t attend to in her article: how game criticism is underwritten by critical traditions outside the game medium. While limited, don’t game reviews treat the game medium (esp. as a collaboration of multiple media) as itself rather than as if it were something else (like film or literature)?
tl;dr Let the discourse flow.