Talking About Games: What Is Critique?
In my field we spend a lot of time talking about the ambiguity of categories. One of the big examples is a relatively “new” period called Late Antiquity. The argument goes like this: in many imaginations, including those of many historians, there was Antiquity, with its Roman Empire and thickly-forested Europe and distant dynasties that we don’t talk about very often in the West; and then, after an ill-defined collapse, we eventually arrive in the Medieval Age, with its castles and plagues and religious wars.
The problem is that this model was too simple. Which, well, that’s part of any model’s goal: to simplify something complex into discrete parts so we can talk about it. Hence, a paradox. If your model is too granular, it’s impossible to conceptualize within a reasonable span of time. If it’s too simple, you overlook all the stuff that happened in the cracks. Like, y’know, what the collapse of the Roman Empire actually looked like. Or what all those distant dynasties were doing in the meantime. Categories enable us to learn, but they can also inhibit our learning.
Here’s another story about categories. Once, at a convention, I was invited to dinner with some fellow board game folk. We got to talking about our varying experiences in the hobby. Some were podcasters, others crafted visual media, and some were actual game designers or developers — another distinction that’s not entirely defined. When asked, I mentioned that I was a reviewer. The person beside me leaned forward and said, “Yes, but really, Dan is closer to a critic.”
A critic, you say? What’s that? Never mind. It sounds important.
As I said, categories are a mixed blessing and a necessary curse. If you don’t believe me, what was the difference between Ameritrash and Eurogames again? That wasn’t the last time somebody called me a critic. Even though we don’t always recognize how ideas can infect us, I’d like to think I approached the compliment the right way. My goals, at least, seemed to snap into focus. Honesty seemed like a good distinction. Clarity. A sincere effort at talking about games as more than rules, but rather as artifacts of culture and conversation.
It wasn’t until two years later that I realized I didn’t even know what a critic does, exactly. Do critics, like, not give ratings? That’s good. I don’t like ratings anyway. But was I also supposed to not deliver quality judgements at all? Uh oh. Look, saying how I feel about games is pretty much why I got into this gig. If that isn’t integral to being a critic, then I’m hopping back aboard the train to Reviewer Town.
Over the past few years, it’s a question I’ve returned to on many occasions. What’s the difference between reviewing and critiquing? Does it even exist? Well, thanks to some soul-searching and a very scientific survey of people’s opinions, I have a few thoughts to offer. Yes, some of these cannot be reconciled. That’s deliberate. Such things happen when you crowdsource a philosophical discussion about categories. That’s why I’ve gone ahead and ranked these in descending order of cynicism.
1. Reviews are about confirming your purchasing habits; Critiques are about anything else
Ever clicked on a positive review of a game you already like? There you go. Thesis proven.
However, I think this also points to something we’ll see repeated a few times. Although the differences between reviews and criticism aren’t readily apparent, there’s a sense that criticism is somehow the more of the two. It’s responsible. It’s perceptive. It will tell you the things you don’t want to hear, like a cinematic doomed father figure whose words will echo in the protagonist’s ears many minutes later. At the very least, this should be the goal of aspiring critics. Be honest with your audience. Even when they don’t want to hear it.
2. Reviews are marketing; Critiques contain criticism
In one sense this is the same as the point above, but it expresses one of the ways that critiques are perceived as being more useful than a mere review. Our hobby’s critical apparatus currently operates at the grace of publishers — by which I mean review copies. Those review copies are generally earmarked on the books alongside banner ads and preview budgets. Make no mistake, review copies are marketing.
Bias is a sticky thing at the best of times, and in a hobby as insular as ours — which can also read as “incestuous” — it’s useful to recognize and, if you’re hoping to write reviews, to become the type of person who won’t guarantee positive coverage simply because you were handed a copy of a game. Even very good games can be evaluated in ways that tug at their seams. While a reviewer may become ebullient about every detail, it behooves a critic to recognize that there are only so many “best games of the year.”
3. There is no difference between a Review and a Critique
At least no essential difference, apart from semantics. I gather that these responses are generally aware that we can pull different answers from varying fields. Literary criticism is a thing. Critical theory is a thing. Various critical approaches exist. However, this response is a useful reaction to a particular type of answer, those that fall back upon a woo-factor, in which critiques are just reviews with more depth or introspection or salsa or whatever. Those are all good things! Especially salsa. But I don’t believe any of them are the crucial delineation. It’s more useful to recognize that there’s a broad overlap on that circle diagram.
Then again, most of these responses at least depict a yearning for improvement. Now that I give it some extra thought, it’s possible that this is the real most cynical answer, since it’s the only one that doesn’t establish an ideal to strive toward.
4. Reviews are subjective; Critiques are objective / technical / expert opinions / wanky
Other than the “wanky” part (and fair enough), here’s an example of that ideal. Notionally, reviews express a person’s personal experiences, whereas critiques offer… more. How tidy! What qualifies as “more” is harder to pin down. I’m happy to discard “objectivity,” since the unsettled duel between it and subjectivity pretty much proves subjectivity’s entire beef. But expertise? Sure. It’s nice when a critic knows what they’re talking about.
5. Reviews are about audience recommendations; Critiques are about the author’s subjective experiences
Whiplash! Yes, this is pretty much the exact opposite of the previous entry. A minority of respondents also felt that reviews were the smaller subset of critiques rather than the other way around. So it goes. Which is bigger, a society or a culture? Shout that in a humanities department and watch the historians and literature people tear into each other like rabid velociraptors.
Here, however, this expresses my view fairly succinctly. Even when a critic is striving to talk expertly, or yearning to express how their subject meets certain “objective” standards, there’s always an element of the deeply personal that should not be discarded. The act of sharing your opinion is subjective in its own right. It declares a need to persuade, that you have something to say. We can talk all day about whether anything artistic can be objective in the first place; critiques cannot be by their very existence. They can be impartial, or well-realized, or checked against their own counterarguments, or even-handed. Objective? Never.
So don’t try. If anything, masking subjectivity only compounds its limitations. Now you’re reading a subjective experience masquerading as an objective experience. Oof!
6. Reviews tell you what a thing is; Critiques ask why it is
Some of these criteria are tautological nightmares. Rather than defining a critique, we reach territory where we’re saying, “Oh, that element is one of critique even though it appears in a review.” The thing remains the thing regardless of how we choose to describe it. In other words, if it seems “good,” it’s critique; if it seems “weak,” it’s review.
That’s why I’m inclined to dig out the elements that seem most useful. Explaining the whys behind your opinions is always a positive practice. A game was fun? Yet even very bad games can be fun when played with friends. In fact, let’s ditch the word “fun” entirely. Instead, tell me why it was fun. Tell me what impeded that fun. Tell me how it felt, and why it felt that way.
7. Reviews are descriptive; Critiques are interrogative or comparative
This strikes at something I mentioned a moment ago, where a critique in an academic setting will likely be viewed through a particular lens — sexuality, colonialism, self-image, intersectionality, the ramifications of exculpatory nescience, and so forth. This need not always be true, but a strong stance is something I would love to see more critics adopt. As a principle, it’s useful to remember that games are not just playthings; they’re artifacts with perspectives, and by interacting with them you’re engaging with that perspective.
8. Reviews are what you read before you buy something; Critiques are what you read after you buy something
Okay, this one came from me. Let me explain what I’m stabbing at.
Reviews are useful, and anyone who says otherwise is depriving themselves of a valuable resource. Do you see every film? Do you play every game? Watch every prestige television series? Of course not. You make decisions all the time. There are plenty of ways to make those decisions. Maybe advertising entices you. Maybe you trust friends. Maybe you just play whatever somebody puts on the table. Or maybe you read reviews, and ideally find the things that will appeal to you the best. There are a lot of these things for a reason.
But that isn’t the end of our experience with any of those artistic artifacts, is it? I mean, sometimes it is. I didn’t read anything about the last Marvel movie after I saw it, because I don’t really care about people’s thoughts on Marvel movies. But other artifacts, whether films or books or games, I immediately seek out other people’s perspectives upon completing my own. These perspectives are often pitched like a review. They walk and talk like a review, and sometimes assign a score, and sometimes tell you to experience or avoid whatever they’re talking about. In actuality, however, they are doing what critiques do best. They’re diagnosing. They’re doing surgery. They’re peeling back layers, and examining tissue, and talking about contexts and biases and meanings. Even though I’ve already interacted with the artifact in question, I’m learning another person’s perspective — a deeply subjective, personal perspective — informed by experiences I haven’t had and ideas I haven’t thought.
Categories can both enable and restrict. Maybe that’s why I’m so reluctant to settle upon a single definition. To me, critique is many things. Examination. Perspective. A process of uncovering. It’s what I seek to create when I sit down to write about a game, or when I look for other people who have already done the same. And next time, we’ll be looking at some of the steps that help foster a useful critique.
The next part, in which we discuss my personal criteria of good criticism, is already available on Patreon! It will become available here in the coming weeks.