A Canon of Games Criticism

Austin’s lamentation from last Friday’s Waypoint Radio (229) about there not being a resource of good prior games criticism to point to made me feel kind of melancholy. Matthew Seiji Burns (or someone) wrote something once about games criticism operating on a five (three?) year institutional memory, and the fact that I can’t even find that article probably says Something… And there’s probably some good that comes out of new writers not being beholden to the voices of old (well, other than the ones running the sites), being able to formulate from new ground, but I think it still might be useful to be able to look back. For those that want to.


Anyone else interested in doing something, or just interested in general? I feel there’s definitely, probably personal lists or academic essays on pivotal games criticism already out there. Is this crowd-sourceable, curatable, discussable at least? Is this more a Critical Distance project? Critical Distance seems to start their yearly recaps in 2011, and those might be a bit thorough for this purpose, but they’re there. I can maybe try putting together a list of things that’ve stuck in my mind from before that.

If nothing else, here’s the two incredibly influential pieces Austin mentioned, both from 2004:

Always Black - Bow N***** (racism, slurs including a questionable ableist one)

Kieron Gillen - The New Games Journalism (refers to the first piece, so also slurs)

Over at the NYVGCC, our Games Journalism Award is starting to become a big (but by no means complete) archive of recent noteworthy games journalism, just by virtue of the long lists we assemble to vote down each year. IIRC when I went back and did a count some time recently, we had something like 100 curated entries per year on our sheets.

For the time being, only our short lists are made public (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), but it’s something, at least. I’ve been considering options for how we might make the broader lists available to the public in the future, though I’m not sure how we might implement that. I imagine we’ll also eventually set up a proper individual site for the awards themselves.

On some small level, I hope the GJA also helps bring a little more visibility to reporting and critical ideas, so that over time we have a little better of an idea of the medium’s history and the long view.


I think in a large part, games criticism hasn’t developed much of a canon because so much of it is written outside of an academic setting. I mean, if we’re talking games criticism directly about games, that usually comes in reviews, which are often as much a product review as they are a critique of a games mechanics and/or themes.

There is a lot of writing/criticism outside of that though that I do wish we had better archival of. But good criticism comes from so many different places. Would a canon of games criticism encapsulate not just academic writing or articles but podcasts, videos, forum posts, and tweet threads? I think it should.

As for writings, there was an anthology of games writing made a few years back called The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture. I find myself re-reading Evan Narcisse’s piece on portraying blackness in video games included in that book, as it helped hammer home the point to me why it’s so important to have more people of color working in video games and why in general it’s important to have more marginalized folks working in any field.


Can someone elaborate on the significance of AlwaysBlack’s piece? Is it one of the first recorded pieces of introspective games criticism or something? It’s quite good, but I want to know what makes it especially important.

When it was written all the way back in 2004 people weren’t really writing criticism from a subjective or personal standpoint yet, because the industry was still very much the early-ish days of websites and magazines and so criticism was largely the standard kind of assessing the qualities of the game and its value outside of personal opinion. Jeff Gerstmann has an anecdote he brings up every now and then about giving Majora’s Mask a high score despite hating it because it was technically a good game. Kieron Gillen had already written the New Games Journalism manifesto in March of that year so it came up at just the right time to be a really good example of what that style of criticism wanted to achieve.

Should also be noted that games academia at the time (and somewhat still to this day, especially with the way Youtube pushes the discourse around) was basically obsessed with mechanical observation of games and in some cases (like Jesper Juul) people just outright rejected the idea that you could even convey politics or meaning through narrative because of “play” taking priority or whatever, and so a lot of people wanted to try and aggressively push for games to be an entirely divorced discipline from all other media (which is, let’s be honest, an incredibly stupid approach)

Also obviously nominating All of Tim Roger’s work because who doesn’t love hearing that guy ramble on about his weird Japan adventures for 5 minutes. also this Quintin Smith series about Pathologic which has a great part in the middle about what happened when he and a friend tried to play it in tandem as different characters


Gillen gives background in his piece, and that Gillen piece is what I think introduced it to (most) people, so their importance is really coupled together. You generally get what its importance is. I think there hadn’t been quite a wholesale shift away from the consumer-focused writing of gaming print magazines yet, and they inspired people to want to try approaching games criticism differently.

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That series about Pathologic is something that I still think about from time to time; its such a brilliant piece of writing that captures and conveys the the atmosphere of the game beautifully. I’m not a particularly huge fan of Pathologic on its own (I played through to the second day or so and gave up, frustrated with the lack of any sort of direction), but it still has a place in my heart because of those articles.

Also, this is a somewhat strange example, but would GameStop’s 8.8 review of Twilight Princess have a place in a canon of game criticism? Not because of the content of the article itself (as far as I can remember there was nothing particularly notable about the piece), but because of the bizarrely huge reaction that it inspired and the discourse that ensued about how games are rated and reviewed.

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I’ve never played Pathologic, or even seen it in action, but I’ll never forget that series.

Thanks for the info everyone!

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock by Clint Hocking

Whether you like this term or not, it’s a debate that is a constant presence in games criticism


I think a lot of the issues with Games Journalism is that the field is just too chaotic and doesn’t keep people around long enough. Jeff Gerstmann has been working since the Nineties and that’s basically unheard of. Obviously film is an older field but you don’t need to work hard to find people who have been in the criticism/journalism business for their entire lives. Seems like most careers (and even most publications) last barely a decade and we replace the vets with young writers who don’t realize what’s come before.

Another big issue I think is that gaming really lacks a coherent canon of classics at this point. What games do you need to play to get the theory of gaming? If you’re a film student you know you have to watch Moliere, Eisenstein, some German gothic horror, Citizen Kane, Italian Neorealism, etc. to get a good basic of the “foundational texts” of the field. We don’t have that in gaming, and a lot of the past collection is scattered across a thousand consoles and emulations because preservation has been such a minor priority for the gaming industry.

If we’re pulling in specific reviews for their notoriety: Fran Mirabella’s 7.9 for Mario Kart Double Dash.

But I think those reactions to reviews are more relevant as part of the canon of… what exactly in gamer culture led to the vitriol and entitlement that spawned things like gamergate, from the early-2000s to the present, rather than to games criticism per se.

This is the opposite of the problem that games have. the critical canon is so dominating and restricting that it’s difficult for many people to talk about games without referring back to it. Plus, the over-focus on mechanical identity means that it only exacerbates over time because rather than identifying themes and motifs in the work itself you’re just identifying what parts of a game refer back to the critical canon forever. hence why everyone constantly brings up dark souls - it’s an easy reference point and so generic in its attributes (man with sword, game hard, connected world) that it can be applied to literally any game you want. i once saw a PR guy for bloodstained describe it not as “a metroidvania” or “castlevania-like” or reference igarashi’s older work, but rather as “like dark souls”, because this approach is so comedically omnipresent and easy to use that even when it doesn’t make sense people still do it


Alright, here’s the prelim list I came up with off memory, cut down to 10. Only the 2000s.

Old Man Murray (Erik Wolpaw + Chet Faliszek + Kevin ??) - Crate Review System - 2000
Unbiased game scores, solved almost 20 years ago!! (Also says something about game level design)

Jane Pinckard - Sex in Games: Rez+Vibrator - 2002 (NSFW!) https://www.gamegirladvance.com/2002/10/sex-in-games-rezvibrator.html
What can we write about? What’s taboo?

Always Black (Ian Shanahan) - Bow N***** (racism, slurs including a questionable ableist one) - 2004
Games as individualized experiences, not cordoned off consumer products.

Kieron Gillen - The New Games Journalism (refers to the above piece, so also slurs) - 2004
A “manifesto” that reverberated. “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game”

Tim Rogers - “the literature of the moment” (a critique of mother 2) - 2005? (Does start off w/a prostitution reference) https://web.archive.org/web/20050228211730/http://www.largeprimenumbers.com/article.php?sid=mother2
He’s always done stuff to his own drumbeat. Consider how into the postmodern aspects this and one of his other famous pieces about MGS2 are (http://archives.insertcredit.com/features/dreaming2/). How sincere, how “truthy” is some of his writing? Honestly I’d only ever actually fully finished one of his essays/videos before, but his just finished translation series on FF7 for Kotaku seems great/vital (from what I’ve watched; I found it b/c of this list).

James Clinton Howell + Jerel Smith (ed) - Driving Off the Map ( A Formal Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2) - 2007 http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/
A serious, eye-opening thematic examination like nothing I’d seen before

Clint Hocking - Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock - 2007 https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
A crossover of a more academic definition + analysis, concept which seeped into “traditional” games media and was then happily misused. Also note the line in the sand between reviews and criticism here.

Tracey John interviewing N’Gai Croal - Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal On The ‘Resident Evil 5’ Trailer: ‘This Imagery Has A History’ - 2008
Might be more fair to link to something N’Gai actually wrote, but the web archive of his old Newsweek blog is hard to go through… but the convo N’Gai started about RE5 + portrayals of otherness felt huge at the time, and his answers are all great. I’d say N’Gai Croal and Kieron Gillen were maybe two of the most important critics of the time.

David Sirlin - Playing to Win - 2000
Maybe some people won’t consider this “criticism.” He wrote articles about the mindset of competitive fighting game players basically pre-internet, and two concepts he introduced are still extremely meaningful not just to modern fighting games but to multiplayer game design and balance in general: the “scrub” mentality (about the parameters of play and how different people approach play differently), and yomi (about knowing what your opponent will do and countering it, and then also knowing what your opponent expects you to do and doing something else). Been lots of debates in Hearthstone and Overwatch about lack of counterplay + mismatch(making) between competitive vs. fun mentalities. Turned into a book later.

Zero punctuation - Fable Lost Chapters (Profanity) - 2007
Video-based criticism, extremely popular. He did provide insight along with all the boner jokes, bet there’s some questionable stuff in some of his other videos (he’s done a billion by now), but he paved the way (?) to Jimquisition/Extra Credits/Angry Joe. Thought about 1up Show or one of their podcasts too (personality-based, semi-casual convos between games journalists on podcasts + video) . But I dunno, hard to just choose one. Did find the “it’s almost too good” vid: https://youtu.be/PiyN4nEFLhg?t=990 (also swearing).

Subjectivity of canon etc etc. No books (not linkable) or academia (don’t know). Took into account reach, which by definition does mean marginalized voices are not as represented. All the Leigh Alexander stuff I remembered was 2011+ (also her old blog is gone), was aware of Tom Chick but nothing particular came to mind. Borderhouse blog is defunct. Blogosphere in general…

I’ll maybe try and get it somewhere more “permanent” later so it’s not just living in a small forum thread.


Embed with Games by Cara Ellison is a great book, it’s a record of Cara’s journeys going and hanging out with and interviewing a bunch of developers - Time Rogers I believe, Christine Love I think, Robert Yang, and others.

As a teen I read Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and that was a big deal for me, it has kind of a mix of personal relationship to these games, their significance to games as a medium, and some talks with developers like Jon Blow and CliffyB that probably are a good artifact of game development in the aughts.

Also Killing is Harmless, by Brendon Keogh, a great book about Spec Ops: The Line.

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I think if you’re looking through the lens of popular (vs academic) games criticism a couple pieces that come to mind are Jeff Gerstmann’s 10/10 review of Ocarina of Time, the first Zero Punctuation review and the Sequelitis videos by Egoraptor. As pieces of criticism they’ve had a marked impact on gaming discourse writ large (idk if that’s always a good thing).


Here’s something I’d considered that might be interesting to a wider swath of people here, especially with all the crunch talk recently:

In 2004, the spouse of an EA employee wrote an anonymous post detailing the abysmal working conditions and crunch culture their partner faced. That post quickly went viral, led to a successful class action suit against EA, and (games media people have said) led to some big improvements over at EA.

Here’s the post: https://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/274.html. “EA Spouse” seems to have been quickly referenced twice in Waypoint articles before.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry about her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erin_Hoffman#“EA_Spouse”_blog_post, and here’s a brief article about how she says things have changed: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2013-03-28-ea-doesnt-get-enough-credit-says-ea-spouse.

Yeah, Extra Lives was great! Originally I included 2010, so I had Bissell’s Guardian article on GTA4 and addiction which was in the book as well as Michael Abbott writing about his experience with a racist shopkeeper in Red Dead Redemption. Talking all-time, off-hand I probably remember Bisell’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Shooter (partly on Spec Ops, mostly about our relationship with violent shooters) as maybe his most interesting thing, which maybe gets into that weighing of popular vs academic for a canon. Haven’t read Killing is Harmless, though I bet that pairs nicely with that piece.

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