What’s interesting about this topic is how it can force a re-evaluation of one’s assumptions.
What does it mean to be “good” at a game? Because being good at a game and being able to talk about it well seem like two different things, and that’s fascinating. You wouldn’t say that someone with poor reading comprehension is good at analyzing literature. But you can be good at discussing games, even if you’re not supposedly “good” at playing them.
What I hate about a certain element of the Dark Souls community is the attitude that beating a difficult game reflects your value as a person, or even just your right to have opinions about games. Like, suppose an individual plays an RPG on casual mode, but can talk in detail about the story, describe their emotional journey with it, engage the fan community, and discuss at length the game’s politics. Are they still not “good” because they chose to play on easy mode?
Because that’s what the argument sounds like when people say a journalist or critic needs to be “good.” As if you have to beat it on the hardest difficulty level to prove your “mastery” of it. But no one says, for example, that Yahtzee isn’t a real critic, or straight up shouldn’t be a reviewer, because he refuses to play multiplayer. (Or used to never try it? It’s been years since I cared to pay attention, but I recall that detail.)
Also, no one says that because you’ve never seen a movie produced by Troma, for example, you can’t review any other movie ever. Yet, gamers do! There are gamers who say stuff like, “if you’ve never played a Nintendo title, you’re not a ‘real gamer’ or shouldn’t be allowed to talk about games, period.” It makes no sense as an idea, because there are different fields of expertise. A professor of medieval fiction and a professor of postmodern fiction will likely have similar, foundational knowledge for discussing literature (e.g. a familiarity with feminist theory), but the former might not know who Samuel R Delany is and the latter might not have read much of any Chaucer.
And while we’re on the subject, I really dislike how often the discussion of games is reduced to rote dissection of mechanics. Like, there’s a common belief that the mechanics are separate from the storytelling. But to argue that gameplay isn’t interconnected with storytelling is like saying a movie’s cinematography has nothing to do with the visual narrative. All the components of a piece of art become easily compartmentalized parts. But how a game plays can possibly change the experience of the story. Otherwise, every game could play exactly the same way and each individual story would be unaffected, right? I think this belief in a neat division of story and mechanics partially influences the worldview that what matters the most in games writing is proving you can play well.
Still, I disagree that if you struggle to play well, you can’t comprehend other aspects like story, characterization, theme, & etc. Especially when “mastering the mechanics” can be understood in multiple ways. Is mastery winning a game on the highest difficulty? Is it successfully solving the meta? Or is it being able to grasp the concept of how you’re supposed to perform an action, even if you’re not great at the execution? For example, I can play Gwent just fine. I “get” the basic functions. But I’m only level 16, after dozens of hours, because mastery of the strategy is a different thing. There are layers to gameplay! What one person calls “basic” may actually be a separate concept. Another example: just because you’re not the best at PUBG, doesn’t mean you don’t know how to play it or can’t comprehend what’s good about it. Good strategy is not same thing as mechanics. The can guide each other, but remain distinct.
Yet, and I hope this isn’t hypocritical to say, I also strongly disagree that there’s no such thing as “expertise” in writing about art. Maybe we should call it “talent” rather than “expertise”? Because it’s important to understand how a game tells a story, or how a movie does, or a book. There is such a thing as objectively bad editing in a movie, for example. FoldableHuman’s examination of Suicide Squad is an excellent video essay on this. Lindsay Ellis’ series on Bay’s Transformers are as good as they are because she understands the language of cinema and the theories that inform how movies are made or analyzed. She goes beyond simply stating that a thing’s good or bad, and articulates why this or that aspect of Transformers communicates certain ideas. Whereas, I think Cinema Sins is bad because it gets information factually wrong, usually by deliberate misrepresentation, reduces the art of talking about art to a pedantic obsession with supposed “plot holes”, and mistakes being an anorak with having anything interesting to say.
Or, maybe a better example: did Roger Ebert ever write a good movie? Nope. But he understood the language of cinema. He could discuss the artform well, even if he arguably failed at making the art. Beyond that foundation though? There’s a wide open room for debate over quality or interpretation. We don’t have to reject the idea that one can be a good or bad reviewer to also agree that it is nonsense to argue that one must be “good” at games to write about them. At least, I’d like to think these aren’t contradictory ideas.