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Insults vs. Criticism

January 6, 2010

In my recent post, Deep Critique Without Play, I lamented the caliber of criticism leveled at a variety of media with which the critic has no personal experience. This lack of experience is exacerbated by a failure to question one’s own or another’s assumptions or to explore the topic deeper. As developers and players, we take up arms when outsiders to our industry or our medium critique it scathingly (video games cause [insert terrible thing here]), but sometimes deal out our own friendly fire.

While criticism is valuable, phrases like “That sucks” aren’t really criticism, and I shouldn’t have labeled them as such. Without supporting commentary, they are merely insults.

They suck.

Artwork by Jimini Hignett, Wikipedia Image Commons

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2010 3:57 am

    I think one problem we have is that there’s very little language to critique games. At the core, we worry about if the game is fun or not. This begs the question: what is “fun”? Ask five different developers and you’ll get seven answers and three blank looks. Try to dig into deeper issues and here there be dragons.

    For example, I was playing a Flash game the other day and a lot of the comments complained about the “controls”. After playing the game a bit, the real problem was that the ship you controlled had a lot of inertia. The controls worked just fine, but it the setup didn’t allow the player to do a lot of fine movement. There was a design flaw related to this, in that increasing your ship’s hit points also increased the ship’s speed, making the inertia problem worse. But, it’s hard to give precise feedback when there’s no real standard terminology to use.

    Therefore, I think a lot of people just fall back on the “it sucks” response because giving anything more meaningful takes more ability than they have.

    • January 6, 2010 10:06 am

      “I think one problem we have is that there’s very little language to critique games. At the core, we worry about if the game is fun or not.”

      I disagree with this. I mean, you could say the same thing about film: “At the core, we worry about if the film is enjoyable or not.” That doesn’t mean that we don’t have an expansive vocabulary with which to talk about film. It’s also not necessarily true, as not every game has to be “fun” in a conventional sense. (Chess is not “fun” in the way that Super Mario Bros is fun.)

      “After playing the game a bit, the real problem was that the ship you controlled had a lot of inertia. The controls worked just fine, but it the setup didn’t allow the player to do a lot of fine movement. There was a design flaw related to this, in that increasing your ship’s hit points also increased the ship’s speed, making the inertia problem worse. But, it’s hard to give precise feedback when there’s no real standard terminology to use.”

      I’m not sure what the problem is here, because the language you’re using seems precise enough. I have no idea what flash game you’re talking about but I feel fairly confident that I understand what you’re talking about and why it might be a problem.

      Now, I do generally agree that the vocabulary we use to talk about games still has a ways to go and people tend to use some terms in very broad ways, but we generally have a pretty good understanding of the elements of games and how to describe them, even if we’re not using laser-precision language. Even though the problem you described above doesn’t have a single specific word associated with it (will it ever?), I doubt it was particularly hard to describe the problem in the way you did.

      • January 6, 2010 7:31 pm

        A few caveats: I don’t think the focus on “fun” is why we don’t have a good vocabulary. I think the focus on “fun” is why typical game players don’t care to work with a vocabulary.

        I see the word “enjoyable”, what you associate with good movies, as something different than “fun”. It’s a lot more broad, and can encompass a lot more emotions than “fun” does. I think it would be an improvement if we could focus on a game being “enjoyable” instead of “fun”.

        The reason why I am able to use more precise language is because I’m a professional developer. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about game development, history, and other topics so that I can have perspective. This is something that a typical player, who professional developers often rely on for feedback, don’t have. Even some people who develop games don’t really put critical thought into games. This is the source of Brenda’s frustration, I think.

        Anyway, the Flash game I was talking about is linked in my earlier post (the hyperlink shows up in dark red and isn’t underlined; mouse over until you find the link or follow this one: http://armorgames.com/play/5122/asteroid-war). Read the comments and you’ll see that the vast majority of them aren’t terribly precise. Imagine the frustration of the game developer who is trying to improve his or her game by wading through all those comments, hoping someone gives a good bit of advice….

  2. January 6, 2010 6:38 am

    There’s also an aspect of laziness here, right? Some people are in the industry or are professional reviewers or care about gaming in some deep way. Other people just want their opinions heard — their “criticism” is not to benefit the creator, it’s to benefit them.

  3. January 6, 2010 10:07 am

    I already mentioned it in the other comment thread, but I wrote a bit about this recently myself, if I can take a minute to (selfishly?) beep my own horn. Ostensibly, I was trying to educate an encourage a beta-test community to give better feedback when I initially wrote it, but really I was just tired of reading “This game will fail! Doom! DOOM!” in nearly every thread I was trying to engage in. It didn’t really help, but it made me feel better.

    I think as creators in this day and age of armchair experts, instant gratification and self-centralized opinion (speaking in terms of the general populace) we need to develop some pretty thick skin, and we need to be willing to note, but otherwise ignore, these useless kinds of non-criticism as being what they are: useless to us. Even knowing they exist in relation to our work isn’t helpful– we already know not everyone is going to like everything we make, so it’s really just null-value noise hiding signal.

    I suspect this is partially why most MMO developers these days hire a Community Manager to do all the posting/reading on forums and you rarely see anyone else from the teams post except in short bursts.

    • Syd K. permalink
      January 7, 2010 11:52 am

      Considering how vicious MMO communities in particular can be (a monthly fee amplifies that sense of entitlement that is now so common in our culture tenfold), it blows my mind every time I see Jack Emmert posting on the forums for Cryptic Studios’ games. People don’t just target what they don’t like about the game – they target the developers, flinging insults and even threats if there is even the slightest thing about the game that they don’t like. It’s ridiculous.

      I really wish constructive criticism courses were a required part of the high school curriculum. It’s a beneficial skill for people to have in all aspects of life, not just art critique.

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