This is an elaboration of statements made in a Twitter exchange with Lana Polansky, following up on her splendid article In Defence of Criticism: The Close Reading.
The task of videogame critics is to recognize and elevate culturally important games. They need to point out to the audience that Dear Esther is more important artistically than Bioshock, and motivate the argument. This does not need to lead to the public playing or even liking Dear Esther more than Bioshock. They don’t even need to understand its critical elevation -though that is of course preferable. They just need to respect the game as superior. It is important to make these distinctions for a medium to move forward. To make progress, we need to identify and honor a small selection of the medium’s output as artistically superior, disregarding its popular or commercial success.
This is not an easy task. The critic will need to take unpopular positions. This is difficult in a context of Liking and Following and PlusOne-ing. And it may require elevating only certain parts of certain games. It will take courage to say that the city simulations in Assassin’s Creed are more important than its combat or its plot. And lastly, but almost impossible given the current scarcity and thus fragility of culturally relevant videogames, the critic will need to be harsh on exemplary works and point out their artistic shortcomings, for instance in comparison with art in other media.
Videogame critics should not be videogame fans. They are not part of the public. They are not looking to be popular. Their responsibility is to the medium and its place in culture first, ergo to humanity as a whole. The benefits of their work on a larger social level happen over the long haul. There are no easy quick victories.
Critical elevation of culturally important works does not imply rejection of culturally inferior works. The latter have a function (fun, entertainment, social opportunities, etc). However, confusing this function with artistic merit is the surest strategy to prevent the medium from reaching the status of other media, or achieving comparable quality and diversity.
For any of this to have any sort of impact, the critic will need to establish him- or herself as an authority. And this could prove difficult today given the unpopularity implicit in the task, as mentioned above, and the widespread cynicism versus the very notion of authority. One possible strategy could be to appeal to the above average intelligence of many game developers and players. If the critic can make a superbly reasoned argument, he or she may not succeed in convincing the public, but he or she may gain their respect. And respect is all we need.
If game reviews try to answer the question “Is this videogame a good game?” then game criticism should attempt to answer “Is this videogame a beautiful work of art?” And the terms “beauty” and “art” should be used with all the weight attributed to them through history. Where videogame reviewing happens within a context of consumers and fans, videogame criticism happens in service of the entire human population. The task is not to encourage gamers to appreciate artistic videogames. It is to demonstrate to the world which videogames are worthy of cultural esteem and why.