On Reviews and Research

I’ve been thinking a little bit recently about the process of reviewing games – I said last week that I didn’t want to review anything, and that I didn’t like those Youtube videos that sort of wax on in smug nasal tone about one tiny point that they’ve noticed in a video game, as if they’re the holy hallelujah messiah reborn. There’s a couple of different thoughts involved here, and a couple of comments on the realm of academia, and I’ve finally brought them all together. 

So the first thing, and this is mostly an aside – I often don’t like Youtube video essays, partially because they move at the pace of the video maker. If you’re reading this article, and you don’t want to hear me talk about Youtube videos, you can just skip ahead to the next paragraph. That’s something that the format makes it easy to do. It’s also a lot easier to skim things in written form. You’ve got paragraph breaks that show you where the next point begins, and you can look at the first and last sentences of a paragraph to see generally what’s going on, or kinda half-read the paragraph in 30 seconds and decide you don’t need to read it any more closely. Youtube videos don’t really have that. There’s a time line down the bottom of the video, and you can jump through it, but it’s not as obvious where the video-equivalent of paragraph breaks are. So if some fuckwit is waffling for three minutes before making their point, it’s harder to skip the shit and get to where you want to be.

The second thing doesn’t exclusively apply to Youtube video essays, but it’s certainly a feature that is often displayed there. Basically, it’s not uncommon to find people making videos who have very minimal critical ability and who overhype the importance of their arguments. It’s partly clickbait culture, and it’s partly gamer culture, but you get this hyperbolic ‘MY VIDEO EXPLAINS WHY ARKHAM KNIGHT IS THE WORST GAME THOSE DEVS ARE SO STUPID’ kinda thing. Sometimes there are legitimate points that are being made, but they’re wrapped up in this come-at-me-bro kinda attitude that feels, to me, very quintessential to gamer culture. So I don’t like that. I try and avoid it in my own work. And one of the ways I try to avoid it is with a ‘no reviews’ rule for myself. I’m not going to tell you whether a game is good or bad. I’m not going to rate it out of ten, and hopefully I never give the impression that I’m focused on criticising or praising a game. More importantly, I’m trying to explore some of the building blocks of those games – so if a game has a theme of justice, I want to talk about justice and how it’s represented and how the game deals with it. It’s not about judging the overall game, it’s about taking a component and trying to understand what it’s doing.

So as much as possible, I try to stay away from the review structure. This obviously isn’t a review website – I’m usually not looking at new releases, I’ll sometimes spend weeks on a single game, or return to it months later – Arkham Origins, actually, made up my second and third video game posts, all the way back in 2016. I was trying a stupid gimmick where I’d add a jokey subtitle in the form of bracketed text, and now it’s impossible to tell what the posts are about by title alone. Anyway. So no reviews here.

I was thinking, then, about the link between my approach here and the field of academia. I’m an English major, and at the time of writing I’m 42 days away from submitting my Master’s thesis. By the time this post publishes, it will be 18 days. (I’m writing this on my day off – I should be resting, but my brain is running a hundred miles an hour because of stress, and this is a way to keep the wheels from falling off.) Anyway: one of the things you find with, say, first years, is that some of them come into university with this idea that they’re going to solve all the problems of English literary theory. They’re smarter and quicker and more insightful than all these hidebound old assholes, and they’re going to fix things – or so they think. You often get kids who write essays with this similar come-at-me-bro attitude. They’re trying to fight a theorist or a lecturer or another student in the class, and they think that with the best put-downs and the quippiest quips, they’ll be able to win. But that’s not really what we’re trying to do in our field. It’s not about winning fights, per se, it’s about building a better understanding of how different texts do the things they do.

There was certainly a period where people like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and so on spent their time judging whether different works were ‘actually good’ or ‘actually bad’. There are writers – fiction writers, I mean – who’ve been thrown out of the literary canon because of essays written by Eliot and Pound. Pound said someone was bad, and everyone went ‘Well, alright, guess they’re bad then,’ and stopped teaching them. There are still people who write articles like Pound, and some of them are quite influential critics, but that’s not necessarily what the academic study of English literature is trying to do. We’re not really interested in the opinion-contests of T.S. Eliot or fucksticks on Youtube. We’re not about telling you that one game is bad and another game is good. We’re about taking components from games, figuring out how they work, and commenting on their effect and implications in the broader nexus of the game structure. Sometimes there are disagreements, obviously, and some of them are very significant. (Some are not.) But in their highest, most perfect form, disagreements are about working towards a better understanding of how games work. They’re collaborative, and in many ways they’re humble. It’s not a dick-measuring contest, and it’s not a shouting internet review. It’s fucking research.

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