How the Problems of Criticism Cross Medium Boundaries

Darklord Schaefer at the NYGCC awards ceremony (Photo by author)
Darklord Schaffer at the NYGCC awards ceremony (Photo by Kevin Nguyen)

If you don’t know what the term “nerdcore” entails, I don’t encourage you to find out. Suffice it to say that two nerdcore rappers bookended the Second Annual New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards held at NYU Polytechnic earlier this week, first, a gentleman by the name of Darklord Schaffer and then the famed MC Frontalot. It was an excruciating experience. Almost as excruciating as hearing the central problems of art criticism echoed by the video game critics who made up the award committee and convened a panel before giving out prizes.

Founded by journalist and author Harold Goldberg, the Critics Circle is a group of video game critics and writers who come together to hash out some of the problems with video games and reward those they think solve them. At the event, the assorted journalists, among them the staff of Polygon, Kotaku, and other major video game sites and publications, took turns answering a few questions before getting down to business.

Videogame Critics Circle logo (Via NYGCC)
Videogame Critics Circle logo (Via NYGCC)

In many ways, a critic is a critic is a critic, whether you’re writing about movies, books, video games or art. The game critics faced many of the problems that art writers must also confront. There’s the elitism, for one thing. When asked about his favorite game of the year, Jason Schreier of Kotaku haughtily replied that the game he enjoyed most “probably only two people in the room” have played. It turned out to be an obscure Japanese interactive novel. There’s credibility to be had by maintaining a posture of removed superiority in your chosen domain, not unlike the way Peter Schjeldahl only deigns to write sparingly on only the most high-profile, credible exhibitions.

The collected critics put forth the proposal that because consumers must pay for games, they want to like them more than a critic might, who receives the games for free. Videogames and consoles make up a much more expensive habit than going to art museums, but it’s an interesting point to make — am I less inclined to enjoy a show that I don’t have to pay to get in? I would hope not, but then personal biases are often hard to spot. Normal consumers don’t buy the kind of art that gets shown in museums, so that changes some of those concerns. But then, art exhibitions aren’t exactly entertainment products in the way that games are — they are meant to be educational and provocative unlike, say, a first-person shooter.

The consumption thing — that millions of consumers buy games to play at home — seems to make the game critics more respectful of mass-market money and opinion. There’s a significant divide in the video-game market between so-called triple-A titles (mainstream blockbusters) and indie games, a distinction that doesn’t exist for artists making art (though it might be said of exhibitions).

In the end, the game critics judge video games on many of the same criteria I use to evaluate art. Emotional engagement is a clear priority, an aspect that visual art often excels at while contemporary video games constantly fail miserably. The critics talked about how games are quickly becoming the dominant cultural medium of an era, posing game culture as a kind of “global imagination.” Art once filled that role, provoking viewers into thinking about the world in a different way. Hopefully it still does, but with the sheer reach of video games’ audience and accessibility, can other formats, visual art included, even compete?

It’s nice to note that the storied “are games art?” debate has largely subsided, but the MC of the evening, a writer for The Daily Show, joked that, “video games won’t be art until you have to force kids to play them,” like parents shepherd their children into art museums. It might have been the most perceptive comment of the night. Games aren’t yet perceived to be as “difficult” or “educational” as art might, and they lack the formalized context of the museum to heighten their aura, but the medium is certainly getting to that point. Let’s just hope it doesn’t entirely displace visual art.

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