Okay, so this article comes out, and it’s pretty good at first. It criticizes Bioshock Infinite, says it’s problematic, and all that jazz. I’m with it so far. Good stuff! It uses that as a launch pad to criticize reviews, and I’m really digging this piece, man! But… then suddenly everything changes, and it goes into this “I’m better than you, white people,” mode, and we start to have problems.
Okay, so, there’s this trend that seems to be fueling this article. Ever met a white person who can’t wait to tell you how racist they aren’t and how they would never be racist towards someone? Maybe they say their friends were black or they’re a sixteenth Blackfoot or something. Or maybe they just try to take down white culture, making up for the sins of the past, pointing out every problem they see, painting everything up with ‘privilege,’ and generally just calling people who don’t agree immature and small-minded.
And this article does that. It really bugs me, because I don’t think it’s true.
First off, here’s a much simpler explanation for reviews are bad and why they focus on audiovisual presentation over everything else: a lot of reviewers have a tendency to rush through games. I remember seeing a reviewer tweet last fall that he’d made it through three AAA games in like 96 hours or something, which is nowhere near enough time to really analyze them, especially since at least two were games that warranted a good twenty or so hours of play. If I remember right, he had a Medal of Honor: Warfighter review out the same day he got it in the mail.
There’s a rush to get reviews out quickly, and when people speed through games, they miss the good stuff. Last night, I tried to rush through Borderlands 2, attempting to make it to Wilhelm in time to kill him for the special drop in the Borderlands 2 Loot Hunt. You know what? I missed a lot of content in my rush to get there, and I suddenly realized I was seeing the game differently. I wasn’t really approaching the combat with any depth; didn’t really explore anything in-depth. I ran to things, clicked on other things, and kept running.
First impressions are usually the lasting impressions, and if you’re writing a review really, really quickly, you’re going to miss valuable, important things, and your review is going to suffer. It should be the most important rule of gaming: Don’t Rush. And yet… so many, it seems, really do. And when they do, they miss things.
But there’s more to it than that. Me? I study game design. I read GDC talks for fun. I’ve experimented with making my own levels. I’m working on an indie project now. The reception I’ve received to my analysis of video games has been largely positive, I like to think I know how to review games pretty well. And I don’t think too highly of most game critics. I feel like a vast majority of them have played games and can put words together in a pleasing way, but that’s about it. When I read a great number of reviews, I don’t feel like I’m reading the words of someone who understands how games function; I feel as though I’m reading the words of someone likes to play games and can write about them.
And this isn’t everyone: Richard Cobbett is wonderful. So many of Kotaku’s staff, like Stephen Totilo, Jason Schreier, Kirk Hamilton, and everybody else… really, it’s amazing stuff. Pretty sure Totilo’s Fire Emblem review is still one of my favorite reviews of all time, even though I have no 3DS nor any way to obtain one and play the game. The review tells me that Totilo knows what he’s talking about, and that his opinion on games should be taken seriously.
But most reviewers I read… yeah, they don’t do this. So when I read an article saying that it’s because old white men are writing these reviews, and that they’re out of touch or whatever, it strikes me as disingenuous. It’s not even that logical.
The author is over on one end writing pretty words saying how white boys are uncomfortable with notions of subjectivity, and this is why reviews aren’t very good, but then he’s over saying that older white men are the problem and are insecure and want the world to adhere to their perspective, and it’s all an incoherent, babbling mess that ultimately says “I’m an elightened white guy who’s better than you are, because you’re so tied up in your whiteness that you can’t properly analyze a game’s story, or why it’s gameplay’s broken, or any of that other stuff.”
This is foolish.
Like I said, most reviews I read are pretty poor. It doesn’t matter what color, gender, or political belief system the author shares, most reviews are pretty poor. I can point out plenty of bad reviews by female critics, or African Americans, or Latinos, or anyone else you could possibly name. It’s ridiculous, even idiotic to suggest that somehow, whiteness or maleness is why people don’t understand good storytelling or good gameplay. Most people don’t understand good storytelling or gameplay.
But let me share a concrete example:
A man once wrote a review criticizing Left 4 Dead 2. He was Latino, you see, and it upset him greatly that a game set in the South featured no Latino characters. Additionally, he suggested that the game was making light of Hurricane Katrina because it was developed by rich white men. He suggested that these same rich white men would never set the game in New York, because while Katrina was entertainment to them—it happened to poor minorities—the destruction of the World Trade Center was a more personal tragedy (never mind that Valve’s a West Coast operation and probably feels nothing about 9/11 at all). This review, at least at the time, seemed to be pretty widely shared in the gameplay circles I was reading. A lot of people rubbed their chins, nodded sagely, and said yes, yes, definitely, this game was problematic because it wasn’t inclusive and made light of a disaster that had largely affected poor people.
This is moronic.
First off, when last I checked, the population of Latino individuals in Augusta, where the game begins, and New Orleans, where it ends, is a single-value percentage. That means that you could randomly select ten people from either city and still not find a Latino individual. Left 4 Dead 2’s four characters accurately reflected the demographic makeup of Augusta—half white, half black. Then, of course, you’ve got the suggestion that they’d never make a game in New York City; well, EA felt that destroying New York was pretty awesome, seeing as they set two Crysis games in it. Activision put two Prototype games there. I’ve seen other games replicate the collapse of the twin towers. Disaster is fascinating and makes for cool-looking gameplay scenes. It’s not a class struggle, it’s just interesting art.
Sure, ignore the poor writing in the game, or Valve’s attempt at replicating the previous success of the game by overly-stylizing everything (even the music!). Go be an idiot and say that white people are the problem.
At the end of the day, yes, Bioshock Infinite, and reviewing as a whole, is problematic. But it’s not because its reviewers are white dudes, it’s because most reviewers don’t really understand games well enough to talk about them in depth and rush through content as quickly as possible to crap out a review and a score.
It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are: you can write like an idiot. And this guy definitely has, even though he's got some great points mixed in with it, and his words are wonderfully-chosen.
Yeah, I know, I wrote something already today. But this other article got published, and I felt the need to write about it, but didn't have a lot of time. I want to tackle the guy's take on objectivity and explain why it's problematic, but I'm not really sure how to do it right now. Suffice it to say, cultural objectivity is kinda a thing—it's why we have the words "good" and "bad" for cultural standards, but "like" and "dislike" for personal ones. This guy completely threw notions of objectivity out the window, which is mistaken. But he's not wrong to suggest we embrace subjectivity.
Also, I think his analysis of Bioshock Infinite's story comes from a political background rather than a fictional background, so where he tries to make it some thing about privilege, it's really much simpler than that (the writers of the story seem to share his politics, by the way): the writers were trying to go with the whole "there is no good or bad, only shades of grey," without really understanding why leftism leads to bloody revolutions, so they just kind of had it happen without sense or purpose, and as such, it seems really weird.
Anywho, here's the piece; you can read it for yourself.