Games as Great Works?: Serious Game Criticism

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Matt Barton's picture

What are the greatest videogames ever made? No doubt, you've read just as many silly top-ten, top-twenty, top-fifty, and top-one-hundred lists as I have trying to answer this deceptively simple and straightforward question. The question is actually anything but simple and straightforward. It's a profound question that reaches as deeply into our gaming hearts as a stiletto dagger, and, until we can answer it convincingly--for all time--then we folks who style ourselves as "serious game critics" might vacate the premises, tails tucked tersely. In this article, I'll try to explain what makes the question so difficult, hopefully opening up and further expanding the friendly conversation begun in my post on Elite.

Getting the Question Right
One of the funniest and most memorable scenes in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide epic is when a group of seers construct a massive computer, Deep Thought, whose purpose is to give them the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. After several human generations of number crunching, the result is 42. Perplexed, the descendents of the original operators ask for clarification, and are told that the problem all along was the question. So, what's the right question? Deep Thought can't give it, but he claims he can build another computer that can. That "computer" turns out to be the Earth.

It's a typical Adams allegory, amazingly witty but at the same time so very insightful. Obviously, if you don't really understand what you're asking, then an answer, even a correct one, isn't likely to make a darn bit of sense. To that end, let's try to figure out what this question of greatness is all about.

Sales Figures. One of the most obvious criteria for evaluating a "great" game is how many copies of it were sold in the marketplace. This seems like a democratic enough solution, and while accurate sales data is somewhat difficult to acquire, it seems pretty easy to point out titles whose success ought to earn them all due respect. Yet, those of us with some background in literary criticism choke on such ideas. Surely, we can't let the whims of the unwashed masses declare which of our games is worthy of respect? After all, they're brainless hedonists, so easy to brainwash by a good marketing campaign, far more likely to praise Wedding Crashers as The Seven Samarai.

Wedding Crashers: A sleeper hit? Appropriate for an age of sleepers.Wedding Crashers: A sleeper hit? Appropriate for an age of sleepers.Furthermore, how many times has the public rushed out to buy games that are now quite rightfully forgotten? Some of the best-selling titles of all time, such as The 7th Guest, are not only forgotten, but rather difficult to find and play on modern hardware. Likewise, plenty of obviously bad games nevertheless managed to sell a respectable number of copies, such as Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. And we all know that folks will rush out to buy Halo 3, even if it turns out to be the worst game since Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor.

In short, sales figures are about as unreliable an indicator of greatness as a call-in poll on the G4 Network. Ask a thousand people with an IQ of 40 what the great games are, and you'll receive a response from a person with an IQ of 40. Americans may "vote with their dollars," but they also voted for President Bush...twice.

Innovation. Another seemingly valid criteria for greatness concerns innovation, or, rather, the inventiveness or "new concepts" embodied in the game. This includes early games like SpaceWar, or Higinbotham's tennis game--or even Nolan Bushnell's Pong. It also includes games like Doom, which first demonstrated the real possibilities of a new genre. Certainly, all the pioneering works of the great genres should be included, such as Adventure, Karateka, and Space Invaders. Finally, we must here deposit such games as The 7th Guest, Myst, and perhaps even Sewer Shark, since they each introduced gamers to new technologies and concepts that at first thrilled them.

Doom 3: It's doomed all right. To obscurity.Doom 3: It's doomed all right. To obscurity.Yet, does introducing a "new concept" really amount to greatness? Does being the first to implement some new idea really make you great? Or perhaps just lucky? While it's hard to deny the bravado and inventiveness of folks like Bushnell and Ralph Baer, or the sheer audacity of folks like Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders) and Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man), somehow they always seem more glorified for "getting there first" rather than the actual quality of their games. Who plays Space Invaders rather than Galaga? Pac-Man rather than Ms. Pac-Man?

Furthermore, yesterday's innovations are...yesterday's innovations. Does anyone nowadays go around bragging about the "spectacular" graphics of 7th Guest or Myst? Indeed, Doom 3 and Halo 2 are already feeling a bit "so last year"--bargain bin material. Who will sing their praises five years from now? Perhaps a few crusty collectors?

Ultimately, it seems rather foolish to let technical innovation play too large of a role in determining great games. I'm not saying that we shouldn't honor these men and women who were able to accomplish what so many others, who either lacked the ingenuity or insight, failed to bring about. Honor them the same way we might honor the unknown author of the Epic of Gilgamesh or Sundiata. These are works from the dawn of time. But, seriously, Homer's stuff is way better. Look it up.

Brilliance of Design
Finally, we're starting to get to a criterion that seems a bit more durable. Like the best-built buildings or bridges, it's hard to deny that a superbly-designed game deserves some measure of greatness. Someone who claims the Golden Gate Bridge is an ugly span of steel and cable across an otherwise impressive body of water is an idiot, not an architect. For the same reason, we have to wonder if someone criticizing the almost intuitively brilliant design of games like Tetris, M.U.L.E., or Civilization isn't just trying to be contrary.

Now that I've finally used the T-word, Tetris, let me state clearly here what I think of its design: It's remarkable. It's one of those games that everyone thinks he could have thought of; indeed, why didn't he? This thought immediately leads one to start brainstorming; if some starving dude in a communist country can do it, why can't you? The brilliant design of games like Tetris, as well as more recent games like Bejeweled and even Zuma, have bestowed upon them a wide appeal that is surely the envy of most other developers.

Games like Super Mario Bros., Frogger, Street Fighter II, Galaga, and Donkey Kong can also give much of the credit of their success to their unquestionable attention to aesthetics and design. These are games that are almost at-a-glance comprehensible to even the virgin gamer. Their enduring appeal seems to offer further evidence for their greatness—after all, if people are still clamoring for these games some two decades later, isn't it safe (at last) to just label them "great" and be done with it? They've "stood the test of time."

Super Mario Bros: Brilliant design, but brilliant anything else?Super Mario Bros: Brilliant design, but brilliant anything else?Still, there's still something missing here. Let me tell you an apocryphal story. I once heard a student say, "I listen to lots of classical music." This surprised me in a rather pleasant way, so of course I asked which composers the student most enjoyed. "Uh, composers? I mean like, The Eagles, Lynard Skynyrd. You know, classical rock." I hope you thought this little story was amusing, because it's where I'm going with the one true criterion I'll actually accept.

Insight of the Critics
There really is only one way to determine whether a game is great or not, and that is simply to ask the right people to tell you. By the "right people," of course, I'm not just arrogantly nominating myself, though, with an eye towards the sorry state of game criticism today, I think I deserve a statue for my efforts. In all seriousness, though, it really does come down to the informed opinion of expert critics who not only know a good game when they play one, but also have the depth of soul to recognize a great game when it changes their way of looking at the world—forever. Am I the perfect critic? Despite appearances, perhaps not. But, like Deep Thought, I think I know how to make one. It's going to take awhile.

Obviously, the first step in establishing the perfect game critic is to make sure she plays a lot of games, from all eras. She'll need an open mind and a sincere desire to understand the greatest diversity of games. I'm not just talking about downloading MAME and running through a few dozen "classics" this weekend. I mean a lifetime spent playing videogames, carefully studying each and considering their qualities. When a critic is confronted with a new game, she must be able to draw upon an immense store of past experience stretching all the way back to the very dawn of computing. Otherwise, her judgment will be as useful as the "classical rocker" mentioned earlier. If you don't know about other games, then how can you properly rank them? As most of the readers here can easily testify, there are few things more irritating than hearing some youthful nincompoop ramble on about some recent title, totally unaware of the great many games from which it came. Why, how could a man style himself a game critic who has never even seen an Atari 2600 or a Commodore Amiga? Friends, I shudder at the thought.

Secondly, my critic must be well-educated in the best critical thought of her age. Thankfully, this will involve mercifully light reading, since Aristotle pretty much got it all right in his work Poetics. This work can be supplemented by Horace, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson, whereas voracious readers might want to tackle Northrop Frye. As for contemporary game criticism, I've yet to read any of much worth—except perhaps as foils for our critic to rail against. Most of the academic critics of games are so pompous and full of recycled French gobbledygook that you'd literally learn more about games by spending one quarter in a Ms. Pac-Man machine than spending $50,000 taking a semester's worth of courses with these portentous, arrogant frauds. Indeed, a day spent at a conference yawning and pleading with the clock to end one's agony should be sufficient evidence to discredit the lot of them, were there not just as many fools so desperate for credentials as to follow them, somewhat like baby ducks waddling after mama duck. Perhaps the most capable of all of them is Espen Aarseth, whom I disagree with, and Nick Montfort, whom I envy. Sadly, of all the game critics I know to exist in the academy today, there is only one I really get along with, and that is the same deluded chap you're reading at the moment. What a critic dies in me!

At any rate, let's get on with it. The third and most important characteristic of this perfect critic is depth of soul and character. Unfortunately, this criterion is rather hard to identify, for the simple reason than anyone who has depth of soul will know instantly what I have in mind, whereas those who don't will assume I'm speaking pure rubbish. What I have in mind, though, are those rare individuals whose souls are truly alive; pushing out from their bodies and enriching everything they touch with grace and eloquence. It's as though these people were born looking like ordinary human beings, but are actually blessed with supernatural vision and such deep insight that even they themselves might live in constant fear of being found out, or else endlessly frustrated by a life surrounded by folks who don’t understand them. It's not just artists I speak of here—but rather critics, who are ultimately more important than artists or the art itself, since without them, who could define it? An artist's work is only worth as much as the true critic's estimation of it. No, the critic is truly the most amazing and precious of the human race, since it is she who is able to grasp the whole significance of a thing at once and (hopefully), identify it, and attempt to describe it—if not to everyone, at least to those with enough depth to appreciate it.

There have been those that have argued that such depth of soul cannot be learned, but I doubt it. I must only consider myself, born at the lowest rungs of American society, yet somehow finding in myself a capacity to exceed those infinitely humble beginnings and make a name for myself, winning over even such prized individuals as you for an audience. How did I reach such a point? Well, obviously, by being exposed to and learning to appreciate truly great works, and taught not only to acknowledge their greatness, but given the intellectual tools to understand it.

Homer: Move over Shakespeare. Here's your daddy.Homer: Move over Shakespeare. Here's your daddy.About the best I can offer anyone is to read and re-read Homer until you blow that little spark of greatness that lies within all of us, and, with proper care and handling, let it grasp upon the tinder of your heart until a massive bonfire erupts with your soul, bringing glory to yourself and all others around you, who, perhaps being awed by your presence, may nevertheless allow their petty jealousies and insecurities to deprive you of the voice to elevate the race. For every great man, there are a thousand weaklings, whose combined weight crushes him as easily as a dog tramples down a flowerbed.

Concluding Thoughts
In the end, then, what makes a great game? I have dismissed the criteria most often brought to bear on the question: Popularity and sales figures are irrelevant. Furthermore, a game with great design is not necessarily great otherwise. I finally hit upon the truism that the problem is really with the question; to get the right answer, we have to make sure we're asking the right question to the right people. And, finally, here is that question: What games have made you greater than you were? What games have not merely amused you, but actually elevated your being; raised you up from a lesser state? What games have lifted the cataracts from your eyes, drew forth the wax from your ears? What games have taught you something of glory, of honor, of heroism, which games have set the fires of your pride burning, unquenchable, in your stormy chest? Show me the games that have not dulled your wits, but sharpened them; not distracted you, but rather drew your attention to what's really important in your life. What games have made great sages of ignorant fools, heroes of boys who never tasted fear, honorable citizens in a world spun off its axis, that knows no sacredness, no holiness, no purity?

Show me the game that has made proud men of frail boys, and forged women who stand taller and stronger than is proper. Show me the game that has given the doomed soldier courage to face his death, the unwanted mother the wherewithal to endure so boldly the face of every hateful eye, the righteous child for whom "Yes, sir" is no longer an option.

Such a list, I think, will be a very short one.

Comments

mrCustard (not verified)
Fun ?

Interestingly the word "fun" doesn't occur in your article att all. Which is a pity. Because, from a player's point of view, the best game is the one that's the most fun.

...

O, ok, there's "funniest", but that doesn't really count, does it? ;)

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Matt Barton
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Fun isn't necessarily what makes a game great

I could've added that as another criterion! :-) But, really, fun is relative. Some people I know actually really enjoy watching golf or soccer on TV. Others think it's incredibly fun keeping up with all the Hollywood celebrity gossip. Finally, I doubt there are five games in the entire universe that we could all agree were fun. Chess is a classic example: I think it's great fun, but I know so many others who find it boring and stupid. I'd like to think that anyone with enough intelligence would like to play chess, but that's simply bias on my part.

It seems obvious to me that describing a game as "fun" is just another way of saying you like it. After all, I know a guy who argues that ET is one of the most fun games out there. And it's no joke!

Really, if we started trying to rank games in terms of "fun" we'd quickly have to give up. Besides, it'd be a shame to put aside so many great games just because a few folks didn't like them. Most of the time, someone not liking a game is just because they won't give it a fair chance. Kids who utterly refuse to play any game pre-32 bit are a prime example.

In the art world, you hear critics talking about works without usually spending too much time talking about which ones are "fun." The "fun" is in understanding, discussing, and appreciating the works. Again, I think it'd be great fun to talk about E.T. for the Atari 2600, though I doubt I'd find it (personally) a very fun game to play. ;-)

Really, although I might sound kind of strange saying it, we won't get very far with "serious games" unless we can stop worrying so much about fun. I say, just make the greatest game you can, the way you want to make it--and if someone says it's not fun; so what? That's the game you felt compelled to create. Maybe you had other goals other than amusement. Consider this game:

NewsGaming

McDonalds, the Game

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forcefield58
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Joined: 05/19/2006
Games that are Fun

Well, I for one wouldn't play a game unless it were "fun". And, if I started playing it and it turned out to not be fun, it would be added to my "Wall of Shame" CD collection.

There are alot of things that a game "great", and we all know what those things are.

It all comes down to personal perference. I look at my pile of games and I see in order of quantity, a ton of FPS's, strategy games and sports titles.

Other folks may have nostalgic favorites but aren't necessarily "fun". To me, that wouldn't be considered a "great" game either, sort of like the E.T. reference by Matt.

Great games span the generations and since no one person has been around long enough to have played or been exposed to them, it would come down to a ton of people having a list of games that by the time you were done just about every game known to man would be on it!!!

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mrCustard (not verified)
They just have to be fun.

Almost all games, unlike many artworks, created solely for entertainment. So what better measurement than the level of entertainment (fun)? How can a game truly be great when nobody likes it? Sure, it may not have been very popular, but the only opinion that counts, is from the folks that actually played the game. Aside from judging the obvious technical aspects of games, the fun aspect is just about the only one that's needed for a gazme to succeed. I'm sure one could try to pass critism on games like on art, but i'm afraid not a lot of them (even the "great" ones) would stand up against such scrutiny (for various reasons, not the least being technical limitations), and the reviewer would more than likely make a fool of himself (despite having spent a lifetime to prepare for the noble task). With games being what they are I think they are best being judged as they are now being judged; by a set of technical criteria, playability aspects and their "fun factor". Judging them like something they are not, namely art, seems hardly fair.

One other thing... serious games and serious game critisism are two different things altogether. One can very well well do without the other (probably much to the chagrin of the serious game creators, who create often broken, un-fun games ;) )

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Matt Barton
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The Problem of Fun

Ah, this is turning out to be a great discussion! You're definitely asking the right questions, mrCustard. Again, as forcefield pointed out, the concept of "fun" is so hard to nail down that it's almost ludicrous to talk about it. I read "The Theory of Fun" by Raph Koster and still wasn't convinced that I'd found a good definition.

However, I think I can work with the phrase "created solely for entertainment." I think that's the critical phrase here. What does it mean to say something is created only for entertainment? I'm thinking that it's intended to mean it doesn't serve any other purpose than to distract or amuse someone for awhile. There's no "meat" to it. Clearly, folks flocking to see films like Cars or Pirates of the Caribbean 2 aren't there to better themselves. They just want to laugh a bit and "escape" into a convenient fantasy.

However, it's always been debatable whether it really matters whether something is intended to be "mere entertainment" or not. Doesn't it matter more what people end up doing with it? A handy example is the Beach Boys' tune "Sloop John B," a really silly song that ended up being used an anti-war protest during Vietnam. There were probably lots of folks out saying, "Oh, come on, that's just a silly little song! The Beach Boys aren't anti-war." Well, who cares if they are or not? The fact is, the song had taken on that meaning, and it's naive to try to keep dismissing it just because the author/s didn't expect it to take on that role.

I can think of lots of games that seem like "pure entertainment" at first, but could very easily represent deep thought and social commentary. A game like Missile Command, for instance, might be seen as cheap, harmless amusement. But I doubt most intelligent people playing that game would just walk away without thinking some pretty damn serious thoughts about the consequences of nuclear war. Though it's perhaps a bit more of a stretch, you could also think of Pac-Man as representing the consumer, mindlessly chomping down identical bits while desperately avoiding the dreaded "ghosts," which could represent all manner of things (guilt, mortality, creditors, etc.)

Furthermore, it's the height of absurdity to claim that great works like Homer's Iliad weren't "fun" for the Greeks. It's hard for people nowadays to believe it, but Shakespeare's plays were also very popular in their day, as were many of the works of classical compositionists. I'd never be one to claim that we should dismiss something as a great work just because people enjoy it. In fact, I'd maintan that we really "enjoy" things even if they don't necessarily make us happy. No one I know, for instance, leaves a theater after watching Apocalypse Now or Platoon giddy with joy. Yet, it's obvious that people do enjoy these films, because they are very popular and continue to enjoy success.

About the only thing that really bothers me about the videogame as "pure entertainment" is that people tend to think that's ALL they should be. Every game should be a Tetris, that is, a simple diversion with no intellectual or social merit whatsoever. I've never bought that definition and I never will. A great game should be about something, and should teach something beyond just the strategies and rules necessary to succeed at it. And, no, I'm not saying all games should be "educational" in the terrible sense that term has come to mean. Rather, I mean a great game should have something of the qualities of a film like Saving Private Ryan; yes, it's highly entertaining, but also redeeming. If every game was a Tetris, there wouldn't be a damn thing about them worth writing about.

What's particularly powerful about videogames is that they have the potential to go so much further than movies in helping us explore ourselves and really learn about what it means to be human. There have been so precious few games that have even attempted this. Floyd's sacrifice in Planetfall. April Ryan's traumatic experiences in The Longest Journey. Richard Garriot's experiments in his Ultima series.

But games can also be more open-ended, allowing us to explore (on our own terms) the effects of our decisions.

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Seb
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When i think of great games

When i think of great games that stood the test of time i can't help going back to LucasArts, Origin (Ultima series), Infocom adventures of the mid 80's and early 90s. We're not talking litterature of course, but a step in the right direction. Too bad nobody picked up where these companies left off. There's very little out there now that is of any artistic interest to me... sadly art is something the industry is totally uninterested in. Maybe that'll change eventually, but i'm not holding my breath.

Matt Barton
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I definitely agree with you,

I definitely agree with you, Seb. Indeed, those were the same games I was thinking about. A great adventure game can be both highly entertaining and have a definite meaning and purpose to it. Of course, some might argue that a FPS like Halo can accomplish the same goal (i.e., weaving a powerful story into the action), but it doesn't seem the same to me. The best GAGs actually make the "puzzles" (for lack of a better term) an instrumental part of the gameplay. In other words, the story in an FPS tends to be just grafted on between the far more important shoot-to-kill arcade segments. Though recently we've seen some FPSs that are moving away from this convention (Half-Life 2, FEAR), even there the emphasis is clearly on carnage rather than exploring a story, characters, and various themes.

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