So You Want to be a Game Critic? (II) – Media literacy

In my last article, I argued that you should be able to differentiate the different types of enjoyment a game can provide, in order to critique a game. This time I want to tackle another aspect, that I think is fairly important.

As a critic, you should understand how games actually work.

This isn’t about reading and internalising game rules. You obviously have to be able to explain a game in order to engage with it meaningfully. I don’t think that’s enough to write a critique, though. The fact that I know how to use my coffee machine does not mean I can evaluate how well it’s made. Similarly, I need a solid understanding of how games function. I need to understand what the various elements of a game are, and how they interact to make a specific gaming experience possible.

If I were to write a film critique, I’d need to understand how films tell stories. For a game critique, I need to understand how the various parts of the game come together to shape my experience. This starts with basic concepts like objectives and incentives; but also covers questions of usability and approachability of a game, and so on. But it can also include material and visual presentation, terminology the game uses as well as the one that players actually use at the table. Sometimes a wider context plays a role, too. The identity of publisher and creator may be relevant, the choice of themes at certain points in time, game development, rules editing, etc.

Additionally, it matters how flexible the game lets players be in their approach to it. Do they have to be at exactly on level or can they be a little over or under it? For example, many area control games are designed with confrontational players in mind; players who will consistently and continuously seek to prevent each other from progressing. Some games assume that players will stratch and bend the rules in oder to gain an advantage. These games assume that player behaviour is driven solely by the ambition to win the game.

A critic needs to understand how design works – and game design in particular – in order to identify when their game group doesn’t align with the player type the design assumed. Some elements of a game exist only because a certain behaviour is expected from the group. Others are missing for the same reason.

Interactivity shouldn’t just be reduced to some rules

Another important aspect of understanding the medium of games is to understand interactivity as the central element of play. This doesn’t refer to letting players take one another’s cards, resources or game pieces. It’s about recognizing rules as a framework for our behaviour, but that our behaviour within the game is still led by our personal preference. Play isn’t simply derived from applying and interpreting game rules, but also from decisions players make freely, which determine the tonality of the experience.

If we were to imagine the play experience as a picture, then the game (with its contents, rules, etc.) provides the outlines of a motif; but it’s players who choose which colors to use and how to fill in those outlines.

Interactivity isn’t just a mechanical attribute, but also draws from our imagination, emotional investment and the interpersonal interaction we experience within the game. A game doesn’t simply expose players to a complete experience. Its players act within the game’s confines, partly directing what the group experiences and feels.

As a critic, we must be aware that it is this interaction between the physical game (made by its cerators) and the virtual play space (made by players) that creates the experience, i.e. play. When we engage a game critically, it’s not enough to acknowledge that another group of players may have a different experience with the same game. We must also understand how these differences come about. Because this is where we can recognise where the design is most effective or possibly even lacking.

The widespread practice among critics to play the same game with different groups is also quite effective in making these dynamics evident. There’s a lot of room to argue over whether playing with different groups is absolutely necessary, or if similar insights can be deduced with enough understanding of the medium. Either way, it’s clear that you have to understand how a game affects the group and vice versa, in order to evaluate it critically.

It’s not enough to know that another group may experience the same game very differently. It’s essential to a critic to be able to explain what that is. Or at the very least to know how to get those answers. This is what the next part of the series will be about.

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