Thursday, January 1, 2009

Evaluating Game Design

GamaSutra lists the lack of a critical vocabulary as being one of the principal disappointments of 2008 in the gaming industry, noting,

Discussion and media coverage of games -- which is capable of creating ambassadorship between the culture of games and the culture of more established mainstream media -- would do well in 2009 to embrace the distinction between "review" and "criticism," and to better incorporate the idea that games are now a much more subjective, experiential medium than they were in the days of pixels and bloops.

I agree with the author's dismay at a lack of a solid critical vocabulary for game criticism, and on the need to move away from the product review model when discussing games and game design.
When we critically consider other forms of entertainment - for instance, literature, movies, and theater - we can focus on both the phenomenal experience of the thing, and on the formal quality of the thing being reviewed. It isn't a perfect approach, but it gets at the heart of the matter, which seems to be twofold: "is this thing well put together", and "will I be moved by this thing in some fashion?" It doesn't take a vast and complex understanding of the field to speak to those points, either - we all know that a review citing poor special effects and horribly mixed audio (arguably formal issues) suggests that even an exciting science fiction story (the experiential side of things) will come across poorly on film.

The interesting question, I think, is whether we should we approach games (be they electronic or otherwise) in the same way, and if so, whether the tools that we can borrow from other critics are sufficient.

At least for me, much of the joy in a game occurs in my first few hours with it, where I do not yet know what type of interaction system I am dealing with. I might ask myself, "can I climb that mountain?", or "what happens if I shoot the windows?". These "wow!" moments, as I explore and test the limits of the system, are exhilerating. The longer that they last, the more apt I am to keep playing. Once I start to build up a series of expectations about what the designers did and did not take into account, I begin to see the game as a system rather than a world, and my evaluation criteria changes, and exhileration gives way to a more academic appreciation.

In other words, I find that game systems are usually best evaluated formally, where I look to a review to comment things such as depth, elegance, and replayability; game worlds are more subjective, and I search out reviews for more information on a world's theme, concepts, and morality when considering them.

More to come on this idea, as I believe it is the foundation for realistic criticism, and something lacking in most of the reviews I find.

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