by Jed Pressgrove
The role of a critic is to examine, interpret, and evaluate works of art after experiencing them. This purpose might lead a critic to champion an album for its exquisite instrumentation; reject a film for its shallow moral message; compare a painting and a sculpture that depict the same subject; or point out that a video game is politically irresponsible, for whatever reason, in addition to being a clunky, trite experience. The possibilities are innumerable, and the critic’s passion for art can sometimes lead to challenging ideas that stick in your memory like a pest. Criticism might even enlighten or elate us. Whatever the case may be, a critic talks about finished works of art and, in the process, should attempt to not sound like a commercial, a marketer, or any other horrible thing that attempts to exploit our impulses to buy or complacently enjoy what is peddled to us.
In contrast, a labor rights advocate looks for cases of exploitation in the workplace and puts a spotlight on terrible practices with the hope that workers’ situations will change for the better.
As someone with a functioning brain and a sense of decency, I don’t have a problem with criticism or labor rights advocacy. I do have a problem with statements that suggest that these things are somehow the same.
Recent stories about the production, not the finished artistry, of Red Dead Redemption 2 have led some to raise questions about whether poor labor conditions should factor into critics’ assessments of the game itself. Jessica Condit posits that labor conditions are directly tied to quality of the art: “However, talking about crunch can change how games like this are made. In fact, they can help make these games even better.” But where is the evidence for this well-meaning statement? How can one imply that better working conditions would produce better art when the examination, interpretation, and evaluation of art is in the eye of the beholder?
Earlier this year in reviews of Detroit: Become Human, some critics mentioned the sexism and homophobia that allegedly went on during the production of the game. It’s almost as if some critics would sometimes rather review labor environments than the games themselves. What’s particularly puzzling about this trend is that only certain games receive this level of scrutiny. It’s not like these same critics are performing active investigations of the production environments of every game they analyze. Indeed, that would be too much work for those looking to be conveniently self-righteous and progressive.
Criticism is a challenging activity because it requires one to ignore, look well beyond, or be wary of factors — whether advertisements, artist interviews, production stories (good or bad), and so on — that threaten to undermine one’s pure reaction to a given work of art. I reject the philosophy of critics who say otherwise and who rarely, if ever, seem to care about the labor conditions involved in all works of art, as opposed to a few that make the news here and there.