stephen totilo

Game Criticism as Bellyaching

by Jed Pressgrove

What is criticism? Every video game critic and reader should answer this question and then be on the lookout for posers. At the risk of oversimplification, criticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial. But when criticism is based on personal thoughts that contradict what we can clearly observe, it fails. This kind of criticism, this bellyaching, might resonate with a lot of people, but it doesn’t illuminate anything — it merely clouds the truth.

Stephen Totilo demonstrates bellyaching in “The Disappointment of Video Game Guns.” Totilo is indeed honest about his personal disappointment with the use of guns in Watch Dogs, but his expression of disappointment is not criticism because it denies several realities. The trouble starts in the third paragraph: “For better or worse, shooting a gun in a game is still the purest—and easiest—way to feel that a video game is interactive. The people who make games know this. They’ve known this since before Space Invaders.”

Reality 1: Not all gamers feel shooting a gun is the “purest” and “easiest” way to interact in a video game.

Reality 2: Not everyone who makes games believes this.

Reality 3: Space Invaders and other early shooters don’t prove Totilo’s point (in fact, Space Invaders is about defending earth from aliens and getting a high score, not “shooting a gun”).

The article then describes how a gun in a game usually means the game will have a lot of shooting (indeed, many games are designed to be shooters or violent crime simulations). Totilo decries the “kill-or-be-killed hostility” that guns in games bring with them. At some point, one might imagine Totilo making a truly provocative statement, but later he concedes “I’ve already played and enjoyed that [‘a Grand Theft Auto of guns’].” Totilo’s complicity with gun violence is simple: he doesn’t have much of a conviction about guns or violence in the first place. He simply doesn’t want Watch Dogs to have more shooting than hacking, and he is criticizing a game that he hasn’t played for this potential imbalance. Remember, no one quite knows what Watch Dogs will be. It’s not a sequel in a long-running series like Grand Theft Auto that thrives on giving gamers what they’re used to. Watch Dogs is a new unreleased game, but Totilo is already disappointed in it.

To be fair, many of us (gamers and critics) have reactions similar to Totilo’s. We are all capable of irrational disappointment, especially if we’re already excited. But game writers have turned normal human reactions into a new low for criticism. Consider that it is not unusual for random unreleased games to be criticized for lacking female protagonists as other games are praised despite a lack of diversity. How is this criticism? It resembles exhaustion. More and more, game critics are expecting developers to create games specifically for them, with no room for negotiation. (Gamer entitlement? How about critic entitlement?)

One can see why some game developers hate the press — real criticism is about reactions, not demands. What makes this bellyaching very troubling is that many critics don’t bother providing hope to the reader. Above and below Totilo’s text is the same picture of a man pointing a gun, a tautological trap. The irony is that game critics are often pointing water pistols.