The Criticism We Deserve

What we need isn't less expression of opinions about movies and games. What we need is less angry, more thoughtful expression.


Here we are, on the brink of the release of the final chapter in Christopher Nolan's series of films about the Caped Crusader, and some fans are furious. They're not upset about aspects of the movie that didn't live up to their expectations; after all, most of them haven't even seen the film yet. No, they're upset that a few other people--people who have seen the movie, and who write about movies for a living--have had the temerity to suggest that The Dark Knight Rises falls short of cinematic perfection. These outraged fans have made their fury known by leaving comments on these reviews that insult, denigrate, and in some cases even threaten the critics.

What's most disheartening for me…is the thought of a readership that seems to want nothing more than to have their pre-existing opinions reinforced. This is not what criticism is for.
On one hand, I'm utterly dismayed to see film critics I respect being treated this way. On the other hand, I'm fascinated by these events, because it's the first time I can remember seeing an occurrence that is relatively common in game criticism--fan outrage over a review for a highly anticipated game that suggests that game is less than perfect--occur in the world of online film discussion, complete with hilarious misspellings of "biased."

What's most disheartening for me as a critic isn't so much the threats and negative reactions themselves as it is the thought of a readership that seems to want nothing more than to have their pre-existing opinions reinforced. This is not what criticism is for. This is not why reviews exist. Critics--good ones, anyway--don't write about games or films or music or books or art simply to make their readers feel better about liking the things they like and hating the things they hate.

Parker Mott wrote a fine piece about some furious reactions to early reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, which he began with this: "Film criticism is important, I believe, because it represents that uncompromising search for truth, beauty, and wisdom in cinema. It connects social/cultural patterns to what is on-screen. Without film criticism, we wouldn’t have thoughtful debates on how and whether certain films are moving or even masterful." It's through such writing, through such discussion and thoughtful debates, that our appreciation of film is deepened. Being exposed to viewpoints that don't fall in line with our own isn't something we should fear or get angry about. It can't hurt you. It can only broaden your perspective, forcing you to reconsider why you love something you love and perhaps getting you to look at it in a different way.

I feel the same way about game criticism. I love to read well-written reviews for games that I adore; they can help crystallize my feelings and come to a richer understanding of just why a game moves me the way it does. But I probably get more out of those reviews I don't agree with, those reviews that challenge my strongly held opinions. A good review that I don't agree with may or may not change my mind--it probably won't--but it does make me see a game in a new light and look at it from a different perspective. This experience, over time, hasn't just enhanced my appreciation of those specific games, but of games in general. Ultimately, criticism isn't just about telling you whether or not a certain movie is worth seeing or a certain game is worth playing. It's a dialogue meant to enhance our appreciation for the things we love.

That's right, a dialogue; ideally, one that involves engaged, passionate fans and critics. Of course, with Amazon, Twitter and countless other outlets of expression, it's infinitely easier than it used to be for anyone to get his or her opinion in front of thousands of people. But more opinions don't necessarily equal more constructive dialogue. Not every opinion expressed about a movie is film criticism, and not every opinion expressed about a game is game criticism. As Mott notes, "To award The Avengers 5 stars out of 5 because it’s just awesome and Scarlett Johansson is so fuckin’ sexy is not film criticism. It’s a fanboy orgasm."

There is no danger in the expression of or the exposure to substantial opinions about a game or its advertising. On the contrary, such engagement and expression is vital.
And yet the flood of comments that have nothing substantial to contribute to the larger discussion about a work or an art form are a frustration worth putting up with for the privilege of participating in a community in which people are empowered to say things that are substantial. Alongside the conversation raging in my Twitter feed of late about enraged fan reaction to some reviews of The Dark Knight Rises has been another conversation about whether criticizing something about a game--the way it handles issues of sexual assault, for instance, or presents religious figures--amounts to a kind of de facto censorship.

The answer, in my humble opinion, is no. There is no danger in the expression of or the exposure to substantial opinions about a game or its advertising. On the contrary, such engagement and expression is vital. Just as the people who create films, games and other works have the freedom to deal with whatever themes or subject matters they wish in any way they wish, we, as people who are passionate about these art forms, are free to express our opinions, to criticize, to speak up when we think something is offensive or harmful.

This is a crucial part of the ongoing social dialogue about art. If we stop talking about it, if we walk out of movies and step away from games and tell each other only that these things were "awesome" or that they "sucked" without delving into the reasons why, then we get away from what Mott described as "that uncompromising search for truth, beauty, and wisdom."

So by all means, chime in on discussions. Express yourself. And embrace the diversity of opinions--it's good for you, and can only deepen you appreciation for the things you love. There's no reason to get upset or angry if someone likes something you don't or doesn't like something you do, even if that thing is something you and lots of other people have looked forward to for a long time, like, say, The Dark Knight Rises, or Assassin's Creed III. Thoughtful debate and discussion move the dialogue forward, bringing us closer to truth, beauty and wisdom. Fear and hostility only get in the way.

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