“I want more objective games criticism”. You often hear this phrase and other similar sentiments echoing around the internet. In its worst form, a cry for objectivity is a plea for games journalists and critics to mirror the thoughts, opinions and expectations of the person asking for objectivity. On the brighter end of the spectrum however, calls for objectivity are requests for game critics to put aside their own personal biases and try and account for tastes other than their own. In this post, I’m addressing the latter point – and I’m going to assume that, in certain instances, these objectivity-seekers have a valid point. They’re not exactly wrong – but they’re certainly inaccurate.
It all begins with an idea that I’ve copped from my university studies. A few years ago in a discussion about academic writing, I heard a definition of academic writing that stuck with me: “academic writing is not about trying to be objective; it’s about being inter-subjective“. Inter-subjective. I had to stew on that concept for a while, and even longer before I considered its relevance to videogame criticism and journalism. What does inter-subjectivity entail? Well, for starters, it scraps the idea of objectivity. That’s not to say that there aren’t objective facts out there, but it’s important to acknowledge the baggage we all hold that makes our experiences subjective. To write inter-subjectively is to be aware of other people and their perspectives, to not be self-absorbed.
And that is what people who ask for more objectivity in games criticism want, as far as I can tell. They don’t just want to be told that a game is bad because I didn’t like it; they want to know why I didn’t like it, they want me to put my opinion in some kind of context so that they can imagine themselves in relation to me. Hot Take, Gamecube edition: Odama is a better game than the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Since I’m talking to a readership though, it would be nice to provide more context for that statement; why do I feel that way? You see, I love a good challenge in my games, and I found Wind Waker to be a pushover whereas Odama was ball-crushingly hard. That small insight into my preferences has hopefully given readers of this article a better idea what kind of games I like and why, and every reader is now better able to see where we may agree or disagree on certain things.
That’s inter-subjectivity in a nutshell. My subjective position, talking to your subjective position, trying to find common ground that helps us understand one another. Objectivity, by comparison, is about facts. And, let’s be frank, facts devoid of subjectivity are mind-numbingly boring, as this video proves.
The goal is not to be objective in a review: it’s to be persuasive, and to present well-constructed arguments for others to agree or disagree with. And when you’re dealing with other people, in life as in criticism, it’s all about negotiation. There is no objective criticism – only criticism that is close to or distant from your own perspective. That’s why it’s pointless to ask for greater objectivity in videogame criticism unless you’re interested in opinion-less criticism, which is a contradiction if I ever heard one. What is valid and valuable however is to ask for more inter-subjectivity.
Critics have readers, and they ought to be aware of them: who are they? What kind of language do they use, what is their culture? Now, since we’ve somehow gotten round to talking about reviews (because whenever objectivity rears its ugly head in the context of videogames, it’s always about the damn reviews), it’s important to know that there is already a shared language and culture around reviews – it’s called review scores. And the problem with review scores, and sites like Metacritic that exist to obsess over them, is that they impose a veneer of objectivity on a subjective exercise. I don’t want to get into review scores too much here – anyone writing a review for a professional or semi-professional outfit should be well aware of the insane cult-like overreactions over scores. Absurd as the fuss over scores may be, it at least ought to provide an incentive to take a strongly inter-subjective approach to the review text itself.
Let’s drop any pretence of being objective. Subjective opinions are never “definitive”, or “the final word”. Reviews in particular should never consider themselves the end of a conversation about a game – they’re the start. Being inter-subjective means being upfront about personal likes and dislikes, and communicating these in a way that readers can understand, even if they don’t share the same preferences. In a review, we should learn about the reviewer just as much as the game itself. I want to understand the way this one player related to the game: the baggage they brought, the journey they went through, the conclusions they reached.
Without the personal touch, you end up with… well. You get Evil as a Hobby’s hilarious fiction about the “unbiased journalist”. And no one wants that in real life… do they? Let’s hope not.
P.S. I’ve always wanted to write a post with a clickbait-y title like this. You can expect many more going forward, since my draft folder is now crammed with gems: “5 Gaming Lifehacks You Shouldn’t Be Without”, “You Won’t Believe This Incredible Secret Your Game Developer Doesn’t Want You To Know”, “8 Reasons Why You Should Read This Article”, etc etc…