The Language of Lawnmowers

I swear to god I’ll be done talking about videogame journalism soon.

For the most part, Videogame ‘Journalists’ aren’t what we mean when we say ‘journalist.’ They’re not doing some sort of work that involves establishing news and events that change or are important; there are very few types of videogame journalists who can even be so exalted as to hit the standards of sports commentators. E-sports commentators, obviously. But for the most part, ‘games journalists’ aren’t talking about news. They are talking about products.

I can’t think of any games news that isn’t in some way about a product. Maybe the Phil Fish meltdown, which primarily was of note because it led to the cancellation of another product? E3 is all about products. Nintendo’s economic troubles relate only meaningfully to readers insofar as they endanger products. I find very few videogame readers caring too much about job creation or quality of life for games developers. Sure, you’ll get some fluff pieces with Ken Levine talking about how wonderful his johnson tastes, but broadly speaking, when you talk about ‘games journalism’ what people mean is ‘product assessment.’

I don’t think buying products makes you bad at commenting on products. First of all, getting a product for free influences your opinion of it just as much as being invested in that product does. Second, and far more crucially, you are not talking about products where in their consideration, objectivity is a fundamental good.

If you’re of the opinion that writing about videogames should be dispassionate and impartial, okay, we part ways. Sorry, you and I do not have common ground on this one. I get that a number of you people holding this opinion happen to be editors. I also understand that this shoots me in the foot in the long run – editors are not the kind of people who particularly want to hear from someone telling them they’re doing their job badly.

Nonetheless, the myth that videogame reviewing should be done with the language of lawnmower reviewing is completely damaging. If you’ve never been lucky enough to sit down and read a lawnmower buyer’s guide, it’s a wonderfully dry, technical document that usually doesn’t have more than a paragraph spread for each lawnmower. The true nadir of this fascinatingly dull type of documentation looks more like a classifieds section of a newspaper – a sheet of black and white squares, each one conveying perfunctionary information about a model name. They are clean. Efficient. Objective.

That is fine for reviewing lawnmowers.

Games aren’t lawnmowers. Games are an art form, which we have been insisting for the past thirty years. Games matter, games send messages, games are about subjective experiences, and these days, games are so rarely technically incompetent, that particular detail barely merits analysis. If a game is remarkably buggy, we talk about that, but do we really have to talk about the pixel ratio on Mario Kart 8? Does that really make a significant difference to people who did not go out of their way to make that difference significant to them?

But we do look at technical elements, don’t we?

We look at them all the time, and we talk about them and we lather ourselves up about it and somehow we can spend thousands of words talking about banal questions of When Is 59fps better than 60fps? (answer: pretty much never but chances are you won’t notice if we don’t make a fuss about it).

Videogames are subjective experiences. When we review a game, we’re trying to use our language to hook readers into that subjective experience, to have them consider and feel how the game was for us. It’s trying to convey the creeping feeling of inching along ramparts in Dark Souls. It’s trying to give that clear, cute feeling of pulling on beads in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. It is, as I have done from time to time, weighing games against their predecessors, like Prince of Persia 2008. The important thing here, and the element of this that is journalistic and not just descriptive, is putting this information and these subjective feelings into a context.

If what you want is objective reviews, you can do that in a tiny box. Hell, include that. Some magazines did, back in the day – a little box that listed the system requirements, any special notes, and how buggy/unreliable it was on particular types of system. For the rest of the game? We are talking about art – we are not talking about lawnmowers, and if you have an art critic who is also a patron of the arts, you are missing out if you want to tell that person they can’t talk about it.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that a person can make games, care about games, and talk about games, but only ever one of those things.

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