A review is a buyer's guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it...
Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art.
The piece argues that the games press is well stocked with "reviewers," and totally lacking in "critics." You can go anywhere for a Consumer Reports-style look at a game, but it's tough to find any really insightful or illuminating critics -- especially someone whose reviews are strong enough to stand on their own as readable essays. I don't disagree with this. The places people tend to identify with game reviews -- IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer, etc. -- take a rudimentary approach to their craft. I do disagree with this point:
The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.
That "for the most part" is key, because you have have to dig to find what this person is looking for. But that doesn't mean it's not out there. Lots of the writers on my blog roll take a more critical approach to games, like Leigh Alexander, Michael Abbott, and Chris Dahlen, and so do I. Whole blogs exist to fill precisely this alleged void, like Critical-Gaming. Paste publishes a page full of critical game reviews every month, and that's a popular national magazine. What about The Escapist?
Do we have the equal of Pauline Kael yet? No, not that I know of, and if there is, she's certainly not getting published in anything like the New Yorker. But that doesn't mean she's not out there. It may simply mean we haven't found her blog yet. The implication of something like this, too, is that Kaels abound in the world of film. It's not so. Most movie reviewers are guilty of the same sins as game reviewers, even if they tend to be more witty and literate across the board. The piece calls out Roger Ebert as more of a reviewer than a critic, but hell, if a game reviewer ever won a Pulitzer as Ebert has, I'd consider that a victory for all of us.
I'm glad Play This Thing! brought up Ebert, in fact, and not just because of the controversy he's ignited in the gaming community of late. He's one of my few heroes in the world of criticism/reviewing/whatever, and not just because he's a wonderful writer who can find something interesting to say about the most boring of films. It's because the man cares, and cares deeply, about movies. He doesn't let ugly or cynical films slide because they're "just movies." He believes in the promise of films to bring us to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. When that doesn't happen, you can tell he's disappointed. That brings me to what I think is the most important and true bit in this whole piece:
The point is that a critic has to take his subject seriously, as an example of art, or at least of craft; and take seriously as well the intentionality of the creator, and the importance to those who experience the results of the results, and the impact on how they think and feel.
This, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with game reviews today. Which is not to say that it's true of all reviews or reviewers -- only that when and where reviews fail, this is most often the reason. We are happy not to take games seriously. We treat them as playthings.
Which, to be fair, some are. Not every game may be worthy of the critical approach, quite honestly. Good ones are. Some bad ones are. The wasteland of acceptable, unremarkable fare isn't worth the time or attention, I don't think. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this point. But right now I'm playing through a game called The Club, a pretty rote exercise in skill-based gaming, and I can't even fathom applying to it the slightest intellectual rigor. It's not a bad game -- certainly entertaining enough in spots -- but it is a game with literally nothing on its mind. Therefore, I will take an entirely different approach to reviewing it than I did, say, No More Heroes. The point is that each review should be tailored to the game, rather than trying to cram each game into the same review template.
As ever, the best way to fill the void of critical gaming discourse is to begin to discourse critically about games. It is valuable to point out where the games press is failing readers, but just as with criticizing a game, it takes more than simply identifying flaws. It's about aspiring to an ideal. It's about demanding more from our games and from ourselves. The corporate sites won't do it, because it doesn't make sense financially. They're already getting the biggest slice of the pie -- why change? That means it's up to bloggers and independent sites to dig deeper. There are plenty of us out here. If we lead, the readers will follow.
And then -- only then -- so will the publishers.