These people are not usually game reviewers.
I've always found it interesting that game reviewers tend to be modest about their own abilities. They might claim to know a lot about games. They are confident that they can write about games better than the average player. But, when it comes to skillz, it seems to me that most critics are happy to accept their limitations. So that's the topic of my latest column for Joystick Division, "Doing it wrong: Are game reviewers bad at video games?"
I did a little bit more legwork than usual this time, in that I actually solicited opinions from several writers I respect. They all gave me thoughtful answers.* Since I could only use a little bit of what they said for the column, I thought I'd use this space to reprint their responses in full.
The two questions I asked:
- Do you consider yourself good at games, however you define "good"?
- Do you think it's important for a game reviewer to be good at games?
Justin McElroy, Joystiq:
I don't think I'm particularly good at games. I find I'm just good enough to finish pretty much ever game on normal with occasional frustration. In fact, that makes for a pretty good metric: If it's more frustrating than that (or not possible) I know it's a difficult game.Sparky Clarkson, Discount Thoughts et al.:
I believe in Koster's theory that fun in video games is really the sensation of learning, so if you were the sort that was so inept they were unable to learn, I think it could hamper you as a critic.
I hope not.Brad Gallaway, GameCritics:
I don't consider myself to be particularly good at games, and it doesn't bother me that I am not. I happily admit that I am incredibly terrible at shmups, have nothing like the reflexes needed to become a masterful multiplayer FPS player, etc. The prevalence of online leaderboards is of great assistance in calibrating this opinion. I'm not terrible at everything; my skills are probably about average, all games considered. And, I think this level is a good place to be as a reviewer. If anything, I should like to be slightly worse at games than I am, because while my skills are middling compared to dedicated gamers, they are much above those of occasional players, which means I may systematically underestimate difficulty. A reviewer needs to be good enough to finish a game if he wants to (whether he *needs* to is an argument for another time), and bad enough to fail at least a few times. This is a peculiar part of reviewing games. Being a "good reader" in the context of a book review means having an eye for plot and the quality of prose; it does not mean getting through the book without dying and having to start a chapter over three times. Games uniquely place barriers in front of players to prevent them (hopefully only temporarily) from seeing all that the game has to offer. A good reviewer needs to know what it's like to fail at each game, and a sense for when those barriers are too high, or even too low. So, I believe it's important for a game reviewer not to be too good at games.
I do consider myself good at games, yes.Rob Zacny, RobZacny.com et al.:
I don't think I’m in the top tier of players and I don't put in enough time on any one thing to ever call myself "the best", but I'm adept in a wide variety of genres and can hold my own regardless of what I'm reviewing. Essentially, I take the jack of all trades approach – I’m pretty good at most, expert-level at none.
I do think it is important for a reviewer to be good at games, although I don't think that expert ability is required. For example, I don't think a reviewer needs to have a pro competitive level of skill in a game like Street fighter, although they do need to be able to perform the moves and (at the very least) finish the game a few times with a few different characters.
Primarily, I think that a good ability is important so that the reviewer is able to complete whatever it is they’re reviewing, and also to have the proper perspective on design and difficulty. If the reviewer isn't good at playing, then I think it would be hard to put stock in their opinion. If they claim a game is too hard or designed poorly, is that really the case, or do they simply lack sufficient facility? If they don't understand how game systems work and aren't able to properly utilize them, then how can they give a fair estimation of what the game is? It's a bit of a clumsy comparison, but how could someone review a movie if their vision is impaired, or how could someone review a book if they had a fourth-grade reading level?
I think there’s plenty of room for a variety of reviewers, but in my opinion there has to be a base competency in order for a review to be written.
I like to think I'm good, but the record tells me otherwise. I'm a Bronze League Stracraft player, I generally get taken to school in real-time strategy games and struggle to maintain a 1:1 kill-to-death ratio in Bad Company 2. Where my skill can be tested in a competitive setting, I generally prove myself to be a middling sort or gamer.Thanks to all these folks for responding. Enjoy the column!
But is that a good measure? I review games, usually a different one each week. My objective with most games I play is not mastery, however satisfying that would be, but understanding. I don't excel at most games I play, because I my skill level is limited enough that I really have to work at a game to get "good" at it. But I would still say I'm good at games because I can quickly take any new game in almost any genre, acquire a basic level of competence with it, and then figure out what systems are at work and why they do or don't create a satisfying experience for me.
Ultimately, it's more important that a reviewer be good at analyzing and communicating experiences. Being good at games can help a lot when that skill leads you to having a richer understanding, and you can share that with your audience. If you were to go back to GFW Radio, Shawn Elliott sounded like he was a great shooter and RTS player, and that led him to offer special insights on how games like Company of Heroes or Team Fortress 2 worked. He was operating at a higher level than most people do, and he was able to bring back unique views from that level. That's where skill can make someone better at reviews and criticism. But it's not a requirement. Basic proficiency, knowing what you're supposed to do and why, is all you really need to bring to a game.
*All except for Kirk Hamilton, that is, who has apparently forgotten that I made him. Also he might have been busy covering PAX or something?