Critical Angles

POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 - 1 POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 – 1

When we set about the task of trying to analyse a game, often we are faced with the choice between two angles of approach. Say we’re analyzing StarCraft. From one angle a Marine is a symbol denoting a certain bag of properties and behaviors (small ground unit that costs 50 minerals, has a ground attack of 6, a defence of 45, the ability to use Stimpacks). From another angle a Marine is a trope: a reference to the gruff, hypermasculinized, gung-ho space marine.

Which of these angles should game critics focus on? Is one more valuable? The endless narratology vs. ludology debate has this question at its core.

You can roughly class analysis into two buckets:

  • Cultural relevance and critique. (Marine as an icon of militarized masculinity.)
  • Functional systems analysis. (Marine in its role as a unit used to try to win a match.)

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I conceptualize these two angles as outward and downward. The systems perspective analyzes the symbols in the game as pointing downward to the game’s mechanics and rules. The systems analyst sees symbols as references to the outside world that are chosen to teach the player about the system. The enjoyment then comes from the system in itself: the problem-solving endeavor of play, or merely exploring how a system works and bending it to your will. There is a certain beauty and artfulness in the masterfully manipulated system.

Other analysts–and these predominate in the critical sphere–look at games as pointing outward, at the world and culture in which the games are made and played. The game is a cultural artifact, and outward-lookers see the symbols in games as references that the game uses to say something about the human condition. The game acts as a lens through which to see the world. Play then becomes a way of exploring a new perspective and engaging in a cultural discourse with the player, the designer, and onlookers.

Consider Super Bunnyhop’s review of Wargame: Red Dragon and his review of Doorkickers. The Red Dragon review starts with a multi-minute discourse on war and power, contextualizing the game in its real-world basis, and using games about war as a lens through which to glorify war. He talks about how Americans can console themselves for the dreary and often tragic realities of modern military action through their recreational military-focused gaming. “It’s with that ethos that the Wargame series charges into battle.” Wargame: Red Dragon is used as a lens through which the player can see the world outside the game, its symbols pointing outward and organizing the real world into a package that is easier to deal with than the bafflingly relentless complexities of the real world could ever be. All of this is circumscribed by the analysis of Red Dragon without the slightest mention of any gameplay details.

Contrast this grand, zoomed-out view of the cultural context of Red Dragon with the way that Super Bunnyhop sets up his analysis of Doorkickers. He begins the Doorkickers video by tracing the game’s roots back to the planning stages of Rainbow Six games, then summarizes how the game plays using direct references to controls and mechanics, all in less time than he spent on his monologue about war that led off the Red Dragon video. The shooting and explosions and human suffering in Doorkickers could’ve been highlighted, but instead he treats them as symbols that the player uses to engage with rich tactical gameplay in a strategy-focused context. Instead of analyzing the cultural context of hyper-militarized police forces bringing overwhelming force to bear on under-equipped perhaps-guilty citizens, the video highlights the engaging gameplay of planning out how to breach a building and neutralize its inhabitants through quick shooting and smart movement. The critique is oriented downwards, on the way the symbols bring the player into the gameplay, not on how the symbols portray the world at large.

As in other forms of art, the analyst who can appreciate and deeply understand the facts and details of a work’s form is more prepared to accurately critique it. All of a work’s details combined with its context form a rich fabric of meaning in the player’s mind while he or she plays a game just as it does when he or she reads a poem or views a painting. In game design analysis we can think of this as the downward-oriented analysis informing the outward-oriented.

Here at Design Oriented, we’re working on gameplay-oriented, and thus downward-oriented, critique. We hope that our analysis will help not only advance our understanding of games through examining their gameplay, but also better inform others’ outward-looking critique.