New Games Criticism, Subjectivity, and You

If you haven’t read Paul Kilduff-Taylor’s expansive essay on the art and science of writing about video games, fix yourself. It’s an incredible piece, and although I disagreed with it here and there I felt thoroughly refreshed by its humility and frankness.

A major concern for PKT in the piece is the pitfall of absolute subjectivism, wherein the player’s experience is elevated above considerations of the game itself. In the subjectivist approach, the game is a “springboard” of experience and meaning, itself having little to no intrinsic, objective value. (In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis dubs this approach “castle-building.”) While subjectivist approaches make for wonderful reading, they offer little in the way of critical thinking about the game qua an independent object. The game becomes practically irrelevant, as we lose the ability to examine them as anything other than personal extensions at all. PKT also warns this approach leads to all opinions having equal validty, as shallow, uncritical, or simply inaccurate as they may be.

PKT proposes a “New Games Criticism,” an approach derived from the mid-20th century New Criticism approach. I’m not well learned in criticism, but I don’t believe I’m too far off the mark to sum up New Criticism with T.S. Eliot’s observation that the meaning of a poem is found somewhere between the poem and the reader. As in New Criticism, New Games Criticism allows room for both subjective response and evaluation of the game itself with biases bridled, not left free to overwhelm considerations.

A vital element to this approach is humility. The word does not crop up once in PKT’s piece, but the theme runs throughout. The critic must be a student, he writes, not a professor; that is, the player must approach the game and her methodologies with curiosity and a willingness to challenge her own approaches and adopt more fitting approaches as they arise. Inherent in intellectual humility is the ability to evaluate the worthiness of a method independent of its resonance with the subject’s values and interests. It means admitting that something may have worth prior to and outside my experience of it.

To be frank, as an orthodox (little o!) Christian with particular beliefs about the knowability of ultimate reality, post-modern critical approaches have little to no ontological or epidemiological validity to me; the idea that post-structuralist, feminist, or queer theory approaches are the best or most important way to understand a game simply makes little logical sense. Yet I listen to Anita Sarkisian and read essays by queer theorists not simply because I enjoy novel methodologies, but because I want to know what I don’t know. I want to expand my mind. I want to be a better person and a better critic. Beauty, truth, and goodness exist outside of me; others have traveled great and terrible lands that I have not, and I want to hear of their journeys. I hunger for their reports. If these reports correct me as a human being, then all the better.

The problem with pure subjectivism is that it makes for a wretched world. Your moments of joy and suffering become invalid unless they are received by me. It strips you of any inherent dignity; I become your validation, and in effect I become a tyrant, a monstrous thing whose worth is derived from stealing worth from others. It is a system that cannot stand.

And subjectivism is as helpless as it is demeaning. All thoughts are merely opinions; any notions of good and evil are simply brain farts. While the academically inclined may flirt with the subjectivist life, none but psychopaths earnestly and wholly adopt the philosophy that “good” is semantically and logically untethered. In a world without objectivity, no act done in charity, kindness, or love can be considered moral good. Heroic deeds and humble sacrifices cannot be described in moral terms, only with cold scientific phrases like “species altruism.” Murder becomes a matter of deletion, a few hits on the backspace key of humanity. Your grief is merely chemistry. I cannot make judgments, and I cannot press for an improved world without those judgments.

I earlier mentioned my desire to be a better person; this is an impossible task in a world of pure subjectivism. What does better even mean? Can it even mean anything? The villains of history sought a “better” world by abominable means, but there can be no judgment upon them if we lack a standard over and above their twisted outlook. I cannot even describe their outlook as twisted without first assuming a standard. I only make helpless noise.

Indeed, without objective standards all valuations descend into noise. Without objectivity, our opinions on games become meaningless. Games themselves become meaningless. In the philosophy of pure subjectivism, we stranded on a sinking boat in a lonely pond of staid water, singing lowly to ourselves,

merely merely merely
life is but a dream

That is a frightening world indeed.

Random note: on another front, subjectivism is self-defeating logic. Premise 1: “All opinions are valid.” Premise 2: “My opinion is that no opinions are valid.” We’re dividing by zero here.

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