Last year, games writer Austin Walker wrote a piece on writing about video games. Walker specifically examined the role of critical analysis and the purpose of writing such analysis. To quickly summarize his piece, Walker covers how all criticism is done for a purpose and a reason and, in most cases, this is to better the medium that they love the most: video games. Unfortunately, he has found that people tend to view these writings as a decree: a statement that is trying to force the developers to change their game. This makes a lot of people angry.
We have seen this most recently with the victory pose of Tracer from the game Overwatch. A critique was made that her original pose did not suit her playful character and the developers took it on board in order to improve. The change of the pose and how it has been improved is nicely explained in an Extra Credits video called Tracer & Pose Design 101.
This controversy is not exclusive to Tracer’s butt. Rather it is a topic that has been brought up time and time again often regarding sticky subjects like violence, race, sexuality, gender, class and culture. As Walker (2015) says in his article: “developers are people who can make up their own minds…they can internalize the critiques they think make sense and discard the rest”. However, there are a lot of people who feel that the developers should not have to “censor” themselves or change the game in order to conform to a critique or vocal minority. While are lot of people may be outraged by this “censorship” it is important to note that it is not actual censorship.
The only people who really have the power to do that is a government, who may choose to ban or encourage particular pieces or types of art through prohibitive or incentive legislation. An example of this was the censorship of some of the scenes from Southpark: The Stick of Truth.
As Walker illustrators with his ‘artisanal’ graphs, he (and most other game writers) have neither the influence nor reach to actually force change. Rather, what the analysis aims to do is provide a deeper reading or alternative reflection upon the material. It aims to really examine why X is great, why X is bad or why X is problematic. Is this case, X is one game that contains all of these elements. Just as Anita Sarkeesian (2013) states:
“it is both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects”.
I believe that this might be the hardest aspect for people to grasp and the largest point of contention. Video games are an immersive medium that require the devotion of time and that have the ability to deeply connect with the players. As such, it is very easy to become highly invested in the games that you play: these games and fandoms may provide a sense of community, competition, achievement and self-worth.
So when these games are critically analysed it can feel like a personal attack: as though someone is attacking something that you and your friends love, put time into and bond over. It can be hard to separate yourself from something so important to you but, as Walker is trying to point out, analysis is not an attack. The writer is breaking down a game “because [they] fucking love games” and would like to see the medium improve. By putting this analysis out there, they are hoping that current and future game developers will take note. Which brings us to the main point of this post:
How and why consuming critical analysis can help in gaining a more thorough and diversified understanding of game design.
It is very easy to say this was good and that was bad. However, it is not until you understand why a game made you, or an audience, feel a particular way that you can see what elements caused this reaction. From their you can start to see what to avoid or use in your own work.
One of the most helpful types of critical analysis, from a practical standpoint, are those that examine how and why different aspects of a game work the way they do. This might refer to mechanics, tutorials, combat techniques, tactics etc. These analyses may compare aspects from similar games and point out why one was better than the other. This type of analysis looks at the quality of the game design (in the formal sense of the term) and can help you gain a better understanding of game design as a whole.
A really great example of this is a Game Maker’s Toolkit video which analyses the different monsters and attack styles from the video game Doom. By analysing the varied monster types he shows how these work together to create really interesting, dynamic and tactical game play.
Critical analysis also gives you a deeper understanding of the medium and a richer vocabulary of terms and ideas. Reading or watching critical analysis tends to give you an “aha!” moment: a moment when you think “Ok, now I get it”. For example, I had not really heard the term “ludo-narrative dissonance” until I read the book Extra Lives by Tom Bissell.
Having the term explained using video game examples helped me to understand what it meant. From there, I was suddenly able to use this new term to describe moments in games that had felt wrong to me. Before, these moments were just wrong for some weird reason but now I could see: why they felt wrong, what aspects caused this and what could (theoretically) be changed to fix it. From then on it was something I thought about and considered.
While this is very technical, and delves into the weird psychological aspect of video games, there are also types of critical analysis that examine a piece of media from a particular perspective (sometimes these are called readings). These are often done by someone with a particular knowledge base or set of skills who picks up and notices things that the general audience might not. Some examples of this are Austin Walker’s analysis of race in the Witcher 3 and Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist readings of sexist tropes in video games. Both of these individuals have a deep understanding of these topics and can therefore give an interesting, alternative perspective on a game.
Another example of this is the Extra Credits analysis of The Division. Being in Australia (and not really watching the news) I didn’t really understand why the hooded enemies, the “rioters”, were problematic.
The games narrative and mechanics enforce the idea that a government agency using violence against its citizens is positive and heroic. When these citizens wear hoods, and are classified as dangerous, the game becomes a reflection, intentional or not, of the issues America is currently facing in regards to police brutality, racial violence and discrimination based on clothing. I would not have understood this perspective without this piece of critical analysis.
It opened my eyes to how unintentional design choices can convey a message or worldview to the audience. As designers, this is something that we have to consider when creating a game: how will this be viewed as a whole and what message it might convey. A broader understanding of different cultural, media and world perspectives can help us from falling into this pitfalls and a broader understanding can be gained through consuming critical analysis.
As such, we can use critical analysis to:
- Gain a deeper understanding of more technical aspects of game design
- Gain a deeper understanding of terms and ideas related to video game design
- See a game, or an aspect of a game, from an alternative perspective
- See how certain elements of a game help to (intentional or not) convey a message or world view to the player
Learning something new through critical analysis broadens your understanding of game design. Each time you learn something new, whether it be a cultural perspective, weird theoretical concept or technical aspect of a mechanic, it is like learning a new word. Every time you learn a new word you can create more nuanced sentences as you have a greater and more diverse vocabulary.
Bissell, T. (2010). Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. United States: Pantheon.
Extra Credits. (2016). The Division – Problematic Meaning in Mechanics [Video]. Retrieved from
Extra Credits. (2016). Tracer & Pose Design 101 [Video]. Retrieved from
Game Maker’s Toolkit. (2016). What We Can Learn From Doom [Video]. Retrieved from
Sarkeesian, A. (2013). Damsel in Distress: Part 1. Retrieved 7th of June from
Walker, A. (2015). Why We Write. Retrieved 6th June, 2016 from