The Emperor's New Clothes

There’s no way I’ll make it through an article complaining about the failings of video essayists without naming names or giving specific examples, so I’ll just get it out of the way right now: this post was inspired by Joseph Anderson’s A Critique of Subnautica. It is one of the most stunningly asinine pieces of criticism I’ve seen in a long time. To save you a view, he spends about five minutes barely scratching the surface of the tone and themes of the game before dedicating the remaining 55 minutes of his critique to uninformed technical complaints and backseat game design, proposing various fixes that would turn Subnautica into a “smoother experience” - without ever to pausing to consider how these changes would affect the rest of the game, or whether a smoother experience is even desirable in the case of a notably spooky survival game.

Considering what we normally associate with Youtube, it feels petty to even mention my misgivings with this video. It’s not that like Anderson is doing something offensively bad, like trying to “take down” Anita Sarkeesian or showing kids how to gamble with their in-game weapon skins. In fact, longform videos such as his often act as a counterargument to that exact stigma, the image we have of Youtube as the exclusive domain of personal brands, paid promotions and people talking directly into a camera.

The last few years have seen the rise of numerous high-brow channels dealing in all sorts of longer video essays: plot discussion, development histories, design analysis. With a quarter of a million subscribers, hundreds of thousands of views per video and a well-funded Patreon campaign, Joseph Anderson is one of the most popular and successful examples of this new, intellectual side of Youtube. He’s supposed to be one of the good ones. And yet, I was shocked to discover that his writing is the equivalent of a salty Steam user review inflated to comical proportions.

The truly shocking part, however, is how perfectly this meandering, consumer-focused take captured my experience with games criticism on Youtube in general. So often I find myself clicking on one of the videos recommended to me both by algorithms and actual human beings only to discover that the author has no clear argument, shows no interest in the themes of a game, no understanding of how games are made or who makes them, no understanding of the difference between conjecture and textual evidence, no understanding of how to navigate the tension between authorial intent and emergent narrative - to name just a few of the standards I personally try to hold myself to as a critic.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’d like to talk about one particularly widespread argument that represents one of my most common frustrations with game critics on Youtube. At the beginning of the video, Anderson intersperses clips from Subnautica with scenes from The Martian, saying that while a film can show you somebody who is lost on another planet, only a videogame can you truly put you in the shoes of that person. In his words, “the experience offered by Subnautica is unique to videogames”.

A still image from the Subnautica cinematic trailer

This is an idea I like to call videogame exceptionalism. It dates back to the early days of game studies, when academics tried to secure funding for new programs, new positions and new departments by arguing that videogames did not fit into the existing structures for the study of film, drama, literature, etc. The problem is that a lot of these scholars were more concerned with departmental politics than whether or not their arguments actually held water. I’ll spare you a full recap of the ludology vs. narratology non-debate, suffice it to say that this era of game studies is rife with outrageous comments about how videogames are unlike any medium the world has ever seen (the most egregious example is probably Markku Eskelinen’s vicious attack on Janet Murray’s narrative read of Tetris).

Despite the isolationist claims of these ludologists, videogames do have a lot in common with other art forms. By pretending that they were new, unique and revolutionary, that they were the first interactive art form ever, the burgeoning new field of game studies closed itself off to a huge body of research on existing art forms that could have helped it explore and understand these commonalities. I’m not just talking about film and literature, but dance, drama, architecture, performance art and many more.

While the rhetoric of videogame exceptionalism may have served its purpose insofar as it did secure financial support for the study of games, it also set the tone for how scholars first approached the medium: nothing but praise for its immense potential, nothing but scorn for interdisciplinary approaches or comparisons to other art forms. It took hard work to undo the damage caused by these foolhardy assertions and the people who rebuilt those burned bridges to other fields often found themselves unfairly maligned for their efforts.

By this time, the genie was out of the bottle and the notion of videogame exceptionalism had spread beyond academic confines. Gamers - forever insecure over the fact that some consider games mere toys, a frivolous waste of time - eagerly embraced the idea that their favorite medium was unique and special. The concept elevated their interest in games from hedonistic indulgence to a sophisticated appreciation for new media, plus it served as a magic bullet for the “games as art” debates of the time: games aren’t just art, they are the best art, the art form to end all art forms.

Once gamers got it into their heads that videogames were better than other art forms, critics were forced to contend with their expectations for how the medium should and, more importantly, should not be talked about. Want to discuss the narrative techniques used in a game? If you love words so much, maybe you should marry a book, nerd! Trying to explain the composition of a particular cutscene? Get outta here with this film stuff, don’t you know that interactivity is king?

The title card from Errant Signal's The Debate That Never Took Place

Again, it took hard and thankless work to push back against this preconception and broaden the way we talk about this medium, much of it carried out by marginalized writers who were never properly credited for their achievements. Today, well, things are far from perfect, but you rarely see major outlets declare that games are just flat out better than movies or whatever. Sustained discussion and self-reflection have brought us to a point where videogame exceptionalism is generally frowned upon in the critical community.

On Youtube, meanwhile, you can still find this lazy rhetoric all over the place. Videogame exceptionalism can be seen in this Nerdwriter video, where he describes Journey by saying that “the gameplay, the music, the symbolism [...] puts you in an emotional space unique to all other forms of media.” It’s at the heart of this Think Fact video arguing that “there is a very strong case that videogames themselves can be considered the ultimate artistic media [...]”. It’s on full display in this video by Troy Leavitt, where he goes so far as to claim that “[...] videogames actually represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement for humanity”. Often, it lurks behind the scenes, informing a number of seemingly unrelated arguments such as the uncritical worship of immersion (a quality that is thought to set games apart from other media).

The fact that videogame exceptionalism has spread to Youtube is disappointing, but on some level it’s also kind of understandable. I would be lying if I said I didn’t go through a phase myself where I held strong opinions on how videogames compared to other media. However, the thing that ultimately pushed me to move past these preconceptions and led me to ask more fruitful questions was the engagement and the theoretical debates of my peers, a level of self-reflection and meta-discussion that I am not sure is even possible on Youtube.

The reason academics and traditional critics were ultimately able to push back against the poisonous influence of videogame exceptionalism is that they are part of a critical community. Not a healthy one, not a fair or egalitarian one, but still one that drives a fundamental transfer of ideas. The reason I am more concerned about videogame exceptionalism on Youtube, the reason I fear it might forever regurgitate tired talking points from yesteryear, is that there is no real critical community on that site.

As a platform, Youtube is incredibly insular. There’s a huge barrier of entry both to consuming and to creating hour-long video essays, so few of these critics ever respond to somebody else’s video with one of their own the way a writer might respond to somebody else’s article - unless, of course, there is some sort of beef to settle. Meanwhile, from the outside, it takes a huge time commitment to familiarize yourself with the work of even one video essayist and once you do, there’s no easy way to reference their work in your writing, just as there is no great solution for how to feature a written article in a Youtube video (given how tightly the platform regulates what kind of external links can be placed on top of the actual video).

Relying on finicky links to specific timecodes, putting citations in the description of a video (where nobody will find them) or else throwing the url on screen so people can copy it by hand - there are a lot of structural hurdles that keep Youtube videos isolated both from each other and the rest of the internet. Consequently, Youtubers mostly stick to their own little corner, doing their own thing. They’re not really tapped into The Discourse the way writers tend to be and because of this, games criticism on Youtube manages to be even more ahistorical than games writing already tends to be.

Despite the high turnover rate of games writing and the cyclical way in which it revisits the same debates every couple of years (crunch, violence, review scores), I genuinely believe that it has evolved and improved over the last decade. In the early 2000s, the only opinion critics really had space to express was whether or not a title was entertaining enough to warrant immediate purchase. Now, more and more outlets are coming around to the idea that we should talk about politics, that we should hold the industry accountable and talk about the cultural and social impact of this medium. The milquetoast progressivism of major sites, in turn, is driven by radical critics at the forefront of videogame discourse. Thanks to their hard work, we were able to shed many of the cumbersome assumptions that burdened our craft: that the discussion around games should be objective, unbiased, apolitical etc.

However, progress isn’t guaranteed, it isn’t permanent and I worry that it might be lost in the transition from one medium to another. These assumptions have never really gone away. They laid dormant beneath the surface, in comment sections and forum threads. Now, on an individualist, relentlessly populist platform like Youtube, one with no editorial policy, mutual accountability or sense of history, these truisms may have found just the fertile ground they needed to once again assert themselves as a dominant cultural force in our scene.

The appalling critical standards on Youtube don’t just represent some vague threat to the health of videogame discourse, however: they also show a missed opportunity. Say what you want about this hellhole of conspiracy theories and alt-right talk shows, I think us writerly types are a little too quick to dismiss Youtube as a platform for discussing games. The fact that thousands of people are willing to listen to somebody talk about a videogame for an hour should be exciting news to all of us. It shows an interest in longform discussion that is not served by traditional written criticism. And speaking as a critic, you can dig a lot deeper into a topic in the space of an hour compared to a 1,500 word feature. Not to mention that a visual format allows you to show specific moments and mechanics that might be awkward to describe in text.

A lot of smart people have already tapped into Youtube’s audience and affordances to bring interesting new ideas to the table. Chris Franklin is second to none when it comes to bringing the mechanics and themes of a game into conversation. Mark Brown is building up an invaluable lexicon of design techniques and approaches. Danny O’Dwyer offers a peek behind the curtain of videogame production with his fantastic documentaries. The list goes on: Amr Al-Aaser, Heather Alexandra, Ian Danskin and many more are all doing great things on Youtube.

Werner Herzog's "Happy New Year, losers!"

Despite all this insightful work, however, it seems like this emerging critical space is dominated by the Joseph Andersons of the world: people with huge megaphones and nothing interesting to say. Which leaves me wondering: is this by accident, or by design? Are people so starved for longform videogame discussion that they’ll put up with these meandering and poorly constructed arguments at a pinch? Do they not care what kind of argument critics are making so long as it is seductively wrapped in a flowery script read by a silky smooth voice? Or, worst of all, is this retrograde rhetoric actually part of the appeal, a chance for gamers to do away with all the uncomfortable social and cultural criticism and return to some imagined, pure past?

Regardless of the reason, it is concerning to see that the rise of longform games criticism on Youtube has translated into so little actual criticism, just an endless sea of soft-spoken white dudes who will tell you that that game you like is good and interesting and you are smart for playing it - and on the flipside, that that game you don’t like is bad and boring and the developers are lazy and greedy and should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t know if we even have the power to change this situation, but the least we can do is to start talking about it and hold these critics to a higher standard than the low, low bar set by the rest of Youtube.