Criticism is essential to a medium’s growth. This is especially true given the current climate of games journalism. Recognizing the important work that critics do in discussing the way games work and how they can be improved not just in a technical sense, but a cultural one, is imperative.
Few critics work solely for the awards, but awards signify that work is being taken seriously. This is something the Pulitzers and Eisners both know; while cultural criticism might not always be the most beloved part of a creative industry, it’s crucial to creating a conversation about the impact and power of media.
Video game criticism is still an evolving field, but the creation of the New York Videogame Critics Circle in 2015 to honor the best games criticism helps cement the importance and legitimacy of critique, as well as encourage critics to refine their trade. According to the organization, the award is intended to “serve as an affirmation of the value of games criticism.”
Because the institution consists of game critics, they know what goes into the process. They know what makes a good review or a good feature piece, particularly with the panel of judges hailing from organizations like Polygon, Unwinnable, Videodame, and Kotaku.
Games criticism has notably evolved since the days of Kieron Gillen’s “The New Games Journalism“ piece. Recognizing the best reviews when they were primarily discussions of frame rates, game mechanics, and story beats was useless—reporting is a skill, certainly, but a focus on objectivity and a disregard for personality rarely makes for memorable journalism. By bringing in the personal, game criticism has become an art form itself.
The 2015 nominees consisted of a variety of writers tackling different subjects in suitably unique fashions, such as Jon Bois digging his hands into Madden and crossing all the wires in his piece “I Open Up My Wallet and it’s Full of Blood,” creating a humorous, dark version of the game that’s its own unique entity. Ian Danskin sought to understand the philosophy behind internet anger, specifically the ire directed at Anita Sarkeesian, with the video series Why Are You So Angry?, while Will Parton’s “When Prison Is a Game“ explores the systems of Prison Architect and how they replicate and subvert the real American prison system. Rob Zachny distilled e-sports news and analysis in E-Sports Today, discussing strategy for even the casual viewer, and Carolyn Petit’s “The Game is Not Yours: Thoughts On The Beginner’s Guide“ discusses the personal relationships we have with games, part character study and part review. Finally, Christian Donlan’s review of 80 Days paints a vivid picture of the game and the experience of playing rather than quantitative recitations of technical specifications or graphics.
Cara Ellison, the winner, has a long history of writing about games. Her body of work spans fiction, game reviews, comics, criticism, and columns, like her excellent S.EXE column for Rock Paper Shotgun. But it’s her “Embed With Games“ series, now a book, that netted her the award. The series discusses game development around the world, as Ellison travels to places like Singapore, Los Angeles, and Tokyo to speak with developers themselves, learning about their unique struggles, perspectives, and the products those ideas inform.
Ellison’s work with “Embed With Games” is a blend of personal narrative and feature-style reporting, analyzing game development alongside her journey around the world. Each piece is a unique look at the culture of game development as it exists around the world, the individual concerns that strike a developer working in Singapore versus the concerns that shape a game in New York. It’s an insightful, inspiring look at the games industry, a needed dose of gonzo in a journalistic field that so often gets hung up on concrete objectivity.
This year’s nominees aren’t yet announced, but the last year has seen some great work in the games journalism field. Mattie Brice’s work discusses everything gaming has to offer—games themselves, development, critical theory, and personal connections with characters, such as “Remembering Monsters: Morinth.” Katherine Cross’ writing for Gamasutra and other outlets is always insightful, tackling controversial topics like prejudice in games and interactive fiction. Laura Hudson and Leigh Alexander’s work as editors of Offworld was amazing, including this piece by Hudson on the sense of home in games, or this one by Alexander on intimacy on Nina Freeman’s Cibele. Austin Walker’s work as Giant Bomb editor is also excellent, often bringing a personal, unique look at some of the most popular games of the moment, such as this piece, in which he discusses themes of home in games like Fallout 4, Life is Strange, and Metal Gear Solid V.
It’s still early in the year so it’s a little soon to say who is most deserving of the New York Game Critics journalism award. But there’s a lot to be excited about in recent criticism, and the number of new writers with increasing diversity of voices enriches the conversations we’re able to have in the gaming community.