Skinner Box Sommeliers

Here are two clichés. That Ratatouille quote that goes “the new needs friends,” and me, on reviews.

Are critics still friends with the new? Maybe only in the sense of one of Facebook’s “vestigial friendships.” Something about our relationship is starting to feel a bit modern in that cynical, streamlined manner of social media.

Lately I’ve been struck by the speed and eagerness with which we process the new into “genre.” Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds was barely out a month before everyone was waxing hoarily about what they expect from a “battle royale” game. Then Anthem releases and suddenly we’re all talking with grim pragmatism about what we want from a “loot shooter,” how “aspirational” the “arc of the loot” should feel. I hear the certitude with which critics talk about mutable conventions like “map clearing,” “grinding,” or “gachapon” as though they were pillars of the classical order, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. I see the dead, diatom shell of irony surrounding uses of “content” and “games as a service” with air quotes.

I’m not trying to knock heads (for a change) but am instead genuinely concerned, as much for us as I am for the work. What’s an enthusiast press sans enthusiasm? I feel like I’m maybe a month away from overhearing an earnest discussion about preferred Skinner Boxes. And I don’t think I’m alone in noticing this. Reid McCarter seems to be speaking to something similar over at Bullet Points when he talks about a “consumption mindset.” But this isn’t just about the hyperconsumers, the ones that McCarter talks about out there on Reddit making “price versus play” algorithms. It’s also about this working group of critics, who can’t help but inflect thoughtfulness, even as we’re affecting that thoughtfulness about things that are, to my mind at least, cynical plays for our attention.

Jaded and perpetually overworked, we’ve started making the mistake of thinking that if a game puts us on a first name basis with its design conceits then we’re absolved of our job requirement to ask about them. The tendency is at its worst when the games are at their worst: we took “it’s okay to enjoy problematic media” not as the buffer-stop at the end of our critical process keeping us from falling into a pit of reflexive virtue signalling, but as a license to stop questioning in the first place. I could talk about why it’s immoral for a game to hawk licensed guns like kinder eggs, but it sure is simpler just to note that it’s a shlooter and whether it’ll do the job of preoccupying you until the next shlooter (and we should at the very least be calling them shlooters, they fucking deserve it).

We let video games hide their blatant egg in our nest; it hatched and shoved out all the criticism we’re supposed to be nurturing, and now we just feed our new blatant, honking cowbird son. It’s easier on us overworked critics, to only have to be the custodians of genre, instead of constantly questioning everything all the time.

But that’s the job, isn’t it? McCarter describes the act of stopping ourselves short, of seeing again with fresh eyes, as a sort of resistance to all this, and I think he’s right. So now I’m in the uncomfortable position of endorsing a Disney character’s view of the job of a critic. Partially. I’ll walk it back from “the new needs friends”—how about we start by simply treating some games, genres, conceits, as if they’re new under the sun, instead of the unsentimental and expected thing that will get us from the game before it to the next game after it, all the way until the embrace of sweet, sweet death?

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