Felan Parker is a PhD candidate (ABD) in Communication & Culture at York University in Toronto, specializing in digital game studies and cinema and media studies. He holds an MA and BA (Hon.) in Film Studies from Carleton University. His dissertation examines the cultural legitimation of digital games as art, and other research interests include transmedia franchises, genre, authorship, paratexts, and canon formation.
“Prestige games” are a special class of AAA blockbuster, fully integrated into the commercial game industry and developed with huge production and marketing budgets, but understood to transcend mere entertainment. Although these games are expected to do business like other AAA titles, they are additionally ascribed a comparatively high degree of cultural prestige and aesthetic value, thus performing a legitimating function for the industry and mainstream gaming culture. BioShock (2007) is the archetypal prestige game, widely praised for its weaving together of dynamic first-person shooter gameplay distilled from its predecessor System Shock 2 (1999), a stylish Art Deco-inspired underwater setting, and “mature” commentary on Ayn Randian libertarianism, agency, and the forms and conventions of digital gaming (Sicart, 152). “AAA art games” (Statt) like BioShock (2007) and its “spiritual successor” BioShock Infinite (2013), among others, constitute a popular canon that has distinction from other, less prestigious, bestsellers and favourites. Barbara Klinger argues that media and art criticism is a form of textual appropriation (1), and critical discourse performs a crucial role in the elevation of certain cultural texts over others (Becker, 131-132) and in the formation and maintenance of canons (Lupo, 220). As I will demonstrate, the critical reception of BioShock and BioShock Infinite reflects the preoccupations and concerns of game critics in their respective historical moments.
Literary scholar C. J. van Rees divides critical discourse into three general tendencies:
“journalistic criticism published in newspapers and general-interest magazines that offers a quick evaluation of a work; essayistic criticism published in specialty magazines focusing on longer and more in-depth coverage; and scholarly criticism published in academic books and journals, which aims at a highly specialized audience of researchers and teachers.” (cited in Beaty, 103)
Needless to say, not all forms of critical discourse fit neatly into these categories: First Person Scholar operates at the intersection between essayistic and academic writing, and many essayistic game critics are scholars “by day,” or may also dabble in journalism. Fan discourse, similarly, often occupies a space between journalism and essayistic criticism. However, these distinctions can be useful if understood as particular modes on a continuum of critical discourse. Whereas journalists are often positioned as the populist “voice of sanity and good taste” and are bound up in the promotion cycle of the industry, and the academic is a “critical outsider” using an exclusive institutional language and tools for research and analysis (Collins, 207), the essayistic critic is an enthusiast-intellectual, and in some cases also a creative practitioner, driven by personal passion for the cultural form at hand. It is primarily the essayistic mode I am concerned with here.
Essayistic game criticism around 2007, the year that BioShock was released, was a fragmentary, decentralized discourse, primarily taking place in posts and comment threads on a sprawling network of personal blogs, specialized columns on general interest gaming websites like Gamasutra and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a handful of dedicated sites like Grand Text Auto, GameCritics.com and The New Gamer, and spilling over onto social media. Though certain people, including well-known critics like Leigh Alexander, were in some capacity producing essayistic criticism professionally, most were either amateurs, or game developers dabbling in criticism. The essayistic writing at this time tended to be text-centric, focusing on close readings and commentary on individual games, comparative analyses, and the mapping of genres and concepts across different games. Much of this body of work is interpretive, attempting to discern and evaluate the meaning and significance of the form, content, and experience of games.
BioShock was a major commercial success, and was almost universally acclaimed in the mainstream gaming press, including numerous 9 and 10/10 scores, “Editor’s Choice” and “Game of the Year” stamps of approval on various websites, and top rankings on best-of-2007 lists. In subsequent years, BioShock has been rapidly enshrined in popular canons of “the best games of all time” (“The 100 Greatest Games Of All Time: BioShock”; “The 100 Best Games of All Time”). For essayistic critics, BioShock was mobilized as a case study in the relationship between gameplay mechanics and narrative in games. Many critics and scholars read the game’s (in)famous “Would You Kindly?” twist sequence as a brilliant subversion of game design conventions, and a sophisticated metacommentary on the medium (Pliskin; Bissell, 153-154), laying bare the player’s (false) sense of agency and control (“Game Play: BioShock Narrative”; Travis, 97). This interpretation proved somewhat controversial, however, and game developer Clint Hocking coined the now-ubiquitous term “ludonarrative dissonance” to critique the game’s perceived failure to deliver on its narrative premise. Hocking’s critique produced still more essays and blog posts, helping to secure BioShock’s status as not only a game with something to say, but a game worth saying something about — a game that justifies the whole enterprise of game criticism. In part thanks to this sustained critical attention, BioShock was firmly established as a work of artistic and historical importance, and “required playing” for those seriously invested in gaming as a cultural form.
The hotly-anticipated “spiritual successor” to BioShock, BioShock Infinite, moved the series’ setting to the hyper-patriotic, openly racist flying city of Columbia, and marked Irrational and Ken Levine’s return to the series after the popular but less critically successful direct sequel BioShock 2 (which was released by the same publisher but developed by a different studio, without Levine’s involvement). Like its predecessor, Infinite has sold millions of copies, and has been met with hyberbolic reviews, 9- and 10-out-of-10s, “Game of the Year” awards, and so on; fans and journalists alike have been quick to declare it one of the best games of all time (“BioShock Infinite Metascore”). Journalistic reviewers praise the game in much the same terms as BioShock: for its robust fictional world and emotional impact, for its thrilling action sequences, and for the depth of its message, in this case its exploration of the idea of parallel universes and commentary on American nationalism and racism.1 Infinite seems poised to inherit the popular canonical status of BioShock — so far, so prestigious.
However, since 2007, essayistic game criticism has continued to expand, becoming in some ways more cohesive and stable, and in other ways more fragmentary and diverse. The website Critical Distance, started in 2009, compiles links to essayistic criticism from a wide range of sources, and has helped nurture a sense of common ground, shared purpose, and community for game critics (Abraham), while the slickly-designed print journal and website Kill Screen has attempted to make game enthusiasm cool by positioning itself as the Pitchfork of games (including a direct partnership with the influential music website). Both have proved to be influential, although Critical Distance has remained a grassroots effort, and Kill Screen is very much a commercial, journalistic enterprise. Twitter has also become a key platform for circulating links to game criticism, as well as direct interactions, debates, and community-building among critics, adding a new layer of immediacy to the existing networks of communication on blogs and websites (Abraham).
The Border House, also launched in 2009 in response to a perceived lack of diversity in game criticism and gaming culture, provides a similarly centralized venue for feminist, queer, disabled, and anti-racist perspectives in game criticism. Although it derives from the same enthusiast-intellectual impulse, the safe space and visibility The Border House affords to marginalized, politicized voices is part of a more general shift towards ideological critique in game criticism, in contrast to some other critics’ more fannish orientation towards the industry and AAA gaming. This shift is frequently cited as evidence of a slow-but-sure maturation of game criticism as a practice (Lewis). Much-publicized incidents of sexism, racism, and homophobia in the game industry and gaming culture, and in particular the violent and misogynistic backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s “Feminist Frequency: Tropes vs Women in Video Games” videos, have significantly amplified and intensified this ideological mode of essayistic criticism, focused on consciousness-raising and social justice. The discourse has also broadened to include a much more diverse array of games, and essayistic critics have played an increasingly important role in promoting indie, amateur, and otherwise non-mainstream games and marginalized developers as an alternative to AAA offerings.
More recently, there has been a proliferation of dedicated game criticism websites such as Unwinnable and Nightmare Mode, as well as digital and print journals such as Memory Insufficient and Five out of Ten, and critics have continued to gain visibility and legitimacy. Certain critics and critic-practitioners, such as Anna Anthropy, Samantha Allen, and Brendan Keogh, have achieved recognition outside of relative confines of the critical blogosphere, writing articles for respected non-gaming publications like The Atlantic and Slate, publishing books, and participating actively in major industry and “alternative” events like the Game Developers Conference and Indiecade. Although essayistic game criticism is still dwarfed by mainstream game journalism, and attempts to monetize and professionalize the labour of critics have been met with mixed success (consider the short-lived Re/Action Zine, publishing efforts like Press Select and Boss Fight Books, and various models of crowd-funding [Keogh 2014]), its scope and influence has changed dramatically since BioShock’s release.
In the weeks and months following the game’s release, a discourse has emerged that directly counters Infinite’s enshrinement in canon, with a comparatively small but significant number of critics expressing ambivalence and disappointment in the game’s attempts to address serious issues like racism and violence from within the confines of the mainstream commercial first-person shooter (for a useful overview, see Kunzelman or Suellentrop). One critic goes so far as to dub it “the worst game of the year” for “its lack of humanity, for its fake guilt, for its flat boring gameplay, for its 100 million dollar cost, for its cleverness, for its cowardice,” making the game a symbol of everything wrong with the mainstream game industry (Thompson). Some found the game’s treatment of its “companion” character Elizabeth problematic (Walker), while others questioned whether the game really needed to be a violent shooter (Hamilton). Even GameSpot published a poor 4/10 review of the game, though only as an “alternative opinion” to their official 9/10 review (McShea).
In particular, however, essayistic critics have angrily and rigorously critiqued Infinite’s simplistic equivocation between the systemic violence of racism and anti-racist resistance, which seems to suggest that to take up arms against oppression is “just as bad” as oppression itself (starburp; Kunzler). This comfortable liberal centrism (presented, of course, entirely from the perspective of white characters) is, for essayistic critics, little more than a reification of the inequitable status quo (Stanton), made all the worse by the games’ framing by the developers and reception among journalists and fans as serious, sophisticated political commentary (El-Sabaawi). In many cases, the critics putting forward these critiques and concerns have been subject to online abuse at the hands of defensive fans for whom prestige games like Infinite represent the promise of cultural legitimacy and the current apotheosis of games-as-art (Kunzler).
Ironically, this is precisely the kind of enthusiast-intellectual criticism (and in some cases, the same critics, such as Leigh Alexander) that, in 2007, worked to elevate and canonize BioShock and made that game so central to the construction of game criticism as a practice. These are the critics who are presumably “supposed” to like prestige games. To a certain extent, this reflects the changes in essayistic game criticism described above, but I would argue that in many ways the reception of Infinite is a logical extension of what came before, and an intensification of, rather than a radical break from, the critical conversations catalyzed by BioShock. Indeed, many of these conversations are still ongoing, permeating the newer ideological modes of criticism. The relationship between gameplay and narrative is a focal point in many critiques of Infinite, which is frequently criticized for the “ludonarrative dissonance” produced by its combination of extremely violent gameplay and attempts at emotional investment and “intelligent” social commentary (Hamilton; Golding). Likewise, the game has been criticized for its reliance on linear storytelling conventions, which are framed as a betrayal of the medium specificity of games (Kunzler) and further proof of its failure and the failure of the game industry as a whole (Thompson).
Much of the discourse suggests that things have not progressed enough since 2007, and that the promise of BioShock has not been fulfilled (Golding; Alexander) — as Keogh puts it, “BioShock Infinite’s biggest problem is that it is not 2007 anymore” (2013b). Soha El-Sabaawi describes her excitement and anticipation at the notion of a sophisticated treatment of race from the makers of BioShock, and her bitter disappointment in the game’s execution, which motivated her turn to self-representation rather than relying on privileged white men to make games about women of colour. Other critics, however, argue that the promise of BioShock was false to begin with, retroactively reassessing the original game’s legacy and finding it equally problematic ideologically (Brice), or simply an overrated, “ham-fisted” slog, built around a “one-bit moral klaxon” (Bogost). Radical Twine game designer Porpentine is succinct in her dismissal of the prestige game model, and implicates critics directly in its failure:
“The consumer will shoot some mans. The critical sphere will shoot some mans and dissect every little thing in the game in hopes that people will read their writing and value them as commentators on the great and ancient art of really expensive hyper-marketed videogames.”
There is a prevailing sense here that the widely-accepted vision of “maturity” and artistic achievement represented by popular prestige games like BioShock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V (2013), and other recent AAA titles is fundamentally flawed, and that teleological notion that the game industry, game journalism, and gaming culture will gradually, one day “grow up” is not sustainable (Thompson).
It seems that some sectors of gaming culture — sectors with high cultural capital but relatively low economic influence, such as essayistic game criticism — are no longer willing to accept the kind of compromises big-budget commercial titles are supposedly required to make, and this disconnect is reflected in the concurrent emergence of new cultural and aesthetic strategies for games and new forms of distinction. Most critics do not appear to be ready to abandon the game industry entirely, if only for the (perhaps guilty) pleasure they derive from AAA games (consider the recent critical success of Saints Row IV ), but new venues for game criticism that focus exclusively on indie, experimental, and otherwise non-mainstream games such as The Arcade Review are cropping up regularly. As noted above, critics now more than ever before look to a diverse range of other game-making practices to find works of aesthetic and ideological value, from high-profile commercial indie games that combine the high production values of AAA prestige games with self-reflexively artistic themes, like Journey (2012) and Gone Home (2013) to more explicitly oppositional game design practices such as the “queer games scene” (Keogh 2013a) exemplified by Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia (2011) and Porpentine’s Howling Dogs (2012). Post-BioShock game criticism, it seems, has outgrown BioShock.
The expansive body of criticism on BioShock Infinite is necessary and important, especially in the face of the overwhelmingly hostile and reactionary responses in gaming culture towards any kind of critique. Infinite is without question deeply flawed and ideologically suspect; however, it is also one of the most popular and acclaimed games of the year, and literally millions of enthusiasts, journalists, critics, and scholars played, discussed, and praised it in the same terms it was presented, as an exemplary prestige game with something worthwhile to say. The critique of BioShock Infinite has barely registered outside of essayistic game criticism circles, as evidenced by Laura Parker’s editorial on The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog lamenting the homogeneity of game criticism (although fellow ArtsBeat blogger Chris Suellentrop published a well-documented rebuttal). How can this be reconciled? Michael Hancock proposes that discussions of canon formation are an opportunity to “interrogate our unconscious assumptions about what we value, and why,” but as John Vanderhoef argues, game scholars and critics have largely failed to critically examine the process and politics of canon formation in gaming culture.
To understand how and why certain games become so universally praised and so rapidly entrenched as exemplary, seemingly unassailable prestige texts requires a robust account and critique of the diverse and complex process of canon formation and distinction, which involves many different elements and actors in the production, distribution, and reception of games (Lupo, 220) — including, significantly, negative perspectives put forward by critics. At stake in the popular enshrinement of BioShock Infinite and its critical reception is nothing less than the right to determine what it means for games to be a significant cultural form, and I contend that academic game studies is uniquely equipped to map and critically examine this “pivotal and potent site” for the articulation and negotiation of politics, aesthetics, value, taste, and authority in gaming culture (Lupo, 232).
“Middle-state,” open-access academic publishing venues like First Person Scholar and the recently-launched Journal of Games Criticism present a unique opportunity for for academics to reach a broader gaming public, and for different modes of discourse (primarily academic and essayistic, but potentially also including journalistic, developer, and fan discourses) to interface (Hawreliak; Hanford). However, while the “feed-forward” endeavour (Wilcox) of articulating and promoting alternative canons to actively counter the dominant canon of blockbuster prestige titles and commercial auteurs is undeniably worthwhile (Rosenbaum, xii-xiv), without a systematic critique of the process of canon formation, these alternatives risk replicating and re-inscribing the same underlying structures (Vanderhoef). Part of what game scholars can contribute to this ongoing intervention, therefore, is the empirical, descriptive, and analytical work of understanding exactly how and why dominant canons are formed and maintained: in the production cultures and political economy of the industry; in the official and unofficial paratextual framing of certain games for certain audiences; in the form and content of individual game texts and the experience of playing them; and (perhaps most importantly) in cultural reception and critical discourse.
Note: The original version of this essay mistakenly implied that The Border House was launched in direct response to a perceived lack of diversity on Critical Distance. This error has been corrected.
What Counts as Canon?: A Response to Infinite Typewriters
Christopher A.Paul is an Associate Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Communications at Seattle University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
I like listening to Britney Spears music. I find it both easy to listen to and a great accompaniment to a run. Britney certainly belongs in my canon of music, but I suspect many consider her songs and possibly a broad swath of pop music intolerable dreck.
Thinking about Britney and how we respond to her music is a starting point for me in considering a canon of video games and what it would mean. I think Felan Parker does a nice job of breaking down reactions to Bioshock over time and just how much changed in the 6 years between the first game and Infinite. However, I also think it alludes to a problem in any attempt to construct a canon of video games: what gets left out?
At FDG 2013, Mia Consalvo and I argued that the rhetorical construction of real games helps shape how we think about games and what games are likely to be studied. Game studies have some tremendous blind spots when it comes to the kinds of games we are likely to play and those we are prone to write about.
Some of our institutionalized narrowness is being rectified over time, with more work on sports games, first-person shooters, and mobile/casual games, but a bias toward large-scale fantasy titles still persists in our literature as a whole. The kinds of games that come up at game studies conferences have little to do with the kind of canon most game players might construct. We will talk about Deus Ex and narrative to no end, but we are far less likely to talk about Candy Crush or Farmville.
As we develop our canon, I think it is crucial for us to play and study broadly. A canon that leaves out the game equivalent of Britney Spears is missing something. After all, Shakespeare was once entertainment for the masses.
[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author's and the readers' engagement with the text.]
Abraham, Ben. “More Fun Writing Than Playing, The Critical Videogame Blogosphere as Emerging Approach to Knowledge Creation.” In Exploring Videogames: Culture, Design and Identity, edited by Nick Webber and Daniel Riha. Oxford, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2013.
Alexander, Leigh. “‘Now Is The Best Time’: A Critique Of BioShock Infinite.” Kotaku, April 11, 2013.
Beaty, Bart. Comics versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
“BioShock Infinite Metascore.” Metacritic. Accessed July 31, 2013.
Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
Bogost, Ian. “Perpetual Adolescence: The Fullbright Company’s ‘Gone Home’ by Ian Bogost.” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 28, 2013.
Brice, Mattie. “Would You Kindly.” Nightmare Mode, January 17, 2013. [Link is to the archived site, now that Nightmare Mode is defunct. --ed]
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El-Sabaawi, Soha. “The Girl Without a Land.” re/Action, July 24, 2013.
“Game Play: BioShock Narrative.” Cathode Tan, September 21, 2007.
Golding, Daniel. “BioShock Infinite: An Intelligent, Violent Videogame?” ABC Arts, April 9, 2013.
Hamilton, Kirk. “BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It’s A Real Shame.” Kotaku, April 4, 2013.
Hancock, Michael. “The Games Canon; or Canon Games.” First Person Scholar, July 17, 2013.
Hanford, Nicholas. “Standing on the Horizon of the Second Generation.” Journal of Games Criticism 1, no. 1 (January 2014).
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Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock.” Click Nothing, October 7, 2007.
Keogh, Brendan. “Just Making Things and Being Alive about It: The Queer Games Scene.” Polygon, May 24, 2013.
———. “Notes on BioShock Infinite.” Critical Damage, April 22, 2013.
———. “Patrons of Game Criticism.” The Conversation, January 7, 2014.
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Kunzelman, Cameron. “Interesting BioShock Infinite Posts, Podcasts, and General Things.” This Cage Is Worms, April 4, 2013.
Kunzler, Jeff. “The Allegiance of Whiteness: The Games Village of Childish Understandings of Racism and Satire,” Design is Law, December 17, 2013.
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Pliskin, Iroquois. “The Game Designer as Malignant Demon.” Versus CluClu Land, July 1, 2008.
porpentine. Ask.fm/porpentine, 2013. “How Do You Feel about ‘Remakes’ in General, or Things Which Traffic on the Name of a Prior Property to Gain (undeserved?) Cachet with Folks instead of Building Their Own Identity? It Seems a Huge Factor in Hollywood and Gaming Both as of Late.”
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Stanton, Courtney. “Booker DeWitt and the Case of the Young White Lady Feels: A BioShock Infinite Review.” Super Opinionated!, April 3, 2013.
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Statt, Nick. “Is BioShock Infinite The Last Gasp For The Triple-A ‘Art Game’?” ReadWrite, April 4, 2013.
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Travis, Roger. “BioShock in the Cave: Ethical Education in Plato and in Video Games.” In Ethics and Game Design, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson. IGI Global, 2010.
Van Rees, C. J. “How a Literary Work Becomes a Masterpiece: On the Threefold Selection Practised by Literary Criticism.” Poetics 12, no. 4–5 (1983): 397–417.
Vanderhoef, John. “Canon Fodder: Taste, Gender, and Video Game Culture(s).” Boston, MA, 2012.
Walker, Austin. “This Is Not An Agent: BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth Problem.” April 10, 2013.
Wilcox, Steve. “Feed-Forward Scholarship: Why Games Studies Needs Middle-State Publishing.” First Person Scholar, June 12, 2013.