This is a post about meritocracy, reviews, and Game of the Year

We don’t live in a meritocracy. The most sublime, the most aesthetically pleasing, the most culturally rich works don’t always attain commercial success or even above average recognition.

We must, however, recognize that merit is not the same as market value, nor should it be. True market value is determined by individuals exercising free will in voluntary exchanges. Essentially, something is “worth” in market value whatever free people decide it’s worth, assuming freedom from any force, fraud, or other coercion. This is not the same as merit.

What merit is exactly, is beyond the scope and aim of this article, but for now we can argue that merit is the extent to which people find something to be worthy of praise. An item’s merit, in whatever amount, isn’t guaranteed to match its market value.

As an example, the most expensive piece of art ever sold is a piece from The Card Players, a series of paintings by a French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne. It sold for $259 million. Those who study art would say it is a highly meritorious painting, but they might also argue that it is not the single greatest piece of art ever. Despite their arguments — which may be accurate criticisms aesthetically, culturally, etc — the piece still has higher market value than any other piece of art currently.

But that’s proposing a comparison of similar items (art). It’s more fun to compare market value of dissimilar items. For instance, according to Boeing their 747-8 Freighter aircraft sells for around $352 million. While the aircraft is no doubt a marvel of engineering and technology, it can be produced in whatever amount there are resources and demand to do so. The piece from The Card Players is one of a kind (there are four other similar pieces in the series, which have also sold for high prices).

Art appreciators would vehemently contend that an airplane is not as meritorious as a world-class piece of art. But I would also argue that even while most of the world’s population is not well versed in art or art appreciation (note: because most of the world is busy trying to survive), there’s a kind of layman’s understanding that sublime art is lightning in a bottle, a kind of near impossible thing to capture, such that its merit is undeniable. Even the uninitiated feels a swell of something they can’t quite put their finger on when taking in a great piece of art. With the exception of those who have a strong appreciation for aeronautics, most people don’t feel strong emotion when looking at airplanes, like they might when looking at art.

The Boeing 747-8F

The supply of arguments about merit are endless, especially when it comes to comparing the merit of one thing to another. But I would contend that mostly, people understand the merit of one-of-a-kind art is greater than that of airplanes routinely produced.

That does nothing, however, to change that the Boeing 747-8F will sell at a higher price than the world’s most expensive piece of art. And most people, when pressed, would admit there’s nothing actually wrong with that, given all the man hours and resources necessary to design, assemble, and test a 747 jet.
Merit is not market value, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead won Game of the Year at the Spike VGA’s and while I don’t agree it was the best game of 2012, it’s a fantastic title. It’s an affordable downloadable title released in episodes, and while hugely popular, it just wasn’t built to generate revenue like other GOTY nominees. In general, I think this is a good thing. The Walking Dead is driven by a strong narrative, emphasis on choice, and superb acting. It has indie sensibilities while still working with a well known license. I think it’s a good sign that people in the community are starting to recognize the difference between merit and market value, and that we don’t always have to force them to be the same.

Both merit and market value are used in gaming and other entertainment to determine what’s “good” or what’s “best”. Both rely on subjectivity that is useful for individuals and maybe even focused groups to make those determinations, but when applied broadly seems ineffectual.

Maybe good and best aren’t what we should be searching for, or writing about. It’s all the gaming community seems focused on during a majority of reviews and ceremonies, but those blanket conclusion are becoming increasingly unsatisfying.

Ultimately, the matter of determining merit is labored over with such care because the industry as a whole wants to use merit to tell people what to buy. The critical sorts want to espouse the best works for their aesthetic and cultural value, while the market sorts just want more sales and they’ll use anything to urge a buying a decision.

This synergy between the two sides leads to the accepted notion that people should play whatever is most critically praised, and not simply what’s popular. But what does should mean in a practical sense? Do we forcibly stop people from playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and make them play Bientôt l’été instead? What if they don’t like Bientôt l’été anyway? Or worse, what if Bientôt l’été isn’t as worthy a piece of work as we think it is? Maybe if we’re forcing them to play our prestigious works, we should pick some other “better” work.

This is where the idea of forcing merit onto the market really starts to fall apart, largely because of the subjective nature of determining merit for a group, especially a large group like, you know, everyone.

Merit can be worth arguing about if you’re of the critical sort. But ultimately when comparing merit, and trying to be conclusive about it, the element of subjectivity is out of place more so than in measuring what people willfully consume.

People deciding what games to buy is obviously subjective, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A person deciding what has merit and how much based on subjective opinion is also perfectly fine. But a person, or group of people, comparing merits of various works, and then declaring those rankings publicly, expecting others to accept their findings based on subjective arguments — that’s a more slippery proposition.

It’s not that subjectivity is wrong, but in that case it’s less at home. Subjectivity is valuable to an individual, and can be valuable to groups, but subjectivity and conclusiveness in a group aren’t naturally paired. Subjectivity and authoritative decisions seem almost entirely at odds, yet communities of critics seems intent on pairing them.

Similarly, arguing that something is good only because it’s been widely consumed is also an attempt to force subjectivity on others as definitive. Often the pre-release furor and marketing machine in games and film deserves more credit for the consumption of massive hits then their merit.

Of course high merit can cause the perception of higher market value and vice versa, but assuming one must follow the other is a misunderstanding of both.

There’s clearly some value in reviews or the consensus of critics that lead to awards if you’re looking to know, quick and dirty, what the “best” games are. But some of my favorite experiences with games haven’t been with the “best” games or the ones that sold the most.

I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the Boeing 747 of gaming. I wouldn’t trade them for The Card Players of gaming, either. They’re specifically mine, and when you consider the experiences you’ve had that might be similar, the value of reviews and gaming awards seems to wane.

We’ve gotten philosophical, narrative, and abstract with our reviews in an attempt to capture all we need to say about our subjective views on merit. But if it’s the player’s (and reader’s) own subjectivity that makes up their mind, I wonder if what we need isn’t more old fashion documentation.

Perhaps in the hit or miss realm of subjectivity and merit, our best bet as scribes or even pundits is to “tell what is.”

Maybe in our time to say something to the reader, we shouldn’t just say what we thought was best about a game and expect it to resonate with them the way it did with us.

It’s not our task to sell or dissuade the sale anyway. Maybe it’s not even our task to make the call about good or bad. Maybe we’re just guides, archaeologists finding what others may have missed about games. Perhaps all we’re to do is give them the run down of the plane, and let them size up what’s a fair price.

Maybe all we’re charged with is capturing the landscape of the painting with words and seeing if a hint of that indescribable something trickles over the reader. Despite how we may care to slant it, their something is never the same as ours, not really. How could it be?

The two-player painting of The Card Players that sold for approximately $259 million; by Paul Cézanne

2 responses to “This is a post about meritocracy, reviews, and Game of the Year”

  1. I do write reviews. Those reviews, of course, remain a subjective opinion; however, I try to point out flaws in the game’s design.

    At a level I can only guess what exactly the developer was trying to do with the game, either in the narrative or the mechanics. After that, it’s mostly up to me to identify what’s good and what’s bad from a design standpoint, although I also throw theology here and there as a complement to the main argument.

    But, and perhaps I am showing my modernist card here, I think there is room for universal consensus on the merit of games. I just think, through discussion, we need to limit the terms of said discussion towards things we can all understand. It’s fairly obvious the critical community wants MERIT, supposedly, to determine whether or a not a game sells. But that isn’t the case. There’s a clear divide between what the people want and what reviewers of the modern game journalism provide.

    Take a look at DmC’s recent release; from what I can tell, fans of the series hate the game and note its abundant flaws in design. It is a step backwards from DMC4 in every respect. Yet, at the same time, reviewers seem to be loving it all around; an 86 metacritic isn’t too bad, all said. Yet none of the reviewers seem to have any familiarity with the series at all. This is certainly not discussing it based on merit or anything else, but a feeling. How is this review useful in any sense to a consumer or someone looking for a game of merit? All it does is tell me “Reviewer X likes a game”. It doesn’t really help me note whether this game is important, or whether I should be playing it.

    Maybe they’re in transition, but giving me a subjective feeling with a number/star rating at the end seems rather insufficient for the task.

    I will admit, I don’t like narrative based games as much as many do. But I see no reason why the mechanics should not matter, and when they are bad they shouldn’t be forgiven on the basis of the emotional tether.

  2. Jordan Rivas says:

    Hi Zachery– You make a good point about terms of the discussion “we can all understand”. I don’t think it’s the most pertinent issue overall, but several people I believe have raised the issue that we haven’t established a proper vocabulary for games criticism.

    I don’t think universal consensus is possible for anything; I also don’t think it’s necessary. I do agree that there are concrete matters of design that either work or don’t. I those elements are the ones we need objectivity on more than anywhere else. That’s partially where “tell what is” came from.

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