Critics, meet Markets

You may have missed the news that mass market games such as Guitar Hero and Wii Games are doing well against traditional video games such as Bioshock, Halo 3, and the Orange Box. But what you shouldn’t miss is the discussion about critics and art nestled pretty far into the article:

…as video games become more popular than ever, hard-core gamers and the old-school critics who represent them are becoming an ever smaller part of the audience.

That is not so unusual in other media. In most forms of entertainment there is a divide between what is popular with the masses and what is popular with the critics. Plenty of films get rave reviews but never make it past the art houses. Plenty of blockbusters are panned.

The reasons for that seem fairly clear. Film, books and music (and food, for that matter) have been around long enough to have developed highly sophisticated cognoscenti whose tastes have little to do with the mass audiences that still drive those markets. Food critics have as much sway over Red Lobster as book critics do over Danielle Steel.

That has not been the case with video games. Game critics and players have been closely aligned in their tastes, perhaps because the writers and buyers came from more or less the same pool of tech-savvy young men.

But judging from the Top 10 list, that paradigm may be breaking down. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for either the financial or the creative health of video games. The importance of the mass audience in gaming’s spectacular growth is seen most clearly in the success of Nintendo’s Wii, which is far outselling its more technically advanced hardware competitors, the Xbox 360 from Microsoft and PlayStation 3 from Sony. The Wii is easy to use, while the 360 and PS3 are aimed at veteran players. Critics and game developers have been known to gripe about the Wii’s selling so well even though there aren’t many “great” games for that system.

The consumer doesn’t care. Wii Play was the No. 2-selling game of last year even though it received an abysmal score of 58 out of 100 at Metacritic.com, which aggregates reviews. Mario Party 8 for the Wii made the list at No. 10 with a similarly bad Metacritic rating of 62. Both Wii Play and Mario Party 8 are basically collections of mini-games, like table tennis, portrayed through simple graphics. To someone steeped in game lore, that’s pretty lame. To someone who just bought a Wii for the family, that’s pretty cool.

Of course, if such games are making the Top 10, that means that some games adored by the gaming experts are now falling short of the best-seller list.

The two and a half interesting things here are: 1) the relatively closer connection between critics and players of video games than in other entertainment industries – including movies, fine arts, music; and 2) the contention that this is about the ‘maturity’ of the industry, rather that some other feature of the art market in question. Intertwined are notions of what a market is (the market ‘doesn’t care’ about critics, as quasi-personified impersonal market-forces), as well as what critics are supposed to do (to someone steeped in game lore). Finally, 2.5) Metacritic is itself an aggregated, assumedly market-like representation of criticism! So we have the market talking to an anonymous, aggregated crowd of critics.

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