I think that by this point, it’s probably safe to say that Yahtzee, and his Zero Punctuation series is not only the most viewed videogame commentary on the internet, but also probably one of the most highly viewed video series going around. By all reports, he gets about 5 million hits per video, which by anyone’s estimation is a fair few. As Not Quite Art pointed out, that’s more than the last few AFL or NRL grand final TV viewerships every week.
I am a huge fan of Yahztee. I think he is funnier than I could ever hope to be, and in large swathes more insightful. His biggest contribution to gaming has been to point out the basic things that games get wrong time and time again and to say, “that’s actually not good enough – why have we been ignoring this?”. Essentially, he’s just been a terrific antidote to the many overhyped reviewers we’ve been reading over the last decade.
But I do have problems with his approach, which I really think need to be voiced. I actually suspect that his popularity is somewhat on the decline now, or, at least has started to level out. Nonetheless, his huge influence means that it’s important to make criticisms now, rather than ignoring them as we have the flaws in games he so often points out.
I was at a live talk given by Yahtzee at ACMI earlier this year. It was an illuminating session in more ways than one. The most interesting point which I hope to challenge is that during this talk, Yahtzee made it clear that first, what he is doing is criticism, and second, he’s pretty much the only one doing it.
Obviously the second point is completely erroneous, but it does make you wonder whether he has actually tried to find genuine criticism lately. There are hundreds of blogs out there that do just as much insightful work as he does, not to mention a growing amount of academic work on videogames. Mr Crowshaw, if you ever stumble across this blog, I’d be more than happy to give you hundreds of links to people who I think are doing criticism. I think Yahztee is right in that there still isn’t much mainstream criticism going on: not at the IGNs, not at the GameSpots. But that doesn’t mean that he’s somehow the only one doing videogame criticism on the internet.
The first point, however, is one that I feel strongest about. I agree that Yahtzee is doing criticism, however, I’m not sure if it is, in many respects good criticism. In fact, about the only way I believe you could really find solace in Yahtzee’s criticism is if you mistook ‘criticism’ for ‘critical’. People now expect certain things when they watch his videos, or even hear him talk in person. The first thing that they expect is that he’ll be funny. The second thing they expect is that he’ll be funny while beating the living daylights out of some innocent game. It works: even if you love a videogame he reviews, you’ll still laugh at the jokes. But does this make for good criticism? I don’t think so. It means that – and I suspect that he’s almost now trapped in a situation of his own making here – he simply can’t praise a game for very long without his audience getting bored.
It’s easier to be funny and appear insightful if all you are doing is being negative. It’s not so easy to be entertaining and insightful while praising a game.
The biggest problem I have here is that really, in this sense, Yahtzee just becomes the loudest and most sophisticated troll in the gaming community. Our online community is nothing if not combative; flame wars occur on gaming forums at the drop of a hat. It’s therefore unsurprising that our most lauded critic is loudly negative and combative (not to mention that whole ludology v. narratology thing that went on, like our own great academic deathmatch). People watch his videos to hear him ridicule and criticise; they do not watch them, I believe, for insightful criticism.
The internet loves Yahtzee. I love Yahtzee. But the internet does not need more people like Yahztee. The gaming community needs more commentators who can criticise a game to breaking point, but who also find nothing more pleasurable than recommending a great game out of obscurity to people who listen. We need more NGai Croals, more Brainy Gamers. Skepticism and praise in equal doses.
As a closing point, I actually hope to raise some of these points with Yahtzee at the upcoming eGames expo in Melbourne. I’ll report back if I manage to wrangle a response.