A member of the Theology Gaming Facebook group shot me a kind message asking for advice on the matter of writing about games from a Christian perspective. This is a topic I'm only too happy to write on, if only to pass the responsibility of engaging in games criticism to Christian writers and thinkers who are actually qualified.
I do not consider myself qualified. I don't have a seminary or arts or philosophy degree. I'm not a designer, scholar, or professional critic. I am a random idiot who frequently stumbles into situations outside his qualifications, and any writing successes I've had are due to the enthusiasm and generosity of editors and writing communities I've fallen into. Thus, I write as someone who is just as confused as the skeptical reader as to why my advice should be followed.
Here's some thoughts in no particular order.
My writing has appeared in Gamechurch, Christ and Pop Culture, Geekdom House, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and Kill Screen, and I've been highlighted a few times by the weekly best-of games criticism roundup Critical Distance. This is only partially my doing. I admit that I can make a clever turn of phrase and string a couple fun sentences together, but this isn't as important as building relationships.
When I say building relationships, I don't mean collecting the contact information of people you want to use. I mean building real relationships with real people. Knowing other writers and editors will sharpen your skills, build bridges, and make you an all around better person. God made us to function in community, as a single body. Be a part of the body.
Not to shill, but the best community I know of for Christians who want to do culture writing is the Christ and Pop Culture Member's Only Group on Facebook. CAPC is member sustained, meaning it lives on donations. You can join for $5/month, which gets you added to the Facebook group. It's the best money you will ever spend, and it supports a publication doing amazing work.
For games writing from a Christian perspective in particular, I recommend Gamechurch.
Read. Read? Read! Read read read. Read.
It's a basic maxim of writing that those who don't read will never be read. Ergo, read, and read regularly. Here are some reading recommendations that have helped me tremendously. This may seem like a lot, but understand this is roughly the equivalent of a single college class and is about as useful.
For improving your writing craft:
Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.
The essential handbook of technical nitty gritty. Short and sweet.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.
Zinsser's guide is legendary for good reason. His advice on simplicity and humanness will make your writing warmer and more approachable.
On Writing, by Stephen King.
Part memoir, part guide to writing a novel. Not as useful to those writing games essays, but his recounting of the struggle to be published while living in poverty will encourage anyone fighting to get their work off the ground.
For learning to interpret critically:
An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis.
Lewis proposes a novel method for evaluating whether a book is good or bad. Rather than looking at the book, he first proposes we examine the reader and their habits and methods. He finds that bad readers consume and discard books as simple, unchallenging pleasures that fuel their own mental pleasures. Good readers, on the other hand, allow books to invade, challenge, and shape the self, and they return to these books time and again. Good books, then, are those which enable good reading habits, those that enlarge the mind and soul of the person reading.
While his method is undoubtedly out of favor in our postmodernist era, I find it remains relevant, even in games criticism. Consider MMOs and mobile games that can be played for hours without doing anything positive for the mind versus something like That Dragon, Cancer, which demands the player enter into the parents' agony and expands our empathetic capacity.
Lewis is best known for his children's fantasy work, but he was first and foremost a scholar of literature—and a renowned one. His collections of essays are well worth reading for Christians hoping to expand their thinking on faith, culture, and writing.
God in the Gallery, by Daniel A. Siedell.
A more academic text, but hey, if a dumb Marine like me can read it, so can you. Siedell is an art critic, historian, and curator. In this book, he provides a framework for Christians to interpret modern art based on the apostle Paul's speech at the Aeropagus in Acts 17. Siedell argues that the world (including the secular art world) is littered with "altars to the unknown God," which though made by pagan hands are still signposts of Heaven. Christians who engage in art criticism (which isn't separate from art but a kind of literary art in itself) therefore have two modes of interpretation. The first is that of a normal critic, who evaluates a work in the context of art movements and styles. The second is that of the apostle, the emissary of God, who can tease out the hidden realities the secular work speaks to.
How to Talk about Videogames, by Ian Bogost.
Bogost is a professor, game developer, and an editor at The Atlantic. There's really no one quite like him out there. Bogost has an uncanny ability to flip our ideas about games on their head, to tease out new ways of thinking about them. The title of this book seems to imply a systematic method for critiquing games, but it's really a collection of previously published essays. I agree with his conclusions maybe half the time, but I enjoy his process (and humor) 100% of the time.
Waiting on the Word, by Malcolm Guite.
A poetry anthology for the Christmas season. Wut? Hear me out. Malcolm Guite, a Christian, poet, and scholar himself, selected an eclectic variety of poems—from overtly Christian, to subtly Christian, to flat out secular—to explore the themes of the liturgical season. Each poem is followed by a short interpretive essay that analyzes the poem in terms of poetry craft and history as well as Christian tradition and theology. It's a brilliant example of critical analysis, and even though we "read" games instead of poems there's a lot to learn from Guite's skillful approach. This book will shape you. If you're reading this in July, Guite has other anthologies you might look into instead.
Misc writers and blogs to follow:
Alissa Wilkinson: former Christianity Today/current Vox film critic learned in the ways of Daniel Siedell.
Karen Swallow Prior: Liberty University professor whose essays on "promiscuous reading" are well worth your time.
Rock Paper Shotgun: My favorite games outlet. Their writing is funny and snappy, their features are unique, and their "Wot I Think" reviews are a breath of fresh air from the standard industry reviews.
Tom Chick/Quarter to Three: Tom Chick writes negative reviews about popular games not because he's a contrarian hipster but because he simply didn't see what all the fuss was about. His writing is cogent, winsome, and very, very smart.
"But the greatest of these is charity."
If I've learned one thing from browsing reddit, it's that game designers are lazy, greedy, stupid, incompetent bastards who want to under-deliver and over-charge. If I've learned another thing from browsing reddit, it's that I shouldn't waste time browsing reddit.
My operative word in thinking about games is charity. Not in the modern sense of "programs for poor people," but in the classical Christian sense of Spirit-driven love for your neighbor. I want games to succeed. I want to let them speak their mind. I want to receive what they want to give me. To that end, I try to understand the game I play, warts and all, as a complete thing to consider thoughtfully. Critiques like "this game has good graphics and is mostly fun but I don't like the shooting level" is a generic consumerist level review, and I genuinely don't care about that kind of stuff.
SUPERHOT, for example, is a "fun" game. It activates pleasure nodes in my brain and makes me want more. But it's also making a point about letting technology take over your brain this way. If I'm not being charitable and focusing my attention on letting the game say what it wants to say, I'll miss that kind of thing. I'll skip cutscenes and dialog to get to the "fun" bits. Simone Weil says attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Be generous. Pay attention. Let the various elements of design (artwork, sound, music, level design, writing, plot, themes, systems) talk to you. Let them challenge your thinking.
There's dozens, maybe hundreds of game outlets that will tell you how "fun" a game is, and there's millions of teenage boys who want to write those kinds of reviews. Who cares? A computer could write that junk. If you want to do interesting games writing, you have to think like C.S. Lewis's "good readers." You have to let the game work on you, then write about that experience. Don't worry about writing "objective" reviews. Siedell teaches us that criticism is a genre of art by itself. It's a special genre where the writer records their experience with a piece of art.
So, combine those things. Be a good player. Let the game show you what it's trying to do, and take what it's saying in good faith. Be a good critic. Write about your experience in your own terms.
Avoid the Jesus Juke
A Jesus Juke is when you hijack someone else's conversation to rub it in everyone's face how holy you are. Do not do this. Do not write a Skyrim review about how you'd rather be born-again than be Dragonborn. The world will persecute you not because you're following Jesus but because you're being haughty and unctuous. Art criticism is not street witnessing.
The transition from "what is this game saying about the world" to "what is this game saying about the world, which I know is under the sovereignty of Christ" is admittedly hard to do well without sermonizing or preaching to the choir. I don't always (or even often) succeed in doing this. However, there's a principle by which I operate that I think may be helpful.
I can't convert you. Regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit. Our faith is given to us so that we can't even brag about having faith. What I can do, though, is talk about universal human longings that find their fulfillment in Christ. We all have wounds that need healing. We all have desires that seek to be fulfilled. A "fun" game might momentarily take your mind off those wounds. A good game will pour salt on them. A good game will make you more aware of the universe as it truly is—sin-ridden, but not without hope and light. Altars to the unknown god, all of them.
I understand my role as a Christian games writer as teasing out what in a game is pointing towards those things that are resolved in Christ. I want people to feel that sorrow the game points to. I want them to feel that hunger for justice the game points to. I don't want to preach or evangelize in games writing. I want to jab my fingers in the spiritual wounds all of humanity suffers. C.S. Lewis says, "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." I want non-believers to walk away from my writing aware of a vacuum in their soul that they don't know how to fill. I want believers to know exactly what the hell I'm talking about even if I don't explicitly name it, and in knowing that their true hope is in Christ they feel encouragement.
Our culture is deadened to the Word. People will shut you out the moment you start talking about things like the authority of scripture and the saving power of Jesus. Hey, that's fine. Pope Francis remarked, "We must allow for the unruly freedom of the Word." God's creative. He can make do without you turning a Call of Duty essay into an altar call. People might not let you talk about Jesus, but they'll listen when you talk about experiences they understand: suffering, alienation, redemption, hope. And it's in a mind dwelling on these things where the Spirit often begins to work.
To be haunted
The best thing I believe a Christian critic can do is relay in honest and personal terms how a piece of art speaks to our own spiritual pains, longings, and expectations, which are universal to the human experience. Share how the game made you hurt. Share how it made you hope. Suffer and rejoice in writing so the reader can too. Sometimes it makes sense to talk directly about Jesus. More often than not, it makes more sense to leave the answer unspoken, to let the question linger painfully and hauntingly in the mind of the reader. (It depends on the audience, of course. Christianity Today is more friendly to Jesus than Polygon is.)
Ultimately, I suppose, that is what I want. I want to be haunted. I want games that evoke the feeling , as Lewis wrote, that "they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." And I want to convey that sense of Christ-hauntedness (to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor) to the reader, who in term may feel haunted themselves.
Because we are haunted, all of us. Haunted by sin, disappointment, memory. But we are also haunted by the Holy Spirit who can lead us to green pastures. And I don't need to name him in an essay on Minecraft for him to do his work.