I only subscribe to a handful of channels on YouTube, and of that, only a handful are related to games. One of those subscriptions is videogamedunkey, a video editing maestro whose ability to make you laugh and understand why a game's interesting at the same time is unmatched. Even my wife, who barely plays games, loves Dunkey. You can imagine my curiosity, then, when I loaded his channel to find a nine-minute video about "game critics."
Before we go forward, you should just watch the video for yourself. It's worth the time.
(And if you're not familiar with his work, here are some of his better videos on a variety of different games: Shovel Knight, Ocarina of Time, Yooka-Laylee, Banjo-Kazooie. He also has a history of using offensive, ableist language in his videos, and was notably banned from League of Legends for being a "toxic player" in 2015.)
The video opens with a proposed contradiction: Editors at IGN, one of the largest gaming sites, expressing different opinions about the quality of Sonic the Hedgehog ("Sonic is good again" vs. "Sonic was never good" vs. "Breathe easy Sonic fans, Sega got this one right").
"The first issue I have with gaming outlets is how their opinions are so decentralized," says Dunkey. "When you have multiple writers working on a website, you can lose track of who's talking."
This is contrasted with folks like himself, TotalBiscuit, ProJared, or AngryJoe, whose channels highlight one opinion: theirs. (Ironically, he includes a clip of Jim Sterling, an excellent critic who rose out of the ranks of the media circles Dunkey's critiquing. He made a name for himself by as a strong personality among Destructoid's own "decentralized" staff.)
Big sites like IGN and Kotaku operate by covering a lot of video games. It's not as ridiculous as it used to be, back when games sites were having reviewers cover every expansion for every game, regardless of appeal or relevance. Nonetheless, these sites want to garner interest (and clicks) from as many people as possible. You do that by covering lots of games. It's an old school method of attracting interest, one predicated on the idea that people care less about whose byline is attached to the review than the fact that it tells them if a game is good or not (or, at the very least, gives them a reason to start arguing in the comments).
But I'd argue Dunkey sells some of these websites (and their readers) short. When I worked at Kotaku, for instance, plenty of people were able to freely differentiate between the writers, usually because said writers were assigned specific beats and games, which means people checking out articles related to those games often developed a relationship with that author. If there was a Dark Souls post on Kotaku in the last few years, chances are it was from me. If someone was writing about a new JRPG, quite often Jason Schreier's name was attached.
That said, I get it. If you're deeply familiar with Kotaku's writing staff, you might be able to draw that distinction. If you landed there by accident or because someone linked you, it might be difficult to draw much of anything by glancing at their front page. Who is "Kotaku?" That's a harder question to answer than if you end up on a video from Dunkey's channel.
Dunkey has millions of loyal followers. Just about every video he posts is, then, almost guaranteed to be viewed millions of times. That's not true of most critics in traditional media—nor is it true of most critics on YouTube! A big reason they're huddled under a single roof is because there's power in collective numbers, albeit a power that, as Dunkey points out, can contribute to diluting a publication's "voice." Being an independent critic proves easier with the confidence of 3.6 million people having your back. I'm guessing many writers would jump at the chance to speak directly to their own big audience—if they had one. Dunkey has earned that following by creating excellent videos, but he's also lucky: His popularity fuels videos he publishes, while smaller critics must build a traveling audience through outside means.
Enter social media. Twitter has a ton of problems, but it's incredibly useful for gathering a following of folks who are invested in what I have to say. While my employer has changed plenty of times over the years—Giant Bomb to Kotaku to Waypoint, in the past three years—I've managed to stay connected with my most ardent fans because they have a way of keeping track of what I'm up to. Dunkey's channel is on YouTube. For many critics, especially the written-based ones that Dunkey is focusing on, their channel exists on Twitter.
"Being an independent critic proves easier with the confidence of 3.6 million people having your back. Dunkey has earned that following by creating excellent videos."
"It's important to build an understanding between the critic and the viewer," he says. "Every review you do should be like an extension of the last until your audience understand what kind of games you respond to."
If you've followed me on Twitter over the years, you know where I stand and what I like.
I'd also argue publications can thrive under a banner. Waypoint was established with this in mind. A big reason I wanted to work with Austin Walker was a desire to build something together. I enjoy working with people, and under Waypoint, we've tried to craft a website with a specific identity: We wear our emotions and politics on our sleeves. When we started Waypoint, everyone on the team had their own personal followings, and we all consider it a responsibility to leverage that to build a larger platform to highlight voices you might not have heard of, whose values also fall under the larger idea of "Waypoint." That's the power of a collective.
Otherwise, Dunkey's video covers familiar but still unsettled ground, if you've been paying attention game criticism for the last decade. The searing text in a review doesn't match the score, often falling between the 7-9 range; accepting advertisements from video game companies when you're pretending to be impartial is, at best, a bad look; critics tend to latch onto familiar (and shared) language as an expressive crutch; coverage of new games tends to produce the most traffic, resulting in a rush to write articles without enough time to really understand the experience you're talking about; the question of whether a reviewer needs to finish a game to have an opinion on it; how we determine the term "fun" in regards to quality. I've fallen victim to all of these.
The video, whatever you think of the arguments, is scathing. Dunkey seemingly intended to provoke a reaction from the people he was criticizing, and based on the chatter I saw online, fallout that's continued for days, he got exactly the reaction he was looking for: a defensive one. It helps explain why he retweeted a collection of negative reactions from the circles of people he was aiming at: "I love dunkey's stuff, but I sure do have no interest in his opinions on games critics?" said one critic. "Holy shit, this dunkey video is bad," lamented another.
The image has been retweeted 2,900 times, followed up later by a tweet from him. "There are writers out there who love video games trying to do good work," he wrote, suggesting no writer in particular, "but I've seen about 2 thoughtful responses and 15 limp dick tweets."
Dunkey has since deleted the above tweet, replaced with a longer statement that also no longer appears on his Twitter page.
"A lot of critics proved my points in the video with their pathetic responses," he said, "On the other hand I've seen a few level-headed more thought out responses as well, which is something my video unfortunately did not cover. There are quality writers in the field."
My own response to the video, as someone lucky enough to write and report about video games for a living, was emotional. "Look, Dunkey, if you think we haven't all been struggling with these issues since we were stumbled into this as a career, you haven't been paying attention!"
It's true: These issues have been debated, ad nauseum, for ages. It's also true many of them don't have good solutions, which is why they've continued to persist, despite identification.
Left unsaid, of course, is the simmering tension between those who make their living writing words about video games and resentment over the meteoric rise of YouTube personalities, as media budgets have tightened and layoffs have become a regular, frightening headline. That rise has come with popularity, influence, money. According to Social Blade, Dunkey's channel, which has roughly 3.6 million subscribers, generates anywhere between $105,300 to $1.68 million per year. Even if that number is inaccurate, the low end is more than double the salaries of most games critics, even those who have been writing about games for years.
"A major factor contributing to the staleness of mainstream games criticism if a lack of voices challenging the status quo."
Dunkey's financial success in no way negates his points, but shit, let's not pretend money isn't part of the problem. It's hard to make money in media, and those with the best jobs (like, you know, me) aren't interested in giving them up anytime soon. I've got my reasons—family, mortgage, I don't know how to do anything else—and I like to think I'm pretty good at my job, but that's one less slot for someone else. A major factor contributing to the staleness of mainstream games criticism if a lack of voices challenging the status quo. Those people exist, of course, but they're not necessarily the people being paid to do so. They're often writing about games for dirt cheap, or more likely, getting paid nothing—and doing it anyway.
Dunkey's right: There are a lot of problems with big site critics and criticism, just as there are tons of problems with YouTube critics and criticism. Some of his arguments may seem old hat, but that doesn't mean they're wrong, either. And while his approach may have been deliberately inflammatory, that's part of his style, too; he wants to provoke a reaction. At the very least, it's gotten me to think hard and write out this piece. That's something, even if it's "limp dick."