Jordan Shapiro has written an article on Forbes recounting his experience of encouraging his children to think critically about the games they play. He wants his children to know why they like what they like, or hate what they hate, and be able to articulate it. Shapiro is on to something here. It’s not just about children, and it’s not just about games: far too few people can explain why they think the way they do.
Shapiro explains that he wanted to get to the bottom of why his children thought Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze was “cool”.
I […] went on to ask a ton of other questions that focused the conversation in a way that forced my kids to ask themselves what, precisely, they thought was “cool” about the game. We covered narrative, game mechanics, rewards, color palate, and more. We discussed the user interface and even the menu pages. We compared and contrasted Donkey Kong with other platformers.
Kudos to Shapiro for pursuing this with his children. He is preparing them to think critically about their experiences, in a way that all of us ought to do. He wants them to understand themselves and their response to media and art – a process called metacognition.
Why is it important for us to be able to think critically and articulate why we like or dislike something? There are two reasons.
- Critical thought is a prerequisite for individuality. If we cannot critically analyse the media and messages we receive, and we cannot determine our own response to it in a way that stands up to scrutiny, we risk losing our individuality. At best, we might be swayed by the opinions of crowds, saying that a new film is cool because 3D is “so in right now” or because a certain actor is “so hot right now”. At worst, we might be manipulated by political parties or massive media organisations, who can convince us to believe their messages because they hit all the right buzzwords and emotional notes. Critical thought provides a defence against this, helping us to retain our individuality and therefore our freedom.
- Critical thought is a prerequisite for artistry. If we cannot critically analyse art, we are much less likely to create new art that advances on what has come before or enters entirely new creative territory. If we cannot say why a game is fun, how can we know how to create a fun game? If we cannot say why an actor’s performance is good or bad, how can we train to become better actors? Critical thought gives us the tools to become artists ourselves.
The next time you watch a film, or read a book or newspaper, or listen to a piece of music, or go to the theatre or opera, or pick up a political or religious tract, don’t just react to it but ask yourself why you react the way you do. Why do you like or dislike it? Why do you think it’s true or untrue?
To analyse something critically, you need to break it down and look at it from multiple angles. Games journalism has traditionally done this by scoring games on their graphics, sound, “gameplay”, longevity, etc., but this is no longer good enough, just as it isn’t good enough for other media. We need a more penetrating analysis.
I think the best way to break down a piece of media or art or any kind of message is to ask a few simple questions.
- What is this designed to do? What is its purpose? Is its purpose clear or vague? Is it a good purpose, worth pursuing?
- How does it work? What mechanisms are in place? What rhetoric or other techniques does it use? Does it use them effectively? Can you spot any gaps or faults?
- What does it say? Is there an obvious message or a hidden subtext? Is it a metaphor or allegory? Does it give only one side of an argument, or multiple sides? Does the message favour a person or group or cause?
- Does it affect you? Have you been affected emotionally? Has it changed your thinking about a certain topic? Will you do something differently as a result?
- Has it done what it was designed to do? Did it achieve its purpose? Did the techniques, message and affect add up? Was is successful in its aims?
You can apply these tests to almost anything, and they ought to help you get to the heart of almost any experience, but particularly in the media and the arts. Armed with these tools, you can discover the reasons behind something seemingly very simple, such as why you like something.
Let’s work through an example. I thoroughly enjoy the comedy film Team America: World Police. Why do I like it?
What is this designed to do? Make me laugh, parody the old Thunderbirds TV show and American action movies in general, and give some light satirical commentary on international relations. I like a comedy with multiple layers to it.
How does it work? It uses a wide variety of comedy styles, from sight gags, to wordplay, to toilet humour, to pop culture references, to topical satire. It uses marionettes to effectively lampoon Jerry Anderson’s TV series. It uses several musical numbers to change the pace and tone, to add variety to the performances. I like the variety, which helps to keep it interesting and entertaining over the course of its 100 minute runtime.
What does it say? It satirises both extremes of the political spectrum. Hawkish neo-liberal foreign policy is sent-up as ignorant, violent and wholly America-centric. Meanwhile, pacifism is exposed as a form of appeasement that allows evil to go unchallenged. It also gently ridicules American action films and their cliches, while also being a loving homage to them. I like the subject matter, and I appreciate that it covers both sides of a controversial debate so it won’t totally alienate most viewers.
Does it affect you? It certainly makes me laugh, even with repeated viewings. I especially like the musical numbers, which are very catchy. Politically, its satire hasn’t convinced me to change my mind on anything. It’s too even-handed and silly to have that kind of affect on most people. But it does remind me not to take myself or my views too seriously.
Has it done what it was designed to do? Yes, most certainly. The comedy works on all layers. The fumbling sex scene and clumsy fist fights reveal the absurdity of using marionettes in an action film. Hilariously corny lines like “Hey terrorist, terrorise this!” are still more intelligent that some action movie dialogue. And the satire is clever enough to make most people laugh at their own “side” in the debate. It all works, if not in a deeply profound way.
Question everything. But most importantly, question yourself. If you’re not sure of who you are and why you think what you think, then you open the door to allowing others to define you. If you don’t like the idea that you might be easily manipulated, ask yourself: why don’t you like it?