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“Received Knowledge” and Criticism

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By Nelson Schneider - 11/17/19 at 04:29 PM CT

Recently, I read a videogame review on another site and dared to delve into the dark underbelly that is the typical Internet comment section. Actually, I read comment sections with regularity, as they are a great way to keep in touch with the zeitgeist of the Mob at any given point in time. However, in this particular instance, I actually learned something new. No, I didn’t actually learn it directly from an Internet comment section remark, but the comment spurred me to do some online research, which yielded results both from the expected Well of All Knowledge that is Wikipedia as well as some American universities.

The topic at hand was how we know game criticism is good, and the comment that spurred me on my latest quest for knowledge spoke directly to my own prejudices by pointing out that people today just accept the established view that certain pieces of media are “good” without applying any critical thinking of their own – such as the fact that Shakespeare is largely considered to be a masterful genius, when, in reality, the vast majority of his works weren’t particularly original and can be difficult to grok for a modern audience. In essence, Shakespeare has, in videogame terminology, “aged poorly.” The fact that his works are still widely regarded as the apex of storytelling media is the result of a phenomenon known as “Received Knowledge.”

The concept of Received Knowledge comes from a 1970 book by educational psychologist, William Perry Jr., in which it occupies the lowest of 9 rungs on the ladder of learning. This concept was reexamined 16 years later in a study by a group of cognitive researchers, who largely corroborated Perry’s original research. The general premise of these two studies is that, as human beings experience education, they “learn how to learn,” and move from a simplistic dogmatism, where facts presented by authorities are the only things of value, to nuanced, critical thinking.

That isn’t to say, though, that Received Knowledge is wholly bad. In fields where facts have been tested and proven – specifically the hard sciences and math (STEM fields) – Received Knowledge can be quite beneficial, as it allows the current crop of researchers and thinkers to build upon extant facts without having to waste resources constantly re-proving things that have already been proven. Of course, even in fields where it is useful, Received Knowledge cannot and should not be treated as an unchanging dogma, as new techniques can find faults with old, established “facts” (such as recent discoveries in Quantum Mechanics flying in the face of the established concepts of Einstein’s Relativity), necessitating an update to the core of the knowledge that is passed down to subsequent generations of researchers.

Where Received Knowledge truly is more of a burden than a blessing, however, is in the “soft” fields of study that can be found in the Liberal Arts and Humanities. I have experienced first-hand how certain university departments (*coughEnglishcough*) will bend over backwards to find “hidden” meaning and interpretations of works of art and literature that aren’t actually there, but are instead projections of the thinkers’ own proclivities and biases. These thinkers, in the role of Authority, will then presume to pass along their conclusions to their students in the form of Received Knowledge, which is where problems arise, and where this entire concept intersects with videogames.

Game critics have, historically, occupied the position of Authority in the Liberal Art that is journalism. While this Authority has been democratized significantly in the era of Web 2.0 and social media, videogame critics, like the movie critics, theatre critics, and book critics that preceded them, can and have cemented various titles into gaming’s Canon of Excellence (whether they deserved them or not), while gamers themselves often don’t apply their critical thinking skills to these “authoritative” opinions (or are just blinded by their own nostalgia). Since 2011, mere months after MeltedJoystick went live, I’ve been on the record as encouraging would-be game critics to write objectively about the different facets of a game before subjectively placing a value judgement on said facets. Likewise, gamers themselves, when they read or watch a critical review, need to engage with what is being said and represented, rather than just passively accepting a review score and moving on. There have been numerous times over the past 9 years where I’ve read or watched a review (some even from users on this very site) where the objective facts stated by the reviewer didn’t align, in my mind, with the subjective judgement value the reviewer ultimately placed on said facts.

But because the value of any media revolves around the audience’s relationship with said media, while the objective facts about a game (or movie, or play, or book) won’t change over time, the audience’s perception of those facts can and will. To reiterate, Liberal Arts and Humanities aren’t science. The average person can’t just say, “I don’t like gravity, so I will choose not to be subject to it,” while they can say, “I find permadeath to be a deplorable gameplay mechanic and rate games poorly when they implement it.”

On the other side of the coin, though, we have to consider that the mutability of audience perception can fluctuate to the point of becoming nonsensical. We’ve seen numerous examples in recent years where the fringes of our polarized political system will jump on and denigrate older media, not because they find it to be technically cumbersome or obsolete, but because of very touchy Identity Politics. Why does “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” need to be re-written with super-incredibly-politically-correct-SJW lyrics and dropped from radio playlists? The melody and harmony, and back-and-forth/call-and-response stylings are still perfectly serviceable, but some people in positions of Authority overextended their critical thinking muscles to find misogyny and rape in the rather innocuous lyrics, and these same people passed along this Received Knowledge to their unthinking dogmatic block.

The moral of the story here is that too many people are too willing to accept Received Knowledge in fields where they really shouldn’t. Unless (and even when) someone is waving a ream of calculations and statistics at you that backs up their position, you should always employ your critical thinking skills. It’s sad that such a common sense position isn’t, well, common sense, but in this era of mindless bandwagoning, Cancel Culture, and dogmatic groupthink, it really needs to be said.

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