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A Letter to a Letter.
by Robert Yang on 04/11/13 01:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post is cross-posted from the Radiator Blog.

Dear Raph Koster's Letter to Leigh,

You were right when you said that the authors of "personal games" would probably take you the wrong way... It's hard not to. It's impossible to divorce the politics from the forms of these games, which, yes, makes them difficult to critique as formal designed objects without appearing to attack their politics.

These authors argue that "apolitical formalism" is inherently political, that the worst politics pretends it's not politics. Porpentine tweeted that she prefers "blatant bullshit over honeyed poison." (Uh, she was talking about you, by the way!)

I'm sure you'll understand these authors' reluctance to trust this kind of criticism after the past decade of sustained critical attack on such games and their contexts -- perhaps these "crimes" weren't always inflicted by you or whatever, but it's certainly a trigger when you begin your letter with wondering, "what is a game?" My brain shifts into red alert. That line of inquiry has been a long favored tool of well-intentioned oppression, because these arguments often masquerade as thoughtful discourse but function as a weapon of de-legitimization, that argue these personal games can't really fit a formal definition of game. The emotional leap is that these people can't really fit a formal definition of people. Adding, "it's okay if it's not a game" comes off as sounding like, "it's okay if you're not a person," which doesn't really help you seem apolitical.

Again, you're aware of this. You are a very carefully written letter.

I do think that you imply that this inability to separate content from form is an inherent (formal) weakness of personal games and the ways they mean things. That, because these games can't fit into a formalist frame, they are thus less game-like. Instead, I'd argue that this is a weakness of a traditional formalist approach: mechanics are often boring / limit what authors can do with games. (I'm construing your use of "agency" and "game-yness" as meaning "mechanics", because that's how I think you're actually using those concepts.)

I also think your idea of "dialogue" is too formalist. It emphasizes the shape of dialogue and presumes a positive effect, when I know better. In general, "promoting dialogue" is usually code for "we're going to go through the motions of a reasoned process, but we won't actually do shit." "Dialogue", on an oppressor's terms, rarely results in empathy. Outside of philosophy books, a dialectic is rarely fair and is subject to a power dynamic between the participants. (Poor Glaucon.) Fox News, for instance, often uses the "form" of dialogue to intimidate and mislead under the guise of being fair and balanced; and a few years ago, the completely rational dialectical democratic process of the state of California removed my right to marry. Dys4ia does not "argue with itself" because that'd compromise its politics -- it's taking its turn in the larger dialogue outside of the game, saying, "no, now YOU listen to ME for once."

I'm just trying to explain why authors of personal games don't / can't trust formalism... and now I notice what's happening: I'm rhetorically casting you in the role of Fox News, bigotry, and ignorance. See? You can't take the politics out of this!

There's simply no way to say, "Anna, you should've tightened up the graphics on level 3" without coming off like an asshole with an axe to grind. Maybe if we were talking about Starcraft, that nitpick could be legitimate critical dialogue and we could add it to the annals of Starcraft Studies and Starcraft theory because Starcraft is (partly) *about* the graphics on level 3, and "tight graphics" actually means something to the Starcraft developers. For personal games, it isn't and it never will be, partly because we are our games.

So here's what I propose: don't take this as, "these games think they're above formal criticism." Instead, perhaps formal criticism just occupies a space that's orthogonal / lateral / irrelevant to this game design space. We need a new mode of games criticism!

I mean, I do agree that formalism has its uses. Sometimes putting things into classes, categories, and types is useful. (Starcraft sure is interesting! Let's analyze all those systems!)

Unfortunately, here, I just don't think this is one of those situations.

Here, game design is not physics, engineering, or science -- rather, it's political science, it's history. Maybe we could approach our criticism of these games more like those fields?

I remain your most obedient servant,

-- Robert Yang

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Ryan Watterson
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I agree with much of your post. Games can't be judged the same way and they have to be judged through a lens of the times they're received, the author's intention and background, and the objective content in the game. When games were new it was easy to lump them all together, but as games become more ubiquitous, we see the bigger picture: just as film augmented human language to be visual, our human language is being augmented with an even more sophisticated interactive trait. So anything that is media or activity can take place in a digital game, which can accommodate both activity and media. So comparing something like 'call of duty' to something like 'cart life' and judging them on the same rubric is as silly as comparing 'actually paintballing' to 'reading a newsweek article'

Diversity and variance are huge in games, but every game, even indie games at the festival level, aren't judged so much as holistic experiences as graded on averaging scores between grading individual components (art,story,sound,design,engineering). So if you're a political scientist, and the core appeal of your game is its political science viewpoint -- how do you break through a scene that is pitting you in a competition of specialties OTHER than game making, against specialists?

Dimitri Del Castillo
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You should only have to ask one question in deciding whether a game is good or not:

"Is it fun?"

Anything more is obfuscation for the sake of argument.

Chris Cornell
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Do you know what this whole kerfluffle seems like? It sounds a lot like the argument you get when someone tries to, say, analyze interesting mathematical relationships in the harmonics of a piece of music, and then other people come along and say "noooo, you're trying to kill the art with your science! You're just trying to analyze music so you can use that as a weapon to tell me that what I like isn't music!"

Look guys. We can't have it both ways. If games are (or can be) art, then we need to be able to talk about them seriously. And that includes ALL talking about them. Not just restricting ourselves to saying how great they are, out of fear that discussing their faults would hurt the artist's feelings.

If someone believed that Dis4ia would have been more powerful with better graphics, then they're not an asshole for saying so. The fact that the game is a touching personal work doesn't somehow magically make it taboo to talk about ways it could be better. Anna is obviously free to come back with a response like "no, I disagree, better graphics would have detracted from what I was trying to say" or whatever. Or even "maybe so, but this is the game I wanted to make." Any of those are good responses. They continue a discussion.

"No, you're an asshole for even suggesting that you didn't like a part of the game." is not a good response.

Games are hardly the first media where people have tried to make touching works about their own experiences and viewpoints. I'm not sure why want to treat this as something unique to games. It's no different from telling an autobiography author "hey, this part would have been more powerful if you emphasized XXX and less YYY".

I have nothing but respect for Anna's work, but if you think that refusing to discuss it is doing ANYONE any favors, you're very much mistaken. We don't need a new mode of games criticism. We just need what every artistic medium needs: Artists who are able to hold a dialog and objectively discuss their work, and who are able to separate criticisms of the work from criticisms of them as a person.

Pallav Nawani
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Oppressor. For a moment I thought I was reading a Naxalite manifesto. And indeed, this letter does read like one.

Human mind is a funny thing. It is possible for us to start believing so much in some idea, that it takes a life of its own - becomes a 'cause' - and then people with the same cause tend to band together, forming a tribal club closed to others:

"See our revenge! Earlier, you used to exclude us, now WE are excluding you!"