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The New Games Criticism

by Paul Kilduff-Taylor on 09/18/15 01:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

Introduction

This may turn a little manifesto, but forgive me. It’s a juvenile form, but such posturing can occasionally serve a purpose.
(Kieron Gillen, The New Games Journalism)

In 2005, Kieron Gillen laid out his aspirations for what games journalism could be.

He summarised them thus:

1) The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game.
2) Write travel journalism to Imaginary Places.


Gillen was talking about a new form, one which could inform the traditional process of reviewing games but was ultimately distinct from it:

Reviews that don’t serve their basic consumer-informing purpose are worse than useless… What I’m suggesting is in addition to rather than replacing the old order — though I’d suggest a greater stringency when producing work that’s in these more established traditions.

The influence of this line of thinking permeates games journalism today. Whether it’s Samuel Roberts talking about how Rocket League brings out the worst in him, Martin Robinson discussing his personal experience of Japanese arcades or Michael W. Clune describing his relationship with gaming and drugs, we’re now fully adrift on the vast ocean of subjectivity.

Of course, that’s totally fine, in and of itself. The idea of New Games Journalism was to nudge games journalism into line with other forms of personal pop cultural criticism: it seems to have been largely a success; although I would suggest that Gillen’s “greater stringency” in the traditional forms was somewhat overlooked.

But that was ten years ago: what’s next?

All of the People, All of the Time

I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail about subjectivity and responses to art.

Rami’s point of view is, effectively, that any possible response to a work has equal validity, even if it’s predicated on beliefs which are demonstrably false.

I don’t wish to speak for Rami here but I believe this opinion comes from an understandable desire to be inclusive in conversation: it’s all too easy for a particular opinion to be “shouted down” online; we want to create an environment where everyone is allowed an equal opportunity to express their views.

Unfortunately, I believe that benevolent motivation can result in a situation where nothing is valuable or valued. The deification of the subjective can only end in a denial of intrinsic meaning.


Art will always provoke a subjective response. A Rothko painting might seem like a flag, or a landscape; it might evoke ideas of death and formless melancholy. You could go up close to the canvas and look at the marks made by the brushstrokes, thinking about how what appear to be stark blocks of colour are actually significantly more complex.

It’s also possible to have responses which have no real basis whatsoever. The painting is blue: that could somehow remind you that today is Tuesday.

While I agree with Rami that you have a right to express yourself and discuss this “Tuesday Theory”, the idea that it has equal validity to - for example - an approach with recognises and explores the inherent ambiguity in the painting is patently ludicrous. We need to reject absolute subjectivity if we believe that there is anything to be learned about meaning.

I believe that a response which is able to take into account many aspects of a work, drawn from a close examination of it, is superior: it simply is more valuable; it elicits greater meaning.

The Shock of the New

In the mid-20th Century, a group of writers established a loose ideology which came to be known as “New Criticism”. This line of thought was a reaction against two distinct sets of entrenched ideas:

  • Literature may only be understood in the role of a historical artefact
  • A text must be appreciated for its “beauties” and evocation of moral precepts

I’d argue that games criticism endures similar preponderances today. To discuss this, I’ll be drawing heavily from John Crowe Ransome’s 1937 essay Criticism Inc., which is well worth a read in its entirety.

Ancient History

When Matt Lees argues that games have lives because “games started out mostly as arcade machines and buying lives was the most efficient way of getting people to keep putting money in”, he’s essentially using a form of “historicism”. As an alternative to this, a liberal humanist critic might talk about the fundamental importance of death to human experience, perhaps also ideas such as its inevitability: I think there is a reasonable case to make for those things being more vital than a discussion of coin slots.

The department of English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product. English might almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as entirely autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of the department of ethics.
John Crowe Ransome (Criticism Inc.)

Historicism and sociological criticism are problematic because they limit our understanding of meaning to the consequences of a work, rather than its content. Here’s a great video showing Miyamoto discussing the first level of Super Mario Bros:


If we look at this contextually, we might think about Mario’s influence on culture at the time or on other games. But we’ll miss everything about why making a character jump around a level is interesting in the first place; we won’t be able to draw any conclusions about the meaning of Miyamoto’s design decisions.

Laryngeal Sensations

Therefore it is hardly criticism to assert that the proper literary work is one that we can read twice; or one that causes in us some remarkable physiological effect, such as oblivion of the outer world, the flowing of tears, visceral or laryngeal sensations, and such like; or one that induces perfect illusion, or brings us into a spiritual ecstasy; or even one that produces a catharsis of our emotions.

John Crowe Ransome (Criticism Inc.)

The New Criticism also pushed back against some of the excesses of the traditional Humanist viewpoint and raised an eyebrow at Romantic notions of subjective response.

I want to be clear: I believe that New Games Journalism and the ideas surrounding it have been extremely important for games writing. Before, writing passionately and subjectively about games was seen as laughable: it was right to confront that and we’ve seen huge swathes of great writing as a result.

The problem is, again, one of over-emphasis. If the only way to relate to a game becomes about our own personal memories and emotions, our ability to closely examine what it means can be thrown out of kilter.

A while back, I discussed this assertion by Jenn Frank about Super Hexagon:

The first time I met Terry I made him stand there and listen to my ideas about that game, about how his game is about living life. I talked about stopping and waiting and then moving, about pivoting your cursor until you find your window of opportunity. I told him about luck and not-luck and memory and decisiveness.
“It sounds very nice when you put it that way,” Terry told me pleasantly.
(Jenn Frank, Allow Natural Death)

Allow Natural Death is a moving, important and brilliant piece of games writing. I strongly disagreed with its close reading of the game, however: I don’t believe Super Hexagon functions as an effective metaphor for life in the terms that Frank has delineated.

One particular sticking point for me was the idea of “luck and not-luck”. After writing the original piece, I verified with Terry Cavanagh that Super Hexagon produces no situation in which it is impossible for the player to progress. This means that it is literally possible to practise and prepare for any of the individual sequences which are randomly stitched together to create the levels: you can master it simply by playing it over and over again, entirely eliminating luck.

I can’t think of anything more unlike the experience of living life than this: memory is complex and fuzzy; life is not about building up a small precise set of instantaneous reflex recreations which allow you to capitalise on opportunities with perfection. Instead, I suggested that Super Hexagon is more about the relationship between practise, the personal and the abstract.

So, just as a personal response is vital, I believe that it’s imperative to temper this with a close reading of “the text” if we go looking for meaning.

As games mature as a form we need to consider the role of criticism as well as that of journalism. Games journalism, I believe, is flourishing and need only take some slight influence from the state of criticism.

I do not suppose the reviewing of books can be reformed in the sense of being turned into pure criticism. The motives of the reviewer are as much mixed as the performance, and indeed they condition the mixed performance. The reviewer has a job of presentation and interpretation as well as criticism. The most we can ask of him is that he know when the criticism begins, and that he make it as clean and definitive as his business permits. To what authority may he turn?

John Crowe Ransome (Criticism Inc.)

Gillen argues for the primacy of the review-as-buyer’s-guide; Crowe, writing 68 years earlier, also supports the distinction between reviewer and critic. We’re not going to move forwards if we continue to be unaware of existing critical work.

So, we can have a new form of criticism without looking down on, damaging or interfering with any kind of journalism, be it a buyer’s guide or a gonzo psychic exploration. We can embrace an emotional response while still suggesting that the intention of the creator and the damn work itself have an important relationship to our understanding.

Here’s how.

The New Games Criticism Manifesto

The purpose of criticism is to explore and expose meaning.

Meaning is constructed through a polyphony of factors, ranging from the irrational to the observable. Therefore New Games Criticism is a flexible hybrid and holistic approach which attempts to unify rather than divide.

The New Games Critic will resist the primacy of any single element when constructing their response; they will work to achieve a harmonious balance.

Such elements may include:

  • Contextual and historical analysis
  • Sociological analysis
  • “New Games Journalism”
  • Theoretical application
  • An approach to games as a “low cultural” form of entertainment…
  • …and a simultaneous assumption that games are a profound artistic medium of composition
  • Exposition of technical detail
  • Exegesis of traditional themes
  • Analysis of authorial intent
  • Willy jokes and [Snip! (Ed.)]

New Games Criticism entirely rejects absolute subjectivism and the deification of the individual. Viewing a game through a singular lens is abandoned in favour of a wider project.

Ideally, the New Games Critic has some understanding of traditional academic modes of criticism, such as liberal humanism, post-structuralism, cultural materialism, feminist and queer theory as well as specific game-related fields such as ludology and narratology. They understand the limitations of these and expect further enlightenment from emergent areas of study such as neuroscience and the exploration of cognition. They embrace, rather than resist, the interplay of science and the humanities.

They recognise, however, that the torturous jargon of the academic serves no purpose other than the self-serving perpetuation of the academic model itself. They resist the tendency for modern cultural criticism to tip into either the inscrutable or the over-simplistic. New Games Criticism is entertaining and pacy - even funny- while still displaying intellectual integrity. Simply put, it’s readable.

Even if the critic does not possess awareness, let alone master, of a particular field, their most important trait is curiosity. If they find their knowledge lacking in an area, they investigate and report back on how that area might be relevant to the process of discovering meaning.

The New Games Criticism returns to close reading. A game is so complex in itself that too much external imposition may cloud its meaning: we should work to examine what is really happening. Ambiguity is recognised and identified in context; technical aspects and their relation to themes are drawn out; tensions are identified and explored. The critic uses the heritage of close examination to assist them as they work through the details.

Both impressionistic and evidence-based approaches may coexist in the same piece, however they must be clearly defined and skilfully juggled. If the critic is drawing a specific sociological consequence, they must back their assertion with meaningful evidence that may be contested in its own right. If they are highlighting an evocation, they must present a careful and close analysis of the game’s form and content as justification. If they are commenting on a perceived flaw in design or development, they must cite a specific element which could potentially be altered. If a design decision can be adequately explained by commerce, the critic rejects it only in terms of creativity and not in its totality.

The secondary goals of criticism are to improve the general understanding of a form so that more ambitious and subtle works may be attempted, and also to assist other creators in their task. Any opportunity to do either should be seized.

The critic should avoid open generalisation and empty verbiage. They must ask themselves, “Am I adding noise or reducing it?”

The New Games Critic strongly respects their audience; they maintain high expectations. If they wish, occasionally, to use an esoteric term, they trust that their reader is capable of Googling it. They resist unnecessary exposition; they are unafraid of drawing comparison to any other medium in any other period. They understand vocal minorities and are not swayed from their course by the loud complaints of the few.

New Games Criticism accepts and codifies a game review as:

  • A vital component of journalism, rather than an opportunity for pure criticism
  • Able to draw on critical principles
  • Having the primary purpose of interrogating the act of purchasing the game

Review scores are a controversial topic: many journalists resist them for the following reasons:

  • They are overly reductive
  • They produce a bad audience reaction
  • They are aggregated in a meaningless way
  • They feign objectivity

However, a New Games Critic acting in the capacity of a journalist understands the review score as an additional opportunity to provide inflection and texture. They see it as a convenient symbol which differentiates criticism and journalism; it is viewed as neat and pleasant punctuation to their considered opinion. They have fun with it.

As they are engaged in the expansion and exploration of defining meaning and they have faith in their wider audience, they are not affected by an idiotic exchange in a comments thread or by the nonsensical process of score aggregation.

The critic recognises these are false attempts to assert the primacy of a single element and dismisses it out of hand. They embrace the review score as a component of gaming’s low cultural heritage: they understand the difficult role of “criticism as science” and relish its paradoxes. At the same time, they do not feel the need to justify games as art; they assume the conversation has moved beyond this triviality. They understand the role of fun and entertainment; they are adept at examining its relationship to meaning.

The critic rejects false notions of apolitical “objectivity” and recognises that their own view will be skewed. Through an adherence to the text and a willingness to show their working, they allow others to correct their bias so that further meaning may be extracted.

The critic is a student, a rejection of Crowe’s antiquated “ professor”. They are not afraid to learn, to be open about their level of knowledge to debate and to get drunk in the pub.

The critic is a philosopher. They are willing to challenge and reinvent assumptions about the ways in which games are important. They are willing to throw out this awful manifesto and write their own in response. They think about how abstruse ideas relate to reality. They think about the nature of meaning.

The critic is a creator. Their work may come in the form of a critical essay or filtered through journalism, however it is always considered to be interesting and valuable in its own right: it is never parasitic or empty. It is increasingly likely that they will be a developer themselves, or have at least worked alongside one.

Criticism may come in the form of a game. In this form, it may struggle to cite evidence or deploy classical critical methodologies but it may compensate in other areas, showing without telling. It may excel at forwarding the medium, while at the same time enabling further exegesis of other titles. It may represent a more valid contribution than simply adding words to the pile.

The critic is willing to push criticism forward against dull objections that it is “pseudo-intellectual”: they are willing to shape an approach to deal with the most fascinating and dynamic creative form yet to have existed.

The New Games Criticism recognises the inevitable dominance of games as culture’s primary medium. It is able to hold this in one hand, and the existence of Hot Dog Down A Hallway in the other.

All of us — developers, journalists, critics, academics and players — should recognise and accept that we are active participants in criticism. Modern ideas that the individual is somehow not accountable for their own responses should be rejected: we should all look to improve our understanding and gain greater meaning and pleasure from both games and our lives.

---

I feel there are many other people better qualified and, ostensibly, more inclined to write this kind of thing. However, we’ve been insisting that games are art for years without codifying a critical approach outside academia, so someone has to have a go.

I also don’t think its enough for developers to remain “intuitive rather than dialectical”, hand-waving that we want to “say everything with our work”.

Just as when Kieron wrote his original manifesto, the changes are taking place already. More journalists are moving into game development; more games are being developed which can be viewed effectively as criticism: I’d cite stuff like ohmygod are you alright for its simultaneous elevation and trivialisation of the player’s experience; Alien Isolation for its riffs on power, helplessness and fear in games. I feel like I’m documenting a change rather than campaigning for it.

We’re seeing an increasing desire to move beyond monophonic single-school criticism or simple experiential diaries to something more sophisticated; a greater understanding of technical, commercial and procedural considerations is informing game reviews; writers are feeling emboldened to tackle big issues and so are developers.

My hope is that culture doesn’t get lost in a bog of polarised baseless subjectivity, with everyone arguing and responding “as” something. Respond as a human, cultivate your understanding and take responsibility for it. Respect your own feelings and those of others when it comes to culture, but don’t blindly believe that they are of prime importance to anything. By all means, write New Games Journalism, but be ready to view it as a tool in a much bigger battle.

Play games, read games, write games, make games and learn.

---

Addendum: I would love to have cited Allen Tate’s 1940 essay “Emily and Bibliographer” for this piece, but because of the entirely disgusting and shameful way in which organisations such as JSTOR are allowed to control access to academic information, I was unable to do so.

Through my old university, for some bizarre and illogical reason, I’m allowed to apply for lifetime free access, so I have done so. It won’t kick in in time for me to use it in this piece. However, that’s not the point: why I do I deserve this? How could you possibly justify me having access to this when others who have never even had the chance to study at university are excluded? It’s not only discriminatory; it’s socially counterproductive.

I am yet to hear anything approaching a valid argument for barricading knowledge in this way: I believe it is a discredit to all of us that it is still allowed to continue. If we’re to start communicating with the expectation that anyone can inform themselves, we need that to actually be true.


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