Three weeks ago I wrote this.
Without doubt, it’s the most divisive thing I’ve ever put on the internet. Reactions ranged from effusive praise to some highly vitriolic personal insults.
I was expecting to receive some flak from those who believe that games are too trivial to take seriously: there was almost none of that. Instead, the anger came from some of those who are currently engaged in writing innovative games criticism.
While I stand by the content of my original piece, the form I chose clearly did a poor job of serving those critics; I’d like to apologise for that. I believe I could have accomplished my aims without causing quite so much upset.
It’s now clear that there was one strong expectation which I failed to fulfill: readers wanted me to hold up individual examples of contemporary criticism for praise and attention. That wasn’t my original intention, but equally I can see how it was a missed opportunity. So, with many thanks to all of those who sent me links (particularly Zolani Stewart), here is some relevant reading…
Lana Polanksy’s deftly concise piece on close reading from 2012 proposes many of the same ideas that I discussed. It also goes further into a discussion of how these relate to gaming as a whole:
Criticism seeks to understand how games convey ideas, systems, structures and themes, how they represent characters, tell stories, and evoke emotions.
The best way to achieve this, I believe, is through the close reading. This involves taking an individual game and carving into it, right down to its bones, getting past this fixation we have on formalism and often genre convention — that is to say, the basic axioms that define a game at all — and asking how games use the elements of their form to produce specific experiences.
I’d also recommend Polanky’s Against Flow, which is another very accessible yet profound piece of critical thought on meaning and subjectivity.
But when we play, we feel. We should not be numb to this reality, forever in a meditative stupor, but active and aware of it. It’s real, and it’s vital that we embrace that.
Critical Distance provides invaluable curation, collecting amazing games writing on a weekly basis. I highly recommend reading through this collection of articles on The Beginner’s Guide, which are not only interesting in their own right but exemplify the variety of approaches it’s possible to take to a single game. Particular highlights for me were Heather Alexander’s video “minicrit”, which combined both personal responses and a formal overview. Kill Screen’s discussion was both entertaining and illuminating, while Brendan Keogh’s analytical approach was one of the best attempts to nail down the game’s difficult balancing act. In addition to those suggestions, Mattie Brice’s enigmatic response is also worth a look.
For recent examples of how varied critical approaches can influence and benefit journalism, I’d recommend Carolyn Petit’s recent Vice piece on Prison Architect and Rich Stanton’s Eurogamer feature on Earthbound. One important point I need to stress again is that criticism and journalism should influence each other: enforced separation is bad for everyone.
A few more personal choices before I move on. Omar Elaasar’s provocative article on colonialism in Metal Gear Solid draws a very serious contextual line through a somewhat surreal gameplay element. It’s a great example of how developers and players can unconsciously absorb archaic (and often offensive) sociological tropes, even in a slightly surreal context.
I think Carolyn Petit’s elegant look at a specific aspect of Mario Maker is the kind of criticism which can appeal to both players and developers alike. Similarly Katherine Cross discussed 19th Century art on Gamasutra: this ranks among my favourite articles that attempt to bridge creative disciplines.
I don’t meant to imply that this sort of writing is a recent invention, either. Brendan Keogh’s response to Helen Lewis in 2012 contains many pertinent recommendations. Omar Elaasar managed to simultaneously call me a rude name and highlight a huge slew of interesting writing: no mean feat! Finally Tim Rogers’ 2003 critique of Earthbound is much cited as a seminal piece of modern games criticism and is well worth reading.
I hope it’s now unambiguously clear that I believe significant and important games criticism is being created today. Also, many of the concepts I discussed are being worked through by others. One potentially valid rebuttal to my suggestions is that it’s ludicrous to expect a “comprehensive criticism” (as Liz Ryerson defines it) to come from single unified voice: instead it could emerge from the voices of many different critics responding to the same work.
It’s still my belief that older critical traditions can viably be applied to games. FR Leavis, writing in 1975, discussed the idea of language as “collaborative creativity”. His interest in the meeting of “mind” and “word”, expressed in The Living Principle: English as a Discipline of Thought. mirrors much more recent ideas about gaming, play and subjectivity. I would love to read more takes by modern critics on some of these ideas. Leavis himself is pretty difficult to read now: his parochial concerns with other critics of his day, as well as some of his archaic phrasing are quite tough going.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that no external critics are ever cited: Brendan Keogh talked to me about the influence of Susan Sontag’s writing on his own work and pointed me to this discussion of her ideas, for example.
It didn’t seem to me that, in codifying and extolling a form of criticism which was already taking place, I would be doing anything controversial. However, the response indicated some issues within the culture around games that might warrant some further exploration.
In order to help me parse what was happening, I asked a range of writers and developers for comment. Zolani Stewart and Brendan Keogh responded in depth and were kind enough to allow me to quote their emails. Both made it clear that they were speaking from their own perspective and experience, not — of course — attempting to make authoritative statements which would encompass the views of every writer.
Zolani tackled some of the difficult sociological issues in games criticism:
Many people in games criticism circles and smaller, ‘underground’ ‘intellectual,’ feminist and queer games circles, are not only not established white men, but are often very poor and struggle a lot. Either struggling freelance writers, or people who write on their own time while working a day job (which is what I do), or people who don’t have a job at all and struggle to make rent by month. I think this convergence of things, race, gender identity or class explains a lot of how people who in different games circles may react to things and people, and I think it had a lot to do with the response to your piece as well.
Brendan also gave me his thoughts:
As for marginalisation, without being too reductive: gamer culture since the mid-80s has been explicitly tailored to attract an audience of young, white men. This is researched and undeniable. So the games most favoured by the blockbuster industry are those that speak to that demographic: space marines, racing cars, shooting, war, etc. Not because those things are ‘naturally’ male or anything but those things already coded by broader society as masculine become the main topics of videogames (in the West, at least). So most white dudes who write about games never have to wander too far from the mainstream to find something they want to write about, or an outlet to write for. People beyond this narrow demographic, on the other hand, often have little investment in gamer culture historically and are forging new ground, both in development and criticism. But the games they are producing/critiquing are less likely to get covered in the enthusiast press because they are not the games tailored to their tailored audience. So socially marginalised developers and critics become further marginalised, despite producing the overwhelming majority of interesting work. Most blockbuster games are made to appeal to me, so I can easily pitch something to Kotaku or Polygon if I wanted to. Many other critics don’t have that luxury. That’s really what it comes down to. Plus other social pressures that mean a white dude like myself is more likely to be able to afford a blockbuster title and the time to actually play it. So this largely means socially marginalised people are writing more interesting stuff for less recognition and money. I think this goes a way to explain why a lot of them get real frustrated when their work is explicitly not recognised in a new manifesto on games criticism every other year, but it also explains why the writers of such manifestos repeatedly don’t recognise them. Systemic issues!
Zolani also highlighted geography as a major factor in how games critics communicate:
The history of ‘radical’, ‘underground’ games writing and criticism is pretty centered in North America, and for a long time San Francisco was an important hub for queer videogame critics until many of them moved to different places. Every person I pointed you to, I guess almost every writer I would point you to lives in this part of the world. Being generally small and, like a lot of small scenes, translated mostly through unwritten oral history, the conversations, and people who pass through aren’t particularly easy to catch on to. Like, I talk to several UK people who tell me about how they always miss the big twitter conversation that goes on because of the time zone. As in, when they go to sleep, a big conversation is going on, and when they wake up everyone is asleep so they play catch-up. There are only a few hours of overlap in twitter discourse if you’re speaking to writers who aren’t up until about 12pm. Twitter is generally the place where writers discover each other, through retweets and thread conversations and such. I think for this reason, the NA and UK spaces don’t get a lot of chances to interact with each other, even though they definitely do, there are definitely UK critics out there who I know of and pay attention to, and who know of me, but I don’t talk to them a lot. I don’t want to say there isn’t a UK equivalent of this kind of stuff, but if there are I don’t know much of it, and I know quite a lot of people who do games criticism. It seems that many games writers in the UK are mostly elevated, as in, it’s easier to get onto big sites like Eurogamer and RPS, get staff jobs or circulating freelance jobs because everyone is so close together. There are fewer people in that sort of independent blog-on-your-own range because you can get yourself onto a site easier but I won’t really assert into places I don’t know. I do know that FiveOutOfTen, which is run by Alan, really has done a good job getting more UK critics published, so good on him. A lot of this relies on assumptions I’m making so take it with a grain of salt!
These factors then play into the way in which players and developers are exposed to game criticism:
It feels like indie dev culture, like the big indie dev culture is so market focused? With the #indiepocalypse articles and the steam sales chart math, it feels more like a tech cultre than an arts culture, more interested in optimizing a killer app than making some kind of artistic ground. In that sense, games criticism, at least the kind I write doesn’t really have any place in the industry market structure. Like, I’m not reviewing your game on a big site, I probably can’t get you a lot of attention and sales, and I’m not a fan so my opinion probably can’t sway how your audience reacts. So what reason would the average developer have to care about what I’m saying? When I talk about the games of really really small game makers, it really means a lot to them, but I don’t know how true that gets the higher you go, and the more business oriented you have to be.
I guess this goes into the last point, about games criticism’s “discoverability problem.” I think the discoverability problem is just a money problem. No one has any money. Because the kind of writing doesn’t really fit into that structure, like I said, few places are really willing to pay good money for it, unless it’s put into the “features” section which has been getting worse and worse over the years.
I suggested that developers could potentially get a lot of benefit from much of the work taking place outside mainstream sites. Stewart’s own look at the use of space in Perfect Dark, for example, would almost certainly be interesting to level designers:
I guess the things I talked about in those Perfect Dark videos really would be of interest to game developers, but why they don’t bite is anyone’s guess. What I do want to assert, perhaps expectantly is that I don’t think this is the fault of critics or writers like myself. Many critics are marginalized, devalued, ignored, and then we’re told we’re not doing enough to be ‘accessible’ by people who expect me to cater and bend my work towards their wants. So I’m a bit cold to that notion. I make more money, and I’m much happier writing for audiences that are invested in games criticism and my peers, then I would be trying to spark the interest of mainstream audiences who either don’t really care about critical approaches to games or are actively hostile to it. I know that’s a bit cynical, I don’t want to imply it’s all bad. I wrote a piece for Kotaku last year that had a surprisingly good reaction from people, albeit it was clear folks mostly read through the part about sonic games and comics, and the part about how sonic is a reflection of an alienated, disenthused youth aging into a broken economy kind of went over people’s heads, but hey you take what you can get! People were nice and that’s what matters. And American Websites like VICE and Playboy seem to be taking an interest in games essayism, more than the enthusiast sites.
Brendan Keogh has similar views…
Good, intellectual games criticism is not going to emerge in the enthusiast press. That opportunity is long gone. If it ever does become sustainable, it will be in the ‘Culture’ section of mainstream publications: The New Yorker, The Guardian, New Statesman, etc. The kind of outlets that don’t have to cater to a specific consumerist audience are the outlets that can support actual good games criticism. And a lot of them already do. A lot of them don’t, though. The key difference, usually, is whether they cover games under ‘Technology’ (as a product to buy) or under ‘Culture’ (as a form to appreciate). So these are the outlets I now prefer to write for. If you look at my more recent writing for Overland or Reverse Shot it is much more ‘cultural criticism that happens to be about games’ than ‘games criticism’. That is what can be done (and is being done) about it. Really, since gamergate showed that most in the enthusiast press have no desire to actually make any sort of political stand against their core readership, I think most critics have given up on the enthusiast press as a place to find support for good game criticism. The closest we get now is outlets like Paste or Mary Sue who have committed, excellent games writers, but not for a readership of ‘gamer’ enthusiasts. Games are just something to be written about alongside the rest of popular culture.
He also commented on developer engagement:
I don’t see game criticism’s job to be a direct sort of QA feedback to developers, if you will. I think that tone of writing about games has been pretty pervasive in both popular and academic game criticism for some time, this idea that if only developers better understood this, games would be better than the imperfect things we have at the moment. It turns the medium into this Moses wandering the desert looking for the promised land kind of deal, instead of appreciating current videogames in and of themselves. Game studies, in particular, in its early years was really distracted by wanting to make videogames better. It’s not a bad goal, but it can prevent a holistic appreciation of *today’s* videogames as competent works in their own right, not just as stepping stones to some ‘better’ videogame. But yes, absolutely, as a game critic I want to enrich the ways in which videogames are considered and analysed and engaged with to foster more critical engagements with games in the future, both in their playing and their creation. But I think I achieve that best by focusing on games that already exist in their own right, not by always looking forward to the future when games will, one day, be better.
I spoke to Brendan about his recent blog post. Specifically, we discussed the idea of collective memory in games criticism:
The collective memory is terrible for a whole range of reasons. The simple ones are: games criticism burns people out no less than the games industry does; the internet is a terrible place to preserve any sort of ongoing discourse; there is very little support to make writing games criticism financially sustainable so there is a big swap over of authors every three years. Even Kieron Gillen himself isn’t around anymore. But there is also the problem that a lot of games critics (and journos) are ‘games people’ first and foremost and have very little experience of other artforms. I’m just as guilty of this myself. The crossover with games and other media is far worse than the crossover between, say, film and music or music and literature or whatever. Games people don’t have much knowledge of non-games criticism, and that’s a huge problem. This is less true, however, for all those more marginal critics who have zilch investment in mainstream games culture and are coming at this from a much more literature studies or media studies background.
But the lack of a collective memory is a real huge issue and preventing the discourse moving forward. We keep writing about how to write games criticism instead of forwarding the conversation into new places. In a lot of ways, game design suffers in the same way. In each case the problem is a high turnover and little preservation.
Zolani had a different perspective on this issue:
Although I liked Brendan’s piece, I didn’t agree with all of his assessments. I don’t think games criticism has a collective memory problem, at least any more than the general videogame culture, but there he’s referencing something specific, which was the response to Matthew Burns’ piece by, really, just a few people. That was, to me, indicative of a related but different problem, concerning how few people in the games space seem to age with grace, everyone reaches a point where they disappear or fall out of favour with the audience and newer writers come up to overturn them. It’s worrying, but not urgent to me and probably too out of our grasp to size into this email.
Developers and Critics
Creation and deep criticism are part of a system of feedback that ultimately affects how games mature over time. The more critical frameworks and lenses we can add to the voices — be they from philosophy, science, or other forms of art — the richer, smarter, funnier, and more efficient games will become.
(Lana Polansky, In Defense of Criticism: The Close Reading)
I’ve suggested in a couple of places that I think developers and critics can benefit from closer engagement. This is a difficult topic that I’d like to revisit.
Many developers I speak to are interested in criticism only as a curiosity. “It’s cool someone bothered to write about my game”, is the extent to which they’re willing to engage.
If they do go further, it’s seen as a form of technical input: Anita Sarkeesian’s work might serve to inform a writing or character design process, for example, largely providing guidelines on tired old cliches worth avoiding.
Instead, I think developers can use a critical understanding to help produce games which are, in Polansky’s terms “richer”. Again, this doesn’t mean we need a glut of emotive walking simulators, or developers like me writing critical screeds.
The overall “direction” of a game can often get lost in the development process. It is often productive to discuss what a game is “about”: an almost crass form of interpretive criticism, certainly, but one which can really clarify your intentions. At certain points in development, features often need to be abandoned and stripped away to prepare for the drive to the finish line: it’s important to retain the real heart of the game when doing this.
Understanding that there are different ways to discuss and conceptualise the gaming experience can have a significant impact on your own work. Developers who focus on narrative often could use a greater formal awareness; very mechanics-oriented designers frequently need to think about how their systems will combine with content to create an effect on the player. Criticism can help here, but only if it takes a certain approach.
I felt that advocating and championing a form of criticism which placed a closer focus on the actual content of a game, rather than on the writer’s own emotions and interpretation, might help with this. Opening up the idea that game development itself may be critical — even outside obvious touchstones like Problem Attic and The Beginner’s Guide — seemed apposite as well. Again, I was surprised that these suggestions would be controversial, especially as they echo those made elsewhere.
Here’s Brendan Keogh’s thoughts:
Ian Bogost had a notion in his Alien Phenomenology book called ‘carpentry’ which was essentially ‘criticism through making stuff’. Darius Kazemi really practices this with his various projects and twitter bots. Some games do, absolutely. Davey Wreden’s games are the obvious example. I’m personally dubious on such an approach as then those games themselves still often require writing to unpack. But for the developers producing them, the act of producing might be enlightening.
I don’t necessarily go as far as Keogh in supporting Sontag’s suspicion that merely “interpreting” a work goes as far as “revamping” it and is inherently “reactionary and stifling.” (Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation).
However, I do think that recognising and embracing ambiguity, instead of leaping into the gap it presents, often leads to a more nuanced understanding. Sontag’s “descriptive vocabulary of forms” is something with which games generally struggle: this recent talk by Jenni Goodchild expands on that. I do think we are lucky enough to have “essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it” within games, so in some areas it looks like we’re doing well. The audience for this work is always a very real concern for critics, though: Liz Ryerson writes on some of these ideas here and of course, has since left games behind.
However, as I’ve discussed, there is a huge volume of criticism out there whichalready does these things. Developers aren’t seeking it out or engaging with it, largely because they don’t have either the time or inclination.
They’re also largely hopeless at working with critics. Here’s Brendan Keogh on that topic:
Devs need to figure out what good game criticism is actually trying to achieve, and how it is different from the enthusiast press. So often I try to interview a developer about a game that’s been out for years, just to help with an essay I’m writing, and they are still speaking like we are in the pre-release hype cycle. I see devs read criticism and get really frustrated that the critic didn’t understand their intentions. The developer’s intentions are usually the least of the critic’s concerns. What the game itself achieves or fails to achieve (ie. how well the game communicates those intentions of the absent developer) is what the critic cares about. So devs, I think, need more practice in learning how to read game criticism as not an attack but a reflection. That is a much larger issue, however.
There’s a lot to work on there! However, I don’t feel that the onus is entirely on developers. A significant amount of games criticism is genuinely still inaccessible to outsiders, both on a linguistic level and in terms of approach. Better relationships between the larger outlets for games writing and the critical underground will help here: I suggest that this is the responsibility of editors and publishers rather than writers themselves. “It’s not what the readers want” is a very dangerous argument, especially when sites like RockPaperShotgun have consistently proved that innovative writing and coverage of smaller more obscure titles can generate just as much excitement (and traffic) as the traditional AAA preview circus, for example.
On the other side of the fence, it’s somewhat rare that a critic working outside the mainstream games press will reach out to a developer.
That’s why I was so happy to receive emails discussing my piece from some critics, in stark contrast to childish twitter insults from others. I strongly disagree with Zolani Stewart’s assertion that indie games are “more like a tech culture than an arts culture”: this type of development has always been about negotiating the difficult and precarious balance between those two things. Some indie developers, ourselves very much included, absolutely love taking part in discussion of our work: outside the mainstream press and events, we’ve almost never been asked.
I was disappointed to see that Davey Wreden was refusing all interviews after the release of The Beginner’s Guide, including for this article, a kind of creative mic drop. While it’s both his right and prerogative to do that, I feel it potentially sends the message that indie developers are either all prickly-artist-Fish types or aloof tech bros: many of us are neither. The incredible diversity of indie game development, from artists like Stephen Lavellethrough to the Steam chart-toppers at Red Hook Games has always been one of its major attractions: criticism can take into account the contrasts and conflicts between development ideologies.
I had two interesting conversations with Mode 7 co-founder Ian Hardingham recently. One was about our current project: we were attempting to pin down a few gameplay elements. I found it useful to range around a few different ways in to the problem: what might the player be feeling here; how does this relate thematically to other elements of the game; how does this affect the structure of gameplay overall? These are critical approaches: every developer does something similar and it seems baffling to me that there is no interest in reading around these subjects.
We also debated Omar Elaasar’s Metal Gear Solid article on our podcast. Ian, as a designer, tends to take a mechanical approach while I focus more on narrative. That led us to respond very differently to suggestions of what colonialist overtones might mean in a game and whether or not they might be significant. This seems like the kind of discussion that should be happening in every development studio: is it right to use this kind of imagery? What’s the relationship between mechanics and symbolism here?
Critics also can benefit from this. Developers will passionately support work which aligns with their own thinking: an ecosystem of indie development conversation and support exists outside mainstream spaces as well. I very much take Zolani’s point here…
Many critics are marginalized, devalued, ignored, and then we’re told we’re not doing enough to be ‘accessible’ by people who expect me to cater and bend my work towards their wants.
…but connections here can still be instigated by both sides. Having been on the receiving end of this, it’s absolutely awesome! I’ve discovered a variety of writers doing awesome work, I’ve revisited outlets I’d dismissed in the past and I found some new ways of thinking about games which will be a huge benefit to my work. I hope, also, that I might in some way promote the work of critics and perhaps take part in more conversations in the future. Developers can and should do more here: particularly those of us who are lucky enough to have any kind of public voice.
However, I write this not knowing if it will merely produce another storm of abuse. The worry is that there is someone I haven’t cited who will now be upset; something I’m not aware of; some idea I’ve put forward which is controversial; something I’ve done which is unacceptable. I flip-flopped on writing any kind of follow-up, oscillating between whether it was better to ignore negative responses or try to use them to further the discussion.
I’d like to make it completely clear once more that I do not consider myself an authority on these topics, nor am I attempting to be comprehensive: I am a developer who is interested in talking and listening more. I will make mistakes.
So, to offset that, I’d be more than happy for anyone with a different view or who has something to contribute to contact me directly. You can do that on Twitter here and I’m also delighted to have longer-form conversations on email, both privately and in a form that I can quote in public.
If you feel that this piece is wrong, misguided, unfair, or unjustified then talk to me about it directly. I might well agree with you, change my mind or find a way to put your points across in a future post.
That’s all I can do. I think that as games mature and change — as creation and discussion progress — that’s the best way to approach this.