Hampering the search for real criticism: Discourse Empress of the World

Discourse Empress of the World

Adapted from Carl Orff’s translation of the Carmina Burana

1. Oh Discourse

Oh discourse
Like the moon
You are changeable,
ever waxing,
and waning.
Hateful career,
first oppresses,
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and renown
it melts them like ice.

Blogosphere – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is in vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
To your villainy.
The algorithm is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always on duty.
So at this hour
without delay
mash that subscribe button;
since the algorithm
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

The wheel of discourse is always turning, always bringing us back to where we began. Today we find ourselves at a new high noon, as a freshly-launched videogames magazine publishes a “where is all the critical writing on games?” article. This is where we are reborn – in the frustrated wailing of sincere critics, leading to a surge in shares for thoughtful writing that had gone mostly ignored for years. New people are inspired, new writing is done, and the wheel of discourse turns on, driven forward by a fresh crop of writers.

[G]iven the inherent conservatism in the way the industry makes decisions about content, would we be making more art if customers demanded it? Probably, but that’s not the core audience for most triple-A games. Besides, very few sources are providing audiences with the tools to even recognise art when they encounter it. I’m speaking, of course, about the lack of genuine criticism in games.

I think that there was a good idea behind this article. Although on the surface it looks like a newbie games critic mouthing off about how they’re the only true critic in their field, this is actually an article by an industry person who wants to read more criticism. Someone who wants to see audiences having more educated and nuanced conversations about the medium – a remarkably productive desire to express after having borne the brunt of under-educated troll discourse earlier this year. This is a great idea, because it often feels like people in industry simply don’t care about educating their audience – persuading industry of the case for nuanced art writing is important.

Jessica Price, the writer of the article in Wireframe, is a games producer who seems to be motivated by her desire for AAA games development to operate within a larger critical community, so that it can be read by people who appreciate more nuanced work and complex messages. This desire is completely laudable, and it’s unfortunate that her collaboration with Wireframe did not lead to a more interesting excavation of the kind of writing and communities that might give a person that sense of intellectual and creative fulfillment.

Having been editing and curating fringe critical writing on games for many years now, I’m inclined to feel less irritated by the writer’s lack of knowledge, and more by the editor’s. When I’m working as an editor, my job is to understand the context in which a writer’s piece is going to circulate, and to help the writer to develop it so that it makes a meaningful contribution in that context. Writers can only know what they know – it’s up to editors to put their work in perspective and help them to grow. Unfortunately, my experience as a freelancer tells me that not many editors do this, and my experience as an editor tells me that this is totally understandable, because it’s time consuming and doesn’t really get you any recognition or reward.

The role of the critic isn’t purely that of tastemaker or judge – the critic is a guide, an educator, and an interpreter. The critic makes subtext text, traces themes, and fills in white space. Put another way, the critic helps the audience find deeper meaning in a piece of art. Or: the critic teaches the audience the rules of the games artists play so that they’re on a level ground with the artist.

I quite like Price’s description of what distinguishes criticism from reviews. I think it’s a fine way of describing what we’ve curated and archived at Critical Distance every week since 2009, precisely because we hope to make it easier for people to find. Goodness knows, Price is right when she says that most people in this field *don’t* know what criticism is. I think that’s one of the main things that holds games criticism back – not a lack of good critical writing, but an overwhelming mass of consumer reviews that call themselves criticism, making it very hard to filter through and find what you’re looking for.

This article is just such an unfortunate error. Any editor should know that it’s going to make their writer look foolish. In academic writing, you learn that if you’re really thinking, “Nobody has ever done this very special thing I’m about to do,” you still have to pretend to have an ounce of humility, so what you actually write down is, “While there has been extensive work on things closely related to what I’m about to do, scholarship tackling the thing I’m about to do has been scarce.” In academic writing, and in the first issue of a new magazine, the purpose is the same – you’re trying to identify what you bring to the table that others don’t. It’s an opportunity to tip your hat to people who are doing things that you respect, and position yourself in the landscape. What a shame for Wireframe to miss that opportunity, and instead give this impression of sophomoric naivety.

While I’m certainly frustrated that an editor of a videogames publication is apparently either unaware that critical writing is being done on games, or simply doesn’t care to acknowledge it, I don’t blame the article writer Price, or anyone whose main focus is something other than publishing writing on games, for being unaware of the field. Since I started nine years ago, finding audiences for games criticism has not gotten any easier – in fact, it might now be harder than ever. I say this after spending almost three years curating it every week for Critical Distance. So I’m going to use a series of blog posts to articulate some of the factors that make “real” games criticism relatively invisible.

See part 2: Mainstream vs. Fringe


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