Hampering the search for real criticism: Mainstream vs. fringe

See part one of this series

This is the second part in a series of articles about why we keep getting articles asking “why is there no real critical writing on games?” – despite there being a large quantity of good critical writing produced every week, and a project dedicated to making sure it doesn’t get lost. This series is partly in response to the most recent such article, written by games producer Jessica Price – but rather than criticising the article, which is relatively insightful, my goal here is to explore the reasons why articles like this continue to be written.

In what I think might have been an edit following some Twitter backlash, Price quickly acknowledges in parentheses that “brilliant game critics” do exist, writing for niche outlets. More thorough guidance by the editor could have ensured that some of them get named here, but by this point the article is what it is, and there isn’t scope to put in a survey of the lay of the land. It’s a shame, because this would have given readers a chance to delve deeper into the kind of work for which she makes such a compelling case, from the perspective of a game producer.

[M]ost of the entries on major game review sites […] tend to focus on specifying what content is in the game and whether it’s fun. In an economic sense, such reviews certainly serve consumers, but they’re not exactly serving those who consume media. (That’s not to say that no one’s doing real criticism: there are plenty of brilliant game critics – mostly writing for sites outside the mainstream.)

This distinction between the “mainstream” and the “brilliant” is particularly interesting in the context in which this article was published. Wireframe is a new videogames magazine sponsored by Raspberry Pi, a hardware platform that is specifically designed for lo-fi, creative projects. These kinds of platforms are behind some of the most exciting work happening in the art scenes that overlap with the games industry. So it’s surprising to see Price’s article, and the magazine as a whole, focus so much on AAA games and mainstream outlets.

Although Price makes a number of comparisons to other media forms, stating that the mainstream of other mediums is more critically engaged, my own experience is that the mainstream of any medium is typically on well-trodden ground, not fertile terrain for critical work that explores what Price calls “the rules of the games artists play”. This goes for film, for novels, for videogames and for critical writing about them. A few years ago I argued, in an article for excellent niche games criticism publication ZEAL, that media criticism has only ever briefly flourished alongside commercial interests – it’s almost always hard to find audiences and make a living doing this, and most writers doing “real” criticism have made a living doing something else.

Games criticism doesn’t pay many people’s bills, and it certainly doesn’t pay the bills if you take your focus away from the mainstream for too long. Audiences typically want writing that explores and embellishes their experiences as players, and that means covering games that lots of people are playing – once in a while, pieces that do this can be very insightful and innovative (I think Kirk Hamilton is good at finding weird, off-kilter ways of exploring player experience that appeal to Kotaku’s mainstream audience), but it’s easier to just tell someone why they’re going to enjoy consuming something. Mainstream audiences want to read about games they have heard of, and they don’t want to feel excluded by the writer’s tone or approach. Writing about art scenes connected with games, and writing about it in a way that makes use of what Dia Lacina recently referred to on Twitter as a “real critical framework”, is a very hard sell to mainstream outlets.

So even at Critical Distance, where we curate and archive the writing that is pushing the conversation forward and helping to do what Price calls for – “guide, educate, and interpret” – AAA releases that make some nod towards intelligent storytelling still dominate our roundups, because that’s where writers’ energy is being focused. Articles about critically-engaging indie games often don’t go into much depth; just making the case that a weird art game is worth playing usually feels like enough educational medicine for one day. Really good criticism thrives, I think, where there is space for in-depth writing on games made with a clear artistic intent (as one example, Lana Polansky has been doing this for basically forever). As Price recognises, you can do this on sites that are outside the mainstream, that pay pocket money or not at all – it is very difficult to do it on a site that sustains its writers, or that is easy for newcomers to find.

So while it’s frustrating, as someone who cares about critical writing on games, to frequently read articles claiming that it simply isn’t being done (or that it isn’t being done enough to the writer’s satisfaction), it’s understandable that this keeps happening. Critically-interesting stuff happens outside of the mainstream, and anything outside of the mainstream is going to be hard to find. I like to think that Critical Distance goes some way towards remedying that problem, but we suffer from the same visibility problem as any niche, critical publication.

And here’s the thing about sites outside the mainstream – it’s really, really hard to keep them going for long enough to make a name for yourself with a large enough audience. My own publication has been in an unplanned hiatus for a long time now, because it is extremely difficult to keep this kind of work high priority when you’re also working to pay the bills, and doing the creative work and research that allow you to actually develop that critical insight to a higher level. I think this is why outlets like Wireframe focus on AAA games despite what looks from the outside like a lot of potential to do something more interesting, and it’s why outlets like Capsule Crit and Deorbital need support.

See part 3: Two platform deaths

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