Hampering the search for real criticism: Two platform deaths

See part one of this series

This is the third part in a series of articles about barriers to critical writing on games. It is partly in response to an article written by games producer Jessica Price.

There is, I think, a historical reason why we’re still seeing articles like Price’s on a regular basis that ask “where is all the good writing on games?” Not only is critical writing hard to access, but platform changes happen so quickly that it’s hard to even keep up with the most relevant methods of finding things. Solutions to the discoverability problem quickly become outdated. And the newest platforms hosting the critical discussion might actually be increasing the barrier to entry.

The following is just my read on what I’ve seen happen around me. I’d hesitate to even call it a personal history without doing more research. I bet there’s proper evidence out there that has been examined by someone already, that will show all the ways in which I have the story wrong. I’m only going to cover videogames criticism in online communities here: for a history of more general media criticism pre-internet, see this article I wrote for ZEAL.

Games criticism was until recently focused on blogging – and when we talk about “sites outside the mainstream” we’re still basically talking about blogs (the biggest exceptions to this are PDF zines like Heterotopias.) Blogging used to be at the centre of the discussion, but in the past few years, it has become more diffuse, as attention has been diverted to private platforms.

My early memories of the internet are about little websites on Geocities and Angelfire that were interlinked to like-minded folks’ websites using “webrings”; this was followed by diaries on Livejournal, where people would get into very intense arguments in comments and/or build supportive communities based on productive dialogue. When I was an undergrad, journalling had mainly shifted to blogs, and I had an RSS reader that I would consult at least once a day to keep up on what everyone else was writing. The stuff I wrote on my blog went into an RSS feed that was being read by other people, and they’d publish their own RSS feeds, and we’d write more or less in response to one another. Often you’d comment directly on someone’s post, but even if you only linked to their post in yours, your post would often still be automatically linked as if it were a comment, using a “trackback” or “pingback” system. This way we could get into productive discussions or vicious rows with one another while still having the space to develop our own ideas in full, and build a sense of a web of people who all had interests in the same things and all wrote in-depth stuff about them.

At this point, search engines were a major discovery path for audiences, so as a blogger on any topic you learned some rudimentary search engine optimisation tricks – you made sure your headings were relevant, and you made sure that your posts linked to other posts you’d made in the past. Lots of bloggers would also guest blog on someone else’s site to try and increase their chances of having their work found by wider audiences. So an internet rabbit hole could quickly direct you to a whole online community interested in a niche topic. Critical Distance came about to serve this sort of context.

Proper social media, the kind of thing that I associate with Web 2.0, led to an increasing focus on sharing our thoughts on other people’s platforms, instead of on our own sites. With this shift to a sort of rentier relationship to publishing platforms, people have became increasingly concerned with the algorithms that determine how content is shown to others. This changed blogging, but it didn’t end it – it just meant that everything you wrote on your blog was going to be shared in the form of a title and a lead image, so you had to come up with a title that would attract people. You’d often discuss the content of the post on the platform where people were finding it, rather than in the comments on your own site. Before too long, many of us fell into the habit of just writing long threads on social platforms directly, rather than composing blog posts. This platform was usually Twitter – for whatever reason, Tumblr never became a significant hub for games criticism, and this may have been key to some of the particular dynamics of how games criticism proliferates as compared to criticism of other media. Twitter is far less searchable, and doesn’t really provide a stable home for medium-length pieces of writing.

Discussions on Twitter attracted readers because they were in a public space, and using Twitter made it easier to discover that a particular conversation was happening, compared to relying on search results. Nevertheless, people still wrote articles claiming that games criticism wasn’t going on; to be fair, discovering these conversations depended heavily on being connected to the right people, and a Google search might no longer be a useful way of finding the most relevant critical discussion.

Although none of this is truly consigned to the past, both of these ways of distributing content have suffered some small kind of platform death.

RSS hasn’t been a major thing since Google Reader died – I remember that when they shut it down, I was already getting most of my content through Twitter anyway, and I didn’t really mind. Now I’m using RSS again, but I’m keenly aware that it’s not the main way that other people stay up to date, and it changes the way I imagine my audience.

Twitter, which has never been good for discourse, has been a drier place since 2014 – far fewer people are on Twitter to make friends or have interesting conversations these days, because nobody who was involved in games in 2014 feels safe there. Twitter always had a mean and sarcastic atmosphere, as did the comments sections on blogs, but now it’s also a place where you might end up attracting the attention of someone who wants to sent a SWAT team to your house.

The conversations that used to happen on Twitter are now happening in private spaces, like Discords and Slacks. This should be a positive move, since it increases safety and democratises online spaces in the sense that groups can self-govern more easily. But I think it has led to an increasingly opaque and balkanised atmosphere for online communities like games criticism. It is extremely difficult to learn which Discords to join as a newcomer, so the discussion is harder to access.

Periodically, I go through a phase of trying to figure out where the good Discords and Slacks are. I haven’t yet found the one that’s right for me. And I think a big part of that is because this private form of organising often ends up being intertwined with unequal fan-celebrity relationships. You join the Discord of someone whose games criticism Youtube videos you like, and find yourself surrounded by other people who like that person’s videos – the person you were actually drawn to have a dialogue with is mostly not there. These aren’t peer creator communities, and it’s very difficult to work out the etiquette of sharing your own content in these spaces. It’s hard to imagine how someone new to games criticism would use these spaces to get a bigger picture of what is going on in the space.

Let me be clear: the internet was garbage at every point in this history, and I’m not trying to portray some prelapsarian state when it was all easy and fun. Though I do sometimes like to imagine that a mass migration to Neocities would solve everything.

Instead, we’re seeing a migration to YouTube – that will be the topic of my next post in this series.

See part four.

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