Hampering the search for real criticism: the algoritualism of Youtube culture

This is the fourth post in a series about problems facing games criticism – see part one here. It was inspired by an article by games producer Jessica Price, which appears to misguidedly imply that there is no in-depth games criticism being done. While I know for certain that a great deal of quality games criticism is being made every week – it was my job at Critical Distance to curate it for almost three years – I also think that this work is becoming harder and harder to find, unless you happen to know where to look. And despite appearing misinformed about the current state of games criticism, Price’s article brings up some insightful points about what criticism could offer games culture.

Video games are a geek medium, and the hallmark of the geek is passion and deep engagement. In theory, with an audience primed to devour and pore over every detail, the back-and-forth conversation we have through games should be richer than other media. It’s not.

Price hits on something about games culture here that I find deeply tragic. Yes, geek culture is primed to “pore over every detail”, but this can produce a wood-for-the-trees situation. People make massive amounts of content analysing games, but not everyone connects their experiences in a game to some wider issue, or synthesizes it all into a coherent, concise message. A lot of people are just collecting ludonarrative trinkets in large quantity, and showing off their discoveries like a sort of new media cabinet of curiosities. It used to be that people learned to be concise by writing – either because you believed that nobody would read a blog post over 3000 words, or because you were writing for an editor who helped you to figure out the actual point of what you were saying. These factors are weakening or vanishing for a few reasons: in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on video.

Video seems to get a much larger audience than writing, though my perception of this has admittedly been skewed by figures from Facebook that later turned out to have been falsified. It’s still a notion that makes intuitive sense though – after all, you can eat your dinner and watch a video, but reading requires constant use of your eyes, which makes it a bit difficult to wield a fork. With the sort-of demise of RSS and Twitter, Youtube has looked like the best place to build an audience – a stressful thing to contemplate if you’re someone whose identity makes you more vulnerable to abuse in Youtube’s rabid comments sections.

I have intense feelings about video as a medium for critical writing. My favourite movies are probably Adam Curtis films. To me, arguments have shapes to them, and it’s thrilling to see that shape sketched out using three different mediums at the same time – visuals, music, and narration. I’ve done a bit of video work, and had a taste of how bloody difficult it is to do it well, and how satisfying it is when once in a while you manage edit together a few seconds that actually communicate elegantly.* I don’t think video essays are killing good writing, or that they’re intrinsically bad in any way. But after just a few months at Critical Distance, I was utterly exhausted by them, and I never quite figured out what was the best way to deal with them amid the 300-500 other pieces I had to filter through every week: you can’t skim-read a video, and most Youtubers don’t upload their scripts (Heather Alexandra is a great exception to this), even though most games criticism is heavily reliant on narration, and treats visuals and music as necessary filler, rather than part of the medium of expression. Most of the video essays I was sent left me feeling like I was being forced to sit and do nothing while someone talked at me.

This is potentially a disastrous direction for games criticism to take. Imagine asking where all the “real games criticism” is, and being directed to a one-note feature-length movie where some unseen dude just talks endlessly in a monotone, “poring over every detail” about the level design in Far Cry 4 or whatever, with no clear thesis or conclusion. This overwhelmingly long video is on a website that is a hotbed of fascist recruitment, where the autoplaying next video suggested by Google is some alt-right windbag complaining about videogame feminists. It’s not encouraging. It’s not welcoming. It’s not what anybody imagines when they go looking for critical writing. But that’s where criticism has been steadily migrating since Twitter became less appealing.

There’s not much intrinsic to the medium of video that lends itself to directionless rambling. Most video essays about games are scripted first and then read into a microphone, so this isn’t exactly a case of a diarist talking to a camera unedited for a very long time. Remember the early years of Youtube, when it was believed that nobody would watch an internet video for longer than 5 minutes at a time? It’s just a memory now. By the end of my time at Critical Distance, I felt lucky if I was sent a video essay about games that was less than half an hour long. People who make content for Youtube say that the reason for this is a widespread belief about Google’s algorithm.

Youtubers often seem extremely algorithm-focused, in a way that borders on a kind of quasi-religious folk belief system. One tenet of this belief system is that shorter videos are deprioritised, whereas longer videos are given more prominence in people’s feeds. This is a shame, because it is extremely difficult to make a video that is both very long and high in quality – editing is time-consuming, and writing usually loses focus without a time constraint. There are exceptions to this: some videos by hbomberguy, who seems to be absurdly good at editing, make excellent use of their extended play time to submerge you in a particular game, make an abstract point about game design, and leave you feeling a tiny bit transformed. That said, looking at his channel now, many of my favourites are shorter than I remember: his excellent analysis of Undertale is only 14 minutes long, but it’s so rich that it feels much bigger. In general, a lot of good criticism videos only use 15 minutes or less to make a strong, coherent argument (most videos by Mark Brown, Chris Franklin, and Hamish Black are about this size) and thereby do what Price is looking for:

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.

Hbomb is also one of very few games criticism video creators who use the visual aspects of their medium to convey a way of seeing games – as other examples, I like to read Other Places as succinct, poignant, visual essays, and Satchell Drakes is extremely good at using real-world visuals to express a feeling that the video is exploring in a game. But a lot of video essayist games critics make little to no use of visuals or music to express their points. They read an essay they have written in advance, while gameplay footage is shown that may or may not be illustrative of what’s being read out. This easily goes on for an hour or longer sometimes.

When I’ve asked people how they can stand to watch a sprawling lecture for such a long period of time, people tell me that they don’t – they put these videos on in the background while they do something else. This kind of video may reportedly please the algorithm, but the audience isn’t paying attention. In this situation, the critic isn’t acting as an educator or guide – they’re just keeping their audience company for a while. That’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s not necessarily going to help somebody who is looking for games criticism for the first time.

This algoritualism that drives lower-quality, higher-quantity content production on Youtube is also why it’s very hard to find in-depth discussion of niche indie games, which limits the potential for insightful analyses: creators are in a competitive environment, and don’t want to keep their audience too limited. Chris Franklin shared some useful numbers on this today – this tweet was in the context of a thread about why he’s trying to find creative solutions to the problems facing anyone trying to cover indie games:

 

 

As well as being an unsupportive environment for indie games, Youtube games criticism suffers from poor representation of marginalised identities. It is also extremely cis-male-dominated, no doubt largely because it is a hostile space for women. Some exceptions to this include Alexandra Orlando, who does great, succinct work looking at games in a broader cultural context, and Red Angel, whose Late Night Ponderings provide valuable readings of niche indie games.

 

I understand why critics have turned to Youtube. It’s where people who like videogames already go to watch content related to their interests, and it’s noble to try and create an alternative to the alt-right rabbit hole for those people, many of whom are young and impressionable. It’s also sensible to go where you can get the most views. And the main alternative, Vimeo, explicitly had a no-videogames policy until just a couple of years ago. But when it comes to building the kind of community that Price calls for, Youtube is probably not that great of a fit for games critics – the results when you search “games criticism” on the site are mostly nonsense, so how are newcomers supposed to find the better work happening there?

People complain endlessly about the algorithm, but it is up to creators to decide how far they are going to cater to folk mythology about the whims of a secret AI. People passively rely on the recommendation algorithm to link their viewers to other related creators, even while recognising that the algorithm is making shorter, niche work invisible, and instead promoting far-right abusers who have targeted their peers for harassment. Meanwhile, there are under-utilised features on Youtube that could lend themselves to positive community-building in this space. This regularly-updated playlist of videos about art games is a good example of how the platform could be used for something other than harbouring toxic in-groups.

I often wonder what it would have been like if games criticism had found a home on platforms other than Youtube and Twitter. Vimeo is home to a lot of the more reflective, cinematic video essays about film, and it isn’t cluttered with the bizarre ramblings of angry young men. Imagine if the wider context in which games critics operated when it came to video was this relatively peaceful, niche community of people who make subtle arguments about cinematography?

Another problem with Youtube games criticism is a somewhat surprising lack of citation or linking to other voices. I’ll discuss this in the next post, which covers another problem that has emerged around Youtube but that also affects criticism in general – the focus on promoting individual personalities, which has been smothering opportunities to build creative communities.

Read part five


* Though I’ve never done the Youtuber thing, and I’m by no means a skilled video maker, I’m not a total stranger to it: I was able to participate in a documentary film course for trans people a couple of years ago, and as part of that I wrote and presented a short film about the role videogames play in trans people’s self-discovery, which got shown at a bunch of festivals; my video essay about single-point perspective was included in BFI Sight and Sound’s list of the best video essays of 2017; and I’m still trying to finish off a series of short films about people who collect and archive games.

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4 thoughts on “Hampering the search for real criticism: the algoritualism of Youtube culture

  1. Thank you for this! In addition to an interesting read, you’ve given me a number of new channels to follow. I was already on board with GMTK but the others are excellent!

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