Hampering the search for real criticism: Personality-based content marketing

This is the fifth post in a series about why critical writing about games is hard to find – see part one here. It was inspired by an article by games producer Jessica Price, which seems on the surface to focus on a flimsy claim that there isn’t enough “real” critical writing being done – but which I think, given a more engaged editorial approach, had the potential to say something much more interesting. I could be wrong, but as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the intent of Price’s article is to argue that real criticism would foster an educated community of creators and audiences, within which it would be easier for art to thrive.

[W]ould 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.

Price is not wrong for identifying a problem here. It’s really hard to find audiences for art games, a problem that Nathalie Lawhead has been describing in great detail. My standpoint is that the problem is not a lack of “genuine criticism”, of which there is in fact plenty; the problem is a lack of ways to find that criticism, and an increasingly privatised and hierarchical online social context.

I wrote in an earlier post about how for a brief period of a few years, generating a conversation on social media through your writing was one of the main ways of attracting an audience. I also wrote about the ways that blogs used to foster connections between writers through comments and trackbacks. Not linking to source articles was considered very rude. Now it’s becoming commonplace, as criticism moves to Youtube and to mainstream outlets.

Many of the more popular video essayists on games don’t link to sources, and they don’t cross-promote likeminded creators. A while ago, I asked a major games criticism Youtuber why they won’t link to their sources or provide references for their videos, which rely heavily on the work of other critics – they told me that pointing people to the source makes people go off-topic in their discussion in the comments. What that tells me is that when it comes to video, the discussion happens in a closed space in the creator’s back yard. Unlike the old days of blogging, people aren’t going to click through to something and get involved in a new discussion on the other page – they want to stay in the community of Youtuber fans, and demonstrate their knowledge of the video creator’s source material to other fans – be it on the Youtube page itself, or in the Discord.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the games criticism Discords I’ve had access to so far are largely fan clubs for individual creators. In at least one of them, a lot of the active members are vulnerable minors, forcing the moderators to act essentially as unpaid youth workers to teens who are freaking out and lashing out, leading to a fraught situation that I can’t help but see as inevitably leading to abuse at some point, despite the good intentions of everyone involved – you know, standard internet stuff. These are not peer communities for writers and video makers to share thoughts and elevate each other’s work.

Does a positive peer-critique Discord exist somewhere? Probably, but the nature of Discords is that they are private, and operate best when they are small. Newcomers to games criticism are not likely to find them. I’m far from a newcomer, and I haven’t found one. Also, since Discord communication is synchronous, any community on the platform seems to exact quite a high price in terms of time and attention investment. I’ve never figured out how to be on a Discord and get writing done at the same time.

The unequal social dynamics of Discords are not inevitable, but it’s hard to imagine how a community would stay at least somewhat safe without keeping it closed, private, and hierarchical. When I log in to a Discord, I immediately see on the right a list of members grouped into hierarchical categories – the content creator around whom the community operates is often at the top, then other creators, who they perhaps consider their peers, are underneath, then the moderators, then maybe the paying patrons, and then everybody else. The content creators don’t often contribute to discussion in public areas of the Discord, except to share news and ask for feedback about possible topics for future videos. The discussion is mostly happening between people who enjoy consuming content created by the host, rather than people who are trying to make similar content and want to share ideas.

None of this is to say that people are doing something wrong by not making themselves emotionally available to their fans. I really don’t know what someone who makes Youtube videos can do to avoid fan culture. I imagine it is one of the costs of doing business as a critic in a context where audience sizes follow a power-law curve – most people don’t have much of an audience, and a small number have a large audience that now projects all kinds of psychological insecurities onto them. While a small audience won’t pay your bills, I imagine that for critics, serving a very large audience is unsustainable in a different way – you are no longer responding to interesting works of art, but to the demands of people who have put you at the centre of their online social lives. You’re not just creating video essays; you’re running a Discord server, streaming games at least a few nights a week on Twitch, and running a Patreon. How many people in that situation have time to read and respond to other people’s criticism? How many become increasingly isolated or overworked?

In general, I think that the personality-led dynamic is one of the biggest barriers to the kind of critical community that I see hinted at in Price’s article. It happens in text as well as video – or rather, mainstream games writing has had to adapt, out of a recognition that in order to sustain a large enough audience to stay afloat, you have to present a personality-based brand that is supported by video. This is the Giantbomb-Waypoint model – and if that’s your model, it perhaps becomes a little bit harder to work actively in dialogue with other writers. I wonder if it also affects how far you are able to support freelancers, if most of them are basically just randos as far as the audience is concerned.

If you’re an up-and-coming content creator on the internet today, you’re encouraged to think of your public personality as the thing that will sell your writing. You’re not just trying to be a critic – you’re trying to be an influencer. And that means that when someone asks “where is all the good criticism”, they are less and less likely to be directed to a community of peers, and more likely to be directed to a handful of minor internet celebrities, many of whom are rapidly burning out.

The alternative is to just have a day job, and then write on your blog or make zines – and this represents a dizzyingly large number of interesting games critics, who don’t have a large audience and who are writing to help themselves and their friends to develop ideas. For all the complaining I’ve done in this series of posts, it’s a model that still operates, and it still basically works, to the limited extent that it has ever worked. There’s no reason to think that “real” criticism needs a large audience in order to be relevant or successful. But that kind of niche critical writing isn’t easily found by someone asking “where is all the good writing about games?” So this kind of work is going to remain cyclical for the foreseeable future.

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