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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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.

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.

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

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;
obscurity,
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,
shadowed
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

Mozilla Festival

My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.

The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery (https://foundation.mozilla.org/opportunity/artists-open-web) and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.

They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.

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You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/opportunity/artists-open-web/

 

Icon Magazine article on Videogames architecture

I wrote the cover article for this month’s issue of Icon magazine! Huge thanks to Priya Kanchandani for reaching out with this opportunity.

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The article is an overview of spatial narrative, with a particular focus on titles that have been included in the V&A’s big videogames exhibition, such as Journey, Kentucky Route Zero, and The Last of Us. It’s a good time for “games as architecture” readings, with Heterotopias zine having provided an attractive home for architecturally-inclined games criticism, and architects such as my friend Claris Cyarron doing good work in the field. I felt quite gratified bringing that kind of approach to a magazine with a strong grounding in architecture, that wouldn’t normally cover videogames.

I mention Henry Jenkins “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in this article – this is a foundation text that you always want to have on your Games Studies conference bingo card, but I still wish I was hearing more games critics talk about “narrative architecture”, and a bit less of the “ludonarrative” chatter, which often amounts to a petty game of “spot the dissonance”. I don’t know if this imbalance comes down to videogames exceptionalism (“we need our own word, for that special thing that only happens in our medium”) or whether it’s about people feeling intimidated by architecture’s status as this ancient art that goes back to the dawn of civilisation, and not wanting to be in dialogue with that institutionalised behemoth.

Another piece that I mention in this article, which I will never shut up about for as long as I live, is Samantha Allen’s article on the Borderhouse Blog back in 2013, which discussed the design of game spaces and player-characters’ movement across them in terms of gendered constraints on the spatial possibilities of bodies in society. My affection for this article is only strengthened by the fact that you can’t even google it anymore, because the Borderhouse Blog is gone – you have to find the link in the Wayback Machine. Talk about the world having no space for you – marginalised writing on games has to fight just to exist on the internet. As I indicated in a Critical Distance post, this article is enriched even further by reading it in dialogue with another piece by Henry Jenkins, entitled “Complete freedom of movement“.

Claris Cyarron’s GDC talk on architecture is also well worth checking out. Claris is one of the world’s top experts on narrative architecture in practice: she’s formally trained in architecture, and has worked with a lot of game developers over the past few years to bring this narrative design approach to their projects.

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You can get this issue of Icon through the Pocketmags app here: https://pocketmags.com/icon-magazine

Or subscribe to the physical magazine here: https://www.iconeye.com/magazine

And please keep an eye out for it in your local bookshops or art museum shops – please send me photos if you see it somewhere!