Now Play This 2019

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan is going to Now Play This festival at Somerset House in London this April! It’s going to be shown alongside work by absolutely incredible artists including Brenda Romero, Tale of Tales, Harry Josephine Giles, and Sokpop Collective – an overwhelming thing to contemplate, so I’m trying not to think about it.

Check out the website to see the whole list of beautiful artgames and book tickets.

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Talk for LGBT+ History Month this week

I’m giving a talk this week as part of Sheffield Uni’s LGBT+ history month events. I’ll be looking at queer games in a very messy and vulnerable way, so I’m kind of hoping it’ll only be a small crowd, but if you do happen to be around and want to come along I’d love to see you there. Details below.


Lunchtime talk – Zoyander Street

‘Exploring the recent history of “queer games”‘

Thursday 28th February 2019
12.30pm – 1.30pm
Arts Tower, Level 1 Boardroom

​Zoyander Street is an artist and critic, and is currently undertaking a PhD in the department of Sociology at Lancaster University. Their PhD thesis is about how game developers working on emerging platforms have conceptualised the emotions of players. More generally, their research is aimed at the generation of sympathetic critiques of technocultures and non-dualistic queer readings of human-computer interaction.

Zoyander will talk about the recent history of independent videogames that express LGBTQ+ perspectives. The talk will explore questions about what we expect from art scenes, queer spaces, and digital media, and what happens when we don’t get what we expected.

The session will conclude with Q&A.

Coffee and cake will be provided, please feel free to bring your own lunch. All University staff and students welcome.

Book your place here 

Rotherham display of interactive portraits: transgender people in Japan

Today is the first day of a three-week display of my transgender interactive portraits installation at Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance! More information here: Interactive Portraits Show in Rotherham

I’m particularly keen to get groups in to have discussions about the work, so let me know (Zoyander at Gmail) if you have a group that would like to come see this.

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.

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.