Sunday, August 21, 2011

Videogame Criticism, Videogame Journalism, Journalism about Videogames, Videogame Criticism: More a Rant than a Manifesto

So Freeplay is over now. Just as last year’s festival, it was a vibrant and energy-filled few days of great talks, great drinks, and great people. The games ‘industry’ might be in the ashes stage of its phoenix-like life cycle, but the community is as strong and as full of ideas as it ever was.  Just like last year, I am now super excited about the developers, academics, writers, and players in this country and the kinds of things they are able to achieve when given (or, as is most often the case, when they forcibly take) the opportunity.

Yet, despite this, a couple of panels of today, Sunday, the final day of the festival, raised quite a few issues in regards to videogame journalism and videogame criticism. Firstly, in a discussion about supporting and marketing and financing indie projects, I was surprised to sense a kind of underlying tone where it seemed to be implied that the mainstream gaming press doesn’t care about indie games and that they only report on the next Modern Warfare or round of hats for Team Fortress 2. Certainly, go to any major gaming news website and this will be what you predominately see, but only because that is predominately what the gaming websites get sent. If you, as an indie, were to send the editor of a mainstream gaming news site some press pack about your indie title, chances are they will run with it if it is interesting. Game journalists are just as desperate and keen and passionate about new gaming experiences as their readers and players generally are. If you make it, they won’t come. But if you make it and you give it to them, they will almost certainly talk about it.

So this is my first point and it is a lot tidier and self contained than the rest of this inevitable rant will be. The second final panel of the day was called “The Words We Use” and, essentially, was about videogame criticism and journalism. I was pretty excited there was a panel talking about criticism at a primarily developer-focused event. More so, there were actual journalists and critics on the panel. Great! On the panel was Andrew McMillen (a great journalist of many hats), Alison Croggon (a theater critic), Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame), and Drew Taylor, formerly a THQ PR peep and a videogame culture guy who started the magazine JumpButton.

So two things upfront. Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for each of the individual panelists and their work. Secondly, the panel was the most infuriating thing I have ever witnessed.

My hands were tremblings and my heart was beating erratically every sentence that was said. I tweeted so much I lost 30% of the battery of my phone (but gained about fifty new followers, so hi!).

I don’t want to write here a rundown of the entire presentation, or to pick apart specific things specific people said. I also don’t want to talk about the very problematic gender issues that were brought up (very, very, poorly) by the panel’s chair (who, bafflingly, I don’t believe was a journalist, a critic, or a person who has read anything written about games for the past decade or two). Neither do I want to attack any of the individual panelists. As I said, I highly respect the work of all of them. I can’t stress that enough.

Rather, I want to focus on what most infuriated me about the panel. What ultimately caused the argument and its tone to be so, well, dumb, was due to what I think are much vaster issues in and around videogame writing, and the things that were said at this panel hit it home pretty hard that these things are really quite serious problems for those of us who care about videogame writing. So I think it is more constructive to talk about these problems than to throw harpoons at the speakers themselves. The fact they seem so oblivious to these following things should be a wake-up call to us that we need to do something about these problems. These problems, in list form are:

1. The conflation of videogame journalism, videogame criticism, and journalism about videogames into one interchangeable term.

2. The erroneous idea that videogame journalists should give a shit about developers.

3. The presumption that videogame criticism is ‘too intellectual’ and pretentious and doesn’t actually matter to ‘general players’.

4. The possibility that videogame criticism is, actually, perhaps too pretentious.

So let me hit on these one by one. Themes and arguments will probably overlaps and be out of whack but hear me out and let us see where this goes.

1. The Conflation of Terms

So firstly, the conflation of videogame journalism, videogame criticism, and journalism about videogames. In the panel, these different-but-related things were often used as interchangeable terms for the same thing—namely big, mainstream gaming news sites that just repeat the press releases given to them by a publisher, as though that thin sliver of a fraction is all the writing about videogames that is out there. This could not be further from the truth. These are, in fact, three completely different things. There are gaming news sites whose primary purpose is to tell the consumers of games what games are coming out, when they will be out, and what they will be like. This is, for my purpose, videogame journalism. It is an enthusiast press written for an audience that simply wants to know what is coming out. That such a press might copy press releases word for word is not a problem because it is not attempting to be a critical engagement. It is just telling people who want to know what is coming out, what is coming out.

But that does not mean we can not have great journalism about videogames. The most recent exemplar of this is Andrew McMillen’s “Why Did L.A Noire Take Seven Years To Make?”. Another superb example would be Tracey Lien’s look at “The Rise and Fall of Red Ant”. Yet another would be Leigh Alexander's "No Female Heroes at Activision?" These pieces are great, investigative pieces of journalism written about videogames and the videogame industry. Often (but not always) these pieces are written by the same people who write what I am calling above ‘videogame journalism’ simply because, well, they are journalists who write about videogames. Often, too, they are on the same websites, as the same readership will be interested in it. But they are not the same thing and they are not comparable. Just because one is super investigative and deep and explores things others would want hidden and the other is copy-pasting a press statement, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. They are serving different purposes.

And then there is videogame criticism which is yet another entirely different (though closely related) thing. Those three journalism articles linked in the previous paragraph? Not criticism. I won’t dare try to define here what criticism ‘is’ but, broadly, it is the stuff out there on other blogs. On this blog. Linked to on Critical Distance and written by Tom Bissell in Extra Lives or on Grantland and spoken by Yahtzee in Zero Punctuation and written by Kirk Hamilton at Kill Screen and the list goes on. But it is more than that. It is the Red vs Blue machinima movies. It is every Livejournal about The Sims. Criticism, broadly, is not about what a videogame will be or even what a videogame is. It is about an experience. Generally, that is the experience of playing a game, not of developing a game, as most criticism is (and should be) about playing the videogame and the individual, subjective experience of playing that videogame and what you, personally, felt from that. This doesn't mean a designer cannot write about their own experience of playing that game as a designer (more on that below). If nothing in this paragraph sounds like anything you have ever engaged with, go read “Bow Nigga” and come back here. Seriously. Read it now. The point is criticism isn't about 'story' and it isn't about mechanics; it is about experience.

Games criticism is not about how good or bad a game is but about the experience you had interacting with that game. You might scoff and say “But what is the point? Does it help me design a better videogame? Does it tell me if I should buy this game?” No. Well, it might, but it doesn’t have to. Rather, criticism is about what you experience when you play a videogame. There was a talk the previous day about archiving videogames and hardware, and it bothered me that there was no talk about archiving criticism because that is how we archive how a game was experienced. That Moment in Bioshock or That Moment in Portal matter because of the lived experience of playing that moment and the 20-odd hours of moments beforehand. This is why videogames struggle to permeate broader culture: because if you don’t play that game for 20 hours, you don’t ‘get’ why it was significant. Criticism bridges this gap. Putting a controller into someone’s hand who has never played Bioshock before and making them play the ‘Would You Kindly’ scene will have no impact on them whatsoever other than reinforce ideas of how violent videogames are. Make that same person read any great piece of criticism about that scene and why it was so powerful, and they will get it.

If you want videogames to ‘matter’ to the rest of culture and society, then you need good videogame criticism.

So, again, this criticism is often written by the same people writing the above journalisms. But, again, it is fulfilling a different purpose. I have much, much, much more to say about the significance and proliferation of criticism that already exists but I guess I will get to that. But for now, the three things are not the same. They are closely related; they overlap; but they serve a different purpose and are written in different ways. You can not measure them all with the same yardstick, as this panel was trying to do.

2. The Erroneous Idea

One panel member made the observation about how, when he was in PR for a game publisher, it was so frustrating to see a game get a bad review (a 5!) even though they had told the reviewer that the game was still buggy. This turned into a further rant (partially continued on Twitter) about the ability for a bad review to close studios so, ultimately, reviewers and journalists should be careful about writing bad things about games.

No. They should not.

The videogame journalist is writing for the consumer. If they were to not warn them not to buy a shit product, then they would not be doing their jobs properly. When I write a review, I don’t care if it could mean the difference between you, as a developer, still having a job or not. I care if the game, if my experience of the game (because a review is at least as much criticism as it is consumer advice) is not decent. If it isn’t, I would be a poor writer if I did not tell my readers that.

However! If I was writing an investigative journalism piece into the many, many issues with the industry (as many of the best pieces often are, as the above examples) then, clearly, the developer and the developer’s concerns are mine. But when I write a review, when any reviewer worth her salt writes critically about a game, be it as consumer advice or not, the developer’s career should be the last thing on their mind.

3. The Presumption of Pretentiousness 

So now I am back to ranting about criticism in what perhaps infuriated me more about the panel than any other moment (except, perhaps, the one sentence within which the chair somehow managed to fit a dick joke, a bukkake joke, and a question about gender equality). On the panel was Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation fame. I want to stress that I love Zero Punctuation. It is crude, yes, but it is funny and consistent and self-effacing and, underneath it all, often hits very close to home about what does and doesn’t work in a game, albeit in very exaggerated terms. Now, Yahtzee was kind of held up on the panel as The Critic while the others were Journalists. Someone (again I think it was the chair) made the observation (if one could call it that) that videogame criticism goes hand-in-hand with humour, non-seriousness, and phallic jokes. Someone else said videogame criticism often tries too hard to be ‘intellectual’ and is only written for a small ‘niche’ of readers.

You are fucking kidding me.

So game conferences generally and Freeplay specifically seem to always be about how videogames are really something worth caring about. They mean something to us, they are art, they matter, they are cultural objects and we need them to seep into broader culture so that the significant, meaningful, artistic contributions that all games and play can make to society can indeed be made. That is the general kind of vibe. Videogames matter and we must move beyond the stereotypes.

In which case, why the hell should our game criticism pander and dwell on the same damn stereotypes? ‘Too intellectual’?! No. Videogames are smart, compelling, meaningful things and the intellectual writing about them is exactly the writing that portrays this fact to a broader culture. You want videogames to matter and be respected as intellectual? Then you fucking well need some intellectual criticism of your games.

And guess what? It is not a small ‘niche’ of readers and writers. There is a whole internet, maybe a whole two internets of thoughtful intelligent games writing. I’m not just talking about its formalised institutions like Kill Screen and the blogs often seen on Critical Distance (but they are a huge part of it and not even they were acknowledged by this panel), but every Dwarf Fortress story illustrated for a forum post. Ever Sim who has its own LiveJournal. There is so much intelligent criticism about what games are, what games mean, and why games matter and to not even mention that at a panel about videogame writing is a huge disservice to everyone associated to the culture and industry of videogame design and play.

And it is not just some anti-developer style of writing, either. Developers, programmers, coders, marketers, everyone has a crucial, unique perspective to bring to videogame criticism. Nels Anderson and Matthew Gallant are two superb examples that come to mind with great blogs full of criticism from a design perspective and well worth the read even if you never want to design a game yourself. Similarly, the criticism about playing games is interesting even if you never want to play a game yourself. I can’t stress this point enough: good criticism is where videogames stop being “lol videogames” and become accepted culture.

But what it all comes down to is that the word ‘intellectual’ should never be said as a negative point of any kind of creative process. Ever. If games are intellectual (which they are), then they deserve intellectual criticism.

4. The Possibility That Pretentiousness Actually Exists

So that was my high horse. Hopefully it inspires you enough to go start your own criticism blog. Because in videogames, everyone should be a critic. Everyone should be writing about their experiences and talking about their experiences and sharing their experiences. But, in reality, a lot of people don’t.

A panel on videogame criticism seemed entirely unaware of the vast blogosphere that exists and even of the more formalised outlets such as Kill Screen or even Extra Lives. And, earlier in the day, as talked about at the start of this rant, a whole bunch of indies thought game writers of any creed didn’t care for them at all.

What if us videogame critics have indeed built an ivory tower for ourselves? Or, rather, what if we have somehow managed to convince everyone on the ‘outside’ that such an ivory tower exists? I for one think it doesn’t exist. I quite literally blogged my way into videogame writing and I believe that if you are a good writer who has something interesting to say about videogames, you will be heard.
But are we more cut off from the world than we (or at least I) believe? Not even just non-gaming culture, but gaming culture, too? No one on this panel seemed to be aware of the broader videogame criticism out there. Is this an actual problem? Are we too self-absorbed. Are we even a we? I hope we aren’t a we, because I think we are just the players. All of them. All the people who have a stake in having real, actual experiences of these games and those experiences are worth recording and worth remembering and worth sharing. So I don’t know. I hope ‘we’ are an open community and that anyone who wants to write about games does write about games and, further, I hope we are reaching or can reach the broader gaming community of players and developers alike.

Developers need criticism, and criticism needs developers. Journalism about videogames is not always videogame journalism. All these things and entities are related and inseparable but they are not all the same thing. To treat them as such is a disservice to all of them.

Most importantly, and the single most crucial thing I want to say in response to the panel is that videogame criticism is out there. So much of it. It is so intelligent and so thoughtful and so well written and all of it is worth reading. Perhaps you have never engaged with it and you are only reading this because you added me to Twitter during Freeplay this year. If that is you, the least you can do is read Ben Abraham’s slide from the (un)Keynote as well as Critical Distance’s weekly blogroll. But there is so much more out there. On the mainstream news sites, in magazines (Edge, Hyper, and PC Powerplay are all incorporating more critically-minded sections of late). Just as crucially: you can write it too. Don’t say what the game is about, say what you experienced. That’s it. And videogames takes one little step closer to being as respected as it should be by the rest of society.


As one last final aside, if you do want to write videogame criticism yourself (please do!) but you have no idea how to, it is simple. Firstly, read Kieron Gillen's manifesto on New Games Journalism. Secondly, write what you feel. That's it. If our Ivory Tower exists, we would love to have you move in with us.


[Update - Katie Williams has also written up a reflection on this year's Freeplay and the role of this panel within the festival that I think is well worth a read. She does a far better job of putting this one panel in perspective to the rest of the festival than I have.

And @SearingScarlet (Sorry, I don't know their real name) has written the best post I have seen so far to deal with the gender-related problems of the panel which you should really read, too. 

And Andrew McMillen, one of the panelists, has uploaded his recording of the panel if you wish to hear it for yourself.

And Ben Abraham has written an opinion piece for Gamasutra about the sexism and gender issues that bubbled over during the panel. You should absolutely read this.  

And two of Australia's (if not the world's) best female videogame journalists have had a discussion on Kotaku Australia about the issues and concerns of being a non-male videogame writer. It is an excellent post and it is great to see two such notable female writers having the guts to speak out on such a topic when doing so is so often a suicide-by-comment-section. Fortunately, the Kotaku Australia commenters seem engaged, polite, and interesting. Read it. Katie Williams then wrote a second post sort of in response to this one that is both personal and heartbreaking and makes me hate all males ever including myself. You should read it as this shit totally isn't cool.

And Freeplay director Paul Callaghan has addressed the panel and the reaction to it on Freeplay's official blog. He also apologised, which I don't believe is fair. Paul is an amazing man who (with others) does a phenomenal job every year pulling Freeplay together to be the awesome festival it is. Still, you can read his thoughts on the reaction to the panel here

And panel chair Leigh Klaver has written a post justifying (I guess) and clarifying the panel. To be completely honest, I don't really think it addresses anything but instead shows how disengaged he is with the broader sphere of critical videogame writers by not including a single link to any of the pieces written about the panel by other writers and a reference to only one of said pieces. This is not necessarily an insult aimed at Klaver, but is perhaps indicative of just how closed off this sphere is. Who knows. I am not satisfied with his responses to the gender issues, either. Still, to be fair, he deserves a chance to explain so give him a read.

If you see any other articles on the panel around the place, please leave a link to them in the comments.]

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. To me it seemed to be an interesting panel that was aiming more for humour and lighthearted conversation than it was serious contemplation, which some people enjoyed and others loathed. I also think people have taken things out of context, and that the panelists/chair had a pretty hard time but they were all happy to discuss things afterwards, which was great and illuminated many things they couldn't cover in the small space of time they had. The one guy in the audience who dismissed gender copped a hard time, that was good moment, and the chair noticably winced when he said it (probably wished he didn't hand him the mic - but then he was entitled to give his opinion, however backwards it may be). That said it could've been done better - it almost seemed like no one had told them what audience they would be talking to before they started. That, and some indies need to get over themselves - being one myself I can say that with a straight face. Of course people read about the big titles, that's what most players are involved in. I'd love to believe all players are deeply involved with independent titles, but lets be honest with ourselves. We love indie titles and events because that's what we do and love. Personally I loved that panel, it really got people talking and I think that makes it successful. Freeplay was great, looking forward to next year!

Nathan Cocks said...

To anonymous,

I think you're underselling how much interest there is in independent development. For obvious reasons, I'm often taking a gander at the PC Powerplay community group on Steam and I'm frequently impressed by the number of independent titles being played at any given time.

I empathise that when you're super focused on one of the more niche areas of any field, that humility sometimes begs that you see your work as being largely for the benefit/recognition of those similarly committed to that space.

However I don't believe that is the case at all and that independent developers are doing themselves a great disservice by believing it to be so.

The gaming press and their audience are just as keen, if not more so, for fresh, original gaming experiences. We just need to know about it.

Anonymous said...

Rather than posting in the comments section, would you be happy to give me the benefit of a reply article that you would post on your blog?

Drew

Brendan said...

Drew,

Absolutely. Email me something and I'll put it righ up. My email is just on the side there.

I'm still on my iPhone on the streets of Melbourne but i will engage with these comments properly when I am back in Brisbane with a proper keyboard.

-Brendan

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brendan.

I won't be able to sit down and write the reply until this evening, but I will email you the article before the end of the night.

Thanks for the opportunity to reply. Obviously, I trust you will let the piece run unedited.

I look forward to where we take this discourse.

Drew

Daniel Hindes said...

Red vs Blue isn't criticism. It's a comedy machinima. You can't lump everything written or created about games under the criticism umbrella. Criticism is critical writing; critical thinking. It's critiquing.

Daniel Stradwick said...

Yeah, I found this definition of "criticism" ludicrously broad.

Criticism *is* a niche interest, and arguing the opposite makes it seem like you're out of touch with reality.

It's to be expected, and the same in any form of mass-media: more people are interested in reading books than reading about books.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't think that Drew should get a right of reply on your blog, Brendan. He had the stage. That was his right to speak. This is your reply. If he wants to add more, he can leave a comment like everybody else, or make a post somewhere else. I mean, I say this knowing you're far more generous than me, and you will be happy to have his reply.

Brendan said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I really appreciate all the feedback.

In response to the two Daniels' remarks about my broad use of the word 'criticism', I get what you're saying but I feel narrowing it down more with a more specific definition achieves nothing but excluding important works and actually building the metaphorical ivory tower I want to tear down.

I think, here, I am using the word 'criticism' as a broad term for all the writing about videogames that isn't journalism, as it is the conflation of those two terms that is my main issue here.

Of course, all the different types of writing I am including under the umbrella term 'criticism' are also greatly varied in form and you cannot talk about all of them in the same specifics just as you cannot talk about all videogames in the same term. But before we can talk about them in any way whatsoever we need to separate them from 'videogame journalism' which is what I've done here.
Certainly, there are other conversations to be had on the many, many, many different forms of videogame criticism. But I want to avoid saying videogame criticism is specifically these outlets or those outlets as to build a canon of what criticism 'is' is to build the pretentious stereotype of inaccessibility that seemingly is already rife.

Essentially, I want anyone who wants to talk/write about videogames to do so however they wish and for those voices to be able to contribute to broader understandings of how we play videogames.

Brendan said...

Also, I flat out disagree that criticism is a niche interest. If it is, it is only because we are keeping people out.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember that the chair said 'much video game criticism has vulgar/comedic overtones' after which he referenced Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation. I can't remember him saying 'hand in hand' or alluding to something similar. Also, Drew was the one who pointed out and explained the scores that were given to games as being crucial to their success, I can't remember him ever saying that people shouldn't write/score what they feel. He was just making the point that that's how it is. I think that's what the whole panel was doing. Also, I don't think critics are keeping anyone out - perhaps people want to play/enjoy games rather than have to think about them so in depth. That doesn't mean you're excluding anyone, or that they're can't/won't understand what you're writing. If serious game/cultural criticism does it for you and others (like me), great, but that doesn't mean others will do the same.

Daniel Hindes said...

Criticism is not a niche interest. Videogame criticism, on the other hand, is.

If it wasn't, you would not be so quick to include everything ever written about videogames under your definition of criticism out of fear of, as you say, excluding important works.

But you've still got your terms backwards. Videogame journalism is the broader category. It is not confined to the narrow definition of news, previews and reviews. Articles like "Bow, Nigger" - one particularly important work - once fell under the "New Games Journalism" label - but nowadays it's all videogame journalism.

Videogame criticism is the more specific one, with the much narrower focus. This is where the origin of the opinion from the panel arises in which videogame criticism doesn't matter to the masses.

They're right. Videogame criticism doesn't matter to the masses.

Videogame criticism is a niche.

Videogame criticism is for the enthusiasts - the people with the drive to understand and discuss what makes a game good beyond scores out of ten for graphics, gameplay and sound.

And herein lies both the incredible potential for an outsider to assume immediate pretentiousness, as well as the very real chance of that pretentiousness pervading the criticism itself.

Malachi Douthit said...

Thanks Brendan, really enjoyed the post and I'm looking forward the conference next year when I'm back in Brisbane.

I have to agree with Daniel Hindes - video game criticism is a niche or, more specifically, has a niche audience. The window is so narrow between the time a young gamer becomes interested in thinking and reading about gaming and games in a more meaningful way and the time that most of us have reached where we have jobs and families that many (the vast majority I would argue) just cannot devote the time and energy to finding thoughtful writing about the games we love.

I can't even keep up with my RSS with my 2 year old running around the house like a banshee and I've got another little one on the way. There is so much content scattered over the web that it's nearly impossible to find the time. Luckily, Critical Distance & Killscreen are compiling lots of excellent writing in one location or I would have given up a long time ago.

Brendan said...

"Criticism is not a niche interest. Videogame criticism, on the other hand, is."

If this is true--even if we are talking about the more specific "formalised criticism" than my broad, shall we say, "records of play experience"--then I feel it can only suggest one of three things:

1. Videogames are less worthy of criticism than other cultural forms as they are less meaningful and less important.

2. Videogame players are dumber than those people that engage with other critical forms and less able to actually think about what it is they are experiencing.

3. Videogame criticism is as worthy as the criticism of other cultural forms but has so far failed to reach the majority of its audience of players who are just as intellectual and as able to engage critically with other cultural forms.

If it is any of these things, I believe it is the third, and that is what I tried to touch on with my final point in my rant. Perhaps videogame criticism is niche--the panel would seem to suggest it is. But I refuse to accept that it hast o be niche. Videogame players aren't dumb. They love to engage with this thing we do and if they become more aware of all the critical engagement that is out there and don't just think of it as some pretentious, academic wank over in a corner of the internet, then I don't doubt many of them will devour it.

That said, there are obvious moments in my rant when I am being hyperbolic and say "Everyone should read/write criticism!" Obviously I'm not going to go around and steal everybody's videogames until they give me a thousand word essay. If people don't want to read or write criticism, they shouldn't. But everyone who wishes to say something about their experiences of play and what it meant to them should have an outlet and should feel free to use it and be welcomed with open arms with the rest of the critical community. I guess that is where I want to see videogame criticism stop being 'niche': where people feel they are not worthy to engage with it, that only the 'brainy' gamers (for lack of a better term) are allowed to talk about videogame criticism.

This is why I used such a broad term of criticism which, as I have already said, can quite easily be broken down into various very different forms of criticism: so as not to let anyone feel excluded before they even ask if they can join in. I think predetermining what is and what isn't criticism only shuts people out from the conversation. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about the various different types of videogame criticism out there without discrediting that created by anyone else, regardless of how 'professional' or 'amateur' it is.

If videogame criticism is niche, this is a problem and we have to do something about it. In fact, I believe it is already becoming less and less niche. As I said in my rant, many print magazines are taking a more critical approach to reviews and to their articles. Many of the mainstream gaming press websites are also employing more criticism writers who are writing almost equal parts criticism as news stories (such as Kirk Hamilton who recently started work as a Feature Editor at Kotaku). Reviews in many outlets, too, are becoming more varied, more personal, more thematic.

So yes, I don't believe videogame criticism is niche. Or, rather, I don't believe it has to be or that it should be. But it will be if we to strictly define what it is/isn't.

Thanks again for all the comments and engagement.

Chris Dunkley said...

One of my big issues with the panel was the fact that it spent so long defining the audience for games writing (and the panels contempt for that audience) and absolutely no time giving constructive advice for building a better one.

So what can we take away from the panel;
- Zero Punctuation comments are terrible
- We only care about scores
- There are no women in this industry
- We can't accept something if it doesn't include jokes
- Basically we're fucked

Assuming the panel has an issue with these things how about we stop making checklists and discussing the fact that issues exist and start a constructive conversation about changing things.

What can we do to "fix" these problems? How do we encourage readers to read a review and not just a score? How do we make our workplaces or communities a less toxic place for women?

Next year I hope these are the kinds of things we spend time talking about. Less wallowing. More forward momentum.

justonemoregame said...

@Brendan

"Criticism is not a niche interest. Videogame criticism, on the other hand, is."

If this is true--even if we are talking about the more specific "formalised criticism" than my broad, shall we say, "records of play experience"--then I feel it can only suggest one of three things:

1. .....
2. .....
3. ..... "


Nope. I say it's number 4.

"Videogames have been around a shorter time."

How many thousand years since the first cave painting? It's been about 600 years since Gutenberg brought 'books' to the masses, 109 years since Georges Méliès' film "Le Voyage dans la Lune", but only 40 years since Pong.

A new media develops. And eventually, criticism of it develops.

Looking only at films, I doubt there was a huge mainstream audience for film criticism in 1940 - and that's where videogames are, in a comparable timeline.

Brendan said...

Justonemoregame:

This is absolutely a factor, obviously, but not one that can only be considered apart from my point that videogame criticism has failed to reach its broader audience yet.

Videogames are indeed a relatively young medium and are still teething, but I think this is only half the issue. Things won't change if we just sit around and wait for the day when games have been around for as long as films have been now. We need to figure out now how to have our videogames and our criticism of said videogames to be recognised by a broader audience if we want them to one day have the same cultural significance as films, novels, etc.

But yes. The relative youth of our medium is certainly why it is a factor and, indeed, is why we even are having these conversations in the first place.

Merus said...

justonemoregame: I'm afraid that, by the 1940s, cinema already had a highly-regarded film critic, James Agee, writing for Time Magazine back in its heyday, and The National newspaper. (I know this because I did a Google search for '1940s film critics'.) Games are nowhere near this point: we're still surprised when a paper of record writes about games.

Regarding the pretention angle: I wager a big part of the problem is the widespread attitude that games are 'just games' - that they're not worthy of in-depth criticism or analysis, and that doing so misses the point. It's very easy to call criticism pretentious, but pretentiousness is frequently a relative term.

Brendan said...

Merus,

Precisely! Thank you for saying that far better than I have.

Danc said...

"If you want videogames to ‘matter’ to the rest of culture and society, then you need good videogame criticism."

This quote strikes me as indefensible. As an exercise, replace the word 'videogame' with 'sport', which is a far closer class of activity to games than that media such as movies or literature that birthed modern criticism.

Sports existed and were culturally relevant to society despite the general lack of organized criticism. Did people talk about sports? Absolutely and quite passionately. But it was predominantly the talk of fans and players and existed on the same level as talk about what you had for dinner.

Similarly, games are extremely culturally relevant today despite the fact that the tribe of 'game critics' is relatively anemic.

I see the traditional mass media and academic role of the 'critic' as strongly secondary to the game, the player's experience with that game and the natural organic conversation that occurs between friends, on forums and in the social media. The 'critic' isn't a necessary or often even a meaningful participant in 99.999% of the conversation. Nor should they be.

This may seem like a cruel point to make since game critics are a passionate bunch and this is an wonderful hobby. Yet, by making the claim that games cannot matter without *your* words, you crap upon all the progress and culture and greatness that we've built up already as game makers and players.

I just came from PAX. Game culture is alive, growing, diverse and wonderful. Sure, people writing peripheral thoughts on websites and perhaps journals is awesome and welcomed. It is a delightful performance. But let's make no claims about necessity and therefore authority.

take care,
Danc

Brendan said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I have a few issues with it but firstly you are absolutely right that the player's experience is paramount. This is why I linked to Gillen's "The New Game Journalism"piece and why I think no critic can make claims to what a specific videogame 'is' but only how they experienced it and what that meant to them. That deeply personal, intimate experience is what videogames do so well and so uniquely.

And sure, we can talk about those experiences in our own enclosed circles of people who have played that specific game and have had a similar (though not identical) experience. We can say "there was this moment in Just Cause 2 when I did X" and another Just Cause 2 player will 'get it' not because they know how you felt but because they can tie that back to a similar experience they had, so they know the same gut, visceral experience and can appreciate that you had a great experience.

My issue is that we need to be able to communicate this to a wider audience than simply those that already play games. These intimate, unique experiences that videogames offer are so hard to grasp if you don't play videogames. Sure, game culture is alive and growing and diverse and has events like PAX, but there is still a huge divide between those within that game culture and those without--a divide much greater I would daresay than between those that watch films and those that don't, or those that watch sport and those that don't. This is why I feel criticism is so important for videogames. It communicates (or at least, can communicate) what individuals experience wen they play a videogame, and this can lead others that don't play videogames to learn how to (which requires no small amount of time and effort) or, in the very least, to appreciate and understand what videogame play can offer.

So yes. The experience of play is paramount and crucial, but if we ever want to be able to discuss those experiences in more succinct terms than "Remember that time I did that thing with the thing and you were like, 'woah'?" and with broader groups of people than our own enclosed 'game culture', we need good, diverse videogame criticism.

Thanks again for your comment and taking the time to read.

Danc said...

"...but there is still a huge divide between those within that game culture and those without--a divide much greater I would daresay than between those that watch films and those that don't, or those that watch sport and those that don't."

This may be fighting an old battle that is no longer factually true.

The majority of people play games these days. I know from experience that my games are played by everyone from 40 year old moms to 6 year old kids.

Much of what is written under the umbrella of 'video game criticism' focuses on a surprisingly narrow definition of games and player experiences. It predominantly deals with core retail titles. Perhaps the narrow focus and memes that were true 10 years ago are where this illusion that games are not broadly accepted comes from?

I bring up sports because it is a game. As a designer, it is completely and utterly bizarre that that many of those that call themselves 'critics' do not talk about boardgames, sports, party games and computer games in the same breath. They share common heritage, common means of impacting the player and there is rich cross fertilization between all of them.

Many of modern, socially meaningful games draw from this immense and vibrant ecosystem of games. Words with Friends is one of the most socially relevant games of our time. Recently I walk down a random street and heard two conversations about the game in the space of an hour. Yet game critics instead blather on an outsized amount about Femshep. Perhaps the niche status is self imposed.

So a thought: Games are already part of the broader culture. They have been for a very long time. They didn't need critics to establish them. They are primarily a vibrant self propagating social process, not a curated and critiqued mass media (though they've fallen into this trap in the past).

Something to think about. :-) Appreciate the kind response since I know this sort of thing comes from a different perspective.

take care,
Danc.

Murray Lorden said...

Hi, I really appreciate this article!

Well written and thought provoking.

I've been working in the Melbourne games industry for almost 12 years, and I used to really enjoy reading PCPowerplay, for being well written and often humorous as well as insightful, and thought provoking in itself.

I don't read as much gaming press as I used to. Almost none.

But I love that this article so effectively links off to key articles in "games criticism", and I've found the links I've read so far amazing and exciting.

They get me thinking about games a bit differently, and that surely is a great example of what games criticism should be doing - feeding back to developers, which then feeds back to the games being made, etc...

Cheers, and a final though... perhaps that Freeplay session, which I was at, has served it's purpose somehow better by being a bit broken, than if it were more immediately effective at the time! It has certainly stemmed a lot of discussion, and it was also the key event for building the Twitter community, because it gave everyone a focus for discussion, and became a real "Follow fest!"

Rock!

- Murray