Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do Videogames Need To Be Fun?

So while I was in Melbourne for Freeplay, I found myself participating in a discussion over at Kotaku Australia about what a videogame 'is' whether videogames have to be fun. Perhaps I said something you will find interesting. If not, the other very intelligent people in the discussion surely did.

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.]