Monday, July 15, 2013

On On Games Criticism Criticism

[In an email, Frederik Van den Bosch asked me how I felt about Warren Spector's GamesIndustry op-ed about games criticism. I wrote a sprawling, rambling reply because I find "Why don't we have any games criticism??" op-eds really interesting for a whole range of conflicting reasons. Anyway, I already wrote some rough thoughts out on the topic on Twitter when it happened but here are my conflicted, cyclical thoughts on the topic written no less roughly but in more words!]  
It's the kind of piece that has been appearing every few months lately and will keep appearing more and more regularly into the future. Game criticism is becoming a 'thing'. That is, it's been around for ages, but it's very gradually and steadily snowballing and more people are realising it exists and, more importantly, that it should exist. That a healthy and diverse critical discourse is an essential component for any maturing medium, and one that videogames desperately needs. So people like Warren Spector or Helen Lewis realise that games criticism matters because they've started to see it around and then, with fully good intentions, go and write op-eds about why game criticism is important.
So, on the surface, that is great! And I agree with the sentiment. But then, they tend to miss that people have been writing games criticism for years now. Decades even! I started blogging in 2009 and there had already been a vibrant critical culture online for years. Yes, it was mostly on blogs and a few games journalism outlets, but in the years since it has spread outwards and now you can find games criticism on The Guardian, Crikey, New Statesman, ABC Arts, Boston Phoenix (before it died), New Yorker, New York Times, etc. So my issue with articles like Spector's is they don't acknowledge all the work that has already been done to make a space for game criticism over, at the very least, the past decade.
BUT THEN. People not 'inside' games criticism can certainly be forgiven for not knowing it already exists. Game culture is insular enough as it is. Game criticism culture is insular a niche medium of writing that wants to expand but finds itself trapped within an insular subculture. People don't know it is there and I totally understand that. So when Helen Lewis wrote her piece last year, i responded with where the good writing is instead of an angry rebuttal. Because I get that people don't know it is out there and that it is, in part, on us to make the case that we matter. (Though it is also on commissioning editors, too, really). 
BUT THEN! If you are going to write an op-ed about a subject, maybe do a bit of research to make sure that when you say something doesn't exist, it actually doesn't exist? But I don't know how you would actually find game criticism without knowing where to look for it (again, hence my New Statesman piece). I dunno. I'm frustrated that they don't seem to realise we exist, but I also totally get why they don't know so I struggle to get angry about it. Like, some people on twitter seemed amazed that he called for books about videogames without acknowledging Killing is Harmless. But I just Bing'ed "book about a video game" (Bing is good for neutral searches to counter your own google search history bias) and got no articles about Killing is Harmless so, again, I get it. (Though a bing search for 'videogame criticism' does seem to turn up a bunch of good results on the very first page, including one of my own blog posts, and this great exchange between Simon Ferrari and Tom Bissell at Paste.)
(but then I'm conflating 'real journalism' with googling so... yeah.)
I guess, ultimately, the responsibility is on people like me who want to become known as game critics (in the "critics who write about games" sense) to make people realise a) why we matter; and b) that we are already here. And I guess we are already doing that, and that is why op-eds like Spector's saying we need more game criticism are starting to appear. We're clearly getting into their heads. They just don't quite realise that we're in there yet!
Also, as someone who reads and writes academically a lot, I know that "no one is writing X" often accidentally comes to stand for "I want more people to write X". 
And then there's also issues with his claims to 'normal people' and which are problematic and normative. Though, I totally get that he means 'people beyond the super niche, hobbyist gamer culture', and I totally agree that that is a border we should be transgressing/space we should be evacuating. But yeah, 'normal people' is hella :-/. 
Oh also [this isn't the email I wrote anymore but I just thought of this]. People got uppity about Spector's constant drawing parallels between games and film. I can't say that bothered me at all. No, videogames aren't films, but I'm getting pretty frustrated with people completely dismissing the overlaps between two mediums that largely depend on moving images presented on a screen. And the comparisons of the growth/maturation of a critical body of work around an emerging popular medium seem completely justified. I think I preferred when videogames had an inferiority complex to cinema much more than this current superiority complex but that is way off topic now. 
Anyway. I could talk in circles about the topic of mainstream acceptance of videogame criticism for ever because I have super conflicted thoughts about it, as you can probably tell. So, in short: it's great to see more people acknowledge that games criticism is a necessary component of the medium, but it's disappointing to see the same people not acknowledge all the great writing that has already been done to make this possible, but it's totally understandable why they don't.