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.


Alan Williamson said...

Good post, but I would change

"We're clearly getting into their heads. They just don't quite realise that we're in there yet!"


"We're clearly getting into their heads. We just don't realise that we're not quite in there yet".

I think the reason that games crit hasn't 'gone mainstream' is that there's just not enough good material yet. While my own work and that of others is hopefully acting as an accelerator, we're still in a transitional phase. Roger Ebert was a critic for nearly fifty years, after all. (Although obviously I object to games crit being conflated with film crit, etc)

rowan said...

In the immortal words of Kanye West: "So I live by two words/fuck you, pay me."

Warren Spector, you'd be amazed at how much game criticism you could get for, say, $5000. Offer that to your critic of choice, pretty much any one who doesn't have a book out or a full-time job, and see how many awesome reviews you'll get. Every major release for six months? Yeah, you probably will.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi Alan!

I'm not sure I agree that there is not enough good material yet. I think there is more than enough. (Though, yes, games criticism is certainly still in its infancy, though I'm super hesitant of using the 'we're still young give us time' crutch that games in general have leant on for far too long).

I would be more comfortable thinking that it isn't an issue that there isn't enough good material yet so much as the people who are writing good material aren't pitching to those non-gaming outlets enough. Or they are pitching but aren't convincing them that this matters. But as Rowan Kaiser has been saying on Twitter for months now, it is the perfect time to be pitching to these outlets. They are starting to realise that people are wanting to read critical stuff about games and they are suddenly realising they don't have anyone to do that. I think if the people who are writing good material either freely on their blogs or within the constraints of conventional games journalism outlets pitched more broadly, we'd be seeing games criticism in a broader range of outlets.

But yes. There is no singular, linear cause-and-effect solution (if we are presenting this as a problem in need of a solution, that is). The amount of good games criticism written anywhere will undeniably increase into the future and that will inevitably help. But I think the people writing it pushing it out there (like you do with Five Out Of Ten) is perhaps the most crucial thing that needs to happen.

Anonymous said...

I do find that Spector's definition is particularly vague. I agree with you that those "articles on mainstream newspaper" already exist. However, while we are wondering about how many non-gaming people would read about games on newspapers, I have to confess that I never read sports page, real estate page or fashion page on newspapers. I wonder what is our ending goal here? Far too many video games goals ends up with something like "just like films", but few could explain what they meant by that. "Like Citizen Kane" is not a proper goal, nor is "like Ebert".

Maybe I'm biased. I never cared much for film criticism, and when it comes to literature the sort of things I read falls under the "academic essay" or closed analysis that Spector spoke against of.

What I do think though, is that we can't mistake "quality criticism" with "mass appeal criticism". It is not mutually exclusive, but they do often work against each other.

Again, what is the goal?

I also really loved what Mattie said on Twitter. Finance the writers before demanding for more (free) work from the writers.

Anonymous said...

"I think the reason that games crit hasn't 'gone mainstream' is..." Does anyone know the market growth rates I am sure it would be pretty big in the indie scene, which will engender to some extent an expansion or overflow into main stream of game critique. I also think that "backwards-compatability" also comes into play something say the Ouya can address. I am gonna take a wild guess and say Spector is smarter than he looks because I actually found his article inflamatory without quite knowing why; was this the intended purpose.

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