Games criticism as a selfie

Tweeting info: @xMattieBrice, #CritProx

Hello! I’m Mattie Brice, and I’m here to talk about games criticism and selfies. I am a play and games critic myself, as well as a developer, activist, and help organize events like this one and the Queerness and Games Conference which was over at UC: Berkeley last year.

Here are a bunch of pictures of me! On the right are pictures others have taken of me, and the ones on the left are selfies. I used to think I was incredibly unphotogenic since every picture taken of me was bad, and it heaped on top of already existing insecurities about my looks. These are the best of the photos taken of me that I could find, and they still irk me. I see these pictures focus on things that emphasize visual qualities someone would when trying to access someone’s gender and race. I know people notice my masculine features, or black ones, that clash with the beauty standards I should be portraying. Or, that the ‘neutral’ gaze makes all these things readily apparent. However, with the selfie, I can direct the viewer’s gaze any way I want. Think of how we typically take pictures, and how I take my own picture.

–I should take a selfie on stage about now–

There’s a whole bunch of different relationships that selfies manipulate and expose. The spatial and visual relationships with the camera, where the subject turns into an agent. Relationships with beauty and expression, with facts and perspective.

Keeping with that thought, I’m interested in how integrated the social justice movements in games is strongest in the games criticism community. It is one of the main qualities that separates the community of games critics from games journalism; being savvy about social justice is a norm, and social critique is an important part of its function. There are people within games journalism who consider themselves games critics, but its culture is different from where this conference is birthed and aims to celebrate.

In a sense, there’s a ‘new’ games criticism. One that formally doesn’t belong to games media and rely on it for sustenance or legitimacy. As well, within the past few years, we’ve seen games criticism have a different take on new games journalism than the main body of the media does.

I’m talking about writing using personal experience as a lens to talk about games. I feel like this is different from telling a story that the media tends to do with new games journalism. Instead, these personal accounts shift from the default gaze we look at games with our own. This is a common practice in social justice activism, encouraging people to be authorities of their own experience and tell their own stories since dominant culture moves to silence and erase them. And seeing that there is more diversity in games criticism than there is in games journalism, there’s been a lot of insightful writing using this technique.

Many of us are pretty sick of our work being tagged as personal. That’s because all work is personal, and critical objectivity is a fallacy. And while many people shrug at that, many writers still write from an authoritative voice on the ‘neutral’ experience. Except, that neutral experience is like cameras taking photos of us from afar; it has its own perspective, its own angle that highlights and hides certain things, and has its own agenda.

So I argue that this growing trend in games criticism, to more purposefully reveal and deploy personal perspective and experience, is much like taking a selfie. It exposes perspective and reveals us to be individuals, not a monolith.

A common response people have is that they have nothing personal to write about, or that they are boring. What that really means is that many of our perspectives have been essentialized, and those people haven’t been forced to live with difference. Reality is, we all have different relationships to dominant culture, and it is traditionally valued to speak from the dominant narrative than our own.

With this shift in hyperpersonalization, I think we will also see a shift in the types of conversations we have. Right now, we tend to fixate on objects over relationships; what is a game, what is that game doing, what does that game mean? Who am I, who are you, what are your privileges, what are my oppressions? It tends to be more descriptive and reductive than anything else. Trying to find the truth, and whomever is the most visible gets to decide that truth. I think if we embody the writing equivalent of taking a selfie, we won’t even out the scales, rather, get rid of scales all together.

If there is one thing I find particularly limiting, it’s being games criticism, looking at games design, in the games industry. By nature, it limits us to games, and what we’re exposed to. Popular games get lots of coverage as cultural objects, which means mainstream video games are the focus of study and expansion when it comes to positioning games overall in our conversations. This is because once to decide objects of study, commercial and colonial forces enter to decide what is talked about and how.

Video games is a small subset in the realm of play; we limit ourselves talking about games, especially when trying to solve a lot of the issues we currently face. Why do we have to talk about social change, sex, and representation only in the context of video games? Why is there such a large partition between video games and all other kinds of play? Board games, physical games, big games, why must all of these stay out of the main conversation? Why can games critics only talk about games that look like they had a budget behind it?

What about how we play with gender? What about the magic circle of kink? The negotiation of settler-colonialism as an indigenous citizen of the Americas?

We are always playing in our daily lives, but are rarely asked to examine it. This is often more apparent to marginalized people; I understand how I play with fashion and people’s conception of white beauty. I play within forces of the games industry and gentrification of San Francisco.

We have a similar problem in the social justice end of things. The conversation is focused on defining individuals and evaluating them; how privileged is this person? Are they right or wrong? Are they with or against us? We often set ourselves up for tokenism by publically evaluating who is what and what they are, by virtue, allowed to talk about and how. We’ve become our own identity police that is constantly hunting out difference and assigning value to that difference.

Power is a relationship of tension that isn’t so discretely one-way as most identity politics. We receive and exert power with other things in different amounts. Who is more privileged, the white lesbian or black heterosexual transman? These sorts of questions have us playing chess with each other instead of examining how we relate.

Power is a type of play; it’s as creative as it is limiting. We are formed by the rules social systems set for us, but we aren’t fatalist automatons. We are messy and shape each other.

So the next time you go to critique, think of it as taking a selfie. Show how you turn your cheek, lower your chin, and perk your eyebrows. What is your relationship to the thing you’re critiquing? How do you play with things other than games? How does power shape you, and how to effect other things around you?

Thanks!

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