Reaching criticity

Hi everyone. Welcome to Critical Proximity.

First, I want to thank you all for coming. Give yourselves a round of applause for making this event feel really quite significant. I’m Zoya Street, and I’ve been organising this with a team of people who just kind of appeared and very kindly offered their help over the past couple of months.

I want to thank our volunteers, and everyone who helped to organise the conference, and UBM’s Meggan Scavio for suddenly showing up and asking if we wanted to use the Moscone as a venue which is just amazing of them, and I want to thank Mohammed Taher, founder of music label Brave Wave, who donated money so that we could do this.

The first step toward planning this event was in December, when I sent around a Google form asking for the email addresses of anyone who might be interested in seeing a Games Criticism Event happen. I was expecting maybe thirty names maximum, and I figured we’d all pitch in to rent a board room somewhere and eat pizza while talking about games criticism. Now there’s almost 300 people here and loads of other people who wanted to come but couldn’t because we ran out of tickets! 300, when I was initially expecting thirty. That’s huge!

What does that tell us? It tells us that games criticism is way bigger than at least I thought, and certainly bigger than people like Warren Spector thought it was when they said it didn’t exist. Why does games criticism seem so much smaller than it really is? I think part of the answer is this pressure for every critic to stand alone.

I want to argue that criticism is not a solitary act: it’s a conversation.

I think that we need to do more to come into productive conversation with each other, rather than just talking about each other. Many of us had a vaguely similar kind of education — probably too many of us, to be honest. At university I was trained to write about people, rather than writing with them. That’s how essays work: you read up on your topic in journals and books, and then pour short summaries of each prior work into a self-aggrandising historiography that only exists to prove that your work is new and unique in some way. It’s in the rubric: you have to shit on other people in order to get ahead.

Games criticism is I think dominated by people who are heavily influenced by academic writing. You end up with pieces that, if they cite other writers at all, cite them in a way that implies the other person wasn’t present, even going so far as to bring them up only to point out the flaws in their work. Conversations are relegated to the comments at the bottom of the page, given second place in comparison to the privileged voice of the author.

Criticism as a conversation has significant historical precedent, but today it’s not often what we are trained to do. I’m actively trying to undo what I’ve learned, and see my work alongside that of others, rather than in competition with it. I’ve learned the most about games by publishing other people’s work in Memory Insufficient, and by writing games criticism alongside Samantha Allen in our Bunk Bed pieces on The Borderhouse. I think some of our best work happens in conversation with each other — in fact, maybe there needs to be a bit of carefully-controlled friction for issues to reach a critical temperature.

A couple of months ago I googled “Critical Proximity” to see what else we’d be sharing our google results page with if we chose this name. Top of the results page was an essay by Bruno Latour entitled ‘Critical Distance or Critical Proximity’. It takes the form of a semi-fictional argument between two academics, an unnamed man who seems to represent a caricatured self-portrait of Latour, and an unnamed woman who is basically arguing that his way of working colludes with authority rather than opposing it.

“She” warns against a complacency that we risk falling into by organising ourselves around things like conferences. It’s all apolitical, she says, because people get too fixated on details and lose sight of the big picture. She’s quite blunt about her feelings. “It stinks” she says. He notes her anger, and she owns her anger.

“HE: — Woah… you are furious.
SHE: — Enraged rather, yes. And disgusted”

“He” then begins to respond, arguing that without prioritising our study of the details, we don’t really understand where power is exercised, instead falling back on dogmatic ideas about who has privilege and who does not:

“What you mean by regaining a strong political stand is nothing more than making you feel good again among your like-minded political buddies. That’s just as disgusting. This is replacing politics with moralizing —or worse, socializing.”

I think this dispute is familiar to a lot of us who write on the internet. Reading this fictional argument, I’m left thinking that as writers we need emotional energy, and we need to focus that energy strategically.

SHE: – You have deprived yourself of any critical edge!
HE: — ‘Critical’ is also the name of a state, in case you forgot your physics. Make sure that issues reach criticity, would not that be a better slogan?
SHE: — Do you, by any chance, claim to increase the temperature of an issue without yourself being in any way critical?
HE: — Do you, by any chance, believe that you increase the temperature by simply feeling indignation and sharing this indignation with your buddies? You are confusing the subjective definition of critique with its objective one. It’s the object itself, the issue at stake, that has to be rendered critical.
SHE: — And that could be carried out in any emotional state? Including quiet indifference to the solution?”

We need to hold each other in high regard and treat each other with respect. But that doesn’t mean that anger isn’t valuable. We’re increasingly aware of the problematic culture around games, about how play relates to power, and I don’t think we’d know as much of that if it weren’t for anger. The nice thing about this fictional conversation in the Latour essay is that while both parties disagree about how their work should be done, neither sees the other as disposable, or as some terrible scourge on the world. The conversation is heated, but it’s safe. The assumption is that both want to achieve the same things.

I want to learn to work in conversation with others in this way. I’d like us to find ways of increasing the temperature through friction, without causing wildfires. The topic reaches criticity because we are able to turn up the heat without burning down the entire laboratory.

We’re here at least in part to build relationships that can sustain those conversations. At certain points in the day there are going to be roundtable sessions in room 301, run by Richard Terrell, and I really encourage you to go to those to turn the talks that happen in here into conversations. The schedule is on your handout and on the website.

Now I’d like to hand you over to Mattie Brice, who is going to quickly talk about our safe space policy and present her talk about how and why games criticism is political and radical.


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