What games need?

I want to talk about three things that game criticism is not useful for, and shouldn’t be useful for, but which I see some lamenting that it isn’t achieving.

Here they are:

  1. Improving games
  2. Improving games criticism
  3. Making you feel good

Let’s treat each in turn.

1. Improving games

Technological progressivism is a position contending that advances in science and technology proceed in a consistent and deliberate passage from worse to better.

This isn’t something unique to games, and in fact it’s infected almost every aspect of technological society. iOS 7 is not just the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, but “the world’s most advanced form” of interacting with a mobile device.

In games, the difference is this: we believe we have a special exemption, because our medium is not just a technological form but also an expressive or an artistic form. After all, it’s hard to imagine a community of “Operating Systems Critics” getting together the day before Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference to lament and celebrate the role of the critic in the present and future of operating system discourse.

But given game development’s attachment to technological progress, we often fool ourselves into thinking that aesthetics operates by the same progressive logic as science and technology. Of course, a faster microprocessor doesn’t lead to more profound and meaningful computational representation, so much as it replaces it. The very idea of more meaningful computational expression ends up referring to whatever it is we can do with do with the obviously new and better material firmament of the present technological moment. “Improving games” just means making games today instead of yesterday. Likewise the future offers guaranteed success. When we talk about “the future of games,” we’re really just talking about tomorrow instead of today. You might as well just say “making games.”

This move means that the role of any critic who claims that his or her work is “improving games” by drawing attention to the failings of the past and the opportunities of the future becomes reincorporated into technological progressivism. Which means that the critic who hopes to intervene in the gaming ecosystem by introducing interpretive novelty is actually—and counter-intuitively—doing just the opposite.

Instead, the critic’s only possible move is to treat individual works as subjects of deliberate analysis. That is to say, the only thing a critic can reasonably do is to write specific criticism on specific games. This sounds easy, but it’s actually trickier than it seems, because it requires ignoring the ordinary discourse of games or even opposing it. But we have to do that while also serving as members of it in order to know what the hell we’re talking about in the first place.

2. Improving games criticism

This second failing is really just a corollary of the first. When “games criticism” becomes a domain that can alter and improve itself, it risks subscribing to the same techno-progressivism it needs to critique. So, when we look at earnest and profoundly worthwhile projects like the book series Boss Fight Books and Press Select or the online resource Critical Distance or the online scholarly journal Game Studies, or this very meeting, we have to pause and ask whether these tools, all of which hope to facilitate the production of individual analysis, don’t first create a circumstance that risks replacing the individual analyses they purportedly facilitate. We are here not to talk about games, but to talk about talking about games.

Which doesn’t mean we should abandon doing so! But instead, we need to admit that there’s a tension between facilitating a particular kind of platform for criticism (or for anything else) and actually doing the criticism that the platform is meant to facilitate, rather than collapsing back on the idea of doing the criticism that the platform facilitates.

Think about crowdfunding as a parallel situation. On the one hand, platforms like Kickstarter facilitate the financing and creation of new creative works like games and films and coffeepots, but on the other hand, the Kickstarter campaign itself has quickly become its own entertainment activity, a replacement for the media the campaign purports to underwrite. Whether the products get created or not is beside the point—and if they do, they almost always fail to meet our expectations for them. It’s the same reason we buy games from Steam sales and Humble Bundles and then never play them—the idea of a game is so much better than the reality.

As critics, we shouldn’t orient too much of our work toward a futures market of a hypothetical community of critics, but instead we ought to do the critical work itself for the sake of saying something relevant and important about a specific game for a specific reason. The more apparatus we develop, the more our work addresses that apparatus, rather than particular games or games in general.

3. Making you feel good

The critic speaks from a position of remove. Not just remove from the work, but also at a remove from oneself. Unlike the artist or the designer or even the writer, the critic’s work is not oriented around the self, but around the other.

Being a critic is not an enjoyable job. I mean that in the most practical, ordinary sense of the word: criticism is not pleasurable. It’s not as bad as being a coal miner or an actuary, although at least miners and actuaries get paid. But just as it is hard to do for pay, so it is harder to do for gratification. The critic speaks in his or her own voice not primarily to give voice to that voice, but to speak through it on behalf of others.

This is not because the critic is selfish. When done right, criticism is the ultimate generosity. This is because the critic does not create his or her own expressive output, but focuses the output of others.

Good criticism tends to do this by answering the question “What the fuck is even going on?” This is the question that audiences don’t even know they want answered. They don’t know what to ask. They are awash in a barrage of noise that only the critic can tune into signal. What the fuck is my kid doing all the time in Minecraft? What the fuck, why can’t I stop playing Flappy Bird even though I hate it? Why the fuck is everyone talking about Titanfall?

This means that the critic must above all else speak clearly and lucidly, and must speak to be heard rather than to have spoken. While the critic can certainly find pleasure and challenge in the craft of writing, like the journalist or the cleric or the therapist the critic’s work always quietly abjures, moving to the background, making way. Thus, critics must take even greater care to refine their output. The editor is not someone who crushes the voice of the critic, but someone who helps fine-tune the signal that the critic’s antennae plucked out from noise.

Unlike the artist, the critic makes no appeal to something that “had to come out.” The critic answers questions, starting with the most fundamental question: what is this thing even? Why does it exist? And then the critic answers questions that offer relief: What do I do with it? What am I not seeing that I don’t know I’m missing? What will cure the sickness that I don’t even know I have?

Does Game Criticism Exist?

When I started doing games criticism, even using the word “game criticism” felt like a word-of-faith name-it-and-claim-it affair. The idea that there could be game criticism, that one could exert the critical muscle on games, it seemed unlikely and even preposterous. It was its own outcome, the curiosity that replaced example. I saw myself trying out some methods and examples of that process rather than trying to found a field or a discipline, or to become known as a game critic. If the latter things happened—and I’m not sure they did—then they happened by accident.

I’m not sure there is a games criticism community, and I’m not sure there ought to be one. I think this might be the difference between us—us being, I don’t know, the you I perceive to be the hopeful voice for a new generation of  game criticism, which might have mistaken the state of affairs that preceded you as evidence that there was, in fact, an old generation of games criticism.

The era of fields and disciplines had ended. The era of critical communities had ended. And the very idea of games criticism risks balkanizing games writing from other writing, severing it from the rivers and fields that would sustain it. Games criticism is subsistence criticism. There’s not enough land to till in games alone. Nor in literature alone, nor in toasters alone. God save us from a future of games critics, gnawing on scraps like the zombies that fester in our objects of study.

I have the impression that those who chose to be here today want a place, a zone of comfort and belonging. That you might feel as though you were denied one that you deserve. That others might possess it, might guard it jealously. But I’m not so sure.

I spend time in a lot of different communities. As a humanist, as a computer scientist, as a journalist, as a non-fiction author, as a game designer, as an artist. But I don’t really feel at home in any of them. Maybe this is because at heart I am really a critic, and the critical soul is anathema to belonging. Belonging requires immersion in first-order observations, and the critic must always be able to make second-order observations. But once one starts doing so, he can never go back. It’s a Pandora’s box; a red pill. Welcome to the desert of the real.

The artist takes mud and turns it into gold, to borrow a line from the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. The critic turns the gold back into mud again. It’s the inverse of alchemy, and nobody will ever call for an inalchemist. But in the long run, and even though they’ll never admit it, the public would rather mold mud in their hands than store gold away in their closets.

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