“But that doesn’t mean anger isn’t valuable”: Notes on Critical Proximity 2014

“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 topics in journals and books, and then pour short summaries of each prior work into a self-aggradising historiography that only exists to prove that your work is new and unique in some way. It’s the rubric: you have to shit on other people in order to get ahead.”

            – Zoya Street, “Reaching Criticity”

I would have liked to get this post out a few days earlier, but I think the work-induced ruminating and marinating isn’t all that bad. For those of you who don’t know, Critical Proximity (CP) was a conference put together by Zoya and others to discuss the state of the art, what games criticism might have been/be/become. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, but since they’re considerate people, there was a Twitch stream available to the public and the videos and transcripts of talks have been archived. This is a lengthy post because I want to treat each of the talks individually, there was just too much of value happening there not to. I start with a short essay on the collective conference and then offer individual responses to the talks that have transcripts posted alongside them.

Unfortunately, this is a solo act, but CP itself wasn’t. Why put on a conference about games criticism? Why take this proposed solitary act – criticism – and craft a collectivity out of it? Well, to put it bluntly, without that collective, there aren’t many of us doing this work, and if there are still people doing it, the knowledge produced isn’t anywhere near what has been produced. I’ll talk about this a bit more when I specifically discuss Zoya’s talk, but I would like to note that I know that I’m definitely not writing this post if there isn’t some sense of collective within games criticism. Honestly, I don’t know how seriously I would be taking games at this point in my life if not for that collective of authors and ideas.

The big, over-arching issue that I’d like to talk about in this intro is the audiences of the conference (Sorry, I’m a one-trick pony). As I was watching the talks and looking at the Twitter feed (search #CritProx for some great, short responses to talks) there was a sense that everyone was talking to a slightly different audience. Why is this?

Well, to start with, everyone who sees themselves as being part of this thing has a pretty different background. We’ve studied different things, had different experiences inside and outside of games, and have different expectations of criticism (among other differences). This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an added complication. While Kirk Hamilton and Gaines Hubbell talked about audiences very briefly, I never got a sense of what the audience of CP was, or what the proposed audiences of games criticism for each talk were. Yes, there was this immediate audience – those that showed up to the conference or those tuning into the Twitch stream – but it feels like only looking at that audience would be doing CP a disservice.

Of course, there’s the audience that the name pokes some fun at. CP became something of a pre-conference to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). I’m not certain how that happened or how the conference was organized, so I’m unsure of how strong the tie is there, but let’s run with it for a second. It has been central to this generation/movement/period of games criticism to at least purport a utility to games design and development. We’re writing because we love video games and we want to see them get “better” in the broadest sense. We see criticism as a possible vehicle for this. We hope that developers read our work and think about issues like representation, consumerism, player experience and a whole host of other issues. It is a hope and not a reality for the majority of us and I think many are alright with that being the case. We’re just not OK with sitting on the sidelines when it comes to games.

However, many have talked about this before, so how about we expand the audience even more? CP wasn’t about persuading a developer, writer, journalist, designer, etc. Many of the talks might have been addressed to these individual groups, but this wasn’t an individual thrust, it was a collective one. Who was the audience of CP? I think it might be easier to ask: Who wasn’t the audience of CP? For me, CP was saying to everyone who would listen – and there were a good number of people listening – games critics exist, games criticism is a thing, and we’re going to be here whether you care or not. No, that’s too toned down for CP. It was really, we’re going to keep writing and fuck off if you don’t think we should be taken seriously or if you don’t think this knowledge is valuable. It was an amplified and indirect response to those calling for Lester Bangses, Roger Eberts, and Pauline Kaels of games criticism. It highlighted our own celebrities, yes, but also rejected the ideal of that kind of celebrity in its own way.

However, it didn’t come with the stench of trying to legitimate itself. There was no sense of adolescence at CP like in so many other areas of games discourse. There was no mention of the Citizen Game of Video Kanes nor was anyone upset that people might not be listening. What we saw were a group of people who let go of the legitimacy of games argument a long time ago, freeing them up to discuss games themselves. It was a group of people that were hungry for more, of course, but not dependent on it. At the very least, it was refreshing. Much more than that, though, it was empowering. It was a call to action and an invitation. CP said, “Let’s go out and critique games and make games and critique each other. If you’re interested we’ll be here, come over whenever you want to.”

Responses to Individual Talks

So I want to go through the talks one by one because I don’t want to do individuals the disservice of being lumped into my own reading of what CP was. These responses are mainly attempts to further the conversations being started; to ask how we utilize the knowledge crafted and produced at CP. I’m going to try to do this in the order that they were given. There are some that won’t be discussed, mainly because there was not a transcript available for that talk at the time of writing this (my brain has trouble reading and analyzing the spoken word). I hope to do another post once I have more time to listen to them a few more times and transcribe parts of them. You can watch them all from the Twitch archive here, and they will be posted singularly on their own pages of CP’s site. The timestamps for those not discussed are as follows:

Harry Lee, “Fracturing monocultures with non-traditional community models” : 1:17:00

Cameron Kunzelman, “Five things I learned that helps me think about games but have nothing to do with games”: Video here

Brendan Keogh, “The emergence of book-length games criticism”: 4:33:30 (slides here)

Kirk Hamilton, “Writing games criticism for a mainstream audience”: 5:10:15

Alex Lifschitz, “The treachery of games”: 6:50:00 (slides here)

Zoya Street: Reaching Criticity

I led with Zoya’s quote because I think it’s a bit funny that I’m doing this essay thing even when I agree so much with what he had to say, but I just don’t really know how to do it. It was one of the reasons that I split this post into two sections. I would like this section to seem more like a part of a conversation, even though I realize it’s just a slight variation of the standard essay and the power structure of reader and author is similar, if not the same. You can’t interject or stop me from talking if you don’t like what I’m saying. Mattie Brice has written about the need for variant forms of criticism before, and I definitely hope that more people do that work, but I don’t know how we get there. Is it possible to converse with our audience in the act of criticism, or is there always going to be that separation between critic and audience, method and text?

It might depend largely on how we’re defining conversation. If all parties of the conversation have to be present at once, then it’s much more difficult to create a conversing criticism. However, if we understand that the critic is always in the act of a conversation, then we’re doing it somewhat already. Kenneth Burke uses a metaphor of the unending conversation in The Philosophy of Literary Form that I think is helpful here:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer [them]; another comes to your defense…However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110-111)

It isn’t a perfect metaphor and I’m not sure how it fits with the discussion from Latour that Zoya mentions. Nonetheless, it’s important that we are within a conversation, even when it doesn’t seem like it. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look for ways to make it more explicitly a conversation. We do that in the essay form by fostering inclusion and establishing and amplifying connections between what is being said and what has been said. Outside of the essay form, I don’t know, but I bet someone is working on it.

Mattie Brice – Games criticism as a selfie

I think the main thing that I’ve gotten out of Mattie’s talk is further explanation of the role of experience in criticism. She writes, “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.” This is something that came up often throughout the conference and I think it’s important for those outside of criticism to realize that experience is knowledge. Calls for objectivity deny this idea; that somehow personal experience is too tainted with subjectivity to be considered knowledge, but experience within a lab is completely different.

She also writes, “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.” I sometimes feel this way when writing, and Mattie brings in an excellent point that there is a lack of being confronted with difference in this thought process. However, we also have to acknowledge that this is also a response to the playing of games (as well as interaction with other media) being depoliticized. The role of the critic cannot only be to show and explain the experience of difference, but the reasons for that difference not being experienced by others (a slight distinction, but maybe important?). Additionally, we must be able to look at the pressures of depoliticization in games that puts additional pressure upon the player to not see their play as political.

Ben Abraham – An oral history of videogame blogging

I don’t have too much to say about Abraham’s talk because it’s a history and it’s a history that I don’t know too well. I’m still a newcomer to games criticism in comparison, so I will default to him on the historical points and classifications being drawn out.

The one thing that I would like to touch and something I wish he had discussed more is the emergence of twitter as an important technology for games crit. I’d like to know what that effect has been. Is there a definitive decrease in the use of comments sections on games criticism sites with twitter? What happens to the conversation when we use twitter to talk about pieces rather than the comments? The first issue that I could see is a problem of archiving. Sure, you can track the URL’s of texts on twitter and their responses and compile them and archive that, but are people doing that work? For a few months now, I’ve been PDF’ing articles that I like and want to reference in the future, just in case the site goes down or something else comes up. That captures the comments, but freezes the conversation in time, which is equally problematic. Even prior to archiving, there is the problem of access. A comments section is visible and complete and allows for commenters to pick up on minute details that might be lost when comments are dispersed through tweets. Maybe? I’m not sure, but I’d love to see more on it.

Stacey Mason – Badges of cred: Examining the phases of a scene

So, I’m not entirely certain if Mason is looking at the games criticism collective as a scene or games players as a scene in this piece. The model that she proposes is one that I think works well within a stereotyped gamer community, but how does it work for games criticism?

Let’s talk about the word ‘scene’ for a second. While it isn’t something that Mason argues for, I can’t see the word scene and not think of punk/hardcore scenes. I also have a hard time divorcing the word scene from particular geographical places. I’m sure this is all partly because of me growing up listening to punk and being interested in the different kinds of punk that rose of out different areas. I also don’t know how well ‘scene’ works with games criticism. With ‘scene’ I think much more of an exclusive group of known producers with the rest of the scene being made up of fans. Yes, the fans produce music too, they might produce a zine or write show reviews, but I’ve always noticed a more concrete producer/consumer relationship and I’m unsure of criticism’s space in that sort of scene.

This might work when we’re talking about hardcore or masocore gaming, but I’m not sure if I’m comfortable calling games criticism a scene. In the games criticism whatever-we’re-calling-it, there can’t be that split between producer and consumer. We’re all producing and consuming at the same time and that’s how we create conversations. We’re still fans, but that fandom doesn’t get in the way of criticizing each other.

Samantha Allen – Community or island nations?

If you haven’t realized, I’ve been avoiding typing the word “community” like the plague while writing this piece. I’ve been trying to use the word collective instead because I don’t know what this games criticism thing is and I don’t know what ‘community’ really means . What do communities do? How does one delineate a community?

Samantha writes, “Community-building is what happens when people work together on the same project.” While I think she’s right, I wonder how we’re thinking of ‘project’ here. Samantha uses a very localized example, writing, “I don’t consider myself to be part of a community, but when I have the time to do a project like ‘Bunk Bed,’ I feel like I’m building community.” Does the project have to be that focused?

It’s weird that when I was typing this, I made a mistake and wrote “Community of island nations.” Is it possible to have a group of individuals with the dual identity of community and island nation? This is sort of how I am treating CP in this post? Many games critics seem to have similar ideals and values, but we largely work alone in our attempt to meet the goals those values bring up. This might all be an issue of semantics and my own personal aversion to words like community and scene (a privilege of a straight, white man). I’d like to not worry about the word as much as the processes, values and ideals of the collective, but there are problems with that too, I think.

Patrick Klepek – Bridging the critical gap

Klepek starts by criticizing his own proposed title for his talk, “Pushing big sites to have a critical eye,” and I’m not sure why. Yes, it might not be the most elegant phrasing in the world, but are we really looking to bridge the gap between criticism and journalism, critique and review? And if so, how is that bridge being constructed? I think pushing works better here because I certainly don’t feel like someone is also pressing out across the gap to try to meet me in the middle. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Giant Bomb is one of many sites trying, but I have doubts that IGN would ever want to link to some of our works. If this bridging is successful it would be because of a place like Giant Bomb – a middle ground site that has major readership. However, I have to wonder if the influences of these medium-sized sites would be cited in posts by larger sites. We heard from Ben Abraham that Kotaku’s Maggie Greene linked to a lot of earlier criticism, but I don’t know if that would happen today. It’s fine to me if they wouldn’t, but I’d like us to be realistic about the relationship between blogger with a readership of 50-100 people, a site with several hundred followers, another with several thousand and another with a million. The power relationships there are very different and those differences get manifested in many ways.

So, I don’t see it in the transcript, but during the talk I noted that Patrick said something about the bridge between criticism writers and larger sites being able to ‘trickle down and help all of us.’ I don’t want to skewer Patrick for saying this, especially because I’m not entirely sure if that quote is exactly right. That being said, I don’t know what sort of trickle down we’re expecting or hoping for. Yes, if Giant Bomb or some other larger site features our work we might see increases in traffic and more twitter followers, but is that the extent of the trickle down? Does a more critical large site allow for critics to shift focus away from some things? What is the likelihood that these sites do take up this critical eye and consequently shift the conversation to a more liberal/centrist tone? Maybe they’ll discuss representation, but might not call themselves feminists. It’s an important thing to think about. I’m all for fostering criticity on the large scale, but if the practice gets whitewashed or depoliticized, then what do we do? There won’t be a strict duplication of the thoughts on criticism blogs, because there needs to be some sort of translation that happens there. They’re writing for different audiences and they are funded through corporate advertising, which are constraints many of us don’t deal with. We can’t just foster critical thinking about games; we need to foster critical thinking about the entirety of the games production and reading process.

Alex Cox – My grandma has no idea what Gone Home is

It’s hard for me to comment on such a personal talk, and it was great to see CP bring in someone that was doing exactly what many other talks were putting forth – that personal experience is inherently tied to criticism and a knowledge in itself. Alex’s talk makes me think about the audiences that are being left out of the act of criticism. Who are those that just don’t know that we exist? How can we still interact with them and show them the worth of different kinds of games? How can we get to the point where games aren’t stereotyped as a certain kind of thing?

I know some people say that the only thing to do is let those with old, stereotyped ideas of games die off, but I don’t know if we can be as complacent as that. Alex states that she’s going to boot up Gone Home the next time she sees her grandmother, and that is a fantastic start. I hope her grandmother tells all of her friends about the game and that the knowledge of it grows. That the knowledge that games can be more than Call of Duty and GTA spreads in that localized community grows and evolves. But that still leaves us with the groups outside of that localized area thinking about games in a certain way. It’s a problem we run into in academia as well. I’m not sure what the answer is other than showing people, face to face, that games don’t have to be that certain thing that they’ve heard on the news, but I hope it is something that we can find solutions to.

Liz Ryerson – Five things that give me hope about videogames

“there’s been a lot of talk about the problems of the industry and videogame culture, but a lot of it tends to end up centering back on whatever’s the next biggest thing, even when it’s all the problems with the next biggest thing. i understand there are a lot of reasons why critics do this – because that’s what they know, or that’s what people read – but it ends up feeding back into these games’ PR cycles in the end.” 

I want a games criticism collective that embraces the criticism of both triple-A games and games whose only playthrough comes from the critic themselves. I have seen a ton of writing over the past six months or so that tries to tell off people for working with big games, working with the popular and I’ve gotten incredibly sick of it. I don’t want to take it all out on Liz here, but this sort of stuff has been getting my blood boiling and I can’t really hold back much longer. Criticism can’t be based on its object, but on its processes and it’s as much of a problem for writers as it is for readers. Readers can’t be going into criticism thinking that they won’t read something just because of the game it looks at. We need to be reading criticism of all sorts of games. Without that variety, we’re stuck in even smaller collectives that won’t know what others are thinking of and writing about. I want to know about the interesting parts of small games and big games because I don’t know who is going to be reading my work and taking that knowledge with them in designing or playing a game. I know that there has always been a certain split between popular and art criticism, especially in film and literature. However, those practices were largely academic and looked solely to emphasize the importance of the critics themselves. Games criticism can be different. We can synthesize the problems and triumphs of both the “high” and the “low” by talking to a more general audience. We make these objects applicable to larger audiences and draw connections to objects that are outside of their own circles.

This is why I like where Ryerson ends:

“let me put it bluntly – if we can’t find ways to engage in dialogue with stuff outside our own communities and subcultures, what we say and do is destined to obscurity. which is why we need to sit down and take this stuff seriously, so we can create the sort of communities we would like to see.”

It’s incredibly important that we’re reading all kinds of writing on all kinds of subjects, and that none of us are necessarily reading the same thing. However, we can’t be focusing on the type of game as defining the collective if we want this to succeed. If we do, we’re destined to fail when that type of game turns into something else or falls off the side of the planet. Developing and experiencing different processes, values and ideals? That’s how we keep this thing going.

Gaines Hubbell – Games writing and academic institutional authority

Oh man…THIS FUCKING GUY, am I right?

Of course I’m kidding here. Gaines is one of my best friends and has done some of the most thankless work for JGC – copyediting. It’s weird to critique his talk because he involved me in formulating it and I was so proud to see JGC represented alongside all of these other amazing people in such an awesome way by an awesome person.

But fuck being nice to Gaines and nice to myself. We all know there were still problems with that talk, just like the rest of the talks given. It painted academia with an incredibly broad brush and left out quite a bit. Also, the talk didn’t really talk about the ways that JGC falls back upon certain academic norms while challenging others. It didn’t mention how blind-peer review is problematic; how it promotes a certain kind of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Yes, we’re different than most academic publications, but we have to negotiate some of those changes by bringing in certain things that academia sees as absolutely necessary to be considered a journal.

Fuck, the talk didn’t even mention about our use of the word “Journal” in the title of our publication, which has long been something that I kind of regret doing. I could have easily called the publication Games Criticism and nothing else; it isn’t unprecedented. However, I made a choice to lead with the word Journal. A word that brings academic writing to the forefront. A word that can invoke feelings of exclusion based on prior experience with academia. A word that has too much baggage for me to understand because it’s so normalized in my mind and I stupidly haven’t take the time to unpack.

I don’t know that there’s a point to this response other than to say, much like Gaines’ talk, we’re academics and we’re also pretty uncomfortable with academia. We’re trying to deal with that discomfort through changing what an academic journal might look like and we hope that you all (academics or not) try to affect academia in your own way.

Richard Terrell (kirbykid) – The philosophy of Game.Play.Critique

I’m going to be up-front with you, I have spent about 60 seconds on the site that Terrell is discussing here and had never heard of the game Starseed Pilgrim prior to his talk. That being said, this seems like an interesting idea. I was talking to Gaines about it and he said something along the lines of, “We aren’t spending enough time on each game,” and I agree. I think there is a need for spaces where singular games are being discussed, but I wonder who the audience is for these things.

Terrell is putting forward an interesting possible process of criticism with the primary audience of gamers themselves. I say interesting because I don’t think of players (here: those in some way separate from the player-critic) as my primary audience. I would love them to be, but I realize what I talk about might not appeal to a large number of players instead of the player-critics that I often envision as readers.  Terrell is envisioning a collective that is equally for the player and the player-critic. I’m not sure how much a separation between those two groups actually exists and how much I’m thrusting upon the two.

Cara Ellison – This is not my whole experience of games

“This is when critics have a sensibility in their criticism that translates very well to the mainstream press, and so writing about games in the mainstream press becomes possible for those writers.” 

This is what Cara Ellison had to say in defining her newly-coined “Parkin-Bogost Continuum” (which you HAVE to look at the powerpoint for), describing a kind of way for people to break into larger outlets of games journalism/criticism. I’ll be talking about Bogost more in a bit, but I think the word ‘sensibility’ is a bit misleading/tricky here? It isn’t necessarily that these authors are inherently ‘sensible’, but that they are seen that way by these outlets. There is an equalization of what the outlets view as valuable and what these people are writing. They already had to have some sort of voice and audience for them to be picked up by major outlets too.

I wonder who this model leaves out? Cara also mentions the many sites that are between IGN/Kotaku and a blog like my own and many of them remind me of sites that promote alternative views and marginalized writers. But is this Parkin-Bogost Continuum (If Ellison ever falters in games, which she won’t because she does awesome/original work, she could have an interesting career in neologism-creating) available to many of those marginalized writers? Would the LA Review of Books pick up someone discussing trans issues in games? I’m not as familiar with Parkin’s work as I am with Bogost’s, so I don’t know the subjects of his work as well. Nonetheless, Bogost is not someone known for discussing representation issues in games; he has been a advocate of proceduralism after all. I think Cara is right that this process exists, but is that something that people want to be a part of this newer games criticism?

Kris Ligman – Curators are class enemies

Just to start, I wanted to say that Kris Ligman was the only person who floored me with language alone on the day of CP. Kris writes, “This goes back to refusing to treat Critical Distance as a curator of canon, but rather as a custodian of dialogue. What we curate is necessarily inflected with our biases, yes, even when we do our best to check for them, or to hand the platform over to another voice.” I am not quite sure what it was about the phrase ‘custodian of dialogue’ that got to me, but I think it has something to do with my own desires and goals in criticism. I’ve never seen my ideal place in this discourse so succinctly and beautifully summarized. I’ve heard ‘curator’ used in place of custodian, but it just doesn’t work that well. Curators can assemble an exhibit and leave it; custodians take on the everyday tasks of the exhibit. They’re there to aid in getting the curated messages across, to clean and polish the buildings that these exhibits and dialogues are housed in, and they’ll be there when a different exhibit rolls in.

Ligman also writes, “Rather, I approach Critical Distance as being in a position to offer an alternative to the canon already being promoted by hegemonic power structures: popular websites, mainstream developers, well-financed institutions.” When can we call Critical Distance a canon of its own? Is that a possibility or can canon only exist within a hegemonic space? Is there space for two corresponding and intertwining canons? I’m not certain of the answers to these questions, but, personally, I want to promote Critical Distance every chance I can. Not just as an alternative, but as a canon in its own right. The idea of canon holds some power and Critical Distance is owed and definitely has some kind of power. Is the power the same as the mainstream canon? Probably not. But we might still be able to change that?

Joe Köller – The future of free

When I saw the title of this talk, I thought it was going to be about free-to-play games. I’m really glad that it wasn’t. Instead Joe talked about Patreon and the economic problems of the game criticism “industry”. Earlier in the day, with other talk of Patreon, I wondered, “How do people get in to Patreon?” Not a nuts-and-bolts question, but I think turning to Patreon takes a ton of courage that I just don’t have. The possibility of a service putting that sort of number value on my work terrifies me and I’m fairly certain that signing up for something like Patreon would break me. I’m very thankful that Joe was open with his own experience with Patreon because it gave a very different view of the platform than other talks. That being said, I’m glad it’s working for some people, in particular for marginalized groups.

The idea of future payoff is an oppressive pressure. It’s terrible to see that this model of labor has intertwined itself with games criticism, but it’s something I’m quite used to. Most, if not all, graduate students are. It’s different, since some of us are still getting paid for the direct work we do within our own institutions, but the reason many of us write journal articles and go to conferences is because of future prospects. We’re told that if we publish enough, we’ll be desirable and I never know how true that is.

As Koller points out, the problem with not being compensated for the work you do is not only a personal problem: it cuts the ability of people to set up their own institutions. JGC, and possibly Haywire as well, is a money-losing enterprise. We can’t pay authors because we can’t even pay ourselves. Koller mentions how that is slightly mitigated by the things our outlets do provide, writing, “You could for instance, rely on us for editing, proofreading, hosting, sourcing images and all that, and still use the resulting text for your own Patreon campaign, and I really hope this is something people would be interested in, cause it’s also something I am currently trying myself.” I hope these advantages are seen by some authors. However, it still passes the buck on to Patrons and not on to some organization that pays and provides benefits for critics.

Alan Williamson – The lost world of magazines

I think it’s safe to say that Williamson took home the Proxies for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Use of Dinosaurs in Jets with his video. I don’t have too much else to say about Alan’s talk. Five out of Ten is an incredible publication and I hope it has a long life. Additionally, it makes me wonder if there are other forms/mediums that have come and gone in the past decade or so that need to be brought back in. What would a mix tape of games criticism look like? What is games criticism television or film? How can other mediums aid in the understanding of games and what can they offer us that is different from the website-formatted essay?

Zolani Stewart – Why weird games are important

“I want to start this with a statement, which is that a games criticism, a games writing that is incapable or unwilling to incorporate critique of capitalism, a skepticism of industry, and a disinterest in commercialism into its structure and form isn’t very useful.” 

So, I agree and I disagree here. I’ve been thinking more and more about the reproduction of capitalist values, ideals and practices within games for the past few months and I would love to see more work on these subjects. I believe that political economy is going to be a very important methodology for some people within games criticism to see how production and consumption practices of games shape the way they are made and played. However, I won’t say that those that don’t do this, or don’t do this explicitly, are inherently of little value. What we need, I think, are a lot more people like Zolani who make these processes more explicit; people who can take the criticism being done and make the capitalist ideologies of games more explicit, synthesizing many ideas into a coherent whole.

We need writers who are willing to be custodians of this dialogue, to borrow Kris Ligman’s phrase. If we’re building this museum of capitalist critique, we need authors willing to write the placards for the exhibits and make meanings more explicit. Metacommentary helps us understand our own weaknesses and strengths; it helps us fill in some potential blind spots. Obviously, we need to be aware that this kind of metacommentary can, at times, turn to navel-gazing, but we also need to be aware that we’re never quite sure what we might find in the depths of our own belly buttons. It’s been a common theme in many of my responses: there needs to be spaces carved out for all of these things, but I have trouble emphasizing a single method or object or ideal over that of others within the same landscape.

“We’ve taken a lot of blows, and I think we’re constantly put in the position of being critical, being critical of culture, and being critical of controversy, we’re always the ones who have to burn things down but we never get the opportunity to build good things up.” 

I was having a conversation along similar lines with a colleague today about academia. Criticism, as well as academia, breaks the person that wants to work within them. Criticism will turn you into something else, an almost extra-cultural person because of the need to have some sort of distance from the objects being looked at. Maybe it isn’t a distance. To use the name of the conference, it might actually be more of a critical proximity to the objects. We’re so up close to these things that we can’t separate them from our own being. It’s a double-edged sword in that it’s great that we’re invested and love games, but at the same time, it prevents a certain enjoyment at times. I hope we do find more ways to build, since it might be one of the only ways to mitigate this feeling.

Rachel Simon Weil – No bad memories

How do we teach nostalgia through criticism? I don’t have many notes from Weil’s talk and the text on the talk is mostly in outline form, so I won’t be quoting much here, but I like where this sort of research might be heading.

But seriously, how do I teach nostalgia? How can we make sure that nostalgia doesn’t solely apply to Sonic and Mario and arcade classics, but incorporates new games as well? By this I mean, how can we mitigate the nostalgia-creating forces even in new games like Titanfall? How do we make sure that nostalgia doesn’t get seen as historical periods and objects, but as a constant process for games? How do we mitigate these forces within games or are we doomed to a memory of games that is tied to nostalgia based on the level of interaction in games?

Do games inherently craft nostalgia or are we pressured by a normalized interaction with games that leads to a feeling of nostalgia? To answer this we need to understand nostalgia within games and outside of games. This is of particular importance for American audiences since we live in a society rife with nostalgia – one that has a certain liberal conservatism when it comes to the past. Baby boomers love the 1950’s and drive-ins; millenials (I hate the descriptor) love the SNES and Mario. It’s quite oversimplified, yes, but many of us and many other gamers have had a certain worldview of memory passed down to them from previous generations that privileges childhood and the objects experienced in childhood as a pure time. How do we break that? How do we teach those issues through criticism?

Darius Kazemi – Looking at source code

“Now one might ask: why even bother to look at source code at all? It’s a valid question, especially when technological determinism and the reductionism it brings has been such a pervasive, negative force in a couple of decades of dialogue about videogames. So I’m absolutely not saying that source code is the only important factor when looking at a game. What I am saying is that it’s ridiculous to not look at it if you are lucky enough to have it at your disposal.” 

I know I’ve been picking on a lot of little points in these responses, and that the ten-minute format lends itself more to polemic than nuance, but I’m not alright with saying that it is ridiculous to not look at source code if it’s available. Source code can give you different insights and might let you infer different things about the coders and designers, but the conscious rejection of source code should also be a valued perspective of criticism. I think that Darius meant no ill will with his statement, but when I read the word ridiculous in relation to the way I go about criticism, I have a somewhat allergic reaction.

But, getting beyond my own little nitpicky thing, there are a lot of cool things that we can get from code. I think it’s important to supplement arguments involving code with evidence from the code’s representation within the game, but that’s my own problem. Still, I have a lot of questions. How do we involve code into criticism? How does one argue a point with code? How do we explain code to a non-coding audience, especially if we aren’t fluent ourselves? How do we connect code and notes within code to the representations of that code within the game? How do we connect the player to the code? Can that connection be made without looking at the graphical representations of the game or do we always have to look at the code-player relationship as being one of translation and mediation? Many of these questions have partial answers in Darius’ talk, but this is a kind of writing and argumentation style that I’m completely unfamiliar with. When we find those interesting parts of code, what can we say about or do with them?

Raph Koster – A new formalism

“Game grammar, which is the sort of formalism associated with all these folks, pretty much all fits down at the lower end of this. It’s about the harmony and melody of games, which are the most mechanical pieces and also the hardest to see.”

So I have a bit of a problem with putting formalism and game mechanics so tightly together. This sort of thinking doesn’t allow for the player to influence how they experience a game as a game, but puts a flatter understanding of the form of game upon the player. This sentence turned me off when I heard Koster speak for the first time, but then he went on and I was really impressed. Let’s jump to his last paragraph:

“The debates about ‘what is a game’ happened between multiple overlapping circles that have very little to do with one another: who sits on awards panels, and what is taught in universities, and whether feedback is narrative, and whether all kinds of people are able to make games in the culture as it now sits…the debate is completely different depending on where you were standing. ‘Games’ is never going to fall into one bucket or critical lens; but we can build bridges and connections between buckets using these analyses, and in the end that is a far more intersectional approach, because it recognizes identity as well as commonalities. We enrich ourselves and our mutual understanding not by claiming preeminence of one circle, but by learning to move between them.”

I think this is something that I’ve been trying to do within this post. I’ve been trying to at least conceive of the buckets that are forming and I hope more people come along and start building bridges, because synthesizing isn’t my strongest skill. I wonder how we write with a New Formalism bend; how do we take on these ideals and put them into practice? What do we have to stabilize in order to do so? It seems like there is some necessity to concretize a concept like game mechanics or play, but what else? What definitions do we need to have to free up the definitions of other objects within games that allow for differing buckets and new bridges? Can we have several types of formalism floating around and how would they be able to interact? I’m really quite interested in building methodologies for games and I think this is one that could be of incredible value to the criticism collective. Who wants to start building some bridges?

Ian Bogost – What games need?

Throughout this post I’ve wanted to say, “Yes and…” as much as possible. Even though many of these talks were disparate and are very difficult to put together in a meaningful way, I’ve valued what the speakers talked about and see all of them as indispensable to the future of games criticism. I think that we are much worse off when we take out one of these voices, one of these thrusts, one of these emphases, one of these ideals.

I can’t bring myself to say, “Yes and…” to Ian’s talk. It was the most memorable talk for me of the conference, but it was because it made me feel worthless and without future. Simply, it made me angry.

Samantha Allen had some tweets in response to Ian’s talk that I want to reference here because they’re important:Allen1

I think Samantha is particularly spot-on here: by excluding women from education/science/other knowledge structures for most/all of human existence, objectivity and masculinity have an incredibly tight bond that can never be separated in a patriarchal society. It’s not that non-men cannot have a sense of objectivity or believe in it, it’s that our sense of objectivity has been crafted only by men (white men) throughout history and the relation to the object of study is wrapped up in that. That’s a fucking problem.

In addition to just anger, I’m a bit confused. What is it that Ian would like us all to do? He seems to have a soft spot for single-game criticism, so should we all just work within single games and not build a knowledge base of criticism? Should we not care about the players of games and teaching criticity to them? Does he think that change is even possible for games? What assumptions are we making when we talk about critiquing a ‘specific game for a specific reason’?

Every other talk at CP seemed to be a call to a particular action, explicitly or implicitly. But Ian’s talk seems to be a call to inaction, yelling out, “Put down your arms, good critics. There is no war to be fought here!” This is where Samantha’s other tweets come in.

Allen 2

There’s something about ‘new games criticism’ that is tied very directly to the lack of funding, lack of job prospects, lack of moral/economic/political/social support for its work. Games critics know they only have so many words until someone stops reading, not just whatever piece happens to be in front of them, but possibly stops reading the author altogether. Games critics know that they have to represent an alternative view of games. Critics know that textual analysis, subjectivity, and experiential knowledge are not seen as rigorous/valuable procedures or sources of knowledge. Critics know these things and it’s partly because of these things that so many great games criticism texts exist. But that doesn’t mean that it should be this way.

Some closing thoughts:

When I started writing this, I had no idea what it was going to look like when it was finished. I definitely had no idea that it would run this long; but single sentences turned into paragraphs of questions, concerns, and embraces of the talks given. I’m not certain how much of what was written makes sense or really contributes to a discussion or if I even have any right to bring up my concerns in relation to some of these talks. In the next few days as people return from GDC I hope that the discussions coming out of Critical Proximity come online. I realize that many of you who were at GDC were able to discuss the conference in person and I hope to hear more about that. Let us be custodians of dialogue and ensure that the conversations that started can continue to the point of unending.


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9 responses to ““But that doesn’t mean anger isn’t valuable”: Notes on Critical Proximity 2014

  1. dariusk

    You’re right, “ridiculous” is too strong a word. I was writing from my perspective as someone writing a book length look at a videogame; obviously it’s valid to simply play a videogame and critique it; it would be silly to admonish a movie critic for not reading the screenplay if it were available.

    For a much longer form critique, say a book or a master’s thesis, I would be a bit more critical of people ignoring code. Thanks for taking the time to provide some feedback, I appreciate it.

    • I think ‘ridiculous’ is quite a bit less ridiculous with the knowledge that you were tying it directly to book-writing. I don’t know if you want to reveal anything about your upcoming book, but how are you incorporating the code? Are you separating it as its own chapter or interweaving it throughout? I’m really interested in looking at code, but my biggest hurdle is understanding how to write with it.

  2. Jason H

    Great post Nick. Just wanted to add to your points on Bogost. He seemed to be taking issue with the “feed-forward” model of scholarship, i.e. trying to influence the games industry. For one I think it’s absolutely necessary when there are so many problems in games and gaming culture, but more to the point I think we’re already seeing that anyway.

    For example, critics (both academic and otherwise) have been pointing out the problems with representation and a lack of diversity in games for some time. For a long time games have been little more than power fantasies from the perspective of straight, hyper-masculine, mostly white dudes. The past few years have seen a turn away from this model, if still largely outside of the AAA scene. I don’t want to say that’s a direct, causal relationship necessarily, but you have to think there is some influence there.

    Making games that address certain problems means that those problems have been highlighted (i.e. critiqued) beforehand. Sometimes I think Bogost is just being provocative for its own sake.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Thanks for the post.

    • So Gaines and I were talking about this last night and I have some more thoughts on it now. I agree that he was critiquing an idea of feed-forward and I completely agree that we are already seeing some changes occur because of the work that has been going on. However, it seemed like he thought we believed criticism would be a direct action upon developers and I don’t think many of us think that way. Personally, I’m trying to craft an audience of present and future educators that pass these ideas onto their students, so there’s probably about a decade or more of lag behind publication and effect.

      On Ian being provocative for his own sake, yes, I’m sure that is part of it. But that sort of thing really fucks the rest of the conference over. People gravitate towards Ian and I’m sure he has very different readership than the other speakers at CP, giving him a very different rhetorical power. If you just watch Ian’s talk, you miss out on the importance of experience and personality within criticism and it whitewashes what the conference was. Who knows, I might be blowing this completely out of proportion, but allergic reactions tend to make me blow up.

  3. Great writeup!
    Random thing to add to the discussion of Twitter and later access (wrt Ben Abraham’s talk): I don’t recall now if Storify was mentioned in the talk, but that’s one of the secondary technologies around Twitter that allows conversations on Twitter to become referenced later. I have a sense that it’s fallen out of use, but I’m not entirely sure why. Are the conversations just moving to other places? (Not that I can see!)

    • I totally forgot about Storify! I know Mattie used it to chronicle a discussion she had so she could reference it on her blog. I don’t really know why it isn’t being used. I think there’s something about Twitter that enforces an ephemeral view of tweets, so we’re more willing to let them fall to the wayside and not be historicized. That’s at least how I feel about most, if not all, of my tweets – throw them out, there’s nothing there.

      There’s that, and also there’s just adding work to the whole process with Storify. I can PDF a page with a push of a button. There’s no need to organize it. It’s small, but it’s still a barrier that could put some people off some of the time.

      • It definitely takes a lot of work to compile a storify; I did one a year and a half ago because I wanted to capture the reactions to Helen Lewis’ apparently inflammatory article about games writing, and it took hours and felt like a thankless job at times (especially on my old computer which would hang every so often).

        Although, I think there’s an analogy to the ephemerality of tweets and the ephemerality of web discourse in general: maybe it feels ephemeral, but that’s only because we don’t pay attention to how it lives beyond its day. Also, few people are actively trying to preserve it. (But consider the reaction to Twitter letting you download an archive of your tweets: there’s a public joy in exploring your past. There’s also a loaded question, “who does the historicizing?” If we don’t put in the effort to preserve our own histories, someone else will. *steps off the wannabe archivist soapbox*)

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