I am going into full-student mode for the next couple of months, since games and conferences took over the better part of my life these past two years. Thankfully, I’m taking some interesting classes that even just two weeks in have made me think of some issues surrounding games criticism and activism. In particular, I’ve been thinking about discourse and what the unspoken forces are that shape how we talk about games.
Discourse is a bit of a contested word, as it is something that academics use and some people see it as imposing a posture onto public conversation. I want to give a couple takes on the word and have it hang out without being constantly evoked, because I think the concept is useful to think about. Mainly, it is the conversation surrounding a particular topic, from articles to speeches to research to art. In general, the documentation of what’s been said. I find discourse often refers to professional writing on a given conversation, and then it broadens out from there depending on who you’re talking to.
In my detective fiction class, we’re looking at discourse on a much more micro level, such as literally anything communicated that relates to a given mystery, both to the fictional detective and the reader, who is also a detective. From this perspective, it’s easier to practice skepticism towards how discourse is being communicated, since the detective knows they are constantly being deceived to think a certain way. This is the same for the reader, and not just in detective fiction, but in everything that has discourse.
What is the discourse around games criticism saying to us? Or, in particular, what is considered part of the ‘conversation’? Let’s say someone is teaching a class about games criticism, who and what would be included as canon?
I previously mentioned how I’d like to see more than article writing, and more diversity past work that echoes an academic training. Which doesn’t mean burn the academics, rather let’s widen this circle to become more diverse of different ways of thinking and expression. Not only that, let us VALUE these other expressions and have them on equal ground to already established valued work.
Recently, someone passed along this article about how activism on social media as labor is obscured. Anyone involved with or observant of games criticism and social justice on Twitter knows how exhausting it is seeing the news churns out so much to respond to. Juxtaposing this with games critics seeking sustainable pay for their work, what about the unrecognized critics and work that happens on social media? It’s not a hard sell that engaging with Twitter is work to anyone who is involved with media, but to ask for compensation seems wilder than the current funding methods we deploy. This extends out to on-paper jobs as well, such as community managers, who (surprise!) are often women tasked with emotional labor that is devalued. Link that back to this surge and resistance to creative work emphasizing personal perspective, and it’s not hard to imagine that we have unspoken hegemony in what we want from games criticism.
Funny enough, in the middle of writing this, I got into a conversation on Twitter about the attention we pay to AAA games, in this case Remember Me, when it comes to social issues. I feel like criticism has this constant pull, or temptation maybe, to seem legit or effective by returning to rationalize largely problematic, vapid works disproportionately to ones that are pushing artistic boundaries based on broad reach. In the end, trying to look like an academic games journalism is just going to hold us back, a scary looking monster that wields critical focus on everything but its own consumer habits. This isn’t a call for a ban on writing about mainstream games, but rather one to consider what kinds of critical work we value. As a community of thinkers that aren’t necessarily attached to a publication, we keep within the hype cycles of AAA development while bemoaning its stagnancy, despite the lively arts scene that surrounds us. I feel like different games prompt different kinds of criticism, which is why there are so many textual analyses instead of design breakdowns; mainstream games put forth their narrative and visuals, and their play design tends to be unremarkable past reviewer-like comments. What about smaller, weirder games that don’t have that, that all you have is play? I think about how I wrote my list of memorable 2013 games and how I felt I could respond to The Stanley Parable. Hell, I even did some Twitter poetry for Daisy Fitzroy which made some poor redditors concerned I might kill children. Even more interesting, with the advent of the DIY game development culture, many critics are now game designers. I responded to Passage, among other things, with Mainichi. Get a group of critics together and I’m sure you’ll find someone’s made a game. The potential for criticism to be more than the conventions its already bound up in is found outside of my work of course, and I’m curious if other modes of expression along with a focus on alternative games would encourage more people to create criticism. At least, we could use more people for the large amount of games left uncovered.
As an aside, I find it interesting that game jams seem to be a developer-oriented mode of criticism. Many themed ones like the Naked Twine Jam resemble the Blogs of the Round Table Critical Distance does, and the Candy Jam seems to have supplied the commentary on the controversy surrounding King that critics didn’t really find a way to respond to at length. I am weary at the blanket use of game jams as a response, however, as many developers are still learning about how their actions and creations are political in nature. Because games are so used to being treated like commodities, game jams that don’t explicitly set themselves apart from mainstream culture get wrapped back up into it, much what I think is problematic about Flappy Jam.
Besides needing a better archival culture around games criticism, we could use more encouragement to step outside of our comfort zones and the essay for expressing criticism. I’m skeptical of how more long form, academic, journal-like publications pop up despite its inaccessibility being made rather clear. Are we writing for each other more than anything else? I’m uncomfortable more of us haven’t reached for video, or visual art, or games to do criticism. I’m uncomfortable that mainstream journalism still seems to dictate our conversations. And I’m guilty of this too! Instead of checking out the latest game, try seeing what’s new on forest ambassador or freeindiegam.es. A varied diet hasn’t hurt anyone.
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