There are times it shows I have immigrant parents because of the large gaps in my American pop knowledge. My household listened to reggae and watched Bollywood films when I was young instead of folk and westerns. Most recently, I found out that the Freemasons were actually a thing, when previously I thought they were among the ranks of the Illuminati in the conspiratorial conscious. I was waiting to speak on a panel at IndieCade inside a Masonic lodge, where wooden chairs and thrones lined the walls and checkerboard tiles were inserted in the middle of the floor. I felt ominously regal sitting up front in that stuffy room, about to talk about game criticism with some of my peers.
My conversation with Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, and Tim Rogers wasn’t as adversarial as I would have preferred. It was clear that we had differences on how we saw, experienced, and hoped for games criticism, but never really got to challenge each other on our points. I found it fitting that we discussed this topic in the confines of a secretive fraternity; there were members of the panel who had the secret passwords, but maybe didn’t know it yet.
Without my intervention, I felt there was a large oversight on the environment needed for game criticism to exist and flourish. And not just the criticism of games as a concept, but the very particular kind embodied by younger critics used to come up against conventional thinking about games and writing. Why there seems to be confusion around the existence and deployment of criticism is because there is no real, validated structure for it. Who, exactly, are game critics? The kind of people discussed in the panel most likely does not match everyone in the conversation. There are reviewers and journalists who consider themselves game critics, but what was being referenced was more of an academic criticism.
The presence of academia really muddles this situation, as it has many tendrils. For one, those identified with games criticism (or bloggers, if you must) tend to have some sort of critical theory background. Most go through a process of starting our their writing like undergrad English papers (myself included) and eventually responding to the literacies and interests of the general audience. So while many people are affiliated with academia, and the struggles with and against the privilege that comes along with it, the surrounding community aims to break from it enough to be responsive to many readers. There is some artistry to this.
At the same time, this is also a very low-tier academia, and not games studies or design. On the top of this spectrum are people like Ian and Frank, who could be seen as critics for this medium. But they aren’t getting their money from writing criticism, it is secondary to the positions they already have. In our panel, they didn’t seem to really meet with me at how hard it is to simply exist as a critic, and I have a feeling it’s because they have that standing already. They might have ascended to general culture critics that were never really a part of the media, unlike what I think of games criticism now. It’s something we didn’t have the time to really get into on the panel, so I hope there’s a round 2 in our future.
Then came the final question in our Q&A: “Is game criticism art?”
I think I saw a wave of grief wash over my co-panelists as they abdicated from answering the question. I answered with a flat no. That’s because I knew it was a memetic troll by I Get This Call Everyday creator David Gallant, referencing the terrible twitter arguments of days past (hopefully). What was surprising is when people afterward thought we were being rather dismissive or unfair to David’s question, because I thought by now we’d be past any art questions. But after I started to think about it, there is at least an artisan quality to the environment that surrounds games criticism right now. So, I’ll engage with it:
Is game criticism art?
To start off, I am always going to answer ‘Is X Y?’ with ‘sure.’ Mostly, I see something like art as a lens or perspective; you can see something as art, and bring in what you understand of that to extract meaning. I subscribe to a lot of constructivist leanings, meaning, I don’t think much is intrinsic to ourselves, we have our own understandings and we should respect people’s understandings of themselves.
What I think is really interesting about recent developments in games criticism is how creative it’s getting. Take some of the front-runners associated with this circle: Jenn Frank, Patricia Hernandez, Lana Polansky, Cara Ellison, Maddy Myers. Thinking of their most notable works, they depart from just being a lens, just telling you facts, and really using creative elements to craft the experience of the piece. You are meant to feel affected, your emotional journey with the author means something to what’s happening.
This is why, during our panel, I balked at the assumed stance that we should have a distance from what we are discussing. Because that’s not what’s going on here, it’s actually the radical subjectivity of perspective that makes games criticism shine right now. The self as lens, the self as design, this is our current paradigm. Just like how personal experience as design is being accepted into the conversation, personal experience as criticism struggles for its own in this community. I think there’s a reason we have such an uptick in minority writers as of late, and it’s because of this change. Games and its criticism was homogeneous, and therefore couldn’t produce much of the conversation about how games are culturally situated. Now that we have authors saying they connected emotionally with games past nostalgia, we have people saying how their identities are validated and refuted in play worlds. It only follows that audiences are responding and now have more distinct expectations for what they consume.
And here is why criticism can’t seem to catch on in games media. This new expression resists the consumerist model games (and other kinds, sure) journalism is built on. The media makes its money off of the news, previews, and reviews culture, which attracts a certain kind of consumer to be advertised towards. Unless they have an alternative model, it is the salaried journalists who provide criticism, and this is usually still in relation to what their consumer readers want. There is also a very rigid, consumer-focused interpretation of what previews and reviews should be, which doesn’t include this kind of criticism. Only the top tier of freelance talent, like Leigh Alexander and Ian, can visit a publication and write criticism for it. Especially with her latest works, Leigh is making room for blogger-like criticism in general journalism, but she is at a ridiculous senpai level that affords her that opportunity (not undeservedly). The long and short of it is games media structure doesn’t, or can’t, pay for games criticism, because the writing is moving into a very creative, subversive spot in our culture. Combine this with a general internet publishing problem of readers being trained that they shouldn’t have to pay for what they read online, and you have a very hostile environment for these artists.
The ideal situation would be for capitalism to crumble, but as we wait for that, I think we could look to other media for what to do. That is, retake reviews from its heavy consumerist bend and insert the artistry we’ve been cultivating in games criticism. Part of this is to usurp our forebears, to challenge and complicate the hegemony that is in game design and academia. I don’t think we can do this in the games media, which is collapsing and restructuring in ways that only reinforce old ideologies until eventually there won’t be much opportunity outside of the established giants. Instead, we could aim for more general publications, or hide out in our respective fields and write for other subject matters from a play perspective. Something has to give; either the public directly sponsors critics, publications begin to value this kind of writing, or benevolent investors take over. In case it isn’t clear: most game critics are financially struggling, especially because they come from a generation of people expected to get an education and a job, but instead just have loans and an overcrowded job market. People think I’ve ‘made it’ as a writer, but as of this writing, I sit on a negative bank balance and tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no way to repay it all.
The bottom line of all the problems with games criticism: nothing is there to support the writers. There is no environment for artists to create and live healthy lives. The world is getting more game criticism than it deserves. If the people on top in academia wish for more interrogative conversations to be happening in the general media, they need to help restructure the environment so talent can actually grow. To recognize the people doing the work, because the media isn’t.
At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the answer is for all this. I don’t speak for all critics, nor have all taken my path. But we should realize the politics that partitions off the criticism academia wishes to see more of, and the kind consumerist media values. Maybe if we look past the joke and see games criticism as art, we can find a place for it somewhere, somewhere that isn’t here.
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