Letters with John Sharp: Inter-generational conflict in games

Trying something new! I decided to start up some letter series with other thinkers in games, or just generally interesting people I’m connected with to get different perspectives on topics I like to talk about, or important issues games may be facing.  The first person I started chatting with was John Sharp, a professor at Parsons The New School for Design who has a broader view of games that sits well with me and I’m glad to see in a program that features play and technology. When we were finding out what we wanted to talk about, we arrived on some conflict between older academics and designers and younger ones, and I asked him to describe what he thought that tension was. So without further ado, here was his response:

 

John:

hey Mattie-

I’m not sure tension is necessarily the right word, thinking about it more. For me, a lot of it boils down to the values around knowledge, history and criticism. As someone who has an academic background in art history, I’ve been fed a steady diet of “lit reviews,” annotated bibliographies and citations. So my initial response to much of the critical writing I see is, “oh, right, that’s like X and Y and Z. I wonder if they have read/played/watched/heard that?”. Related, it often surprises me when ideas that seemed well-known are treated as new—not necessarily by the critic but by the response to the criticism. It also makes me wonder why certain concepts take hold when explored by younger critics outside academia when they didn’t when explored by academics or older critics/designers/artists.

I’ve come to realize that I’m used to one set of values (that of the humanities within American academia, 1980s leftist punk rock, etc.), while that often has little to do with the values of the younger critics. And though there may be a certain aspects that are “reinventing the wheel,” there is also a lot of new ground being covered from different perspectives, and for different reasons. As a result, I’m learning a lot, and rethinking all sorts of things, big and small.

That’s pretty exciting, at least it could be, if (wearing my academic hat here) the two communities were able to learn from one another. Maybe that’s overly idealistic, or even self-serving of me. I guess that is part of what I hope we can tease out through this dialog between you and me.

Part of this conversation-through-letters format is posing questions. So a couple of questions for you, if I may: what drew you to this conversation format? And what’s your take on Sage Solitaire?

 

Mattie:

I think you make a lot of relevant observations that point to how time and place really affect the dynamics of what is see as two schools of people who differ from each other. Something that might be both subtle and duh at the same time is how much being in different generations is affecting how we approach games discourse; for the most part, people viewed as young upstarts are millennials and are products of growing up with the internet and landing in markets and institutions with expectations they can’t reach unless they are pretty privileged.

With that, I find there is this expectation of our generation to follow the last in games, or at least cite the histories and texts they learned to appreciate. I think we do reference histories that are relevant to us, but they aren’t coming from the same traditions or line of thought that who is appointed as ‘before’ us do. In a way, older academics and designers see us as after them and we don’t see ourselves the same way. We grew up independently, mostly because the older generation was establishing industries and academic programs and we were cobbling things from wherever life took us, so it’s not like we came from any sort of tradition. Right now, your students and protege designers are ‘the next generation’ of that group of people, not us. This is similar to other sorts of generational rifts: social justice online doesn’t really heed much to 2nd wave feminism and its figureheads because it wasn’t grounded in enough intersectional politics, and intersectional feminism took to the internet faster because platforms like social media and forums were the only places those without academic access to talk with people like them about this higher level stuff sometimes. I’m thinking about trans people in particular, who’ve had blowups with older trans people lately. We learned to structure our communities in different ways, through the internet in particular, and learned from there. Many of us didn’t grow up hanging out in clubs for cis gay people, particularly men, as our only method of encountering people like us. By the time we learned about trans-ness, feminism was being taught as influenced by queer and critical race studies, so when some veteran voices speak up it’s easy to feel disconnected from them because it’s like they are speaking another language with different customs and inside jokes that they expect us to get but are actually sometimes horrifying to hear.

So while our work is often influenced by institutions, since many of us went to school and either dropped out or got a degree unrelated to games, our work is not for institutions, like how many older academics took their education to form games studies and academia as a whole. Since we aren’t a part of that tradition, our work isn’t really respected or encouraged by institutions. And if people don’t perceive that they have respect or clout from or in an institution, why would they spend time referencing that institution in their work? It’s entirely possible that the words of younger game critics and designers are respected by established academics, but that is rarely gestured.

Which leads to the main point of difference between the groups: game critics aim to reach different people, from those generally interested in games and sometimes reads thinkpieces to artists outside of games who would recognize our style and bridge-build from there. Reading games criticism isn’t hugely popular, but it’s more pervasive than it was even 5 years ago, so a lot of basic games theory or topics are going to seem new. This ties into how games critics get any sort of support, which is from whatever niche and sometimes general audiences would give them. Despite sometimes using the same language as those in academia or veteran designer positions, game critics ultimately serve those who follow their work, and in general, have stronger social media and writing presences than most academics do. I remember very distinctly when I started writing about how people didn’t respond to my just-out-of-college inaccessibility, and how actually a lot of general publications still find my writing too academic. We’re pressured to learn how to communicate a lot of these thoughts to wider audiences, and to speak as many thoughts as we can. I think this is why things that seem obvious to the established are seen as new to many others, because there’s just simply a wider reach to have when you’re a games critic than when you’re an academic. I’ve seen games criticism dubbed ‘middle-state’ writing before, being between academic and populist writing, and it serves as a translating service from one side to the other sometimes.

With that, games critics are often driven more by current events than any particular line of research. While there are definitely pieces of writings that serve as throw-backs or are completely off-topic, a lot of games critics use what’s happening in the world to contextualize more complex topics while it’s all fresh in people’s minds and with subjects they care about. When I first looked up academic writing on games, they were from the same games from the early 2000s that people just don’t talk about anymore, and of course, these were all locked behind paywalls. While that’s changing, I do think this arm of games criticism is helping that along, as it has a speed and digestibility advantage over publishing in academic journals. So yeah, while we might see similar at times, our timing and place makes how people access our work and concepts different, which is why you might be seeing disparate reactions between who is saying what.

I really do feel though that there is a place and reason for older, established academics and designers to get along with us younger folk. I personally feel invested in inter-generational work because I think there’s knowledge and access that comes from that on both sides. But communities are intentional, you have networks of people because you purposefully wove them together. There isn’t any of that going on between older academics/designers and younger ones, at least, not with ones that aren’t your students. You all are way more pervasive and in our view than the other way around: we have to go to your events, hear your talks, read your works, and in general feel your presence way more than you do for us. It’s rarer for this older generation to extend the same gesture, though it is appreciated when people do! I feel like I can talk to you, Colleen [Macklin], Richard [Lemarchand], Clara [Fernandez-Vara], and some others because you all will read my stuff or go to my events and actually engage. There are many who don’t, and it feels like they treat us like offspring but are off working and never are home to bond and actually grow a relationship. I really believe the ball is in the court of the people with more access, resources, power, and ability to create a non-hostile meeting grounds.

As for Sage Solitaire, I definitely feel like it’s a game I’m supposed to say has ‘elegant design’ but I generally remain unaffected by these sorts of games. I guess it feels derivative enough for me to feel like it’s something I’ve played before? The game seems to boil down to typical gambling-probability themes, and I dunno, I’m kind of over stuff so heavily influenced by gambling design traditions. It’s like, where does this game fit into my life? I can imagine someone maybe writing about how this game helps them with anxiety or something but that’s a credit to people’s ability to integrate media into their experiences, not that the game leaves room for personhood.

 

John:

Yes, I think the generational differences are strong, I agree. One big commonality, though: most of us 40-somethings don’t have degrees in games, either. We also came up through comparative literature (Ian Bogost), media studies (Mary Flanagan), film (Tracy Fullerton), art history (me), and other diverse disciplines across the humanities. To my knowledge, Jesper Juul holds the distinction of being the first of us 40+ types to have actually studied games as a student. Still, we all come from disciplines steeped in humanities-based ideas about how knowledge is gained, shared and passed on. And that informs how many instinctually think of younger game critics and designers. And so we are separated not just by generation, but by the traditions of how we frame what we do, and for whom we do it.

A slight aside, but I don’t really think of you all as being the next generation in the academic lineage of game studies, probably because I don’t see myself as emerging from it either. I see you all coming more from the traditions of music criticism, DIY theory and the like from the 70s and 80s.

Anyway, you are right, you all owe no allegiance to us and our work. You aren’t beholden to us in any way, and it is unreasonable for us to think you all should pay attention to us. The analogy of the negligent parent is apt, like a stereotypical absentee parent only coming around when they want something, or when the child has found success on their own. Some of us, we (or at least I) feel a responsibility to pay attention to the younger critics and designers, best I can.

You are right, there are differences between our audiences and our intentions at times. In broadest terms, criticism is a lens for helping interested readers consider works, while academic writing is more professional communication amongst peers. Still, academics need to pull of the same sort of translation work as critics. It is certainly how I think of my writing, though I realize my writing style is often too wonky and dense to actually accomplish that in many cases.

Academic writing moves really slowly in any event. An essay I wrote 18 months ago about the seeds for the indie games phenomenon will finally be out in the spring. That’s roughly two years after the fact. I’ve had to amend the essay numerous times as things have changed around indie games. So the idea of writing quickly about a current game seems nearly impossible to me—both because of my working process, but also because of how things get done in academic publishing. I’ve experimented on my blog with some quicker writing, things that are started and finished in a few days or a week at most. Not sure I’ve got it down yet, but it certainly has led me to admire the speed with which critics and journalists can work through ideas and write.

I also agree that the ball should be in the court of those with more access, privilege, power and resources. The ways we want to do that, though, aren’t always helpful—inviting you to give talks at conferences (but not offering support to get there), asking you to write essays (without compensation), linking to your work (but not considering that we might be sending vultures instead of readers). So it is on those of us who are trying to be part of the solution to be thoughtful about whose problem we are solving—ours or yours. I’m slowly coming to understand more about how to listen to what you all are saying, and not just assume you want to be part of our communities of practice and infrastructure.

I know I have all sorts of blind spots— in my critical (in the academic sense) knowledge, how I understand the world, etc., etc.—and you all help me find them, and hopefully with the new insights, I can address them. I also know that’s unfair of me, to look to you and your peers to help me understand how to do better. It leads me to think more about what I can do in return. The obvious stuff—share references, ideas, experience from nearly 30 years experience as a designer, 16 years as an educator and more than 20 years as an academic—doesn’t seem either wanted nor enough. Perhaps our conversation will help me figure out better ways.

I’m not sure you need to say Sage Solitaire has elegant design (we’ll reserve that for last year’s darling, Desert Golfing). I’m not sure I think Sage Solitaire is elegant either, though I have spent a good deal of time playing it over the last week. It has cut into my usual rotation of Drop7, Two Dots and Triple Town—my go-to idle moment games. Sadly, they end up being the bulk of my gameplay too often, but that’s another story.

My sense is unaffected is an operative term here around games like Sage Solitaire. It isn’t an expressive game, at least not how I think about them. It is just a game, a pastime in the strictest sense, and not really doing anything Tetris or Candy Crush doesn’t already I suppose. The affect is lulling, calming, absorbing, but not revealing, expressing, considering, or other words we might use about work that does mean something in the sense of exploring the human condition.

A while back, I went on an artist’s tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel as part of Elastic City’s annual festival. An artist had spent months visiting the hotel, walking its halls, learning the habits of the hotel’s staff and guests, and generally coming to really know the place. She then constructed a tour she took a group of a dozen of us on one evening. We explored empty ballrooms, corridors, listened to the silence of the halls, visited rooms, and generally came to have a really expressive understanding of a fairly mundane space. It was one of the more enriching art experiences I’ve had in some time.

As we walked through the hotel, I couldn’t help but think about videogames. What would it be like to make a game that provided a similar experience? I was struck by the emptiness of videogame spaces, and how that always just seems like how it should be. But when in similarly empty spaces in real life, they took on so much more meaning and important, and had so much more powerful impact on me than any 3D game ever has. One of the rooms we visited was an abandoned efficiency apartment that appeared to have been hastily abandoned, with most of the furniture removed. Random things remained, though—a small passport sized picture of a man, a calendar, newspapers, a lamp, paper clips. It immediately made me think of “object oriented storytelling,” and how hollow that feels when compared to a real space with real things, presumably left behind by someone.

All of which made me kind of sad about games, that they aren’t able to connect with me in the same way an artist’s tour of a hotel can.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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