The DIY of Games Criticism?

January 27, 2014

Among the many elephants in the games criticism room, our relationship to academia is one that threatens to stomp on others the most often. Its presence comes out in numerous ways, but most usually on methods of analyzing games and the craft of writing criticism. This month there seems to be a resurgence of it, so I want to spill some thoughts on how it affects me and some things I’d like to see develop.

I’ll be the first to admit that the first dozen or so articles I wrote about games bore a strong resemblance to undergrad critical theory essays. Back then, I had a rigid idea of what made a successful piece of critical writing; for one, I was making an argument defined in opposition to already existing ideas. I needed to establish credibility by citing certain kinds of sources, and aimed to forward the conversation by introducing new concepts and terms I hoped others would use. While this isn’t too distinct of a process from other kinds of writing or research, there is a certain posturing that signals to other academics in the know. It’s not really like a secret society, but it most certainly is a learned way of communicating within a certain institution.

Looking back, I’m not surprised a lot of my writing was met with hostility. There was, and maybe still is, a transition period where I learned what kind of voice, structure, and topics would resonate with readers. I’m now more conversational, speak to colloquial issues with enough context that allows most people to just jump into what I’m saying. I think this is a common path for games critics, but overall, there is a question of how much academia influences our community. Most of the critics I know have academic training of some sort, many are in graduate school and Ph.D programs in some form of critical theory or journalism. I’m not sure I remember an open discussion of how we feel academia effects games criticism, and what’s good and bad about it. Academic bloggers represent a large part of a push for more serious and less commercial analysis of games, but academia is also a notoriously exclusionary institution. So now comes the question, what baggage are we bringing into games criticism from academia that we don’t want, and what is it that we want to keep?

First, I do want to complicate some common notions about academics. Despite it being mostly organized by class, there are many people with varying relationships to privilege and oppression within it, and an intersectional perspective on minority academics is necessary when scrutinizing them. The oppressed have a history of co-opting and subverting academic traditions, using resources of institutions to benefit their communities. To write off anyone who seems academic at all is to dismiss anyone with any quality of a community you are not a part of. This isn’t to ignore the benefits that come along with being educated, just a reminder that a generation of diverse people went through school because they didn’t have an alternative, and now are trying to reconcile this training in a poorer economic climate with the expectation to give back to their communities.

As well, most academic writing isn’t for the public, it’s for other academics. And just like any group has inside language and jargon, so does academia. The problem arises when this information needs to be translated to outside of the institution. There is first the issue of how academia is structured and what academics have to do in order to stay relevant to keep their jobs. Often, the accessible blogging they do won’t be the main meat of their work because it doesn’t seem to count for anything yet. I am applying for a Ph.D program myself, and spent quite some time anxious about putting my blog on my CV; does it really show that I know what I’m talking about, at least, to academics? Reminds me of when I used to read games studies dissertations as I prepared for my masters applications because I’m made to feel like an art student pretending to be in critical studies. I am not in the grind to write for journals, but I can feel that pressure.

But even understanding all this, and looking at me who’s not a capital A Academic but nevertheless holds a degree, I think about what culture of academia I bring into criticism. I think about the unspoken conventions of what criticism looks like and what it’s ‘supposed’ to do. It might be why the games criticism panel at IndieCade felt so weird to me; I personally signal enough to academics that we share culture, but I’m not fully in that world. And the part of me that feels out, the artistic aspect that uses personal experience as a vantage point for writing, is linked to the idiosyncratic writings I find most prevalently in the works of other minority writers.

In reaction to a conversation surrounding a Brendan Keogh piece submitted to an academic journal, and how that flustered academics and non-academics for exact opposite reasons, Dan Golding summarizes something I’ve been simmering on a lot lately: that *where* we are discussing games, blogs, twitter, lunch outside of conferences, that might be what actually dictates the form of our criticism.

We’re so used to the essay being where our thoughts are officially counting for something. I remember thinking to myself how I was ‘wasting’ my ideas by speaking about them on twitter instead of formulating an article. We’re pressured to not rely on our instincts but to position ourselves under a certain convention of research, to be knowledgeable of documented discourse and place ourselves in relation to it.

Going through my personal meditation on what social justice and games criticism have to do with one another, there is a link in feminist studies of using personal experience as evidence. This short entry from a feminist academic journal describes why it is important to recognize that minority perspectives are experts on their own lives, and the information we get from them is important because of how systemic marginalization removes it from discourse. If academia is structured by hegemony, then the way we seek truth and talk about what’s important to us is as well. So, then, what does criticism from the marginalized look like?

I’m sure there’s stuff out there I haven’t encountered that would answer this question for me in other fields, but here, I think that moving away from solely articles as legitimized discourse is the beginning. When I was editing re/Action, we had games and comics as criticism. Leigh Alexander is known for doing her letter series. I wonder what it would be like if we asked everyone to create games criticism that wasn’t in an article form, and used personal experience as evidence. What would we see?

About a year ago, I became an object of fixation around this topic of the proper use of personal experience in criticism. Back then, I thought taking a stance from that position was just another way of explaining things. But now, I think it’s almost dangerous to not explicitly recognize ourselves in our writing. Because when we default to the conventions we’re taught to articulate ourselves, we’re taking on the values of dominant culture that seeks to erase difference. Or, if we are in fact a part of that dominant culture, we project our personal perspectives as something of a standard way of doing things. Because hegemony is so widespread, we have to highlight our personal experience and highlight the hyper-specific. This is both useful for the marginalized to refute what is considered common sense and as a process to find alternative ways that serve our message the best way. What is queer criticism? What is criticism from the poor, by the disabled, from the native peoples of colonized lands? If games criticism suffers from the same homogeneity as the rest of games, then to follow our own advice, we would have to open up to more accessible forms of criticism. As the DIY mentality gets people who didn’t think they could make games to do so and diversify the art we see, shouldn’t there be the same for criticism if an academic background seems like it’s required?

So, is a tweet games criticism? I’d like to think so. I imagine there will be non-written and non-verbal games criticism in the future as well. But as conversation goes on about why other fields should have an interest in games criticism, I think it’s important to have a strong sense of diversity in all its forms before we are completely assimilated into some other practice. I’d like to see more idiosyncrasies in writing, and by foregrounding our personal experience in the crafting process, find new ways of looking at games our current state leaves out.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Tags: , ,