A few days ago I was cited in a piece by Danc on his Lost Garden blog as being an example of “shallow game criticism.” While I don’t take personal offence to the citation, nor even the tone of Danc’s article, I feel compelled to respond (as many have before me) to its argument. In a way I welcome the opportunity to clearly enunciate my own position, even if it is from a defensive posture. And like any good narcissist, I'm pleased anyone is reading my work--even when they disagree! So, herein lies something of a personal (please note, personal) manifesto.
The two points that Danc seems to take issue with are the nature of criticism in general, and the purpose of videogame criticism in particular. He has not engaged deeply with the concept of criticism of other art forms, so I can only speculate about what he feels the nature and purpose of literary criticism is, and I may well do so throughout this discussion.
Firstly, about videogames themselves:
Yet though games do possess evocative elements, they also are driven by a functional heart that resists being reduced to only the softest of sciences. Bridges, though undeniably aesthetic and cultural objects, can also be understood as functional or economic creations. Playthroughs, aesthetics, rhetoric, literary theory, film theory, art history may be one set of valuable perspectives, but if you only rely on these, you will fail to paint a complete picture the babbling, whirring human-mechanical reality of a games.
Games have much in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems.
As for games criticism, he is quite particular. Games criticism must be:
- Grounded: Are you basing your theories off empirical evidence? Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express.
- Aware: Do you know what other people have written in the past? Do the research and be an informed commenter.
- Insightful: Does your writing add a substantial new perspective or tool that moves the conversation forward? Do not rehash the same old thing simply because you have an opinion on the currently popular meme.
- Actionable: Does your writing identify a course of action that previously was obscured? Do not let an exploration of an idea wander off into vague hand-waving. Ask the reader to perform an experiment that increases the knowledge of the community as a whole.
Of my piece, he says:
Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games. There is little insight that couldn't be gained by sitting down with a beer and a controller. There is no attempt at gathering empirical evidence. Adam could have saved everyone a vast amount of time with the TL;DR summary: "In 3rd person you can see (and thus empathize) with a visualized character and in 1st person, you can't." Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.
And follows with:
He is a student acting as an academic, writing what is essentially a playthrough that in turn masquerades as game analysis. The fact that he is a student writing a playthrough is fine. The multiple levels of deception are what initially raised my hackles.
Given this, if you fail to disclose your perspective, you are very likely wasting the precious time of your reader. If you deliberately obscure this information (as I've seen many student or indies tempted to do) you are being a dishonest member of our community. Hey! Stop doing that...there is no shame in writing openly and honestly about your perspective.
So working through some of these points, perhaps to quibble a little before I launch into what I really want to say here:
Regarding the “disclaimers” that Danc seems bent on, whereby each writer will post a bio or resume at the top of each of their pieces, I did that. I was introduced as an academic. My title (with the help of Kotaku’s editor Mark Serrels) is a riff on the content and purpose of the article. “What’s Your Perspective?” The title was a question, my essay was an answer. The purpose of the article was to give my perspective, follow my thought process, and provoke others to do the same of their own thoughts and reactions to games. In that, I feel eminently successful. The article sparked the most successful debate and discussion anything I’ve written has so far accomplished. It’s even been linked by someone who disagrees with me vehemently! It was a perspective piece, informed by my own reasoning.
A "playthrough" is a new term for me, maybe like a walkthrough, which is an unbiased description of events as they unfold, explaining the how-to’s of a game. Nowhere in my piece does it instruct anyone on how to play any of the games I mention. It would be a woeful playthrough, in fact, in its lack of detail. Perhaps the problem here is the word Danc chose to apply: "analysis." If he has a specialist understanding of “analysis” which requires empirical datasets, graphs and metrics, then my piece is not analysis. Yet he is the one who used that word in the first place. Personally I have a broader definition of the word which includes the careful study of an object by one person reporting his findings, supported by a logical argument. Further, if Danc had ever read any of my genuinely academic writing, he would find that I engage quite specifically with the mechanics of videogames as a matter of course. In fact, I almost never only talk about the story, or a character, or other elements of fiction without engaging with how they function as part of the system. Instead he reads one of my pieces, on a public enthusiast blog site, and fails to appreciate that even that one is actually a question of the most basic mechanical nature: player perspective, and writes me off as a ‘shallow game-illiterate’ when in fact I have Crawford, Zimmerman and Koster on my shelf right now. I’m also not sure what he believes the difference is between a student and an academic.
Regarding his four-point checklist for a critical article: I frankly and unreservedly disagree with his first point. If I have no right to express what feelings a piece of art instilled in me as an individual human, then all is lost and we should all just go home now. The primary occupation of humankind is coming to terms with being a human, and understanding the feelings and experiences we have in life. Criticism is a parallel to artistic practice in helping us to do so (more on this later). Secondly, it will become evident throughout this piece that I believe Danc has himself failed on his next point, that of being informed about the research into what has already been said on this subject. He can drop names like Koster, Zimmerman and Crawford, but this is cherry-picking in the extreme and demonstrates no awareness of the ebb and flow of theoretical perspectives in recent game study and criticism (more on this later too). With his third point, Danc seems to be stating that not everyone has a right to express their own personal interpretation (as indicated in the first point) of a game experience. He seems to value his time quite highly, so we writers should think of him and question whether he has read something similar at some other time. Also, if the article in question does not answer the (Danc's) questions satisfactorily, then we should also not bother...which brings me to the fourth point: action. Rather than introduce my objection to this here, it will appear in more detail below.
Finally he implies some level of dishonesty, even out-right deception using me as an example for argument, suggesting that people like me (students or indies) wilfully obscure their identities. I have never done this. I don’t even use an alias (Danc is your real name?) in my work, my university email address is my public contact information, I am introduced in my article as a PhD student, and have the same posted on my blog. I am also easily accessible on Academia.edu. In any event, the identity of the author should be secondary to the quality of the writing. If Danc judges the work by the author, he commits a grievous act of prejudice that I simply do not have time for.
The Purpose and Nature of Videogames Criticism (for me).
Are videogames art? Are they machine? Are they emotional, evocative? Are they calculating, engineered? Are they narratives? Are they games? Yes. Of course.
These are questions theorists such as myself have been battling with for over a decade now, and have more or less moved on from. The hybrid nature of the videogame has become evident, almost taken for granted. We have gradually specialising videogame theorists such as Aarseth, Juul and Frasca who have moved from a hardline ludological position towards a middling perspective, and back again—more at peace with those of a different perspective than in 2003. On the other side there are people like myself, Ben Abraham, Monica Evans, Ewan Kirkland, Miguel Sicart, Julian Dibbell, T.L. Taylor, Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, Jack M. Balkin and Beth Simone Noveck, and Nate Garrelts who perform (or edit collections of) analyses from a wide range perspectives.
Game critics, whether their testamur reads BSc or BA, must and do acknowledge the varied character of their object of study. That is, in fact, the entire focus of my PhD thesis: an analysis of the structure of a swathe of videogames in an attempt to articulate how and why their active systems engage with the fictional content they present, and how that fiction works to contextualize otherwise meaningless code. In his piece Danc is echoing rather loudly the hardline ludological position perhaps best personified in Markku Eskelinen or Jesper Juul ten years ago. Eskelinen's most famous quote reads: “If I throw a ball at you I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.” Like early ludology, there is no room in Danc’s position for a literary or aesthetic criticism of videogames because games are, essentially, mechanics.
Yet in a similarly blunt fashion, I could ask whether Danc (or Markku, should I ever encounter him!) sees code or characters when they look at Red Dead Redemption. What is on the screen, flowcharts and algorithms, or people and places? Why do we spend millions of dollars on the scripts, voice actors, motion capture, environment modelling, musical score and sound effects if what games are, really, is code and mechanic? If at the end of the day, all that fiction stuff is mere fluff why is it there at all?
The truthful answer is always "both." The horse I ride in Red Dead is both animal and subroutine. Videogames are a medium, evocative and emotional, but they are a systematic medium. Videogames are unique among games in that they are media, and unique among media in that they are games. So, indeed, a critic who fails to address the systemic nature of the videogame is ignoring something fundamental to the object itself. But a critic who fails to appreciate the human experience of playing is missing the point of videogames in the first place.
The point, if videogames can be said to have one, is to affect the player. Designing a working system is trivial, at this point. If a computer programmer cannot create a working system of zeros and ones, then he is not a programmer. Yet this meaningless accomplishment is not the goal of the game designer. His is an artful craft, with the same humanist goals as other art: expression, communication, even communion with humanity, explorations of what it is to be human. Videogames are the medium that expresses our new(ish) understanding of life, the world and the whole stinking thing as a network of related agents moving in patterns, affecting each other in different ways, with consequences and potential both realised and unrealised. See Ben's favorite Latour, Foucault or Deleuze and Guttari for various network theories about reality.
Danc repeats a familiar ontological assessment: the rules of games are “real” and “true,” therefore residing on the "real" side of an ontological divide between “real life” and “fiction.” They are objective, like geology or physics. This is simply, patently untrue. The rules that define Super Mario are entirely contrived, man-made and ultimately, arbitrary. They are not found, discovered, in nature the way rocks and gravity are. They lie on the same side of the ontological divide between truth and fiction beside Robinson Caruso and the Force. The rules of a videogame are ontologically identical to the rules that define the speed of Warp 9 or the difference between a Jedi Knight and a Sith Lord. The difference is their presentation, manifestation, not their ontological nature. In a film or novel, we imagine the rules that bind the fictional world by modelling them internally based on the examples we are shown through description and action in the narrative. In videogames we have an almost direct access to the rules, with which we can experiment to observe their cause and effect ourselves. They remain fictional rules, only “true” inside the fictional world bound within our PlayStation, instead of between book covers or title sequences and credits. This concept of mine is influenced by a ‘transmedial’ understanding of fiction/narrative described by Marie-Laure Ryan mostly in Avatars of Story.
Given that videogames are in fact entirely fictional, though systematic, they are just as open for personal reflection and deep, individualised criticism as any other artform. Danc’s preference for empirical data to somehow find the “truth” of what a game… is? means? …is laughable. I do not require a survey to explain why Romeo and Juliet is tragic. I do not require a set of metric data to understand my experience of the Shawshank Redemption. To suggest that only through qualitative data will we ‘understand’ a film, novel or painting is ridiculous. Following from this, how will the quantitative analyst even know what questions to ask, without a treatise from an individual player thinking about his own experience? How did we come up with words like 'fun' or 'immersion' or 'agency' in the first place if not by attempting to describe personal experience in words rather than numbers?
Criticism in the artistic tradition is a method by which a person reflects deeply on the work of an artist to elucidate and/or disseminate its meaning more widely than is likely to occur without such work, whether that meaning is obscured through difficult or complex text, genre convention, specific social or historical context, or some esoteric symbology or allegory. For further reference on a traditional critic, see The Intent of the Critic by Wilson, Foerster and Ransom. For an example, read something by Pauline Kael. Artists in other traditions are assumed to be masters of their craft, or at least assume themselves to be such that they do not look for validation or “tips for improvement” from a (mere) critic (though the working relationship between Modernist writers such as Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce is worth thinking about). The critic is not writing so much for the artists as for the audience, the same audience he shares with the artist. The responsibility of the critic is indeed, as Danc suggests, to “know more” than the average reader/viewer/player as to make his observations appear insightful, or the connections made seem meaningful rather than obvious. A critic making obvious observations can indeed be said to not be doing the job. But it is simply not the critic’s primary job to tell the artist what to do next—any artist standing around idly waiting for such instruction is a sad fellow! Coupled with this exploration and explanation of meaning is a judgement, an assessment of either why this artwork is indeed so meaningful, or where it falls short of the mark. Perhaps a film is confusing, but isn’t meant to be—this is the job of the critic to point out. No, dear viewer, you are not missing something, this is just poorly edited film. Or, instead, this film is about confusion and is not meant to be easy to understand (Memento? Fight Club?)
I wonder what Danc would think of the essays regarding Ayn Rand and Objectivism that Bioshock inspired. Is this all useless babble because it didn’t give a bulleted list for improvements to be made in Bioshock 2? Is he so caught up in the commercial-industrial nature of videogame production that what exists no longer matters, and only what is yet to be made has any relevance? What of criticism in other artforms? Should a critic of Shakespeare limit himself to analysing the grammatical style or other ‘functional’ aspects of a play, with the goal of writing a better play, at the expense of enjoying Hamlet? The fact is, these Bioshock essays were adding meaning to the game for players not immediately familiar with Rand or Objectivism. The critiques (which can be positive, by the way) were allowing the less informed players (like myself, initially) to understand more of what Bioshock had to offer, effectively making it a better game for those players. The only call to action there would have been to read Atlas Shrugged and then play Bioshock again.
Yet even that last sentence isn’t true. I have written criticism of videogames like Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed, both of which I really liked, specifically addressing shortcomings in the mechanics of both games. The question I put to Danc, is why would I do that? What makes a game "better" in his own terms? He never really articulates what he thinks a “better” game would be, he seems to take the end goal for granted. To me, a “better” game is one that marries the systemic mechanics (ie. What you can and can’t do, and what happens as a result) with increasing tightness to the narrative. See Clint Hocking, Ian Bogost and Jonathan Blow for these kind of ideas. So, a game called Thief should be about hiding and sneaking, not running and gunning or farming. How do we know what makes one mechanic better than another? If we can only refer to hard science, the answer is: as long as the bridge doesn’t collapse its fine. Nevermind that it’s ugly! So as long as the game doesn’t crash, its fine? No… that’s just wrong and I’m not even sorry to say it.
In summary, Danc does not want to read game criticism. He wants a report written by a systems analyst for purposes of systems design. I actually have a qualification in that field, from my undergraduate degree. I have both a major in English Literature and Information Technology, with a third major in "Informatics" (now called Digital Cultures) which is essentially the deliberate marriage of the two. I have a further major (serendipitously) in Art History and Theory. I have written systems analyses, designed algorithms and databases, and I realise that many of the same skills apply in the development of a videogame. The same can be said for cinematography: an electrician is required to set up the lighting, a sound engineer to record and edit sound and maintain equipment, a camera operator to maintain and use the correct cameras. To suggest that only technical knowledge and insight is required to produce a film is preposterous (or any other artwork: novels have grammatical syntax, painting has linear perspective and chemistry of paint, thinner and colour theory, sculpture and architecture rely on geometry and physics). Of course, many of these technical skills are found within the artist himself: an author will likely know the grammar of the language he is using; the director will probably have experience in most aspects of film technology. But art is not the sum total of its techne. I choose to view videogames as art, and not as pure technology. Danc may choose to view videogames differently, but has no ground upon which to stand in condemning my work and the work of others for not satisfying his purposes.