Somewhere around the cusp of November-December my one hundredth article of videogame criticism was posted on PopMatters. Shortly after, my fiftieth blog post of videogame/pop culture criticism on this website posted (not including housekeeping stuff). If you look at my Published Work page and read some of my earlier work you’ll see what editors call “finding my voice.” I wouldn’t say there’s anything there I’m not proud of, but there’s definitely a lot of fumbling about in some of those early articles. I bring this up because in the last month a number of editors from game criticism sites have contacted me looking for work, Good Games Writing has approached me to help build their games writer wiki, and I’ve gone from jealously longing for a spot in Critical Distance‘s TWIVGB to appearing there about once a month. Some of those people don’t even regret associating with me!
Anyhow, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that over the course of 2012 and 2013 I have become a much better writer, a smarter videogame player and—I think, though it isn’t my call to make—a more respected member of the critical community. I bring this up because, even though the progress in my career is palpable, this is a very frustrating field to be a part of.
Eric Swain curated This Year in Videogame Blogging at Critical Distance, and received some backlash for the team’s curating practices from a commenter at Kotaku (Henandez, Patricia. Read Up: Critical Distance compiles a weekly round-up… Dec 31 2013.). In explaining Critical Distance‘s methodology (again), Swain concluded with the seemingly frustrated realization that he’s the “Uatu of the video game critical community.” That he’s more the guy around games criticism than a guy of gamecriticism (“TYIVGB 2013: An Examination of Methodology and the Nature of Curation.” The Game Critique. Jan 6 2014.). Swain’s frustration surprised me personally because he’s one of those writers—along with Mattie Brice, Mike Joffe, Nick Dinicola, Lana Polansky—whom I cite often enough in my own work to be considered a form of internet stalking.
I suspect there are a lot of people who share Swain’s frustration—I know I do—because game criticism just isn’t as popular as the fun and easy games writing here or there on the web. Writing and reading games criticism usually requires some training (personal or academic) and even the most conversational writers still approach dense subjects that are just flat out more difficult to read than skimming a list of top X whatevers in videogames. Moreover, criticism necessarily extends beyond “Final Fantasy is neat.” Even if Final Fantasy is neat, analysing a game’s symbols and mechanics to a point that an argument can be formed requires an extent of literacy that is culturally undervalued (Col. Mustard killed The Humanities in the garden with a pipe and soforth).
Importantly, games and the analysis thereof only matter insofar as they affect people, and the best games criticism is coming from those that are also involved in social justice circles concerned with how oppression and marginalization affect people*. Issues of oppression and marginalization require their own forms of literacy to approach: a part of oppression and marginalization is withholding accurate information from the larger culture; the status quo functions by ignoring these issue. Games criticism is closely related to a study that is repressed by the broader culture, it only makes sense that it’s tougher to approach.
Cameron Kunzelman briefly touched on the unsustainability of games crit in an interview with First Person Scholar (“Interview – Cameron Kunzelman On GTAV, Games Studies, and Alpacas.” Oct 16 2013.) where he expressed a degree of pessimism toward pop scholarship of games crit in one breath and optimism toward academic studies of it in the next. I don’t have relationship to Kunzelman beyond that of an honest admirer of his work at This Cage is Worms and elsewhere but I’m really disheartened by his predictions. For one, he’s an academic and therefore the academy, presumably, will make some effort to preserve his work while a lot of nonacademic work is literally disappearing (Ligman, Kris. “Future-proofing Critical Distance.” Dire Critic. Aug 2013).
I’m disappointed by this because I find one of the overwhelming strengths of games crit is that it’s not tied to the academy. In the FPS interview Kunzelman explains that there are a lot of exciting programs on games emerging at different campuses. Which is great, really, but I get concerned when that appears to come at the cost of the popular scholarship of games that emerged in the meantime. I fear the ivory tower-ism that’s packed into that. It’s a scary time for the humanities when the school of criticism that Northrope Frye just pioneered, like, fifty years ago has closed its doors (Church, Elizabeth. “U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature.” The Globe and Mail. Jul 13 2010.).
Games are just tough to take seriously. And those that do take them seriously don’t want to take them too seriously. It’s the paradox that stymied the literary anthology, Ghosts in the Machine. Game journals fear how literary it is and literary magazines fear how gamey it is (let’s be fair, though, and remember the challenges that lit mags have had in being taken seriously in a post-print world).
The small but important games crit culture, however, has room for experimentation and mistakes and amateurism even if people were skeptical or even downright mean about it a few years ago (Cook, Daniel. “A blunt critique of game criticism.” Lost Garden. May 7 2011.). Under academic standards, my authorial growing pains in 2011 would have been met with a written notice to fuck the fuck off by any peer-reviewed journal. Kyle Mack has been extraordinarily patient with me in our ongoing work to make the writers wiki into a thing. I sense that accessibility is championed even in work that covers complex ideas: at the level of close-playing analysis and at observing sociocultural trends in this sphere of the internet. I don’t think that many writers in the critical community are elitists and I think that trying very hard not to be is one of our strengths. Not that the academics in the community are snobs or anything, but I think it’s a virtue of our growing body of work that we invite popular audiences, even if said audiences sometimes act like total pricks. But this is just coming from my own intuition.
I read a lot of my own thoughts in Bill Coberly’s reflections on his time as chief editor of The Ontological Geek (“Games-Crit and OntoGeek and Life and Law School and Patreon and Oh My.” ON THE OFF-CHANCE YOU WANT MY OPINION. Jan 6 2014.). And if Coberly is looking for advice, mine is to go to law school and get a real job. The challenge that he writes about, though—one I have a lot of sympathy for—is in what will happen to all the labour he’s invested in The Ontological Geek and his other writing. Does it just disappear like Kunzelman predicts it might?
Kunzelman and Coberly both mourn the loss of Nightmare Mode; likewise, Medium Difficulty has slowed down considerably, Bit Creature, Culture Ramp, Re/Action and Insert Quarterlyall lived very short, bright lives that seemed to collapse just as they became game criticism’s new hope. Kris Ligman’s under-employment continues to mystify me: given her experience and prominence in the community I was sure that a horde of game/pop culture pubs would descend upon her like starved wolves made of money. Indeed, it paints a bleak picture for the future of games crit. Those that say games get more intelligent criticism than they deserve have plenty of evidence to back up their thesis.
But I don’t think it’s entirely gloomy. I suspect if Alan Williamson is reading this then by now his teeth are glass powder for my not mentioning Five out of Ten. Similarly, from where I’m sitting, Zoya Street‘s Memory Insufficient also seems to be a resounding success and Zolani Stewart and Alex Pieschel are launching Arcade Review this month. The Critical Proximity Convention shows great promise and several writers like Brice, Polansky, Joffe, and Aevee Bee are successfully funding their work on Patreaon (respectively here, here, here and here).
(I have to interrupt the already brutal flow of this article to raise some anxieties about Patreaon. For instance, I worry about whether a particularly generous backer might, intentionally or not, influence a writer’s tone or content. Also, with backers apparently being public, I worry that supporting one writer and not another is unfair and doing so might send the wrong message. Finally, how poor do I have to be to ethically ask other poor people for money? I realize that traditional models won’t work anymore and that journals simply don’t have the resources to pay their writers—and I believe them when they say that they wish they could—but when a publication paid its writers it felt like it was clearer what the writer was being paid to do. If someone could guide me to a resource that clears up some of these issues I’d be grateful.)
I like to be a bit more hopeful about the future. I was very disappointed when Re/Action did not reach its crowdfunding goal but I don’t think it did not reach its goal for lack of demand: I think the people that want it don’t have any money. I don’t think it was a failure because we all learned something. And kudos for the editorial team for sticking their necks out for it. Many of the writers of these old game sites like Re/Action and Bit Creature are still working. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I think that they’re marginally less impoverished than before. Which may not be enough of a win to keep everybody around, but I like to think some progress is made.
As I alluded to earlier, of the batch of critics that started their work in 2011 or so, I’ve probably made the least progress and even though I haven’t jumped ship yet, I keep a lifeboat in good repair. If the time comes to use it, though, I want the work I’ve done this point to mean something. None of us are naïve, we know what games crit means to those outside of games crit. To the most generous interviewer, my portfolio—which, you’ll recall, includes over a hundred-and-fifty points on it—is nothing more than a cute filler on a CV or grad school application. I could not get a job as a cashier at a comic-book/porn shop with this experience. I don’t have any problem with comic books or porn but holy fuck on a stick are you serious? The only value my work has is the value a reader gets from it as they read it. That’s enough to want to preserve.
When Coberly finishes his law degree, I want him to revisit a bustling Ontological Geek that recognizes the work that he’s done. And here’s the part where I actually talk about why I think that’s possible. You’ll note that throughout this article (and this whole blog) that I’ve cited most of my links with the author, article title, journal and date. It’s a practice that I’ve adopted from PopMatters. When I started bigtallwords, it was a self-promotion tool where I could extend my thoughts in a way that never made it into articles that go up elsewhere. Since then I’ve tried to make it as much a relay to other writing as possible. I’ve added further reading sections to all my writing that I’m in the process of slowly linking to other writers who’ve covered a topic I write about.
In doing this I’ve found that there’s a dearth of critical writing. I think people are aware that there’s not very much criticism out there, but it’s mind-boggling how little criticism there is beyond This Week in Video Game Blogging. Trying to find thoughtful criticism of a game released before 2008 that goes beyond “this old game is both neat and cool because it’s cool and neat and old” is analogy-makingly awful. Yes, maybe a lot of that old criticism disappeared, but the stuff that’s there should be protected. There are oceans of games that are deserving of criticism that are just waiting for someone to think about them (Keogh, Brendan. “Notes on Doom 3.” Critical Damage. Nov 27 2013.).
Games are important, they affect people whether they want to be affected or not and it’s important to understand what those affects are. I think that’s what we sign up for when we call ourselves critics. I wrote a 6000 word essay on this subject about a game that you haven’t heard about but should totally play (“Representation and the Power of the Media as Discussed through Exit Fate.” bigtallwords. Aug 14 2013.). We are thinking, analysing, categorizing machines: games augment the way we understand ourselves, the world and one another. But I’m preaching to the choir here.
I think that, for our work to survive and to therefore mean anything, we need to start taking responsibility for others’ work as well. In the more obvious ways of engaging with more mainstream culture at a level of criticism they seem unwilling to (El-Sabaawi, Soha. “No Right Answer but a Wrong Way to Discuss.” Not Exactly Sober. Jan 3 2014.) and referring to the work of defunct writers after they’ve moved on to other things. There less obvious ways of offering a platform to games writers as well: having patience with those that are rough around the edges or who need time to catch up with the pace of other critics or creating resources where writers can find journals or mentorship from growing voices in the community. This is administrative stuff I don’t know much about, but it’s worth considering I think. Zach Alexander’s write-up on curating Critical Distance really illustrates how much games writers passively depend on one another (“running CD: one man’s experience.” Hailing from the Edge. Dec 11 2013.).
So I’d like that games writers make a conscious and assertive effort to call attention to others’ work. And not in the self-depreciating way that devalues critical study of games entirely (“I am raw, wriggling human filth compared to the brilliance of Writer X. I pale in the reflected glory of their brilliance”). But in the kind, inviting discourse that opens paths to different resources for writers, regular readers, academics and the occasional passerby with a cursory interest in games crit.
I get a nosebleed every time a new editor sets eyes on my faux-MLA in-text citations, and there’s probably better ways to call attention to other writers and mags by name but for now it’s my way. And as much as I admire Critical Distance and its editors, they aren’t enough. Not by a long shot. They’re a great resource but they’ve carried the weight of being games crit’s only resource for way too long. I’m encouraged by all the projects that seek to promote games writing, even knowing that most won’t succeed. The learning experience might be enough.
I know this is going to be redundant to some writers in the community or obtuse for those that want to be a part of it but I hope some of that made sense. I also know that I’ve missed a lot of people who deserve a mention. So here’s a fun start: if you’re a games writer or have ever written about games, link your work in the comments. Just to open my eyes to who else is out there. Here’s a picture of one of my cats reading Philip Sidney:
*Try to keep up:
Street, Zoya. “A more peaceful 2014: Addressing peer hostility.” Medium. Jan 1 2014.
Kunzler, Jeff. “A PARAGON OF GAMES JOURNALISM’S STATUS QUO: Polygon’s Commitment to New Games Journalism.” Design is Law. Jan 2 2014.
Haché, Kat. “Badass.” Paper Haché. Jan 3 2014.
Dembo, Arinn. “New Commentary for the New Year.” Jan 3 2014.
Brice, Mattie. “On Anger.” Alternate Ending. Jan 3 2014.
Moongazer, Quinnae. “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism.” Nuclear Unicorn. Jan 3 2014.
Miller, Patrick. “On working as a games writer/critic/whatever.” Patrick Miller writes about videogames. Jan 3 2014.
Polansky, Lana. “Down the Critical Path.” Sufficiently Human. Jan 6 2014.
Moongazer, Quinnae. “Beyond Niceness: Further Thoughts on Rage.” Nuclear Unicorn. Jan 7 2014;