Friday, May 13, 2011

A Disorganized Rant About a Somewhat Organized Rant About Videogame Criticism

criticStop writing that article on videogames right now. Daniel Cook doesn’t want to read your thoughts on immersion in Dead Space. He doesn’t want to hear about that time you fell asleep playing Final Fantasy VII and how it still reminds you of some of your now-lost middle-school friendships. He’d also appreciate it if you stopped writing about the past and only focused on the future.

If you absolutely have to write something, you had better be a game developer.

Cook (or “Danc”), the Chief Creative Officer at Spryfox, writes about game design at Lost Garden. He recently took the site Critical Distance (in which we’ve had the pleasure of being featured) to task for promoting pieces of game criticism that he deems not useful. He’s also annoyed at the volume of it. Does he realize this is the Internet? There’s too much of everything.

It appears the Games as Art thing has folded in on itself. Now people are criticizing how we critique games. To complete the M.C. Escher painting, I will now critique that critique of critique.

There will always be a glut of videogame writing on the Internet. The Internet’s intrinsically linked to gaming. Leading consoles come online-ready. Developers spend valuable resources on online multiplayer modes to appease their publishers’ fears of the used game market. The leading retailer of PC games is a digital-only service that requires an Internet connection. A growing “casual” market exists on perpetually-connected smartphones. It’s only natural that discussion of games would thrive* in the online spaces in which gamers are already comfortable.**

Though not every gamer is an outspoken fanboy/troll, the Internet certainly does nothing functionally to discourage this behavior. Only a handful of mouse clicks and keystrokes separate the message board user from the blogger. The leap from blogger to Employee at Games Publication is a bit bigger, but in this age of rampant self-publication (meaning everything from Facebook to Wordpress), that distance appears smaller. It may be in fact an illusion, but the perception exists nonetheless.

So game criticism collections like Critical Distance emerge. A growing community of writers – mostly players and aspirants (development, journalism, etc.) – submit their thoughts to the ether. They’re adults (most of them), and they’re attempting to have adult thoughts and feelings about their pastime/hobby/job so that they can continue to enjoy it without sacrificing their feelings of adulthood. Only some have what Cook calls “declared experience” developing games. The rest are passionate consumers*** of an evolving medium.

Cook calls for delineation between “game criticism” (a broad term, I’ll concede) and “game analysis,”  writing that will “advance the art and science of games.” A noble goal. Unfortunately, he restricts the qualifications for this type of writing to people who “make games” and “study the fields of science that deal with complex functional systems.”

Is a game designer with intricate knowledge of what it takes to make a fun interactive system capable of writing “game analysis?” Sure. Will gamers know what he is talking about? Not necessarily. Ian Bogost is incredibly intelligent, and while I certainly felt more informed reading his book Persuasive Games, I only lasted a few chapters. It was too dense for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to the growing community of gamers who want to think deeply about games but did better in English and Fine Arts classes than Calculus or that Computer Programming course they dropped halfway through.

I would recommend A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster. If I were developing games, I might breeze through this one on a weekend as a breather from heavy coding sessions. As a gamer and writer about games, I’m gleaning a lot from Koster’s “Learning is fun” approach.

It’s all a matter of audience. To what community does the writer belong and for whom is he writing? There were many reviews of Portal 2, and their contents varied based upon the intended audience. Contrast Seth Schiesel’s dry rundown of the puzzle design with Kirk Hamilton’s entertaining photo essay. Schiesel was writing for the New York Times, Hamilton for Paste. The outlets cater to different readerships, and both writers took that into consideration. As someone who writes and reads about games online, I found Hamilton’s far more refreshing, a unique take on a game I enjoyed after much anticipation****. Had I never heard of Portal 2, I might have preferred Schiesel’s more formal take.

Cook addresses the issue of intended audience and then summarily dismisses it. I agree with his points about rehashed ideas and shallow arguments. I’ve squeezed out enough last minute articles to know that I can and should work harder. But his lack of empathy for those who simply want to discuss their experiences with games upsets me.

If games ended the minute they were pressed to disc or disseminated digitally, I might cut Cook more slack. But the emergent nature of play – what turned Starcraft into a sport, what makes every level editor an opportunity to craft World 1-1, what lets a boy commune with his dead mother via Animal Crossing – means that players have something to bring to the table.

If they want to write about it, they should.

* The exact opposite of the countless shuttered/merged/cannibalized “dead tree” publications
** This isn’t a perfect chicken/egg scenario. Ubiquitous online play is a relatively recent innovation, but then again so is the whole Web 2.0 thing.
*** This site would not exist were it not for that passion.
**** Our thorough review of Portal 2: BUY IT