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A Call for Respectful Confrontation

One of the subjects that’s been slowly churning in the small ecology of game blogs has been the question of criticism. Why isn’t there a more robust critical culture around games, and what steps can be taken to mature future discussions?

Right now the growing consensus seems to be that what is lacking is a vocabulary. The supposition goes that the current iron triangle of game reviews, ‘graphics’, ‘gameplay’, and ‘story’, are no longer sufficient to express the complicated responses that modern games elicit in their players.

The subject broke somewhat to the surface recently with Leigh Alexander calling the lack of critical vocabulary one of her biggest disappointments of 2008. About the same time Iroquois Plisken started a series of posts called ‘Essential Jargon’, aimed at clarifying some of the nascent terms that get thrown around.

As I’ve said before, I’m keenly interested in the critical culture around games and its health because I believe that better critics make for better designers (and vice versa). With that in mind I’d like to say that I think most of the problems that get discussed on blogs and podcasts these days are simply side-effects of the real problem, which lies mainly with game critics themselves.

The real problem with game criticism is that game critics are too nice.

Let me relate a story:

Around the turn of the millennium I had just decided that the thing that I would devote my life to was games and game design and I threw myself into their study. I went online and searched for the most intelligent, in-depth writing about games I could find. It was in the thick of this fever that I became acquainted with Game Studies.

By coincidence, at the same time that I had decided to study games, a controversy was raging in the academic world over just how that scholarship should take shape. On one side were what came to be know as the ‘Narratologists’, a group of academics who believed it was perfectly legitimate to examine games through the lens of narrative, story, and drama. The other side of the debate was occupied by the self-proclaimed ‘Ludologists’, who called for games to be discussed first and foremost as games. It was an interesting fight, with the Narratologists being mostly more established scholars while the Ludologists were searching for a place of their own in academia.

The debate itself was never resolved and was eventually abandoned as attentions shifted to other subjects such as, unfortunately, virtual worlds. However, in the thickest part of the controversy tempers flared, no one was pulling any punches, and inevitably some people’s feelings probably got hurt. At this point the people involved would probably just as soon forget the whole thing, and the streak of anti-intellectualism in the game industry ensured that no one outside the ivory towers showed much interest for quite a while.

However, at the end of it all you had something that hadn’t really been there before: a solid body of scholars who all knew each other and a solid body of scholarly work. In a lot of ways, the fight between the Ludologists and the Narratologists gave birth to the discipline of Game Studies, and the heat of that battle had simply made people smarter, work harder, and probably invest more than they would have otherwise.

In case this seems like something that is only interesting on an academic level, I would point out that right now is when the games industry is finally feeling the aftershocks of those tumultuous years.

The very meaning of the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is based on the lines that were drawn by the Ludologists and the Narratologist. Ian Bogost’s work on ‘procedural rhetoric’ is in many ways an extension of the work of Gonzalo Frasca, who popularized the term ‘ludology’. The problems with narrative and games that Jonathan Blow recently spoke about resemble points made by Jesper Juul and Markku Eskelinen.

Echoes of the Ludology/Narratolgy debate aren’t limited to the world of rhetoric, however. Clint Hocking’s Far Cry 2 draws on the ideas of ¬†Narratologist Janet Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck, and I would make a strong argument that Left 4 Dead was influenced by Mateas and Stern’s experiment in ‘interactive drama’, Facade, which in turn was a response to the Ludologist ideology.

So what might really be required for game criticism to come into its own, for the discussion around games to mature, is a disagreement worth sparring over.

What the critical culture around games needs is a subject that divides people; something that seems so important that you wouldn’t want to waffle or compromise about it. Ideally this would sharpen people’s tongues and minds. Positions would have to be defined and defended, based not on what people might want or hope about games, but on what people really believed.

Now, I’m not suggesting this because I think that our current crop of game critics needs that much shaping up. On the contrary, I think that right now we have a bounty of smart, insightful people who are invested in solving these problems. The only thing that’s lacking is focus. What is needed is a problem so big, so fundamental, with so many facets, that it takes all hands on deck to solve it. It will be the disagreement over the solution that ends up creating the critical framework that everyone is looking for.

This is why I’m so interested in and excited by Shawn Elliott’s upcoming project. A former games journalist who has crossed over to game development, he has started an email symposium on the subject of game reviews and enlisted the help of blogosphere heavy-hitters like Kieron Gillen and N’Gai Croal.

One of the subjects to be discussed immediately jumped out at me:

- Reviews vs. Criticism

I wouldn’t be surprised if the most valuable disagreements take place over settling this important, but still nebulous distinction. However, I think the subject of reviews is fertile ground in general. The Narratologists and Ludologists, after all, were ultimately arguing about the place of games in academia rather than games themselves.

A final sign that some interesting dialogue could emerge from his symposium comes from Mr. Elliott’s own advice to his participants:

Respectful confrontation is a good thing.

13 Comments

  1. Interesting collection of thoughts; I agree on many points, especially about the productive outcomes confrontation can often have.

    However, I am curious about your thoughts on the ludology/narratology thing. Can you name a narratologist? I’ve spent a long time looking for one, and the closest I can come are Barry Atkins and Lev Manovich, but as far as I know, neither of them have ever called themselves such…

    Friday, December 12, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Yeah, to some extent ‘The Narratologists’ were a phantom created by the Ludologists to describe the range of scholars who were less formalist than they.

    However, if one defined ‘Narratologist’ as those who sparred with the Ludologists on a regular basis you would have a few definite names. Janet Murray is probably most prominent, followed by Henry Jenkins and Marie-Laure Ryan. Brenda Laurel could be described as a proto-Narratologist.

    One of the incredible things about that whole debate is that at its height it probably only involved a couple of dozen people. Yet it made a lot of the great scholarship being done today possible.

    Friday, December 12, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Yes, I absolutely agree, though I often wonder about the fierceness of the debate. As you say, the narratologists were often a phantom enemy (Jenkins has again and again denied he is a narratologist, and Mr. Ludology himself, Frasca, denied Murray could be defined as such either); and Eskelinen’s response to Henry Jenkins’ ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’ remains one of the most amazing examples of missing the point of someone else’s argument I’ve ever seen. In these cases, I’m not so sure that the debate achieved much more than the very public sense that gaming academics were just as myopic in defending their medium as your average marginalised 12 year old gamer.

    Nonetheless, as you rightly point out, it planted the seeds for more intelligent game writing and remains a crucial starting point for anyone interested in game studies.

    Saturday, December 13, 2008 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  4. I don’t think it’s an issue of fighting the fight again. I think that we simply don’t have many video game critics. Even some of our most intelligent bloggers and writers don’t have what it takes.

    Most don’t understand game design well at all. By relying on a nebulous cloud of emotions, feelings, and opinions, these bloggers talk from their feelings and never connect those feelings back to the game.

    Not only do they lack the knowledge, but they seem to refuse to pick up the language necessary for critical analysis.

    What makes it worse is that many privilege stories in games as if game design isn’t capable of sustaining critical thought alone. Instead of talking about game design or gameplay, they hide behind the stories in games. Unfortunately, even these writers neglect to use specific examples, or critique these game stories in a clear, elevated level.

    It may be a bit much to ask for video game critics that have a strong eduction in game design as well as diverse background in literature/creative writing, music, art, etc. But at least understand how games work.

    Without a strong foundation I doubt that many would be capable of effectively confronting each other.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  5. I actually don’t think it’s very interesting to set it up a false dichotomy between paid reviewers and amateur or academic bloggers. The former are doing a job that doesn’t actually ask them to do anything other than tell the average Joe whether his 60 bucks will be well-spent. Nobody imagines that they’re doing the work of, say, a NYT film critic… do they?

    The biggest problem to my mind is that both groups mistake analysis for critique (which is why I don’t group the latter under “criticism”). We’ve got tons of great gameplay/mechanical breakdown, narrative consideration, personal anecdotes on what games means to people, etc. But there’s a general lack of examining the underlying assumptions of construction and representation in games occurring outside book- or paper-length work.

    In short, I need a juicier war than that.

    Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Oh weird, I somehow missed that this was a ridiculously old post because I linked in from my blog stats and came straight here somehow. Ah well, awesome post, and sad I missed it when it was originally written!

    Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Tom Cross wrote:

    @Charles: if you ever check this again, I wanted to tell you that this post was illuminating, especially since I’m writing an article that relates to the things you discuss. Nice post, and thanks.

    @Simon: don’t feel bad I just found this as part of research I’m doing. Oh, and you’re right that most “criticism,” “reviews,” “journalism,” and just about everything else, are unconcerned with certain bedrock assumptions that games and games writing (regardless of claims of “legitimacy,” “correctness,” or “intellectualism”) take for granted.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hey guys, I’m always happy to revisit old posts!

    Simon, I wonder if you could clarify what you mean when you say that people “mistake analysis for critique”? I know I certainly see a distinction, but it seems like you have a specific difference in mind.

    Tom, this is sort of the same question, but what in your mind are these bedrock assumptions that go unquestioned?

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  9. Tom Cross wrote:

    I think that your point about how Narratologists and Ludologists were arguing about the place of games within academia is akin to what I was saying. Right now, a lot of writing (doesn’t matter if it’s critical or not) is focused on whether games are “art,” whether they’re approaching their “Citizen Kane” (also not the right question, and it’s asked in the wrong way), and people who think that these questions are wrong are in turn asking if games are moving in the right direction design-wise (the discussions surrounding narrative and “ludo-narrative dissonance” to name just two).

    The problem with all of these arguments is that, like those made by the Ludologists and Narratologists, they argue for the *place* of video games in various systems of indentification and codification (so as to create a definable space for video games to exist and from which we can launch inquiries and discussions), not the integral, essential elements that make video games video games. Obviously we know some of this, but I think that there’s a lot of writing being done that divorces itself from more careful, researched analytical work. I’m not sure what those qustions might be, but if designers and video game critics (of all stripes) can’t decide on what a game is (or “should be”) and instead often hop to what games “should be,” I think we aren’t giving the present and past of games enough credit.

    Of course, there are people spending amounts of time I can’t imagine exploring these questions, but while they explore them, a lot of us (me included) are running around asking about questions that provide answers that are context-less, thanks to our lack of careful, widespread exploration of games (as a medium, as play,and as other things). We don’t have anything to stand on, and I think it’s hurting early criticism and early reviews; there isn’t enough communication across the strata of game critics (again, I’m talking about anything written by anyone about games). Right now we have reviewers, and we have bloggers, and we have people writing “within” The Brainysphere, we have people writing about social issues and issues of race, class, gender and how games reinforce societal inequalities, and we have people writing books like “Dungeons and Desktops” (not to say that it’s the be all and end all, it has problems, but it *is* a book). And we’re not talking amongst ourselves nearly enough, for fear of coming into contact with inferior or different methods of examining games.

    And I really, really apologize for the long post! Thanks for responding, by the way.

    Friday, May 29, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Heyo Charles, glad to see you’re still around! Hadn’t seen any posts in awhile and was afraid the site had gone defunct (this happens to some academic sites in the summer, I know).

    Basically what I mean is that in academic papers and books you’ll see people doing “critique” – Kantian, Marxist, feminist, maybe even p/m deconstruction, etc. – such as Alexander Galloway invoking Adorno while breaking down the assumptions we have when we talk about “realism” in games (in one of the essays in his collection), or Bogost invoking procedural rhetoric to look at the baseline assumptions that may have gone into coding a particular rule.

    There’s this perceived superiority of bloggers who do “real, honest game analysis” as compared to reviewers who have to do it as a job within specific constraints. If you threw the bloggers a games writing 9-to-5, they’d probably devolve into the same consumer-centric writing style as the mainstream reviewers they pretend to be antagonistic toward. Because they’re both doing analysis – breaking games down and deciding which features are “good” and which are “bad.”

    The problem is when one looks at a great analysis and says, “really good critique, man.” Which happens *every time* someone writes a good blogpost. This isn’t to say that a lot of bloggers aren’t writing proper critique (in the Kantian sense again, examining the assumptions of the player and the artifact that lead to the play experience), but that they have no idea what the distinction between the two is… and that “analysis versus critique” is what they should be opposing instead of “review versus criticism” – because really criticism doesn’t mean anything in any field.

    Friday, May 29, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  11. I should add that Croal and Gillen are two that do legitimate, true critique from time to time. I think I just have this kneejerk reaction when people identify “reviews” as a problem. The only problem with reviews is if you go to them looking for criticism. The idea that somehow one knows what the average Joe wants to read about videogames, and that one’s blog has it but a games magazine doesn’t… is beyond ridiculous to me. There are proper forums for every kind of writing, you know?

    Friday, May 29, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  12. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Tom, I can see what you’re saying, but there’s a part of me that wants to avoid getting dragged into a definitional debate (though there’s also a part of me that wants to dive right in). In my opinion a lot of smart people have spent a lot of energy trying to define the word ‘game’ and they’ve all come up short. My fear is that there is no pat definition that everyone is going to agree upon, and making that the focus of debate isn’t ultimately constructive.

    Now, where I agree with you completely is that there needs to be more dialogue between bloggers, enthusiasts reviewers, and writers both academic and non-academic. To that end I think one of the most important discussion that can take place is just how different people define ‘game’ and how that shapes their rhetoric.

    Simon, I’m still here, and actually GDA has been quiet mostly because I’m finishing up a game. Once that’s done I’ll be able to return to some of the things I started to write but never finished.

    To your point, I can see what you mean that deep down bloggers and enthusiast reviewers are really doing the same thing, talking about the constituent parts of a game and commenting on which they like or don’t like. You’re also right that reviewers get demonized unfairly when most do an exceptional job, if a very specific one.

    I suppose when I wrote that I was interested in ‘reviews vs. criticism’ I had a couple of very specific reasons. First, as I said I believe a good debate can have a clarifying and informative effect (and in this case it has because I’m now acquainted with a new perspective on the issue: yours). I was also interested in the idea of getting beyond simply talking about the parts of games and to start talking about games in general, their features and effects. I think that this wider scope is a characteristic of great professional reviews, blog posts and academic papers and books.

    Interestingly, what I think all three of us are circling around is that there is far too little knowledge, among both bloggers and reviewers, of the really interesting things that are being discussed at an academic level by folks like Bogost, Juul, Wark, etc. Maybe someone should compile a reading list for all would-be game critics!

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  13. God, I would love if that last suggestion could be realized Charles! Unfortunately I’ve long since given up on something like that. Recently I found out that a bunch of people who name drop academics in their blogs hadn’t actually read the books that they cite. I think there’s deep-seated anti-academic feelings among enthusiast bloggers, perhaps because they expressed interest in studying games while at college and were snubbed by professors in legacy media classes?

    Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 12:28 am | Permalink

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