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 ┬áNarratologist 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.