“Playing the Game” included in Critical Distance’s roundup

I was honored to have my post on Critical Proximity included in Critical Distance’s This Week in Videogame Blogging alongside other examples reflecting on the conference. Critical Distance’s roundup also includes collections of writings on the Game Developers Conference that concluded Friday, the sociology of games, and assorted writings on other topics that I will be sure to read and comment on in the next few days.

Playing the Game: Modifying Criticism’s Difficulty Settings

Even in the context of Critical Proximity’s at-times dizzying sequence of ten-minute talks, Alex Lifschitz was kinetic. At a conference ranging across the complex issues surrounding the state of games criticism, he delivered a presentation that might be best measured in decibels. Based on the clamor broadcast to my fellow Twitch streamers at its end, his verve would stir even the most discerning applause meters. But Lifschitz aimed to power a different machine.

Lifschitz’s ability to supply that level of energy during his talk, “The Treachery of Games,” is made more remarkable for having arisen in pursuit of a question as often maligned as it is attempted: “What are games?” Lifschitz’s positive charge was conducted via negation. He offered a catalog of things that games are not, from pipes (Magritte’s, not Nguyen’s) to depression, to argue that games are nothing as fixed as their visuals, message, or product. Games evade our attempts to confine them, and those escape routes are not reducible to any thing, except perhaps our experiences with them. The maps we draw to approximate those playful encounters are criticism at its best.

In the end, Lifschitz punctuated his point by laboring to crack an idol, a Grand Theft Auto V game disc, proclaiming that it, along with many artifacts of a swag giveaway culture of the gaming press, was not a game nor as durable as those at Rockstar Games who developed the product and guard its claims would have us believe. Games need to be played and criticized to crack them open, for their code to breathe, relying on us to be brought to life through our explorations as much as we rely on them to experience other worlds of possibility. The vitality of each component involved is stifled when critics buy in to the cheap neon buzz of games marketing.

Critics who shared the stage with Lifschitz on Sunday explored the potential energy stored and lost by games criticism. Many shared his championing of the resources of the critic’s lived experience. Lifschitz and others demonstrated the successes of New Games Criticism, which appropriates the label and first-person narration of the New Journalism that began in the 1970s, most popularly identified with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, more than the New Criticism of the early twentieth-century literature critics (Raph Koster sought to make a place at the table for the latter). Those successes suggest that the experiential methods of the new critics offer answers to the common theoretical challenges criticism and critics face. Confronted with arguments that challenge the reach of the meanings critics find in gameplay on the grounds of “that is just your opinion,” the new critic can admit that their work is personal while defending against any diminishment of that personality to the realm of private opinion through their socially conscious practices and principles. Faced with claims that criticism does not make anything that measures up to the production and profit standards of its biggest targets, the new critic can point to its triumphs and say “it is successful” on its own terms.

Games criticism has yet to establish the connection between a defense of its functional successes, reaching people and earning a living on its own terms, with its commitment to the significance of its principles and practices. The consequences of this shortcoming are connected with the talks at Critical Proximity detailing the frictions of living and speaking as a critic addressed via presenters’ various successes and struggles with finding work, gaining attention, paying rent, and banking on Patreon – “making it” in an economic rather than creative sense of the phrase.

The problem of a gap between function and significance is by no means restricted to games criticism, whether traditional or new. In the wake of the failures surrounding the “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” debacle, Jay Rosen made the case that the story demonstrated how a culturally diverse newsroom knowledgeable of many communities is not only an ethical imperative but a functional requisite for journalistic practice. Rosen’s argument does not express the often-maligned ideals of journalistic neutrality or balance, but it does aspire to ideal proportions of journalistic responsibility that would coordinate between writers’ workplace communities, the communities of those involved in their stories, and the communities of their audiences. Meeting that goal is dependent on language sensitive to the norms of all involved in that social composition. If we restrict our considerations to the content of Caleb Hannan’s writing and we discard the fantasy of facts cultivated by the journalist’s third-person perspective, we see its damaging failures as a result of his ambition to scandalize and the failure of editorial oversight. But if we expand our considerations beyond pronoun errors to understand how the story was able to hurt and call to action a variety of communities, we understand those failures according to the disproportions of language and power registered by those muted and attacked by the piece and their allies. If our interests exceed educating journalists or game developers, we must understand how we distinguish between the functioning and significance of injustices, how those distinctions are rendered by what is accepted as traditional or commonplace practices, and how they might be rewritten according to the vernaculars of the disempowered upon which they are visited.

Difficult Language


Related to the issue of vernaculars, the concept of jargon did not fair well at Critical Proximity, even if its practice went largely undeterred. In many domains, we should not be quick to confuse jargon with vernacular. A vernacular is the localization or creative engineering of language by a community. Jargon is a language of specialization. At best, jargon is made up of terms of technical expertise identifying membership in a particular community.

At Critical Proximity, it was often assumed that we know jargon when we see it because we cannot see through it, lending to the familiar epithet of impenetrability. Jargon was often slurred together with academic practices without giving much definition to either concept. Through that borrowed anti-authority maneuver, the arguments against jargon piggybacked on a popular perception of games criticism shared with criticism of films and literature. In other words, jargon was most often engaged by way of what it is accused of doing, indicating a complicated problem but never pinning those issues to anything specific about the practice of games criticism. Where evidence for the prosecution against jargon was presented the examples were a swarm of excesses showing poorly constructed writing, jargon aside. When the jargon within those samples was picked out, the concept was redefined so broadly that anything distinguishing gameplay from grocery shopping fell under its heading.

The broad redefinition of jargon at Critical Proximity used to identify its most commonplace instances in criticism speaks to how gameplay redefines the basic mannerisms of our lives. In response, criticism tries to remake those new experiences with games into the language of the remaining experiences untouched by those practices and communities of gameplay. The imperative relies on the idea of seeking an audience.

Games criticism is the localization of the technical expertise that comes from playing games in the language of an audience. Playing a game might not always seem like expertise to frequent players outside of those games with lots of variables requiring fine-tuned manipulations. Several presenters’, like Alex Cox, addressed experiences with loved ones’ apprehensions about playing casual and narrative-focused games with little of the muscle twitch and statistical tweaks identified with traditional difficulty, speaking to dimensions of cultural and generational difficulty posed by games before they are ever played. The games that have formed the backbone of recent criticism and awards ceremonies speak to how narrative is capable of posing an emotional difficulty scale.

Games have a tradition of establishing a hierarchy of technical knowledge in games that accompanies their perceived mechanical difficulty. This thread of common wisdom says that a criticism of hardware or code requires a greater degree of technical know-how than a criticism of representations of race. The degree of difficulty is proposed rather than, or at least in addition to, the idea of practicing a different kind of knowledge. The arrangement today seems to parallel a hazy perception of what is scarce and important, such as the idea of a STEM crisis in the U.S. economy requiring more coders, fewer English majors. The hierarchy entails concepts of reach. An inquiry into code has a well-defined object, but what it discloses concerns everyone who encounters that specific algorithm in some uniform way while a cultural criticism encompasses an aspect of games within a particular context of understanding with varying degrees of specificity.

When we make games criticism our object, the arrangement of our priorities has specific consequences. The shapes and directions of Critical Proximity makes some of the arrangement clear, organizing panels around themes of in, out, up, and forward. When viewed as already within the deprecated English-major wing, what becomes rare and important for criticism is a talent for language that is simple and evocative in a way amenable to the broadest audience. Amenability takes a number of forms. Through accident or ability (depending on our philosophy of success), a personal voice with accessible language might manage to find a sizable audience. As Kris Ligman and Kirk Hamilton shared in different ways, being made accessible concerns gatekeepers in a way that exceeds being plain spoken. The crafting of communities of reciprocity and the allure of linkbait are as important to being accessible as writing in a way that can be digested into a “too long; didn’t read” takeway. On the writers’ side of things, the suggestion is to speak in ways readily understood by audiences who do not have special knowledge, whatever we are imagining that to be in a particular context, or familiarity with the game or games in question. Write something that may be readily understood by a parent, a neighbor, or some other standard bearer for human ideas and experiences. Not coincidentally, the injunction is to write in a way that is primed for content aggregators.

It resonated with me when Nick Hanford said that Lifschitz’s talk should be looped throughout the Game Developers Conference, which concludes today. For a group working to be more than elaborate feedback for an industry that would manipulate those it does not work to actively disregard, we cannot afford to ignore how Critical Proximity was not accidentally adjacent to game developer swag culture and might speak to it.

Consider the expansive influence of the experiential approach on the game maker/critic. One would struggle to find a higher concentration of both the critics who “made it” and critical game makers than the personages collected at Critical Proximity. Raph Koster was a key figure in the games that defined my experience of the roleplaying genre and MMOs. I have presented on Ian Bogost’s games at conferences. Cameron Kunzelman and Darius Kazemi make games (among other coded things) and creatively perform criticism in ways that their craft and talks reflect. Lifschitz spoke as a developer on the courage to speak despite or in spite of the games industry. If Lifschitz’s talk was not given in such mixed company of critics and makers, could he hope to drown out the counterpart to his argument, the command to makers to create works regardless of criticism, and how might the language of that argument differ?

Achievement Hunting


Success is not to be measured solely according to membership in the big developers’ priority contact lists, awards ceremonies, or applause meters. Nor should our achievements be measured exclusively according to citations, page ranks, followers, and subscribers. If Lifschitz erred, it was in professing a jargon of authenticity as unadulterated criticism. The danger is in masking the work that goes into crafting something like New Games Criticism into something people will publish and read. Creating a dichotomy between how to be heard by designers and other experts on one hand and speaking as a player to gamers and interested non-gamers on the other conceals the messy negotiated ways of living dependent on finding your voice and an audience. Critical Proximity had no shortage of talk devoted to the precarious existence of critics who aspire to make a living through criticism (see Cara Ellison’s and Joe Köller’s talks for examples dedicated to the issue). The cautionary tales debunked fictitious paths to success and ideas of what that success looks like from those enjoying it.

Just as the question of resonating with developers is the wrong question to ask when it becomes a fixation, the same can be said when our imagined audiences encourage us to abandon the vernacular of the few imperfect and overlapping areas where criticism enjoys a livelihood, such as academia, reporting, reviewing, and marketing. Gaines Hubbell’s talk addresses the role the Journal of Games Criticism is trying to play in this area (full disclosure: I am on the editorial board of the journal). Inside and outside of the framework of a journal’s editorial policies, our approach to the language of criticism should reflect the imperfections of the critical profession. The maps of our experiences establish an array of landmarks, links, borders, and dead ends on the terrain of access. Criticisms’ mapping of critics’ experiences does not ignore the conditions of those writing it. To do otherwise is to risk simplifying the experience of gameplay into escapism or purporting to stand in for an archetypal player, responding on behalf of a demographic.

Games criticism ought to make the creation of technical expertise based on playing games an equal priority as the localization of that knowledge and the generation of appreciation for the works it explores. Knowledge creation means understanding and pursuing concept creation, which might sometimes sound like jargon. There is a familiar defense of complicated theoretical language in criticism that says it exists to make language conspicuous. Jargon in this vein is meant to take apart the straightforward instrumental view that language conveys the intentions of senders to their audiences. There might still be some energy left in that defense, but it is not the only or full extent of the justification for language tailored to an experience and a potentially relatively narrow audience. Jargon can name something we do not yet understand but want to convey. From this angle of approach, jargon decomposes the accepted standards of how games are meant to function in some ways analogous to a game altering modification. Amidst the heavy mechs that stalk the landscape and parkour-style freedom of movement, do you feel the same sense of lightness and thinness when playing Titanfall as I do? I do not yet know why my experience of it felt papery, or why the phrase “paper thin” seems to capture something for me, but it does, and I hope someone can explain the sense of depthlessness in that seemingly multidimensional game in other words. That explanation might entail a description of gameplay or level design accessible to a number of readers, but I suspect that if it neglects the trade language and its accompanying expectations created by the marketing push that made me into a buyer and player of that game it will likely miss something important. If we go too far in distinguishing between the experience of the game and the language attending to that experience we seem to slide in our pursuit of clarity from rewording jargon to clarifying marketing lingo. In turn, our writing might have many traits regarded as virtues, but we will miss an opportunity to understand an important and often frustrating element of games and criticism.

Jargon can seem like an obstacle to reader comprehension. Sometimes that confusion is productive. The obstacle can come from encountering something new and tangible but indefinite. It can convey disappointed expectations and irrational exuberance. Jargon can serve the function of manifesting previously unnamed practices and meanings. The side channels of Critical Proximity buzzed to life when terms of the critical academic trade like “hegemony” were blended with the strings of expletives and experiences conveyed by the speakers. Games criticism at its best, as demonstrated at Critical Proximity, often proceeds through that sort of synthesis. Through criticism, our understanding of social forces that exceed our individual experiences (hegemony, the industry, etc.) is challenged and modified by the evidence of others’ experiences that might not rest easily with our knowledge or beliefs.