Define Your Terms: “Criticism,” “Review,” and “Academia”

So today a friend tweeted about a piece in the New Statesman on gaming criticism… sort of. The piece, entitled “Criticism vs. Reviews: Sometimes it’s OK to Care Only About How a Game Plays” by Phil Hartup, makes certain highly problematic claims about the differences between reviews, criticism, and “academic criticism” that sent both the friend and I into fits.

First of all, Hartup conflates “mechanics” and graphics with reviews and “narrative” with “academic criticism,” which makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is plenty to be done with game narrative by academic criticism, but academic criticism also talks mechanics, the impact of graphics, and the demographics and reactions of players… and so on. Narrative is but one component of a game, and is thus only one component of academic criticism, reviews, AND “general” criticism. To assume that an analysis of the “fun” of a game would only appear in a “review” is to fail to understand the scope of criticism (both general and academic).

Hartup also claims that

there’s a problem with this academic criticism, and it’s that modern big budget games – the AAA titles as they are called – often don’t stand up to criticism very well. When you bring that extra level of scrutiny to bear on a Thief, GTA V or Watch_Dogs, they fall apart. Daft plots full of holes, stupid or unappealing main characters, absurd mechanics – AAA games are heaving with them.

This kind of evaluation of academia and the games industry is endemic to developers’ and fans’ frequent dismissal of academics in the field; they somehow assume that if things fall apart when an academic lens is applied to them, that the fault is with the academic lens. I’m sorry, but no. If a game can’t hold together under scrutiny, then the fault lies with the game, not the eyes looking at it. Perhaps instead of saying that the problem is with academia for exposing these holes, that the problem is instead with theholes themselves. We don’t blame Ebert when a movie is bad and gets a bad review – nor do we blame Laura Mulvey when we see an instance of objectification in film. The same principle applies here: if academics expose flaws in a game, the fault is with the game.

And here’s my other issue with Hartup’s assumption – he seems to think that we cannot enjoy a game that has problems, which is equally silly to his assumption that the lens is at greater fault than the game. No one would venture to suggest that Die Hard is a great piece of cinematic art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun movie (or that I haven’t seen it well over a dozen times in spite of the fact that I know it’s not a great work of art). Watch Dogs or Call of Duty don’t have to be hole-free in order to be enjoyable or to contribute something to games.

Hartup’s final assessment is that we can’t have reviews that engage with all three genres – review, “general” criticism, and academic criticism. Certainly, his point that the time-commitment for games is considerably greater than film or theater is a valid one; as an academic who writes on both plays and games, the time I spend prepping for a games piece is significantly higher than I do for one on Shakespeare (I can read a Shakespeare play in 3 hours or less – playing through Dragon Age II takes a lot longer than that, to say nothing of having to replay it to make different choices, or the final exhausted turn to the Wiki to cover the myriad of choices that I can’t possibly make).

It explains why a review might be cursory or why an academic article can’t contain all components of a game, but ultimately Hartup fails to actually explain why a piece couldn’t still engage on a complex level with the content (gameplay, narrative, graphics, “fun”) of a game in terms that fit all three ostensible “styles.”

In fact, what it comes down to is that Hartup seems to want to justify laziness rather than make a cogent argument for why games criticism should have genres. Now, as an academic, I actually think that his conclusion isn’t wrong: it’s important for us to have reviews that answer the “should I buy it” question; it’s good to have casual criticism written by fans; it’s also important to have academic criticism of a burgeoning art form. It is also true that not every piece will (or should) combine all three components, but it should not be the case that anyone should have to restrict themselves to only one of these. In many cases, a piece of general criticism will contain elements of review-style evaluation, and an academic piece might in fact do the same.

What bothers me about Hartup’s argument isn’t his ultimate conclusion, then, but the way he gets there. He suggests that because it’s hard, it shouldn’t be done. He suggests that because AAA games have significant flaws, that we should only focus on the “fun” (which is how games got into the current mess about misogyny and non-representation in the first place), and not consider them from a critical/academic standpoint. In short, he suggests a division between popular culture and academia that displays lamentable ignorance about how powerful popular culture is.

Games, whether they have plot holes or not, are one component of a popular culture that both reflects and shapes the way human beings interact with one another and the world. To presume that “fun” things (like Call of Duty) do not engage in this discussion is to ignore their power. To do so is dangerous. It has the potential to silence many voices, to enable propaganda, and to ignore the influence of media on our lives. To engage in criticism is to recognize the power of the milieu and to interact with it, to accept or deny or seek to change those components that have the potential to influence the world at large.

I’m Still a Gamer

Amid the toxic fallout from August in the gaming world is an idea that’s being championed by several feminist critics, including Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, that the term “gamer” ought to be disposed with.

On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the sentiment that’s behind the argument. “Gamers,” by which she means the trollish minority of anti-feminist vocal MRA-supporting feminist-conspiracy-theory-touting subset of gamers, have of late been behaving like spoiled toddlers who have been told that they can’t eat their entire birthday cake because other people should also get a slice.

But on the other, I think the knee-jerk impulse to excise the term from our vocabulary runs the risk of erasing a lot of what is good about being a gamer. Identifying with the rest of gamer culture – sharing common fandoms and conversations; enjoying the thrill of victory, whether in solo, co-op, or competitive play; experiencing the excitement of new game mechanics or technologies… all those things are also a part of being a gamer. I’ve found more friends by identifying as a gamer (both board games and videogames) than I have by identifying as anything else. I’d hate to lose that.

I understand, too, the argument that games are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture. They are. More people play games – especially casual mobile games – than ever before… or do they? Solitaire has been a staple of people’s lives since they could make cards. Dice (or knuckle-bones) can be solitaire, co-op, and competitive, too. In short, whether playing a sport, a board/card game, or a videogame, human beings have been gamers of varying degrees for all eternity. Just because more people play Candy Crush and Flappy Bird than used to play Minesweeper doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between those folks who are gamers, and Gamers.

Certainly, there isn’t a level of monetary commitment one can give to become a Gamer (per a current argument), nor dedicated hours to gaming, nor ownership of a particular set of machinery. Being a Gamer is about attitude and ownership of the identity (not the paraphernalia). It’s about putting games before a lot of other things, and wanting to put games before other things because of the positives that gaming represents.

Being a Gamer, to me, means being willing to take risks. It also means wanting to never let go of the impulse to play. Playfulness, and the embrasure of the fantastic that comes with it, is something our society as a whole is sorely lacking. Playfulness can manifest in many ways, not just through gaming, but gaming is, to me at least, one of the most concrete ways that adults have the opportunity to remain playful in a world that is otherwise harsh, unfair, and stressful.

Play is important – physical play, cosplay, identity play, virtual play… all kinds of play that help us to define and redefine ourselves and our beliefs, to experiment with new patterns of thought and ways of engaging with the world, to work out our frustrations in a safe way. And Gamers are (some of the) people who value play more than most.

And that’s why I want to not just hold on to the Gamer identity, but to reclaim it and encourage people to embrace it.

Growing Pains

I just read the best summary of this week in gaming that I’ve seen thus far by Chris Plante on Polygon:

Two groups are at opposite ends of this moment:

One side has folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child that has learned they are getting a little brother or sister but wants to remain the singular focus of his parents affection.

The other side has opened its arms, unable to contain its love and compassion, because they understand they are no longer alone.

This week, the obstinate child threw a temper tantrum, and the industry was stuck in the metaphorical grocery store as everyone was forced to suffer through it together. But unlike a child, the people behind these temper tantrums are hurting others. It’s time to grow up. Let’s not wait until next week to start.

It’s a fantastic summary of what’s happening between the so-called “hardcore” gaming fans (a group into which I’m pretty sure I fit by any definition other than one that involves gender- or physical hygiene- or dwelling-place-stereotypes) and gaming’s diversity critics (those talking about race and sexuality as well as gender). The final paragraph in particular sums up the horrible feeling of embarrassment that I have as a gamer and a critic over being forced not only to watch, but to take part (partially against my will), like the parent or babysitter or older sibling.

What can we, as the responsible party in this tantrum, do? As with small children, we can’t abandon them, we can’t smack them, and we don’t want to be seen with them, but they are our responsibility and even our family. They, like us, are a part of this community, even sometimes against both our wishes. So we have to do what good parents do: don’t encourage, don’t take the bait, and wait – patiently or impatiently, as the case may be – for the child to wear itself out and grow up.

AIG/TLF: Hold Your Fire (XCOM)

In a (hopefully) much less controversial post – my latest As-I-Play post on XCOM: Enemy Unknown is up over at TLF.

In a side note, I’d originally titled the post “Stop, Don’t Shoot” when I started writing it the day before the Ferguson protests started. When I went back to keep updating the post I decided that would be a bit tasteless, so you get the title noted above instead.

TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?

Sexism is the New Social Justice

So recent events – of which I’m sure many of you are aware – in the games-journalism world have me thinking about the nature of sexism and how privilege corrupts the idea of social justice. Not only have people been throwing around the term “social justice warrior” as both a personal banner and an insult, depending on one’s political and social position, but I’ve seen several instances of “journalism is corrupt!” being thrown about without anyone really interrogating what that means.

First, and probably most obviously, is the Zoe Quinn debacle in which the developer of Depression Quest (which I’ve been meaning to play but haven’t gotten to in my queue just yet) had some sort of sexual relationship with a person who is not her boyfriend. I’m a little sketchy on the details and would mostly prefer to stay that way, but the end result is that her now-ex-boyfriend got hurt (emotionally and/or pridefully) and marshaled 4chan to recoup his tarnished honor.

I’m not questioning whether or not he has the right to feel hurt by adultery or betrayal or cheating or even being rapidly replaced or whatever it is that happened. He does, absolutely. It’s a shitty position in which to be. But that does not give him the right to attack his ex in the manner and to the degree in which he has. Getting a bunch of people to threaten the mental and physical well-being of another person, getting people to post private information and photographs to the public internet, and having people harass said person about her “integrity” and “ethics” while committing unconscionable acts of emotional assault are not appropriate and are in fact horrific and should be arrest-worthy.

Today, I saw this tweet:

This person’s feed is full of disparaging tweets about Quinn, and has now attacked Kotaku‘s Patricia Hernandez (via Stephen Totilo, editor for Kotaku) for supposed illicit affairs with game devs.

Totilo’s policy seems to be that so long as the developers aren’t gaining unfairly positive reviews from the relationships, and that the reporters just avoid reporting about those particular devs when possible, it’s fine:

@subtleblend seems to think that in the really incredibly small developer-journalist community that any sort of human interaction qualifies as a “relationship.” Certainly, advocating about how awesome a developer’s game is when one is in a position to influence sales is problematic, but most of the “proof” offered by @subtleblend of bias are collections of quotes and links to Anna Anthropy’s blog or games site – not actual reviews. One of them did suggest that one of Anthropy’s creations is “cute,” but was not the kind of “drop-everything-and-buy-it” kind of review that one would expect from a biased journalist.

But even if there is something problematic about Hernandez’s friendship with Anthropy here, the question that no one has yet asked remains: why is it that all of a sudden “everyone” (men) is concerned with journalistic ethics specifically surrounding primarily female developers? Hernandez – who has received her share of harassment in the past simply for being female and a games journalist – is also female, and is therefore subject to this campaign, but notice how the person being harassed in the Zoe Quinn “scandal” is primarily Zoe – and not the other (male) party.

With the exception of Phil Fish (whose life has been thoroughly screwed-with), the subjects of these harassment campaigns are women: Anita Sarkeesian, Carolyn Petit, Anna Anthropy, Zoe Quinn, Patricia Hernandez. What the trollish hordes have concluded (*cough* manufactured *cough*) from this is that women are therefore a threat to journalistic ethics. Not my words, theirs, as Zoya Street explains on Border House. All of which comes down to the same sexist “fears” that women will somehow “corrupt” or “take away” the male-dominated arena of games – both development and journalism, which is – of course – complete bullshit.

Finally, this is the point where I feel the need to say that as a critic of games who is also married to a game developer, banning journalists and critics from any sort of fraternization with game devs is downright idiotic.Now I’m not in a position to give any noticeable benefit to said developer, so my ethics aren’t really in question, but I’ve written on games he’s developed and said both positive and negative things about them as a player and a critic because that’s my job. Would it be sketchy for me to say that a game my husband worked on is the best thing ever and everyone should buy it? Only if I didn’t really think so.

Totilo’s point that it’s “better” for journalists to be upfront about their relationship with developers allows readers to say “how honest is this? how much does the author’s liking of this developer influence their thoughts?” I get why that might be a good CYA for an editor, and why readers might want to be informed of all the elements going into a decision.

But. And this is a but that is mostly applicable for women, both journalists and devs, the disclosure of that information also leads to dismissal – “she’s only saying she likes it because she’s sleeping with him/he’s only saying that because she’s sleeping with him.” If that is true, it’s a problem, but the assumption typically comes with a heavy dose of sexist presumption (in both directions).

In any industry, people marry other people in the industry, people sleep with other people in the industry, and so on. It happens in movies, in music, in tv, in publishing, in games, in academia. Should there be cronyism policies in place? Probably to ensure avoidance of worst-case scenarios, but if both people are capable of conducting themselves like adults, then there shouldn’t be an issue. Obviously, there are cases where people can’t act like adults, where they publish nude photos and release private information out of spite, but then those are the people who should be punished.

The long and short of it is that people are people. People will become involved with other people in their field of interest because that’s what brings people together, whether romantically or platonically. Some of those people will be women. It’s time the games industry caught up with the rest of the planet, puts on its big-kid pants, and starts acting like an adult.

To Fix or Not To Fix

This week, Gamespot ran a piece on how Dontnod, the developer who made Remember Me and is currently working on Life is Strange, isn’t “trying to fix the industry” by featuring female leads. This struck me as odd on a couple of levels.

First, Dontnod is “trying to fix the industry” by having female leads, but not in a pushy kind of way, which is probably why they said what they did:

“That’s not us trying to be different for the sake of being different,” creative director Jean-Maxime Moris told Joystiq at Gamescom. “It’s not as if we’re trying to ‘fix the industry.’”

What this says to me is that Dontnod is trying to make games that are good, games that are unique or “fresh” (to use one of the buzzwords), games that aren’t the same cookie-cutter white-male-shooter games that everyone else seems to think is required for success. What that means, really, is that they are trying to be different, but not “for the sake of being different” – the idea is to make an original game because that’s a good thing, not just to shock people or stick out like a sore thumb.

I find it a little odd that people disparage the idea of being different “for the sake of being different” – that somehow wanting to make something original is not a legitimate goal in and of itself. But that is as it is. Certainly, if a company wants to be successful, they need to make a game that is fun, a game that is popular, but I’m not sure why Moris went out of his way to assure players that “being different” isn’t one of the goals.

Second, art director Michel Koch explains the presence of female leads by saying that

“We have women in the dev team–not that many because it’s still the video game industry and there are not that many women–but we have women working on the game,” Koch said. “And our writer, which is an American writer we’ve worked with before, he’s consulting with his nieces. He’s showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh.”

There are women on the team. (Admittedly, having women on a development team is a thing that is sadly rare, but here seems more like an apology than a reasonable statement – but that could be the way it’s framed and not what Koch intended at all.) Women are a part of the development process, and the game has female leads. Sadly, this is as unusual and innovative as the article frames it – but it shouldn’t be.

But that aside, the headline – like the quote – also makes some basic assumptions about videogames and gamers that is still bothersome. It has become headline-worthy point when a developer makes not one, but two games in a row that feature female leads (that aren’t a series, like Tomb Raider). My god. I applaud Dontnod for doing it, mind you, but I’d rather see the headline be about the game instead of about a developer defending the choice to make two games in a row featuring female leads.