Let’s Be Critical

22 May

So I’ve recently started doing more research into what’s been written about games, and games and gender in specific. The answer, sadly, is “not much,” and I’m not only speaking about volume, but also depth. While there certainly are some worthy pieces out there in the aether, they are few and far between.

For one thing, some of the best criticism I’ve read about games and gender has been journalistic; this isn’t in and of itself a problem, but it does raise the question why academic works touching on the question aren’t doing as good a job as journalists – especially when academics generally pride themselves on critical rigor. Journalism also doesn’t rely on research and theory nearly as heavily as the academy, which means that even brilliant pieces of journalism lack some of the components academics look for simply by virtue of genre. And it’s great that there are good critical journalistic pieces out there – but they aren’t the kind of criticism I’m looking for (neither, by the way, is this blog – nor is it meant to be).

Nick Yee’s The Proteus Paradox (2013) has theory, research, and thoughtful criticism, but it isn’t focused on the parts of games that I, as an academic with training in literary criticism, am looking to find. It’s a good book, but I want to find more pieces that engage not only in social scientific inquiries, but also humanities-based research. In short, I want to see more of what I want to do: narratological (with or without ludological) analysis of games with regards to their impact on questions and discussions about gender and identity.

I’ve seen a couple of well-done pieces in the Approaches to Digital Game Studies series edited by Gerald A. Voorhees, Josh Call, and Katie Whitlock, although not generally focused on gender questions, and I was hoping to find (but didn’t) similar pieces in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat. Instead, I find repeats of the same, tired, and (I believe) misleading idea that women don’t play games because there’s something different about women and girls. Maybe it isn’t that we can’t play games, maybe it’s that we just don’t like them…yadda yadda.

It’s disappointing to find that even the critics to whom I would turn for a good critical feminist analysis are coming back with “Look, a damsel!” as the most complex example of criticism they can produce. Yes, there are a lot of damsels in games. Let’s move on now to something more interesting, like, say, examining the precise nature of how this particular damsel functions as social commentary, either positive or harmful.

I try to do some of this in my reviews, and do it moreso in the pieces I have published on Dragon Age (although not on gender, yet), but most places I look don’t have that kind of critical depth. Instead, most writers seem to feel obligated to defend their choice to write on games for at least the first three pages of their article. I think that by now we need to move past that defensiveness and start doing the kind of critical work that many of us have been trained to do – focus in on details and context, do the research, invoke the theory, and analyze the games.

And that means, for the love of all that is and is not holy, that you must play the games in order to write about them. As both a gamer and an academic who writes on games, there is nothing more infuriating than realizing someone is analyzing a game that they haven’t played. If you want to talk in general terms about it on your blog or in a catalog piece, then fine, but if you’re going to present yourself as a gaming academic and write on a game in academic circles, you had better have played that game. Repeatedly. Maybe even on legendary.

The point is, we can’t both complain that people don’t take our work seriously as feminist critics and then not play the very games that we set out to analyze. Our voices are dismissed because we become enmeshed in social justice projects to “get more girls to game” or “desexualize female characters” and lose our ability to explain why those things are problematic to begin with. We can’t criticize games for objectifying women without also demonstrating that those games do objectify women and that, in doing so, those games are doing harm to the social perspective of women. If we want to call ourselves feminist critics of games, then we need to go back to the games, analyze the games as texts, and play them with every bit as much attention as we would read our Butler or Foucault or Irigaray.