On New Games Journalism

Or, On the Writing of the Personal Essay and How You Felt About the Game

Aram Zucker-Scharff wrote an article titled “Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism” over at Nightmare Mode, and it got me thinking about the whole New Games Journalism push and my deep dissatisfaction with it as a genre.

To address the article proper: AZ-S (sorry, that’s a lot to type out every time) makes the claim that recent pushes toward focusing on auteur creators of video games are a response to the New Games Journalism as proposed by Kieron Gillen almost five hundred years ago now. (Side note: I think that NGJournalism and NGCriticism are the same thing these days, so I’m going to talk about them interchangeably.) He then makes a move that I can get behind–he suggests that creators might not be the be-all-end-all of interpretation and that there should be room for personal experience in video game criticism, despite the potential flaws in the New Game Criticism department. As loyal readers might remember, I made a similar argument before, suggesting that the auteur movement ultimately erases individuals who contribute to games while valorizing quirky “geniuses.”

However, at the end of the article, AZ-S comes back to New Games Criticism as the place where a plurality of experiences can take root and show us how games work.

I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that the Newest of New New Games Newness Games Criticism, or whatever iteration that we are in currently, might actually be bad for video games on the whole.

This is hard to write. I think Tom Bissell’s article for Grantland, titled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter,” was bad games criticism. I think it was bad writing about games period.

And that isn’t to say that the article is bad proper. In fact, I loved reading it, and in revisiting it again just now I was caught up in how he aligns everything so well. It is a piece of art. Tom Bissell is a genius.

But the much celebrated article is more air than land. We’re led down rabbit holes and abandoned–why does Tom Bissell play Call of Duty to fall asleep? Who did Tom Bissell cause to be tortured? Why write so much about a game that, from the review that we are given, didn’t seem to have any effect on Bissell other than making him think about how dumb and counter-point the game itself was?

I think these issues might not be at the core of Bissell’s writing. Instead, they are at the center of what it means to write games criticism now. It isn’t about the game or how it plays or how it brings the player close or pushes her away; instead, the article centers around the experiences of the author–here is my real point–and sometimes those experiences don’t line up with any kind of argument or analysis. I’m not a purist in any sense of the word, but I do want my games criticism to take up an object, any object, and actually approach it with some rigor.

Like I said before, this isn’t about Bissell. It is about the half-Bissell’s. Gillen wrote in the piece that we have chosen as the birth place of New Games Criticism that

The mediocre hacks filling positions that could be taken by people wanting to write brilliantly are what will kill the British games magazine. Not that they’re bad people, you understand — many are utterly lovely. It’s just that they’re wasting the potential of the form with their total lack of commitment and/or talent.

He wrote that about the writers for British gaming magazines in the first half of the first decade of our new millennium, but is it any better now? It certainly seems much worse–now there is no money, the games criticism is written for free, and most of it is utter dreck. I’m as much of the problem as anyone else, too, so don’t let it seem like I’m getting off lightly here.

We need fewer Bissell imitators. Ninety-nine percent of the readers of this blog know exactly what I’m talking about–cloying attempts at being smart, shallow readings of games to find some meaning that “speaks to us all,” and assertions that, yes, Final Fantasy VII actually is the best game of all time.

The way we get out of this pit is rigor. We have to play games and actually pay attention to how they are structured. We need to understand how they are assembled.

Most importantly, and this should be the takeaway, I think we need to realize that games are not places where we let ourselves run wild so we can write about it later. Is the value of a game really only in what we, as individuals, get out of it? Or is there something to be said about the game itself, the way it operates, the way it plays itself?

I’m just tired of reading article after article about how Final Fantasy makes straight white men feel.

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23 Responses to On New Games Journalism

  1. Tom Auxier says:

    The big question I have when reading this (and the original piece! I *may* have helped edit it, in fact) is why writing about the artist’s intent and writing about our own interpretations have to be mutually exclusive. Why is one more valid than the other? If a game is making me feel a certain way, through Things That Happen, then it’s a valid interpretation, and possibly worth talking about.

    Saying something about “The Game Itself” is subjectivity bound up in the language of objectivity. If I’m analyzing how a video game creates anxiety in the player, I’m still ascribing to it an interpretation. If we say, “Grand Theft Auto IV creates a cognitive dissonance with its shooting and morals” and back it up with evidence, it’s still our interpretation. The second we move past evidence without signposts and into the realm of ascribing meaning to a video game, we’re talking about our individual experience of it.

    That said (and I say this as Bissell Imitator in Chief and Duke of Final Fantasy SWM Feels) there does need to be analysis. If Final Fantasy VII makes a writer feel a certain way, it needs to come from how the game operates, how the game plays. Play a game with rigor, then make your personal observations exist in the wider world.

    Basically, it’s a problem I attribute more to hard work and talent–both in terms of writing and critical thinking–than it is in approach. New Games Journalism is good if the writers are good, if the writers aren’t in love with themselves but instead with the idea of criticism.

    • kunzelman says:

      Sure, all of this is true. There isn’t a moment where one kind of criticism trumps another, and I too think that pretension toward objectivity is stupid. We’re on the same page. My argument is that the game itself should be the object of analysis, not the player. That’s all.

      • Ethan Gach says:

        Ahhh, the old New Criticism! (being coy)

      • First of all, don’t let Tom get away with that ‘may’, his editorial help is always invaluable.

        Second, feel free to lose the hyphenate, I’m not a fan of it anyway. Hell, ZS or just Aram is fine. :P

        As Gillen notes, this is about writing ‘travel journalism to imaginary places.’ It’s hardly a new idea, at its core it’s really reader response criticism, which is nearly a century old. It’s just that before Gillen wrote that manifesto, it was mostly alien to games criticism. Good reader response criticism has already proven itself when dealing in other mediums, Nick Hornby’s column in The Believer (see Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) is a recent excellent example for experiential reviews of literature.

        A game’s value comes from what it makes us (the players) feel. In fact, its value is inherent in its ability to build an emotional response. This isn’t just stemming from narrative, if it succeeds at building fiero though increasingly difficult pattern matching, that’s an emotional response too. If that’s the case, than how we experience a game, how it makes us feel, is not just part of our critical toolkit, but the most important part.

        From that comes a way to build criticism. If our experience of a game is the most important thing about it then the most important part of our attempts to construct a review for consumption is building that review so that the readers can, at some level, share in our experience.

        The good argument or analysis is inherently about a good translation of emotion from the writer to reader. This makes sense because while there are components of a game (or any art really) to analyze, the whole of a work is not something that can be understood objectively because you experience a game as you, not as an emotionless, filter-less tabula rasa machine.

        I’m not saying that I know the perfect formula for video games journalism (I’m pretty sure I’d be able to write a lot better if I did) but when done right it is about the journey of the player because the journey is the point. Tom is right that the success comes from quality and an attentive game journalist, but even when it isn’t all the way there, it has some value because the best way for us to understand a game IMO is to consume as many people’s experiences of that game as possible.

        That’s why, though I enjoyed your post, I have to disagree. Any analysis has to start with the player because understanding the player and their gaming experience is intrinsic to understanding the why of anything they have to say about the game. There are lots of great places you can go to from there, including breaking down various components of the game, but if it doesn’t start there, I don’t think we’re being honest (or connecting) with our readers.

        • kunzelman says:

          Thanks for the comment!

          I flip back and forth on this quite often, and I’ve come to a nuanced opinion that essentially boils down to, “Yes, I agree with you, but there is something more.” I cannot believe that everything a game contains is the experiences of the players. I think that talking about experiences is well and good, but those things are not the be-all-end-all of discussion about video games. They are objects in their own right, with processes and operations that occur out of the reach of the player. Experientially, the player never “touches” a most of the things that games are doing “under the hood.” If the limit of games crit is aggregation of experiences, it means that we’re missing out on huge chunks of what games are.

          But beyond the philosophical difference, I’m really just tired of the style of writing that pretends experience is the pinnacle of what we can say about games. Games are literally about structure–a game, at base form, is a mediated form of reality. And just like the production of film, its political economy, the film stock used, and so forth is important to film studies, we should be aware of the material and objective factors that surround video games. I’m not arguing for a crowding out of experience; rather, I would prefer a honing of experiential writing that is tempered by an understanding, or at least a gesture toward attempting to understand, the workings and factors that are involved in making a game a particular kind of object that enables experience.

          In any case, thanks for writing the original article!

  2. I have nothing additional to contribute, I just really liked reading this, and recently I’ve begun trying to actually tell writers when I like their writing sometimes.

  3. I think the answers lies somewhere in the middle (of course I think that! This is pretty much my thesis!)

    NGJ did a valuable job of bringing experience into games writing. It helped make games writing actually criticism and not just lists of features.

    Where it fails, of course, is it can swing too much the other way. Instead focusing on ‘just’ the game, we end up with writing that focuses ‘just’ on the person. Many of the ‘half-Bissell’s (self totally included) have used the NGJ mould just to write something confessional that says next to nothing about the game but gives us a chance to just get something off our chest by pretending to be writing about a game. That mode of writing isn’t entirely invaluable but, you are right, it is ‘bad games criticism’ in the sense that it tells us next to nothing about ‘the game itself’.

    So at the moment, we have the option of focusing on ‘the game itself’ (which is really just Old Games Journalism) or focusing on ‘the player’ (which is really just NGJ). What we really need to focus on is the playergame. On the moment the player and the game intermingle and come together in the instance of videogame play. This requires as much looking at what the ‘game itself’ does as what the player/writer themselves ‘felt’. It requires looking at what the game did to make the writer feel that way and what the feelings, in turn, did to the game. The whole reflexive feedback loop of gameplay. That, I think, is what we really need to look at if we want to understad the meanings that arise in videogame play.

    And, as an aside, one really valuable thing NGJ did (at least for my own writing) was get away from the idea that games journalism/criticism has to pretend the world on the other side of the tv is sealed off. As Gillen says in his manifesto: “Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist”. Ignoring the second half of this sentence that says to focus on the gamer not the game (urgh), this first part of the sentence is so important. The worlds we visit don’t exist. NGJ embraces that in a really useful way. So what NGJ does superbly is in the same sentence talk about things the player does in this world and the character does in that world without blinking. It brings the two worlds of gameplay together in a way few other modes of writing about videogames have managed. For instance, in “Bow Nigger” the writer talks about holding a lightsaber and gripping the mouse in the same sentence. He never ‘pretends’ to ‘actually’ be a Jedi, but at the same time he totally is a Jedi. NGJ is a really early, somewhat primitive attempt to really capture that paradox of videogame play, and that alone makes it valuable I think.

    So yeah. NGJ is far from perfect, and might not even really be relevant anymore. Maybe we are in a post-NGJ world. Maybes its already done what it needed to do. But yeah, it did some important things.

    • kunzelman says:

      We are totally in agreement.

      The only thing that I want is for NGC to be done well and to actually take the game world as something that exists and has qualities that can be analyzed. If NGC is really travel writing, then most of the NGC that I read on a daily basis pretends that the country they are traveling to shows up when they’re there and disappears when they’re not, which isn’t true; besides, the country had revolutions, economic depressions, and a number of other events that make it what it is today. Do we just ignore that in favor of drinks and fun hats? I know this is a digression, but I agree with your comment totally, and I just woke up with this little example crystallized in my head!

    • Mark N. says:

      Maybe I’m only thinking of the worse examples, but I’m not sure Old Games Journalism ever focused on ‘the game itself’ in a nontrivial analytical sense. I think of OGJ as being about games the way that PC World is about computers: at a fairly shallow, surface level focusing on itemizable product features. So PC World will run down how many MHz a new chip has, how many polys/second a new GPU can push, the resolution and refresh rate of a monitor, that kind of thing. That’s not really a study of computation, of course: if you look to what’s done in cybernetics, media archaeology, theoretical computer science, etc., PC World is not doing any of that.

      I see OGJ, in that respect, as more like PC World than like, say, Turing or Kirschenbaum: it never really digs into games’ construction or operation as artifacts, but just gives a rundown of poly counts, frame rates, some features of the physics engine, etc.

      As an example of really analyzing a “game itself”, Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s book Expressive Processing comes to mind. I don’t see anything remotely like that in OGJ, even in a less academic form. One example of a criticism genre that does seem to do it more often is interactive fiction criticism: both authors and reviews engage in a lot of discussion about structuring code/content/processes/interaction that gets a lot deeper than lists of features.

    • craigbamford says:

      “What we really need to focus on is the playergame. On the moment the player and the game intermingle and come together in the instance of videogame play. This requires as much looking at what the ‘game itself’ does as what the player/writer themselves ‘felt’. It requires looking at what the game did to make the writer feel that way and what the feelings, in turn, did to the game. The whole reflexive feedback loop of gameplay. That, I think, is what we really need to look at if we want to understad the meanings that arise in videogame play.”

      I really, really, really like this way of looking at it. Damned if I know exactly how you’d recognize it in the wild—closest I can think of is maybe Rock Paper Shotgun’s “travelogue”-style pieces or a really GOOD episode of Idle Thumbs—but that definitely struck a chord.

  4. craigbamford says:

    All this said, the most important bit about all of this is the bit where nobody’s getting paid anymore. Maybe “game critics” are becoming diarists because a diary is what one WRITES for free.

    If nobody else indicates the value of the work by paying for it, then that value has to be to the writer himself/herself. There’s value in getting a confession out. So that’s what they do.

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  7. Two thoughts (I call them thoughts, because they aren’t well developed enough to be points):
    1) Putting aside the question of whether they’ve morphed into the same thing, is there a useful distinction to be made between New Game Journalism and New Game Criticism? Journalism and criticism strike me as two different things, in that they serve slightly different rhetorical purposes for slightly different audiences, but it’s possible that the “New Game” part of the endeavor overwhelms those differences. But could there be a useful reason to keep them apart? (I’m asking, because I’m not sure myself. I did say these thoughts aren’t well developed.)
    2) If you think NGJ/C should focus more on the game, what are your feelings on Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger feature on the Game Design Forum? (http://thegamedesignforum.com/features/reverse_design_CT_1.html) It hits the targets you mention: there’s a definite argument, and there’s a definite investigation of structure, and emotional attachment is kept out. On the other hand, I think it goes a little too far the other way, in its pursuit of some sort of numerical purity through charts and graphs.

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      1. I think criticism and journalism should be different things, but I often see them as collapsed categories in video game writing on the internet. The former should take a concept or argument and develop is, centered around a game of course; the latter should be investigative and illuminating. You’re right that there is a rhetorical difference, and like I said, I think some rigor gets us out of this. I think we need people to decide if they are critics or journalist. The concept of the “video game writer” seems pretty bankrupt.

      2. Yeah, I am very familiar with the Game Design Forum work, and I think it is brilliant. It does go to the numbers pretty often, but the argument that Holleman makes for that, especially in the FFVI design book, is that the game was balanced and created numerically. More than that, there are artifacts of that numeric intentionality all through the work–memory constraints, magic usage, and so forth were all used in a particular way to create a particular object that was FF VI.

  8. Two thoughts (I call them thoughts, because they aren\’t well developed enough to be points):
    1) Putting aside the question of whether they\’ve morphed into the same thing, is there a useful distinction to be made between New Game Journalism and New Game Criticism? Journalism and criticism strike me as two different things, in that they serve slightly different rhetorical purposes for slightly different audiences, but it\’s possible that the \”New Game\” part of the endeavor overwhelms those differences. But could there be a useful reason to keep them apart? (I\’m asking, because I\’m not sure myself. I did say these thoughts aren\’t well developed.)
    2) If you think NGJ/C should focus more on the game, what are your feelings on Reverse Design: Chrono Trigger feature on the Game Design Forum? (http://thegamedesignforum.com/features/reverse_design_CT_1.html) It hits the targets you mention: there\’s a definite argument, and there\’s a definite investigation of structure, and emotional attachment is kept out. On the other hand, I think it goes a little too far the other way, in its pursuit of some sort of numerical purity through charts and graphs.

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  11. jack says:

    So, the guy that wrote an entire article about his feels doesn’t get around to review the game is terrible? True, true. Most reviewers are shills and so make the review completely pointless? Also true. The games journalism industry (your terms really confuse me) is shit right now in 2012? True.

    But Kieron Gillen’s article says it has already happened in 2004. Well, shit.

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