So I woke up yesterday morning and did some work and then read Twitter. There were some tweets that Patricia Hernandez made about games and games criticism.
So I wrote some tweets and she responded to them and we had a conversation about it. Then I made a Storify out of the conversation so it wouldn’t be lost to time.
If you want to get the full content out of what is about to come spewing out of my internet mouth, you should read some things first.
1. Darius Kazemi‘s critique of Killing is Harmless and Brendan Keogh‘s response in the comments of that post.
2. This post I made a long time ago about New Games Journalism.
3. There was an article on Kotaku recently that was about how we think that games writing is broken, but it really isn’t. For some reason I can’t find the damn thing. You should read it if you find it. Oops someone found it.
I’m having you read those things because I don’t want to just repeat myself, although I will probably do that anyway.
The discussion tends to go this way:
Someone makes an argument for looking at the game object when a writer is doing games studies. It could be anyone who starts it: “Maybe we should look at the way that game structures an event” could be the innocuous phrase that starts the wheel to spinning. The response is generally similar to the one that Patricia gave in the conversation that we had: “Why do you want objectivity? Games are partially composed of players, so why can’t we talk about subjective experiences?”
There are two arguments that have to be made here, first and foremost:
1. I am not making claims that we need to be objective in games criticism.
2. There is not a zero sum game between writing about games-in-themselves and player-centric criticism.
However, I am not unsympathetic to Patricia’s arguments. After all, she writes very personal articles about the relationship that she has had throughout her life with video games–most recently, she wrote about how Fallout 2 is intimately tied with her development in relation to her family. Skimming through the comments, there is rarely any negativity, and if there is it is routinely answered by a positive comment. There is an appreciation in the current video games criticism atmosphere for experiential writing. Without replaying history, we will just say that it is because there was a shift a few years ago into New Games Journalism as a methodology.
And New Games Journalism, which describes criticism far more than it does journalism, is fundamentally about the experience that the speaking subject has while embroiled in the spoken-for object that is a video game. There is a whole cadre of current writers who are doing this brand of criticism, and they are doing it well. I want to be clear here: this is a valid method. I like reading the pieces when they come out. Experiential writing where the possibility of objectivity is thrown out the window is totally cool with me.
There isn’t a better way to say this: video games are not merely what you put into them as a player. They are not a place to purely be experienced. They are enclosed systems that (sometimes) require a player to input actions in order to operate to their full capacity. For that reason, I think that Game Centered Criticism needs to be practiced. I guess I need to explain that.
I think of Game Centered Criticism as a more full exploration of the game-player assemblage that comes out of any individual act of playing the game. It is quite popular in games criticism broadly to make the claim the we cannot escape subjective experiences, and so we should privilege those subjective experiences in our criticism. The game itself becomes an extension of the human subject in that it becomes a phenomenon emitter that transmits a signal exclusively for human use.
The critical flaw that I see here is that games come to have no meaning outside of their human partners. New Games Journalism/Criticism is based on the solidity of this distant subject/object relationship. The experiential method of games criticism holds the game object at a distance and then proceeds to fetishize the moment where the human and the digital interact with one another–in other words, the human experience of play becomes the orgasmic payoff of video games’ existence.
Game Centered Criticism, as I am trying to articulate it, is about the human being dancing with the video game (I’m cribbing a metaphor from Robin Bernstein’s “Dances With Things,” which everyone should read.) The video game is a discrete being, with qualities all of its own that are not reducible to the human being playing it. The moment when the human comes into contact with the game is a moment of dance–the human bleeds into the game through choices, controller actions, and meaning-making. But that isn’t the only thing going on–the video game contains its own meaning-making, framing, and decision making process. Only a self-centered asshole would ignore their partner in a waltz, claiming later that he was merely someone there to be manipulated and contain meaning for the “real,” active dancer. That’s how we should think about our relationship to games–as cooperative practices where relations are created between distinct, and equal, partners.
As a method, Game Centered Criticism pays close attention to ways that games operate in close conjunction with players. Instead of writing about the internal human process of playing a game like Dishonored, Game Centered Criticism takes the game as its own self-supporting entity. Dishonored‘s diegesis and mechanics do not exist wholly for the player–rather, Dunwall exists for itself, and its own history, just as much as it exists for me to “read” it or interact with it. It has a life of its own. It has a complex universe and being that rewards careful attention.
Obviously, isn’t a conservative appeal for Old Games Journalism, whatever that was. This also isn’t a denigration of New Games Journalism on the whole. More than anything, I’m just kind of tired of games only having worth because they were transformative for a human subject. We need a critical toolbox that allows us to talk about the digital and material qualities of games-in-themselves, not just as extensions of human minds into ludic spaces where we get to vacation sometimes.
Game Centered Criticism doesn’t seek to force out a particular method of doing criticism. Instead, it seeks to give us more tools, more ways of giving voice to our nonhuman counterparts that allow for video games to be so damn affecting to us.
1. There is a philosophical term for this, popularized by Quentin Meillassoux, known as “correlationism” that basically means that things in the world are trapped in a relation with the human subject as only existing for that subject (I am vastly simplifying this, read more here).
2. I couldn’t figure out a way to include this above: I think Game Centered Criticism is distinct from procedural rhetoric because of the way that it embraces a living game subject rather than a didactic machine. There’s space between Persuasive Games and Sicart’s criticism of procedural rhetoric, and I think Game Centered Criticism fits in that niche. That is a very short version of a (necessarily) very long thought.