Video Games and Parochialism

John H. Stevens has an article over at SF Signal titled “De-Parochializing SF Criticism: Is It Really Necessary? Or Even Possible?” The article is part of a larger column that he does weekly (?) about science fiction/fantasy and how those genres interrelate with various critical apparatuses. It is probably the smartest column on the internet about that kind of material, but now that I’ve gotten my slavering love out of the way, I want to give you a great big quote from the article.

Criticism as a social and intellectual practice is a valuable component of any literary field. No other field has the sociality nor the imaginative versatility that SF possesses, and both of these elements give SF the vitality that allows it to thrive and to function on multiple levels (from visceral entertainment to nigh-hallucinatory philosophical/metaphorical exercise). The fantastic field endures and transforms because it is embedded in both popular consciousness and an elaborate subculture, both of which utilize different modes of criticism to engage it. Criticism is not a distanced, objective assessment; it is an intimate part of the cultural and creative web of discourse and social relations. To quote Farah Mendlesohn, the field is “an ongoing discussion. Its texts are mutually referential, may be written by those active in criticism . . . and have often been generated from the same fan base which supports the market.” Criticism, in its entire range of forms, is an inherent part of the SF/Fantastika’s connectivity to those who create and enjoy it.

If we do successfully de-parochialize SF/Fantastika, what will we be turning it into? Bringing criticism more in-line with prevalent trends and perspectives seems like an exercise in making the literary field and its products more mainstream. Mainstreaming often washes out complexity and reinforces stereotypes and cliches, creating identifiable markers for more general audiences to recognize but shifting attention away from the multifarious potentials of the literature. What goal is achieved by treating SF/Fantastika like more realist or mainstream or mimetic or literary texts? Is there a degree to which at least some of the literature benefits from retaining its anchorage within the more circumscribed field? I’m not sure that is the best way to phrase the question, but I keep wondering why it seems so important to some observers and readers to unmoor fantastic literature from its historical, cultural, and even social linkages.

The bold bit is my own doing, of course, and you probably already understand why I wanted you to read that big quote. Video game criticism, and the community that the criticism feeds off of, has to do a lot of growing. In some ways, video games are at a disadvantage where criticism is concerned–coming of age as a medium during the poststructural, postmodern (I hate this word, I am just using it to generalize) period has actively prevented a lot of necessary critical discourse from happening around video games.

For example, SF has an entire period where second-wave feminism produced counter-SF that firmly critiqued the patriarchal, space libertarianism of the Golden Age and after. Comics books also existed during this time, which is why there is an awesome Gloria Steinem essay on Wonder Woman. But video games, being produced out of, and for, a particular social context, hasn’t had its moment of hard critique. Anna Anthropy is the best chance we have right now for that to happen.

So maybe video games need to be more parochial. I think the indie scene is doing a great job of proliferating hundreds of new games a year, making the community a little more insular. What we need are games that radically critique the methods, assumptions, and subjectivities of the players and designers.


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