InnerSpeaker: Introspective Games Criticism as Cultural Ambassador

Yes, with the new cerebral implant chip by Intel, you too can see the world as Johnny Mnemonic and The Lawnmower man do! Now with 12 bites of graphic processing power!

If you haven’t read Jenn Frank’s heartbreaking piece on the death of her mother and the meaning of the game Super Hexagon, well maybe you will now. As well, there was recently a strange companion piece where Cameron Kunzelman argues on the importance of game-centered criticism vs. introspective criticism. Unlike Frank’s piece, which places the emphasis on the player’s experience, Kunzelman argues that game criticism benefits from examining the raw mechanics of the game itself.

Reading Kunzelman’s piece, I felt myself torn between two reacions: “Hey, Jenn made me cry! Boring old academic criticism has never done that,” and “Oh, yeah, I guess the only thing I remember from Jenn’s story is being sad about death, how does this move the medium forward?”

In finding my own voice as a critic, I struggle to find a balance between game centered criticism, which tends to be clinical and more difficulty to read, and the more personal introspective criticism that reads more like entertainment or pleasure reading. But in writing introspective criticism pulls me into a world where every area of life is viewed through the lens of games.

And finally Richard Clark wrote a piece recently about the danger of this experiential game criticism, and how only a handful of writers can really do it justice.

So who’s right? Is there a place for both? Or does anyone even need game criticism at all?

Game criticism as entertainment

There’s a reason academics write for their academic journals, and a rare few outside their curriculum can follow, it’s dull writing for people who like that sort of thing.

But for the rest of us, for people looking to read something interesting, to hear a story, to have our hearts broken, we need the experiential criticism, because it makes reading dense critical readings, palatable.

Yet, as much as Frank’s vulnerability touched me, I wondered if I read the same story with the same characters struggling with death and loses loved ones, if I would still care without the wink towards video games.

Leigh Alexander has done much to guide gamers towards mental well-being by emphasizing a balanced lifestyle, which includes some games but also a life beyond this insular culture of constant winking to ourselves, sharing a perpetual secret, “video games, amiright?”

Without the video game background, I would call it boring, mushy, and sentimental; it was missing this secret sauce. Video game culture has become our proverbial “Frank’s red hot sauce,” I need that shit on everything, or else I won’t take a bite. Anything without it becomes bland, boring.

Game criticism as introspection

So why do us 20 or 30 or 40 something’s read it? Because we love games and we are intelligent? If so are Kotaku and Kill Screen our academic journals? If not, why is there such an emphasis, a collective curiosity about our shared nostalgia and the urgency for criticism, do I have to grow old and then read about growing old through the lens of video games?

Are we self-conscious about video games and their attached stigmas in society at large? So much so that we have to keep up this dizzying array of criticism, a chip on our soldier, as if every game we play has to teach us some monumental truth about the human condition?

As video game writer Ed Stern argues, video games will receive cultural legitimacy through great games, not from the attention of critics or theorists:

“How much games criticism does anyone need? Or rather, how many people need any? Perhaps we already have enough. Most people who buy games aren’t particularly interested in critical thinking about games, any more than moviegoers are close readers of film, or downloaders are fascinated by music criticism. They like the sound it makes in their lives, but they don’t have to know how it works, or what it tells them about themselves. Most people like movies, but they want memories and making-of anecdotes and blooper reel gaffs to trade with their friends, they don’t want to spend a day on set, or a week in edit. Maybe we already have all the game criticism there’s any actual demand for.”

I like game criticism. I endeavour to be a game critic, but I keep falling into the trap of writing about games as an ardent fan, one who forgets to help forge ahead, inventing the tools and vocabulary for game criticism, because I’ve been too busy using games as my vocabulary understand the world around me.

Video games will only be recognized as art when Billy Crystal demands to host this award show. I recommend holding your breath.

Game criticism is obscure

I have been immersed in some of the many writing outlets Brendan Keogh outlines in his response to The New Statesman

In a way, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was until watching the mainstream game news outlets and the much-maligned Video Game Awards. In the broadcast, the host and guests try to come to grips with having two indie-developed titles in the running for game of the year, Journey and The Walking Dead. It just didn’t seem fair that “smaller” titles with lesser budgets should take away spots from bigger, more well known franchises like Halo.

They go on to discuss how far the medium has come, though regularly use words like “graphics” to define an outstanding game, though they also note how “story” is becoming a bigger part of games. This made me realize how far the game criticism sphere has come, and how far behind mainstream culture remains.

We’re not in a game-centered vs. introspective debate, because in reality we need both. We need the game-centered critics to continue to give us the tools to understand games on their own terms, but also for introspective critics to engage with society at large.

As Keogh writes, “We are doing all this work we think is so important, but the reality is that we are really just talking to our own little circle of fellow writers and readers. Beyond ourselves, few people know who we are.”

And the first steps are already happening, as Ed Stern hopes, good games like Journey and the Walking Dead have arrived, game criticism like Kunzelman writes is happening and writers like Jenn Frank are creating pieces that help games resonate with anyone whose felt the pain of a losing a loved one. The true challenge is for critics to become aware of their own obscurity, and seek to engage with society at large.

Games have matured and evolved far faster than we have been able to document and discuss. Our community of game writers and critics is relatively small, yet we have moved so far past games as consumer products we forget what a time before ludo-narrative dissonance was like. Yet a great number of people, even many so called “hardcore gamers” still live in that old world, with that old way of thinking about games. It becomes our job then, not to spend too much time and energy bickering about the kind of criticism is done, but to bring this discussion to the rest of society. A game like Journey couldn’t even have been conceived of ten years ago, and now even the VGA’s are heralding it as a Game of the Year. We have come so far, but we have to find more ways to bring the rest of the world with us. And the only solution is a little more criticism, and a little more engagement.

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  • Dan Solberg

    I feel like there has to be the full spectrum of writing, and different games call for different approaches. If I had to write purely on one side of the continuum or the other, it would be maddening and I’d probably lose my desire to write about games entirely. I think it’s difficult to find a voice on independent blogs sometimes because you don’t have the institutional constraints to play against; you don’t have the built-in audience expectations to stretch and defy. I think in independent situations the poles of academia and experiential writing become more attractive because they can at least act as guideposts for a middleground.

    • Kyle Carpenter

      Definitely some truth to this. My writing for this site tends to be defined largely as “not-academic”: I use academia as my framework, trying to make observations and offer provisional definitions, but try to avoid jargonistic shorthand or reference to theorists.

      I have used Freud and McLuhan in brief, but I feel like they are enough of a known quantity that they don’t scare people. Referring to Marx, on the other hand, has become an invitation for the layman to ignore you, unfortunately – to say nothing of Lacan, Irigiray, Lefebvre, Kristeva, Habermas, Kittler, Deleuze, Butler, et cetera ad infinitum.

      My one contention with experiential writing is that some of it becomes simply “I’m here!” writing – a call for attention for oneself rather than to an issue. Ideally, I think this kind of work should call attention to marginalized and ignored positions in order to bring them to light, or make a critical point based in personal experience. For me, when it does neither of those things, games writing as life writing falls flat.

      • Steven Sukkau

        At times I wish I WAS more of an academic writer, I definitely believe McLuhan’s work could vastly improve game design and criticism. Alas I tend to fall more on the experiential side, though I will keep in mind your advice on calling attention to ignored positions or making critical points in mind.

  • jennatar

    To me this is a bizarre comparison, since the type of writing I do about my parents is called “creative nonfiction.” It isn’t the type of criticism you get with comparative literature (which is what a lot of academic-level games criticism is). It isn’t even a review. Creative nonfiction is its own thing. That genre of essay-writing tends to fail as critical analysis—yes, even when we’re talking about New Yorker superstar Malcolm Gladwell—because it is, alas, not an academic document, even as Gladwell tries to make subjects like hobbyist neuroscience accessible to his readers.

    For me, investigating that style of essay writing had everything to do with making the idea of video games accessible to somebody not like you, but like my mother, someone who says “you’re wasting your life” or “what is that pile of absolutely valueless garbage on the screen there.” In this particular case, it’s true that what I’ve written is very slightly about Super Hexagon—a game that, until now, I really didn’t feel I could write about in good faith because I am also *in* it—but in another way it is just an essay about my mom. So I’m profoundly uncomfortable with it being evaluated as a piece of “criticism,” “experiential” or otherwise, because that is by no means the function it was meant to serve. It was meant simply to honor my mother, as well as my own grief.

    • jennatar

      I’d add that the best creative nonfiction I’ve read in any context or venue is “The Pain Scale,” by essayist Eula Biss. Obviously it isn’t going to be appearing in any medical journals. Obviously creative nonfiction isn’t criticism, isn’t a review, isn’t academic in the least. I think the most a personal essay can tell you, really, is something you already know.

    • Steven Sukkau

      I think you’re right, that’s an important distinction to make. Now we just need to get more of those people who think games are a waste of time reading creative nonfiction. I love it because it is so accessible, and can act as a gateway for more people to become aware of thoughtful discussions on games that are taking place, whether it’s creative nonfiction, academic criticism or experiential.