Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down With Hierarchies, Up With Analysis

As someone who writes on a website called Experience Points, I suppose I'm compelled to comment on Dan Cook's recent article decrying experiential game analysis: "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." In it he calls for better methods of filtering game criticism, encourages a greater understanding of the "art, craft and science of games" on the part writers, and argues for the need of "a defined class of criticism that focuses on improving games." While these requests may not seem controversial, Cook goes on to construct a biased hierarchy of criticism and proceeds to treat it as a fact. Ironically, in his quest for an empirical way to "improve" games, he exhibits some of the very behaviors his article claims to criticize. Thankfully, despite much "hand-waiving" and imprecise language, he manages to find the seeds of a compromise between his beliefs and those held by the people he criticizes.

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that I don't know Dan Cook personally and am largely unfamiliar with his work. Friends have told me that they respect him and his work, and I trust their judgment. I carry no personal grudge against him and I actually agree with some of his points. I do believe that video game writing would benefit from more people who have a deep knowledge of development. I know that my very limited experience with creating games has shaped the way I analyze them. In the broadest sense, exploring a new discipline and learning new things is rarely a bad thing. However, much of the positive material in the essay is buried under layers of troublesome generalizations and a myopic view of the nature of criticism. While I disagree with many of Cook's assertions, I'll limit myself to a few broad themes his article touches on.

Persuasion and Publishing

It is important to review how Cook went about conveying his argument, as it serves as a lesson in rhetoric and persuasion. The original essay went up on May 7 and has been since modified. While the current iteration retains the original's spirit, the first draft contained much harsher language that amounted to little more than ad hominem criticism of authors Cook does not enjoy. References to straw man authors sitting on "a dilapidated couch" while "spewing ignorant blather" have been removed, but they live on in the comments and in the timely responses of folks like Ben Abraham, Daniel Golding, and Michael Abbott.

Mean-spirited insults, being dismissive of others work, and thinly veiled elitism are poor ways of attracting serious attention and diminish the possibility for real discussion. Similarly, quietly editing a publicly-posted essay and hiding all prior drafts is disingenuous to those that have taken the time to contribute their thoughts. While disappointing, Cook's condescending and self-centered behavior is understandable, as the essay itself is a monument to elitism and blind self-interest.

The Elect and the Acolytes

Cook's preferred model of game criticism centers around the idea that criticism will help "improve" games. Setting aside for a moment what it even means to "improve" the medium, it appears that he is advocating for a hierarchy in both the critical sphere and the wider game community. In this hierarchy, any writing that does not yield simple "actionable" items for developers to implement is a waste.

This line of thought is disturbing to me, as it suggests the only reason to write about games is to perform labor for developers. In this case, criticism that uses a game to focus on historical, social, or cultural issues is automatically second-class material. It seems to lead to a future where games writers are little more than focus group participants or R&D workers toiling away for the benefit of the exalted developer.

Even the most experiential or culturally focused writing contains lessons for developing games. "Bow Nigger" contains information on everything from on-line matchmaking to player demographics. One of my own articles, "Race in Rapture," was not explicitly intended as an instructional paper on how to handle race in video games, but it provides plenty of information contained for developers who want to study the issue. Just because the lessons are not presented in bullet-point format does not mean they do not exist.

Criticism need not be specifically directed at developers or solely focused on design mechanics in order to illustrate games as culturally important. A novel way of reinterpreting an old game can aid the medium's growth just as implementing refined techniques can improve future games. Developers need not be revered as the elect and critics need not act solely as acolytes. Those who do not follow Cook's path need not be derided as servants to the unenlightened "People-Who-Consume."

A Chilling Effect

Developers' words hold influence in the video game community and, as Uncle Ben always said, "With great power comes great responsibility." I take no issue with Cook's evaluation that most game criticism is a waste of his time, but it is disheartening to read a philosophy that unapologetically devalues the work of a certain segment of the video game community. Rather than simply move past articles that don't hold his interest, Cook seems interested in actively discouraging them.

What of the person whose schedule, finances, or interests preclude them from gathering the empirical data Cook wishes to see? A person working two jobs might not have time to develop an indie game. A person might not be able to afford a computer than can run any of the big game editors, but they can write about their experiences with the old SNES they bought at the flea market. A person who has dedicated their lives to gender equality might have little interest in programming or game design, but their analysis of the ways games represent sex might have valuable cultural insights.

Cook admits that he is seeking a more convenient way to find people whose critical approaches match his needs. Instead of ignoring innocuous, irrelevant works or valorizing ideal examples, this mission of personal convenience relies heavily on tearing down others who contradict his ideal form of criticism. The message is simultaneously uninspiring and selfish: if your writing doesn't conform to a particular set of standards, you probably shouldn't bother. If more developers used the arguments and rhetoric Cook employs in his essay, who knows how many voices would be discouraged and shamed into silence?

Sharing "Analysis"

Cook argues that the ideal form of game writing needs to desert the term "criticism," a term that that has "stagnated under the weight of navel-gazing divorced from practice." Again, Cook falls into the trap of assuming non-developers and those who do not focus on the empirical and applied study of games are not performing criticism. However in abandoning criticism, Cook looks to set up shop around another world: "analysis." In choosing such a word, Cook has stumbled upon the solution to his problems.

I hope Cook will find the word analysis is already home to a variety of meanings and disciplines, many of which seem to contradict the hierarchical critical ladder he seeks to build. In fact, "game analysis" is a wonderfully varied term: writing about the reload times in Gears of War, the morality system in Dragon Age, and the cultural construction of childhood in Limbo all seem to fit the description. "Analysis" is just another word for detailed examination; historical, cultural, sociological, psychological analysis exist as disciplines right alongside mechanical, mathematical, and physical analysis. Games are a tangled mess of humanity and technology, both of which deserve careful study. It is the reason why Jorge created The Sensationalist and why I mix Carl Sagan quotes into my mechanical analysis. Instead of trying to carve out increasingly narrow definitions of what constitutes worthwhile criticism, let us instead view game criticism as a collection of analytical styles and disciplinary approaches. In this way, we can create a sweeping definition that resists poisonous dogma and encompasses the talents of everyone who wishes to participate.

By insulting large segments of the community, discounting the importance of the humanities, misunderstanding the function of criticism, and actively discouraging potential writers, Cook's quest to "make games better" is off to an inauspicious start. A community comprised of factions contemptuous of one another hardly seems likely to produce valuable material.

However, we have fortuitously found ourselves occupying common ground. Because of its malleability, there is room for everyone under the umbrella of "analysis." Qualitatively oriented folks can inhabit the same territory as quantitative folks without fear of stepping on each other's toes. Theoretically minded people can work alongside the practically minded without jockeying for legitimacy. With no need to fight for space, perhaps we can even start talking and get to know one another?


  1. I don't have much to say about Dan Cook's post. I think it's a rather long-winded way of saying that he doesn't believe there are many good game critics out there, and I think his conclusion is a little facile and unproductive. How do you be a better writer? By writing better. Thanks for that.

    But I do think there is some truth to what he says about "academics." Anybody with a writing background knows that it is very easy to toss off 1000 words about almost anything, and in the world of internet blogging, it is really easy for someone to formulate a 1000-word blog post and feel like they have some authority on whatever it is they're writing about. Humanities students in particular are basically trained to write endlessly about everything. I don't say that to denigrate them - I was an English major - but there is rarely time for serious research and reflection when you're making a blog post, because a well-researched and heavily-edited blog post isn't really a "blog post" anymore.

    This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The blogging scene is a constant churn of ideas. Many of them have very short expiration dates, but some emerge as worthy, lasting pieces of writing. But the fact is that if game criticism is going to rely on the blog model, then they can't work themselves up in a huff whenver someone says that they kind of suck, because, hell, maybe they do kind of suck right now. Blogs are defined by the current quality of discussion, and it will wax and wane.

    Of course, one might argue that blogs aren't really the best format for game criticism. Maybe game criticism needs less academic bloviating and more serious writing. But I think this post gets the right of it: there's no shortage of space online, so who really cares? All we can do is support the writers we like and try our best to add to the discussion if we're so inclined.

  2. Nice response, guys. I read your blog from time to time, and I think you two do a stand-up job of making me think.

    And yeah, I am the Adam Ruch he cites at the beginning of the article. I also wrote a reply to his piece. Seemed appropriate :P

  3. Hey Grayson and Adam,

    Thanks for stopping by! As always, you're two of the most tolerant folks when Jorge and I veer off into pedantry! ;-)

    Grayson, I definitely sympathize with what you say about the somewhat "half-baked" nature of many blog posts. It's hard to strike a balance between writing semi-frequently and creating thoroughly researched pieces. It's actually one of the reasons I try to distance myself from the word "blog" in general; lots of connotations with pithy posts and top-of-the-head rants.

    Of course, there's a place for those things too, so I suppose it's time to start being more conscious of in our definitions of certain types of biases and they carry.

    I think one of main problem's with Dan's piece exemplifies the blog vs. essay distinction: he thought he was writing a comprehensive critique, yet in reality he was only pounding out a poorly-researched blog screed, one that was needlessly and unfortunately arrogant.

  4. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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