Every so often, a topic comes along which invites a higher level of discussion from the many bloggers, vloggers, critics, scholars and thinkers surrounding games. In our newest feature, Critical Discourse, we tackle one of these enduring topics and invite several writers into direct conversation with each other, to tease out even further insights and perspectives.
With that in mind, our inaugural topic for Critical Discourse is subjectivity. Stephanie Jennings starts the conversation with her essay, “Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism,” Iris Bull chimes in with a short poem about games and subjectivity called “you” and Heather Alexandra describes how she includes herself in a game with her essay “Games Are Better With Heart.”
Dear Heather and Iris,
I’ve been excited to read and watch your work on subjectivity. We seem to share concerns with how games structure experiences, with how individual players read these experiences to shape and construct meaning. (I’m also excited about the fact that we approached these concerns through such different means: through essays, poetry, and videos of playthroughs. I think these distinct methods further underscore the subjectivity of meaning-making, interpretation, and expression).
For my part, I’ve been writing about subjective criticism in response to what I see as two divergent trends. On the one hand, there’s a glorification of objective, “unbiased” commentary across academic institutions, games criticism, and popular games writing. On the other are efforts to develop subjective approaches that root meaning-making in individual players’ experiences of engaging with game structures. I’ve seen a lot of remarks to the effect of “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had more subjective methods of criticism/research?” or “I wish there were greater acceptance of experiential critiques.” In reply, I’ve been trying to push against objectivity and flesh out subjective methods.
In my opinion, subjective lenses create a wealth of possible meanings and understandings of video games at which we simply cannot arrive with objective frameworks. They also serve to multiply and amplify perspectives from the fringes, giving voice to marginalized and oppressed players and resistant forms of play. It’s my belief that we can only begin to understand the significance of video games and what they do by crafting, supporting, and expanding on subjective approaches to criticism.
To illustrate my line of thought, I thought I’d kick off with a quick interrogation of an area of games writing that many still believe to be (or should be) a fortress of objective commentary where biases have no place: video game reviews. (I’m not going to delve into the differences between reviews and criticism here, but I do maintain that there is a difference. I take reviews to be those pieces meant to recommend to players whether they should or should not purchase the game in question, usually by assigning a numerical score…hence the expectations for objectivity.)
Last week, Forbes’s Dave Thier wrote an article critiquing the “echo chamber” of Bloodborne praise across countless sites, calling this near-universal lauding “games journalism’s failure.” Thier brings up an interesting point that I think not many players (or prospective purchasers) consider when reading reviews. The point is that, more than likely, the journalists tasked with writing reviews for Bloodborne were probably also players of previous Souls games. As such, their reviews are colored by perspectives informed by previous enculturation into specific modes of play. They have a subjective outlook on what the game is and what it should be. And that subjective outlook is not one that would be formulated by, for instance, a newcomer to the series or play style.
Beyond that, though, I have serious issues with Thier’s conclusions. He asks, “since when have we stopped giving a damn about ‘everyone?’” And it is this that he believes is the great failure of games journalism—the failure to take many, diverse perspectives into account. I certainly agree with him there. But his solution to this issue appears to be to encourage individual reviewers to strive to speak for everyone. He commits this presumptuous flaw himself as he writes about how he would never recommend Bloodborne to friends that had never played Dark Souls, “knowing” that they wouldn’t want to play it. But how can he definitively know what they would want? How can he know that Bloodborne wouldn’t open a new and enjoyable experience for these friends? Thier cannot speak for every player, every person — nor can any critic, journalist, or reviewer.
Thier writes that game reviewers are “falling down on our duty.” But what is that duty? Is it to try speak for everyone? To be objective in our analyses? To eradicate the subjective lens by attempting to conceptualize, assume, and speak for the preferences of “everyone” in our audience?
But these very assumptions are themselves subjective.
Thier concludes that “the echo chamber of braise for Bloodborne reminds us what an incredible lack of perspective we have within the world of games criticism, and that’s not just a practical failure, it’s boring to boot.” I agree. But I do not think the remedy to this problem is to try to guess at everyone else’s opinions and impose our assumptions on them. It is, rather, to openly acknowledge our subjectivity. It is to engage in a self-reflexive process. It is to say “this won’t apply to everyone, but this is where I’m coming from — this is my experience, the meanings that I have uncovered, and why I believe I’ve ended up at these conclusions.” And this is one of the many reasons why we need more voices. More experiences, more meanings, more subjectivity. No one can speak for everyone. And why would we want them to?
Hi Stephanie and Heather,
Thank you, Stephanie, for starting this round of letter writing. I appreciate your comments on videogame reviews because they got me thinking about who the videogame review is for, and what work it does for the reader. By no means is there a simple or singular answer to these questions, and I think your critique to Dave Thier’s meta-review extrapolates from these inherent questions conclusions that most people are willing to concede: if the review is for “everyone,” and no one person can possibly address the concerns of everyone, then editors should work explicitly to diversify either their editorial staff or freelance submissions.
I would like to complement your address of Thier’s work with some concerns I have about the assumed metaphysics of a review; which is to say: why do writers and readers continue working on the project of communication that is so rarely well and broadly received? I agree that the review differs from a work of criticism insofar as criticism is a performance of applying theory and/or philosophy to mediate the interpretation of one’s experience with various phenomena. Reviews… well, I’m not so sure that their definition is so simple, evidenced by the longstanding debate about what a review should/n’t do. I reason that the question of what to write is so often taken up before or irrespective of its precedent — what is writing — and that this is why discussions/debates/flame-wars about publication ethics seem to burn ad nauseum. And, maybe this is an unfortunate conclusion, if the existential project is to  unify industry practices into formalisms that shape the character of what is written. Or if the project is to  catalytically unify readers around common lexicons, rituals, and social practices. I do think that these are some of the inherent qualities of a review, regardless of the style by which an author writes it. Whether or not a writer is reflexive about their subjectivity, the apparatus of videogames reviewership is — and has always been — in the service of homogenizing or calcifying the fluid formulations of community activity.
I hesitate to qualify the videogame review as a sign or signal, or as a simple tool, for the same reasons that I question the inherent good in maximizing the number of reviews published about a game. Materially, I think the review works to substantiate particular power dynamics between different bodies involved in game production—a circuit that might be reducible to: audience->designers->capitalists/publishers & distributors (broadly defined)*->reviewers->audience. Specifically, dynamics that concentrate wealth for a small community of capitalists who then seldom reinvest their capital into the community commons from which they exploit. While it may be difficult to gate what we might understand as the commons, I don’t think its hyperbolic to qualify the collective time and energy we spend volunteering to do x as an inherent common good. When we spend time playing games, experimentally developing games, distributing games for free, we’re contributing to the community commons. When we read reviews, we’re contributing to a commons that publishers exploit for advertising dollars. When we write reviews, we’re signalling to people how they should participate in the commons, too. When a review encourages people to funnel their time and energy to people who will not reinvest in the commons, we undermine the sustainability of a commons, writ large.
I realize that publishers and distributors are different; they operate differently and experience tensions unique to their relationship between each other, but they are co-dependent. Either publishing and distribution are separated but co-dependent, or their practices are embodied by a single entity. In either case, we are living during a time wherein publishers and distributors dominate the process of determining how our commons should exist in an existential sense; one way in which they exercise their power, to ensure control over the circulation of information, is by formalizing the review/reviewer/audience relationship. That we might have more reviews to choose from will not change the subjective power of the audience; it will fragment the marketplace, perhaps, but in a way that encourages a complexification of exploitation practices. In many ways, the “objective” review is a red herring; it distracts us from problems inherent to the infrastructural mechanisms that subjugate readers in the process of choosing how they should or might invest their time into various gameplays. Which doxa should dominate the definition of “rigorous,” “intelligent,” “useful/practical,” and — obviously — “marketable” reviews should be oriented towards the preservation and substantiation of a public commons; all people, rich and poor, depend upon a commons for collective survival, but perhaps, in the year 2015, some more than others.
There are a number of people who will disagree with the premise of my argument because they assume my evaluation of the review and its properties in the circuit of production are overblown — also, this is the Internet (hey-oh!). To conclude, I want to address what I think others may assume of the review in its totality and function. This parallel view is what situates a spectrum of the political domain that we must overcome if the commons are to utilized as a shared resource on which young or learning people can sustain both their life education and corporeal bodies. The other, more insidious utility of a review is to travel through time — or, attempt to, anyways.
Taken that the purpose of a review is to do more than tell the reader whether or not they should buy a game — (although, now that I think about it, maybe there’s some money to be saved here on the part of editorial departments because how much virtual space does a simple “yes”/“no” system require) — an audience asking for an “objective” review is demanding that the writer perform a fantastic act of forgetting. The objective review promises to sanitize the transmission of information that is a mere consequence of a writer’s processing of phenomena — the writer is meant to be transparent, a simple container; their byline, an inside joke. The objective review also promises to exist irrespective of an audience; it would exist, even if no one was around to read it. The service of all written communication is the displacement of time, and in this way we can understand the objective review is always the review the audience would have written, given the advent of time travel.
The “subjective review” — or, the reviewer who is aware of their subjectivity — doesn’t really work any differently. When a writer works in the service of interpreting information for someone else, their text still displaces time for the reader. The project is, actually, very similar; the only characteristic difference being that the project of communicating here isn’t about being right — it’s about trying to be right in some way, in some way that facilitates further productive dialogue about the object in question. If, as a reader, you somehow don’t have an “in” to this conversation, it can feel like the text actively works to alienate you from the project as a whole. Worse, if you think that Truth is not somehow always a process of finding yourself in relation to a mediated experience — well, you’re probably ready to burn journalistic institutions down and salt the earth over those ashes.
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that both variations on the review work to subjugate the reader in similar ways, and that the pursuit of trying to pair every reader with a review that speaks to them is not “sustainable” in the sense that the marketplace cannot sustain an al a carte distribution model. Capitalists who control the marketplace rely upon energy conversion ratios above a certain percentage margin; they rely upon an amassing that enables extraction at a rate sustainable for them, not the commons. The extent to which this changes will depend upon the development of infrastructure that publishers and distributors work through to facilitate communication between people producing and consuming. Who will do this work? Definitely not the capitalists. What can reviewers do? It would be neat if the review worked to substantiate sustainable circulations of energy flow, and by this I mean: it would be neat if the review worked twofold;  to signal when a game would provide me (the player) with some personal physical, emotional, or economic return on investment, and  to signal how my monetary investment would be reinvested into the arts/technology development community. At this point in time I don’t think that the infrastructure exists to facilitate regular fertilization of the commons outside of the tried-and-true method of burning out bodies and replacing them with younger ones, but I’m hopeful that this will change; evidence of the sacrifice required to change the status quo is accumulating. From a design perspective, people are wising up to the power of negative feedback loops that help signal and shape community involvement, and it helps to know I’m not the only one investing in projects that help people make their rent. What I fear, however, is that we will sit satisfied with funding models that frequently threaten sustainability initiatives with popularity rot. Quibble about the number and character of game reviews we will, but I hope not at the expense of inattentively letting the fires of capitalism burn the barns that shelter us from those elements in life that work to wear us down.
*Brief note: In the circuit, reviewers can be collaborators with publishers and distributors — we call these people Public Relations specialists or representatives — and in that case, there isn’t a barrier between circulating information from publishers/distributors to the audience.
Hello Stephanie and Iris,
I first wish to say that I am grateful to be in such wonderful company. It is truly humbling to correspond with you both. Secondly, I ask you indulge my generally extemporaneous nature. Brevity is the soul of wit but spontaneity is the realm of honest. There is much to talk about, particularly regarding the matter of reviews, and I will not have a central thesis as much as a string of thoughts.
Thier’s piece is impotent and distracted navel gazing dressed as insightful cultural critique. It is self satisfied sound and fury. It raises questions but only because of Stephanie’s clarity of thought extracting them and not Mr. Thier’s core thesis. Indeed, his point that journalists seem to have forgotten about everyone and that reviews are inherently tailored to a core enthusiast audience, thus creating his titular echo chamber, is an overly complicated narrative to the real issue. It is a real issue I will not dwell on much. In short, the shared sentiment found in Bloodborne reviews (or reviews of comparably high profile titles) has less to do with a critically narrow lens as it does with “clicks”. How long was I hearing about the game before it came out? A long time. Why? Because it was popular. Where was I hearing most of that? The self same enthusiast press that Thier is critiquing. He’s so damn close that seeing the crux of the matter slip under his nose is painful. The simple matter is that the echo chamber created around these titles has little to do with the individuals playing the games. The Souls-like game didn’t get a higher score because the resident Souls player was reviewing it; it scored high because the publications had already spent months hyping up the game. Thus, the similar reviews scores may be tied to the environments rather than the individuals.
This is not to suggest that individual experiences with games do not matter; we all know that is false. It is false for any art. There is only ever the art and the audience, each acting upon the other. We bring our own facticities to the text, coloring our perception in a wholly unique way. Thus, I also feel safe saying that the idea of a review for “everybody” is not merely an absurd notion but one which is literally impossible. Hobbyists crave it because it exempts them of certain responsibilities regarding their engagement with games, the chief of which being culpability for their buying habits and dare I say that the reason objectivity is seen (as Stephanie puts it in her piece) as a “holy grail” in academia comes from a compulsive desire to reduce art to its parts. Simply put, a lot of people are concerned with what play is rather than what it makes us feel.
Who is the review for? It is for the reviewer. Who is it concerned with? It is concerned with the reviewer. It cannot be anything else. It is as Stephanie says. Even if two players could replicate the same playthrough moment for moment, interpretation of the symbolic value of the playthroughs would vary wildly. Likewise, I share Iris’ reticence to call a review a type of sign largely because I don’t think reviews point toward referents. Taken as complete “objects”, reviews tend to be devoid of anything semiotically engaging. As such, their value to me as an observer is limited. Unless they concern themselves with the reviewer. The more experiential the writing, the more value may be gleaned through empathetic projection. After all, do I want to know how many guns Battlefield: Hardline has or do I want to know how the game made the reviewer feel when they pulled the trigger?
That’s what it really comes down to. The concern with how games are games and not what games can accomplish is a painfully narrow way of approaching the medium. Do games have unique qualities that make them a different kind of art? Certainly. Yet, often the critical gaze is merely on what these qualities are and not with what they achieve or how they achieve. The idea that the meaning of a game can be sussed out through the deification of systemic interactions alone, for instance, is another type of folly. The value of a system when it comes to meaning making doesn’t come from the mere interactions but it is also a result of the surrounding facets that turns those interactions into abstractions of events. If I wanted to be wowed exclusively by systemic interactions, I could set up a spreadsheet. What matters, I believe, is that those interactions be understood as abstractions of action and then that those abstracted actions have symbolic meaning.
Let us consider a battle in a traditional turned based RPG. At the base level, it is all math but we contextually understand that math to represent physical struggle and that struggle then takes on true importance when the totality of factors are added in. Music, images, narrative (explicit or implied). Now we have our signs and icons. We start to have meaning. We start to have emotional response. Without the latter, I do not know what the point of play is. Which might be a question itself to ask, I suppose.
Dear Iris and Heather,
Thank you both for your great comments. I’ve read and re-read what you’ve written multiple times—there’s a lot here to unpack and consider, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed chewing on the points you’ve brought up.
So far, we’ve dug deeply into the roles, functions (and failures) of reviews. The primary reason that I raised the subject of reviews to begin with is to point to a domain of games writing in which objectivity is — presumably — the guiding rule. As we’ve all discussed, though, this eagerly sought-after unbiased, distanced commentary is impossible. Moreover, as Iris has pointed out, the presumption of objectivity in reviews performs a particular kind of exploitative work.
Of course, reviews aren’t the only area of writing in which objectivity stands as the dominant goal. Games criticism — whether in peer-reviewed academic establishments or not — are also grappling with a popular and often mandated desire for objective analysis. In academia, at least, this is frequently wrapped up in the aims of critical distance: take a step away from your text of study, look at it from afar, don’t let yourself and your experiences be your lens of analysis. One of the concerns I addressed in my earlier blog post dealt with the language that academics often employ to talk about objective and subjective methods. Objective methods of study tend to be labeled strong while subjective methods tend to be belittled as weak.
Heather has really pinpointed how this unfolds in studies of video games: inclinations to reduce art to its parts, to explain what that art is and of what it is composed, and what these parts are and not on what they do. That is supposedly where we are to find an objective understanding of what makes up a video game, of what a video game is.
To me, that kind of project is, frankly, baffling. And part of the reason is that if we’re spending so much time talking what a video game is, then how do we avoid talking about the act of play? Further, (as I mentioned in my essay) how can we possibly talk about play in any objective way? I think that this, like the “objective review” is a complete impossibility.
My opinion is that the question of what a video game is can only begin to be approached by asking what it does — and, like Heather observed, a significant part of that is considering players’ emotional responses to games. Without that acknowledgment of the subjective positioning of players, of the experiential nature of play (and, thus, of the experiential nature of games criticism), we’ll never have anything other than a vague notion of what video games are, might be, can be. And to be clear, when I bring up this question of “what videogames are,” I’m completely not trying to nail down some definitive, formal definition of videogame.
Rather, what I’m interested in are the experiences that players have when engaging with games. And even though these aren’t reducible to interactions with systems, I’m interested in how games structure experiences. Further, I’m interested in how players may resist those structured constraints, discovering their own modes of play in spite of and against established systems. I want to know how a player’s individual identity influences their experiences and interpretations of these moments of play.
And as a critic, I want to be able to launch this line of questioning for myself in my act of critique. What experience did I have of this game? How did the game structure my experience? What were my interpretations of these experiences? How is my subjective positioning a lens through which to understand this game? How do I understand my own moments of play? And I want to be able to do this without being incessantly accused of engaging in a weak, useless approach.
Although, as Iris as mentioned, more subjective reviews wouldn’t necessarily affect the relationships of power between developers, publishers, reviewers, and players, I think that subjective criticism can act as a mechanism for resistance. Subjective critique can give voice to players, illuminating the diversities of play, experience, identity, and interpretation. The push for objectivity in popular and academic games writing invalidates the experiential nature of play and the power positioning of players. On the other hand, I think that more voices and more widely-accepted methods of subjective criticism would expand avenues of power and resistance for players.
Hi Heather and Stephanie,
Thank you both for your thoughtful responses; you’ve both raised resonant points with regard to analysis, methodology, and play.
Heather, you raise a great point about the relationship between a reviewer and a reader: that when the reviewer situates themselves in relation to the game, the reader is provided with an opportunity for empathetic engagement. There’s a lot to be said about what comes from media engagement, but how engagement situates and shapes the possibility of community is what resonates with me today. In part because of something you brought up, Stephanie: that some methodologies are more inherently vulnerable than others in the contemporary moment.
I feel like vulnerabilities are made a problem by what I’ll call methodological elitism — patronizing behavior that serves to hierarchically rank methodological weaknesses and strengths whilst supposing universal contexts and truths. I see this behavior all the time when people have a seeded investment in the authenticity and/or presumed validity of their work. This is endemic in many science communities, as is regularly documented by Dr. Danielle Lee (@dnlee5) and many, many others. In games this manifests when the default relationship between text and body is presumed to be separate. Other times, I think this manifests in the ways in which we are allowed to conceive of play and “its” “utility.”
You both touched on play, briefly; play as something that elucidates meaning and play as something that evidences some kind of relationship. Play, for me, more appropriately locates a time more than a thing, and the process of locating is politically fraught, indeed. Not just in the domain of games, but in academia and elsewhere because play requires power, which is obviously not a form everyone can embody. And I mean that literally — power is a form between forms. Material relationships constitute the circulation and generation of power.
When I play on my 3DS or my iPhone or laptop, I depend upon the power to move my fingers across the control/track pad and to press buttons. My play depends upon the exploited labor of women working in hardware manufacturing, software design, review and criticism publication… and the extended simulation of play depends upon the continued promulgation of these systems that imagine games, produce games, distribute games, advertise games, and encourage game play. Yes — my play is always contingent on a community of players, even if the game isn’t designed to facilitate direct engagement with them.
Realistically, my power to play is contingent on my relative power to exist in these systems that make play possible. Power demands some cost, and only some of these systems might qualify as both self-sustainable and eco-friendly — most overtly aren’t. As with most other media industries, games production (in its many forms and fashions) is about as far away from sustainable and eco-friendly as could conceivably be. It’s continued promulgation owing little debt to its inherent abilities to responsibly regulate and manage a global presence, and more so to social/cultural, political, and economic systems that collaborate in the normalization of exploitative resource practices.
With little inherent incentive to sustain the livability of people who draw a paycheck from the existential project of Making Games a Thing, it’s naive for me to believe that dumping time and money into this circuit is going to lead to any substantive changes in the relationship between play and business. What the videogame media industry produces is not games or games criticism: it produces a lifestyle of playing games for an (upper)class of people who generally do not depend upon it, substantially, for a living wage. This, in part, at the cost of concentrated communities of people who are seldom capable of likewise profiting from their innate vulnerabilities in the global industrial production network. In this way, play is not possible for people who do not have power (but who obviously have some kind of agency within their respective community). I think this relationship between play and power can help us to understand why people work so hard to denigrate some methodological approaches in the pursuit of bolstering others. When the existential project is only to ensure that power is delineated according to a limited subset of principles, attributes, or functions, people are intrinsically motivated to control the dominion through which truth and authority are defined.
Stephanie — I think you’re absolutely right that reviews can work as a mechanism for resisting domination, erasure, and marginalization. I think for the reason that Heather elucidates: empathetic engagement. Empathetic engagement is one way of strategically forming a community; it both unites and divides readers along the lines of their willingness to engage empathetically. In this way, reviews can be powerful and, consequently, playful — as in, they play with power dynamics. Reviews can manipulate the flow and circulation of money, even if they aren’t they only power source, and they can connect readers in complicated and contradictory ways. We might extend the conversation here to include media writ large, but more importantly it’s worth recognizing the role that empathy plays in situating purposeful community engagement. Specifically, as a preface, empathy makes community building uniquely possible in the emergence of social life.
Community engagement can give way to a purposeful existence; a community can provide an individual with the means through which to materialize sustainability, security, agency, and autonomy. While communities can also undermine our ability to exist in other communities, they are a means through which we circulate power in ways that emphasize and marginalize some forms over others. What bites, though, is that communities are inherently self-interested entities. They are not necessarily greedy, but they are exclusionary by design. Communities are not inherently capable of sharing limited resources; communities forced to share resources — if one does not straight up obliterate its competitors — necessarily develop strategies for circulating power through a society infrastructure that mediates and concentrates control and domination a priori.
What I find most promising about the state of games as a growing, fragmented society is that the past can be utilized as a looking-glass for understanding the inevitable consolidation of widespread, large-ish, united-ish communities that broadly support the projects of its members. What I fear is that these Balkanized states will be predicated on organizational strategies that preclude them from being able to talk to each other. I’m afraid that the shared community ethos will not broadly adopt common standards of human decency. I’m afraid that the only real thing that will unite people who play games is games, instead of a common interest in the sustainable production, distribution, and recycling of media technologies. And, in some respects, I’m afraid the only reviews we’ll think to write are just about our love/hate of games.
*Authors Note: Earlier I linked a talk by Brian Upton (@bbupton) wherein he touches on the aforementioned game design ideology in a discussion of what he calls ‘anticipatory play,’ and in doing so rehearses the tendency for people to think about games and people as distinctly separated.
Hi Iris and Stephanie,
We’ve taken a deep dive. As I see it, there are two matters on hand: the value which comes from resisting the impositions a text might attempt to place on the player and the need to consider player interaction with games as partially contingent on the various forces that make play a reality at all. These are not points easily covered and I admit to some intimidation in the attempt.
The mental flexibility of a player in imposing or subverting rules in games ties back to questions we’ve asked about how players create meaning within a text. This is why we can have something like a wonderfully existential GTA Online pacifist playthrough while also having speedrunning. The former rejects the primary mode of interaction with the space and while the latter recontextualizes the function of interactive options with a game’s structure towards a newly defined idea of “winning.” As a nice bit of irony, these types of resistances often rely on intimate knowledge of the game’s inner workings. In order to destroy something, you need to know the details of how it was built.
Once again, I break no new ground by suggesting that the ultimate power for dictating the meaning of play rests in the hands of the player and not the designer or the object itself. The mental exercise of naming all the possible uses of a brick may be trite but it points towards a truism. The function of an object is never something immutable. This truism can be applied to modes of interaction within a game space. The function of the rocket launcher in Doom when it was designed wasn’t as a means of navigation; it was to blow the hell (almost literally!) out of demons. Rocket jumping takes the interaction of “shooting a rocket” and repurposes towards a different end. Players either alter their concept of play for a variety of reasons. Thus, why any attempt to universalize or codify notions of play or definitions of what a game actually contains are useless endeavors.
Understanding games as constructed artifacts ties back into what Iris is talking about and is something made apparent as soon as we examine the structures of a game. This examination highlights a game as a created work and ties us to all the individuals and factors that allow for said creation. In this sense, certainly, games might be called communal. This noted, I don’t know if the act of meaning making is a communal enterprise. All it requires is the text, which is a generally self contained thing, and the player. For my mind, it is highly isolated. This may seem callously dismissive of the larger economic forces at play but meaning making is, to some extent, an egotistical process that demands intense introspection. This egotism is only offset by how much this process demands a taxing emotional toll for those who undergo it.
Still, I do not wish to imply that we should ignore exploitative labor practices, the trials of creating very necessary and functional communities, or the power dynamics that make the discussion surrounding games something wherein various voices of considerable insight are tossed aside in favor of the increasingly irrelevant “old guard”. Gaming is, indeed, a Balkanized space. Academia, forgive me the generalization, seems an impenetrable fort occupied by its own conflicting ideologues. My own engagement with design via contracted work shows a space similarly fractured in methodologies and concepts of what game making actually entails. Some people strive to emulate the “professionalism” of the AAA space, others reject it entirely for something far more free spirited. Others seek a complete transformation of the concept of design and sustainability. See: rentpunk.
This fractured state is best seen in consumers. How often are we bogged down by their demands, petitions, and campaigns? How often do these various forces come to conflict in spite of their shared love of games? Arguments about the value of fun or the inherent value of “walking simulators” could very well be undercut entirely if subjectivity reigned but much like the academics that scoff at experiential examination, consumers seem to lack empathy for positions other than their own. Hell, I struggle with it. This larger lack of empathy is difficult to even contemplate because it runs counter to the skills that games teach us. All engagement with a text requires some empathy regardless of the medium and while I’m not much for extolling the “Power of Video Games™”, the degree to which they demand players to actively identify with digital actors via projection should, in theory, engender amazing amounts of empathy. This is not reflected in reality however.
Games and the surrounding forces that discuss and engage with them have indeed formed a lifestyle and it is one of immense egotism so counter to the introspection that games may foster that it is easy to see games and game spaces as fundamentally tainted. I am, however, ever the optimist and while optimism may sometimes skirt the edge of foolishness I feel relatively confident that these issues that plague the structure of game spaces can be undermined and resisted the same way that GoldVision undermines the violent, materialistic space of Grand Theft Auto. Bricks can be used to build walls but you can also use them to smash the old ones down.
I thank both our group of writers above and the readers beyond from the very bottom of my heart for taking the time to work through the first of what I hope will be many editions of Critical Discourse. This feature will occur every other month while trends develop organically. If you’ve noticed a recurring topic in games blogging or a group of writers who juuuust remain a step or two outside of direct conversation, shoot us an email and we’ll be happy to try include them in the next edition.
Also, if you’re interested in seeing more of this series or in expanding Critical Distance into new projects like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon with a small monthly donation. Once again, it’s been a pleasure and happy writing to you all!