I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what the goals of criticism should be. I’ve been involved in this for years and yet I’m still not immune to these periodic internal crises of identity. Thankfully, some of the pieces that came up for selection in this week’s roundup offer some inspiring reasons why we critique.
- Asphyxiante culture – Merlanfrit (French | Français)
Martin Lefebvre’s piece on the French public’s recent rejection of videogames as cultural works brings to bear some familiar arguments about games as art, alongside some ideas I haven’t come across before.
“Admittedly, the question of whether gaming belongs in the culture sphere is not totally meaningless: even if one leaves aside the symbolic capital that is at stake – and one should not, because symbolic capital always has exchange value – inclusion in or exclusion from the cultural field has immediately quantifiable consequences. It determines subsidies, library budgets, research grants, the ability to set up exhibitions…”
Original: “Il faut reconnaître que la question de l’appartenance du jeu vidéo au périmètre culturel n’est pas totalement dénuée de sens : même si l’on laisse de côté le capital symbolique qui est en jeu – et l’on ne devrait pas, car le capital symbolique est une espèce toujours convertible – l’appartenance ou non au champ culturel a des conséquences immédiatement chiffrables. Elle conditionne les subventions, les budgets des bibliothèques, les bourses de recherche, la possibilité de monter des expositions…”
Some illuminating thoughts come out of one developer’s perspective on criticism. Additionally, this week brings us some incisive critical perspectives on player motivation.
- A Letter to Steven Harmon | vextro
leeroy lewin’s letter is about a lot of things at once, but what stands out to me the most is that it highlights several different forms of creative self-reflection. It’s one game developer talking to another not just about how to develop games, but how to think about game development.
- The Overjustification Effect and Game Achievements | The Psychology of Video Games
Jamie Madigan shares some insights into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that might have major implications for game design.
- Against Crafting – Kill Screen
Matt Margini’s critique of conventional game design is essential reading, and will be a helpful piece to refer back to in the future.
“Some of us like to think that we pursue deeper, more complex pleasures than the nearly comatose Candy Crush-ers and Clash of Clan-ners at the airport. Crafting systems provide the same affective payoff—another completion; another checkbox—and beg the question of whether that payoff is the only thing we really want. Do we want games to make us feel things, to move us in complex and surprising ways, or do we want them to give us stuff to do?”
De-familiarizing the familiar
Two pieces here suggest that criticism is an essential part of motivating people to create change in their environment, but acknowledge that the very nature of what we criticise can make it hard to be heard.
- How do we reform tech? – Humane Tech – Medium
Anil Dash offers a take on the importance of tech criticism as a form of activism.
- Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism – Columbia Journalism Review
In this academic essay, Sara M. Watson shares some of the core concerns of any criticism, focusing on a topic with significant overlap for games critics.
“In the best cases, criticism offers the opportunity for context setting, and for asking questions beyond the tick-tock of technical development and into the how’s and why’s of a larger cultural shift. […] Popular criticism seeks to question established and unexamined knowledge—the assumptions and positions taken for granted. As author and contributor for The New York Times Virginia Heffernan reflects, criticism should ‘familiarize the unfamiliar’ and ‘de-familiarize the familiar.’”
Distinguishing what’s possible
I am always resistant to arguments that suggest that technical possibility is the most important thing about game design change. These two pieces offer a different way of thinking about the significance of technical limitations, focusing instead on how it affects the people who make games.
- The Impossibly Complex Art Of Designing Eyes | Co.Design | business + design
Mark Wilson investigates some challenges and techniques for creating emotive videogame faces.
- No Man’s Sky and the trickiness of advertising a procedurally generated game – Kill Screen
Amanda Hudgins shares some of the legal theory behind advertising a product with a wide set of possible play experiences.
“According to the lawyers that PC Gamer spoke to, the most logical and likely approach to this investigation will be attempting to distinguish what’s possible and what’s a certainty in the game. If what was shown in the marketing materials is possible in No Man’s Sky, then Hello Games have done nothing wrong, but if the version of the game that was released doesn’t allow for those possibilities then there’s a potential issue.”
Sound and interaction in games can create subversive narratives, playing on our expectations and reversing the expected outcome. These two pieces address the importance of silence in sound design, and weakness in player-character empowerment.
- Indie Horror Month 2016: The Quiet Apocalypse of ‘The Final Station’ | PopMatters
Nick Dinicola discusses literal and metaphorical silence in one game’s horrifying world.
- System Shock 2 | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. analyses the rhetorical use of role-playing mechanics in a game about identity and augmentation.
“Usually when RPG mechanics show up in a non-RPG setting, it’s to exalt the player’s ability to choose and define themselves. Here, though, they take on a different meaning. While you can certainly feel the increase in power […] the system severely limits the ways in which you might realize that power. In fact, the only way it gives you power in the first place is by fostering dependence on the machine.”
Finally, these pieces consider science fiction storytelling in other media, with major implications for how we tell stories in games.
- Some Notes Towards A Pulp Revival Manifesto | mishaburnett
This isn’t strictly games writing, but we have a bit of extra space this week, so let’s explore a bit. Misha Burnett’s description of a pulp revival in speculative fiction highlights some narrative trends that will be interesting to many game designers and critics.
- Westworld is the ultimate videogame | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Danielle Riendeau highlights some of the ways that the language and culture of games are brought into critical view in the new HBO series.
“I like that Westworld is making me look at our industry with fresh eyes. Oh, of course the drama is on a higher plane in the show — when you bring sentient beings, human or not, into the fray, we’re talking about subjugation and slavery, concepts that we cannot apply to AI characters in our primitive-by-comparison 2016 games. But it asks, on a fundamental level: what do our power fantasies say about us? Do we engage them ethically, or do we hurt others in the breathless pursuit of pleasure? “
How This Week in Videogame Blogging Works
Thanks for reading another roundup of This Week in Videogame Blogging! The process that we go through to bring these links can be a little opaque at times, so last week I put together a guide on how our curation process works. You can check that out here.
Critical Distance is community-supported. Our readers support us from as little as one dollar a month. Would you consider joining them?
Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!