Everyone should have access to critical education

I wonder how many people’s New Year’s Resolution will be to improve their critical reading skills? My guess is that the number is vanishingly small. Despite having a reputation for self-indulgence, media criticism is ultimately not something that benefits you individually in the same way as exercise or learning to code. Yet it’s something societies desperately need.

The need for critical reflection

The past month has shown, quite clearly, that critical thinking about media is a vital skill, and that we all suffer when it is devalued and neglected. Reducing today’s problems down to the proliferation of “fake news” on Facebook is a mistake. It’s not just about the fact that people cannot tell the difference between real news and fake news. People do not get practice at thinking about how news stories connect to one another. They lack tools for making sense of their place in it all, and turn instead to simple narratives that make them feel good about themselves.

Those of us who write about videogames are familiar with media experiences that are engineered to trigger shallow emotions such as pride, anger, disgust, comfort. Videogames, movies, and politics, are all routinely made into the thrilling consumer experiences by triggering these emotions. It’s typical to feel completely immersed in this emotional micro-climate, focused on a goal without much thought for whether the goal is correct, or how it affects others, or how we will feel an hour from now. Critical writing is where we get to question our motivations, consider the perspectives of others, and examine how our experiences and choices follow us after that thrilling moment.

Critical thinking about media is the skill that turns a fleeting thrill into an enduring change in perspective. If a game developer wants to create change in the world through their art, they need more of their players to have this skill. How do we support people to build that skill?

Supporting critical thinkers

If you want to learn a practical skill, you are overwhelmed with online resources. Want to learn to code? Well-funded education startups are thrilled to give you a wealth of free lessons. When it comes to a subjective skill such as reading media critically, it is harder to know where to start.

Sometimes, someone asks on Twitter where they should be going for insightful writing on games. We’re fortunate that there’s often someone around who knows about Critical Distance and can tell them about the work that we do.

I remember at DiGRA this year hearing a lot from games educators about how hard it is to find resources for students that are affordable or free. They said that their students have a hard time imagining how you might write about a game without writing a game review with a score at the end of it. I heard teachers bemoaning the short life of the few websites that do offer vital educational resources and/or encourage critical thinking on media. The reality, of course, is that this kind of writing is always happening, but because our field churns so quickly, it is hard to keep up with where you’re supposed to go to find it: new sites spring up all the time, and old sites go defunct or change their focus to something more marketable.

Critical Distance as education tool

We’re here to help solve those problems. There isn’t really a word for what Critical Distance is. The best analogy for people from the education sector is probably that we’re like a library. We’re there for people when they are looking for critical writing on games. We’re here archiving valuable material from other websites that will not all be around five years from now. We’re contextualising the conversation about games to show that this is about more than just whether or not you like something.

We plan to be around for many years to come, but we need your help in order to keep going. Please consider donating to our fundraiser or telling someone else about it. We can’t do this without you.