Who has been forging new paths in criticism, highlighting untold stories, and sharing the most interesting lenses on games? It’s time to announce this year’s Critical Distance Awards.
This is the second year that we have run our Awards separately to our year-end roundup. Last year we recognized the work of Heather Alexandra (Journalist of the Year), Chris Franklin (Video Essayist of the Year), and Miguel Penabella (Blogger of the Year), and previous winners of Blogger of the Year have included Gita Jackson, Austin Walker, and Brendan Keogh, to name a few. The winners were decided by a panel made up of Critical Distance contributors and former winners.
Journalist of the Year | Muira McCammon
Published in July of last year, Waypoint‘s week-long special feature on games in prisons, “At Play in the Carceral State“* was a remarkable event. It modeled perhaps one of the wisest answers to the question, “aren’t these just escapist hobbies?”, by focusing on the people who need that escape more than anyone. Games became a lens for examining the oppressive structures that create and maintain a context from which people were seeking refuge: primarily prisons, but more broadly, as editor Austin Walker put it, “the ‘carceral state,’ a living array of infrastructure, institution, and policy that transforms the world into one of rules, borders, and confinement.”
The most significant contributor to this feature was Muira McCammon, whose multiple investigatory pieces on games at Guantanamo Bay formed the cornerstone of the week’s content. A war crimes researcher, McCammon’s previous academic work has looked at Gitmo’s detainee library, as one example of these unusual institutions that go against the grain of what most librarians would consider their mission: “prison libraries are dictated by policies and practices that are inherently rigid and restrictive.” One of her articles at Waypoint brought attention to the games in Gitmo’s library, and McCammon demonstrates how difficult it is to find an answer to even the most mundane of questions, such as “why are there only PS3 games here and no board games?”
McCammon deftly uses games as a familiar window onto a reality that can seem impossibly distant and abstract. Interviewing people working at the facility, McCammon highlights the play habits of guards and detainees, giving readers a way into people’s private, inner worlds, the emotional realities of existing in such an isolated carceral institution. We hope that this project will be remembered for years to come, and it’s an honor to name Muira McCammon our Journalist of the Year.
Video Essayist of the Year | Mark Brown
It feels as though Game Maker’s Toolkit has been a staple of good video essays on games forever, though the channel is actually just three years old. Its creator Mark Brown was able to turn these design analysis and criticism videos into a full-time project last year, with the support of a large community of viewers with a passion for game design. His series on dungeon design across the history of Zelda games has been just one of the remarkable undertakings of this channel in the past year, combining a broad scope with focused arguments, and managing to sustain a regular output of content for viewers despite the scale of the project at hand. On top of that, he allowed his audience a great deal of insight into the process of making sense of game spaces and design change over time, providing an insight into useful critical methods for people who write about games.
Brown has been writing about games since the mid-00’s, starting out at publications such as Wired, Edge and Pocketgamer. He moved into video essays after being inspired by film essayists such as Tony Zhou of “Every Frame a Painting”, quickly developing a sensitivity to editing and composition that complements and goes beyond the limitations of the written word. At the same time, Brown’s work is informed by the emerging canon of game design – a canon to which he is now a contributor, as his videos are shown in game design courses at universities around the world. We’re very happy to be able to recognize that important work here by naming Mark Brown our Video Essayist of the Year.
Blogger of the Year | Dia Lacina
It’s been a stellar year for Dia Lacina, a writer with astonishing range who regularly highlights issues that have been overlooked by other bloggers. Lacina got started around this time last year, criticizing the portrayal of Native American cultures in Horizon Zero Dawn and expressing frustration at the ongoing lack of understanding of colonialism in games writing. Her skill as a writer was quickly recognized, and she made the shift from Medium blogging to paid writing for major outlets such as Mic and Polygon very quickly.
[Photography] is crucial for folks whose lives may be filled with received images and stories of the status quo, of how we “should” be. For folks whose lives have been exploited through dominant lenses.
Lacina has demonstrated sensitivity and nuance when writing from an oppositional standpoint, pointing out how the existing takes on a game may have been overly generous, or neglected major issues with representation and historical context. Her writing is often a political intervention, and her impact on the discourse is immediately apparent, as readers are given a clearer view of the connections between games and colonialism, ableism, and other intersectional issues. She brings to bear not just a skill at writing and an understanding of marginalized perspectives, but also a keen understanding of visual practice as a photographer. Lacina’s writing on videogames’ photo modes demonstrates an understanding of photography as not just a series of pleasant images, but as an activity that involves physical, cognitive, and even cultural change. Lacina’s work has appeared regularly in our This Week in Videogame Blogging roundups, and we’re delighted to name her our Blogger of the Year.
* Note: Critical Distance contributed a roundup to the “At Play in the Carceral State” feature, but this was an ad-hoc addition proposed after the rest of the feature had already been published. We were not involved in its planning or execution in any way, and have no stake in its success.