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On Videogame Criticism

February 18, 2011  |  11:00am
On Videogame Criticism
[Editor's Note: I'm very pleased to share the following letter series, and I thought I'd give a brief preface to the conversation you're about to read. The past few years have seen the rise of some creative and intelligent new voices in games criticism, and Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari stand out among the very best of them. Tom is an award-winning author whose new book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is one of the most purely enjoyable collections of videogame writing I've had the pleasure of reading. Simon is a doctoral student at Georgia Tech's well-regarded Digital Media program, where he recently co-authored the book Newsgames: Journalism at Play. He has a very cool way of analyzing design, and he seems to have a special knack for dissecting unpopular game mechanics and regarding them in a different light.

I've counted myself fortunate to get to know both gentlemen over the past year or so, and have personally found a huge amount of value in both of their (very different) approaches to videogame criticism. I was aware that they disagreed on a fair number of things, and that Simon was particularly and publicly critical of Tom's work. A little while back Tom casually asked me about this Simon Ferrari fellow, and why did he take such vehement umbrage with Extra Lives and the rest of Tom's work? So I told him who Simon was and pointed him to a few of my favorite of Simon's pieces online. I also mentioned that I would love to see the two of them talk and attempt to hash out their differences, in large part because the conversation had the potential to be so very interesting. One thing led to another, and they both agreed to write the letters that you are about to read.

I hope you enjoy this exchange as much as I did, and that you'll weigh in on the discussion in our comments section, on twitter, or on your own blogs or websites. Simon and Tom, I thank you both and hope the three of us have the opportunity to shoot some digital zombies together soon. - Kirk]

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From: Tom Bissell
To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

The first thing I read by you--and which I really, really liked--was your analysis of Red Dead Redemption's dueling system1. You persuasively argued that it was ridiculous both expressively and mechanically, and pointed out that the dueling system of Call of Juarez was vastly superior. Not only did you convince me to download Call of Juarez (haven't played it yet), you pin-pointed the subtlest and in some ways most significant mechanical failure of a game celebrated for its game-mechanic sophistication. (And hats off to RDR, really: I never thought the tappity-tappity of riding a video-game horse could be so pleasurable.) Then, on Kirk's advice, I read your paean to Call of Duty's respawning enemies2. I now know this was your response piece to something I said about my hatred of respawning enemies in Slate's year-end Gaming Club round table3, which confabulation I know you did not care for at all.

You are, I think, a proceduralist, which I understand as video-game analysis that begins in structure and is most interested in the non-verbal ways games communicate. I guess I'd say I'm a narratologist, which is to say someone who is most interested in games as a storytelling medium. (I know that "narratologist" is not exactly a term on the bleeding edge of sophisticated video-game discourse these days, but, to quote a renowned celebrant of spinach eating, I am what I am.) I'd like to think I'm a qualified narratologist, though, in that I recognize that the ways games best tell stories has almost nothing to do with traditional narrative. So, when I write about video games, I'm usually trying to do two things. The first is to capture something of the quality of the game-playing experience itself. The second is express my personal, highly subjective response to an aspect or aspects of the game that held my attention, which may be story or mood or characters or a mechanic or, really, anything. I like thinking about procedure, but I'm not very knowledgeable about matters of formal game design, which makes me cautious to talk about it too much. (Plus, I've now heard too many developer acquaintances of mine complain about how so many civilians' attempted critiques of game design stuff comes from a place of howling ignorance: criticizing "hit detection" without knowing what that really is, lambasting a game's "enemy AI" and citing as examples stuff that's not actually an AI issue, and so on.) That's also what makes me value the merits of a procedural approach. It's one I consistently learn and benefit from.

My approach, I have now gathered, is a problem for a lot of game academics. An academic critic of mine wrote the following in his highly negative review of Extra Lives: "Experiential writing and anecdotal evidence can be worthwhile additions to discussions of meaning. However, I remain unsure if either stands all that well on its own."3.1 He went on to note his disapproval of my use of terms like "character," "narrative" and "story," which terms, he said, I throw about "in an irresponsible manner." The basic complaint, as I take it, is: Who gives a shit about what one dude feels like when he plays video games? I get that critique. While I very much hope that my vigorous use of language and anecdote is proof enough that you should *very much* give a shit about how games make me feel, I realize that not every one's going to follow me down that path.

What I don't get is rejecting the entirety of the experiential approach to games. What I also don't get: How academics can take words like "story" or "narrative" and turn them into little hand grenades so tremblingly unstable that they can only be lobbed by those rated to do so. As a fiction writer, I think I've earned the right to discuss story without outside citation. Intellectual rigorousness is not a footnote. Please know I'm no professor basher, and that "academic" is, to me, not necessarily a dirty word. For god's sake, I'm an English professor myself. But I don't want to cede an inch of ground when it comes to the value of experiential writing--and not only because I am, of course, chauvinistically certain that the people most opposed to experiential writing are those who are least able to do it well themselves.

Serious writing about games has hardly been around long enough to have developed factions. And yet it has. Why can't I write about your side without obvious bitterness? And why can't your side address my side without airily dismissing its goals? Or am I overstating things?

Yours,
TCB

1Simon Ferrari, "When A Bell Tolls"

2Simon Ferrari, "Popping Smoke"

3The 2010 Slate Gaming Club

3.1James Schirmer, Our Review: Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell

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