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On Videogame Criticism

February 18, 2011  |  11:00am
On Videogame Criticism

From: Simon Ferrari
To: Tom Bissell

Dear Tom,

I kind of expected this to happen. As you’ve noted, we disagree in many ways. But we don’t seem to disagree in the ways that you think we do. Most of my quarrels with how you write about games come from small asides that I fear you assume to be commonly held. You close with the claim that “serious writing about games” hasn’t been around all that long. What I’m about to do is going to come off as monumentally unfair; believe me when I say that it highlights a major ideological difference.

Serious writing about games is ridiculously old. Even by a conservative account, you’ll find numerous critiques and celebrations of play, sport, and games in Greece and China from the 4th century BCE and on. If you take the Chinese scholar gentleman as an early model of the contemporary academic, then the game of Go can be seen as one of history’s first PhD-level skills (along with calligraphy, painting, and music). Here’s a quote from Confucius (translated by David Hinton):

“All day eating and never thinking: such people are serious trouble. Aren’t there games to play, like go and chess?” (Analects, 17:21)

Doesn’t this sound much like something you’d hear from, say, Jane McGonigal today? And, okay, I’ll admit: he follows that with, “Even that is better than nothing.” Mencius was even more negative, citing a preoccupation with Go as one of the first major cases of what we’d now call “problem gaming.” You can see the same tension in European writings on Chess, immortalized in poems of chivalry and monastic missives. Some writers celebrated the game as an allegory for the battles between Heaven and Hell, with the white queen representing the Virgin Mary. Others denounced Chess along with simpler games of chance, citing their shared ability to inspire lethargy, preoccupation, greed, anger, and other vices (I highly recommend Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen to anyone interested in learning how single games can develop over the course of history).

Now, I’ll stop myself with the correction on everyone’s tongue: “But when Tom said ‘games,’ he was talking about videogames.” Here is a major difference between us. I hold that there are few formal differences between the design of analog games and digital games, while nevertheless recognizing that there are financial differences, cultural differences, differences in taste, and differences in apparatus—for instance, the encyclopedic and procedural properties of the computer allow for the storage and retrieval of complex game states; dynamic or realtime play; and the material, rather than conventional, execution of rules.

Many contemporary, non-academic writers on videogames see themselves in contradistinction to mainstream critics of videogames. Videogame bloggers, for instance, may seek to correct what they justifiably view as the shortcomings, misunderstandings, factual errors, or economic fealties perpetrated by major players in gaming’s enthusiast press. But as an academic, I write in continuity with the history of game studies in the fields of social theory, media studies, design, philosophy of sport, and aesthetics.

Something that troubles me is that you, as a professor, would assume that game academics are all of a kind. The negative review of Extra Lives that you cite was written by a Professor of English, with a background in education, rhetoric, and creative writing—a number of specializations that you both share. But I don’t claim any of those fields of expertise. As an interdisciplinary field, game studies takes all kinds.

Early in your first letter, you alluded to the former quarrel in game studies between the so-called “ludologists” (those who study videogames as games before all else) and “narratologists.” In fact, the argument by ludologists wasn’t against the dual study of games and narrative (narratology) as such, but against what they saw as the colonizing influence of “narrativists” (people who think that all media are storytelling media first and foremost). A common complaint by many ludologists, who had a background in the study of literature, was that the narrativists clutched to naïve, Victorian or early modern conceptions of narrative.

I share this basic criticism—because it is far too often that I see people apply ideas of authorial intention, auteur “theory,” and singular artistic vision to works created by a multitude of skilled designers, engineers, visual artists, and project managers (which is to say, most videogames).

Those who recommended my writing to you are the same people who recommended yours to me. We both participate in a complex ecology of writing about games that, as you’ve pointed out, is in no way monolithic. And many people who care about taking games seriously find reason to read us both, rather than shutting one out to focus exclusively on the other. This makes me happy beyond words, because I want to make it quite clear that I don’t hold any grudge against experiential writing of the kind you practice.

When I began studying game design and criticism, one of the first texts I read was a foundational work in experiential videogame writing: alwaysblack’s “Bow, Nigger.”4 Maybe it biased me toward preferring the style applied to multiplayer games, which seem to me more likely to produce unique experiences worth sharing. Precious few writers know enough about descriptive writing to make an experiential account of a singleplayer experience in any way exciting to me (obviously you’re among them). That’s why I stay away from it. My own few attempts at “new games journalism” were a profound embarrassment, to say the least.

What I’d like to know is what writing tradition you see yourself as taking part in or coming from. Do you think that videogames are substantially formally different from analog games? And what are these narrative structures or storytelling methods that you identify as “non-traditional,” that you think games can or do embody?

Yours,
Simon

4alwaysblack, "Bow, Nigger"

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