On Videogame Criticism

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From: Simon Ferrari

To: Tom Bissell

Dear Tom,

You put me in an awkward position, ending on such a conciliatory note. What’s the proper way to return this kindness? Do I step back from some of the things I said about storytelling, admitting that I’ve been somewhat boorish? Maybe I should trade information on my current side projects? Or is the only way out a descent into the murky depths of a closing rant?

I’ll admit that this game project of yours has me excited. But it highlights, in its own way, something that troubles me about the practice of writing about videogames. As both a profession and a hobby, it suffers from extreme brain drain. It seems that, whenever somebody finally figures out how to build an audience and begin making a decent living writing about videogames, a career change is imminent. Every couple of months sees another important writer taking a position in community management, or PR, or contract consulting.

I don’t deride the worth of those professions, or begrudge the desires of the writers in question to seek value and financial stability, but it saddens me nonetheless. And I’m not assuming that, as you take on more jobs writing videogames, you’ll stop writing as much or as well about them. I suppose that I’m just generally bummed at not being able to recall anyone (outside the academy) other than Bill Kunkel who’s been at it for longer than twenty years.

Like I said, I’m not frustrated with the writers themselves. I despair, somewhat pitifully, at the economic realities and consumer spending habits that have shaped the situation. I don’t want to live in a world where a videogame critic’s highest aspiration is to finally land a job doing something other than writing about videogames. There are definitely a few publications trying to work against this current, but only time will tell whether they’ll prove economically sustainable or not. Quality writing about games needs the support of readers and game creators.

This leads me to a second point, drawing from a few of your comments earlier in our conversation. You noted how disappointed you were that you often have little to say to the people who study literature. And you also mentioned a few times the dissatisfaction that many videogame developers have with the writing of videogame critics. You’re invoking, in your way, the age-old divide between theory and praxis.

As someone who’s studied both design and how to write about design, I often encounter friends in the industry who don’t quite understand what the value of writing about games might be if it isn’t useful in some way to those who make them. Some would rather hear easy praise than constructive criticism. Or there’s the dangerous attitude that I can’t or shouldn’t criticize something that I myself couldn’t make. They want to be taken seriously as artists, yet they chafe against the increased scrutiny that comes along with being taken seriously. Most of all, they can’t comprehend why I’d rather write about the things than make them myself.

I’ll admit that I enjoy seeing my words used by designers to describe their own work. There’s certainly a pleasure in knowing that I’ve caught, in some way, their intentions or expressive goals beneath my pen. But, even though I write about design, I don’t write for game designers per se. Any good critic, and thus any good game critic, should hope for nothing more than to be as true as possible to his or her own opinion, caring nothing for whether this opinion can be used or appreciated by anyone else. When I write, I only try to be less wrong than I was the last time I wrote. Artists don’t hold, in their hands and minds, the sole measure of the value of art—theirs or anyone else’s.

I think that, even if you don’t always know what to say to critics of literature (especially to critics of your own work), there’s something in what I’m saying with which you’ll agree.

Tom, I wish you the best on your current and future endeavors. I’ll definitely let you know whether this game you’re working on is worth any kind of damn or whether you should keep your day job (please, please keep your day job just a little bit). Many thanks to Kirk and Paste for giving us the opportunity to air our differences and find some common ground.



Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including God Lives in St. Petersburg, a short story collection; The Father of All Things, a hybrid work of history and memoir about the war in Vietnam; and Extra Lives: Why Video Games MatterHis work appears frequently in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker, among other magazines, and has won several awards, including the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches writing at Portland State University.

Simon Ferrari is a doctoral student in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Along with Ian Bogost and Bobby Schweizer, he is the co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010), a book about the journalistic applications of videogame design. Simon has worked as a research assistant on the Journalism and Games project studio for two years now, serving as an editor for the project blog; . The studio’s current project, funded by the Knight Foundation, is “Cartoonist”: a game development tool that will allow journalists with no prior game development experience to rapidly produce short, arcade-style videogames to accompany their articles. Simon also writes as a freelance game critic for publications such as Kill Screen Magazine.

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