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well played

indiecade was this past week. i was asked to speak on a panel with nick fortugno about. well, no one was really sure what it was supposed to be about. game criticism? the value of game criticism? my friend naomi clark moderated. nick and i each gave a short spiel, and then we responded to questions. i wasn’t interested in some point-counterpoint format where we go back and forth attempting to punch holes in each others’ arguments to win some rhetorical victory, and so i’m going to refrain from trying to summarize his presentation. here’s mine:

Last GDC I ran away from a game designer. It was pretty cool. I ran away from a game designer who had written about how parts of a game i had made could have been made in powerpoint. (which is a really weird argument because parts of Gears of War could have been made in Powerpoint, you can embed movies in Powerpoint.)

This guy was trying to draw me into a long-winded clarification of what he said to make him look less like the bad guy i’d made him out to be by -quoting him,- when my girlfriend grabbed my hand, and pulled me away, and we ran down the street together, hand in hand. I felt young again.

There are conversations we don’t necessarily need to be wasting our time on. And it’s my girl who always reminds me that on Twitter, the block button is RIGHT THERE. A lot of the Kind of Dudes who have Serious Opinions on what a Videogame Is think they’re naturally entitled to the time and energy of people with what they probably think of as Oppositional Viewpoints.

You know what, though? They’re not. You DON’T have to participate in a conversation about FORMALISTS VERSUS ZINESTERS, this nonsense dichotemy that was made up so a few guys could get more blog posts out of it. “Zinester” was a word I used for my book because it was a useful metaphor at the time. The “Formalist versus Zinester” debate isn’t a debate anyone was actually having, until someone decided that they were and then just sort of expected the “other side” to defend themselves.

The FORMALIST VERSUS ZINESTER debate is as real as the NARRATOLOGY VERSUS LUDOLOGY debate, which is to say not at all.

We don’t need to defend our work. We don’t need to prove that the things we’re making are Games and not “interactive art.” My new Twine game I’m calling “a digital Choose Your Own Adventure book.” Who gives a shit? Roger Ebert died without believing games are art. Who cares? Why did we invest so much energy trying to convince him in the first place? Would Grand Theft Auto Five be any different if Ebert had admitted that videogames are high culture instead of low culture?

Here’s what we do when we enter into these debates about the value of our work: we concede the right to determine the value of our work to others: typically, to people who have a vested interest in undermining that value. Of course self-described formalists are bristling at the arrival of all these games that don’t fit their definition of games: they want to keep being able to write blog posts from a position of authority.

Of course Warren Spector is going to complain that there isn’t any real games journalism being done. He has a vested interest in being seen as an intellectual in a field of shallow and simple people. Warren Spector cannot, politically, acknowledge that Mattie Brice exists.

“X isn’t a real game” is NOT an apolitical statement. It’s a statement designed to serve the status quo. It is, in fact, nothing more than a stalling tactic. The status quo is drowning. By entering debates with them, by agreeing to speak in their terms, we’re just allowing them to feel important for another minute. It’s not their world anymore.

When I originally wrote this speech, I used Grant Theft Auto as an example of the kind of mainstream shitpile we don’t need to spend our energy or attention on. We KNOW Grant Theft Auto is gross; do we really need to spend that much time on it? But since then I’ve seen so many transphobic images from Grand Theft Auto posted that I think we SHOULD be having a conversation about why Rockstar hates trans women so much, and why they’re allowed to call that “satire” and get away with it.

All the same, I don’t feel like I need to be part of that conversation. I don’t need to give Rockstar the sixty dollars for the privilege of being able to see Rockstar’s transphobia for myself. Instead of writing another blog post about it or adding more angry tweets to the chorus, what if I write about Problem Attic or Perfect Stride instead? Ten words about Game X is worth a thousand about Game AAA.

We need to stop letting the Establishment decide where our conversations happen, and in what vocabulary. A purely mechanical analysis of my game Triad will reveal that it is a will reveal that it is a game about moving and positioning tiles and that there are rules about where those tiles can be in relation to other tiles that are not initially disclosed.

Is that critical language equipped to discuss how Triad is a game about relationships and how human beings and bodies relate to each other? Is there room in a mechanical analysis of the game for a conversation about conflicts in polyamorous relationships?

If that kind of discourse fails for Triad, which is on some level a familiar kind of spatial puzzle game, how will it fare when describing Twine games that are, mechanically, just clicking on links? How much of the experience and power of these games is erased by a critical analysis that ignores context?

We need to invent new languages for describing these things. We need to create new standards for valuing experiences. While we’re writing endless posts about AAA games, who’s writing about gender politics in online worlds in the 90s? Who’s writing a history of the shareware movement? Who’s covering Twine games made by kids in classrooms?

Games have trained us to be so reactionary that we’re spending all our energy trying to fell giants that are already dead instead of cultivating the things that are alive. We can stop playing their game. We can redefine the boundaries of the conversation.

Running isn’t always retreating.

5 comments

  1. muteKi wrote:

    “I ran away from a game designer who had written about how parts of a game i had made could have been made in powerpoint.”

    Of course someone would say this. I mean, he could damn well be right for all I care, I’ve seen Powerpoints with important and enlightening information on them, and until we have a TwineCon, where the fuck else are people going to get attention for these things other than video games channels.

    Wow, I’m actually defending powerpoint by proxy. Never thought I’d see the day. (If you actually bother to pay attention to infographics debates — you’re a better person than I for avoiding them I’d say — you’re welcome to laugh at Edward Tufte with me. If you don’t know who he is…he’s the guy who’s found the Citizen Kane of infographics.)

    Also I would argue that is exactly what needs to be done here — TwineCon. I am perfectly happy to say that Twine is its own thing. And because of the way that it mirrors poetry in a way that games do not — I’m fine with saying the whole games-as-art debate is just through the abundance of Twine with GTAV trying to ride its coattails to respectability.

    And I am with you right there 100% of the way on a light-the-candles vs. curse-the-darkness viewpoint on these things. But dang if the former isn’t a hell of a lot harder (hence why all the people not getting paid, or just barely getting paid, to write about games tend toward the latter). And I will fully admit to being in the latter camp a lot myself (gonna write something up for It’s Just a Game vol3 which is more in the latter category…which makes me a literal game zinster oh god)

    10/8/2013 at 8:47 pm | permalink
  2. kirkjerk wrote:

    FWIW, I liked that one dude at No-Show’s “fashion provides richer metaphor for game making for different audiences than cinemas” presentation (even though there are some gaps there) but the more I think about it the more I like publishing and magazines and “Zinesters”, it seems like a more useful way for recognizing the legitimacy of expression of different scopes and scales than almost anything else.

    I’m realizing I should put my money where my mouth is, time and attention wise, with stuff like Forest Ambassador vs what I’ve sunk into some AAA titles.

    10/9/2013 at 7:14 am | permalink
  3. Sergio wrote:

    Great piece. “Could have been made in PowerPoint” is a ‘criticism’ I find hilarious, one which reminded me I need to finish playing MY DATING SIM.PPT.

    Here are some typos you might want to fix:

    “Grant Theft Auto” x2 (unless this is a reference I’m not getting)
    “will reveal that it is a will reveal that it is a”
    There’s also an uncapitalised “powerpoint” that I don’t really care about.

    10/14/2013 at 8:30 am | permalink
  4. M wrote:

    The fact that people have tried to ambush you like that at professional events (I think?) depresses me, but the rest of this piece really put me at ease. Thanks for the things you do, AA!

    10/22/2013 at 4:23 pm | permalink
  5. warple wrote:

    “We KNOW Grant Theft Auto is gross”

    No. *We* don’t know. You *think* you know. You assume the rest of us in the great expanse known as the game community agree with you. And you are mistaken, ma’am. As you are about a great many things. You don’t speak for all of us. There’s plenty of space to think GTAV is gross or to think that it’s quite awesome. One is not wrong for thinking so either way. And your inability to acknowledge this speaks volumes about your own condescending and dismissive attitude, as well as the rest of that small, miniscule, TINY community of people who believe as you do.

    ” We don’t need to prove that the things we’re making are Games and not “interactive art.””

    I don’t know if you *need* to prove anything so much as you *can’t* prove the things you’re making are games. Because what you and everyone else that is TWINE-inclined are making aren’t games at all, no matter how much you complain or whine about it.

    Say it loud and say it proud: games made in TWINE aren’t games! And never will be!

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll let you get back to making your Powerpoint presentations (because they sure aren’t games) and I’m going to get back to playing and enjoying the greatness that is GTAV, which is, of course, an ACTUAL game. And I’ll be waiting for the next great game from Warren Spector as well – someone who, unlike the headmistress of this website, actually knows about and makes games for a living.

    1/1/2014 at 1:45 am | permalink

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