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.