L. Rhodes


The Reader

Originally published at http://cultureramp.com/new-games-reader/

To ask about the future of game journalism is to start by asking about its audience. Who is reading the new school of criticism about video games, and what are they taking away from the experience? It is by no means a straightforward question, and the answer is bound to be complex.

One starting point is demography. I asked Stu Horvath of Unwinnable and Jamin Warren of Kill Screen what they knew about their readers. Kill Screen's typical reader is in college, or a college educated 30-something; similarly, Unwinnable's readership is made up of college educated 25 to 35 year-olds. They have significant others, but are generally unmarried and have no children. Most read Unwinnable from work and live in or around urban centers. Kill Screen readers also read The New Yorker; roughly 60% are male.

When I talked with Critical Distance's Kris Ligman, she spoke about the impact of academia. Part of her point was that, by modifying the language of a generation's worth of academic inquiry, the current school of writers have made complex critical themes accessible to a broader audience. The modification, Warren suggested, was brokered in part by the growing willingness of professional journalists to treat video gaming as a topic for serious journalism. But at the same time, game publications are no longer addressing an audience composed primarily of adolescent boys. Those readers have more education under their belt; they read the bellwether culture magazines and watch cutting-edge television. They're more receptive to sophisticated criticism in part because they're better equipped to absorb it.

It would be easy to get things the wrong way around here — to suppose, for example, that this audience was somehow conjured up by the advent of sophisticated journalism about games. It may well be that the new school of writing has enticed some not insignificant portion of non-gamers to give gaming a second look, but it's more likely Kill Screen and Unwinnable are addressing the first waves of adults who grew up with video games rather than coming to it as neophytes to a new technology. The communal outcry that arose over the closing of Nintendo Power is striking in that regard. The appearance of a tribute on The New Yorker website came as further confirmation of the unexpectedly direct path leading from the adolescent gamers of the 80s and 90s to today's demand for a more culturally aware exploration of gaming.

My interview with Jenn Frank ranged through the way in which video games evoke the themes of mortality, maturity and the passage of time, and it may be that those concerns were responsible for awakening that demand. We are, after all, talking about an audience settling into adulthood, and perhaps none too comfortably. The demand is no longer simply for news and reviews about video games, but for writing that bridges the divide between their new found adulthood and the games they grew up playing.

It may be that relatively few of those readers can identify moments as salient as those described by Frank, like playing Castle of Illusion in an ICU waiting room, but if they have played video games from a young age, then they all face the same basic questions about what part those games play in their identity. At the very least, they are asking themselves whether or not those experiences were worthwhile, and looking to contemporary game criticism — perhaps not for answers so much as for a method for arriving at those answers.

That, incidentally, may be why so much recent game journalism (including this series) has been as much about journalism as gaming. The recent shifts in game journalism are not only about rendering the subject of gaming suitable for adults. More than that, they are about searching out the form in order to find modes of thinking and talking capable of changing our situation. When we move beyond demographics, beyond the abstraction of a composite that, despite its construction out of common traits, probably describes very few of us within any degree of precision, what we find is a group of readers that share, above all else, a desire to see things in a context broader than just the space between themselves and their screens.

When I asked Jenn Frank if she thought games themselves had kept up with criticism about them, she told me, “That isn't why I write about games. I don't feel the onus is on me to encourage them into ‘deepening in complexity and thoughtfulness’ or whatever.” That's part and parcel of the style she prefers, which gauges the value of a game by its personal impact, regardless of whether or not that game reflects the player's ideals, their perspective, or even their ethics. “Games never needed to ‘grow up’ in the first place,” she insists. “They were already beautiful.”

Not all of her colleagues are in complete agreement. In a recent edition of her column for Edge Online, Leigh Alexander wrote that,

The problems with the commercial industry are bigger than incidents of harassment online, or discomfort at an event such as E3. These things are symptoms of a cultural sickness at the heart of the commercial game industry, tied to how releases are marketed and covered, and we are all complicit in perpetuating it.

The contrast between those two points is a polarity that opened up in the heart of game criticism when it moved beyond reviews that treated games primarily as consumer products. Think of them as the Orphean and Archimedean styles of criticism, respectively. Like Orpheus descending into the underworld in hopes of salvaging his departed wife's shade, the sort of critical essay Frank writes deals primarily with the internal and personal — which is why it can be, at its best, both beautiful and harrowing. Archimedes was the third century inventor who declared that, given the right fulcrum and a lever long enough, he could move the world. When Alexander calls for maturity in “It's Time Game Journalism Grew Up,” what she's calling for is a lever long enough to move the world of gaming.

There is room enough for both approaches, and most critics write in both modes. Nor should it escape notice that both writers are talking about maturity. For Frank, it's the maturity of finding a way to be adult about gaming. Criticism as she practices it helps us process and come to grips with the experiences and associations we build around gaming.

Alexander herself has written in the Orphean style, about the text adventures of the 1980s and Final Fantasy VII. “But it’s as undeniable as it is unbelievable,” she writes, “that there are adult men who think breasts and swearwords are the ticket to grown-up land.” Part of the social justification for game journalism, her article argues, is its potential for reforming the basest instincts of the hobby.

At their least mixed, the Orphean and the Archimedean perspectives are incompatible. You cannot fully embrace an experience while seeking to inexorably change the very conditions that make it possible. Essentially political and external, the Archimedean approach entails rejection. For that reason, most criticism will tend to fall somewhere along the midrange between the Orphean and Archimedean styles. Understanding that polarity will help navigate that territory. It will, at the very least, help critics frame the question of who they want their audience to be.

Right now, it's unclear to what extent game designers themselves figure in that audience. Edmund McMillen, whose Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac were two of the most widely discussed independent releases of the last two years, told me that he couldn't think of a single article that had influenced his design decisions. The exception, he said, were “articles written by other experienced game developers, like Jon Blow, Kyle Gabler or Chris Hecker.” When I asked if that might be the result of selection bias, he elaborated:

I read a lot of game journalism but I've never read [an article] that had insight into game development that changed anything about how I might make a game. The best games journalism I've read is usually criticism about how games journalism can be improved.

Compare that to the infamous “girlfriend mode” controversy, in which journalists took Borderlands 2 designer John Hemingway to task for using that phrase to describe a branch on the game's skill tree specifically for people who “suck at first-person shooters.” As many were quick to point out, the skill tree in question was actually called “Best Friends Forever,” but that did little to staunch the tide.

Groping for a little circumspection, Forbes contributor Daniel Nye Griffiths wrote that, “a potentially instructive window has opened up on how a game developer at a high level approaches certain concepts,” but that “Borderlands 2 will not have its guns taken away, to be released as a pony-grooming simulator, with unicorns available at the higher levels.” Which is another way of asking what, precisely, was at stake in the dust-up. There's no indication that anything about the game changed as a result. That, at least, would have been a clear outcome.

The effect on the broader culture is more difficult to gauge. Smart designers likely saw Hemingway's gaffe as an object lesson, but whether they learned to be more sensitive to gender politics or to simply keep quiet about their insensitivity is anyone's guess. There are critics who argue that “girlfriend mode” is indicative of a deeper divide in the culture of video gaming. They're right: many in the gaming community continue to see women as tourists who have wandered into gaming mostly as a consequence of dating “serious gamers.” But what audience do they reach when they call out a designer like Hemingway? The audience they can count on is the Unwinnable/Kill Screen crowd — highly educated players of mixed gender grappling with adulthood. But that's not necessarily the audience for whom triple-A games are produced. There are, for example, the sort of players just looking to blow off junior high angst by broadcasting racial epithets at total strangers while spraying their avatars with bullets.

How do you make a positive impact on the culture of gaming when it's likely that any given game will sell in spite of the qualms critics might raise? There, too, Borderlands 2 is instructive, since it's selling approximately as well as Griffiths predicted, apparently with the undiminished support of the Unwinnable/Kill Screen crowd. Critics can talk about problems with the culture of gaming as much as they like, but so long as the game sells, designers have little incentive to reflect or change. The triple-A market in particular has every incentive to resist reflection, since a large proportion of its audience disdains any sign of moderation.

One possibility is to start by advocating for change at the indie level, where designers feel at liberty to take greater risks with their games because less money is riding on their success. Yet McMillen's comments throw some doubt on the premise that the indie market provides a grass roots avenue to change. They suggest that there is at least a contingent of indie game-makers more attuned to the specific concerns of designers, to the veritable exclusion of the concerns raised by critics.

Which is not to say that critics and designers are necessarily at odds with one another. Rather, there appear to be certain breaks in the continuum between them. McMillen talked about being in tune with criticism written by other designers. There are, likewise, critics who make games, and who are more connected to the concerns of other journalists. It ought, in principle, be possible to connect those conversations. That will mean, first of all, connecting one set of concerns to another — the Archimedean concerns of critics and the design concerns of game-makers–and not artificially, but fundamentally.

Another answer came from Klei Entertainment, which produced n+, Mark of the Ninja and the Shank games. “When we built Shank, we believed that the controls were very responsive,” community manager Corey Rollins told me, “but the feedback told us something different. As we dug deeper, we realized we had been inconsistent — in many cases attacking was fluid, but defensive movements were sticky.” That led to improved controls in the sequel.

I pressed the point, asking if he could think of an example related to the type of content contained in Klei games, as opposed to the mechanics of gameplay. Had they, for example, felt pressured to tone back on the violence in Shank for the sequel? No, Rollins replied; the controls were the only thing they had changed in response to criticism.

In fact, it would be hard for Klei to have taken other criticisms to heart, simply because there was so little criticism to consider. Reading through a dozen or so reviews in major publications, including some like Time which do not cater primarily to gamers, I failed to find even one that treated the violence as an issue.

That isn't to suggest that Shank's depiction of violence deserves rebuke. As some have pointed out, the game itself is modeled on the tongue-in-cheek grindhouse fare of directors like Tarantino and Rodriquez, and the visuals are stylized enough to distinguish it from the more conflicted “realistic” depictions common in other genres. In adjusting the controls for Shank 2, Klei's designers really were responding to the most frequently voiced criticism of the original.

What's curious, rather, is that when reviewers did note the violence, they often treated it as a design feature. As a reflection of the sort of moral parenthesis that most of us indulge when we play games, that's about as direct as you can get. As a matter of public relations, it's a nightmare. The bottom line in Joystiq's review, for example, read, “Shank is a lot of fun because it lets you murder a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, and I think you should buy it.” Now imagine reading that as someone who didn't grow up playing Wolfenstein 3D or Grand Theft Auto.

While it is by no means incumbent upon game journalists to serve as emissaries to those who just don't get games, there's evidence to suggest that some do. “When Jenn Frank came on board,” Stu Horvath told me,

there was a noticeable uptick in traffic from the Chicago area that spiked, stabilized and slowly continues to grow. This happens in pretty predictable pattens every time we get some new blood. I think this indicates one of two things. It could mean that what we do appeals to a limited audience — writing for writers — or it could mean that this kind of experiential writing requires missionary work of a sort to spread it.

In any case, it should be clear by now that game journalism has a less restricted audience than it once had. Particularly given the fluidity of social media, non-gamers are far more likely to encounter news about gaming now than they ever were in the glory days of print. As a result, traditional reviewers and the new wave of game critics can often be found working at cross-purposes.

That, in part, is why critics interested in bridging the culture gap between their own interest and the incomprehension of non-gamers are often thrown back on older games in less need of qualification. Jamin Warren argued that the narrative presentation of a movie like King of Kong made gaming more accessible to his mother, but the relative degree of abstraction in Donkey Kong no doubt made the connection that much easier. There's no guarantee that non-players would be as open to such narrative representations of gaming were the game in question characterized by graphic violence or the objectification of women.

That's the point at which the concerns of critics writing in the Archimedean vein potentially reconnect with those of critics writing in the Orphean. That Kris Ligman is able to fill a weekly column with links to new criticism touching on gender issues testifies to the continuing relevance of those themes. But even for critics not generally motivated to challenge the gaming community on those issues, the rift between them and their non-gaming intimates can be cause for concern. While the readers of new criticism are driven in part by the need to understand the significance of gaming in their own life, many will ultimately consider that achievement incomplete until they can render it at least marginally comprehensible to their friends and relatives.

That challenge comes with inherent difficulties — how do you communicate through language and a handful of screenshots the experience of playing a game? But those challenges are intensified by the bifurcation of game journalism into reviews written from an institutional perspective and criticism written with the broader culture in mind. In part, that dilemma is a reflection of the tension between long-time gamers struggling with adulthood and younger gamers still working through the antagonisms of youth — epochal differences that make reconciliation unlikely. For teen gamers, the violence and sexuality of the triple-A games — the “breasts and swearwords” cited by Leigh Alexander — are often appealing precisely for their ability to distance their parents and the rest of adult society.

That I can tell, there is no easy resolution to that tangle of concerns. Critics invested in the new modes of writing about games may ultimately be forced onto the prongs of a decision. Deciding between one audience and another may ultimately mean taking a stronger stand on which games they include in their purview, leaving the rest to a community of players whom apparently do not share their concerns.