Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Comment Culture

*Upon reflection, I edited out some of the profanity and verbal tweaks….I’m sorry, I can’t abide leaving a rough draft on the web. It’s just too beyond my nature.*

Time to try another one of these things. I drank too much coffee and now I’m having some wine to induce a nerved out sleep. The travesty of law school’s affect on a person cannot be understated. I technically don’t like this form of writing. It leads to bad habits, indulgent rhetoric, and inevitably devolves into asinine commentary on a society that stopped caring before it ever began to. The more I plough into Lester Bangs, the more I realize he was at his best when he was talking about someone else and he was just a side character. But for me…a part of this is to fight back at the awful effects law school is having on my mental process and writing. It’s just…they don’t just teach you to be neutral, they train you like dogs to do it. They make you spend weeks developing an argument for a mock case then duke it out in court. Afterwards? They switch and make you approach it from the opposing side. That’s another couple of weeks of grunt work. Nothing comes out of my mouth that hasn’t been assessed from both angles. I don’t post a single word on Popmatters that I haven’t weighed out, gauged how much of it is right and how much is bullshit, and then submit. And Christ, the abomination that is legal writing. 75% of a case document is stuff every lawyer, clerk, and judge already knows. 20% is the current situation in front of the court (which we already know, but precedent ya’ll). 4% is what part of the 75% we already all know applies. 1% is the creative application of that part. And sometimes, most of the time, you don’t even need the 1%. All I do all day is sit around with a bunch of people who can tango like Jesus tapdancing Christ but only to one song and it drives me nuts.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m damn proud of everything I post. I remember someone was asking Nabokov if Lolita was his best book and he said no, it wasn’t. But it was the one that was always on, flickering in the basement keeping him warm and staying alive. The Zarathustran Analytics are like that for me. It’s not my peak…it’s mostly just a treatise that acts like a peace agreement between a bunch of dueling ideologies in video games. I think my editor in a column aptly pointed out that after reading it the whole thing just seems obvious. And it is. All of it, everything I write, is staggeringly obvious to me. If you just think about the issue differently for a minute, pause and take a breath and reflect, I’m not doing anything except codifying common sense. The best comment I ever read about my work was on Kotaku (of all places) and someone said, “All that guy does is take crap we all talk about and just put them into clever essays with photo comics”. I could not put it better myself. But is that always a good thing? Sometimes I admire the blogs that just post crazy stuff. Take MTV Multiplayer. The few folks who run it are decent in terms of ability. A bit young, not used to writing about video games, experimenting a lot, but what I like is they aren’t afraid of being wrong. They aren’t afraid of saying some crazy shit and getting defensive as Hell about it. I’m not in the habit of commenting on a blog post I directly disagree with just because I consider it bad manners. I also think corrections are rude but God knows that’s not a sentiment shared. But a while ago I posted a response to an MTV Multiplayer blog and the damn author himself called me out by name guns blazing. He made good points and I didn’t bat an eye at firing back…but what I admired was that he was taking the underdog. The post was about whether numerous sequels were hurting the industry and he essentially argued that plenty of sequels were still good games. It’s easy to bemoan the lack of creativity and blah blah blah, but goddamned if he didn’t…Tolito I think it was, stand up and say screw that noise. Plenty of sequels are better than the original.

Not that MTV Multiplayer isn’t a weird commenting environment. I’m definitely a member of the generation that feels raped and repulsed by MTV so hanging out on their videogame blog has the bizarre sensation of selling out when I don’t actually have anything to sell. Still…I keep going back. I dunno what it is about Kotaku, it’s a combination of being too crowded, too rabid, and the actual blog posters being a bit more sensationalist than I can handle. I’m not trying to argue with a user base that’s in the millions, ya’ll enjoy your pie, but I strictly lurk. Maggie Greene’s weekend round-up of all things Gamerati are when I usually show up and I’m honored that I’ve made the cut when things were extra slow. I still can’t believe the amount of discussion ‘Universal Game Design’ generated. But ever since I watched a horde of Kotaku commenters flame a Brainy Gamer post that was criticizing the stagnation of the JRPG genre I can’t help but associate that place with a sleeping bear. Just ready to wake up and chew off someone’s face. Abbott’s blog has always been a Jaberwocky to me and it always will be. You may officially count me as one of the crusty pricks who will someday say, “I was there before that place was even popular.” I still remember the night I found that blog crystal clear. I came back from the bars, was sick of listening to people talk about legal theory, was trying to find some source of feedback on my new hobby of video game critic, and googled “Intelligent Conversations about Videogames”. Guess who was the fourth or fifth click down? Gads…I think he was talking about violent tendencies and inherent conflicts in games and I just rambled some insane shit about Buddhist conflict and human nature’s dependence on desire that inevitably leads to the need to act out violence. The reaction was mixed. It was also, to Abbott’s credit, encouraging. That old college professor vibe must’ve kicked in because honestly everytime I see him running that circus I feel like I’m in class again. I think that’s why so many people go back, really. Every comment he handles with the padded sword and large shield of a college professor and somehow…through a weird mix of nostalgia and instinctive desire for structure, I think we all savor it.

Which leads me to what I actually intended for this post to be about, when I sat down. Comment culture. Variation in websites. Or more importantly, commenters themselves. I’ve always felt like this is one of those things about internet culture that most writers don’t really know what to do with. On the one hand, if you stand up and try to declare some sort of rule set for commenting you might drive people away. And Christ knows, seeing a comment on one of your posts is probably one of the sweetest emotional affirmations known to the internet age. Somebody not only read what you just wrote, they actually have an opinion about it. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once made the weird observation that there is technically only one kind of writer: those who want to be read. Everyone else is just pretending. And it’s fucking true. It’s the reason I don’t worry about getting paid for my work and the reason I switched to the internet instead of demanding people publish some book I wrote. I want people to read me, they can pay for me when I’m dead and I’m not writing anymore. We’re tapping into a bit of my inherent cynicism that…well, if you’ve actually read this rant I’m assuming you’re comfortable with…it’s just that the only good critics are all dead. No one thanked Samuel Johnson for critically analyzing poetry and Shakespeare until he was dead. No one thanked Lester Bangs until he was dead. So as much fun as being a video game critic is…I know damn well this is for the long haul. So I’m going to be honest about how I feel on comments on blogs and articles. I don’t receive any income from Popmatters, I have no idea how many people read my stuff, and I could care less. I’m doing this to stay sane and practice the art of writing while I get my law degree. Once that happens…I don’t know. Maybe L.B. Jeffries’s leg will finally heal. Wait, who am I kidding? I’m gonna keep writing about something or another.

So internet comments. On blogs. Lets start this off by pointing out that I suck at this culture. Unlike Abbott, I do not provide a hospitable or fun environment for commenting on my articles. I remember after the Kotaku readership showed up to call the Brainy Gamer a shitty website for 80+ comments sending Abbott an e-mail that accurately reflected my views on the subject. There are two kinds of comments. Comments, and bad comments. There is no such thing as a good comment. The person posting is either sizing up as neutral (or interesting or worth talking to, etc) in my book or they’re looking for a fight. As far as positive or good comments go…of course they make me smile. Of course I like hearing it. But I also don’t accept compliments from strangers, so unless I know you from the blogs or interwebs, I’m going to ignore it. Sorry, I don’t know your ass and it’s no different than taking candy from some creepy dude asking me to get into his car. So…comments, and bad comments.

It’s hard to talk about this without just talking about the rules I impose on myself, because naturally I expect other people to do the same thing. As a general rule, if you’re going to comment on a post add something new to the topic. Hey, this makes me think of this. Make yourself a useful addition to the essay that some poor writer who worked very hard and is very vulnerable just posted. That sounds a lot like this argument I heard the other day. Never, ever, post a link to something you yourself wrote. No, not because you’re wrong to say it, but because it makes you sound like a douchebag. I’ve done it before and every single time I’ve still felt like a complete numbfuck. It just sounds bad. There’s a reason most websites let you post your website into your name. The theory is that if you say something smart enough, I’ll become interested in you as a person and then want to hear about what you have to say. As a person. You’ve got to think about this in terms of the long game versus the short game. So you got me to read your one essay on logistical placement on automapping systems. Grand. I’m never going to go back to your blog once I’m done, if I ever get over my repulsion at someone whoring themselves out while I’m trying to talk. But if you show up on a consistent basis, say something that adds to my point, I’m going to start to take an interest in you. I’m going to think “Hey, smart commenter who likes me, I should check him out”. It’s human freaking nature, number one. And number two, it’s just polite. How do you feel when you’re walking down the street and someone shoves a card saying to check out their band that night? Compare that to that guy at the bar who hangs out and always tells a good joke and asks you to please come see his band. You’ve gotta play the long game on the internet.

And bad comments? Ah…bad comments. Again, I’m a bad person to ask about this because I ask my editor to delete people left and right. If you aren’t forming complete sentences or reasonable arguments I’m all for taking you out to the chemical shed and shooting you. So I’m writing this paragraph with the presumption that we’re talking about a higher form of commentary than “LOL YOU ARE SO GAY THIS WEBSITE SUCKZ”. I’ll start with the best kind and work my way down. The first is the one who is correcting you and legitimately has a point. Uh…well…learn to take your damn licks. I imagine most people who’ve done this to me on my posts have detected the barbed wire, scraping metal, and urge to kill that bleeds out of me when I respond. I also admit when I’m wrong. The worst was a piece on Olaf Stapledon that I completely screwed the dates on…other stuff was more innocent things like crediting Ken Levine for writing stuff he probably didn’t. The one thing I would point out, as I noted above, is that the person pointing out this flaw is more than welcome to send me an e-mail through which I can quietly correct this flaw and relieve your moral dilemma. Once it’s on the comments page…and achieving what my editor calls “Not being an asshole” status, it stays. And for every single person ever reading that article ever again, I now look like an incompetent morn. So yeah, I kinda hate people for that, but not in a “I think you’re an idiot way” but more just because that wasn’t necessary. I don’t speak for everyone but…unless you’re some kind of freaky Zen Buddhist I can’t imagine the emotional reaction being that different. So when you’re posting a correction…do try to keep in mind what your actual OBJECTIVE is when you do it.

Which brings us to the bad commenters who are simply pissed at you. Maybe you talked shit about their favorite game. Maybe you proposed a theory of dynamic narrative interaction that they got a B- in during video game school and are pissed. Maybe you banged their Mom last night. Who knows? These…I’m not gonna lie, I handle like my law school training taught me. Isolate the emotion. Identify the foundation of the counter-argument. Assess actual relevancy. Gauge leverage. Launch counter-attack. The chief example was during the ZA when I was talking about how to gauge Game Design depth and somebody got pissed at me. It took me five seconds of reading his post to realize that he was pissed because I’d said Wii Sports was a shallow game. So you chill the person out by saying I get your point, I wasn’t belittling it or calling you dumb, you’re cool man. Then you slowly reiterate the point you were making and just step lightly around what was making them grouchy.

Which might break down if you were talking some crazy shit, now that I think about it. This entire structure revolves around the presumption that the writer is me. Since this blog post is technically barking at my actual readers to behave, I felt like being frank about my own feelings. I have no idea how other people react to similar circumstances. I’m also, as stated above, generally hostile and mostly interested in comments as a way to meet new people. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry I’m not that nice of a guy deep down inside. But really, if you think about it, that’s what video game culture really needs right now. We don’t need a dozen Michael Abbotts. We don’t need a bunch of clever and fun Leigh Alexanders to all start posting blogs. We need diversity. As crotchety fuckhead law student whose response to all comments is “GET OFF MAH LAND”, consider me a proud member of this diverse community.

There is one other website I hangout a lot and I’m kinda shocked I haven’t mentioned it yet. I really like the culture over at The Escapist. Believe me, it can be a struggle to keep it up. Thanks to Yahtzee, it has increasingly become the bastion of young teens who can form quasi-complete sentences. The forum change-up has led to me witnessing what is now the third generation of posting the same damn forum topics and somehow I still muster the will to bark at them. Technically, a lot of it has to do with the fact that they are based out of North Carolina and are trying to create a video game development culture in the South. As a South Carolinian…I gotta stick with my team folks. So I make damn sure everytime they post an intelligent article that’s getting neglected to say something intelligent and positive. And when I see a pack of “OMFG THIS IS STOOPIDZ” freaks rolling up…I get in there and argue back. When some dipshit posted a forum topic about Jade Raymond only getting her job because she was hot, I rolled up guns blazing despite how many people felt like I was being a bully. Naw man…the first proper southern webzine that tries to hold a mature discourse on video games? I’m gonna fight any punk that brings that ignorant garbage into it. I bounced a couple of articles off their editor, he hasn’t gotten back to me yet. But I hope he isn’t scared of telling me no because he thinks I’ll quit rolling up because he doesn’t like my writing. I don’t comment on that website because I give a damn what anyone thinks of old appleface L.B. Jeffries. I comment because I believe in what they’re saying, I believe in the standard they’re trying to set, and that includes all kinds of bickering in the comments. I’ve said some things to their writers that weren’t overly friendly, but like the harsh comments I’ve learned to roll with at Popmatters, it’s because I love them. That, more than anything, is all I really want out of people who comment on my stuff.


Michael Abbott said...

I think a Carolina hurricane just blew through my house.

So you're probably going to get that law degree and join a firm and win a bunch of cases and leave a trail of eviscerated opponents in your wake. And that will be good for you and good for your wallet and good for your clients and probably just good all around.

But it won't be good for me because there won't be anyone to yell GET OFF MAH LAND in GameBlogLand. Sure, others will try, but it won't be delivered with quite the crotchety fuckhead law student gravitas as when L.B. Jeffries brings it. Snarky is a poor substitute for incisive.

This essay won't ruin your career as a game journalist. It only serves to highlight the fact that writing about games is what you happen to do better than just about anybody else.

And you thought you were cutting the cord, didn't you? Forget it, pal. That cast won't be coming off your leg any time soon. Not if I have anything to say about it. And I've got friends. The kind who know how to break legs and keep them broken. :P

For your consideration: before Raymond Burr was a TV lawyer, he was L.B. Jeffries' prime suspect. Burr as bad guy with nasty personality: interesting. Burr as nice-guy lawyer: yawn. I'm just saying...

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hahaha...that's the first time I've ever seen you swear. Thanks a ton man, I wasn't meaning that I'd cut the chord so much as potentially offend massive portions of my readership. Think I'll tweak that sentence...

Yeah, I sat down and decided to write another rant. It feels good...I don't think I'd ever post this kind of stuff anywhere but my personal blog, but it felt good to swear and be vulgar. I decided to tone it down on the revise but...I'm glad you saw the vulgar version.

CrashTranslation said...

The really good ideas are those that seem blatantly obvious in hindsight. They are the elephant in the room and it takes some courage and intelligence to realise most people don't even see it until you point a torch at it (Ok that was a weird metaphor, and I think I might have a worrying thing for elephants).

"And Christ knows, seeing a comment on one of your posts is probably one of the sweetest emotional affirmations known to the internet age." - Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

"...other stuff was more innocent things like crediting Ken Levine for writing stuff he probably didn’t." - Hey I didn't mean any offense by it, I'm just kind of a _HUGE_ Irrational\Looking Glass Studios fanboy and a pedant.

Ah comments. I know what it's like to write something and feel that nobody even cares because you've got no comments. But at the same time I will often read some very insightful blog posts, or articles that I don't comment on because I feel anything I add will be superfluous. Yet the writer in my feels I should just to show them that what they have written has been noticed by somebody.

Personally I long for comments, especially the ones who don't agree. Maybe I'm inherently foolish but I use the internet as a place for discourse and if you want to tell me I'm wrong go for it. I'd rather be wrong now and learn from it than wrong forever and live in ignorance.

It's amusing that my first impression of Michael was something like "Who's this smartass who things he's cleverer than me?" I mean Brainy Gamer, that's just asking for trouble. It was fucking annoying to find out he really is cleverer than me. Still that might be true, but he’s not always right, and I’ll tell him when I disagree, and I’ll tell you too L.B. so be prepared to argue your corner. I’m a tenacious Englishman with a chip on his shoulder, a love of games, and a belief that he's smarter than he acts, and I’m watching you.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Don't sweat it man, you were absolutely right to call me out on that piece. I was still experimenting with how to write critical essays and your comment made me realize that things like authorial intent and identity were a dead end with video games. Considering the whole piece is founded on that, I doubt I could've tweaked it much to change that problem.

As I grudgingly admitted in the piece, one has to just learn to take their licks. You could pad your sword a little bit though. :)