Thursday, December 11, 2008

Louder than Words

The interwebs have been having a big stir of game journalists coming together to create better standards and a proper language for discussing games. Shawn Elliott is hosting an epic e-mail exchange of the biggest names in the business, inviting them all to participate in the debate. About a year ago, Greg Costikyan observed a very similar gathering at the GDC. Except he made an observation that Elliott’s list seems to be missing: journalists are not the same thing as critics. Pauline Kael (whom you can read about my mixed feelings for below) was not a film journalist. Her editor did not expect her to report the latest gossip. Her readers did not read her because they wanted to know the latest scoop on the next big film. They read her for criticism.

How is that different from journalism? Well, there are a variety of arguments you could make but chiefly the distinction is analysis. A journalist doesn’t really analyze anything, they report facts. A person reading a newspaper isn’t really interested in what the journalist thinks, they want to know what’s going on, who said what, and how it relates back to them. Analysis, as defined by the ever-trusty, is “a philosophical method of exhibiting complex concepts or propositions as compounds or functions of more basic ones.” That’s number 4 but they basically all mean the same thing.

Naturally, all of the journalists on that list are capable of analysis. Some of them mix a little bit into their work when no one is looking, others appreciate it like a fine wine and praise it when they see it. Some of them engage in it occasionally, but because their jobs require them to stay up to date with new games and constantly playing them they don't have the time to address older titles, much less reflect on them. They’re journalists, their bread and butter is reporting the facts. Some of them run private blogs and you can see them flex that intellect, but in terms of publishing it on a major website? Is Kotaku even allowed to write such a thing? MTV Multiplayer? Newsweek? Do their readers even want to see it?

Let’s not beat around the bush either, I consider myself a critic and not a journalist. I write at Popmatters, which is webzine that covers everything involving pop culture, and in January I posted a ten part series of essays on this exact same topic. The pain in the ass I realized after writing it is not that people won't read it or care, it's that it doesn't do anything by itself. People are going to flip through it, nod or disagree, and then go back to thinking of games the same way they always do. So it gets a bit tedious to see so much digital ink and brain power dumped into a task that is ultimately just talk and a wee bit of navel gazing. And it's reaching such a pitch (who hasn't posted an essay on this topic?) that it's becoming this year's gimmicky 'Why is there no Lester Bangs?' column fodder. Which I did something to rectify.

Nor is talking about how to review games even relevant. They're fine. IGN writes good reviews, questions about their scoring aside. Nor does anyone need to care or start suddenly doing things the same way for reviews. Hell, my views on games are completely batshit: I don’t think game design has to innovate to be relevant, I factor in outside reviews, and I need to beg Ralph Koster to forgive me if I ever meet him for being such a brat about not liking mastering rules. But my take on reviews doesn’t matter because I don’t consider them criticism. They’re consumer reports on the elements of a game that advise the person of what they’re buying. Instead of trying to make a fish walk on dry land, I started a separate series of essays on my blog that ARE criticism. I analyzed how the awkward controls in Silent Hill 2 work to make the game scary. I discussed the ways The Darkness creates a moving plot about one person/the player losing their soul. There are several others and there will be plenty more after that. The point of this post isn’t to get into a pissing match about how it should be done, the point is to ask you to set aside a warm little space in your magazine, blog, or webzine and just do it.

We all know this is what has to be done for games to get better. Developers are just repeating old mistakes or worse, ignoring the great things games past have done. Just get a thesis, apply it to a game, and see what happens. Or as Chris Dahlen said on twitter, “If people think there's no good game criticism, let's just go write our asses off.” He has a point, doesn’t he? Talk is cheap and in abundance on the internet, it’s actually doing something that’s in such short supply. If you want things to change, just act that change out yourself.

I’ll even go first.


MrDeVil_909 said...

Hey there LB,

Very interesting read.

I think many people have an excessively narrow view of what constitutes journalism.

Journalism is a pretty wide field that includes feature writing, which is akin to the critical writing that seems to have sectors of the intertubez in such a tizz at the moment.

Most people seem to see reporting as the total of the journalistic field. It is a _reporters_ job to present fact without analysis, like a story in a newspaper.

But a journalist is perfectly within their rights to present more complex arguments and analysis, within the limitations of their outlet and, hopefully, their skill.

What is inappropriate for kotaku may have it's place elsewhere.

dhalgren2882 said...

This makes sense. Does that mean I have to do something now? :)

Ben Abraham said...

This man speaks some good shit. Lets listen to him.

L.B. Jeffries said...

@ MrDevil_909

Fair enough, I tend to just think of the whole thing as the distribution of information to people. I think a lot of journalists do provide analysis but an audience that is going somewhere for journalism might be a bit annoyed when they find a piece analyzing a game they've already played and have their own opinions about.


The more the merrier!

MrDeVil_909 said...

Ok, but where is the problem?

If someone looking for a review comes across a piece that doesn't provide what they are looking for they move on and find another.

Or they find a piece that makes them think deeper about the game they have played. They could agree and say so, they could disagree and say so, or they can move on.

It isn't like the reader is going to get broken somehow and be forever lost to the gaming media.

dhalgren2882 said...

I think you guys are basically agreeing on the main point, that people are worrying too much and just need to write whatever they want to write and let the reader sort it out.

For a publication, money sorts out the issue, because you're told what to write/what the publication allows. For a blogger, just write what makes you happy, or look at trends and write what makes people visit the site, depending on your goals.

L.B. Jeffries said...

The problem is that both the symposium and the general debates going on are all asking that reviews become criticism. They are not. They are also asking journalists to focus more heavily on criticism, which isn't really the focus of their job.

Whether or not journalism is allowed to have analysis isn't really an issue, it's whether someone is allowed to focus on it entirely as opposed to just slipping it in.

MrDeVil_909 said...

But the symposium is in many ways a response to articles like Snappy Gamer's which attacks the 'critics' for being pretentious wannabees.

Leigh Alexanders article that he picked on was a musing little diary piece about innovation in Mirror's Edge.

N'gai Croal responded to that and was in his turn picked on by SG. It is a point I made elsewhere that there is a strange anti-intellectualism which has led to this whole debate.

The bloggers like Leigh, N'Gai, Kieron Gillen et al are responding to what really seemed like an attack.

I don't think that anyone _really_ wants reviews to become criticism, but they should be allowed to make criticism in the appropriate space.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Well then it won't be a big deal if I throw in a punch myself, will it?

MrDeVil_909 said...

Not a big deal, I just don't don't understand the motivation.

Wordsmythe said...

Here's why I think this talk is valuable: It encourages writers to stop being so wishy washy about what they're trying to write. Maybe the repetition of this discussion is a way to keep games writers' minds on that, correcting a natural urge to write less pointed pieces.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Gah....sorry man, I just get really touchy about this topic. Brainy Gamer has a post in full support of the symposium and raises a lot of really good points about it.

All I'm really saying is that I'll pay attention to this kind of discussion again when something comes from it.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Here's the deal. I'm sympathetic to the larger point you're making here: if you think the field needs more criticism, don't talk about it, get thee a thesis and go write some. I like this ethos, and you live it. You are the hardest-working man in showcritbusiness and you write more than anyone else, I don't know how you do it and pass law school simultaneiously. So your basic creed makes sense to me.

But on the other hand I can't understand the rest of your beefs with the symposiusm ideas. First off, I don't think anything in the questions or topics makes any claim about the need for more criticism (as opposed to journalism) in larger websites or mainstream press. Whether such outlets should foster criticism, whether there is a demand for this kind of writing in their audience, whether this kind of analysis should supplant the "review" sections of these outlets: I think these are open questions, and I think that's why people want to talk about it.

Second, I don't buy the idea that reflecting on the business of reviews accomplishes nothing. I mean, it's not a substitute for criticism. But speaking personally here I feel that hearing people discuss *how* they approach games critically (I mean, describe what criticism would consist of), has really helped me get a handle on how I wanted to write about games. And that's something. I think both the theory and practice of games crit can affect how we think about games, I can't see why it shouldn't.

Finally, even if we think talking about talking about games is needless dithering at this point. (and sure, a torrent of dithering seems to emerge at some point like, every year), the majority of the questions in the symposium is aimed at getting greater transparency about the institutional pressures that go along with reviewing games for a major outlet. I mean, there are PR people getting *paid* to assure that games are getting reviewed in a certain way, so it only seems right to ask what this money is buying.

Anyways, despite these points (and my own wholly personal hankering for unproductive navel gazing. I love this stuff), I'm going to take your message to heart and try to write something good about Far Cry 2.

L.B. Jeffries said... GPA isn't that impressive.

You're right. Although one of the categories listed in topics is reviews vs criticism, a lot of them go into a wide array of interesting topics and it will be interesting to hear what observations people make. But a great deal of them do seem to pertain to review culture and personally, I don't have that many complaints with it.

And it's just...nothing ever comes out of these things that's substantive. What are they going to do? Release a manual of style? A set of accepted terms and concepts to use to 'describe' game concepts? Rules for what you have to talk about in every game?

If anything comes out of this, I at least wanted to kick up enough fuss that the symposium recognizes that they're going to be expected to act on it.

Charles said...

Hmm, it seems to me that discussion has a great risk/reward structure. Maybe the chances of reward are low, but the risk is practically non-existent.

The truth is that this symposium is a group of people who do something similar who want to talk about what they do. In the old days this would happen in cafes and faculty lounges. Now, and especially with this group, it takes place on blogs and through email. The biggest difference is that now the rest of us can watch.

KARL said...

Great post, LB.

As someone who writes about games, I wear different hats, and I keep them in separate cases - reporting on news is one thing, writing a review is another, writing a "thoughtful" blog is wholly something else. So I'm with you there.

An aside: One of the things that I just realized really nags me about the symposium is the lack of diversity of the folks involved. For the most part they're all the "smart" games journalists out there, which sure, lends them credence, but if they want to get a real roundtable discussion going - shouldn't the constantly shorthanded IGN reviewers get a say?

Throughout this whole discussion about Mirror's Edge, the IGN review was just that, "the IGN review".

I respect the idea of the symposium and I deeply admire the people involved with it, but thinking about the absence of those other voices in the discussion really makes it come off as something of a "no homers club".

amygraeme said...

"Nor is talking about how to review games even relevant. They're fine."

Are there any other topics you think don't need to be even discussed because they are "fine"?

By the way, if you think IGN does fine reviews, check out the American's IGN review of Worldwide Soccer Manager 09. Oh wait, you can't anymore because it was so badly written they had to take it down and apologize.

L.B. Jeffries said...

My God, I'd figured this thing had been chucked into the internet dumpster by now and forgotten but apparently not.

In answer to your question, there aren't too many topics I think never need to be discussed but I do think there are a lot that don't warrant an entire symposium when they could just start taking action themselves.

You're welcome to hate IGN all you like otherwise.