Critics

There is a certain type of person who really can’t handle non-traditional games. That’s all fine; nobody is under any obligation to like anything in this world.

When they get vocal, defensive, and prescriptivist, though, these people can be extremely annoying. I’ve written down my opinions about this before. Every time I’ve seen it used, “XYZ is not a game” has added nothing to any conversation. It’s a regressive argument born out of incomprehension (and possibly fear).

One of Proteus’s creators recently wrote a wonderful article about the issue. He covers a number of the problems I also have with this “debate,” ranging from its use as a tool for exclusion…

The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications. Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press? Since Sim City is either a toy or a simulation, that should be excluded too, along with flight simulators.

…to the disingenuous, uncourteous crusading that often characterizes the not-a-game side of this argument:

Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of “game” does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both. Witness the raging threads on the Proteus Steam forum, most of which are posted (and re-posted and re-posted) by people who don’t own the game. There’s a huge difference between this kind of “activism” or claiming something is the Emperor’s New Clothes and individual people trying something and deciding it’s not for them.
Proteus was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things. None of that is really important, because the proof is in the playing.

When I was in school, I was exposed to works by strict ludologists who spent all their time haughtily dismissing games with narrative experiences. These people, too, loved to loudly decide what a game was and what a game wasn’t. In the worst cases, these writers would sit around arguing that the more games we made with stories in them, the more we risked “subjugating” games as an art form “under” traditional storytelling media like books and movies. Which is bullshit, of course. I always told myself, “It’s okay. Ordinary people like games with stories. Games with stories will always exist.”

Later, when I started reading a lot of games writers and fans and exploring what “ordinary people,” whoever they are, actually think about games definitions, I was equally bothered by their resistance to games which push traditional boundaries. They treated games like Passage as personal affronts, as threats to their “culture.” They argued– and this is a conservative paraphrase, people actually said this shit– that if we “let” people treat these things as games, then somehow “pretentious” “art games” would “take over” and the definition of “game” would be ruined (presumably because it would be more open, and invite the perspectives of a more diverse range of human beings). So I told myself, “It’s okay. Academics and indie games fans like games which push boundaries. Games which push boundaries will always exist.”

Of course, both of my conclusions were true. Creators will always take games to interesting places, and critics have practically no influence on what games can be. Which makes it doubly or triply ironic that I am now posting about an argument between critics and creators about a game that has no trouble being exactly what it wants to be. (And there is of course the problem that I once even considered myself a critic.) These days, I have a hard time agreeing with myself about whether critics are important at all, to anything:

  1. Of course they are: if they weren’t around, who would I have read and loved in college, when I was learning about games and writing and literary theory and all that other wonderful stuff? Who would hold up a mirror to society?
  2. Of course they aren’t: they don’t actually affect real games. I have my own tools to analyze stories now. I don’t need critics to explain anything to me. Nobody looks at that mirror anyway.

And then there’s the problem of what they do for me, if anything:

  1. These debates make me unhappy.
  2. These debates keep me thinking.

Sometimes I guess we have to put up with frivolous bullshit to keep our brains limber.


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