I (and Zam) got some stuff on Critical Distance’s videogame crit roundup

This year, one article I wrote ended up on Critical Distance’s “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup. These lists are pretty much always good summaries of the breadth of games crit in any given year. You should skim this list! I was particularly the section on theory and design criticism, and the bit on industry criticism.

The article I wrote which ended up on the list was “Strangling my dinner with my own two hands,” a piece I ran at Zam earlier this year. It’s an essay about power escalation in “survival-construction” games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Subnautica, and Don’t Starve.

Most of the games in this genre seem inspired in greater or lesser degree by Minecraft, and their strategies for escalating player power all seem to bend in the same direction as Minecraft’s. You start by punching trees. After many hours, you end up so powerful you can program giant calculators or make automatic farms two hundred stories high– but the game never releases you from the responsibility of harvesting and cooking your own dinner, fish by fish. No matter how they might market themselves, they are more about having power over nature than about the feeling of being threatened by nature. Nevertheless, they render that power absurd by also forcing their players to perform mundane survival busywork long after they’ve gained godlike control over their surroundings. In the piece, I also get around to talking about how survival-construction games rarely let player power impact nature in a negative way. It’s a toothless, exaggerated, illogical kind of power, and for some reason, we all love it.

I have a long-time obsession with survival-construction games (which has obviously culminated in the fact that I want to make one, hah) and I’m glad that people liked the best piece, I think, that I have managed to write about them.

Zam, the publication I manage, also had pieces by several other authors cited in the CD roundup. Here’s a few:

The Social Justice Witcher by Rowan Kaiser – a great piece about how Geralt’s mystery-solving techniques actually parallel strategies you’re supposed to use for mitigating systemic oppression in the real world.

Why is everyone criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? by Cameron Kunzelman – a piece about why a longstanding critical take on BI suddenly erupted into public consciousness during the game’s remaster/rerelease.

“Real world issues” in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art by John Brindle – a piece about why attempts to integrate real social criticism into videogames invariably fail (because they’re usually wedged in to get attention).

Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory, again by John Brindle – a fantastic piece about the difference in the way that American and British players percieve the (good? poor?) taste of making a game about World War One. (Kudos to you if you’ve read the book this title references, hah.) Very proud of Brindle for getting into this list twice at Zam!

1979 Revolution: A snapshot of chaos and propaganda, by Robert Rath – a great overview of the history of revolutionary politics which underpins one of this year’s most interesting narrative games.

I’m super proud of everyone who wrote for us in 2016, in general, and I am particularly pleased that some of our best work made the Critical Distance list! If I could have added my own suggestions, I’d have also suggested some stuff by Bruno Dias, like this piece about Dark Souls 3, and some of our more unusual reviews, like this Aevee Bee review of Fire Emblem Fates. (However it seems as if this list deliberately avoids reviews? Anyway, read that one. I liked it.) I honestly don’t have a recent memory recall good enough to make a comprehensive list of all my favorite articles from 2016, so I’m sure I’ll think of others I liked later, but this is what’s rising to the top of my mind right now.

I do, however, have at least one very strong opinion about other publications’ articles that should be on this list: they shoulda had a Pokemon Go section, and it shoulda contained this incredible Miami Herald article about digital redlining in the game. It was one of the best and most relevant pieces written in the last year about how digital worlds intersect with our physical one. I understand that Critical Distance focuses on writing from, essentially, “game blog land,” however nebulously it’s defined, but I think that branching out to more traditional media for writing about games is absolutely worth it. I suppose it’s on me to pay attention when the submission process opens up for 2017!

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.