Thursday, January 1, 2015

Signal Boost: A Year of Reading Games Criticism... and Twitter

So yeah. 2014. It’s done. This year saw a lot of pain for a lot of people and the larger culture. Personally, I’ve grown so much this year, and so many positive things have entered my life. I exited my awful high school (though parts of me probably still linger there). I started a blog. I got my driver’s license. I met tons of new friends in college who I love. I, in general, feel more confident, despite making some mistakes.

I also learned a lot about video games and culture this year--things that, no matter what happens to me in the coming years, will make me a better person who’s more aware of things happening around me. And for that, I have many people to thank. I’m using this post to talk about people whose work has been enjoyable, challenging, and/or informative for me, your local internet rando, to follow this year.

I’ve been following Carolyn Petit’s work since she first joined GameSpot, the site I read the most through high school. She was probably the first writer I’ve read in games who seemed completely honest and sincere. She brings such a warmth to her writing and a genuine desire for games to do better that I admire so much. This year she was laid off at GameSpot but continues to write at her blog A Game of Me. I really hope things fall into place for her in 2015.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games challenged me in a time when I considered myself a feminist “ally” (ew) instead of a feminist, late in 2013. Living around toxic people had made me ambivalent towards her work, when so many label her as “extreme” or whatever and say literally ANYTHING to try to discredit her. But actually engaging with her work has been sort of a springboard for me into reading other feminist critiques of media and social critiques in general regarding the issues marginalized people face. Her work has been essential for me to understand the more challenging things I try to read now. In some ways her work is mostly 101-level and very accessible, which is a good thing, because everyone has to start somewhere.

I don’t remember the Leigh Alexander piece I first read. It was probably on Kotaku before I started following her on Twitter. It was probably very good. I love just about all her writing, especially her ability to show that the people who make games, who play games, and who write about them, are people, not soap opera characters airing 24/7 on Twitter. Some of her writing feels especially tailored to me, someone interested in getting into games (whatever that even means) while realizing some of the ugliness in the industry, in the culture. My favorites works from her this year are her piece on the closing of Irrational Games, her short fictional story The Unearthing, and her wonderful book Clipping Through, all personal (one speculative) experiences detailing flaws in the industry as well as the space’s brighter side. She clearly wants games to be better, and reading her work makes me want games to be better too for all the good people involved in them, even if we can't in some ways. Check out the rest of her work this year in her year in review.    

In a strange twist of fate, I met Amanda Lange’s husband at a university I was thinking about attending during my college search. He took students interested in Communications as a major into a classroom to discuss the university as well as writing. He asked us all what we wanted to do of course, and I said “game critic,” a deviation from my usual procedure of dodging the funny looks by saying a generic “writer.” He laughed, which made me very nervous, but then said his wife was a developer and critic. He took my e-mail and later Amanda sent me a very nice, detailed, and honest message about writing about games for a living. She also recommended I read the essential site Critical Distance and start this very blog. That’s a big reason for where I am in terms of reading and writing now! She writes cool reviews, impressions, and interviews with developers around the East Coast at Tap-Repeatedly and writes about game dev and other criticism while advocating for women and girls in game dev on her own blog. If I ever want to make a game, I’m sure I’ll be asking her some questions (maybe a goal for 2016?).

Kris Ligman is the senior curator of Critical Distance, which curates significant works of writing about games. It’s such an important source to find cool, weird, and interesting things people think about video games, and it’s where I found the writing of a lot of people on this list. Reading Critical Distance has all but changed the way I think about games and continues to do so. The site has also featured my submissions to its Blogs of the Round Table, which I greatly appreciate. I need to go through This Year in Videogame Blogging to see what good stuff I missed. The site has reached an important goal on Patreon recently, but only just barely. Kris and their contributors need and deserve all the support they can get for their awesome work.     

Closely tied to Critical Distance is Critical Proximity, a conference about games criticism organized by Zoya Street and held right before GDC. The talks archived on the blog are super good and formative, and I will probably take a look at them once a year. I’ve already linked a few in this post.

If Anita Sarkeesian made me question and think about gender more often, reading Jenn Frank made me get it. Her piece from two years ago I Was a Teenage Sexist was revelatory for me when I read it early this year. As was this piece from this year that settled my cognitive dissonance about wanting diverse businesses while thinking it’s best to hire by “merit,” an illusion that doesn’t take into account “institutional and internalized” biases. Furthermore, I could only dream to have Jenn Frank’s clarity, ease, and cleverness in her writing. She also wrote an excellent post on Tomodachi Life and our personal conceptions of others this year. Unfortunately, Jenn left games writing because of GG being terrible, and I was PISSED. Pissed at what happened to her but happy that she didn’t feel “beholden to video games” anymore. She is, however, in some capacity, writing about games, particularly Second Life despite her fears.

Cara Ellison kicked ass this year. Besides Critical Distance’s This Week in Video Game Blogging, Cara’s Embed With series (which you could support here) was what I would most anticipate reading in a regular rotation (the end of every month). Those posts are so important and so good, opening me up to creators, scenes, and ideas I didn’t know about before. The Embed Withs have a Disney-like magic to them (while being much more punk than Disney) that make them such a joy to read. I need to read the new one right after I post this! Her column on Rock Paper Shotgun S.EXE, on relationships and sex in video games is also excellent--insightful and fun. I also loved her game from last year Sacrilege.  

Maddy Myers is such a sharp writer that I went back to read a large portion of her work from her portfolio after I first came across her blog about Powerful Games Journalist Men. Sadly these “angry” posts are her most popular because “controversy,” but she does a lot of awesome work at Paste Magazine as well. Her GDC Diaries are great, she wrote a fun piece on Biocock Intimate and the portrayal of Elizabeth and a piece on the potential for Metroid and Alien to be more than superficially influential to new video games. She also did this helpful talk on the pretty sad state of games journalism.  Maddy is also a part of the Isometric Show, a lovely podcast with Brianna Wu, Steve Lubitz, and Georgia Dow that I listen to every week while playing Smash.

Speaking of Paste Magazine, they’ve been my favorite publication this year, featuring pieces on fashion by Gita Jackson, NPCs, race, and class by Austin Walker (who also made a cool cyberpunk game), and solid reviews by Javy Gwaltney, Carli Velocci, and Jed Pressgrove.

I also really like the Chris Franklin's very smart video essays. Ones I especially enjoyed this year were on Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry, Civilization, and Valiant Hearts. You can support his work here.

I enjoyed Cameron Kunzelman’s series of blog posts on the Assassin's Creed series, and I also played a chunk of his games, my favorite of which was Alpaca Run. I backed his new game Epanalepsis on Kickstarter and am excited to play it. You can support him on Patreon here.  

Samantha Allen did the music for Alpaca Run (which is AWESOME) and also wrote cool stuff in 2014. She did the talk I linked a little earlier in this post. She also wrote a great piece about how playing games can become second nature until you have to teach someone. It definitely resonated with my experience trying to teach my niece how to play Kirby. Samantha unfortunately quit games writing because, again, gamers are terrible. She instead writes insightful pieces about gender and sexuality that you can find from her site. This post on Times’ terrible “Worst Words” list is something I should probably show to my college friends…

Brendan Keogh has too many blogs. Am I missing one? Anyway, I really like his list-style Notes reviews, like this one on Alien: Isolation, which can help unpack a variety of observations and interpretations in a sort of messy but easy-to-read form that seems to have its uses over focuses, formal essays. I’ve been thinking about adopting the approach myself if I’m ever inspired by a game to do so. I need to reread his letter to Susan Sontag on video game criticism, in which he is infectiously excited about the whole poking at games thing. One of my favorite sentences of games writing this year has been, “So if you want objective games journalism fuck off and read a calculator or something.” He also started critical Let's Plays this year of games such as Max Payne 3 and Modern Warfare, which you can support on Patreon. I also bought his book Killing Is Harmless recently (finally) but sadly haven’t found the time to read it yet. Hopefully soon.

Ed Smith writes with righteous snark that takes video games to task for, well, not always being so hot. Okay, sometimes he praises games, but his most memorable writing is his passionate call-outs and hilarious shots at game culture. One of my favorite posts this year was his retelling of Red Dead Redemption. I also thought this was a really interesting close-reading and interpretation of The Last of Us’ ending.

In 2015 I’ll be going through the archives of Mattie Brice's blog. She’s another woman who exited games this year because GAMERS and because she is not supported institutionally.  She’s written a ton of criticism as well as useful pieces about criticism itself as well as game design. I liked this post on games criticism in relation to academia, which makes me think about the impact my current education is having on my writing. She’s still around writing, and I also liked her thoughts interpretation over judging. Take a look at her year in review and consider supporting her on Patreon.

Stephen Beirne consistently challenges my perspective of games, such as in last year’s piece on the Last of Us and this year’s defense of loneliness in Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 3, which I really appreciate. He has also done an extensive look at camera and composition in Final Fantasy VII. I haven’t played Final Fantasy VII, so I’m afraid to read it yet, but the idea of an in-depth look at how artistic techniques inform an interpretation is really cool. He also makes great header images! You can support his work here.

Lana Polansky is using techniques from different art forms and criticisms of those forms (such as digital art, literature and even photography to inform her development and criticism of games, which is super important in getting games out of this weird space in which it pays attention to nothing but games and nothing outside of games pays attention to it. She’s made several games this year, including this interactive poem and this lovely ice cream shoppe. She also wrote about the poetics of play and most recently "the author is dead, but the work is very much alive" regarding the tendency for games (and criticism) to put the player at the center. You can support her work here.  

Zolani Stewart takes a similar approach as Lana Polansky does in terms of looking to other mediums to talk about games. They even have a rad podcast together on Lana’s site in which they do close-readings of small art games, something I’d like to see more of. Zolani did a talk on Arts Criticism for Arts Games (you can view the well put together and very clear slides), which outlines his critical approaches and the need for games to branch out. He started a magazine for this kind of criticism called The Arcade Review, which I really need to read in 2015. You can support the magazine here. He’s also a Sonic the Hedgehog scholar and wrote one of my favorite pieces of the year on Sonic's spectrum between mascot and character.

The fashionable Austin C. Howe tweets a lot about metal and JRPGs. My favorite piece of his is on intertexuality and games about games, considering that intertextuality was one of the first approaches to literary criticism I learned and that I’d like to see more writing do closer intertextual analyses of games and also works across other media.

I first became aware of Katherine Cross and her work after watching this great panel at GaymerX about “Internetting while female,” which featured her as well as Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian. It became clear to me that she is very smart and very funny. She did a lot of great work responding to the Hash-Slinging Hashtag and also looked at the character Oh Eun-a from Christine Love's Hate Plus.

Jetta Rae DoubleCakes did an awesome series of interviews on women and gender non-comforming people in games. Those not listed elsewhere in this post are Christine Love, Soha Kareem, Toni Rocca, and Aevee Bee.       

I saved composer, artist, game designer, and critic Liz Ryerson for last because yesterday she posted this piece on being a marginalized creator on the internet (read it). I’ve been wanting to do this little roundup thing on writers I enjoyed reading this year for a few weeks now in part to document what I found relevant or affecting to me this year as I progressed in knowledge and in part show support for people whose work is often undervalued. A grim reality I learned this year is that (well, I knew but didn’t really know it until this year) is that (gaming) institutions do not care about the lives of marginalized people; they care more about maintaining and are scared of their audiences. Because there is no money in the games writing, especially for marginalized people and people interested in alternative ways of making and engaging with games, these people become direct competitors with each other on Patreon, competitors for visibility in order to get money from a dedicated readership. As many people have made it clear on Twitter or in their work, this system is not sustainable (though as Liz writes, it has allowed people to survive and remain in homes). This means that in order for some people to stay afloat as a marginalized person, according to Liz, they must “perform that action of being an important voice of outrage whose existence offers comfort to other people - and you might receive some kind of material or social support for that.” This leads to, as people have been saying on Twitter (I fucking hate Twitter by the way, hate all the voyeurism, need to take a break from it), to the “commodification” of marginalized voices in which they are only acknowledged when they write about their own marginalization. I think it was Zolani Stewart who questioned if marginalized people would only be remembered for being SJWs.

Liz goes on to say:

“sometimes it's hard to decipher whether someone is funding my Patreon because they want me to keep talking, or if it's that they think the money will finally satisfy me enough to shut me up from being challenging to my audience, or talking about issues that make them uncomfortable.”

This really hit me. Because you know what. I do want Liz to stop talking in certain ways because they do make me uncomfortable. That’s not to say she or we should ignore gross, abhorrent video game industry and culture shit, but to say that I want the bullshit to just go away, to not have to think about it ever again. That’s what we all want really. Those who write about these issues keep saying they want to stop writing about them.

I want Liz to keep talking because I should be uncomfortable, I deserve to be uncomfortable. I need voices like hers to challenge me, a relatively heteronormative, very white, very middle-class, naive, insecure, overly sentimental dude.

But. That is the most fucking selfish thing in the world.

Liz’s and everyone else’s “voice” are so much less important than the people behind them. These people deserve to eat, deserve homes, deserve emotional support, deserve self-care, and everything everybody else in the world deserves. Obviously.

It’s breaks my heart that video games are broken. But even more so because these people show up anyway. I don’t know whether to think that’s beautiful or ugly. Despite the haters, despite the exploitation, everyone I’ve mentioned here and so many more that I’m sorry I didn’t include, kicked fucking ass in 2014. I’ve learned so much this year at the expense of people's pain, of people's erasure. I don’t know how to easily respond to that. “I’m sorry” and “thanks” both sound hollow. Anything seems hollow really (also weird), especially considering I don’t even know these people (besides Amanda Lange being nice via e-mail and Austin Howe being nice on Twitter), and they sure as hell don’t know me. I, at least, hope that in 2015 I can engage with people’s work more seriously. I know everyone else is gonna kick ass again in 2015, and though I still suck right now, I’m gonna try to kick ass too.

I don’t know where I’m going or what I’ll be doing in any number of years from now. I might not “get into games” (seriously, again, whatever the fuck that means), find a way out before it’s too late (or just because I’m not good at it). And I’ve got plenty of time. But in the meantime, anyone who puts love into their work regarding games or art or, like, anything: you’re awesome. Sorry I couldn't include everyone's name here.

Here’s to 2015. 

1 comment:

  1. An excellent read. Very informative and btollisntly personal.

    Your links just led me to read some awesome stuff that has dampened my overbearing cynicism about games criticism.

    I wish that when I was still writing about games that I wrote stuff that was half as good and interesting as what I read on your blog. Great work Dan.