Doing things with critics



Of all the points raised by Daniel Cook in his naïvely provocative essay, “A blunt critique of game criticism”, perhaps the most illustrative is his assumption that a critique can be playtested. After publishing his “long-boiling” critique of game criticism, Cook asked with apparent credulousness for feedback in order to perfect a second draft of his screed. Cook has embraced this feedback, which has generally been of differing levels of offence and anger (unsurprising when those who are asked for feedback are labelled ‘parasites’ and their work ‘ignorant blather’) with an act of innocent constructiveness. We’re all in this together, this process of testing, and the anger of those who have given feedback will eventually result in a better critique. For science.

Cook is free to approach criticism in any way he likes. The act of criticism is personal and non-prescriptive. As Christian McCrea said on twitter in response to the discussion arising from Cook’s article,

What criticism is or isn’t good for isn’t described on blogs. It’s not bloggable or tweetable. Writing non fiction is an art and has its own responsibilities. Yes, most of it is shit. But most games are shit too.

Yet for this example, Cook’s approach to criticism demonstrates the fundamental ideas that inform his assumptions and arguments. Cook wishes the processes of game criticism to mirror those currently trendy within game design: iteration, feedback, empiricism. The best ideas within this framework are guided by informed feedback, created in concert with, and not for, a userbase. Scales of usefulness and practicability are illustrated via experience and the concentrated collection of data, be it quantitative (in design) or qualitative (in criticism). Just as we might playtest level design to ensure players do not get lost, we can playtest a critique to ensure readers do not get angry (except they do).

This position is reminiscent of Jonathon Blow’s comments in Mitu Khandaker’s article, “Toppling the Ivory Tower” in Kill Screen #2. Blow:

In general, my opinion of games academia is highly negative. Academia should be thought leaders, advanced thinkers, etc. Instead, it seems to me, it is mostly a bunch of people wasting time (and by extension their lives) … The issue is just whether people’s ideas are actually tested.

Blow’s comments were unsurprising. When Blow’s most famous game, Braid, was released to a hubbub of critical deconstruction in 2008, Blow dismissed much of the analysis of the game as “way too much of the English major, and not enough of the Computer Science major.” Blow felt that there was a disconnect between what he put into the game and large sections of the public analysis of the game:

A lot of people are a little bit too quick to take concrete bits of evidence that they find and that they recognize, and to use those to create a definitive explanation of everything and to bend all other facts to fit that explanation.

Yet for Cook, this goes further:

[G]ames are not and never will be the same sort of purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting. Game [sic] have a functional heart that resists being reduced to the softest of sciences…

Clearly, the kind of criticism that Cook is after is practice-focussed analysis; the type of research that provides practical outcomes for designers. Perhaps under this rubric we would be looking for data-fed analyses of business models, or tell-all designer post-mortems, or analysis of specific design issues – a health-bar placement discussion, an NPC interaction-breakdown.

Cook’s focus on this particular understanding of games and the dialogue that surrounds games is plainly reflected in his own approach to criticism, with the iterative process that his essay appears to be publicly going through at the moment. Cook has edited the piece on the fly, incorporating feedback and flattening several of his points to take in the suggestions levelled at him via comments and twitter. Certainly this is a valid approach, and I’m not suggesting that Cook cannot perform criticism this way. I am, however, suggesting that it mirrors many of his fundamental errors in his understanding of the aims and processes of criticism.

I have so far resisted describing what I understand as good criticism for the very reason that I do not think that it is particularly wise or helpful to do so, or even particularly relevant or possible. Yet there are some points that I must make regarding criticism in order to sum up my response to Cook.

The best critics, to take a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, are respecters of “the complexity of problems,” and demolishers of “simplistic either-ors.” To therefore take criticism itself as about the achievement of one particular end or the expression of a simply defined process is a mistake. In defining criticism you must inherently perform injury upon it. I realise that I am in part doing the same here. I acknowledge and respect this situation.

Further, empiricism is a faulty base from which to begin to approach criticism. Empiricism provides safe and testable answers within an either-or world: the confirmation or rejection of a hypothesis, or a set of findings that may henceforth serve as rules, established theories or a proven best practice.

Criticism, on the other hand, can provide analysis in terms that may neither be wholly right nor wrong. It can provide an understanding of the world that is thankfully fuzzy and that venerates complication and depth. It does not require confirmation or permission from creators. In fact, it should often be in violent opposition to the sovereignty of the author. Simple disagreement over analysis can often mask the different approaches and different interests of those involved.

Indeed, perhaps the surest sign of critical maturity is the ability to know if you dislike something because you actually think it’s wrong, or because it isn’t what you were looking for to begin with. This is Cook’s most significant failing.

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Daniel Golding

Daniel Golding is a Melbourne-based writer and PhD student, and a founding editor of RedKingsDream. You may follow Daniel on Twitter, or view his online portfolio here.

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  1. I just wish the original criticism was more valid, or at least more useful.

    It’s a shame, really, as it’s generating some well-argued feedback.

  2. Latour is my favourite respector of “the complexity of problems” and so, by extension, my favourite critic!

  3. Please, call me Daniel. :-)

    You’ve stated my process quite accurately. There are minor quibbles but I appreciate that you engaged with ideas instead of language alone.

    To give a bit of history from a self declared empiricist’s point of view:
    - My first draft was a functional failure because the majority of reader got caught up in the language. The ideas I cared about expressing got swamped by the emotional outburst.
    - Many of my readers have been developers. I did not identify the audience nor the rapidity with which they would post full length rebuttals. (Weekends are usually pretty mellow) My mistake.
    - So I spent Sunday as previously planned reworking the essay to state the core concept more effectively. Not the best situation, but better than having a poorly constructed piece of writing doing more harm than good.

    There is still work to be done. My examples of writing I enjoy could be broader. Once the silly ‘only developers can write about games’ mutant meme dies down, I’m sure there will be further insightful comments to integrate or clarify.

    BTW, I completely understand where Jonathan is coming from. :-)

    take care

  4. Matthew Barton

    The purpose of criticism is to extract truths out of the piece of work. Be it Moral, Practical, Negative, Constructive, Scientific, etc… Good criticism to me shows these truths in a clearer light on established truths within the work and/or shines a new light on previously unseen truths about the piece of work to others.

    As art is intrinsically subjective by its very nature, the ability to critique it requires a level creativity ability to show their interpretation of the work. It’s in situations like this that a critic can become a artist himself, yet more often then not a good critic’s work gets overshadowed by the original work as that is generally the main focus of the critique, and few critics and critiques gain as high a appreciation in their own right compared to the original artist. If given this premise, to quantify the art of criticism to the scientific method as Daniel Cook seems to want to do, will almost certainly restrict the way we as a culture look at games. Scientific approaches are as valid as any other but it’s ability to produce measureable results within it’s own paradigm can be blinding to the awareness and creation of new paradigms of thinking in reference to the medium.

    The approach Cook may provide more value then other methods given the mechanical nature of video games, but people must always be wary looking at the world in absolutes, i could be wrong but it is this idea i think you are trying to get across and the idea i agree with.

    Extremely interesting articles from both of you Daniels.

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