Meet Me On The Outside

On softening the borders of the great debate.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Editorial Industry Life

Human nature is to fear what’s new. Our kneejerk reaction to the unfamiliar is to treat it like a threat, even when it in no way harms us. People don’t like what disrupts their definitions of things, their understanding of the world.

People don’t like challenges to entrenched ideas of, for example, what constitutes “art.” Or what games are. Or whose opinion is valid. I’m guilty of this kneejerk reaction, too.

There’s been a bit of a recent trend of writers and critics from outside games commenting on them, for better or worse. The most recent case is the now well-publicized blog post by Jonathan Jones from The Guardian in which he argued against the recent MoMA exhibit on video games, echoing many of Roger Ebert’s famous sentiments that video games can never be art, essentially because interactive experiences apparently lack a personal creative vision.

Keith Stuart rebutted many of Jones’s presumptions in The Guardian counter-piece, “Are video games art: the debate that shouldn’t be,” respectfully as well as effectively. But I don’t really care to answer those questions posed by digging into definitions of art, or games, or even “interactivity.” Instead, I have to wonder why the Jones article bothers me so much. I see video games as pieces of art, and I can argue for games in this context until I’m blue in the face. I see games as culturally important. I see this argument as outdated, exasperating, and boring.

But I also know that this defensive reaction is just as exasperating and just as boring as anything Jones or Ebert have to say. Lamenting how “non-gamers just don’t get it” is to tacitly suggest that so-called “non-gamers” shouldn’t be allowed to talk about games unless they’re deferential to my favourite hobby. Mattie Brice, defending Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times article, “Game Theory,” wrote,

“Mostly, we get an outsider perspective on the cultural relevancy of video games from someone, actually a panel of people, who doesn’t really play games. She goes through her experiences, and ultimately sums up that for a non-gamer, she didn’t feel like there was much to talk about. This made a large section of gaming’s conversation upset, because of COURSE she just doesn’t GET IT. It’s like an illiterate critiquing the written word, the blind complaining about the irrelevancy of a Renoir.

Why, instead, didn’t we all stop and ask why? For instance, what would something of cultural relevance look like to her? To the general public that doesn’t play games? Or really, to anyone who actually analyzes games in any manner, since most people who play games know shit-all about game design. That all of the things that ‘require’ her to ‘get it’ are extremely inbred conventions that don’t mean much outside of navel-gazing rationalization? […] Really, with all of the ways contemporary art and philosophy makes statements, video games very very very rarely do this. Notice in her analysis, she most connects to Proteus and Journey, the two games explicitly tagged as ‘art games’ in our gaming subconscious.”

The article in question—in which Kellaway tries to understand the artistic appeal of games in an effort to reconnect with her sons—was railed against by gamers (including, initially, myself), for two fundamental reasons: the first was her apparent lack of appreciation and knowledge for the critical conversation that actually is taking place around games—claiming that there was “little cultural discussion” around them. The second stemmed from statements she made that seemed to presume that games are for boys only.

But Kellaway’s article actually posed some really interesting challenges to the people who do regularly talk about games and led to some important discussions. Among them, we have to start asking ourselves how we honestly feel about the “non-gaming” world beginning to notice and take an interest in video games enough to write about them. Do we react with outrage everytime a “non-gamer,” who, with a limited frame of reference on video game conventions, history, theories and so on, gives a game a try but doesn’t see the big deal? Do we blow a collective gasket every time someone with a very prescriptive idea of what art can be raises an issue that to us feels like old news?

After all, isn’t cultural acceptance something to work towards? And if it is, then aren’t we forced to contend with perspectives we find passé, short-sighted or just plain unfavourable? And perhaps in doing so, as Brice says, isn’t it possible that we can learn more about why many don’t take interest in games—and what we’re doing to perpetuate that? Maybe in losing that defensiveness we can not only improve and broaden the cultural conversation around games, but continue to inspire others to take notice and join in.

But I’m not willing to dismiss all of my reservations just yet. I think part of the frustration comes from the fact that working professionals devote themselves to critical discussion but often get very little actual recognition for it—even within video game media. Perhaps part of the reason then, that Kellaway thinks games are for boys, or that Jones thinks video games lack vision, is in part because the critical work that is taking place simply isn’t reaching a lot of people.

Why are we still so bad at talking about video games?” asked Helen Lewis, deputy editor at The New Statesman. Here’s someone who is actually an avid gamer, who, not unlike Kellaway, sees games largely as an “unexamined hobby.” Answering that call, Brendan Keogh and Liz Ryerson wrote response pieces in which critical pieces they felt were worth curating were linked and described.

As if writing about my own negative reactions to this harsh truth, Keogh writes,

“But, really, Lewis made an incredibly important point: no one knows we exist. As a community of writers, it is easy to feel slighted, but the truth is harder to face: we are insular. We are doing all this work we think is so important, but the reality is that we are really just talking to our own little circle of fellow writers and readers. Beyond ourselves, few people know who we are.”

I’m excited by the possibilities of things like gallery exhibitions for games—especially those that might be considered “fringe” or “experimental”—and I see the value in media partnerships, like the one Kill Screen has with the Wall Street Journal. I look forward to projects like the successfully-Kickstarted L.A. Game Space and what it could represent as an inclusively critical and creative think tank for video games. I love the idea that anyone can make a game and share a vision. I see these changes happening, and I find myself feeling proud and invigorated by taking part in even the smallest part of them. I want these things to evolve and grow. I want Keogh’s statements to, over time, stop being true—and I want to participate in and support efforts to make that happen.

So, of course I still feel defensive when the “outside world” doesn’t love games the way I do. But I also have to learn to get over myself, and embrace the territory that comes with opening oneself up to the rest of the world. Are all these articles by self-avowed “non-gamers” necessarily all good, or informed, or constructive? That’s debatable. But that doesn’t mean their existence isn’t significant. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of a growing conversation.

Now, the kneejerk reaction of resisting or attacking challenges on my territory from “non-gamers,” like some kind of wounded animal, only serves to reinforce all the stereotypes that make people dismissive of “gamers.” Doing this plays into the preconceptions of people like Jones, or Ebert, or even Kellaway. It tells them that, collectively, this medium and culture is not worth spending time on. It reaffirms the belief that for all our sound and fury, there isn’t much to talk about.

We, then, perpetuate our own insularity even when it’s clear that people outside gaming’s bubble are beginning to take notice of the medium. This is the time to take advantage of that.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Editorial Industry Life

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

6,076 Responses to “Meet Me On The Outside”

  1. GenericUsername1

    ‘Perhaps part of the reason then, that Kellaway thinks games are for boys, or that Jones thinks video games lack vision, is in part because the critical work that is taking place simply isn’t reaching a lot of people.’

    To an extent but video game criticism is also relatively confused itself and, as I think you’re getting at, it seems to lack a real avenue to pronounce itself and separate from the rest. There’s journalism, criticism and pseudo-criticism and in truth the last two often seem to get mixed together but aren’t the same. I don’t get that feeling with film. I can easily find three areas where they all exist exclusively. Empire Magazine, Subtitled Online and Senses Of Cinema for instance.

    To draw to an example of what I mean by ‘pseudo-criticism’, I was reading a piece over at KillScreen about Far Cry 3 being a game about Millenials. That was the argument it seemed to want to make but I couldn’t help but think it was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The idea that Far Cry 3 is a game making any real social commentary about how a Millenial might act in such a scenario is odd given the way the game actually functions, i.e. nameless violence for the most part that could have easily featured an emotionless seasoned war veteran in the lead role, but that seemed to be the case for the critic, who never actually explained his point in any length either.

    I sympathise it’s a difficult medium to work with because it’s complex and I think you’re right when you suggest a bigger audience for criticism would probably straighten things up. I think some critics are a bit too self-conscious about alienating people because websites are websites and try to be serious, and not so serious at the same time. I guess the next stop for criticism is Video-Game Online Journals.

  2. qwallath

    What I think we need, apart from what is rapidly becoming quite an ever richer
    internal scene of games criticism, is writing that actively reaches out to a more general audience. We need smart writing that is able to communicate the beauties and flaws of the digital medium to people who may not have all the ‘baggage’ that gamers have. It works this way for various other art forms as well, so why not for games?

    I’d like to mention this series of articles on CultureRamp: http://cultureramp.com/what-its-like-to-play/ – it’s an attempt to generate more writing in this direction.

    In the Netherlands, Niels ‘t Hooft (http://nielsthooft.com/) has been doing great work in this direction, particularly with his weekly games column in NRC.Next, a large daily newspaper. This isn’t your usual two-paragraph starred review of a blockbuster bit of copy either; it’s critical writing for a broad audience. I’m sure other newspapers in countries around the world could be persuaded to feature such writing in the near future.

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