The invalidation game
January 16, 2009
I don't know about you, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the online conversation that inevitably arises in response to new game releases. Whereas I used to hit the standard assortment of review sites to get a sense of the critical reception to certain games, lately I'm more likely to lurk around places like the Escapist forums and NeoGAF for my daily fix of info about new games.
Things can get a little unruly on these sites, and the chatter tends to splinter off in all directions. And, yes, the snarky blowhard guy makes frequent appearances. But despite these distractions, plenty of thoughtful people hang around these places and contribute valuable observations. Most of the time these remarks stimulate a flurry of posts from gamers with enough passion, experience, and intelligence to sustain a fairly useful analytical discussion.
The recent discussion of Crayon Physics Deluxe on the Escapist forums, for example, features comments by L.B. Jeffries, Russ Pitts, Jordan Deam, and Susan Arendt - all writers whose opinions and observations are well-reasoned and respectful to other points of view. The willingness of the Escapist staff to jump into these conversations signals to readers that a posted review (in this case written by Deam) is really just the start of a broader conversation that will include the reviewer and gamers interested in pursuing issues raised by the game. The fact that you're here reading this now means you're probably keen on this whole "thoughtful conversation" thing too. :-)
Not all discussion forums work like this, however (surprise!), and when they don't it's usually because people fall into the trap of playing the invalidation game. This pernicious little game has a way of stifling conversation and turning analysis into defensive posturing and personal attacks. Even a simple charming game like Crayon Physics Deluxe can become fodder for purveyors of the invalidation game. How? Like this: First, something or someone must be invalidated. In the case of CPD, the game itself becomes the target. "It's not a game, it's a *#% toy. Why should I waste my time playing with a toy that offers me no challenge?" 
The question of how to classify CPD is actually an interesting one worth pursuing. I personally think it functions elegantly as both a game and a toy (as many great video games have done), but if you begin the conversation by defining the game in strictly negative terms and then reject the game on those very terms, you've basically invited a series of defensive responses from people (like me) who believe the very "toyness" of the game is its greatest asset.
"If you want to play with crayons, then get out your crayolas and coloring book. We don't need more games like this. If you want to play with physics, then go play Portal or grab your HL2 gravity gun." I don't need to unpack this one. The player is invalidated; the game is invalidated; the designer is invalidated. And, most likely, this response will itself be validated by other haters egged on to pile on. I've never quite understood the hostility some people bring with them to online forums. It's not enough to disagree. The enemy must be destroyed and, better yet, humiliated.
I promised to share a few thoughts on Crayon Physics Deluxe today, but I got derailed by a little surfing tour that I found disappointing (and illuminating). CPD is a terrific little game - not earth-shattering, not a towering achievement, not World of Goo - but a good game nonetheless that offers more puzzle-solving freedom than some players seem to want. Perhaps more than the game itself, CPD's design raises some interesting issues about how games work and what we expect from them. This is a conversation well worth having, but only if we can steer clear of the invalidation game.
1. I should point out that this "quote" and the one that follows it are amalgamations of comments I discovered from various places online. I've chosen not to link to them directly because I have no interest in sending traffic those ways. If you're looking for online vituperation, you'll have no trouble finding it on your own. ;-)