Dan Cook has provoked a dust-up over at his Lost Garden blog with an opinion piece entitled "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." Ben Abraham responded on his blog, and Andrew Doull followed up on his. A flurry of Twitter posts took issue with Cook's assertions, and many commenters have responded directly on Cook's site.
I've enjoyed the conversation, partly because Cook seems more interested in discourse than diatribe, but mainly because it's created a wide open channel for discussion of game criticism: what it is, who should do it, and why it matters. I know some have grown tired of this topic (it re-emerges roughly every six months), but I continue to find it useful, and decidedly non-navel-gazy, when it encourages careful reflection on the role of critics and the function of criticism.
Many journo/critic friends I admire have dismissed Cook's main argument, but I must say I find his thesis thought-provoking and worthy of consideration. In essence, Cook wants to see less experiential criticism of games and more writing that focuses analytically on the systems and formal design elements underlying games. In other words, he wants more writers with practical design chops producing criticism that advances the medium in "actionable" ways. I'll return to this thought in a moment.
Where Cook goes wrong, in my view, is devaluing criticism that fails to satisfy his criteria. While I agree there's a hole waiting to filled by the kind of writing Cook wants (though not as big as he suggests - plenty of critics have produced systems-focused games criticism), he fails to account for the useful functions and inevitable limitations of any single approach. He contends:
The vast body of game criticism is written by people that I would consider partial game illiterates. They are dance judges who have watched Dancing with the Stars, but who have never danced.
I would suggest to Mr. Cook that we are all "partial game illiterates." None of us possesses the complete arsenal of skills or universal sensibilities to account for the full measure of a game, a painting, or a symphony. We bring the skills we own, and we do our best to hone them for the task at hand.
Even a critic/designer/scholar as respected as Ian Bogost - whom surely fulfills Mr. Cook's prerequisites - can produce deep systems-based analysis (see his Persuasive Games) that I personally find cold and detached from the powerful sensory and aesthetic dimensions of game design. Does this mean that Mr. Bogost failed to produce valuable analysis? Of course not. But it means his work has a limited value, appeal, and audience, just like all the work we produce...and, I daresay, all of the games Mr. Cook and his colleagues will produce too.
But what if there were a small group that wished to do more than talk about playing? Imagine holding your writing to the standard that asks you to ratchet forward the creative conversation.
Here again, Cook characterizes a vast body of writing (yes, much of it uneven and ill-formed...like many games) as only "about playing." I could cite numerous critics whose reach extends far beyond experiential analysis (G. Christopher Williams, Simon Ferrari, Justin Keverne, Sparky Clarkson, and Mitu Khandaker come to mind), but let's say for the purposes of argument that most of us do write primarily "about playing." Isn't that precisely what we ought to be focusing on, from a variety of informed perspectives? From a strictly empirical standpoint, what outcome is more valuable than the player's hands-on experience with the game, with critical commentary on that outcome?
Writing clearly and insightfully (no easy task, I assure you) about the malleable, subjective reality of play should yield valuable (and, yes, actionable) information to the designers and developers who make the games we play. When I drive an automobile - and I'm not talking about test-driving here; I mean driving a vehicle over time and applying my rich experience as a driver attuned to the nuances of driving - my feedback on how that car performs should provide invaluable feedback to the engineers who made it.
I don't need an engineering degree to provide this feedback, nor should I be expected to diagnose the problems I discover. In fact, from the engineer's point of view, my lack of expertise as an engineer offers a welcome, distanced perspective. I hope you'll agree, Mr. Cook, that I can bring very different kinds of expertise - even some you may lack - and our various perspectives can complement each other in service of the evolution of this art form.
Sometimes a critic's most valuable function is saying a thing like nobody's ever said it. Saying it in a way that cuts to the bone. We need more of that kind of writing, and I'll gratefully devour it from anyone who wants to bring it, engineers and English majors included. We're all served by such writing. We needn't compartmentalize who benefits from what. I know many designers who regularly read my work. I suspect they're not looking for meat and potatoes design inspiration from me. I presume they find some other value in it.
We're all trying to 'ratchet forward the creative conversation.' You've suggested ways to do that, Mr. Cook, and I welcome your encouragement. But you should know that many of us have earnestly worked to improve our knowledge and understanding of the game development process. I and many of my colleagues attend GDC and other similar events each year, and the only real purpose (aside from fodder for a few posts) is to educate ourselves about the design process. We attend sessions, participate in workshops, and speak with developers out of a natural curiosity to understand. I know my own writing has been greatly informed by these interactions, and I'm always eager to learn more.
I would suggest to Mr. Cook and other developers that you consider your own responsibilities in cultivating an envrionment wherein critics can learn and grow. Game development, to a far greater degree than filmmaking, live theater, or other collaborative art forms, cloaks its work in secrecy in ways that are counterproductive to critical treatment. I understand there are reasons for such secrecy, and I'm repeatedly reminded of the economic imperatives developers and publishers face.
But if you want informed critics, then you must be willing to help inform us. Choosing one writer from one publication to go "behind the scenes" during development in exchange for exclusive coverage may serve a publisher's promotional goals, but it's antithetical to critical inquiry or dramaturgy. As long as the industry keeps us at arms length, it will continue to receive the fawning cursory coverage we lament. I long ago abandoned my hopes of meaningful conversation with designers during the pivotal stages of development. The list of off-limits topics and publishers' insistence on pre-approving interview texts made it not worth the effort. You have a stake in opening up the design process, but only you can open it.
I accept Dan Cook's encourgement to deepen my understanding of games from a designer's perspective, and I'm persuaded that I can benefit from doing so. I hope he and others will accept the value of experiential, comparative, theoretical and other forms of criticism as no less vital to the evolution of video games as an art form worthy of careful consideration from many points of view. I can tell you from first-hand experience that territorialism and boundaries of expertise have played pernicious roles in academia. We mimic those behaviors at our own risk.