The Lost Levels

of New Games Journalism

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Katherine Cross is a sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, and a gaming/culture critic. She’s written for several publications, including The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Polygon, and numerous others. She has a weekly column at Feministing and Gamasutra.

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It seems fitting to begin by ruminating on my place in the world of gaming, my experiences over the last several months, and how that has situated and disposed me as a gaming critic.

Whether or not I’m in the gaming industry at all might well be a subject of some debate.

There’s a liminal space between ‘in’ and ‘out’ that is exploited by those who would wish ill to women like myself. We are implicated in the industry, we write about it, we think about it, we even depend on its existence for our daily bread, but we are not afforded the protections that come with ‘insider’ status.

And yet, in all the ways that matter, academics and independent critics are part of this world. If we define “The Industry” as a collection of professionally engaged people united in the purpose of making and thinking through games, then a sociologist like myself, a feminist critic like myself, is of that world for better or for worse.

There were no bright lines for me separating my academic life from my gaming life, my politics from my writing and my analysis. So when I first began to write about games, it was from a syncretic and feminist perspective that saw them for what they were: powerful cultural artifacts whose dimensions as a new social space we were only just beginning to understand.

My first peer-reviewed paper was about the imaginative possibilities afforded by gaming. Subtitled “Roleplaying as Resistance,” this paper says a lot about my academic direction and what most interests me in the world of analysis. Yet, I also took on the less cheerful side of the virtual world. Over the past two years I’ve become an expert in online harassment as well as the study of toxicity on the internet. The distressingly novel conclusion I’ve come to is that the internet is as much a part of the “real world” as the physical realm is. While I’m grateful for the praise my work has received, I remain slightly unnerved that this is considered to be an “insight.” I explain the causes of harassment in light of this, arguing that our collective belief in the internet’s unreality makes harassment inevitable.

This is my life.

I live and work online, amidst the ludic sculptures we collaboratively build there.

In October of last year, I was forced to make a choice. I was the first feminist writer to talk to audiences outside the world of gaming about GamerGate on September 8th, and about the cavalcade of organized harassment and mobbing of Zoe Quinn as well as a succession of feminist critics. The battles, the prejudice, the hate campaigns that I had so long written about were coming home to me and those I cared about.

By the time I wrote this article on First Person Scholar, analyzing the dangerous, revolutionary dynamics of GamerGate that revealed it to be a self-consumptive “ends justify the means” movement, I was besieged with very angry, often transphobic and racist GamerGaters who wanted me to shut up and go away. I was tempted by the yawning embrace of that oblivion, tempted to walk away from the career I’d built, tempted to do anything to make the pain stop.

So, I made a choice and decided there was only one thing I could do.

Write more about games than ever.

For some, walking away must be the safest choice they can make for themselves and those they love; I cannot begrudge anyone their safety and peace of mind, and no one on this Earth deserves the slow-moving devastation wrought upon women like Zoe Quinn. However, for me, remaining honest to the aspirations I had as a child, which I transitioned into womanhood to achieve, meant that I would betray everything I had struggled for if I were to turn back now.

Since October of 2014, I’ve focused more intently on gaming than ever, and not just harassment or online toxicity in spite of my academic expertise on the matter, but the nerdy minutiae that animated my two-decade long love affair with this medium. I wrote about Alpha Centauri and quick time events, violence as a game mechanic, and even sex in gaming, —this particular piece, I think, could justly be called my foray into “academic erotica.”

In addition to a mere proliferation of my own writing, I also began to think about the critical enterprise in general, and what it would’ve meant for me to “leave” in the first place. Inspired by the recent work of independent critics like Lana Polansky and Mattie Brice, I began to realize that there was indeed a “third way” between the poles of assimilation to the mainstream gaming press and simply giving up entirely.

Crowdfunding provides us with the tools we need to support individual critics engaged in personal projects; both Polansky and Brice’s work is crowdfunded, so is Cara Ellison’s startlingly original “embedded criticism” project that sees her spend weeks or months with a developer and writing about the unique experience. Those who bridge the gap between developer and critic, like Merritt Kopas, also thrive in this world, where a game can be criticism and criticism can be a game.

You could also include in this prodigious list Zolani Stewart’s critical work at The Arcade Review or Zoya Street’s brilliant Memory Insufficient, or, not to toot my own horn here, but, the kind of writing about games I’ve done for outlets like Bitch Magazine, putting gaming crit and study before new audiences and speaking to them in the multiplicity of tongues that prevail outside our sometimes narrow milieux in gaming. At GDC, I said these people were my #1 Reasons to Be in this world, as they inspire me to keep writing and keep going. I enthusiastically reaffirm that now.

What the last six months have made clear to me is that we need more of that third way, more criticism that is not beholden to the larger institutions of our notoriously insular and stage-managed industry.

***

So, what does that look like, exactly? For one, this third-way has pioneered new ways of understanding the nature of our interactivity in games and popularized it, bringing once arcane or academic readings of games to new audiences both inside and outside of the world of gaming.

Stewart, Polansky, and Brice have all, in different ways, touched on the theme of embodiment in their criticism: how it feels to play a game, not just emotionally, but physically. Thinking through the sensations of gameplay, such as the type of motion you simulate, whether walking in game feels sluggish or sprightly, obedient to physics or fanciful, is information that can shed light on what a game is expressing. This sense of motility or tactility is what, in part, makes games like Gone Home legible as ludic texts. Physical and emotional feeling becomes essential data for assessing or critiquing a game.

This critical perspective, born out of the creative efflorescence in the independent critics’ community, has informed my own writing in several ways. In fact, an article I wrote for Offworld makes use of this perspective. In it, I talk about how the delightful new game Gravity Ghost expresses central narrative ideas and characterization through its gameplay, where the game’s setting and very rules are an artful elaboration of the protagonist’s trusting nature.

The character is an optimist who loves animals, even wild ones that everyone else says will hurt her, and yet, she always reaches out and trusts. As a consequence, the galaxy she flies around in is one where you can’t die, and with no real failure mode to speak of. There are no enemies to kill, only animal spirits waiting for your loving hug. The game says something about Iona’s character through the very way the player plays  it, communicating through motion and sensation what would be somewhat heavy-handed and explicit through narration.

My point in discussing this is to say that I would not have been able to see this without the work of independent gaming critics who’ve fashioned new lenses through which to investigate the virtual.

Similarly, Lana Polansky and others taught me that glitches and bugs did not necessarily have to be thought of as bad things. Perhaps glitches could express something that neatly planned order could not. In a Paste essay, I took that insight and used it to compare what Bayonetta and Polansky’s own Error404, an erotic twine game, had to say about the realities of sex. Error404, as its very name implies, cannot be understood without thinking through the meaning of glitches and fatal errors, constructing sex as highly erotic awkwardness, unplanned, and riotously imperfect.

Once again, a game is speaking in a language that we cannot fully understand without new and unique critical tools. What Error404 is doing would be invisible if you wrote off its expressiveness as bugs preventing the game from working “properly.”

I consider these pieces to be among my better bits of game writing, and that triumph does not just belong to me, but to those who came before, who gave me tools, gave me lenses, gave me a new tongue and the grammar to wield it well.

***

Another distinguishing feature of this third way has to do with who our writing is for and where it is situated.

This critical register is sometimes situated on mainstream gaming websites (the incredible work that Patricia Hernandez does on Kotaku springs to mind—she finds the most creative ways to break games and then write about them).

Increasingly often, we are finding homes for our work that speak to wider audiences than the traditional enthusiast press, and this serves a purpose. It is not to be hip or cooler than thou, but many of us want to connect discourse on video games to larger social questions. Austin Walker’s Battlefield: Hardline review, which talks about the nature of police brutality against black Americans springs to mind as a prime example of this, the kind of review (score and all) that would be harder to write in more traditional outlets.

However, this group of critics seeks to connect videogames to other forms of art and culture.

There are profitable collisions to be found between music crit and gaming crit, for instance, and the overlap with the traditional realm of film studies should be obvious. Finding ways to expose what videogames tell us or teach us about other cultural forms is a vital critical project. More than this, however, outlets that allow for these collisions and combinations have a different audience of either newer or more casual gamers, or people who don’t game at all who might find a piece in their own language more approachable. Certainly, that’s the goal behind Offworld, Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson’s new venture, which seeks to reach new audiences of people whose love of games would be untroubled by the burdens of a sometimes insular and exclusionary hardcore gaming community.

It also finds a home on sites like Paste, which hosts a variety of media commentary and is not simply a dedicated games sites, or on personal blogs like Mattie Brice’s, where some of the most important social criticism of gaming culture has happened over the last few months. You should run, not walk, to read her thoughts on GDC.

***

None of this is, as it is so often stereotyped, liberal arts academic-ese suffused with ten-guinea words and postmodernist obscurantism.

In reality, this mode of criticism brings us closer to, not further from, the majority of people who play games. Thinking through sensations of motion, for instance, helps to explain popular experiences with mechanics like quick-time events, exposing both their promise and their failings. When you are sensitive to the way a game literally feels, you can understand why some quick time events feel rewarding—they adeptly simulate a physical sensation—and why some don’t, like mere button-mashing that bears no resemblance to the action taken by the avatar on screen.

Gravity Ghost is a beautiful game not just because of its own merits, but because Ivy Games, its developer, gives away a free second download code with every copy of the game purchased. Why? So that you can share it with someone who doesn’t normally play video games.

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It’s a lovely idea, and one I practiced with my own review copy (which was also a two-code affair), when I gave it to my partner who is rapidly becoming a gamer under my tutelage.

Yet, as a critic, this gesture made me think: how would a first-time gamer react to this game? What language would they use to describe their experiences? Or, would they even have a language at all, or fall back on describing sensations? Speaking to that, finding a way beyond comfortable argot and shop language is part of what this third way in gaming crit is doing so well. In my own case, it has meant a long and arduous journey finding synonyms for the word “mechanic.”

But, it’s worth it.

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What we get is a richer, more beautiful critical culture that speaks in a beguiling array of dialects, new and old, and reaches new people through new means. Crowdfunding, personal blogging, writing for non-gaming websites, writing about non-traditional perspectives on play, all produce a critical culture that, while not wholly new, speaks perhaps more loudly than ever now.

It’s a form of what’s been sometimes called the New Games Journalism, which, among other things is known for its phenomenological take on gaming, emphasizing personal journeys and experience, reveling in subjectivity. But, at this point, I think we’re on the lost levels of New Games Journalism. Cara Ellison, self described “gonzo word ronin” is a master of the new form, searching on a searingly personal level, but with a perspective that shines like a lighthouse on things far from her. From her essay about Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, to her latest Eurogamer column on living her life by the dictates of the #Fortune app, she exemplifies this tendency toward using the personal to not only review games, but reveal much about our society in new ways.

Mattie Brice does similar work, reminding us urgently that even as we critics explore the meaning of our feelings, we should not commodify them—particularly not the pain that minoritized women in this industry suffer as a result of harassment. Time and again, trans women of colour like myself or Brice are rarely heard from unless we’re crying out in pain. Brice, quite rightly, uses the searching light of the form to remind us all that we are more than our pain, and that those of us who have endured the searing auto-da-fé of harassing internet cavalcades are targeted because of our work, and that that work should not be forgotten.

I am more than my dox on a chan board.

It’s incredible what this register of criticism gives us the words to say.

***

Proliferation, rather than isolation. Diversity, athwart a monoculture. Outspoken women and not mere damsels in distress. That is the promise of independent, tough-minded, and fearless games criticism.

We may have endless debates about ludology versus narratology, or what the hell “formalism” actually means, along with other forms of academic deck-chair-rearrangement, but the ineluctable truth is that irrespective of all that, we can take comfort in the fact that this work matters. And it’s getting better. mainstream publications are growing up and away from mainstays like review scores. For instance, Kotaku, which could probably afford to rest on its laurels, has made new commitments to writing about game cultures post launch.

I study games because they matter, because gamers matter, because the work of women, both white and of colour, cisgender and trans, of queer and genderqueer people, matters and has been making this industry go, that built the bridge from childhood love to adult career and passion. It’s an inexhaustible flame for me.

If you find yourself asking if these people are inside or outside, stuck in the same limbo I alluded to at the start of this talk, then that is all the more reason you should support them and their work. For it is there, on the far-flung edges of our industry that change is being made, that the promise of gaming is being realized again and again.

For all the hell me and my loved ones have been put through over the last year, I am here to stay, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.