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Analysis: Developer Disdain For Games Writing Illuminates Wider Gulf

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander joins the recent discussion on the role and nature of game criticism, in light of Dan Cook's assertion that most available writing on games is a waste of developers' time.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

May 11, 2011

6 Min Read

Since Lost Garden blogger Daniel Cook posted his widely-circulated declaration that most game criticism is a waste of time, he's likely been inundated with angry responses - insult a writer, face a salvo of words. So he might be glad to know that I, at least, agreed with him. Well, I mean, partially. His blunt takedown of today's writing on games does have a few sound roots: "we" are using more words to say less. Much out there's self-indulgent, using the act of writing simply to masticate ideas, rather than a tool honed to purpose. We've built a massive chamber where long-form writing has become our conversational pivot; the writers are writing for themselves and for one another, and that necessarily limits its usefulness. Sometimes, when you know you're saying something important but feel unsure how to define or contextualize that importance, you tend to use more words. People earnestly hoping to advance the medium of video games through discussion may also still labor under old insecurity- they grew up hearing that games were stupid and not worth talking about, so the temptation to try to "dignify" their feelings by heaping on high verbiage and academic excerpts is natural. Nonetheless, strip away the long conversation pieces and the critical vocabulary for video games remains fairly weak. That's because Cook's right about another thing: most writers work with little understanding of game development, the art of design nor its goals and constraints. In a duller past, the best more traditional consumer-product writing could do was stab artlessly around technical ideas (for example, frequently misusing the word "engine" in order to stage numb consumer wars on which game had better graphics). Many of us still don't know much more about how games are made; many don't even know enough to realize what they don't know. Even when we do, understanding how that knowledge should shape and inform our more empirical conclusions is often a challenge. But Cook misjudges two key things: He suggests all writing on games should carry criticism's mantle of obligation, and then he says the job of criticism should be to provide useful feedback to game developers. On that first point, to be fair, the writing community has contributed to a poor definition of roles. People who write professionally greedily prize the 'journalist' label as if they felt they needed extra validity, while hobbyist bloggers mantle themselves 'critics' to distinguish their aspirations from yet more problematic 'reviewer' work. Enough complaining gets done about the amateurishness of games writing, or as Cook does here about the uselessness of it, that people might be justified in trying to formalize their work by assigning themselves a title. None of it really means much - except that it is admittedly harder to find the sort of reading material you want. People tend to forget that for a piece of writing to be defined as criticism, both analysis and judgment should be present. There is nothing wrong with a player's personal story of relationship to Nathan Drake, or with saying that game X is good because it makes players feel happy and smart -- writing doesn't need to be useful to have value. But writing should want to be useful to be thought of as criticism. Although non-traditional games writing has been happening at the fringes for years, it was just a small handful of years ago (2007 or 2008, maybe) that using his platform at Newsweek, the writer N'Gai Croal began drawing wider attention to editorial feedback on games that was outside the realm of 'review'. Faced with the widespread popularity of his work despite the fact he adhered to few traditional categories or forms of games writing, he suggested the term 'criticism' to the community in the first place. Now there's so much non-traditional writing that the traditional stuff - "hands-on preview!" "Metacritic 89.8!" "brand-new screenshots!" seems a bit childish and fatigued. Cook does make something of a concession for the often-confused breadth of writing taking place on games online, with a clumsy category list. But such absolute segregation fails to recognize that writers who write for one another, or academics who write for their community, are doing a perfectly valid thing. There's little to do when speaking on the internet except write, so it's unclear why he presumes that anyone who owns a games blog is attempting to offer a service to anyone except their own community's creative thought. In just a few short years we've rocketed from wondering what there is besides 'review' to an environment where so many people are eager to answer that question that it's overwhelming. Maybe not all the writing done on that spectrum will be criticism, will be professional or will have useful yields for game developers, but people are applying themselves with professional or near-professional sincerity to the discussion of their experience of the game developer's work - why would the game developer want to mock and reject that? Leaving aside that Cook dismissed entire communities of creative dialog and educated, intellectual fandom for not being strictly game criticism brings us to his argument's largest flaw. He is frustrated that all this writing gives him no advice on how to advance the medium of video games, how to make better games. He calls for more writing by developers or by people who understand design, and that is fair. My favorite writers on games aren't my colleagues (sorry, guys), but industry folk like Ian Bogost and Matthew Burns, plus efforts like #AltDevBlogADay, a blog started by Insomniac Games engine director Mike Acton, featuring several new posts a day written by developers, for developers. However, games' biggest weakness is that designers only know how to think like designers. They don't understand that a general audience couldn't give much of a damn about design; which is why Cook can't see why we don't try harder to write about it. Because we're players first and foremost. That's what made us want to do this, whether for job or for fun, whether amateur or professional, whether functional critic or hobbyist blogger or the type of student intellectual Cook is aiming to dismiss. Whether we're trying to be 'critics' or not, all of us are expending all these words as if to scream ourselves breathless that what we want from games is meaning; we want emotion, we want experiences and personality, the kind that cannot be systematically engineered no matter how many design articles anyone reads. The designer's singleminded obsession with the primacy of design breeds an entire industry selling 'correct', elegantly-architected setpieces that are completely devoid of any memorable impact or creative permanence. Reading the personal expressions of today's creative writers on games is precisely what developers need to move the medium forward. If you want 'useful feedback', ask your damn playtesters. Cook may be frustrated we don't understand his art, but can't be more frustrated than we writers are that he doesn't understand ours.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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