This Week in Video Game Criticism: From Madden to Monopoly

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Jill Murray on topics ranging from Madden cheats to better board games for your children than Monopoly.

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks on topics ranging from Madden cheats to better board games for your children than Monopoly.

Critical Distance is proud to present this special guest roundup by games writer and diversity advocate Jill Murray.

The End is Near

Maddy Myers examined our penchant for romanticizing disaster. Douglas F. Warrick followed strategy games to the end of the world. Ian Bogost warned that algorithm worship puts us in a computational theocracy. And Matthew S. Burns stared into the desolate endgame universe of Lindsay Lohan’s The Price of Fame.

But it was Rami Ismail who gave the week its closing mic drop, with a healthy dose of bleak optimism for the present and future of games: "We’re in a creative industry. Of all people, we should know the way we get better isn’t through celebrating our successes, but by reflecting on our failures."

So Relax and Make Something

Arcade Review #4 came out, with a gorgeous cover, and much toothsome writing on unconventional games and art.

Deep in her home laboratory, Mattie Brice infused wine with tea in an effort to get us to make playfully and play makefully:

I feel like, in an effort to expand the DIY philosophy, we need to see video games, board games, whatever, as few of many objects we play with, and it’s the play we’re after to design. So, I want to let people know there are more objects to create, and things that you might already create everyday.

Or Take Something Apart

Jon Bois discovered a means, within the rules of American football, to score an infinite number of points. Chris Wagar deconstructed stealth into 24 separate points. (All of them beginning with “guards.”) And Robert Yang broke down 3d video game lighting for us, from the functional to the evocative.

The "functional school" of game lighting… can be useful in my eyes but only so far as that gameplay is tactical violence, and when that violence can support evoking a mood. The rest of the time, some designers often seem content to light their spaces like a furniture catalog, or even leave it as a total after-thought.

But Remember, You’re Not Alone

Christopher G. Williams explained how it’s not easy being green, why he’s always blue, and what our selection of player tokens reveals about us. And Olivier Roeder drove the little silver car past Go, to recommend better board games for kids than Monopoly, as suggested by data.

Javy Gwaltney released a disability and gaming resource list. Thomas McMullan mulled over the everyday lives of videogame characters. Holly Green looked at the dark side of how peers, players and NPCs can influence behaviour in games and art, and S.R. Holiwell shared an expansive and deeply personal inspection "to talk about our experiences is to talk about the ghosts of feelings, because sometimes it’s worth keeping the spirit alive.”

And finally, with great sadness, Harold Goldberg said goodbye to developer and journalist Andrew Yoon, who passed away in a sudden accident this past week: “He was a force of nature yet he was kind and ardent. There was no one like him.”

All the Formalism We Promised and More

This section is by Senior Curator Kris Ligman, since it didn't seem fair to dump all this inside baseball stuff onto a guest curator.

As you'll recall from last week's roundup, this new round of discussion emerged when academic Frank Lantz wrote that he believes that formalist studies of games has a deserved place in the discourse and an adherence to it does not make him -- or other academics -- conservative gatekeepers.

Understandably frustrated with some of the language being thrown around, several writers continued the conversation this week. MIT post-doc and games professor Todd Harper breaks down the term 'social capital' and what it means when established scholars like Lantz and Ian Bogost weigh in on an issue like this:

Being in a tenured professorship — or even a non-tenured one — carries a degree of social capital simply by existing. If you’re at a big name university, it’s enhanced. Frank Lantz works at New York University, and just having its name on your business card opens doors for you. I know this to be true personally, as I was very fortunate to spend four years as an employee of MIT. That name opens doors for you because it’s got a history of respect behind it. There’s also the issue of academic pedigree. Who was your dissertation advisor, or who was on your committee. Who have you read? Who can you cite? Who’s on your speed dial if things get weird? Social capital.


Now: Lantz and Bogost have worked to earn their success. And they are people who produce interesting thinking, even if you disagree with them. But I think it’s important to understand that the debate that is so fractious right now is going on between people with big reserves of a very distinct social capital, and people who have struggled most of their lives to acquire what social capital they have. [But it] should come as little surprise that many of these [newer] voices come from groups — women, LGBTQ people, people of color — that have been traditionally been marginalized in society at large, and definitely in the overwhelmingly cishet white tech industry and the largely white and relatively affluent world of professional academics. So beyond having a stake in the rhetoric of what defines their work and their interests, they have a stake in having their voices recognized AT ALL when they have often been silenced in favor of others. Never mind the fact that gaming — particularly video gaming — has long been a bastion of racism, sexism, and hatred of queer people with significant class and SES-related problems (such as the cost of home PCs).

To put it bluntly, many of the people who take issue at the notion of “ludocentrism” (a term I use under duress, for ease of understanding) are not simply targeting what they see as a problematic rhetoric in the ontology of games. They take issue at what is perceived as a systemic silencing they’ve struggled with their whole lives, and of which this current situation is merely a symptom.

Or as Claris Cyarron puts it in slightly more brusque term, this is about a one-way demand for respect:

“Kiss the ring” is a great way to describe the bullshit seniority & respectability politics in games (hat tip to Austin Howe). I love it. I intend to use it all the time. Kiss that fucking ring, right now. Everyone in this field is expected to pay homage to game studies elders, to old-guard review sites, to big-name game designers of the 90’s. We don’t have a choice you see, they are the only ones who give us any credibility.

As Cyarron notes, one would be remiss in going this week without mentioning this formidable essay by Austin Howe, our own Zolani Stewart and others over on Haptic Feedback:

When, as a critic or analyst, you invest your time and capital in the definition of proper form, your analytical projects are always, necessarily, about the inclusion and exclusion of both people and ideas within a perceived community. Naming ludocentrist rhetorical analysis as a thing is similar to the ways in which some will harp about what is/n’t a game is a political move that intends to disassociate particular critics or methods of critique from a perceived community.


Formalists have done a pretty bad job engaging either with the work of my peers or my self, or respectfully engaging with us on a personal level. Debate, or healthy discussion, is not born of abortive dismissal of the approach of less recognized and poorer writers under the guise of calling us “smart” and “young,” and in no memorable instance have noted arguments between formalists and other groups served to increase the stature or recognition of either party involved. Given all this, these conversations have existed purely to punch down at these writers and their ideas, lest a significant challenge to the status quo be allowed to manifest. [...] When talking down is not happening to me or my peers directly, it is also happening without a chance to respond. Frank Lantz’ recent blog post, discussing his views on formalism and largely disparaging narratological studies, didn’t even come to my attention till at least a week after it was published because it was not directed our way (or at least my way) by Lantz himself. [...] He sloppily and carelessly reduces a diverse discussion into a polemic that only serves his narrow rhetoric. Lantz carries so little respect for my ideas and the ideas of my peers that he can’t bother to even speak to us about our ideas in our own contexts and terms. He didn’t even try.

Dispatches from Vienna

And now, selected readings from our German Correspondent, Joe Köller.

Various people are currently debating the usefulness of the word "gamer" (yes, we use that too) after Linda Breitlauch started a hashtag asking people to post pictures of themselves on Twitter to show what gamers look like. Marcus Dittmar argues that this is an attempt to combat long-dead stereotypes rather than address the current nastiness of self-described gamers, whereas Guddy covers the history of the word preceding current controversies to show that it might not yet be lost.
Elsewhere, Nina Kiel has started a column about sex games by talking about the gun dating-sim Gat Life, Helga Hansen compares two recent studies on the importance of representation in games, Sarah Geser wrote down a lot of her thoughts about Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Bernhard Runzheimer talks about playing first-person shooters as walking simulators.


Thank you for reading. As always we greatly value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter mention or our email.

Critical Distance is reader-supported via Patreon. Please consider signing up for a monthly contribution here.

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