Critical failure…

The Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne recently ran a series of panels under the banner of ‘Critical Failure‘. These took in film, books, theatre, and the visual arts, and were designed to promote debate.  And promote debate they did, with it spilling out of the Wheeler Centre and across the internet on Crikey, the ABC, in the Guardian, and on blogs.

I think these debates are incredibly interesting, both because they reveal the huge schism between those critics working in traditional print media and those working online (and, in fact, their opinions of online), and also because of what you can learn from them about criticism and how it might relate to games and the broader culture.

Click through for my thoughts…

First, I want to take a step back to both Freeplay and the recent Social Entrepreneurship forum at the State Library of Victoria because they form a sort of throughline of thought that culminated in me being invited to take part in an unconference at the Wheeler Centre on online writing.

This year’s Freeplay was all about the fundamentals of the creative process, and in designing it (which I still have a blog post that I’m nervously holding off on publishing) we attempted to bring together a range of disciplines, not just game developers. We did this because in researching and considering the essentials of the festival, we wanted to construct it as a reflection of the way that people learn – by having their ideas stress tested and challenged, by being exposed to completely new ideas that might cause them to think more critically about their own work, and in doing so improving their own creative process.

This process was reaffirmed for me at the library’s social entrepreneurship forum where a number of the speakers spoke about their development process as a process of failure, of evaluation, and of trying something new.  Essentially, the process of learning what does and doesn’t work.

The critical failure panels presented by the wheeler centre were incredibly potent examples of this process from established cultural forms.  Intelligent people, with a wide range of both their form and the wider culture, arguing and discussing their positions.  While there were some obvious blindspots – the nature and possibility of online writing being the most notable of these – the fact that such a debate even existed excited me because frequently, I think that those sorts of discussions don’t happen locally, and because I think those debates need to happen, not just to increase the profile of critics, but because the wider creative culture benefits from people with strong critical skills, steeped in the development of the medium, and with a strong understanding of what makes that medium special.

It also excited me because, in opposition to the established print critics speaking at this series of events, all of the really interesting games writing happens online.

So, I tweeted that the discussion happening on the critfail hashtag might be of interest to game developers, writers, or cultural crates more generally, hinting not too subtly that a critical failure panel on games criticism is something the centre should consider as part of their future programs.

Which led to be being invited, despite being neither a critic nor a particularly prolific blogger, to their unconference, and being surrounded by people and ideas from far outside my usual sphere, but inspiring nonetheless – because coming out of the above events, I was primed to have my own ideas challenged, stress-tested, critiqued, and hopefully in the process learn something new.

Image courtesy of Pat Allan

Topics ranged from the perception of blogging in the wider culture, monetization, use of comments as community engagement, the long tail and economy of attention – but also the essential skills of criticism, the role of a critic, and how they can be related to games.  Too much was said for me to cover here, but there are already some interesting summaries emerging at the Wheeler Centre itself, from Mel Campbell, Lisa Dempster, and Nikita Vanderbyl. I do, however, want to cover what was said on the session I led – which focused on criticism and critical culture and how they relate to games.

Looking back over my notes, it’s clear that the discussion can be split into three areas:

  • The games
  • The critics
  • The audience

The group raised the really interesting point that in order for a strong critical culture to develop, access to the medium needed to become increasingly democratic.  It’s only when people are able to revisit things, to consider and theorise, and then explore those theories, that discourse emerges.  I’m not sure we’re there yet, which connects to another point raised by the group – the development of a canon.  Games have issues in this area because of the constantly shifting technology, and older games, which may be useful to revisit in context are potentially unavailable, at least in their original forms.  The group also raised the excellent point that canons fall in and out of fashion, and that while a canon might be useful to tell us what games are, they may struggle to tell us what great games are.

Which leads to point two.  It’s exactly that sort of broad knowledge that is essential for a critic.  Part of their role is to place what they are examining into the broader culture and to be able to identify what it is in those other projects that makes them great.  It’s about knowing a medium’s cultural context and history and about understanding ‘how’ a game achieves its effects as well as  the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.  The group also pointed out that these things take a long time to develop, and require a sort of critical mass for both creators and audience.  It also requires a genuine commitment to development of criticism as engagement, writing, editorial, etc.

Which brings us to the last point – who are we writing for?

The group brought up a number of points around working with the audience to raise the level of critical discourse, to engage with projects in wider cultural terms than just the games themselves, and to engage with audiences beyond that core gaming audience.  Examples cited were Nicholson Baker’s piece in the New Yorker or The Guardian’s piece on Red Dead Redemption, both pieces where non-games people were engaged to write about games – and to bring their broader cultural perspective, and access to broader texts, to bear on them.

And, at least in my mind, this brings us full circle.

Towards the end of the day, I heard a brilliant summation of the role of a critic.  They should ‘interpret, explain, critique, contextualise’.  It’s a critic’s role to understand the field, to know what has been great in the past, and to understand how to identify that in new work, whether it is something they have seen before or something that simply resonates with them; it’s their role is to contextualise the new in terms of what has come before, to explain the nuances and intricacies of a work, and to apply their own critical faculties and taste to the work.   Too often we see critics as champions or destroyers, but in reality, they should be much more than that, providing a way for a medium to be better by drawing attention to the connections between works and the myriad creative strands that bind every creative act together.

I’ve always struggled with how best to use this blog, but I think having the opportunity to attend the unconference has solidified what it should be.   There are articles I’d like to read, thoughts I’d like to explore, and discussions I’d like to be a part of.  I’m not interested in being a critic myself – I already wear too many hats: writer, developer, educator, festival director – and I don’t want to add critic to that as well, but I do want to add my own voice to critical discussion, for better or worse, and I do want to begin that long, and I imagine rather painful, path of contextualising and critiquing my own creative work.

We joked about the need to write a games criticism manifesto after the unconference.  That’s already been done a million times over, but I guess, in some small way, that’s what this is – a manifesto of the type of critical thought I’d like to see more of locally in the medium I spend most of my time, and a manifesto of what I think I’d like to write about here.

Thanks to Alison Croggon, Lisa Dempster, Estelle Tang, Angela Meyer, Mel Campbell, Ben Eltham, Nikita Vanderbyl, WH Chong, Richard Watts, Daniel Wood, George Dunford, Mark Holsworth, and Pat Allan.

8 thoughts on “Critical failure…”

    1. Thanks Saul.

      Rock, Paper, Shotgun is in my RSS feed, but you’re right there isn’t a lot of like it – especially locally. The reason I’ve started writing these blog posts is I’m hoping it’ll kick start something. Maybe, maybe not, but you gotta try, right?

  1. It was great to meet you at the Unconference and I was glad that your topic of how to write criticism of computer games because it raised the vital question of how to write criticism. Trying to contextualise the art or game often tells the most interesting story of why this was created at this particular time by this particular person. But a particular problem for writing criticism of games (computer or otherwise) is what is the thing itself, since it exists in multiple different instances depending on the players. There was a good article in The Guardian (sorry I can’t remember the reference) that argued that computer games (World of Warcraft in particular) are better comparable to medieval cathedrals rather than movies because of the multiple authors and a community of users.

    1. Great to meet you too. And glad the topic helped. It really helped contextualise a lot of my thoughts too.

      I’m actually tackling that idea of ‘what is the thing itself’ in trying to write something for this blog about my experience Heavy Rain. I’m not entirely sure what it is and how it manifests some of the essential elements of games, but I’m sure there’s something there.

  2. Pingback: #Critfail

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