Nordic Game asked me to do a talk on ‘New Wave games criticism’. I didn’t know what that was really, and if it’s anything we are probably in the middle of it and I can’t really see what it is yet. But anyway, since I’m leaving, I guess this is my goodbye.
My friend Kieron Gillen used to be a games critic. He was a games critic for over ten years for PC Gamer and beyond, and co-founded the games site Rock Paper Shotgun. He was credited with naming the phenomenon of ‘New Games Journalism’ and left in 2010 to write for comics. But I think the piece of cultural criticism of his that shows the most clarity of thought is the one he wrote when he left writing about games.
In 2010, he wrote a goodbye post elaborating on how editors choose games critics, and how they always choose the best because there’s a huge amount of people out there just clamouring for what is a very unrewarding job. He said:
“Be aware that you’re almost certainly pretty talented and could have done anything with this ball of nerves and words in your head. Instead, you’re wasting years of your life because you’re stupid enough to care about something no-one else does. If you didn’t have this strange compulsion, you could be doing anything. And afterwards — because games journalism isn’t a career for life yet — you probably will. There’s enough case-studies of What Games Journalists Did Next to find inspiration from. The fact that — to choose the most obvious example — Charlie Brooker became what he is while basically doing what he’s always done for a bigger audience says everything. People complain a lot about the level of games writing, but the success of these people retroactively shows how much talent there was in their work. I could list games journalist developers, novelists, critics, theorists, screenwriters and so on and on. If they were such incompetent fuckwits, how on earth did they go on to excel in enormously competitive fields? Because they weren’t. They were brilliant and they were choosing to piss away their talent because they couldn’t help it.”
Writing about games is not a niche so much as a little pen we make for ourselves, and there’s a wider world out there that I was ignoring. It’s just the day to day work of writing about games that makes you think that your skills are not transferable because people are so cynical about your abilities.
I recently gave up writing about games and it made me start to think about how I would measure my time writing about them, which only spans three and a bit years and is almost entirely on the internet, only a few words in print. I wondered if I could call a post-print generation a ‘New Wave’, and if that really means anything. If it exists, it is not anything like a movement, and we are only loosely connected by how hard we are trying, on our individual terms, to write what we love and survive on the money we get paid for it. As the critic Gita Jackson told me, “I don’t think any of the major writers in this New Wave have anything in common than Trying To Survive. I think the only newness in this struggle that’s been the main narrative of games writing is the tenacity of these people trying to survive, and their willingness to leave [mainstream] games criticism.”
But in my three and a bit years, I’ve seen a whole host of critics rise up and do some of the bravest and most interesting work on games. Largely, these critics noticed that games criticism wasn’t covering games the way they wanted to read it, and so they started writing it themselves. The first time I noticed it was when Jenn Frank wrote at Unwinnable about how the game Creatures was able to do a thing she could not: have children, or outlive death.
“Creatures did not resemble any game I’d ever played. Death, it seemed, was so permanent. You couldn’t undo death. Once a Norn was ill or hurt, it was difficult to stop the process.
And there was something else, too – every Norn had a limited lifespan.
Worse, every Norn was living life at a speed that was too too much faster than my own life. There was no way to do enough to save each of them.
Every Norn was hurtling toward death. This, to my 14-year-old self, was terrible.
I certainly did not embark on Creatures to learn any timeless truths about death. I had already been touched by death, repeatedly, even at that green age.
I have often joked about how much I would like to own an African Grey: I would like to be outlived.”
“I had already been touched by death, repeatedly, even at that green age.”
I was so moved by this piece of what ostensibly was supposed to be ‘games journalism’. I’d only ever encountered writing about games in magazines like PC Zone before, and those were just a bunch of juvenile jokes and ratings of games – and honestly, I’d loved PC Zone. It was incredible. I read it obsessively and I didn’t even have a computer at that time. But I had never even considered that the systems inside games could provoke writing – feelings – that were deeper and more meaningful than 90s PC Zone. I didn’t know that games could talk about my life and how it was put together. I didn’t know that writing about games could be in a different form than reviews, previews and interviews.
I started to crave reading essays, long form, instead of reviews. I started to want to know how other people’s lives were affected by games. I wanted writers who played with form. I wanted personalities and voices.
I was excited by Patricia Hernandez’s memoir on Fallout 2 and America for Rock Paper Shotgun for this reason. She wrote:
“It was playing through a version of history where Americans drove themselves to destruction because we refused to stop relying on oil that made me wonder about this country. It was playing through a reality where we valued being a formidable war force above all else that made me worry about this country. It was playing through something where the government cared so little about its citizens that it would knowingly construct vaults with the purpose of experimentation that made me feel sick thinking about what this country was capable of. It was reading about how corporations like Vault Tek got away with manipulating the populace for personal gain that made me find out that corporations sometimes have more rights than actual human beings. And so the reason all Fallout 2 felt compelling was because its version of the future wasn’t so outlandish.”
I think my heart exploded.
I began writing in earnest after I found this broadening of the horizon, after I found that I had allies, even though we were not close to each other geographically or linked by any other thing – in the beginning we hardly even agreed on anything. I’d done an English Literature degree and all of a sudden these other games critics were legitimising how interested I was in literary form applied to design analysis. I started to write huge long essays about my personal experiences with the underdark of Defense of the Ancients, I started to write about how Tomb Raider shaped my sense of self, I started to write about how one little game by Stephen Lavelle broke my heart. I became angry and happy and fucked-up by games. I listed every single game I remembered playing when in love; I even tried to write poetry about games, and now my friend Wasim Salman writes huge epic poetry about his deep thoughts on strategy games, RPGs. It’s beautiful that people want to do that and put it in public where there was some hesitance to do it before – you’d have been thought of as silly. A ponce. ‘Pretentious’, the word Kieron hates that so often got hurled at him. I was scared of it until one day Jim Rossignol flippantly informed me ‘the best writers are always controversial’ and then immediately buggered off IRC to make his dinner.
Meanwhile around me others were writing lucidly about games from their personal perspective without needing to press these essays into the form of a review. Lana Polansky saw the 1997 film “La Vita è Bella,” (or, Life is Beautiful) and came back with some beautiful observations about how this film led her to be against gamification. She wrote for BitCreature:
“Sometimes life has to be boring. Sometimes it has to be hard. Sometimes it has to be tragic and unfair. Sometimes the hero has to die ungraciously, and be left in an alley.
Games have an incredible, novel, awe-inspiring capacity to frame experiences. Games can translate life, ideas, themes, skills and so on in a fascinatingly tangible way. Games have this ability to reveal to us sublime truths using only small details, teach us lessons using patterns and consequences, and impart symbolism and meaning through clever and heartfelt dynamic systems.
But to do this really well, games must also look to life. The hard parts. The dirty parts. The horrid and terrible parts. We cannot ignore them. Rather, games must reflect on what about life is resonant, formative, human. Reality has to be broken—and that’s ok. Art is one of the ways in which we try to organize it.”
Of course before my time were a huge swathe of writers who I have since discovered were pushing boundaries on their own – Tim Rogers, for example, has been doing his form of literary rebellion for over ten years, and Aevee Bee of ZEAL magazine had columns at GameSetWatch before I even knew her. Since I started writing there have been more and more talented, field-of-view widening writers to join our ranks, Maddy Myers, Mattie Brice, Zolani Stewart, Austin Walker, Katherine Cross, Gita Jackson, Soha Kareem.
Austin wrote deep analysis of the structure of how games approach the interiority of NPCs and concluded that in Shadow of Mordor and Watchdogs:
“No matter how many songs the Orcs of Mordor sing, no matter the desperation of the out-of-work Chicagoan teacher, all I can do is hurt people.”
It made me want to play both of these games again, but see them in a different way, see them the way Austin sees them, and take from them a new story, a new implication about how game structure works.
But in 2014 I wanted to go even further, I wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries. I wanted to do something that would put me in a situation where not even I knew what I was doing with my criticism, not even I knew what was going to happen or where games were going to take me. I wanted to escape the Non Disclosure Agreements and go to the places where games were being made on a small scale, as passion projects. I wanted to get close to the source of wherever the passion starts. I wanted to know about culture more broadly and how it nurtures games into life. So I started up a Patreon, pledged to give up my home and travel to game developers across the world, and write about them from their own houses. I wanted to start to do the things that were done in old Rolling Stone times, when editors had the money to send journalists on weird gonzo journeys through terrifying proximity to their subjects. And people did help me to do that, they wanted to read it. They gave me plane fares. I got to stay with and write things such as this piece I will read an exerpt from now about Katharine Neil, a game developer from New Zealand.
In 2003 Katharine, veteran current affairs journalist Kate Wild, veteran designer Ian Malcolm, and a team of extremely talented game developers risked their jobs and future careers to make the political sucker-punch game Escape From Woomera. Katharine was the Creative Director. The Half-life mod prototype explored the real life injustices of asylum seekers who were imprisoned in the Woomera Detention Centre in Australia in direct defiance of UN stipulations. It provides the player with a way to experience the difficult situations and understand the decisions of someone up against the bureaucracy and injustice of the state. The aim is to get out of the Detention Centre, something only a few asylum seekers had done at the time. Asylum seekers were asked to contribute their stories and they were interpreted into the game design as accurately as possible. You can play the prototype through as several different asylum seekers, who each reveal different stories and ways to escape.
The Australian Council for the Arts awarded $25,000 to the team to have Escape From Woomera developed. This was not a popular decision with the Australian Minister of Immigration Phillip Ruddock, or the head of the Refugee Council of Australia, Margaret Piper. Ruddock thought the game would make Australia look bad (as opposed to the real policies the game portrayed in detail), and Piper thought that because it was a videogame it would ‘trivialize’ the issue – a popular opinion amongst the conservative left. The team was called on by Channel Nine, the Today Show, ABC Radio, The Age, and several other media outlets to justify themselves. The New York Times wrote a feature on games that it said depicted a new ‘grim reality’. It was the largest ideological fistfight a game had ever instigated: bare knuckle with a government, using its own funding. It told the Australian government in no uncertain terms that if games aren’t art they certainly mean something.
Woomera Detention Centre has now been shut down, but other detention centres have been consolidated in its wake. The game’s website has been placed in an Australian national internet archive called Pandora, a place I like to imagine is the online version of the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“The Minister for Culture ordered an inquiry into how the project could be funded,” Katharine says to me whilst she cooks in her tiny Saint-Denis kitchen. “The Minister for Immigration said what we were doing was illegal, because we were encouraging refugees to break the law.”
I think I was jealous of her at that moment, because I’ve never written a piece of writing that has encouraged anyone to break the law, but Katharine made a game that became so politically important in Australia that people in the comments sections of mainstream news articles about it were asking if games were art.
In any case, my memoirs of travelling around all last year are being made into a book called Embed With Games, and will stand as a testament to my time inscribing the thoughts and feelings of game developers I became close to. It was the most extraordinary thing I could think to do in games criticism, and now it’s done I think I am ready to leave, because there simply isn’t room for that kind of thing on a games website the way they function now.
I think perhaps the story of this generation of games critics is actually the story of games in a way: there’s so much passion put into different ways to express how games touch us – even Youtubers are part of that expression – and it can’t be going unnoticed. I think games criticism is certainly becoming more mainstream because of it, and is being welcomed to broader publications than just enthusiast websites. The New Inquiry wrote a roundup of feminist games critics including me and other colleagues; The New York Times runs game reviews. My friend Simon Parkin writes for The New Yorker about games, and he wrote to tell me:
“On the one hand, the form is blossoming. Video games encompass all of these different wonderful disciplines and topics– art, design, music, sport, travel — and, during the past ten years, writers have found countless new ways to talk about, interrogate, celebrate and critique these elements. We are finding new and better ways to write about games. It’s led to an explosion of creative writing and criticism, with no shortage of young, hopeful writers willing to lend their voice to the subject. This, if anything, is the ‘new wave’.
But this story is set within a much broader story about contemporary media: the decline of print, the democratisation of publishing on the web, the uncertainty in how to make money from the internet and a drying up in the number of paying writing jobs in the midst of all this wonderful, terrible disruption.
For the amateur writer it’s an exceptionally exciting time: the medium is still relatively young and evolving so we are still discovering the language we need, even as the boundaries shift beneath our feet. But for the professional writer, while video games offer a deep, strong and popular topic, it’s no less challenging to make a living than it is for our beleaguered chums in books, music, film or sport.
I love writing about video games and, while this is the most playful medium and, perhaps therefore the most ostensibly flippant one, it also, at times, feels urgent and important. The games we design can tell us things about our world, and our societies. The way in which we choose to play them can tell us things about ourselves as individuals. This is surely the ultimate goal of all writing?”
There’s a small contingent of New Wave writers that have made inroads into mainstream games websites like the aforementioned Rock Paper Shotgun or the Gawker site Kotaku. As the critic and academic Katherine Cross tells me,
“Patricia Hernandez really gets wide latitude to be both fun and funny. I myself was able to write about Alpha Centauri and Civilisation for Polygon, and my new Gamasutra column comes with no expectation of being ideologically pigeonholed. And you have columns like Gita Jackson’s video game fashion column that are showing new angles of vision on games.”
Gita Jackson wrote to expand further on why she thinks there is a push outside websites like IGN, Polygon and Gamespot by New Wave critics.
“Zolani Stewart runs a quarterly arts journal because there is no room for him on the Big Three Websites,” she says. “Paste Magazine has become a quiet place for writers like Austin Walker to write exploratory essays on race because there is no room for that elsewhere. As you know I’m trying to get a non-fiction book deal because the work I would love to do, well, there’s just no room for strange literary essays about games in the mainstream [games press]. There’s a New Wave of games crit because the mainstream [games press] is stifling.”
And it’s finally that sentiment that made me leave this year. The idea that what I’d been writing about all along had been everything, because games are everything, but that also means that games are a speck in the infinitesimal universe. Games can encompass all things but they are also surrounded by all things, and what if I was blinding myself to outside of that? What if I was not considering that, like Kieron says, my talents don’t just have to lie in games criticism? What if there were other subjects to write about, or perhaps there were interesting narratives in the world not being told in games that I could help create? What if games had taught me things and now I could exist in the world?
The thing was, I was thinking about games the way we all think about games. We are crushed by our love for them, hemmed in. We think that they are special, and that we talk in a unique way about them. But the reason other games critics have gone on to amazing things before me is that they were just good writers. They were just passionate creative people. It’s like that part in Men In Black with the marbles. There’s a whole place out there and games prepared me for it, and I have marginalised myself in a wide world of criticism and writing.
A few months ago in a weird accident I almost lost my whole hand to an infection. All I could think about was all the novels, plays, games, tv shows I could have written instead of giving my whole body to this tiny sliver of the world. What was really making me stay? I felt like I’d reached the top of what I wanted to do and there was no interesting way to go.
And anyway: The more I looked at the creative process of games the more I understood that it was just like the creative process of writing and that I was deeply moved by that similarity. I was overjoyed to find that it is such a human thing, to create, and to create anything. I started to see the world outside of myself. And I started to realise that because I was so brainwashed into thinking that games are unique and special as a medium that I was narrowing my view and shutting out everything else.
What being in this ‘New Wave’ has meant to me is that I understand that games not only owe something to our wider culture, but that culture owes something to games, and when we try to close ourselves off and say ‘there is no politics here’ or ‘there is no hurt here’ or ‘this joy is unique to the playing of video games’ we are doing ourselves a disservice. Reading other people’s opinions have opened my mind to the fact that just like everything else we encounter in the human experience, games are a reflection of us. They come from us, of course they can say what is on our mind. If there is anything that staying on games developers’ couches for a year has taught me, it is that: games are a reflection of us. That means that anything that gets in a newspaper can be in a game. Anything that is in a book can be a game. A vista you saw, a feeling you had, any part of our lives can end up in a game. It can be Super Hexagon, it can be Dishonored, it can be Canabalt. Their systems do not merely happen through cannibalising other games. They happen through living.
When I was in Australia, I was walking along a street in Brisbane, and I saw a little kid playing ‘hot lava’ with the coloured paving stones on the street, jumping from stone to stone. I think I saw a little game developer. When she grows up she might not have to make a game about what you and I make games about. She might have some entirely different things she wants to convey through play. Isn’t that exciting?
Seeing a little more of that reflection of ourselves in the mirror is a terrifying and wonderful thing. But it is what makes me smile at night, and it is what makes me excited to get up in the morning. I think that is what the New Wave is trying to say. We try to find the spirit of video games in the wider world, where they are going, and predict how great they can be. Play is for everyone: I have figured it out now. I think I can move on.
If you would like to read/watch what I consider some of my best work, you can consult the ‘Portfolio’ tab at the top right. I think the criticism I wrote for The Guardian in verse form is close to my heart, as is my piece on Increpare’s work. The whole Embed With Games archive is available here.