I don’t write about games any more. Writing on the internet felt frenetic, like I was a cat desperately clawing up a curtain made of words, trying to find the core of why I liked or did not like something, why something might be interesting, why I even wanted to continue talking about them. It was great and terrible both at the same time.
I returned to making games full time, but I miss releasing an article into the wild so that it could be assaulted by hostile minds, occasionally have it maul someone in the process. I rarely wrote anything that mauled anyone because I regarded myself as an advocate or an entertainer rather than anything serious. I never reviewed a Big Hitter game. But I miss being dangerous in a way. I miss having my opinion in public as a discussion point, where people wrapped their arms around it and grappled it like a fierce fucking bear, even if by the end of discussion they looked like they were left grappling a small kitten. But the job felt desperate at best towards the end of my freelance career, because I was in the process of burning out by conducting another personal project at the same time as writing for the audience who had always read me and who had always loved to love-hate me.
I interviewed Charlie Brooker, once a game critic himself, about games once, and one thing he said really stuck in my brain. It has conducted my feelings about games writing ever since. I said I had a hard time with comments, and I wondered how he regarded the comments on his Guardian pieces as they are often unconstructively insulting. Roughly paraphrasing, he said that he regards himself primarily as an entertainer, ‘to do a little routine’, not particularly out there to conduct public discussion.
Not out there to conduct public discussion.
When he said that I thought about my own role a lot more often, and particularly about how my role as a Woman had been politicised, most often by people who wanted my ‘credentials’ as a gamer to be at the forefront of everything I wrote, or by people who confused me with every other woman out there who was writing about games and confusing me too with their politics, and even sometimes I even politicised myself but only by not shying away from attacks on my identity or my taste. In the end a lot of it came down to: It is always about identity, even if you don’t want it to be, because it forms who you are and how people react to you. And if you aren’t the default identity, you’ve got to face up to the fact that people will notice your ‘weird’ non-default identity.
But what Brooker said about public discussion still stuck in mind, because god, I have always wanted to be known for being funny, and being an entertainer, rather than anything else. I didn’t want to sit out there and be the industry windtunnel. I don’t care much for ‘respected journalist’. I don’t care much for anything apart from that you enjoy what I write. And I started out being an entertainer. I only wrote with having people smile in mind. I bet Stewart Lee started out this way. I bet Stewart Lee started out just wanting to make people laugh, and found that his politics and rage at injustice seeped into every single part of his comedy.
The root of the reason you laugh at Stewart Lee’s jokes is because you can tell he is angry. There’s that part of his outrage at Richard Littlejohn’s insistence on calling sex workers who had been murdered by a serial killer ‘prostitutes’, when the broadsheets and police attempted a semblance of civility by calling them ‘women who worked as prostitutes’. Littlejohn called this ‘political correctness gone mad’. Stewart Lee managed a five minute routine ridiculing Littlejohn for thinking the simple courtesy of considering a deceased woman’s family is ‘political correctness gone mad’. And he still manages to be funny. He still manages to entertain. Even though ‘political correctness’ is somehow considered to be the death of comedy:
I went on a Stewart Lee binge a little while ago, and happened across an interview with him where he talks about how when he stopped doing comedy he looked for a sign that comedy has an important social function. I think I’ve tried to find, since I stopped critiquing games, signs that I too had an important social function in my old role. “When I gave in, and I couldn’t face it any more, I looked for evidence that comedy had an important social function,” he begins. He then tells the interviewer about his uncertainty that it does, but he found signs in The History of Comedy by Howard Jacobson, in a chapter about the Pueblo villages in the American Southwest. They have a day there where a secret society of clowns who have studied the social weakspots in the community and one day a year are allowed to upturn all social conventions. Most of these social conventions are the conventions of power, the status quo. White visitors are particularly ridiculed. It’s like a releasing of tension; an important release of frustrations.
But as Stewart Lee says, we don’t enact this enough. These days the butt of the jokes are too often people who didn’t really need extra ridicule. I haven’t really witnessed women getting above themselves. I’ve just witnessed them asking for basic decency. I haven’t really witnessed games about homosexuality enacting oppression on others. I haven’t really witnessed complaints about having too many tits in games really actually stopping tits from being in games. Can we start making jokes about how the culture in games seems immovable? Or about how they’re ridiculously white? Like the Pueblo villages, it’s not going to change the makeup of the society politically, but what it does do is tell people the problems they face are real. It’s a kind of anti-gaslighting technique. Even admitting we could be better is a kind of salve, even if some people couldn’t give a fuck about my situation. And it’s possible to do this through entertainment. What is Kimmy Schmidt but an admittance that life is horrible and everyone else makes it a bit worse?
I read a lot of old UK games magazines, and in them there is a really palpable sense there that it’s okay to think games are silly. I don’t know if it’s a cultural difference – a difference in tone, a missing link between sign and signifier – but somewhere along the way it became a huge crime to make jokes about games whilst not being the default man identity. You can’t make a joke about tits and be a woman and get away with that, because someone out there will think you are making fun of their completely reasonable attraction to tits, even though, if you asked me straight up, I’d say it’s totally reasonable to have an attraction to tits. Pretty much everything has become a weighty appraisal of the State Of Things rather than one opinion in a sea of chatter: the latter is exactly what every essay on the internet is.
As a writer with a large platform you still have a responsibility with the language and tone you use, of course, and you should adhere strongly to that. If your joke is going to double down on a widespread oppression that wears people down every day, maybe it isn’t worth reminding those people their lives are sometimes unpleasant. It’s an article that is intended to entertain. You can’t entertain a person who has just been reminded that everyone else in the room is complicit in their life’s difficulties.
Something else I realise, now I have some distance: Words do have power, but one article about a product – on a internet where thousands are available – is not the fucking Death Star.
That the internet treats everything that is not the Norm Opinion like the Death Star article made me reappraise how I looked at my own work. It actually made me less likely to be lighthearted, funny or warm when I spoke about games. And these are the articles I most wanted to write, and I know it’s the article that my readers most wanted to read. Instead I understood that my Job as Woman was to sit around and contemplate how my identity meant I couldn’t be flippant about my relations to men.
Some of this could be because I was failing to communicate meaning as a writer, but reactions to other fine pieces of writing tell me that it wasn’t just my experience. There seems to be a widespread failing of the reading of tone throughout the internet that worries me a little. It’s the kind of failure that I made at school. It’s the sort of failure that led people to think that Swift’s A Modest Proposal was really suggesting eating children was a solution to a problem. You need social awareness to make these calls in tone, and a good critical mind to write and interpret this stuff. And maybe that isn’t societally important any more. It’s the reason Stewart Lee made clear at the end of his Top Gear skit that he was actually joking. There’s some stuff that’s just flippant entertainment, and some stuff that’s weighty criticism, and not a lot of the latter is really what I want from my writing about games, at least not all the time.
It isn’t the end of the world if at the end of a piece of entertainment writing (which you should be able to tell via how lighthearted the tone is – you don’t need a label pointing out it is SATIRE, OPINION etc, you just read it and know) someone sticks a 2/10 on the end that doesn’t entirely match with your reading of the ‘review’. Because the number means nothing, and Metacritic, we all decided a long time ago, should mean very little. If someone turns up with a thought to entertaining you whilst analysing something, the only thing you need to gauge is whether you liked what they said or not. If you didn’t, find another writer whose work you do like. If you have a constructive piece of criticism, sure, lob it on, but it’s probably not going to reach someone who writes five essays a day. If you found something entertaining recommend it. That’s it. That’s all.