Happy 2019: F*ck Writing About Video Games
Living in the United States of America at the tail-end of the 2010’s is an experience. Of course it’d be an experience regardless of what happened, but this one is a harrowing experience. I am twenty-four as I write this, a young man who is beginning his professional life. My work is not exactly what I wanted it to be, but it is good. And I think that being overly disappointed in not being a features editor in a field that is only shoving its head further and further into its own ass would be a little silly of me.
Writing about video games has forked significantly in the last couple of years. On the one side, you’ve got feature writing that is largely the same as it ever was: pieces devoid of color that explain to a reader how a game works or what was done to make it. On the other, you have folks like my good friends over at Waypoint wringing every ounce of heavy-handed commentary out of anything they can get press coverage on while simultaneously dismantling any sense of seriousness their publication has built by putting up pieces about which “daddy is the hottest.”
I’ve been dealing with this internal struggle that I think a few other people might be feeling as well. Namely, there’s this side of an industry that I believe is fascinating. I want to believe it is, anyway. I also want to be part of it so very badly, but the ever-growing rejection section of my inbox has said that I am not welcome to, thank you very much. But as I keep engaging with this side of the industry, with the writing that I want to see as ground-breaking work, I find myself in the middle of a great divide. The people who write the longest pieces about games seem to be the least adept at actually playing them. And the people who are great at playing and dissecting a game as an interactive experience are the ones who are being forced to publish their work in the niche corners of this wild wild internet.
Look at this guy. This YouTuber wrote and published a nearly half-hour commentary on Metroid Fusion that covers a lot of ground and offers a dissenting opinion along with the one he presents as his main case. That kind of detailed work, work that actually speaks to the meat of a game without doing the sort of subtext-reaching that would make my English Lit professor blush, would never end up on a site that posits itself as the answer to WHY WE PLAY. And it’s great that this dude has a Patreon with some success and a good, consistent viewership. But maybe that isn’t enough. Maybe it’s people like this that should be featured in the bigger publications. Maybe.
And here’s the thing: this isn’t a secret.
You probably know Dunkey, the YouTube-based video guy who churns out both thoughtful reviews of games and comedic takes on the industry as a whole. If not, you’re welcome! The above video discusses, in admittedly hyperbolic terms, how the critics in the industry are increasingly unlike the players.
That’s my biggest problem. The people who are now spending inordinate amounts of time talking about games don’t seem like they play that many games. They certainly don’t seem able to speak about the mechanics of a game, nor how a game is made. Instead, they focus on narrative and subtext. I got a degree in English, I love subtext, but there’s more to an interactive product than what you can read into it. Oddly enough, as people have aged into the job and are able to learn from game reviewers in the past instead of those older reviewers who took their cues from movie critics, game reviews have become more like movie reviews than ever before. Explain that one to me, please.
I think where I, and maybe some of you, lose patience is how the tonality of game criticism has changed. Let me be clear, I do not mean that critics are willing to tackle larger subjects than how good a character jumps. Not at all. What I mean is that the shift in writing has turned discussion from “here is what I think” into “here is what you should think.” And in an age where articles are slapped together as quickly as possible to keep up with a never-ending cycle of news and releases, that isn’t good.
Just take a look at this review from our good friends at Waypoint for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
If you’re not in the know, Shadow of the Tomb Raider drew ire near its release for being a veiled narrative in favor of colonialism. While I don’t personally see how the game promotes colonialism when it, in fact, bends over backwards to let you know exactly what the writers think about colonization, that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead, the writer of this piece, Dia Lacina, uses not-so-subtle writing tactics not to explain her subject matter, but to persuade the reader. Her use of quotations, specifically, is something I’d like anyone reading to pay close attention to. It’s similar to how I have uses italicized words in this and other pieces. The emphasis carries meaning, and for Lacina, that meaning is to call your attention to how she responds to specific points, supporting her own argument.
I looked up her Twitter profile for some background and to make sure I did not misgender her, and its timeline speaks volumes about her personal interests and frustrations. I get it. There are things that are absolutely, positively fucked about representation and presentation in video games. In narrative works in general. But making yourself a battering ram against any effort to accomplish anything is not the path to progress. It’s just anger, channeled in your own specific way. I understand this, it’s what I’m doing right now, I guess.
But shit. I can’t approach games writing anymore without having at least a moment where I end up looking uncomfortably like this:
I need help. I feel like showing any sort of resistance to the ridiculous state of this industry is like shouting into a void. And while I’m certain someone out there will read this and construe it as “Hapless writer can’t work in field,” I hope that it’s clear there’s quite a bit more to this.
Have you ever heard the phrase “us vs. them?” It feels as if most games writers believe the larger world to be a case of us vs. them. Like every single thing they feel must be expressed as the truth, and nary a thought be given to subjectivism. That the people being published by outlets like Waypoint and Kotaku are the only real minds in their field and hang the rest of us. I also get the feeling that the people who work in video games see them as a much more important cultural device than they really are, something I have been guilty of as well. It is sometimes beneficial, believe it or not, to spend a period unplugged from the medium to better understand its place in a grander scheme. That’s what had to happen to me before I could articulate any of this, and the lot of it has been bubbling up inside for far too long.
If the reaction to my piece on Jessica Price is any indication, I’m not the only person who is feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by the “state of games criticism” (see how I used those quotations there?). The emails I get every week from Medium quoting how many people have at least looked at that piece continue to stagger me. It’s far more eyeballs on anything I’ve made than the rest of my creative output put together. But, as I incidentally pointed out just by writing the thing, it isn’t the sort of piece any of the big boys want to publish.
I have no interest in playing that particular game, though. I want to write about games, and I guess I’ll keep doing that. But I have to disengage from the big publications. I’m unfollowing writers on social media and stopping my constant checking of Polygon and Critical Distance. Plugging in so hard has not made me a better writer, it has only made me weary. Maybe I personally am not cut out for this, and that thought scares me to death because it is something I have wanted for the majority of my life.
But if the way things are and the way you want them to be are so conflicted, what are you supposed to do?
Fuck “writing about video games” as an object.
I’m going to be “writing about video games” as an action.
David Cole is an independent writer and media man from Wayne County, Kentucky. He believes that games are the artform that allows for more intricate expression than any other. More of David’s work, including his breakout collection I’ve Been a Prisoner All My Life, is available at no cost on his website:davidcole.space.