An Open Letter To Kyle Smith: Be A Critic, Not A Dick
Two things before we begin:
- In the grand scheme of things, criticism of criticism (of criticism) will be relegated to the grand dustbin of nobody giving a single fuck. And that’s fine. This isn’t about longevity and I don’t think Mr. Smith will ever care what I have to say about anything.
- I was once a journalist. Apparently I was a very good one, but after realizing I would be poor forever I sold out to the man and now produce cartoons about butts, in addition to writing dialogue for time traveling mohawk teens in a game about punching fountains. This is also fine. But the point is to avoid a dumb mistake both Anthony Burch and myself have made in the early years of our professional careers: being a critic, while also being a dick. Hopefully somebody can learn something from it (I sure didn’t).
Hi, Kyle Smith! How are you? How are the Twitter mentions? I’m sure your editor is fairly happy with you right now. Contrary to wishful thinking, rage clicks are an extremely lucrative market for online publishing, which generally has the margins of a roadside lemonade stand run by schizophrenic gerbils. This whole Carrie Fisher thing was probably a slam dunk for the mag. Way to go!
One small thing, though: you’re being a bit of a dick. Yes, yes, I get it- being a dick is your whole persona. Olive Garden, Paul Krugman, some writer guy I’ve never heard of before. Public institutions, ripe for criticism, etc etc. I am there with you, brother. Yet there’s a reason we’re social animals and evolved, for whatever reason, the capacity for being empathetic: it’s nicer not to be a big huge dick.
Now, hang on. You’re probably thinking, “Listen here, nobody-guy. I can write whatever I want. Freedom of the press and etcetera!” This is technically correct. But, as with most conventional wisdom, there’s a hidden little nugget that might help you be even more of a dick without seeming like a dick: when you criticize without getting personal, your criticisms will often be ten times as effective.
Still rolling your eyes, huh? Okay, that’s fine. Before you go back to Twitter (those mentions will start to eat at you, believe me), I want you to hear a story.
Let’s talk about Porpentine.
Haven’t heard of her? At a GDC not so many years ago she gave a fiery sermon at the pulpit of the IGAs and declared, with typical unflinching resolve, that when it came to games we needed to destroy everything. She lives in San Francisco (last time I checked) and makes games like Howling Dogs and Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha. She hates me.
Why? Because several years ago I aimed my criticism straight at the door of a movement she was the de facto public figurehead of, called The Radical Games Movement. It was about getting marginalized people better access to rudimentary game making software so we could share in their unique experiences. It was about diversifying a mostly white, mostly male industry. It was about getting more games, by and for everyone.
And I will maintain that it was completely fucking toxic. Plagued by directionless infighting and public, virulent cliqueiness, the radical games movement alienated a ton of people before it even really got off the ground. This, in my opinion, hurt efforts to diversify games a thousandfold more than it could have ever helped, but that criticism was not what I primarily focused on when I took it apart. The fact that I took it apart at all was probably a bad decision. Instead I chose to focus on Porpentine, a tiny indie developer with zero support structure other than her own organic reach, during a scattered followup presentation at GaymerX. I had a hangover and she was a bit overreaching. I got confused when she said some stuff I didn’t agree with. I checked with my co-writers, checked with my editor, confirmed my opinion and got drunk in a sake bar.
Four days later, without much of a thought, I published a story that tore her, the talk, and the movement apart. I offered no practical solutions for improving it or bettering the process for joining. I offered no constructive thought other than stop. I didn’t say where to find new software, didn’t expand on any interesting ideas, and barely even touched the fact that I was nowhere near qualified to speak to her specific experiences. I forgot about the piece immediately. She did not.
Reaction to the article was mixed. Publicly, many decried my propping Porp up as a strawman before cruelly knocking her down. Privately, they agreed the movement was counterproductive and often whispered, while checking over their shoulder, that I was right. Others were pissed that I opened with how I hooked up at a Santa Cruz bar the night before (idk). Still more were concerned that a straight white cis guy was dictating how a queer movement should be run. All were valid. At the time I didn’t really care. I was part of an article-generating machine that barely paid for a disgusting little apartment in Palms and had no time to mull over the damage my words could do. But in the weeks that followed I began to wonder aloud if I had actually helped anything. Did that piece make anything better? Did it help, well… anyone?
I came to the unfortunate conclusion that it had not.
Porpentine soon blocked me from Twitter and the last correspondence we ever had was her taking a well-deserved shit on my entire public persona. It included the sentence, “Women are not your television,” which I remember and try (and fail, often) to live by to this day. I had not taken her experiences into account when I wrote the story. I had not considered the lives and feelings of anyone else. I had been mean. And I had not, even once, considered that she was a human whose own thoughts and insecurities ate away at her the same way they do to me, you, or anyone else. I had compounded a problem. The radical games movement fizzled out and Porp largely vanished from the public eye. I had won. I got everything that I had wanted, and video games were saved forever and ever amen.
I was being a dick.
So, back to Carrie Fisher. Okay, yes, Hollywood, thin people, glamor. “Be aware that criticism is coming.” “You’re famous, stop being a baby.” Fine. Great. Okay.
But are you helping?
Do you point out that Hollywood stereotypes and the illusion of being thin and young forever are the machiavellian byproducts of a machine meant to sell diamonds and shampoo? Did you mention that the standards have changed since Fisher was cast as 19 year old space hottie? Did you say anything we can take and use and better ourselves with at all? No? Just tore her down?
Sorry, dude. You’re being a bit of a dick.
And that’s fine. As you well know, the world loves dicks. Readers like to rage at the invisible howling nothing and tear down our idols and consume their golden bodies. I just think now and again about Porpentine and what I did to her for, if I remember correctly, a $15 check. As I get older I think about it a lot.
I hope you don’t come to regret this too.
Or maybe just be less of a dick next time.