The cyborg critic

Reflecting on a rhetorical figure

This week, as part of the launch of the Games Criticism Journal, Brendan Keogh published a powerful theoretical reflection on the work that has emerged in online games criticism in the past few years. He links this to the non-academic work of several young scholars who are finishing up postgraduate programs, presenting the figure of “the academic videogame critic, as opposed to the games studies formalist”.

Foregrounding the people

Keogh is aware that these figures are both straw men. The games studies formalist doesn’t really exist in an uncomplicated way—how would we categorise Espen Aarseth? Neither does the academic videogame critic —much of the work he draws on is being carried out by people with no academic affiliation.

The critic and the formalist are rhetorical distillations of broader discursive trends: a focus on how a game feels to play, rather than on how closely it may fit to predetermined ideas of “gameness”; a flat phenomenological approach, rather than an attempt to separate the pure game from the software’s non-game elements. Keogh’s criticism is carried out through close readings, informed by embodied phenomenologies, interested in the messily interrelated pleasures of videogame play.

I feel like normally, when a methodological break has been recorded in an academic journal, it has always been through pieces that are framed purely as a refutation of what came before; the enlightened theorist offers a manifesto for what could be, if only everyone thought like him. Keogh doesn’t do this, instead offering us his theoretically-inclined perspective on the new territory that is already being developed, concluding with a list of at least eighteen different examples of people and places at the frontier he has described—with the caveat that even this long list is not exhaustive.

Worlds as networks

This community-oriented approach in Keogh’s writing reflects a strength in his approach that Daniel Joseph praises as a concern for “political economy”. Keogh’s article suggests that the exceptionalism that dominates games studies is at least in part a response to the economic pressure on academics to demonstrate that the study of video games is deserving of funding. It is because Keogh is highly aware of that political economy that this piece is published in an open-access journal, with significant attention given to writing published independent of the academy.

Keogh hints here at not just an alternative methodology, but an alternative economy of discourse; an academic criticism that exists in communication with blogs and indie digital publishing. Through his rhetorical positioning of critics versus formalists, I see something else emerging. It’s not just academia’s approach to games themselves that marginalises impure elements to try and distil something essential—academia’s approach to discourse itself does the same thing.

The hybridity and cyborgianism Keogh proposes concerns not just how we imagine games, but how critics might imagine themselves. The “overlapping worlds” that he describes between game and real life are also present between academia and online writing. Academic games critics will be attending not just to the flow across the worlds of software and societies, but across the worlds of universities and blogospheres. This means citing blogs in academic papers. It means tweeting at DiGRA. It means self-publishing books for a non-academic audience.

What Keogh is proposing is academia without the purity complex. It’s middle-state writing.


The economy of universities and academic publishers relies on the idea that a certain level of discourse is walled-off, only accessible to those with institutional funding. For games studies to be worthy of that funding, it had to be proven just as exceptional as academia itself. Just as Keogh’s theoretical study argues that games are not exceptional, his long list of young critics producing hybrid writing outside of the academy challenges the idea that the academy is exceptional.

Felan Parker has responded to Keogh’s article by reflecting on “defamiliarisation” as a reading strategy for games as texts—introducing something new to an assemblage to disrupt it, break the habitual, and learn from the reconfiguration of its entangled elements. I would suggest that this is what we’re going to see, as the generation of young scholars that Keogh describes moves ahead in their careers as hybrid blogger-academics.

Parker’s proposal reminds me of Human Computer Interaction’s focus on design breakdowns. It also reminds me of Latour’s Reassembling the Social; we learn how an actor-network is formed by observing it in the process of (re)constituting itself. We’re going to learn a lot about the political economies of blogging and scholarship, as they reconstitute themselves in the process of hybridisation.

If Keogh’s image of the academic critic seems to include people who are not academics, it’s because the cyborg critic is not themselves a hybrid of blogger and academic, but something produced by a hybrid assemblage of academia and blogging.