That Old Chestnut

A few rushed thoughts about the manifesto that’s been doing the rounds. I want to focus on one particular element. I’m going to be extremely unfair, since there’s more to the piece than I pick up on. Nonetheless, I take issue. I’m pursuing this critique, not because I want pillory the author, but because I think it’s both important and emblematic of some of the broader arguments among those write about games (that old formalist debate) and broader ideological conflicts. I’m going to assume the reader has read the manifesto, because I’m too lazy to explain it all. That said:

Taking his queue from an old essay by John Crowe Ransome, Paul Kilduff-Taylor opposes historical and moral/aesthetic modes of criticism, suggesting that a resurgent ‘contextual’ mode of criticism is obscuring the beauty of games themselves.  The first example he gives is a piece by Matt Lees about the importance of coin slots in the development of the ‘finite lives’ convention in games. Kilduff-Taylor wants to argue that there might be other, ‘vital’ reasons such as ‘the importance of death to human experience’.

Both modes depend, ultimately, on one’s ‘priors’, and I am more than happy to admit that my own prejudices run strongly against the notion of a ‘human experience’ as such and in favour of the immediate and quotidian. I should add that the insistence on value – high-minded concepts are more ‘vital’ than coin slots – is absolutely of a kind with the old 19th Century, moralising mode of aesthetic discourse. One mode of argument seeks to bind a work to its context, another searches for higher meaning.

Likewise, when Kilduff-Taylor warns that historicism risks focusing on a work’s consequences to the detriment of its content, one has to ask: what kind of content? The coin slot example demonstrates the extent to which content might be contingent. When Kilduff-Taylor (henceforth KT, because I’m lazy) says he wants to emphasise content, he seems to mean: the really important things. But in the example he gives (Miyamoto discussing Super Mario Bros.), jumping is just another form of contingency. All Miyamoto can tell us is that X was done because Y, not what any of it really means. If we wanted to speak in abstract terms, we could talk about exploration or agency or motion or what-have-you – which method might be better served by a survey than a minute analysis of a particular game. The distinction between intrinsic value and context is, again, a distinction between the abstract and the particular.

The unfortunate fact is that Mario doesn’t mean anything. KT seems to surmise, correctly, that personal context is what makes Jenn Frank’s reading of Super Hexagon possible. What he misses with his faintly patronising commendations of ‘subjectivist’ enthusiasm is that, in this mode of criticism, context is the source of all meaning. NGJ isn’t, I think, an argument that anything can be right. It is the apprehension of the truth that nothing can be right without context. We are back to the old arguments (and misapprehensions) surrounding ‘postmodernism’. There is, from where I’m sitting, no ‘real’ value to Super Hexagon, and no way in which plumbing the depths of its designer’s brain about how its mechanics work that will yield the golden fruit of meaning. Not because it’s impossible for a designer’s ideas to be important to a reading, but because a game like Super Hexagon is, by any reasonable standard, an abject failure when it comes to communicating ideas beyond its own abstractions. As is Mario: it’s a wonderful piece of design that, as the linked video demonstrates, does an excellent job of teaching its player how to play itself. It’s a very clever machine, but it doesn’t really do anything. I think it’s significant that KT emphasises these sorts of games: he’s not reading games closely, he’s looking past them into the ghostly world of true meaning, as if some essential humanity might be hiding in the code.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t. Just that the KT has a tricky path ahead of him, and many dead ends. What is it, precisely, that makes Mario fun? What is fun, anyway? At this point, the conversation becomes very much like old arguments about what constitutes art, or aesthetic pleasure. That is: fractious, interminable, bitter and pointless. In light of the above, KT’s suggestion that the critic use a pot-pourri of approaches seems as likely to multiply problems as resolve them.

Then we come to the crux.

Ideally, the New Games Critic has some understanding of traditional academic modes of criticism, such as liberal humanism, post-structuralism, cultural materialism, feminist and queer theory as well as specific game-related fields such as ludology and narratology. They understand the limitations of these and expect further enlightenment from emergent areas of study such as neuroscience and the exploration of cognition. They embrace, rather than resist, the interplay of science and the humanities.

And the cat leaps from the bag. True meaning, inaccessible via contextual criticism, dwells in the neurons: games will be understood as systems of abstraction that interact with our machine-like brains. For my purposes, the fact that a good deal of what passes for ‘neuroscience and the exploration of cognition’ is execrable nonsense, or that the scientific method cannot reveal meaning, is mostly beside the point. What’s important is that this approach mirrors the sort of debased formalism that continues to haunt popular art criticism. A good story/game contains Element X. Element X appeals to an innate human quality, and its narrative/ludic use can be refined, reproduced, and tested through study.

If this all seems suddenly partisan, that’s because it is. If we go back to our coin slot example: Matt Lees’ historicist reading suggests that something taken for granted as central to games was actually contingent on a specific set of economic and technological circumstances. It’s a slightly disconcerting and more than slightly subversive way of thinking. KT’s reading is that finite lives in games are good or natural, or both, for some intrinsic reason, and that the job of the critic involves understanding this quality, extolling it, and judging games by how well they reproduce it. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what marketers and the less salubrious sections of the trade press, in their own declassée way, already do.

When KT insists on primacy of a review as a buyer’s guide, it’s not hard to see why. When he insists: “If a design decision can be adequately explained by commerce, the critic rejects it only in terms of creativity and not in its totality”, this is perfectly natural, since he views commerce as extrinsic to the ‘vital’ quality that makes the game what it is. Repeatedly and vociferously, KT denounces excessive subjectivity and ‘subjectivism’. But, as the coin slot controversy suggests, vitality is a moving target. In fact, it shouldn’t be hard to see the way that business models (international legibility, reducing resales, prolonging subscriptions, pushing microtransactions) have a lot to do with conventions of the medium that are taken for granted. By insisting on the primacy of something abstract, we allow all sorts of quotidian things to slip through in its guise. High-minded concepts about nature and aesthetics and grubby systems of commerce and control make, as ever, excellent bedfellows.