A response to Dan Cook’s “blunt critique of game criticism”

NB: Since posting this piece the original post in question has been edited to remove many of the phrases I initially took aim at. As such I now feel like the fool flailing away at thin air, so thanks for doing that to me, Dan. It is, as always, his prerogative, but it’s also exactly what I was talking about in the final post-script. I leave my original response as-is.

N.B.B: My attention has been drawn to this copy of the original version of Dan Cook’s essay, which is important context for reading this response in.

This is a response of sorts to Dan Cook’s self-described “A blunt critique of game criticism”. If you haven’t read it yet the rest of this post is likely to make little sense, so please go read it first to get the full context of my remarks.

What I’m going to be attempting here is exercise what Wayne C. Booth termed ‘Listening Rhetoric’. In his book, The Rhetoric of RHETORIC Booth described listening rhetoric like this:

When LR is pushed to its fullest possibilities, opponents in any controversy listen to each other not only to persuade better but also to find the common ground behind the conflict. They pursue the shared assumptions (beliefs, faiths, warrants, commonplaces) that both sides depend on as they pursue their attacks and disagreements. (The Rhetoric of RHETORIC, p.10.)

So to help me make sure I’m not misunderstanding it, here’s a summary, my take on what his piece is about laid out in the simplest fashion possible:

  • Dan Cook feels passionately about game criticism (as do I)
  • But he has a very particular view of what does and does not constitute good criticism (one that I do not and cannot share)
  • He doesn’t see enough of his idea of what is good criticism and is understandably frustrated

But frustration does not excuse the fact that he’s said a lot of things in an offensive and condescending manner, things that are only true if one shares Cook’s underlying premise. Disagree with Cook on the point that criticism has to be useful to “[improving] future games” and his critique comes falling down like a house of cards.

He’s not helped by the fact that there is the stench of the troll around the piece. I have tried extremely hard not to take offense at Cook’s post, to exercise ‘listening rhetoric’ as it were, particularly given how civil he’s been on twitter to me. His comments on the post are practically conciliatory but his position remains narrow-minded and dogmatic. So confident is he in this position that he seems unwilling to extend the courtesy of listening rhetoric to his critics.

I think it is an offensive post. Whether you want to call it a rant or ‘hyperbole’ or a ‘revisable draft’ or whatever else, it retains a number of assumptions and cranks them out to their logically unsound conclusion. So here’s my “response” or “feedback”, for what it’s worth: Cook’s article is condescending, inaccurate and unfair. His response to others reactions leaves me equally with the strong sense of a hypocrite trying to wriggle out of it and a dogmatic priest trying vainly to hold onto a dying faith.

 

It’s condescending and he should be ashamed.

According to Cook, the vast majority of games criticism is “a waste of [his] time as a game developer”. Similarly, critics’ experience of games (i.e. anyone not like Cook – both writer and developer) are “impoverished” because those of us who have never correctly loaded a C++ header file “know little to nothing about the philosophy and process of making games”.  The charge of wasting his time is patently absurd because, frankly, this is the internet.

The second charge is equally absurd but harder to demonstrate. In the comments section, numerous examples have been given that highlight why knowledge of the process of creation should not be made into a standard to measure critics against (leaving aside the equally absurd notion that the ‘philosophy of making games’, whatever that is, needs to be known to make any kind of critique). Cook has been presented with arguments for this, notably by Fraser Allison, to which his response is extremely telling.

We’ve already established that Cook’s piece assumes incorrect things about the nature and purpose of game criticism (specifically: that its purpose is to help developers produce better games) and yet having had that pointed out to him he still wants to assert that he’s not “putting game criticism in a box” (which is precisely what he’s doing – that’s what a claim about the nature of a thing does), that he’s just “asking [us] to be better at [our] job” (which is another offensive assumption since he clearly doesn’t understand what our jobs are).

Consider an imaginary line of text taken from a manifesto I wrote in a parallel universe. In this manifesto I an heatedly entreating Game Developers to be better at your jobs, which is (naturally) making more games like Far Cry 2. Far Cry 2 is clearly the pinnacle of game design (for me) so anything else you could possibly do is a waste of my time. Please developers, stop wasting my time. Imagine how cross Dan Cook (and hundreds of other developers!) would rightly be if I wrote that and sent it around the developer circles in search of “feedback”.

 

It’s inaccurate and he should be ashamed.

While calling for “clarion clarity” in game criticism, he relies upon a straw-man argument. While railing against the fact that much criticism is “useless” to him as a developer, he later goes on to say that “most writing is by gamers for gamers”.

I wish there were a better way of putting this, but: no-fucking-duh Mr Cook they’re not writing for you as a developer. Cook knows this; he clearly understands it and (otherwise he wouldn’t be lamenting it!) yet for whatever reason he still decides to turn these innocents into an enemy. How does that aid clarity? Is this not just wilfully misconstruing the point of a whole field of work that you find wastes your time? Is this anything less than bordering on trolling? I turn his own words against him: “you can do better.

 

It’s unfair and he should be ashamed.

Cook attempts to diagnose the malaise currently afflicting game criticism and it is actually afflicted; part of the reason I was so ecstatic upon first sight and skim of the piece was that I thought this was going to be a sister piece to my ‘Rhetorical Questions’. On the way to diagnosing the current problems criticism faces Cook gets lazy, and elides some of the logical leaps he makes. Observe the following passage:

…most game criticism suffers from an immense lack of hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game. In the past week of essays on Critical Distance, I found 1 writer of 12 had any declared experience making games.

Cook is not stupid: he’s added the caveat “declared”, as he knows very well that it’s entirely possible for a person to possess the very “hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game” and fail to produce useful criticism. He says as much himself. “I have a friend who makes games, but publicly writes gamer-esque drivel.” But hold on a second there, Cook – where’s the fairness in directing a screed like this only at critics given that there are numerically more developers well placed to become critics (according to your standards) but aren’t?

Furthermore, given that ‘being a developer’ is certainly no guarantee of the ability to write useful criticism, what then are we to make of the following statement?

If you are writing about games in language that suggest intelligent analysis, state upfront in your bio or perhaps even at the start of the article your perspective and experience.

Forgetting for the moment the problematic notion of possessing a never-changing ‘perspective’, why should we then do this? What would be the point of outlining ones developer credentials if that is still not enough to guarantee good criticism? Why even bother? Surely Cook knows that good criticism is either evident within a piece or it’s not, in which case, what does it even matter what experience a critic has as a developer? Could you reader even guarantee 100% that a writer of a “good” piece of criticism has had game developing experience? Of course not – statements of “authentic experience” are empty and pointless, contributing to little more than the pointless goal of oneupmanship. “Oh yeah, well I have even more experience developing games than you, so my critiques are even more valid.” Cf.this Monty Python sketch.

So we’ve seen that Cook’s position can be summarised as holding to the following two points:

–          Being a developer is necessary to write good criticism,

–          Being a developer is no guarantee of being able to write good criticism.

 

Cook gives some examples of what he’s advocating at the end of his article (vetted for candidates with real game design experience, one presumes!). Amongst them is one AJ Glasser, former journalist/critic. From what I gather, Glasser left journalism for development sometime after 2009, and the article Cook is citing is from 2011. So in the space of a year (I’ve been informed it’s even less), and with who-know-how-much hands on actual game design experience (has she shipped a game? Has Cook checked?) she’s passed from being an utterly useless and time wasting critic (Cook’s assertion! Remember, no development exp means no good criticism!) to a useful developer-critic. It’s a stretch to believe.

I’m using a definition of critic as distinct from over-enthusiastic commenter, and one that Cook seems to share: a ‘critic’ in this sense is not any old Tom, Dick, or Harry that comments on an IGN post or that has a Destructoid community blog. A critic is someone that gets linked on Critical Distance. This type of critic may be interested in thinking and writing about games from any number of perspectives, not just a technical or design perspective without fear of being labelled ‘a waste of time’.

But Cook protests! “Games have a functional heart that resists being reduced to the softest of sciences in the same way there is little room [for] ‘rock criticism’ in the practice of geology”, and further adds: “Games have more in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems.” My favourite thinker at the moment is Bruno Latour and in his book We Have Never Been Modern he describes the same movement Cook is attempting to make: it’s none other than the exact same attempt made by the (failed) project of modernity.

The problem with Cook’s assertions is that games are no more pure “science” than they are pure “human construct” (in the sociological sense) and no more than they are mere “text” (in the humanities sense). Latour calls things like games ‘quasi-objects’ – not quite objective enough to be entirely the purview of science, not quite relative enough to be the mere products human perception. Here’s Latour:

Quasi-objects are much more social, much more fabricated, much more collective than the ‘hard’ parts of nature, but they are in no way the arbitrary receptacles of a full-fledged society. On the other hand they are much more real, nonhuman and objective than those shapeless screens on which society needed to be ‘projected’. (We Have Never Been Modern, p.55)

I’m sorry to say, but you cannot merely wish-away the ‘soft’ elements of games, whether you want to or not (I suspect Cook, if presented with this question directly, would answer ‘not’ despite actually arguing for it in the piece). There is and will always be an element of games that studying and critiquing “the object in itself” will never reveal, and in one wave of the hand Cook seems to both acknowledge and dismissing this as irrelevant to his position as a developer.

As has been pointed out in the comments section (by developer-critic Darius Kazemi no less), outlets for criticism like The Border House are vital. Injunctions against criticism targeting anything but the ‘hard’ parts of a game will always marginalise legitimate and worthy concerns about things like discrimination, racism, sexism, etc, etc. And that’s without getting into the importance of reception and reappropriation.

Yes, Cook rightly asserts that designers have a lot of knowledge of how games are received (probably, even more than we often give them credit for), but they can never have complete knowledge either. Clint Hocking in the years of development that went into Far Cry 2 never in his life dreamed someone would turn his game into an experimental exercise in player imposed permadeath and a machinma novel documenting it.

Reception and audiences matter, and I respectfully disagree in the strongest terms with Cook’s following comment:

I would also like more people to write about games in a way that moves game development as opposed to game playing forward. That’s me being selfish.

That’s certainly his prerogative, but as a player and critic I think there is still not enough being done to actually change the way players play. Taken together with the tone of the rest of the article (think “waste of time”, &tc) and the impression one gets is that Cook has the (unstated) assumption that the criticism of development should be privileged over play. Developers are working ever day to push game design in new directions (or I assume they do? Most are not aiming to cynically cash in on rehashed and recycled ideas, surely?) and who or what do players have to challenge their assumptions about play, the ways they play, and the purposes their play can have? They have criticism, that’s what they have. Cook can bemoan the lack of discussion amongst the game developer fraternity till the cows come home but ultimately game design will keep chugging along so long as there is money to be made. Players and critics do not have to be unwitting, ignorant, and slavishly thankful accepters of whatever received piece of gaming design developers want to dish out. But neither are players and critics the mightily empowered, all powerful adjutants Cook seems to be afraid they are.

The balance is not right (and I have said as much myself) but my answer to the imbalance is not to advocate doing away with the kind of criticism that has no direct ‘utility’ for a developer, rather it is to redress the imbalance directly. Dan has been told this by others so I won’t labour that point. I can only hope however that he has taken it to heart.

Dan asked for feedback and I have given it. My advice to him would be, to reconsider whether he’s actually interested in ‘criticism’ or not; as a practice more like art, and one that does not depend on a utilitarian purpose. If he does, he should cut his losses and start again. Rethink his premise. What variables are actually involved in the production of ‘criticism’? Don’t write in anger or out of frustration.

P.S. I’m calling bullshit on the positioning of Cook’s piece as a “draft”. Drafts don’t get released to the public. In my view, he’s merely trying to push buttons and, judging by the reactions, it’s working. If he’s going to put his words out there, he should have the temerity to damn well stick by them. Rants don’t get revisions.