Where to find good videogames criticism

Brendan Keogh cuts through the dross to uncover the best writing about games anywhere on the internet.

In the latest of a continuing series I like to call "people disagree with me at length", the excellent Brendan Keogh, a games critic and academic, has replied to my article "Why are we so bad at talking about videogames?" You can also see games creator Ed Stern's thoughts here

Over to Brendan . . .

In an article last week, Helen Lewis asked why we are still so bad at talking about videogames. Lewis rightly noted that as the current era’s most prolific new art form, the videogame demands a critical language with which players can discuss their experiences - and, just as importantly, a language that allows people who don’t play videogames to gain an appreciation for the form. The sheer pervasiveness of videogames throughout modern culture means that they can’t be ignored. If there isn’t a videogame on the same device you are reading this article on, chances are there is a videogame in your pocket. Just as we have always needed literary critics, music critics, and film critics, people are starting to realise just how important it is that we have videogame critics.

It was really exciting to see a mainstream outlet with as much clout as The New Statesman to acknowledge this. However, the implication in Lewis’s article that such videogame criticism simply doesn’t exist yet ruffled a few feathers with those writers (including myself) who would like to consider ourselves as already being videogame critics. We felt slighted, ignored. Here was an outlet rightly calling for critical attention to be paid to videogames while, simultaneously, ignoring those of us already doing as such.

But, really, Lewis made an incredibly important point: no one knows we exist. As a community of writers, it is easy to feel slighted, but the truth is harder to face: we are insular. We are doing all this work we think is so important, but the reality is that we are really just talking to our own little circle of fellow writers and readers. Beyond ourselves, few people know who we are.

So it is no fault of Lewis’s that she didn’t know we exist. Many don’t! But her article was a golden opportunity to tell people that, yes, this kind of writing is important, and more importantly the first steps are already being taken. Right now is, I think, an incredibly exciting time to be writing and reading videogame criticism. There is so much experimentation with form and style happening right now as we try to build this critical language that videogames so desperately need. Ideas are being thrown at the wall hard and fast, just to see what will stick. This is a new frontier of writing that we are venturing into.

So allow me to offer not so much a rebuttal to Lewis’s article - because I agree with her in full that this kind of writing is important - but a response from the other side. You want writers who are good at writing about videogames? Well allow me to point you in the right directions. I would greatly love for you to read their work.

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The first and foremost stop for anyone interested in following the critical conversation around videogames is Critical Distance. Since its founding in 2009, Critical Distance has situated itself as a crucial curator for the countless, disparate writers of the videogame blogosphere. Every Sunday, its volunteers post a round-up of the best articles written that week around the web on both amateur blogs and professional websites. It also regularly posts compilations of works written around a single game or franchise. It also makes a vital effort in highlighting the work of new writers—something especially crucial for a writing form as young as this. More than any other site I recommend below, following Critical Distance’s weekly updates will allow anyone to stay on top of the conversation without having to hunt out a hundred different websites.

In more recent years, a spate of sites dedicated to videogame criticism in its many guises have risen up. I won’t name them all here but three that are well worth your time are Bit Creature, Nightmare Mode, and Unwinnable. Each posts regular and strong essays from a diverse arrange of writers looking at a diverse range of games. From consumerism and depression through the lens of Borderlands 2, to mastery-cum-boredom-cum-massacre in Dark Souls, to heartfelt musings on motherhood and sea monkeys in Creatures.

While these sites allow a platform for a broad range of writers, there are also a range of more specific outlets with specific agendas. One of the most important of these is The Border House blog, which provides a vital place for a variety of feminist and queer perspectives on gaming to be heard. Most recently, Mattie Brice’s look at the surreal iPhone game Boyfriend Maker and how it has allowed an audience of players to experiment with different sexualities is well worth a read. Similar is GayGamer, a queer gaming site “for boys who like boys who like joysticks, and girls who like girls who like rumble packs!”

Similarly niche and fascinating in equal measure is Game Church, offering insightful articles from a uniquely Christian perspective, such as this superb article on Sony’s The Unfinished Swan and perfection.

But it’s not only the niche, small sites that are advancing strong critical writing around videogames. Plenty is happening on the traditional videogame journalism outlets, too. At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan wrote one of the most beautiful videogame-related articles of recent time, when he sat down to play Rockstar’s period piece L.A. Noire with his father who was a Los Angeles cop back in the 40s. What unfolds is a touching bond between father and son made possible through this new creative form. At Kotaku, meanwhile, Katie Williams wrote a revealing and infuriating expose into the videogame industry’s systemic sexism through her experiences at this year’s E3 expo. At Ars Technica, I tried my hand at long-form gonzo-style journalism to cover a 48 hour game jam, where teams of developers made a game from scratch in two days. And, in a particularly experimental piece at Boing Boing, Jake Adelstein sat down with several real-life members of the Yakuza to have them play the Japanese game Yakuza 3 and give their opinions on it.

While we are speaking about videogame journalism, it is worth noting that there is plenty of phenomenal investigative journalism happening in recent time. In the past twelve months, both the Penny Arcade Report and Polygon have set themselves up as outlets committed to long-form, high quality journalism about videogames. In particularly, Rob Zacny’s extended exploration of the tragic downfall of THQ’s Kaos Studios (responsible for the first-person shooter, Homefront) and Tracey Lien’s investigation into the trials faced by Middle Eastern game developers are both must-reads.

To spread the net even further, it isn’t just in the videogame-exclusive press where good quality writing in a myriad of forms is emerging. At The Wall Street Journal, Yannick LeJacq writes about the various layers of irony in Borderlands 2. At Boston’s The Phoenix, Maddy Myers regularly explores a range of videogame culture-related issues, such as this long form article exploring the ‘anxious masculinity’ of the fighting-games scene. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, among other authors, regularly writes for The New York Times. In the UK, one of the most effortlessly masterful voices in videogame writing, Simon Parkin, writes regularly for The Guardian. Meanwhile, in Australia, videogame critic and academic Dan Golding has a column for independent outlet Crikey. (I personally recommend Golding’s updated version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” that takes into account the bizarre retelling of events in Ubisoft’s recent Assassin’s Creed III).

Yet, for all these examples, there are still precious few places that videogame criticism can stand on its own legs, and it is often forced to survive parasitically on the back of websites with other primary concerns. What I personally find most fascinating in recent times are those authors and editors trying to push for videogame criticism to be its own independent form. Independent zines like JumpButton Mag and Ctrl+Alt+Defeat have had some critical success—though certainly not commercial.

In the last week, two different projects have experimented with this independence to see if videogame criticism can be more financially viable for writers. Five out of Ten is a new project founded by New Statesman contributor Alan Williamson, where five writers (full disclosure: one of them is me) write two articles each, and then the compilation is sold for £5, and the profits are split evenly between the writers. Meanwhile, my own attempt at long-form criticism on a single videogame was published last week in a somewhat experimental move, and has been met with surprisingly positive feedback, proving that there truly is an enthusiastic readership hungry for more considered writing about videogames.

And last but far from least, I think it is worth noting this plethora of experimental writing around videogames isn’t as new as it might seem. Writers have been experimenting with form to find ways to explore this medium for a decade now. In 2005, Tim Rogers wrote a phenomenal 12,000 word essay about the Japanese role-playing game, Mother 2, which was already eleven years old at Rogers’s time of writing. Rogers effortlessly pulls together interviews and close description to thread together not just an account of one game, but to situate it within a broader culture of Japanese game development. I haven’t even played this game, but this remains one of my all time favourite pieces of writing about a videogame, regardless. (It’s worth noting, though, that Tim Rogers’s style is highly divisive among readers of videogame journalism and criticism. Personally, I am just excited that we are diverse enough to even have divisive writers!).

Going back further, to 2002, Jane Pinckard wrote a fabulous and risqué post on the psychedelic Playstation 2 game Rez and its particularly bizarre ‘trance controller’. While the rest of the geeky internet subculture made snorting jokes about the trance controller’s similarity to a certain sex toy, Pinckard cut across all the immaturity and awkwardness and straight out tested the trance controller in such a fashion (probably unnecessary NSFW flag for that link). It was a brilliant example of sex-positive feminist writing around games—ten years ago!

And, to really drive it home, in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, Stewart Brand delved into the culture of pro-Spacewar! players—arguably the first videogame ever made.

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So what’s the point of hitting you with this barrage of links?  Simply, to spread the word that there is incredible writing happening around the art form that is the videogame. Not just incredible writing: exciting writing. Videogames generate experiences; experiences generate stories, and stories want to be told. With so many people having so many experiences, those people writing around videogames are perhaps some of the most interesting, enthusiastic, and experimental voices happening in criticism right now, and they are well worth your time.

A final caveat: I present the above list as a starting point, not as a canon. I haven’t even mentioned yet Leigh Alexander, Tom Bissell, RockPaperShotgun, Anna Anthropy (who wrote the single most important game design book of recent time) or the countless other phenomenal writers out there progressing this young — but in no way non-existent — form. But I think the point has been made: we haven’t been bad at writing about videogames for a very, very long time.

Videogames matter. That is beyond debate. As such, they demand critics equipped with a strong critical vocabulary in order to help players and non-players alike to understand the infinite experiences they are capable of delivering. I don’t offer this post as a defence of the state of videogame criticism. To be sure, we are still learning, and we are still experimenting.  We have a long way to go, but the point remains that we are well on our way. And, most important of all, as a reader or a writer, we would love to have you come along with us.

Brendan Keogh is a videogame critic and academic from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for a variety of publications such as Edge, Hyper, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. He is also a PhD candidate at RMIT University.

The Japanese videogame Catherine.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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What do animals really think of us?

Animals are our fellow travellers on this earth. It's time we heard what they have to say.

The debate about what divides our species from the rest of the natural world is not a new one. In 180AD, the Greco-Roman poet Oppian of Cilicia declared that hunting “the kingly dolphin” was immoral, on the grounds that dolphins were once ­human beings but had exchanged the land for the sea, yet “even now the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thoughts and human deeds”. The ancient Greeks deemed the killing of a dolphin equal to murder, and punishable by death. In the latter part of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate . . . The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Charles Darwin observed that the ­mental difference between human beings and other animals is one of degree rather than kind. In November 1870 Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, lectured the Metaphysical Society in Oxford under the title: “Has a Frog a Soul? and if so, of what Nature is that Soul?” And, a generation later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

In our hierarchical world, there are levels of awareness yet to be resolved. As we move through the post-imperial age of the Anthropocene, through what has become known as the Great Acceleration – the relentless sixth mass extinction that scientists and conservationists date to approximately the middle of the 20th century – the questions seem to be ever more urgent. We are faced, in other species, with the mirror of our own depredations.

The other day, almost by accident, I went to the zoo. Turning a corner, I saw what all the fuss was about. A crowd of people was gathered at the window, peering intently, holding up smartphones. Looking over their heads, I couldn’t see anything at first. Then, with a shock, I saw it. Sitting on a ledge, with its back to the wall, at one side of the glass pane: a gorilla.

It was so big I could barely believe it. I couldn’t compute it as a living creature; it looked more animatronic than animate. The largest person could easily sit inside it, and still be overwhelmed by its physical presence. It might even have been a person in a fancy-dress suit. It made me feel breathless. Against what I presumptuously consider to be my better nature, I kept looking at the primate, the prime ape. It was moving gently, and seemed to be muttering to itself. As I peered through the slightly misty, smeary glass, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Actually, I couldn’t look at it at all, for fear that it might look at me, that its gaze might meet mine and that, in its eyes, I might see my own reflection.

Our relationship with animals has been made even more urgent, and yet more remote, by the way they have become part of the 24/7 media cycle. A killer whale named Tilikum languishes in captivity and, in an apparently paranoid state, kills his trainer. A documentary turns the story around; as a result, the whale’s captors find their takings and stock value plummeting. Cecil the lion is shot in Zimbabwe by an American dentist and the outcry rings around the world. A small boy climbs into a Cincinnati gorilla enclosure and Harambe, a 17-year-old silver­back, gets shot. The very fact that these animals have names speaks to the notion that we know almost nothing about them. What they want, what they feel, what they say.

These narratives – the identities we impose on animals – say more about us than they do about the creatures. People speak for primates and cetaceans. Opinion is outraged. Action is demanded. Yet we have never been further from the natural world. Most of us experience it only vicariously, through such news stories, or in lovingly crafted documentaries that leave us stunned by the beauty of other species but utterly helpless, apparently, to save them from a destruction that we have set in train. There was never a better time to ask: what do animals really think of us?

To the Belgian philosopher, photographer and artist Chris Herzfeld, it is clear. In her book Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris, she draws on one ape’s story to stand up, shakily, balancing on the back of its bipedal legs, for all the others. In wonderfully concise and restrained prose (translated from the original French by Oliver Y and Robert D Martin), Herzfeld lays out the evidence for primate culture. Her particular area of study is that of apes in human captivity, a shared history of species which has a three-centuries-old history in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here, and in hundreds of other zoos around the world, the boundaries between Homo sapiens and their nearest genetic neighbours are blurred.

Imprisoned non-human primates are “denatured”, she says: “false apes as opposed to natural apes”. Assimilated into our society, they have become unclassifiable and therefore problematic (hence the furore about the boy in the gorilla enclosure). From entertaining old French nobility – who would often be wearing their own fancy dress – to tracing their leathery, agile fingers over the touchscreen of an i-Pad, they “show a considerable good will in collaborating with humans”. Yet in adopting our characteristics (not least in popular culture, from the PG Tips chimps to Planet of the Apes), primates only underline the “fundamental trait of hominoids: ­plasticity”, an almost pathetic adaptability.

Wattana and her conspecifics can tie knots, using dexterous digits and even their mouths, in an almost abstract expression of art and craft. They decorate their captive spaces in simulacra of their wild nests; Herzfeld notes that in their native forests primates spend up to half their lives in such cosy shelters. She makes a telling point in noting how we give an anthropocentric account of their stories, observing that our natural history of apes focuses on their ability, or not, to use tools, disregarding their craft of such nests. This is an implicitly gendered bias, she hints. Biologists and other scientists, often men, rely on the “omnipresence of the tool”, a hard function, as opposed to the soft function of (home)making, of weaving, of fabrics. (Elaine Morgan, who revived the alternative evolutionary theory of the “aquatic ape”, faced a hostile reception to her ideas in the 1980s.)

Anthropomorphy may be a besetting sin for science; yet it also downgrades the experience and knowledge of the human keepers of captive animals. Their attachment to their charges is the “love that correctly reveals the kinship”, as Herzfeld puts it. If apes produce artefacts, then surely the most astounding notion in her book is that of an intrinsic aesthetic sensibility among primates. Chimpanzees are adept at creating art, painting and drawing if given the materials. They will compose and make marks, and consider their artwork with a degree of concentration that seems to indicate artistic expression.

Nor do they need the tools and media we supply. In Sri Lanka, elephants have been seen to draw in the sand with their trunks. For Herzfeld, this is an example of Funktionslust in other animals, “a pleasure in doing what they know they do well”. But is it art, too: a blackbird singing, long after the urge to reproduce has been satisfied; a raven exulting in its aerial acrobatics; a dog “excited by the tumult of the waves”; a bower bird painting its twig-and-leaf-litter constructions with sticks daubed in berry juice?

It is arrogance on our part to argue that these are mere mechanics. Darwin – who was disconcerted by the extravagance of peacocks – believed that birds have “a taste for the beautiful”. A scene in Wattana haunts with its potent poetry: that of Chantek the orang-utan, taught to communicate in sign language by the anthropologist Lyn Miles and taken out for an evening walk in the Tennessee hills. Chantek points up at the moon and asks, “What is that?”

Frans de Waal has been working with apes for forty years. As an ethologist, he too is keen to address animal cognition. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he turns the ­argument neatly on its head. He not only disregards the doctrinaire scientific scepticism about anthropomorphy but positively celebrates it, describing the isolationist attitudes of ­animal behavourists and their studies of “non-humans” as “anthrodenial”. (De Waal is inordinately fond of arcane terms – my favourite being “theriomorphic”, indicating the state of transformation from human to animal.) He makes clear that what was once regarded as the crucial potential in our relationship with other species – that they may possess the ability to use language, 
like us – is really not the point. Unlike the hopes of 1960s renegade scientists such as John Cunningham Lilly, who believed we might one day speak to captive cetaceans in “dolphinese”, De Waal’s accent is on more important assets that we share: culture, empathy, morality, even politics.

He draws these conclusions from his first-hand experience with primates. “I regularly have this eerie impression that apes look right through me,” he writes, “perhaps because they are not distracted by language.” His recurrent trope is the notion that we are set apart from other species. He reasons that this denies the process of evolution which led to us, and is frustrated by the argument that “human evolution stopped at the head”: that our brains are so far in advance of the rest of the animal world that we represent a step change in development which can never be breached or rivalled.

Previous experiments in animal cognition have been tainted by this approach. Primates are said to do less well in tests than children; yet when the latter are in the laboratory, they are accompanied by parents or carers, who inevitably give their charges unconscious clues that allow them to respond to the task in hand. Chimpanzees – which respond equally well to emotion and social stimulation – are left alone, without reassurance, and consequently do less well. We dismiss their wondrous ability to imitate us as “aping”, a pejorative term that would be better seen for what it is: an acute awareness of our otherness, and, perhaps, their own attempt to bridge that gap. De Waal draws on his own experience and a vast array of scientific papers to support his ideas. His book is rich and digressive, if occasionally repetitious and circuitous. It is certainly a significant contribution to the debate.

Carl Safina is a more obviously empathetic guide. In Beyond Words, he takes us out of the laboratory and the zoo and into the wider, wilder world. We encounter elephants in Kenya which are able to sense the distress of fellow elephants that are being culled hundreds of miles away. Much of what they are “saying” to each other is below the frequencies we can hear. Their calls seem to be transmitted through the land, the very soil; pachyderms have a sense organ in their feet which allow them to “hear” others of their species. In this sense, they feel the Earth of which they are – or were – an integral part; as if their monumentality were an echo of their abiding but dwindling place on a vast continent. Safina stitches together 
human and natural history in a telling, salutary manner. He equates the slaughter of elephants with the terrible trade in human beings: the ships that bore slaves out of Africa were laden with ivory, too. The same trade is still going on, in the same place: elephants killed for their tusks, human beings exploited for their misery – refugees, all. “And,” as Safina argues, “because of human expansion, no refuge is safe long-term.”

He seeks to write around this world – a world of wolves intimately linked by family and association, and one of orca (killer) whales, whose social units are so tightly bound and expressed that for the duration of their lives males will never leave their mother. Safina ends up on the north-west Pacific coast, where he makes his most ­direct plea for interspecies understanding as he watches pods of orcas surf through the waters. Twenty-five million years ago, he notes, they were “in possession of our solar system’s brightest brain. In many ways it would be nice if they still were.” Only people create problems, he concludes. Orcas have never been observed to use any violence on their own species.

Elsewhere, scientists such as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell – whose groundbreaking book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins was published in 2015 – suggest that it is because these animals live in such large social groups that they have developed a high degree of emotional maturity: a kind of morality, in order to regulate and codify interactions. Others note that dolphins have highly developed amygdalae, the parts of the brain which process emotion. The American philosopher Thomas I White has even suggested that dolphins may be more emotionally mature than human beings. (Insert your own quip here.)

But it is easy to slip into post-human utopianism. I know many people who would prefer to share their lives with animals rather than with their own species. Some even try to become wild animals in their own right. The question remains: what keeps us apart, and will it end up being the death of us both? You won’t find an answer in any of these three books. But you will find some vital questions. Animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings”, as the naturalist Henry Beston wrote from his Cape Cod shack in the 1920s. He saw them as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear . . . other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth”. Animals are our other, our fellow-travellers. For that reason, if for no other, we would do well to listen to them, even if we don’t want to hear what they say.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is published by Fourth Estate

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel  by Carl Safina is published by Henry Holt & Co (461pp, $32)

Are We Smart Enough to Know  How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal is published by Granta Books (336pp, £14.99)

Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris by Chris Herzfeld is published by University of Chicago Press (192pp, $26)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser