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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon