I should have learned by now: never announce an article that is not yet written. I will not answer (for now) the questions raised at the end of my last article. I want to write about videogames, but strangely every time I begin an article on the subject, I struggle with my ideas and come back to what I’m more comfortable with: cinema, authors, nature of art, Spielberg, etc. Maybe all those numerous re-definitions of what games are (or not) are confusing me, and now I just can’t grasp the concept anymore? I don’t know, but for now, I have an article on my favorite subject, criticism, which is going to lead, hopefully, to another one on videogame criticism, and we will then be a little closer to the subject – but it’s another not-yet-written text, so I’m not going to promise anything…
If it wasn’t clear already: I come to cinema and videogames through the perspective of art. Without directly addressing the “videogame as art” question, I’ll just say that I believe all videogames have the potential to be art, and in the end it’s all that matters. Likewise, not all movies can be described as artworks, but cinema has the potential to produce artworks, so for me all movies should be considered on that level. I don’t even understand what would be the point of doing otherwise, unless you have a very low opinion of criticism and just want to know where to invest your entertainment money. I guess many people are looking just for that, a consumer’s guide, but they’re the ones we should convince that there is more to cinema and videogames than a good way to spend some time. And I guess, also, that for most people this consumer’s guide approach makes more sense with videogames: after all, the first thing we associate with games is “fun”, as if there’s nothing else to look for in a game, or rather as if everything else is tangential to the “fun” factor (it’s partly true for cinema also, but we’re more accustomed to the idea of movies as something more than pure entertainment). Videogames are still struggling to be considered as a “serious” expressive medium, but in order to achieve this, the first step would be to offer good criticism; we have to prove that we can write about games seriously before we can convince an outsider of their value. All this has been said before in the last decade, and it’s not difficult nowadays to find meaningful videogame criticism, but I think we still lack a proper theoretical framing akin to what was auteurism for cinema, something that could reach outside of the (relatively) small videogame community. One could argue that this is exactly what New Games Journalism did in 2004, and while it is undeniable that Kieron Gillen’s manifesto inspired some important pieces of videogame criticism, I’m not sure it really helped to show how videogames can be important for people who are not a New Games Journalist.
This is not really surprising, since New Games Journalism’s philosophy is the exact opposite of the politique des auteurs: it asks that we focus on the author of the review instead of the author of the game, so instead of establishing some canonic videogames' authors, we now have a bunch of critics’ authors. It’s a very strange approach, I must say, of which I can’t quite understand the appeal: it seems the idea is to use these (apparently) autobiographical stories to show how videogames can affect someone personally, or to understand how they interact with our everyday life, with the underlying assumption that if a videogame changed our own life, then it must mean that videogames are important. Frankly, this is not the case: if a videogame changed your life, it doesn’t mean anything, except for you, and anyway almost anything can change our life in the right circumstances. For some persons, it happens to be a game, but it could be anything else, so what does it say, really, about games? Not much, but it does say a lot about the writer. Similarly, if a game made you feel something, it doesn't say much, because emotions arise for a lot of reasons, that may or may not be related to the actual mechanics and representational aspects of the game. The real question is why and how the game made you feel this, and what does it say about you, the world, the game, and the relationships between all this.
I could write a travelogue essay about my discovery and subsequent exploration of cinema, but I would never argue that movies are an essential expressive medium because of their interrelation with my own life; my experience informs my views on cinema, undeniably, but I do not need to directly transcribe the more intimate part of my experience in order to give meaning to my views. In a way, this kind of personal writing centered on the writer’s personal experience may seem related to what I describe in my first post on this blog: interpretation is subjective and based on our experience of the work, so there is as much possible interpretations as there are interpreters. “Experience” is a loaded word, appearing in almost every videogame reviews, but it’s difficult to know precisely what each writer means by this term. So, before committing the same mistake of vagueness myself, I’ll go a little technical here, and explain what I mean by “experience” and “criticism”, and then we’ll see how it differs from the kind of “experience” New Games Journalism talks about.
In his book Transfiguration of the Commonplace, art theorist Arthur Danto used a mathematical equation to illustrate how interpretation functions: I(o) = W. Simply put, there’s this object (o), unchanging, the same one each spectator will see, and this object once interpreted (I) results in the actual work (W). Minimally, we interpret as soon as we perceive, since understanding the story in a movie or what is represented in a painting already requires an interpretation. We usually think of interpretation as giving meaning to something that appears ambiguous or uncertain, like a David Lynch’s movie or an abstract painting for example, but even the simplest plot or representation needs an interpretation to be comprehensible (this blue spot of paint here is the sky, he killed her husband because he was jealous, etc.) The difference is mainly that a movie like, say, Inland Empire, generates more diverse interpretations than the latest blockbuster, at least plot-wise (a necessary precision because blockbusters can have a lot of hidden sub-texts even though the plot itself is usually as clear as possible).
Criticism is closely intertwined with interpretation: in general, we can say that criticism measures the worth of an artwork, while interpretation makes sense out of it, but in most cases these two operations cannot easily be separated. Since criticism evaluates the merit of a work (W), which is defined here as the spectator’s interpretation of the object made by the artist, we can say that criticism is a dialogue between a spectator and an artwork, between the critic’s interpretation (I) and this object (o). Like interpretation, criticism begins as soon as a spectator (or a player) is in direct contact with an artwork: crying during a movie is a form of criticism, just like laughing, sleeping, vomiting, thinking, smashing our controller in the case of a game, or any other reactions attributable, at least partially, to our encounter with the artwork. We can laugh for any number of reasons during a movie: because there’s a funny line of dialogue, because a situation reminds us of a similar funny event in our own life, because the movie is so bad that it becomes ridiculous, etc., and each of these reactions already contains an implicit appreciation of the movie; emotions are our first appraisal of our interpretation of what’s on the screen, although we won’t always take them into account in our final verdict (if you cry because a stupid, manipulative melodrama reminds you of a tragic recent event in your own life, you will probably leave that part out of your text) The critic’s job is to take this experience and explain why the movie made him feel those emotions, or think about these ideas, but his readers doesn’t need to know that he actually cried, or laughed, or went to the bathroom; the focus should be on the movie, on how it is able to produce meaning and emotions, not on what happened inside the critic.
By essence, an artwork asks for an interpretation because there is no art without an interpreter (in Danto’s equation, there is no W without an I). Criticism, when defined as an experience of an artwork, is thus a necessity; there’s no art without criticism. But the emphasis, here, is on the idea of dialogue, of an encounter with a radical Other: an artwork needs an interpretation, just like an interpreter exists only if he’s interpreting something, so an interpret worthy of his name has to interpret something else than himself. Coming back to Danto’s essay, an interpretation isn’t really one if there is no object (o), or at least it doesn’t lead to a work (W); it would be a tautology where I = I. Like I wrote last time while talking about intentionalism, a critic has to focus on the text in front of him, and not on the author’s presumed intention nor on the critic himself.
I guess my point of view on the autobiographical approach of New Games Journalism is beginning to be quite obvious, but I’ll just add a last definition of criticism, my favorite one, and a perfect, simple summary of my long explanation. Here’s André Bazin: “Truth in criticism isn’t defined by some exactness, measurable and objective, but first and foremost by the intellectual excitement induced in the reader: its quality and amplitude. The critic’s role isn’t to bring on a silver plate a truth that doesn’t exist, but to prolong as far as possible in the intelligence and the sensibility of those who read him, the impact of the artwork.” (my translation) A good critic is a guide, a simple intermediary who uses his knowledge and insight to illuminate an artwork for its possible audience, by underlining the artist’s work. In order to do this, a critic mustn’t step over the artist; on the contrary, the critic has to use his writing to let the artist speaks through it.
I'm not going to be the first one to say this (that bunch of links meant to show my agreement with Cameron Kunzelman when he wrote yesterday about the importance of quoting, or at least mentioning, the articles that inspired us in order to maintain a conversation with other writers): I’m not against confessional writing per se, but in general it doesn’t make for good criticism, mainly because videogames become a means for another end – a good end, I must say, since most personal writing comes from social minorities, and I do share their concerns about the restrictive point of view adopted by the vast majority of videogames and the discourse around them. From the perspective of criticism though, there’s a major problem here: when someone uses a private experience to talk about an artwork, the object (o) disappears under an interpretation (I) that can exist only in the particular circumstances describe by the critic, and then the meaning ascribed to the artwork seems superimposed arbitrarily. It’s a case of I = I, where the videogame is integrated in an account of the critic’s life until they’re undistinguishable. How the game produces meaning doesn’t matter anymore, on the contrary this kind of essay shows what sort of events lead the critic to found some meaning in a game, a meaning that may or may not be related to what the game is really about. Sure, like I wrote last time, the author’s intention doesn’t matter and the interpreter is the ultimate judge of an artwork, but that doesn’t mean that every interpretation is equally valid. An interpretation doesn’t amount to much if the interpreter doesn’t go out of himself to find it. In short, confessional writing rarely makes for good criticism, even if it can lead to valuable articles.
This kind of writing is not a problem in itself, but it becomes one when it is presented as an example of good criticism, and because they are by far the most popular articles about videogames on the Internet. I must say I'm quite concerned by this prominence of pure subjectivity, that sometimes explicitly advocates for a complete rejection of reason (I'm not even sure it's possible to separate Reason and Subjectivity, but it's usually how the discussion is framed, more or less consciously), because apparently we must get rid of that dreadful academic, intellectual writing (like, I guess, this article more or less belongs to). But publicizing privacy is pretty much the norm now, and it doesn't disrupt anything, on the contrary it is exactly what society expects at this point, especially on the web. I'm never shocked by a confessional article, nor do I find them disquieting, because I see this exposition of privacy everywhere, on Facebook, reality shows, autobiographies, in how we use our technological gadgets (Apple knows this better than everyone, with their emphasis on the I), on blogs, etc. The rise of the "I" in videogame criticism was quite inevitable, I think, mainly because videogames are part of the current technologies that are re-shaping society in a way that puts us further and further away from the world (it's a bold statement as it is, but I'll eventually come back to it), and because we play games, we enter in their world with a first-person perspective. But it doesn't have to be that way: like I wrote at the beginning, I come to videogames from the perspective of art, and art is far greater than the personal experience of any individual. Alas, confessional writing tends to reduce an artwork into one possible experience, and the artwork is engulfed by the writer's life, when it should be the other way around. My first post on this blog started with the question of the possible existence of a Citizen Kane of videogames; I do not think there is one, but even if there was, I'm not sure a New Games Journalist would be able to recognize it.