Tag Archive for criticism

Iron girls

'We are proud of participating in the founding of our country's industrialization!' (1954; from chineseposters.net)

I’ve been trotting through the history of Chinese women in the 20th century in preparation for a course I’m teaching this coming winter. Unraveling these narratives that have been put in service to nation building has been both a trip down memory lane (recalling the early days of my fascination with Chinese history) and diving into new-to-me secondary sources that have popped up in the past couple of years, while my attention was turned elsewhere. It’s been dovetailing nicely with other talk of gender, one that played out (for me, an outside observer) on Twitter and on blogs – I’m referring to THAT panel (“The Words We Use”) at Freeplay 2011, a games event in Australia.

[Some relevant links: Brendan Keogh’s take, Ben Abraham over at Gamasutra, a post by Searing Scarlet, and lots of other links to be gleaned from those]

It’s been interesting, as a woman-journalist-that-once-was – I’m not sure I still count among the illustrious crew anymore, having mostly been resting on my laurels for the past few years, but I was once – interesting and sad and irritating and all sorts of things.

I was never made to be uncomfortable at Kotaku – part of that was my own design (and listening to Ian Bogost’s admonition not to read the comments! – which I pass along on Twitter to this day), part of it was the fact that I generally shied away from writing about gender and sex, part of it was the fact that most of the audience (if not always the most vociferous) weren’t into making irrelevant, sexist commentary. I did do at least one long form essay on the subject of sexuality and gender, and I’m sure the comments were a mix of thoughtful conversation, some ‘What? This again?’, and a smattering of ‘tl;dr’ or ‘Maggie is such a pedantic bitch’ (I wonder sometimes if the vitriol that was occasionally directed at me for looking down on my audience and thinking Kotaku readers were stupid and generally being a stuck up bitch would have been lobbed had I been male; I honestly don’t know). I think I wrote that under the ‘Everyone must produce feature articles’ phase of my employment, and I had been thinking about eroticism in Chinese movies (specifically, the subtle foot squeeze in Red Sorghum (红高粱 Hong gaoliang) and the wonderful tension present in the Maggie Cheung/Tony Leung pairing of In the Mood for Love (花樣年華 Huayang nianhua)).

However, that was not my first brush with issues of sex and gender and games. My first experience with writing ‘criticism’ was on the subject of sex and gender in games; it wasn’t terribly sophisticated, but I was about 22, so I try and cut myself a little slack. It appeared on Slashdot, and the comments literally made me cry. I remember being too horrified and hurt to even look away. It probably was a stupid essay, and perhaps was only parroting things that had been said before (and better), and almost certainly wasn’t a shining example of the genre. But I had never in all my life been subject to the kind of commentary thrown at me (and never since – whatever one wants to say about the Kotaku comments section, comments were moderated to a greater extent and people did get banned). ‘Clearly she just doesn’t get fucked enough,’ or ‘Must be a fat, bitter bitch – anyone have a picture?’ – and on and on and on. It was shocking and hurtful and offensive.

Here I will say that I have absolutely benefited from privilege-with-a-capital-P – maybe it shouldn’t have taken until I was 22 to realize that people who didn’t want to engage with me on an intellectual level would simply hurl insults based on my gender instead, but the only place this has ever happened to me personally is when writing about games. No academic paper reviewer, no matter how monstrous, would return an essay with the notation that ‘Clearly this author doesn’t get laid enough and probably does not fit into culturally accepted standards of beauty, which is obviously impacting her ability to engage with post-colonial interpretations of subjectivity.’ I realize some of this is just the vagaries of the internet, but honestly. I bristle at the implication that comes out sometimes, the one that says that we should just get used to it, and things will change … someday. In the meantime, toughen up, cupcake.

I hadn’t killed any kittens or mugged any grandmothers; I had simply been audacious enough to write an essay that was linked by Slashdot. An essay about what I as a woman who wrote about games would like to see in the games that I played. The nerve I had as a youngster.

Even Kotaku commenters weren't heartless enough to insult the world's cutest pit bull

In any case, that early experience had a rather large impact on how I conducted myself later. I generally think I flew pretty under the radar. At Kotaku’s E3 party in 2008, I hid outside on the smoking patio, sharing a couch with Mike Fahey and an assortment of people who passed by during the course of the evening. No one recognized me – a strange position to be in, since everyone else I worked with seemed so visible, but not an unexpected one. I avoided putting a face to my posts and making things ‘too’ personal, occasionally in stark contrast to my coworkers. The only photographic evidence readers got of me was my bookshelf (unimpeachably academic and wonderful!) and my dog (way too cute to insult).

I wonder if any of my male colleagues, the ones writing under their own names, ever felt nervous about putting a picture of themselves out there for public consumption. I did. I posted one picture of me as an adult on Kotaku, and that was with my goodbye letter – I was already halfway out the door, if someone wanted to call me a fat pig as a parting shot, more power to them (no one did). Even my user icon was a game character and not a photo. I liked sharing bits of my life with the audience, but I never wanted to be too out there – and by ‘too out there,’ I mean using a photograph of myself, not spilling out my deepest, innermost fears and dreams on there interwebs – lest it could be used against me.

Yes, that speaks deeply to my own personal insecurities, ones that are quite independent and alive separate from the sphere of games writing, but nevertheless: that run-in with utterly inappropriate, extremely hostile, very-much-tied-to-my-gender commentary did have a significant impact. I couldn’t – still can’t, actually – imagine anyone using my male colleagues’ bodies as criticism of their writing: ‘Brian Crecente’s opinions are stupid because he’s unattractive’; ‘Simon Carless must be fat and bitter, that’s why I don’t like his essay’; ‘I need to see a photograph of this Ben fellow before I determine my feelings about his writing.’ No, I don’t think everyone – or even a majority – of people in the industry, or people who follow blogs and critical discourse, would say (or even think!) such things. But it doesn’t take much of a minority, just a vocal one, to drown out all the other voices.

It saddens me that we’re still having the same conversations we had years ago, despite what seems to be an increase in visible female writers and critics.

But I agree with those that say people are ‘tired’ of the talk of sexism, it’s all been said before, and any current debate will simply rehash that. I am alarmed by the notion that “gender will stop being an issue when we stop acknowledging that there is a divide.” There is a divide. Refusing to acknowledge the divide just means … refusing to acknowledge it (the author more or less contradicts herself a few sentences later & appears to advocate for people speaking up, but this sort of idea – that talking about an issue is what propagates it – is definitely in play well beyond the game blogosphere. I think it’s a lie, a dangerous one at that, and we should stop throwing it out there. Not talking about an issue will never resolve it, just make it easier to ignore). But I do understand the dislike of talking about it, and the exhaustion with the subject. There is fatigue that sets in as we go round and round in circles and nothing ever really changes.

There’s a fine line here, at times a contradictory one, but I think it’s one that we collectively walk every day in different permutations. I am a woman. I don’t want people to flatten that out and not see my gender (because what usually happens when gender magically “disappears” is categories collapse into one appropriate one, the default being heterosexual male, with differing experiences ridiculed or ignored), but that’s not the only thing that defines me, or even the most important one. But it is part of me. I don’t often think of my gender in relation to my academic work, for example (primarily because I exist in a comfortable, supportive ecosystem in my program). But I am always aware that my experience has been shaped to larger and smaller degrees by being female. It’s not the most important characteristic I use to define myself by far, but it is more than just a box to check on standardized forms.

I’m currently reading a collection of essays published by acclaimed women writers who grew up under Mao – Wu Hui’s wonderful Once Iron Girls: Essays on Gender by Post-Mao Chinese Literary Women. The experiences and ruminations of these writers – most of whom were once told they were “iron girls,” that they held up half the sky, that they were equal (and indeed, did do everything that men did and then some; but ‘a new woman is just like a man’) – is packaged neatly and tightly. Some of the essays are absolutely brutal; most will at least give the reader pause. I’ve certainly been examining my own life in contrast. Here’s the introductory paragraph by an essay by Lu Xing’er called “Women and the Crisis”:

In recent years, I have been thinking about women’s issues and written about them in a fiction series. I plan to continue writing about these issues in the future. Indeed, since ancient times, woman has never failed to be a topic involving prolonged, heated discussions. I am sure that women will continue to be talked about, in depth and forever. However, women’s situation and future will see few fundamental changes, despite so much writing, thinking, and discussing.

I said “fundamental,” not superficial.


I would like to think Lu is wrong. I’m hardly the poster child for optimism (if something can be worried about, I can worry about it like a true champion worrier/pessimist), but I would really, really like to think she’s wrong, both on a big scale and on a smaller scale like … the community that writes about videogames.

Here is a slightly more positive take on getting over the gender divide: “Androgyny” (which can also be rendered as “neutrality”) by Bi Shumin:

Androgyny is different from saying that women can do whatever men can do. This statement identifies women as a little boat managing to get close to the mens large ship. In contrast, androgyny is the lighthouse. Toward its welcoming lights both men and women move forward, helping and enabling one another, leaving no one behind.

I have been lucky in my academic career to not brush up against overt sexism from professors or classmates, as I mentioned above. Reading Katie Williams’ response to the Freeplay panel was painful – not because it reminded me of my own experience, but because it was so foreign, and no one ought to feel like that, nor should it be tolerated by those in a position of power. It underscores the futility of staying quiet. I wonder if we haven’t done ourselves a great disservice by distancing ourselves from the discussion, saying we’re not interested in those kinds of issues. I hasten to say that I would have no interest in focusing exclusively on gender issues, but sustained conversation could be a good thing – both in public and in more private (possibly ‘safer’) spaces. I’ve never had the opportunity to sit around with other female journalists and critics and talk about our experiences, and it’s something I would be interested in doing.

Obviously these issues go way, way beyond a conference in Australia and women who write about games. I hope one day, Lu Xing’er will be proved wrong. Until then, I’ll simply wish for thoughtful and sustained discussion on issues that impact all of us, female or not.

April showers bring May slugs & fierce debates

A more picturesque dream of sluggishness: Ingres, L'Odalisque à l'esclave (1839)

After a delightful two week trip to Beijing, I returned home to (quoting myself from elsewhere) “a horror scene of slug trails, dead and dying slugs all over the floor in my main room. Luckily I didn’t notice that one had been cruising around on my bed until the next morning.   I had noticed trails here and there on my carpet (but not thought ‘Oh, slug problem’) and caught a few parked on sponges in my kitchen a few months back, but thought it was an isolated issue. I thought wrong, clearly.”

It took several rounds of hysterical calls to my landlord and the dedicated efforts of his wonderful handyman to fix the issue (mostly).  And gross as it was, the Great Slug Infestation of 2011 (the first and, I sincerely hope, only time I will have to deal with such an issue) somehow spurred me out of my own, well, sluggish period.  The past 6 months haven’t been “as” productive as I would have hoped, but I’m back on track and not feeling as slow as the slugs that were having a field day in my kitchen.

Still, a couple of recent events reminded me that I’m pretty terrible at being immediately relevant.  I look in awe upon people who can magically whip up a response to writers and current events instantaneously – while I’m a pretty zippy writer, all told, it’s quite difficult for me to write unless a deadline is looming and/or a piece is writing itself.  I guess I’ve got a bit of slug in me, since in the past month I’ve had at least 3 hot button issues I’ve started to respond to & then simply abandoned.  OK, perhaps “abandoned” is too strong a word; I’ll get around to finishing them … someday … maybe.

The most recent was Daniel Cook’s “A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism” (its current form is an edited version of the one a lot of us first saw).  The original essay had me pretty frothy with rage for a few days, and while I sat down to write a response, only unpublishable snippets of text came out.  There were plenty of things I wanted to respond to with barely contained indignant fury – the slights against “game illiterates,” academics, all the other unworthies; the intimation that somehow, all those bits and pieces of writing that Cook disagreed with were crowding out stellar pieces of “worthy” game writing written by game literate people; the idea that fluffy humanities people were crowding out the “real” researchers (scientists); the arbitrary typology of writers that didn’t make much sense.  A lot of people jumped into the fray while I was sputtering up sentences here and there (Ben Abraham made a handy list), and said a lot of things as well or better than I could have (clearly).  But I typed away while cataloging archival finds, determined to finish an entry.

Then I thought … what’s the point?  Like a lot of these discussions, we’re chasing our own tail.  What Cook wants is more (better) writing for his particular niche interest (design and development); what I want is more (better) writing for my particular niche interest (not design and development); what we’re lacking overall is high quality, thoughtful writing that’s not geared toward niche interests.  Is there a lot of atrocious writing out there?  Yes.  Would I like to see a wider variety of quality writing, no matter what its thrust?  Yes.  Do I think poking sticks at those of us who aren’t designers or developers – nor, in some cases, particularly interested in writing about that side of the industry – is going to improve “game criticism”?  Absolutely not.  What Cook’s “call to arms” for people who “ought” to be writing “proper” game criticism is missing is a simple fact: a lot of people can’t write cogently, never mind thoughtfully and in a manner that holds the attention span of people who are interested in the subject.  While Cook points out that developing games doesn’t mean one can write about them, he pegs this as a problem of selecting one’s viewpoint.

… If only! There’s a lot of bad writing out there on all subjects.  Most pertinently for this discussion, there’s a lot of bad writing out there on games.  Period.  It’s not confined to academics coming from the humanities or eighteen year old fanboys.  I wonder how much time Cook has spent poking through the nooks and crannies of blogs on Gamasutra: there’s good writing, sure.  There’s also a lot of terrible writing on a wide range of subject matter.  Being “game literate” to Cook’s standards doesn’t mean being culturally literate and capable of writing to my standards.  It’s not that these things are mutually exclusive (obviously not, there are plenty of examples – including Cook! – to show that you can be quite technical and adept with language at the same time).  But as the blurb at Lost Garden says, “You’ve found a rare treasure trove of readable, thoughtful essays on game design theory, art and the business of design” (emphasis mine).

I also find the narrow view of what constitutes “game criticism” (and writing on games more broadly) troubling. Cook muses that “[in] all of this I sense an odd fear. What is so dangerous about being an engineer-geographer-historian-poet-lawyer? I only see benefits to the community as a whole. The only risk is that individuals comfortable in their current niche might need to change and grow.”  However, the assertion that there is one form of game criticism (discussion of game design from a design/ers perspective) that is more desirable, or intrinsically more valuable than other forms strikes me as the position that is cutting off possibilities that rise from the hyphenated “forms of being” Cook throws out.  I’m not running scared of developers or designers, and I’m happy to defend my position – I also think I have a record in the blogosphere that attests to the fact that I’ve been quite open to reading, writing about, and publicizing a really wide variety of writing from a number of angles.  I have certainly never advocated for a position that needlessly insults a number of talented individuals, regardless of whether I personally found their niches captivating.

I say that as someone who has been linked on Critical Distance (and used to write for Kotaku, “promoting” – or at least giving a bit of page space – to all sorts of writing that I liked very much, from Cook’s prototyping challenges to “I” pieces written by students and academics).  I don’t see myself fitting in particularly well to Cook’s typology of “game criticism”; I suppose the area that would come closest would be “Connecting games with the humanities: An academic exercise in which various aspects of games are described as being part of an ongoing structure of philosophy, movie criticism, literary criticism, art history, rhetoric, etc.”  Except that doesn’t fit at all.  On the most basic level (leaving aside Cook’s really narrow definition of what constitutes “the humanities,” at least based on that list), I’m generally less interested in writing about the experience of games than I am about the discourse surrounding games, just as I am generally less interested in the performative aspects of opera than I am about the discourse surrounding opera.  This is a position that opens me to criticism from a number of sides, which I’m OK with – at the foundation of research is doing things we enjoy and we find interesting.  I am not interested in picking apart design issues (nor am I qualified to beyond an experiential reaction).  Ergo, I generally don’t write about specific games in any of the ways that Cook lays out as types of “game criticism.”  A lot of people who Cook is, by default, taking aim at don’t – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have something to contribute.

Simply put, we don’t have such an excess in terms of really, really good writing that there’s not enough room for everyone.  Really.  Cook may dream of better writing of the type that he wants to see, to the exclusion of what he takes as useless noise on the internet; I dream of better writing across the board, better research, better understanding on the whole.  We can all enjoy our own niches without resorting to belittling the positions of others. Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer said it much better than I can:

I accept Dan Cook’s encourgement to deepen my understanding of games from a designer’s perspective, and I’m persuaded that I can benefit from doing so. I hope he and others will accept the value of experiential, comparative, theoretical and other forms of criticism as no less vital to the evolution of video games as an art form worthy of careful consideration from many points of view. I can tell you from first-hand experience that territorialism and boundaries of expertise have played pernicious roles in academia. We mimic those behaviors at our own risk.

[Finally, on a bit of a personal note. The following characterization of historians is quite possibly one of the saddest views of history (and the historian’s craft) that I’ve ever read:

I understand that there are people who prefer to be historians and catalogers of culture.  There is still room for both catalogers and people who dream about the future.

Some historians – not all, but a great many – are dreamers, and dream not just of the past but of the future.  Much of written history reflects more on the author’s present than on the past, and often points to a “dreamed of” future – whether we agree with that projected future or not.  I’m certainly not spinning my wheels in archives so I can simply catalogue a phenomenon; my hope is to do work that will say something about where we are now, how we got there, and where we’ll be going. So too with my work that isn’t “properly” historical: how can you dream of a future without understanding where you’ve come from and where you are at present?  Cook and others may not be interested in the work that many of us do, but that doesn’t mean we’re not dreaming and it certainly doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about the future.]