Saturday, January 31, 2015

On The Ghost of Formalism

A Few Brief and Subjective Thoughts on Form, Formalism, and Those Considered "Formalists," Or,  Dispatches From This Godless Endeavor

“For a non-debate, this can get kinda heated.”

Why Do I Pilot An Eva?

Quite frankly, I want to be writing a book about Final Fantasy VII right now. I was, in January, but then all this happened and this happened. These things seem to happen continuously in the games criticism community, and the result is the same: I am left doubting the value of my own work.

My work, which has been curated by Critical Distance, a blog dedicated exclusively to collecting good games criticism, and published on The Ontological Geek and in magazines like Five Out Of Ten and Memory Insufficient, all of which exclusively exist to compile good essay writing. Not reviews, not news, not any of the stuff you could dismiss as “fluff” even when it’s well-written . My work has been valued by groups of people who exclusively value quality essays and this is the state I am left in when phraseology like “childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes” shows up and makes me feel like none of my work, none of the ideas I’ve been building and expressing since I was a teenager, have left any impression whatsoever on the people who teach games studies.

Someone asked me recently whether these continuous feuds between “formalists,” my peers, and myself actually “get anyone anywhere.” My response was two-fold: firstly, no, usually everyone is spinning their wheels about their already expounded-upon approaches, and while codifying those things can be both fun and interesting, we’re not talking about games, we’re talking about theory. I like theory. I like games a fuck of a lot more. Secondly:

Asuka, why do you pilot an Eva?

To exhibit my talent to the world, of course.

You mean to prove that you exist?

Yeah, something like that.

Neon Genesis Evangelion,

Episode 12: “She Said: Don’t Make Me Suffer For Your Personal Hatred”

Hideaki Anno
I want to end this.

Zolani Stewart, who edited this article with others:

As another debate on formalism rears its head, games writers of various stripes and positions, mostly on the lower ends of recognition, income, and axes of privilege, ask themselves again: why does this keep happening? It’s clear at this point that the way established games studies academics interact with “amateur,” middle-state, noninstitutionalized critics produces nothing fruitful. This isn’t a symptom of the past two weeks but a years-long pattern, a “debate” long tainted with frustration, anxiety, microaggression, condescension, disrespect, misinterpretation and lack of any mutual understanding. Toxic interactions, and the old baggage of begrudged men thrown onto the laps of critics looking towards alternative approaches, mostly writers struggling for recognition and stability in a space that’s endlessly hostile towards their methodology and practice, mostly women and people who are not white.

So what is happening here? What can be done about this? Because it’s apparent that something is very wrong. And it’s apparent that there are dynamics at play here that aren’t designed to lean towards Austin, myself, or our peers, that there are terms in these “discussions” we have not decided but are somehow obligated to subscribe to.

Whatever the answer, I think I speak for many writers in the space I engage in that these shitty patterns have to stop. I want to end this, so I, like Austin, can move on to better conversations, and focus on better people, to be frank. But I guess before that can happen, there are words that still need to be said, and ideas that need to be made clear, regarding form, “formalism,” method, and the alternative critical space.

To My Peers: "Form" and “Formalism” Are Awful, Loaded Words.

When Brendan Keogh and Zolani Stewart talk about "form" they speak in completely different languages, and the problem is that "form" is so vague a word because it inherently includes almost everything. Based on a discussion Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky and I had on Wednesday, I’d have a hard time telling you what isn’t a part of “form.” Systems and abstractions are equal measures of form. I realize that this doesn’t make the truism “games criticism is bad about form” any less true no matter what angle you’re coming from, but all that that truism means is that games criticism is bad at a lot of different topics. Whether games criticism actually is bad at these things, or whether critics can be incredibly self-flagellatory is up for debate, but given examples I’ll cite later, I certainly doubt the former is true.

Formalism began as a style of art and music criticism that stated that you could determine the meaning of a work purely through it’s “form.” Before then, criticism would often rely on historical or autobiographical evidence to suggest the meaning of these works. A similar idea in literature manifests as The Death of The Author, wherein you’re able to derive the meaning of the text from the text itself. Film formalist study is more or less the study of film direction from a technical standpoint. that is, it focuses on form, but does not find it “exclusive” in the way painting formalism might. Games “Formalism” as it is doesn’t easily fit into any of those.

Holism Is Important, But Specialization Is Important As Well.

Critics who focus on facets of form other than “systems” (that is to say, what is usually understood as gamer input and haptic feedback,) do not claim a true and whole understanding of how a game works, what a game is, or what a game means, but ludocentric writing often claims that one can disregard facets of games outside of “systems.” This is, admittedly, more a quality of the commercial games writing that I see as descending near-directly from the ludocentric writings of “formalists.” However, when the need for an understanding of form outside of systems, especially narrative, is brought up, there’s Frank Lantz or Raph Koster again, showing up in your mentions, insistently reasserting the importance of systems. Regardless of what is intended, it is feels like shouting down worthy ideas and writers.

“. . . [I]f what we’re saying is so inconsequential, why is it being treated like it needs to be nipped in the bud?”

Lana Polansky on Twitter

This is important to me because I feel the only people whose approaches are ever accused of not being holistic are writers who specialize in “storytelling.” Likewise, I’ve read critics whose work is sold as showing a “comprehensive” understanding of a game that fails to show understanding of even the basics of storytelling.

Game Reviews, Being Ludocentric and Tech-Fetishistic As They Often Are, Are Actually Ultra-Concerned With “Form!”

If “systems” are a subset of form (they are), then by god game reviewers are some of the most dedicated, though not necessarily talented, formalist critics out there. The ability to assess narrative beyond the surface-level entertainment players enact is utterly non-existent in the commercial game review. The ability to dig deep into systems? On rare occasion lacking, as in the case of IGN writer Chris Roper’s infamous review of God Hand, and sometimes utterly boundless, as in the case of Kirk Hamilton’s biblical tome of a Destiny review published last year on Kotaku. This isn’t even to mention the incessant adulation of graphics, sound design, and atmosphere, all of which are formal qualities!
Despite The Impression Some Seem To Have, “Young” Game Critics Are Actually Quite Good At Assessing Form Within Their Work.
The problem of course is that what we call “formalism” has very little to do with form in any broad sense. “Formalists” are not concerned with form, they are concerned with systems. In fact, as Frank Lantz wrote in “More Thoughts on Formalism,” it seems to be the impression of formalists that ideas like “sound design” fall under an even more nebulous idea: “Content.”

Here are writers who understand form in a broad sense.

Here’s Zolani Stewart talking about the relationship between abstract painting and level design in Sonic Adventure 2 back in December.

Here’s Lana Polansky talking about how the tone and poetics differ between the television show Twin Peaks and the fan adaptation game of the show (which I might add assesses this change in tone almost entirely through the game’s use of mechanics).

Here’s Stephen Beirne’s ongoing project talking about meaningful cinematography in Final Fantasy VII.

Here is Mark Fillipowich on the camera as a formal element that obscures and bends understanding of spaces and objects.

Here is Brendan Keogh on phenomenology and the close reading as an alternative to traditional games studies approaches, and Lana Polansky pushing for similar approaches two years earlier.

I wanted to make my examples as recent as possible, but for shits and giggles, here’s my May 2013 essay about Metal Gear Solid that analyzes the gamer’s relationships between both the camera as their window into the game world, and the gamer’s autonomous use of the radar to guide Solid Snake through Shadow Moses.

There is an impression that form often goes ignored or underappreciated in the videogame criticism produced by younger writers categorized as “anti-formalists.” We see this sentiment in Raph Koster’s Critical Proximity talk, and Frank Lantz’s recent blog post. This is, plainly, wrong. It makes zero sense to consider those opposed to “formalism” as “anti-formalists” when what is being represented in this writing is simply a broader understanding of form.

Not all discussions about form need to be about formalism, because form isn’t the sole domain of people who call themselves (or find themselves called by others) formalists.

I Am No Longer In College Partially Because Games Curriculum Is Ludocentrist and Tech-Fetishistic.

Scholars, who struggled to establish game studies as a discipline within academia, chose to focus on procedural styles of play as a strategy for establishing an independent and legitimate field of study, but it was still a hard sell. Programming and animation courses, in particular, train laborers that are useful for a variety of creative media industries—not just the games industry. By combining play studies with programming and animation, a games curricula emerged that focused on games that are designed around both ludocentric and tech-fetishistic rhetorics.

To be a game design major at my college, you had to prioritize courses in art and programming, and the only required writing class was English Composition. To me, the purpose of a secondary education in games writing would have been to establish formal mentorship opportunities between myself and seasoned industry professionals. Programmers, artists, and systems designers have this opportunity. Those who wish to tell stories through the medium of videogames don’t, and this absence evinces a toxic environment for games writers, one where their work is devalued.

The fact that writers are often hired as consultants at the end of development, when a game is already near beta, when the bud.get is running out, reflects this. The horrid state of storytelling in commercial console games reflects this. The fact that both Anthony Burch and Walt Williams have left the industry within months of each other reflects this. That writing for games is discussed like fucking softcore screenwriting reflects this:

Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important.

John Carmack, quoted in Masters of Doom by David Kushner

There Is A Disconnect Between What Is Called “Formalism” In Games and Those Figures We Call Formalists, According To Them.

The impression that people seem to get from the work of games formalists is that “What a game is as an experience can be derived entirely from it’s rules and it’s systems,” a philosophy most notably laid down by Ian Bogost in his book, Unit Operations:

"(…) games create complex relations between the player, the work, and the world via unit operations that simultaneously embed material, functional, and discursive modes of representation."

The problem, as has been noted in every regurgitation of the long-dead ludology/narratology discussion, is that existing interpretations of Bogost’s work do not take into account how game developers choose to contextualize their mechanics through or alongside other forms: music, aesthetics, tone, or to move into even more abstract territory, “poetics” as Lana Polansky and Zolani Stewart put it. Their definition of “systems,” with regard to videogames, ignore rhetorical texts (of any kind) enacted by the gamer.

There are rules, conditions, mechanics—what is codified as “systems”—and that method/ology is seriously challenged by the the rest of the game existing alongside it. Narratives, scripts, music, tone, aesthetics, and poetics are each their own sort of “systems.” This confluence of systems creates an economy where each factor is contributing to a larger whole.

This is not a debate: games are everything inside of them.

[W]hen I frame it as “the coat of paint could be different” the underlying message changes to “the coat of paint doesn’t matter.” It can be easy to agree that the paint does not matter when so many games treat the coat of paint as if it does not matter, or as if it was just a coat of paint and not a painting, or if the coat of paint was not as or more important a thing than the game under it.

Based on things Frank Lantz sent at me after my initial twitter blowup about his article, this systems-focused view does not seem to jive entirely with, at the very least, what he wants to project as being his approach to games criticism, and based on Raph Koster’s talk that he gave at Critical Proximity, this also seems to not be the case for him either.

Quite frankly, I am a busy and, as of recently, a poor man, and I have to spend as much of my own time writing my own work as possible before I can take the time to navigate the distinctions between their idea and their intention. I guess what I’m saying is, I need substantive proof that this reductive approach isn’t actually the reality of how Eric Zimmerman, Raph Koster or Frank Lantz approach videogames before I’m remotely at risk of giving a shit. Lemme tell you why.

Games “Formalists” Do Not Have A Good Reputation.

As I came into this community a year and a half ago, formalism was a boogieman of prescriptivist statements about what is and isn't a game that revolved around what I've articulated as a "ludocentrist" rhetoric in extreme format, as embodied by Raph Koster’s infamous statement that Dys4ia, a game about trans womanhood and transitioning, was a “slideshow” and could be “made in powerpoint.” (I’d like to bookmark for the future that Dys4ia actually communicates it’s meaning mostly through it’s systems and minimally through narrative text, i.e, it actually fits a “formalist” design philosophy.) Regardless of one's interest in systems, it was and is a label to be avoided, and it became as such because the old guard of “formalist” games studies figures became known for some seriously asinine behavior on top of highly contested views on games.

You Can Draw A Direct Rhetorical Line From Ludocentric “Formalist” Approaches, To The Philosophy of  Commercial Games Reviews.

To expound, it is not a stretch to make a rhetorical connection between these statements, some of which are theoretical common statements often seen on forums, and literal statements by known and respected figures:

  • “A game’s rules and the affects and effects of it’s systems and mechanics are how we derive the meaning of the game in question.”
  • “Who cares if the story is bad? Does it play well?”
  • “Who cares if the story is horrendously offensive to minoritized gamers? Does it play well?”
  • “Fuck politics, I just want to talk about games.”
  • “This game is so pretentious, I’m really not even sure if it is a game.”
  • “What if it was me that was trying so hard to get something out of this walking simulator, that I had lost sight of the fact that it literally is a game about prancing around a lo-fi island for half an hour?” - Mike Rose, Gamasutra, February 2013
  • “I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game.” - Raph Koster on his blog, July 2012. (I want to make it exceptionally clear, for the record, that I am well aware that Anna Anthropy herself is not an unassailable example of greatness as a human being, I am merely discussing the ramifications of her work in games spaces.)

This is especially damning when Koster himself could be seen discussing with people from The Hashtag in public, on twitter, as though they ever had legitimate ethical concerns. He suggested diplomacy rather than the deserved and sustained condemnation The Hashtag has gotten from anyone who actually fucking gets it. This is despite the fact that it had been established within one week that all of the initial clamour about “ethics” was a haze for harassing women alternative games developers.

And while other figures who I have name checked here and more who will be name checked later did not nearly participate in The Hashtag to this level (and some were explicitly opposed to it) there has genuinely been a lack of acknowledgement of the ideological history that this harassment campaign is connected to.

When, as a critic or analyst, you invest your time and capital in the definition of proper form, your analytical projects are always, necessarily, about the inclusion and exclusion of both people and ideas within a perceived community. Naming ludocentrist rhetorical analysis as a thing is similar to the ways in which some will harp about what is/n’t a game is a political move that intends to disassociate particular critics or methods of critique from a perceived community.

However, these two discourses have radically different histories. In context, the naming of game (and play) is a persistent, ritual debate that has long-defined the professional careers of many white, older men. “Ludocentrism” is in part coined to respond to this, though in my initial definition I highlighted technical theory rather than sociological elements. Recognizing ludocentrist rhetoric is, thus, also about recognizing dismissive critiques that, ultimately, justify, validate, or valorize the otherization of “outsiders” or “non-gamers.”

The Formalists Have Good Jobs.

The simple matter is that the school of folks regarded as "formalists"  are being paid to teach games at schools with well-funded programs and write about them while others struggle. This is especially tragic given that it has led me and others to overgeneralize regarding “games academia” leaving good folks like Todd Harper flapping in the wind. Let’s be clear, institution is a big part of the problem here, but the shitty behavior and shitty ideas are emanating from a fairly specific group of people.

What amount of establishment my peers or I have been able to achieve has been entirely without the assistance of existing structures of game studies.

The “Formalists” Have Recognition.

Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman—who wrote the much-discussed article on the supposed “Ludic Century”—are both professors at New York University. Ian Bogost has a doctorate, is a distinguished scholar, tenured professor at Georgia Tech, and former-guest on The Colbert Report.

To their credit, their scholarship helped to establish a framework for my college game design 101 class—e.g., games must have rules and win states, and there are clearly defined categorizations between genres and subgenres. This, however, proved to be a burden. Throughout the course, my teacher was constantly contradicting facets of the curriculum to make important points about how centralizing ideas like “win states” otherizes works by marginalized developers, among other ideas—even going so far as to incorporate games by Edmund McMillen as examples.

Stephen Beirne writes games criticism that considers a variety of fields. He works full-time and takes Patreon donations. Zolani is building bridges between alternative games and arts criticism practically from the ground up, but still lives at home and struggles to find work. Lana Polansky, who popularized the actual term “games criticism”, remains a champion of multi-discplinary and interdisciplinary games criticism, but is still pigeon-holed entirely as a social critic of games, and she’s been around nearly twice as long as Zolani or myself. There are countless other stories.

This isn’t to conflate Games Formalism with all of Games Academia. The “formalists” are a specific group of people, and most of them are far better off than their diverse group of peers in smaller or less established programs doing work in less systems-focused areas of game studies.

There is, in particular, a lot more to say about the history of the “formalists” and their relationship with academia and the privileges associated. Todd Harper wrote a post on his Tumblr explaining a lot of it much better than I can, but to pull a severely relevant quote:

Being in a tenured professorship — or even a non-tenured one — carries a degree of social capital simply by existing. If you’re at a big name university, it’s enhanced. Frank Lantz works at New York University, and just having its name on your business card opens doors for you. I know this to be true personally, as I was very fortunate to spend four years as an employee of MIT. That name opens doors for you because it’s got a history of respect behind it. There’s also the issue of academic pedigree. Who was your dissertation advisor, or who was on your committee. Who have you read? Who can you cite? Who’s on your speed dial if things get weird? Social capital.

Not Being Cited Or Otherwise Engaged With Does Not Make Me Feel “Smart.”

Formalists have done a pretty bad job engaging either with the work of my peers or my self, or respectfully engaging with us on a personal level. Debate, or healthy discussion, is not born of abortive dismissal of the approach of less recognized and poorer writers under the guise of calling us “smart” and “young,” and in no memorable instance have noted arguments between formalists and other groups served to increase the stature or recognition of either party involved. Given all this, these conversations have existed purely to punch down at these writers and their ideas, lest a significant challenge to the status quo be allowed to manifest. I again cite the previously quoted tweet.

When talking down is not happening to me or my peers directly, it is also happening without a chance to respond. Frank Lantz’ recent blog post, discussing his views on formalism and largely disparaging narratological studies, didn’t even come to my attention till at least a week after it was published because it was not directed our way (or at least my way) by Lantz himself. It argues against the views presented in a Storify that cites me along with tons of other writers discussing “ludocentrism” and “ludofundamentalism.” What it doesn’t take into account is that the views, critical approaches and games canons represented by the totality of the people in that storify, each of whom I still find personable and many of whom I am friendly with, are often in constructive conflict. If you’ll read those tweets, for example, you’ll notice the first tweet is me coining “ludocentrism,” and then Stephen Beirne suggesting his “ludofundamentalism,” because he prefers it semantically. Lantz rhetorically links these contrary views together as simply people opposed to games “formalism,” and even invents the term “ludo-essentialism” to make this discussion seem more conflicted than it actually is. He sloppily and carelessly reduces a diverse discussion into a polemic that only serves his narrow rhetoric. Lantz carries so little respect for my ideas and the ideas of my peers that he can’t bother to even speak to us about our ideas in our own contexts and terms. He didn’t even try.


I won’t personally claim to feel harassed or discomforted as the result of people I don’t follow or who don’t follow me popping into my mentions, but close personal friends have reported these feelings of discomfort to me. That said, if I don’t name tag you, I don’t want to talk to you, end of story. This is likely because I have good reason. To prevent this from happening, see below.


“..[It] was so apparent, even back then, a couple years ago, that many of those people never took me or my peers very seriously, or our approaches, or the games we were interested in, but still took the authority to speak to us as if we weren't also critics/scholars. [...] Why do these folks continuously disrespect me and my peers yet expect me to care about what they think?”

Zolani Stewart, on Twitter

Engage honestly, or do not expect honest engagement. Here I have attempted to engage honestly, and that is something that has felt lacking not just in the most recent spats, but in more or less the entire short history of this time-sink of an ideological struggle. This is especially tragic as I feel I’ve made particular effort to know the value of the work these figures have produced, especially as, if nothing else, practical advice for developers looking to make particular kinds of games, especially with Raph Koster. These are probably people who young game designers could get good advice from, but the more time passes, the more toxic and hostile our engagements become, and it becomes impossible for me to seriously recommend their work.

I tire of finding myself constantly roped back into a frankly needless debate with people who are not actually interested in my body of critical writing or that of my similarly-minded peers.

Stephen Beirne, from the previously cited article.

Honestly, that being said, I don’t see that engagement happening any time soon, and I speak for many when I say I no longer have intention of continuing a “conversation” on terms decided by “formalists,” when the terms have always been decided by the “formalists.” This is establishing a boundary for conversation in a new context, an alternative context for games writing negotiated between myself and all of the other great critics who are alienated by this establishment.

Thank you for your time.

Austin C. Howe, Seattle, Washington, 2015

This article was co-edited by Zolani Stewart, Lana Polansky, Iris Bull, Claris Cyarron, and Solon Scott, sometimes with significant textual contributions. Please consider supporting Howe and Stewart on Patreon.