Friday, October 2, 2015

Critical Switch: On Self-Respect

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I was talking to Omar Elassar on Twitter before I sat down to write this and he was pointing out that sometimes we use irony to distance ourselves from things that embarrass us, but that at the end of the day, he still eats Dorritos and drinks Mountain Dew while playing Call of Duty because, well, it's something he likes to do.

He tweets this out and I realize I'm sitting in a tanktop and pajama pants, there are three empty cans of soda on my coffee table, two of which are Mountain Dew, and the only thing I'd eaten in the past few hours was chips and dip. I own at least 50 videogames, but I brought less maybe 6 books with me to Washington when I moved, with my movie collection represented by a copy of The Room and an intermittent subscription to Netflix. So I'm a gamer loser I guess.

And honestly, the more I think about that, I'm ok with that. I'm poor, so this is the food I eat. I'm jobless [or, at least I was when I wrote this, heh], and more importantly, I'm a videogame critic, so I sit and play videogames a lot, and, yeah, I play games more than I read, more than I watch movies, and most of the time when I'm listening to music I'm playing fighting games anyway

Answer me this question and answer this seriously: what's wrong with that picture? Better question: is their anything wrong with that?

Subject to yourself at an experiment at my whim. Compare two images in your mind, a shelf full of books and a shelf full of games. Gut reaction, which one implies the person who is the person who is more politically invested and culturally educated? It's the book shelf, right?

As a community, videogame critics have done pretty well at moving past the discussion over whether games are an art form, but we still seem to have the same preconceptions of games as a trashy, craftless pulp medium that we had before those discussions really got kickstarted almost a decade ago. We reflexively see videogames as inferior either because game developers have yet to author the masterpiece that will truly distinguish the unique qualities of videogames as an art form, or because games consistently reinforce racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other social ills, or because gamers themselves are such terrible people.

Yet, as we've seen consistently, gamer culture is really just a byproduct or an offshoot of the culture that gave it birth. The worlds of film and literature protect sexual predators and excuse the worst of whiteness and masculinity and defend that as art, and yet we see this as a distinctive quality of games and games culture that makes games inferior to other forms.

Moreover, when critical thought is applied, videogames have produced that medium-legitimizing masterpiece every year since 1996, in my estimation, but I also get the feeling that if I listed out which games I thought were those kinds of masterpieces that no wide group of people would agree with any one of them because it seems as though no matter how good videogames often are, they're never good enough for us as critics to feel like they aren't irredeemable trash. [Not in the episode: We need only look to Phil Owen's recent Polygon article, outdated and useless as it is, still wrestling with problems long resolved by other critics, to see this in progress.]

Or, at the very least, there's a very serious conception among game critics that games still aren't “good enough,” and I don't ever see us getting to the point where we don't think that's true without a change in attitude, and I don't think that that change in attitude will come as the result of some game or some cultural event, I think it has to be a change in mindset.

The only reason I can imagine that we can look at this body of work, and say “this isn't good enough” is self-flagellance. In comparison to say, music or film critics, games critics, both as individuals and as a community, seem to have an incredible capacity to for self-loathing, and loathing either performed, ironic, or genuine for videogames themselves. This phenomena of critics who either appear or claim hate the thing they dedicate most of their public voice to isn't unique to games, as nothing is, (hell even professional wrestling has that kind of critic in Jim Cornette,) but in no other medium is that kind of self-hatred so widespread or so accepted as indicative of critical distance from the medium.

I should hope that the very existence of this show should be a direct contradiction to that instinctive lack of respect so many have for this medium and that we as critics have for ourselves.

From Olympia WA, I'm Austin C. Howe

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