This isn’t related directly to game spaces, but it is related to writing about games more broadly. Ben Abraham has just made a post about the need for more persuasive rhetoric in writing about games, and I felt I had to respond to some of his points.
What Ben seems to be arguing is that while analysis of games is good and worthy, it’s not enough. We need to be more persuasive in our writing about games, he says. Games writing should be more persuasive than analytical. But to me, that immediately raises the question: what should we be trying to persuade people of? I’m not sure I see that Ben answers this question adequately.
In fact, if anything strikes me as something we need to be persuading people of, it’s something relevant to the first of the questions Ben poses in making his argument. That first question is, “what is still the number one issue to overcome when writing about games?” Now, Ben’s answer is that the number one issue is the conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. But I see it a different way; to me, that question is already resolved in favour of subjectivity. My answer to the question, “what is still the number one issue in writing about games” is: “The resistance to subjective approaches on the part of a large and vocal proportion of those who play and read about games”. Ben links to a comment by ‘JONNY’ that rails against “pseudo art bullshit”, and a blog post by Zach Alexander that tries to defend this incoherent anti-intellectualism with what I can only call much the same brand of anti-intellectualism, dressed up in slightly more eloquent words. These are the kinds of voices who shout down any analysis of games that looks for deeper meaning that what’s objectively visible on-screen as ‘pretentious’ and ‘over-thinking’. If there’s any one thing that writing about games needs to be persuading people of, it’s that subjective analysis of games is valid, and that people like JONNY and Zach don’t get to decide what is and isn’t ‘bullshit’ without having some kind of critical argument to back it up.
The answer Ben gives to his second question identifies the computer science (and broader engineering) heritage of video games. And this is where I lay the blame for this anti-subjectivity anti-intellectualism. It’s tempting to call this a lingering resentment by people of an engineering mindset at being forced to take compulsory English classes, but it’s not very mature, or accurate. My software engineering background may be somewhat limited (I did two years of a software engineering major and fled), but I know all too well the tendency of engineering disciplines to insist on rigid definitions and formal logic, and to dismiss anything that can’t fit these standards as not objective enough. Though there’s a large and growing contingent of we who discuss games in more subjective terms and with deeper analysis, but the prevailing discourse around games is shallow consumer advisory, or technical analysis. Even those shallow consumer advisory reviews routinely argue that games are good because they use a particular graphics engine, rather than because they provide a compelling, meaningful experience or that a game looks good due to ‘the graphical power of the PS3/Xbox 360/latest PC graphics cards’ rather than because it has a well-realised aesthetic.
Ben goes on to highlight some examples of writing about games that he sees as disappointing for not being persuasive enough, and one particular example he cites is Jorge Albor’s piece, ‘Barbarians At The Gate’. I was also a little disappointed by that piece when I read it, to be honest. Not because I agree with Ben’s position that it’s too much analysis and not enough persuasion, but because I think it’s not enough analysis. It doesn’t go deep enough, it doesn’t explore the issues raised, and it asks questions without then going on to attempt to answer them. To me, the problem with games writing isn’t that there’s too much analysis and not enough persuasive rhetoric, but that too much of the analysis is poor or insufficient. I want to see more analysis, better analysis, deeper and more ambitious analysis. I see the hesitance to go further not as a limitation of analysis, but as a result of the cultural context in which people are writing about games: that same engineering heritage, resistant to subjective thinking about things they see as purely technical.
Persuasive rhetoric doesn’t need to be the enemy of analysis. Nor does it need to supplant it, or be encouraged as distinct from analysis. Instead, I’d argue that persuasive rhetoric needs to be used to support analysis, better, deeper analysis. What persuasive rhetoric needs is something to persuade people of. And what analysis needs is to be wielded more expertly and vigorously, enabled by persuasive rhetoric.