It is a truism in video game circles of serious thinkers that video games are a young medium and that we are forging new territory with our criticism. That is of course bullshit in both respects.
Video game critics are often cut off from other mediums. May perhaps that our medium is so new that more energy is required to get anything done as each new step is not just walking along a singular path among the fold, but having to stir and pour the concrete before a step may be taken. So much time gets spent toiling away on our own medium that we rarely look up and see the critical spheres of other mediums happening around us and the realization that so much that is considered with art is true for however an artist wishes to express themselves because it is all still human expression.
Non Play Criticism is my attempt to occasionally highlight some piece of criticism relating to another medium, educate whatever readership I may have by pointed it out and try and bring back into the fold whatever lesson it may have to offer.
If nothing else, I share an interesting piece of criticism from another medium.
First up: fashion.
A few weeks back on NPR’s book podcast, one of the stories was about Leanne Shapton, Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavitis’ new book Women in Clothes. You can hear or read the transcript of that particular story on NPR’s website.
The book is an attempt by the three women to take back the dialogue surrounding fashion. The present state of popular discourse surrounding it is frankly abysmal. We all have some understanding at the furtive edge of our minds of what its like to talk about fashion as presented both in popular culture and whenever it leaks into our normal daily routine usually on the tails of some award show where people are criticizing what was worn by the stars.
What was interesting in the piece was how such things as discussed in fashion magazines and by those who follow trends as paradoxically both elitist and superficial. As if with enough time spent on separating the one segment of the industry from another one ends up with a language that is inane and glib, everything siphoned down to a few points and presented as authoritative without cause of recourse.
After all, fashion magazines language can be both tired and patronizing:” “must-have outfits,” “do’s and don’ts” or “who wore it best?”
I don’t read fashion magazines and I can freely admit I pay little to no attention to what I wear and thus have little use for the concept of fashion. And as a guy, I’m not penalized for such an attitude. But I do recognize all of those phrases from skimming newspapers, magazine racks at the supermarket checkout and from flipping channels past celebrity gossip shows. As an outsider I know nothing about fashion and what little connection I may engage with doesn’t makes me care.
All of those bits are for those already in the know. “Must-have outfits” is a phrase for those who actually buy outfits and wear them on a regular basis. “Do’s and don’t” again are for people in the know for the sake of other people in the know. (I am wondering how many boxes on each list I’m checking off right now.) “Who wore it best?” Who wore what best? And what does best mean?
I’m sure any fashionista who reads that last paragraph will be rolling their eyes. “Ah boys!” the person will exasperatingly sigh, succumbing to stereotypes. However, none of these phrases that lead out what could generously called criticism of clothes lead me to think that if I read any these pieces I will be enlightened or educated. I know nothing about clothes and will continues to know nothing about clothes. Those who do, will nod sagely and continue on in the shadow of their industry tastemakers, parroting opinions. Anyone on the outside, whether they might be interested or not, are left by the wayside. They haven’t the build up of knowledge and experience in talking about clothes to understand the keys to the criticism. They aren’t in the know and they will remain not in the know. Meanwhile, what is a super elitist language of a culture has already sifted all the like minded into the inner circle therefore means that in depth analysis is unnecessary. Everyone already knows what there is to know. The basics engrained as accepted assumptions and baselines. The outfit matches the criteria and is given the thumbs up. Thus less is needed to be said and thus all criticism is boiled down to bullet points of authority.
Meanwhile, from the outside it looks incredibly shallow and meaningless giving a bad name to the medium as a whole. No new blood or interest enters the fray and so the criticism continues on unabated, catering to the hardcore audience. If one wishes to join that hardcore audience then one’s only education is through the assimilation of already accepted values rather than the fundamentals of the medium or the steps by which those accepted values came about. Thus bringing about a new ill educated generation with less understanding and more zealotry towards the status quo.
If it isn’t incredibly obvious by now what I’m talking about already, this is where the popular criticism of video games stands at the moment. Maybe not as entrenched as fashion is, from my limited perspective, but how far away are we really?
An elitist language of like-minded individuals gatekeeping the knowledge through approved tastemakers that gets boiled down into ultra simplistic notions of quality and merit. Where in the end our dolling of praise and public face to the wider culture looks pathetically shallow and super pedantic about what to outsiders are meaningless artifacts that no one else would care one wit about.
The cycle is what I want people to recognize. The cycle of a high specialized language built upon accepted assumption after accepted assumption, until all the questions have been “answered” and all that’s left if for judgment to be held and then paradoxically the highly specialized language gets boiled down into the bland platitudes and truisms all true connoisseurs can decode and understand. The cycle may be known, but cannot be clearly seen from amid the ebb and flow of one’s chosen medium. Look at it from the outside and the contours of the stream are clearly visible.
Thankfully Leanne, Sheila and Heidi have a fascinating and yet oh so simple solution. With a few simple questions, I was suddenly interested in the concept of the clothes I was wearing. The rest of the piece is explaining what they did to create an actual conversation around what people were wearing on their own terms.