Transparency for Critical Distance

Last week I was asked to take over the TWIVGB feature at Critical Distance by Ben Abraham. It was my sixth time. During the week I collected the links and pasted them into a word document for later aggregation as I always do and I began thinking about the way things are done with TWIVGB. I realized I had quite a lot of power over the content of each issue, even the ones I don’t write. That thought scared me slightly. If there is one thing I’ve learned, is having someone looking over your shoulder and calling you out is the best option. Then as the week went on a number of things happened that caused me to reevaluate everything. So this is going to be split into two sections. The first on a view of the process and the second on the particulars, using last week’s post as example.


The Collection

Every week since April 19th of last year Critical-Distance has put together a weekly feature collecting the best of the critical writing the internet had offered that week. That initial purpose has been stretched somewhat, at different times discarding the internet, week, critical and in certain cases writing parts of that mantra. Every week people send in links to Ben via twitter, e-mail, facebook and/or any other method of getting links to a person. Then he aggregates them. Sometimes he passes the responsibilities off to myself or so far Ian Miles Cheong, when he is either unavailable or too busy to do a good job. It is important to note that we do miss things every week. Even with our expansive RSS feeds (Ben’s outstrips mine by about a factor of maybe 100) and people sending in links plenty slips through the cracks. Whenever we find something has been overlooked we enter it into the next TWIVGB. Sometimes it was missed by a day, a week, a month or in one case half a year.

My point is we are happy to get suggestions, in my case a little relieved. I hate being a sole authority on something like this. The fact of the matter is, the audience of this blog and Critical-Distance’s TWIVGB has limited overlap. I have a tiny audience in comparison. In fact, most of the hits TWIVGB gets aren’t even from Critical-Distance, but from the feature’s republishing on GameSetWatch and Gamasutra, especially the latter. People who might have an interesting in critical game’s writing, but have not the time to look for it, to go to many different sites or even to wade through RSS feeds to get it. That is our real audience. There is a good chance that those who take an active role in game’s criticism, the majority of my audience have already read a good deal of the posts we link before TWIVGB ever gets published.

This is where I feel like I have more power on the content than I reasonably should. In any given week I submit anywhere from 60 to 90% of the links. I don’t submit everything I read, not even close. If I had to guess, I would say a little less than half. If I think it’s interesting and worthwhile to others I submit it for TWIVGB. Think about that, 60-90% of what I think is worthwhile and interesting.

This requires a little history lesson of about a year and half ago. Critical-Distance went through a period right after it’s inception where people thought it was in danger of becoming a closed circuit network and, to be specific, have a white, middle-class and male slant centered around certain people. These accusations and fears were not entirely unjustified. Near all the contributors and editors are white, middle-class, male and in time it dawned on us English speaking. The debate almost completely devolved into arguments and fighting with the end result being that a lot of the culture link round ups and debates disappeared and Critical-Distance shrunk it’s scope to critical compilations, now far more infrequent and TWIVGB, which has grown. It wasn’t all bad. At some point in that debate someone said something along the lines of:

Well if you don’t like it, give us something not white, middle-class and male centric.

Of course the intention was good, but absolutely put the wrong way. I forget the specifics and I know there were nuances, but I can’t be bothered to search for them. (They are available in the comments of a post somewhere in Critical-Distance’s archives.) It was understandably taken as a rebuke effectively meaning, “we are white, middle-class and male and can’t be bothered to write or include other points of view” instead of how I saw it as an admission of a weakness along the lines of “we are white, middle-class and male and don’t know anything else, please show us what we’re missing.” Thankfully a few of the commenters took it as a challenge or as something that needs fixing and in exchange for a smaller scope Critical-Distance, The Border House was born. A fair trade any day.

It was a contentious affair and is still going on in other parts of the web every day. I will not belittle it. Instead I want to head anything like it off at the pass as it were. Honestly, if I kept my mouth shut, no one would have noticed or complained, but I don’t feel right not bringing it up. With content creation there is the 99%-1% rule. Where dedicated 1% of users create the 99% of the content for everyone. We see this is mod communities, LittleBigPlanet and Critical-Distance’s TWIVGB. I’ve never been apart of the 1% before, but there is a difference between a mod community and TWIVGB. With the mod community it is a matter of a person or group of people creating what they want to create. With TWIVGB it’s a matter of revealing already created content for others. I will admit it; my references and beliefs of what is worthwhile and good influence what I submit. How could it not? It wouldn’t bother me one bit if the submissions was more proportioned among users. However, thinking about it more, there are times where a piece will get submitted more than once, from what I see on twitter, by different people. I do not know what Ben gets e-mailed, but that doesn’t seem the case for the most part.

Also, regardless of how much I submit, or how much the regular contributors submit we will not find all the best game criticism. The internet is just too vast and places that don’t talk about video games may have a one off that is interesting and insightful and we will miss it. A few weeks ago, the time before last when I took the reigns of TWIVGB I liked a work by a internet magazine about a solider and his reaction to the Call of Duty games in light of his tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t wait and posted the link for all to see saying they should read it immediately. I got this response some minutes later and I quote,

@TheGameCritique where do you find this stuff?

You want my secret behind being able to find such an out of the way and off the game criticism beaten path. Trick question, the answer is I don’t. The editor of the magazine emailed the article/essay to me, because he hoped I would like it enough to spread it to my readership. He overestimated the readership of my site, but got lucky with regards to Critical-Distance. (I ended up working that week.) I would have never found it otherwise. I doubt any of the usual contributors would have found it, nor anyone I follow on twitter. The source was just so far out of way at a site that had never published anything relating to games before and I never heard of before to boot. Without that editor, we could have and most likely would have missed it.

I tell this story to highlight a point. This is an instance where we found the piece outside our comfort zones; the places we frequent, the people who frequent us. How many did we miss all those other weeks? I don’t know, but I know we did. Just three weeks ago I found a piece that was back from December of last year. It was interesting and on a blog that has since gone quite, but a blog no one had heard of before. We posted it that week some 10 months late. It doesn’t matter. If we find it late and it’s quality we will post it, we’ve proven that, but we can’t find it all. Ben was one person doing it by himself in the beginning. Then he asked for help. Then for a few weeks out of the year he passed off the reigns to Ian and myself. It is an impossible task for one man to do. It gets no more possible with three.

I use my RSS feed for nearly all my blog reading. It is a central location so I can find everything simple and easy. I don’t have to go to the 100 gaming blogs in there (Holy shit it’s 100 even as of writing this.) they come to me. Of course a number of them are dead, retired, or just on extended hiatus. Plus, I’m adding a new one on a nearly weekly basis. New quality criticism blogs are being created all the time. Sometimes I find them and sometimes they find me. (My twitter/site name causes this to happen a lot thanks to google.) Daniel Golding’s Mapping the Brainysphere is woefully out of date as Ben points out and it’s less than two years old. But because of my method of reading and gathering there are limits. I can’t read blogs that don’t have an RSS feed no matter how much I want to. (I’m looking at you Psychology of Video Games.) I also lose out on the comments, because they don’t appear and I can’t click on each item.

Early on I made a conscience decision to diversify my RSS feed as much as I could. I went out and searched for different opinions, view points, backgrounds, and approaches to criticism. I follow people who I fundamentally disagree with in regards to games and only seem to argue with. Having a different opinion doesn’t disqualify you from my RSS feed. Not having one, a blog that has died, or not having anything to say are my only disqualifying requirements. Even then some of the blogs/site I follow have little to no critical component, but are a vastly different viewpoint and that alone makes them worth following. Some are writing experiments on a single game. Some are places to work out opinion pieces for other sites. I have a diversity of blogs from all over the world, opinions and backgrounds.

And it is not enough.

You could call this a plea to help with our search and get your own voice in the selection process by sending us links. But we say that almost every week. All I’m really doing here is notifying people of a situation. I paint it in as truthful a light I can and let you make your own judgment. Most, maybe all of you will be fine with things as they are and what we lose in the process is acceptable given the nature of the situation.

Now comes the harder discussion.

The Aggregation

The post was going to end there when I had first conceived of it last week. Then I was asked to wire last week’s TWIVGB. All was going well until Saturday when I sat down to compile it. I started early around 4 pm so I could get it done long before midnight EST, which is the usual target time. Or at least is the target as I perceive it. 12 hours later at 4 am I wrapped it up, posted it for editorial review and went to bed. This is the story of what happened in those 12 hours.

To be fair it wasn’t the whole 12 hours, I had dinner, walked away from the computer for an hour or so to stretch, had to pick up ice cream for my parents. But even so my first week, the largest TWIVGB we had took 3 hour to compile and post. I got faster and could do it in under an hour and half. Even the time I promised to do it and ended up going to Boston to sort out my graduation (because BU bureaucracy is three different types of pain in the ass), had no wi-fi and ended up stealing it from various Panera Breads around campus. Even then it took an hour 45. So what happened?

I had my list of links set up in one word document and I began writing in the other. I quickly reread some of them to group the related ones together. Then I checked and got Ben’s email of everything that was sent to him. Most of it was what I had already collected. There were some new additions as there always are. I opened them and read them. Then over the course of the hours a few more were sent in to the twitter account. That is where the problem came from.

There were a total of ten pieces not already in my list. Four made it in. If a suggestion comes in, 99 times out a hundred it is included if not this week then the next week if it missed the cut off time. I rejected six in one week, each for a different reason. That is probably more than double than all the other weeks I’ve ever done combined. Those ten posts cost me about 10 hours.

The four that went in consisted of two I hadn’t seen before, one that I had open in my web browser but hadn’t gotten to read yet and the three part interview from Gamer Melodico that I had read but hadn’t added. The first three are understandable and probably would have been on my list had I read them before. But I want to talk about Kirk Hamilton’s interview. I don’t really read interviews with the view of a critical mindset for submission possibilities. Probably because most interviews are glorified PR stints, but this one was sent in, which means someone thought it was worth enough to be included. I added it.

In contrast we have the other six pieces that editorially I felt were lacking and opted to not include them. I’m going to go one by one and explain myself. Again I could avoid all of this by simply keeping my mouth shut.

The first was this one about Activision’s oversight on a preorder bonus of 360 avatar costumes. It was discriminatory, but the piece was short and didn’t say anything about it other than the problem existed. It also has an update showing the codes Activison released when they realized their mistake. Sexism in the industry, even in something as small as forgetting to have female avatar costumes, is a problem. I see at least a dozen posts each week pointing out instances and the faults in each instance. The thing is, all these posts do is point out the faults. Very few go beyond that and the ones I recommend are the ones that are more than two paragraphs pointing out that such and such exists. Pointing it out and not explaining or exploring the problem is not enough. The thing is, there are a number of different points in the post that if expanded and connected could have given a great picture of midnight launch experience from her end, but she doesn’t. Had I found and read this post during the week on my own I would never have given it a second glace. But that wasn’t the case. It was suggested, someone thought it was worth the time to read. Remember for the most part this isn’t for the critical gaming sphere. I read it and reread it about half a dozen times debating with myself. In the end I thought that while yes it points out an example of a larger trend it says nothing about it.

Second was a review of Fable 3. I’ll quote Ben from the email here.

We don’t normally include ‘reviews’ under the heading of criticism, but have a look and decide whether you think appropriate. I leave the decision to your capable judgment.

Aside: I’ve gained a reputation within Critical-Distance for my somewhat outrageous reading habits, continual quality suggestions, weekly diligence and willingness to step in to help. I’ve gotten props within in the TWIVGB posts several times for my contributions in collecting. In one instance Ben included a piece he didn’t think was worth much based on my recommendation alone and said so in the post, saying “Still, the piece comes recommended by Eric Swain, so that counts for something.” He has a lot more confidence in me than I have in myself, to the point that I never suggest anything I’ve written because of…ethics I guess. End Aside.

Point being I read the review at least three times looking for something beyond a normal consumer review. I’ve included reviews before in my TWIVGBs, one making a satirical point about reviews and the other as an example of what a review could be. This one had an interesting idea or two, but does nothing with them. He states a feature of the game, says something interesting about that feature and then stays with it for exactly one sentence before moving to the next feature or thing the game does. A lot of what I read does this. They set up something about game, make a very interesting point and never explore it. And they always seem to be a point that could be a whole essay in their own right. It used to make me bang my head against the wall for the missed opportunity. Now I’m sort of used to it.

The next two come from Bitmob. They have a habit of submitting everything slightly critical from their site that week. So we take everything with a grain of salt and carefully read them. They submitted four pieces this week. Two made it in and two didn’t. The two that didn’t were about explaining why developers or rather publishers keep secrets when it comes to their the flow of information regarding their games and the other talking about death in video games. The former in my opinion was common knowledge and just a stating of facts, (don’t know if they are all true or not, giving the full benefit of the doubt) and the later is about such a well worn topic that not only manages not to say anything new, but anything constructive at all. Again it is a matter of listing facts, and then making an interesting a point before walking away from it instead of saying anything with regards to that point. I had to read it again to make sure I didn’t miss anything or there wasn’t a second page somewhere.

It really is noticeable, especially with regards to the other two pieces they submitted. One about a system of exploring the verisimilitude of games through the mechanic’s feel between the player, controller and game with an example to demonstrate. The other looks at the topic of betrayal, one not covered often, through the eyes of personal experience and the similarities between the feelings in what boarders on New Games Journalism. And no I don’t think either of those are exaggerations the big words make them sound like. They weren’t exceptional works that will be looked back for weeks or months to come like some I could mention that get reference again and again and probably would be included in an anthology, but they are worth including.

Finally we come to the last two, both from Electron Dance about amateur games. These were the time suckers of the evening. Both posts have something in common. Both are another type I see a lot of during a week. The here is a game, here is what it’s like, it’s really good, give it a try. They are the equivalent of the AAA press releases, but for indie/amateur game that no one has seen yet. Now these are the bread and butter for the independent, bedroom programmers towards getting exposure and I will not denigrate them one bit. As critics it is our job to find gems and point them out, but that is all they are. They aren’t critical; these posts point out a game’s existence and tell you what it is about. They don’t say anything about the game itself. Now the two posts in question do go a step further. The same step I mentioned above. The author makes an interesting point for a sentence or two and then walks away from it. Again this is like an IGN writer giving their two cents about a AAA game’s press release.

It didn’t help that the game in question were Marvel Brothel (NSFW), which I would have included despite the content if the post had said something about the game in any amount of depth. It didn’t help that by the time I got the link the game had been taken down due to copyright infringement. I will make no value judgment on a game I have not played, but it really would have taken some writing on the game instead of just about it to be included.

The other was about a game called Dungeoneer (NSFW, trigger warning for torture, trigger warning for rape, trigger warning for other vile things I’m not sure I have name for) had the same problems as Marvel Brothel in that it says little about the game before moving on. Again it’s okay to give attention to game, but not for a critical aggregation. I will admit there was a large personal preference in not including it for content. I was intrigued by what the game could offer as a unique experience, but I will never touch it with a 100 foot Ethernet cord if I can help it. I wrote and experimental game idea about torture for Blogs of the Round Table, and even that made me feel physically ill. I don’t want to think what a game like this would do to me.

Six rejections. This post is about editorship as much as anything else so I want to go a week further back and look at a blog post Ian Miles Cheong chose to include. It is about Minecraft as a secret Christian game meant to sucker the larger player base in to the word of the Lord. Now a Christian reading of Minecraft would be interesting in it’s own right. Criticism is as much as what you read into a game as it is what the game is about. I can understand some of the insight as legitimate, but some of it is just bat shit like the Alpha in Minecraft Alpha as a reference to Jesus being the Alpha and the Omega, when really it’s a software term for working first draft and as soon as Notch fixes enough bugs and programs enough features in will become Minecraft Beta anyway. Or the outrageous nudge nudge wink wink he gives Notch for secretly putting all this Christian stuff in to subtly win people over. The thing about readings is you can support most things. If I wanted I could say and support the exact opposite and given that he lives in Sweden, a country with a history towards Christianity and I could make a case, as stupid as it is. Also, this isn’t a joke post I looked at some of the rest of the site and the guy is as serious as they come.

I wouldn’t have included it, but Ian did. What does that say? We who write TWIVGB have a lot of power over the many, many people who read it for the articles. As much as I hate it, we are the gatekeepers. Our writing not only determines what posts get included, but also helps how many hits it gets. Which posts do you think get the most hits? The ones with quotes. I know this because one week I had three posts in TWIVGB all about inFamous. One got a quote. Guess which post got three times as many hits and the others. The size of the link also effects how many people click on it. A link that is a sentence is more likely to get clicked than one that is a single word. Of course, even I answer to people when it comes to TWIVGB. I have gatekeepers myself. What I write still has to be confirmed by an editor. I assume they read it first. Plus, like I said Critical-Distance is the small fry of the three places TWIVGB gets posted to. GameSetWatch and Gamasutra where most people get it from go through an editing process of their own. On one occasion my slightly snarky comment got cut out and another my editorializing went through as is, so I don’t know. There is nothing we can really do about this. A human being is still writing TWIVGB and these human beings have opinions. All I can do is be open.

I wrote TWIVGB, I rejected suggestions and I have explained myself satisfactorily, I hope. I don’t want to wish I kept my mouth shut. I leave the final word to Ben Abraham, the editor I answer to.

It’s a hard line to walk though. Between being comprehensive and also discriminating in linking to really quality stuff. Anyway, I need to go get ready.

One final note: I know what it’s like seeing one’s name recognized for the work you’ve done, and what a thrill it is to see something you’ve written linked like that even in something as small as TWIVGB. So please take credit for your work. Don’t make me hunt into the deepest reaches of your site for a name or try the Purloined Letter gambit and hide it in plain sight, but disguised. Also, I realize this might be an issue, but I like to know the author’s gender, so I’m not that guy, the guy who sees Sam and writes ‘he’ when the full name is Samantha. I don’t want to be that asshole.

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