TYIVGB 2013: An Examination of Methodology and the Nature of Curation

This is the fourth annual This Year In Video Game Blogging and I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of such an endeavor. I have a few things to say about this end of year roundup and a few things about Critical Distance as a whole. They are divided into sections. Normally, I wouldn’t go to such extreme and just do a quick linking post with an interesting anecdote or two about its creation, but I feel there is more that needs to be said.

Methodology

Originally I locked myself away and ready every single entry linked to in TWIVGB, I couldn’t do that again. After some trial and error I think I’ve found a method I’m happy with. I call it the ‘slash and burn’ method of listing because I cut through the weekly lists very quickly and without mercy. I have to have a starting point and it has always been what was included in the TWIVGB roundups. The first pass over has me look at the description and new tab the ones I remember (not an easy thing from back in January, February or March) or those that look interesting enough. I go through all twelve months like this and I got a list of about 200 or so links, maybe a little less. That is a much more manageable number to work with.

While doing this, like I’ve done every year, I put aside certain links that are auto shortlisted. These are the pieces for one reason or another are going in no matter what. Either they summed up an issue or game perfectly, it was a huge deal throughout the year or otherwise is one of those pieces I’d end up having to answer questions from here to kingdom come on why it wasn’t included. Like if I had left out Killing is Harmless last year or the Dickwolves timeline before that. Interesting note, this shortlist was a lot smaller than in previous years.

Then I get to the work of going through the posts and adding them to the short list. Then I go back and fill in any holes. Like an important topic that needs to be addressed or a game that was talked about, but isn’t represented somewhere. Eventually I come to a general basic list from which to start working with.

I probably should have stressed this at the time, but this is where reader suggestions come in. As efficient as the slash and burn method is for getting something of this scale done – note: it still took three full days to get to this point – there are going to be some minor holes. Reader suggestions are there to fill in any gaps or point out something I may have missed or that TWIVGB may have missed, because that is my initial starting point. A lot of the time people suggest pieces that are already shortlisted, other times I get pointed to some great writing we either missed in the year or I missed on my pass through the round ups.

I was a little worried when I saw the huge drop off in suggestions from last year. From over 150 to 50 even. Maybe it was people taking my request to keep it reasonable a little too hard or maybe two weeks wasn’t enough notice. Or maybe, and I’ll get to this later, we are on the low end of a boom/bust criticism cycle.

At this point I had a good list of 90+ links and so begins the last stage of the TYIVGB roundup. I get together with Kris on Skype and we rundown the final short list, me pointing out the few I had questions on, her asking me questions on others and trimming any final pieces. And then ( I want to stress this because I got called out on Kotaku because of this and it stung more than I care to admit) I hand over the list of links of all my linked work and divorce myself from that decision making process. Kris is the one that decides which one or any of my work gets included. That Kotaku comment that called to disregard the entire list because of that really stings, because I go out of my way – to my own detriment – to never recommend my own work for any roundup. I have publicly stated this personal policy multiple times and stuck to it for 5 years.

Then I write up the whole piece as I would with any TWIVGB with the added part of the headings and summaries for each section. Which really is just me rewriting and rephrasing the summaries from previous years because I’m on a deadline. In this case I made one last correction. Normally if Kris questions a link in the final rundown and I can’t come up with a defense for inclusion it gets cut. One last link I defended and then it was ready to go. When it came time to write it I found I couldn’t figure out what to say about it and figured the inclusion wasn’t worth it. The author already had pieces in the list so I cut it. And I put in Micheal “Sparky” Clarkson’s 2013 14 critic round up because I had forgotten to include it for some reason. As I was writing it I was wondering where the link had gone, before I realized I had forgotten to include it.

I write all this down, because no matter how many times we say it or do our best work, our methodology seems opaque. Since the TYIVGB only comes by once a year it’s methodology seems even more obscure. This is the first time I’ve used the same system a second time and I think I’m going to stick with it.

Bias

Other than the presentation of complete and total ignorance, the highest starred comment on the Kotaku link post (thank you Patricia) is one that calls me out by name as the reason to disregard the entire list and… you know what let’s see it in full.

I had to immediately disregard the list after seeing the author, Eric Swain, list his own work. However, I did read the entire article and my first impression based on the subject matter of the articles and the repetition of certain authors — and the glaring omission of others — is that the list, and the site itself, is more of a cliquish, self-referential advertisement for a certain group of authors who are granted, and in turn grant, authority as “critics” through the cronyism of their own social network. It’s the same sort of closed-off, gate-keeping mentality that destroys credibility in any niche genre, publication or field.

Without any knowledge of what the glaring omissions are (he only commented the once) I can only speculate as to whom he is talking about. I could guess at a number of writers at more mainstream publications with whom he spends his time reading. I wont say that good writing doesn’t happen at such sites there ever, in fact we link to them all the time and more than a few over the year at the end of year roundup, but there is a difference in I wont say quality, but tenor. The audience is different and so the needs of the writing are different. As has been discussed recently, big sites need pieces that will get them hits from their audience. Good criticism generally does not get read, because there is not much of an audience for it.

As for repetition of certain authors, not everyone is Harper Lee and has only one good piece of writing in them. I’ve fielded this criticism before, the same authors get linked over and over week to week because they consistently do good work. Should I leave out a very well written, important piece that discusses a game or issue because they have another well written, important piece that discusses a different game or issue?

Then there is the accusation that we are ” cliquish, self-referential advertisement for a certain group of authors who are granted, and in turn grant, authority as “critics” through the cronyism of their own social network.” Ignoring the incorrect implication of “cronyism” and the implication that we somehow have that kind of power, it is a fair point. Do we stick to closely to the same spheres? Back during the inception of Critical Distance there was worry and outright accusation of limiting the scope of who or what will be included in the weekly roundups and other one off issue roundups that were done at the time.

Back then the solution was easier. Ben was hounded for time and what was recommended generally went in. The critical community was much smaller back then and our view of it much more limited. This worked back then. We tried to keep up, adding new blogs to RSS readers and expanding our twitter follows to new writers and sites. But as was true then and still is now, the internet is just too big. There is too much material in existence. Why did we not included that super brilliant piece you think should be in the roundup? If it really was that good, we didn’t read it. We never heard of it. We crowd source recommendations every week. Know on average how many people actually send in suggestions? For most of 2013 1-2 people. Because I’m dedicated, I’m one of them. By the end of 2013 thanks to Zach taking the reigns for two weeks, he realized how freaking hard the job is from that side especially when most of what was shortlisted were pieces he read. He managed to convince Mark Filipowich who began regularly submitting suggestions. Now the average is up to 3-4 people a week.

So what is our bias? Good writing that we have read. There are limits placed upon us by scarcity of resources. A scarcity of time and attention. This is not a job and even if it were a full time job with full benefits there would be a limit to how much more we could examine. We even made a full post instructing readers how to send in their suggestion of what they thought some of the best writing was.

Which brings me to the next and probably most important point.

Curation

It may not be the fastest way, but a way to learn about a profession is throw yourself into it for an extended period of time, where the forces of your position instil the pattern of behavior and understanding that goes along with it. I don’t know much about the day to day job of a museum or art curator. But I understand the methodology and philosophy behind their work now. It has taken five years and honestly if I had slowed down to take a breath and considered the distance I’ve traveled, I probably could have realized even sooner.

Curation is a craft and an art form unto itself. We make the mistake with lists in thinking they are definitive, because so many are framed so poorly. Essentially TYIVGB is a Top X list without the numbers used to frame inclusion. In fact, the more I think about it I’m glad I never quite set the end of year roundup as a definitive list of only the BEST writing of the year. Curation is the art of saying something by virtue of what you include. The adjective I use far more in relation to it is “representative.” I try to gather a large stable of links that together paint a picture of the year. We have standards of quality, but we aren’t wholly ruled by them.

For example, imagine a scenario where I have two superbly written pieces on the same topic and say almost the exact same thing or really do say the exact same thing. In addition, I have another piece that is really good on the same game or issue, but a completely different aspect or takes it from a different direction. Do I include the two superb pieces that say the same thing or choose the better one and the really good one with a different point of view?

Now it is different during the weekly roundup. There is less of a time span to be considered and we can be more general with what gets in, but when you are trying to cull over 1300 links down to under 90 or so, one must become picky, more economical. It is like in writing. The best writing, while not necessarily simple, is economical with not a word wasted.

You can see our approach to this over the years. As writing has gotten better over time with many new voices entering, as curators we at Critical Distance have gotten more discerning. Our standards have risen. Look back to those early roundups and think about if many of those pieces would be included were they written now. Some would surely. But there are many which don’t pass muster as standards rise. Back in the day pieces would get in for expressing interesting ideas. Now I believe it is execution that matters. Interesting ideas and points are necessary, but by themselves do not constitute good work.

At the same time, the roundups aren’t just about highlighting good work. They are a snapshot of time. Of this week or in this case of year 2013. So what does TYIVGB 2013 have to say about 2013?

2013

It was during the process of writing the actual text, when I came to the end where I always write a paragraph summing up the list. Usually it’s just thanking people, repeating aphorisms about all the great work that came out and close it out. In fact, the first two years had it slip straight from the list to the close out with audible clunk. Last year we inserted the Blogger of the Year recognition section. Previously, it was always a sort of unofficial thing. Just something either understood in private while going over the links or something mentioned off hand during the roundup itself. Now with its own section it means that close out gets its own section. Header and everything.

As it dawned on me I realized this is where I sum up the year. I put the final cap on the whole shebang for Critical Distance. Who are we to “in turn grant, authority as ‘critics’”? We are the editors of Critical Distance. We have spent long hours every week reading everything we’ve come across. We are those who chuckle to ourselves whenever anyone in or out of the “cliquish, self-referential … group of authors” make sweeping statements about the state of game criticism. We have as close to a birds-eye view as is possible in the critical community. We see the landscape.

It takes more than just to read a lot. And I can guarantee any one of our editors reads more than the average Kotaku (read any mainstream video game publication) commenter every single week. What ends up in the roundup I estimate is about less than a tenth of what I read at least every week of long form criticism for consideration. It takes more than just reading. It means reading with an eye for inclusion. It means reading with an eye for the larger landscape. We do this, because week in and week out we pay attention to what is written or otherwise produced and see the subtle changes in trends and focus of conversation.

With that in mind. With that overhead look and turning my attention back to January and turning it all the way over to December. I have 150 words or so to sum up 2013. Honestly, after I wrote it I thought it would get me more ire than anything else in it. And that’s if Kris didn’t take it out or substantially change it. But no. It stayed in and no one has said a word on it. Maybe that’s because no one reads any part of our roundups that don’t have a blue link in it, but I like to think it’s because overall I nailed what this year felt like.

This was the easiest and for all the time I put in, fastest roundup yet. At one point I was wondering why the short list was so small. In previous, years it was all about cutting links left and right just to get it under a hundred  over multiple cycles of rereads and cutting. To say nothing of the long discussion of from the final shortlist to final outline of the 80 or so we published. This year the shortlist never reached a hundred links. There were no multiple rounds of pruning. In going into the final section I think Kris and I cut only 5 links in what had to be the quickest Skype conversation we’ve ever had.

I feel like we were on the down turn of a cycle. Everyone waiting for something to come or spending their time getting into position. Places everybody, places! as the theater stage hand would say before showtime. My fear was that expressing this would mean I felt this list was lesser than previous years that would be a slight on the writers within. Instead it was a reflection of how relatively easy it all came together and how little extra there ended up being on the periphery.

Personal

At the end of the day this list is not the definitive list. I can say that with conviction this year, because it really isn’t. Previously, it was the definitive list by default because it was the only list. Now we are just A definitive list. Probably the one with the most clout for what little that is worth in our niche, but in the end it is just an opinion. Curation is a craft, an art form, and therefore carries with it the same baggage of its creator that it always has. There is no objectivity. There is only subjectivity tempered by limitation. Limitations of starting point, limitations of time, limitations of memory, limitations of self-reflection and limitations of taste.

A small example: I am far more disposed to video content than my fellow editors. I also listen to podcasts where as my associates do not.

In this end, this list is my view on the year at Critical Distance. I don’t even know what an objective list of the best writing would look like. I limit my own inclusion by keeping my stuff separate from everything else until the very end. I have someone else choose for me if at all. That is the best I can do.

TYIVGB 2013 highlights more than just my view of the critical community. In a way, the aftermath of its posting showed the critical community’s view of me. If the metrics and how many times the link got tweeted, favorited and retweeted on Twitter are any indication than within a matter of hours this was by far my most read piece of the entire year. It says something, when my most valued work of the year is ultimately a Top X list of other people’s pieces.

Like many before and after me, I had delusions of starting to write criticism and be one of the first and best. That was until I found a community of like minded individuals already in place and had been so for quite some time. Even as bare bones as it was back then or at least seems so now, I was walking into a space already brimming. I’ve pretty much given up trying to quote/unquote make it. I still write and I’ve got a wonderful position at PopMatters where I can do pretty much whatever the hell I want with that space. But all the theory and criticism I do pale in comparison. If criticism is a conversation between creator and audience, then I always seem to be shouting into the wind with no one listening. I feel a long, long period of no feedback at all is worse than negative feedback. Nothing stops any behavior faster than getting no discernible feedback.

I’m grateful for all the interest and enthusiasm for the round up. I’m not knocking any of it. I just have to come to terms with the fact, my ultimate place is as the Uatu of the video game critical community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>