You might call Kris Ligman a connoisseur of video game criticism. With two degrees in critical studies under her belt, she’s more than qualified to take a position on recent developments in the field. Having taken over for Ben Abraham as Senior Curator at Critical Distance, a clearing house for online discussion about gaming, she knows that field better than most. I spoke to Kris about the emergence of New Games Journalism and the role played by academia and online curation.
CultureRamp: It strikes me that you see most of the video game criticism that gets published online.
Kris Ligman: We definitely see a lot of it. Of course, we’re only as good as our feeds and what people send into us. Just this week we had a reader complain that he’d been trying to catch our attention for months. One of our other veteran contributors, Eric Swain, had to confess that really, these things slip by us unless they’re sent in because there is just so much being written.
CR: And it strikes me that the moment we’ve arrived at in the game criticism community is due in part to curation connecting people to criticism. Is that something you try to approach neutrally, or is there a feeling of mission at Critical Distance?
KL: I don’t pretend I don’t have an agenda — everyone comes into curation with a certain set of biases, mainly informed by their life outlook; it’s a matter of whether they choose to correct for those biases or not.
As much as I can I try to stay professionally neutral when assembling a shortlist for Critical Distance. I won’t, say, choose one argument over another based on what I personally agree with, but I will exclude a piece if I believe it’s poorly presented or adds nothing new to the conversation. Apart from that I am definitely conscious of promoting work from women, LGBTIQ folk and writers of color as much as reasonably possible.
I spoke about this in another interview, I believe it was for Second Quest, but I believe that, now that Penny Arcade Report has stationed themselves as being in a curatorial role, it’s Critical Distance‘s job to be what PA Report cannot be. And when you’re financed by a couple white guys from Seattle, and you yourself are a white guy determined to provide a service to games criticism that you believe has not been provided before… no offense to Ben Kuchera, but that’s about as in-crowd as you can get.
So I definitely think of Critical Distance as a place for what academics would call a counter-canon. We still include plenty of work that might get featured on PA Report, but I’m especially interested in signal-boosting work that major outlets wouldn’t cover.
CR: So is there a general trend in current criticism? What’s next?
KL: I would hesitate to say there is some presiding trend. You’ll notice that even each issue of “This Week in Videogame Blogging,” which I tend to organize as neatly by subject as possible, is always quite varied. The discourse depends on what new or upcoming releases catch critics’ eye, so if you were to ask me what will be a big thing soon, I’d say, well, just look at a table of major game releases. But that’s also an imperfect answer because there are particular games that have a critical longevity far in excess of their commercial shelf life.
To generalize, I do think we’re going to continue to see plenty of back-and-forth inspired by Leigh Alexander’s Edge piece, and a continuing conversation on what New Games Journalism is or isn’t. I will be very surprised if some of the military shooters on the horizon don’t prompt further reflections on the military-industrial-entertainment complex. But while these are pieces I definitely look forward to, I doubt they’ll take over the critical conversation as, say, the next Dragon Age II or Skyrim will. Because game critics are also game fans, and game fandom is hyper-focused on what’s the hot new toy, criticism tends to follow suit.
CR: Am I wrong in thinking that the community has really started looking at itself as of late, asking what its own role and responsibilities are?
To be fair it really depends on whom you ask, as many games studies academics will contend this is just a sort of (more) mainstream continuation of the conversations they’ve been having since the 1990s. But I would agree that within the last couple of years or so there has been an increase in introspective articles and what I would call meta-journalism. I’d attribute this to the ascendency of advocacy/watchdog blogs like The Border House, which criticize some of the seedier aspects of the game industry but, also, the gaming culture, and by extension game journalists, critics and academics. And I’d like to think Critical Distance had some part to play in the increased popularity of games metajournalism. Certainly PA Report and Polygon believe they do, but they’re rather new on the scene compared to us, all due respect to them.
CR: Have you seen a lot of changes in the gaming culture? I wonder if maybe we’re not looking at the emergence of a distinct culture.
KL: Well, we’d have to acknowledge first of all that “gaming culture” is a nebulous thing to define at best, and problematic at worst. Certainly we have several well-defined cliques of journalists, critics and academics, most of whom intersect at some level with lay gamers. I do think we’re seeing an attitude shift in a particular clique of game critics and journalists — perhaps egocentrically — who follow one another on Twitter, where a lot of the discourse happens. I don’t know if you saw Adam Ruch’s article on Kotaku AU about the gatekeepers of gamer culture…
CR: No, I missed that one.
KL: Let me pull up the link for you — it was a pretty good piece. And I think addresses some of the prevailing concerns many of us have with saying “this is gamer culture and that is not.” Ruch addresses a recurring issue which is that we tend to define “gamers” as those who play a certain type of game, and not others. Which unfairly marginalizes actually a large gaming population, especially [players of] so-called casual games. It also as a consequence tends to marginalize women who are cultured by society at large these days to avoid the “gamer” lifestyle that’s seen associated with popular console and PC gaming.
CR: Sexual and gender identity, in particular, seem to be a big part of New Games Journalism.
KL: Agreed. Traditionally even though women and LGBTIQ workers have contributed pretty significantly to the development of the games industry, they’re still pretty routinely marginalized, both in game development and in the critical/journalistic field. But, again, this is where I think the current trends in games metajournalism is pretty interesting.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum, of course. We absolutely should attribute much of the increased support for women and LGBTIQ folk on real-life advocacy and political progress. The fact that a major blog like Kotaku could do a complete 180 within a matter of months from being (to crib Lucas) “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” to one of the more progressive and pro-women gaming news sites, is definitely a reflection of greater-culture policies and shifting attitudes.
CR: At the same time, no one was forcing gaming journalists to keep up with those advocacy groups. A site as big as Kotaku might have felt some pressure, but there are hundreds or thousands of games critics pursuing that line of their own volition.
KL: I would agree, at least insofar as there are more and more game critics and enthusiasts simply starting blogs, period, whatever their social or political slant. But I do think we owe a great deal to folks like TBH or the Iris Network for getting this sort of feminist counter-community really off the ground in the last few years, and in a more mainstream sense, academics like Michael Abbott and my predecessor, Ben Abraham, for getting these blogs talking to each other.
CR: Was there a tipping point at which women and LGBTIQ gamers started really asserting their presence?
KL: It really depends on at what point in the timeline you really insert yourself into the critical conversation. For many it was the founding of the Iris Network. Arguably, with respect to the current discourse, I would say we owe a good deal to the ascendency of The Border House, which shares many of its members with Iris and was in many ways created as a deliberate response to what its founders saw as a straight white cismale privileged bias in existing curatorial websites.
There are many others I could mention– it’s really been a groundswell. But I think TBH‘s confrontational “we’re here, and we’re just as valid as the hegemony” stance was a real breath of fresh air. It gave many women, LGBTIQ and POC writers a place to go or a place to be signal-boosted.
CR: So is the role of criticism to open up the culture?
KL: As a curator I like to believe criticism can be a fairly open-ended thing. I think if you define opening up the culture as taking a critical look at systems (be they social, economic, political, logarithmic, etc) and asking how this either inflects upon us or we inflect upon it, then yes, I believe that’s the role of criticism.
I wouldn’t say that’s a prescription, however. I just think that’s what criticism usually ends up being, whether the critic intends it or not.
CR: There seems to be an internal debate among online game critics over what their role should be. I’m thinking, in particular, of Leigh Alexander’s recent piece at Edge and the discussion that took place in its wake. So is there a prescription?
KL: I think there is a tendency to be prescriptive. I won’t go so far as to say it’s something ingrained in humans, but it does seem to crop up a lot in communities that are or at least feel misunderstood by “mass” culture: “Don’t do this, you’re making us all look bad!”
CR: It has to be frustrating when you’re addressing what seem to you like unquestioned social problems and the response you get is, “Oh, cool! Video game-branded assault weapons!”
KL: I get where Alexander is coming from in her Edge piece, and while I don’t (or at least, try not to) take sides as a curator, I agree with the general sentiment that there is still a non-negligible chunk of games journalism that is contented to act like ascended fans and little more.
Personally I believe games criticism is large enough to handle all comers. Sometimes you really do just want the latest tidbit leaked out from whatever studio about some anticipated release. And then sometimes you do want something more analytical. At least for me my first taste of that was when Maggie Greene was doing her “Weekend Reader” feature for Kotaku, which was sort of a prologue to their current lineup of regular essayists.
I think the popularity of outlets like Kill Screen, which I tend to refer to as “gaming’s New Yorker“, also speaks to this craving for something higher minded. But just as the existence of The New Yorker doesn’t mean there’s no place in the journalistic world for celebrity gossip rags, I think there is nothing wrong with Kill Screen co-existing with gaming rumor mills.
Of course, that tolerance stops when either those gossip rags or the gaming rumor mills start perpetuating sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory attitudes, which is sadly common.
CR: Which seems to be a problem inherent in gaming so long as the studios are pushing out games that trade in those attitudes. Arkham City received a lot of attention on that point.
KL: Yes, but as many of my colleagues would be quick to point out, at least it is receiving that sort of attention now.
As several remarked to me when I expressed a lot of disappointment over the “Girlfriend Mode” debacle (especially David Jaffe’s unwanted two cents thrown in there), the fact that this is being criticized at all is significant, as ten years ago something like “Girlfriend Mode” would not even have [caused most critics to] bat an eye. I’m a little more dubious as I’m pretty sure feminism [in game criticism] existed in 2002, but I wasn’t a game critic then so I can’t say. As we’ve agreed so far, there is definitely a lot more critical backlash coming out of various publications than we ever saw in a previous generation, if not entirely in a different register.
CR: I remember reading gaming magazines in the early 90s, and things were entirely different — in part, I think, because there was no real online criticism to disrupt the economic model. Gaming magazines were much more strictly about selling games and distinguishing between games that were and were not worth buying. The death of Nintendo Power, which really started out as a form of marketing, is a touch symbolic in that regard.
KL: Which is still, let’s be honest, what many gaming magazines are oriented toward, and many online gaming publications as well, although I believe we’re seeing a shift away from that. Several major gaming review websites now don’t assign numerical ranks to games at all, even if they still boil down to a buy/don’t buy scenario. And it isn’t as though critics of those approaches didn’t exist in the early naughts, or even the 90s or 80s — they were just consigned to much smaller audiences, usually academic.
What we’re seeing, by and large, is a mainstreaming of approaches that have been academia’s bread and butter for several decades. Which, one could argue, is due to more academics getting online, and the democratization of core academic concepts and discourse that used to be held only in institutions and low-circulation journals.
CR: Is there a trade off there, or is it a wholly positive shift?
KL: Well, as a somewhat cynical academic — I would say “former academic,” but it’s like the mafia: you never really leave — I do feel it’s sort of a mixed blessing, but it’s getting better all the time. Academic tone and jargon can be extremely off-putting if you’re not accustomed to it. Many readers, even if they don’t write an author off as elitist, can still be rubbed the wrong way by the argumentative style that’s just part and parcel of how most academics write. And academics also have an embarrassing tendency to not define their terms, or believe their reader will have the same baseline of academic knowledge as they do.
This is a generalization, of course. Plenty of academic writers gear themselves toward readability. [Marshall] McLuhan did this. One of my favorite grad school professors, Henry Jenkins, is especially known for his accessibility as a “pop academic.” And I think accessibility as a writer is important regardless of your background. So while academic writers have plenty to bring to the critical conversation on games, I feel like many of them experience a sort of learning curve when they first start writing for a mass audience.
CR: And part of it is just introducing those concerns to the audience. No doubt there are plenty of gamers who aren’t giving much thought to the representations in their games.
KL: Right, and many more learned writers chafe at the idea of “dumbing down,” or “spoon-feeding” concepts to a broader audience, even though I believe it’s neither — it’s just being plain-spoken and methodical in how you approach your subject.
 AKA Beb Croshaw, who writes game reviews and criticism, among other things.
 AKA Bob Chipshaw, known for writing “close reading” style criticism of game culture at his blog The Game Overthinker.
 A derivative of the term “cisgender,” meaning any “gender identity where an individual’s self-perception and presentation of their gender matches the behaviors and roles considered appropriate for one’s sex.”
 Person(s) Of Color
 A controversy that erupted when a designer of Borderlands 2 described the lower levels of the game’s skill tree as “Girlfriend Mode,” and which was aggravated when Twisted Metal designer David Jaffe made comments that seemed to defend the phrase in even more sexist terms.