The Work of Criticism

Jumping straight out of my Twitter feed about THATCamp Games, I want to work a bit more on a reaction I had to a morning panel on teaching games in a higher ed class.

I heard a pretty strong strain of thought that naturalized the proposition that the first thing to do with games in a class is to interrupt the activity of play, to stop the fun, to compel students to a critical attentiveness to the content and experience of a game. The student who knows how to play video games well was taken to be a sort of pedagogical enemy, both because they ‘split’ the instructors’ attention between the skilled player and the students who have never played and because the expert gamer was taken as a figure who actually has few or no critical thoughts about their consumption of games.

The problem of a class with split levels of preparation, competency, or cultural capital is a real one that comes up in much of higher education, so I don’t mean to belittle it. But because it’s so common, it might be a good thing to not see as specific or special to games except in who has that expertise or cultural capital within a classroom.

But the idea of the expert gamer as a sort of idiot savant who doesn’t want to talk about games, doesn’t think about games as a critical subject, and who is having altogether too much fun with games to be trusted as a practicioner of criticism worries me. Here too I don’t think this construct is limited to games as a cultural form. There’s a mirroring construction in film and television studies, indeed, in the relation of most bodies and pedagogies of academic cultural criticism and communities formed around and through cultural consumption. Literature professors often encounter and complain about the student who arrives in their classes with a professed ‘love of literature’. We sometimes come to see our job as grimly breaking those blithe spirits on the wheel of the hard labor of criticism and dismissing them from our company when they refuse to come into the quarry and break stone.

We set our teeth to this bit first because we hold dear the notion that criticism is work because it has work to do, that criticism has a function which requires training to perform, which is desperately needed as a part of the critical transformation (or preservation) of some wider sociocultural project, and towards which there will be opposition. A labor to learn, a labor to enact, a labor to endure.

We also do it because something which is fun, pleasurable or passionate seems an easy target for elimination within the academy, or indeed any contemporary institution with limited resources and a productivist sensibility. Yet it is against this sentiment particularly that humanists so often howl in protest in other ways, resisting the idea that what they do should ever be reduced to its naked, barren utilities. Why then it should be so urgent to disrupt, prevent or spoil the experience of culture when it seems passionate, pleasurable or fun is something of a mystery.

Nor do I think there is much sense in making the expert gamer, the romantic reader, the artist who creates for personal satisfaction, either an enemy of criticism or absent of a critical faculty. “Expert gamers” engage in a great deal of criticism: it simply isn’t expressed in terms that are native to scholarly enterprise, nor is it often concerned with the things that earn academic critics their reputation capital. But there’s a lot of value in the discourse of expert gamers for academic critics, and I think academic critics would find that this door swings both ways: there are things expert gamers want to know that they would gladly look to scholarship to engage.

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5 Responses to The Work of Criticism

  1. Western Dave says:

    Any chance of getting a twitter link? I’m cutting and pasting the link into my twitter feed.

  2. SN says:

    “Why then it should be so urgent to disrupt, prevent or spoil the experience of culture when it seems passionate, pleasurable or fun is something of a mystery.”

    If it is fun, won’t people do it for free. If people do it for free, then why are they paying us?

    They pay us to do it after we have made it not fun anymore: Take that, novice! See if you want to do it when I have taken all the joy out of it. I EARN this salary.

  3. Bill Tozier says:

    You’re also reminding me that I have a similar frustration with “discussion” of the culture of engineering and related technical practices. In that, there’s also a huge and lively corpus of engineering criticism out there on the street… it just doesn’t ever get acknowledged as such, and tends to devolve into product reviews instead of filling the useful role big-C Criticism might have in that culture.

  4. Carl says:

    Agreed. I’m guilty of this in relation to freshmen who ‘love history’ because they were good at memorizing names and dates in high school; ‘history buffs’ who know exactly what various generals of the Civil War and WWII should have done differently and argue passionately about whether Hitler was a Jew; and reenactors who fetishize historical authenticity in the form of wool fibers and ball-tamping techniques.

    So right, why would I want to mess with their fun?

  5. K says:

    This makes me think of the well-known and published biologist that I worked with in the field.

    We’d been working diligently all morning in the rain forest when a group of howler monkeys came into view. So, I stopped to observe them for a moment. Similarly, I called famous scientist over when I was excited to discover a coral snake under our lunch cooler, and I paused to listen to the oropendula. None of this diminished the vast amount of data we were collecting, or how sweaty we both were, or how hard we were working. But, to “famous scientist”, my pausing to take in the natural wonders was a sign that I didn’t take this research seriously, and that I didn’t get the importance of said work. To me, failing to take in the beauty of the rain forest in the moments that you can actually be on the ground there would reflect shortcomings as a scientist and naturalist. Joy and appreciation do not negate understanding or diligence.

    Perhaps the key is harnessing enthusiasm into deeper understanding, appreciation, and mentorship.

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