Criticism and Criticism

So, Vox Day did an interview where, among other things, he talked about Gamergate. Dave Futrelle at “We Hunted the Mammoth” talked about a key part in it, at least to Futrelle. Day said:

… what Gamergate is fundamentally about is the right of people to design, develop and play games that they want to design, develop and play without being criticized for it.

Futrelle replied to that:

Which is an. er, interesting perspective, as there is in fact no “right” to be immune from criticism.

If you write a book, if you make a movie, if you post a comment on the internet — you should be ready for it to be criticized. Because that’s how free speech works. That’s how art works. And that’s how ideas work.

Criticism — whether it is positive or negative — helps to sharpen ideas and make art less self-indulgent; it pushes creators to hone their craft and expand their vision of the world. And it helps the consumers of art not only to look at art with a more critical eye but also to appreciate it more fully, by helping to draw out the more subtle meanings of this art and to put it in a broader cultural (social, political) perspective.

Of course, neither the artists nor the consumers of art are required to listen to this criticism, but they have no right to demand that such criticism be eliminated.

I think there’s a bit of equivocation on the term “criticism” going on here, because there’s a difference between being criticized for your project and being criticized for how you execute your project, and while the criticism that Futrelle defends here is the latter, I suspect that Day is complaining about the former … and that a lot of the people criticizing games, particularly from a social justice perspective, are doing the former, and not the latter.

So, then … what is the difference between the two? The kind of constructive criticism is the one that takes what your goal was into account and what you were trying to do, and analyzes and criticizes how that was implemented. So, if you were setting out to make a hard-boiled, noir-style detective piece, it would take that as a given, take the tropes as given, and look at how well you managed to achieve that. Knowing that you were aiming at that sort of work, it wouldn’t criticize the work for including the very elements that would make that sort of work, well, what you were trying to make it. It wouldn’t say that these sorts of works are terrible and so you should have done something else instead. It would look at how well you managed to do what you were trying to do, and how well that worked. Criticizing the project, on the other hand, would be arguing that the goal you yourself had and the work you were trying to create was not worthy of being created; you should not have set out to produce a work of that type. That’s generally not helpful in any way; it almost always comes across as someone complaining about a genre or sub-genre that they don’t like and saying that the creator should have, instead, made the sort of work that the critic likes instead … no matter how many people like that sort of work and regardless of the sort of work that the creator, you know, actually wanted to do.

Now, there are, of course, some gray areas here. It is a perfectly valid and useful criticism to say that the work should have been done in a different genre because it wasn’t effective at one of its primary goals. So, for example, I might be able to say that “Atlas Shrugged” should not have been written as a fictional/sci-fi work, because the philosophical elements make it not very entertaining fiction and the need to shoe-horn the philosophy into a fictional world makes it hard to really see how the philosophy works (note that I’ve never read the book and my only experience with it is through Adam Lee’s series on it, with is not exactly unbiased), but even there the main criticism is that the stated and known main goal of the creator isn’t being effectively met by the chosen medium and that they could have achieved that better with a different approach. What is isn’t saying is that a book advocating Objectivism is not something that any author ought to create because that project, in and of itself, isn’t one worth doing.

Which, then, gets into the Social Justice driven criticisms of many things, including gaming: they really often do come across as criticizing the project itself and not its implementation. From Futrelle:

Indeed, that’s what most #Gamergaters mean when they talk about fighting “corruption in game journalism” — shutting down those writers and publications that have dared to critique the prejudices of a backward portion of the gaming universe that is hostile to any challenges to the status quo ante — particularly from women with opinions different from theirs. That’s what drove the outrage over the “death of gamer” articles last Fall. And that’s what has driven “critics” of Anita Sarkeesian from the start.

The key here is that line about “a backward portion of the gaming universe”, and then to remember what the criticisms actually are. Sarkeesian’s biggest complaints so far have been about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and a couple of other ones. These are criticisms of the trope in general, not about specific instances. The “death of gamer” articles were all about how these backward sorts of games were going to all go away, without ever really saying what they were going to be replaced with, or what was actually going to go away. For the most part, the criticisms seemed to be about specific elements and genres and sub-genres that they wanted to go away, not about the implementation of those elements. And what I think Day is saying is that if someone, say, wants to create a standard and traditional damsel-in-distress, male-empowerment-fantasy sort of game, they should a) be able to be honest about that and b) if they are honest about that, shouldn’t be criticized for making that sort of game and not making some kind of Social Justice Approved ™ sort of game. If they say that they want to appeal to male gamers and not female gamers, that should, in fact, be okay, and they should not be criticized for making that audience their focus, beyond business reasons like “You’re ignoring a big market” or “You claim to be doing it because that’s what the audience is but, well, it isn’t”.

Now, of course, there is a gray area in here as well, because this touches on how people are represented in the work, and that can be a comment on presentation. For example, you could criticize differences in how a female Shepard is treated when compared to a male Shepard in Mass Effect — if there are any interesting differences — or in how men and women are, in general treated as a way to show how a different implementation could be more effective. And for any game that’s claiming to be general, talking about how the representations might look to women and how that might turn them away from the game is a perfectly valid criticism. But I think the key is how you respond to the game Scarlet Blade, which I think is obviously aimed at providing massive fanservice wrapped around a game. If you say that such a game is bad and should never, ever be made, and that the people who would make it are bad people, then I definitely think that Day will have a problem with you … and so will I. There is nothing inherently wrong with that sort of game, and it isn’t the case that such games should never be made. Scarlet Blade may or may not be a good game and it may not really achieve its goals, but someone saying “I want to make an explicitly fanservice game” is not grounds, in and of itself, for criticism. Or take Conception II. It’s a valid criticism to say that it is too risque for fans of Persona-style games and too tame for fans of adult dating sims and so won’t have a market, but it isn’t a valid criticism to say that the latter sort of games aren’t worth making.

So, criticizing someone because they want to do something you don’t like or don’t want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly isn’t general, helpful criticism of the sort that Futrelle talks about. So, then, the question is still open: should one be immune from “Activism Criticism”?

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10 Responses to “Criticism and Criticism”

  1. Crude Says:

    Vox clarified some of what he meant here.

  2. Crude Says:

    And to add: the problem most GG people seem to have with these people isn’t that they dare to criticize. It’s that…

    …They collaborate as journalists to make their criticisms sound like the voice of the majority, when they’re really just an incestual group of politically obsessed people.

    …They extend this collaboration to the indie scene.

    …They manufacture controversies to try and throw their weight around.

    …They demand censorship of things they dislike, and blacklisting of those who disagree with them.

    A good example (something that seems up your alley to write about) if outside the GG scene would be the recent Protein World ad. People complained, they signed petitions… and for once, a company didn’t just disagree, but outright told them off.

    What came next? The government decided the ad was sexist and barred it.

    That whole ‘we just want to criticize!’ thing is a joke. Their criticism isn’t meant to be airing their opinion, or even just trying to persuade people intellectually. They want to destroy their opponents, and the only reason they don’t outright ban things they dislike is because they sometimes lack the power to do so. When they have it, they exercise it to do exactly that.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I admit that I’m always bemused by the activists who go on and on and on about how bad something is and how harmful it is and how it needs to be left behind in order to make a better world … and then follow that up with “But, you know, I’m not going to BAN it or anything, so if you still want to do that that’s okay … I guess”. If it’s that bad, then you either really do want it banned and are just saying that to avoid claims that you’re trying to dictate to people what to do, or you don’t really think it’s as bad as your rhetoric insists. This only leaves you with an entirely passive-aggressive line of “Well, if you WANT to do something so terrible and horrible, I can’t FORCE you not to, you terrible, horrible person you”.

      • Crude Says:

        If it’s that bad, then you either really do want it banned and are just saying that to avoid claims that you’re trying to dictate to people what to do, or you don’t really think it’s as bad as your rhetoric insists.

        The only problem I have with that is I’m on record as endorsing a view like that, consistently – or so I think. For instance, I think Charlie Hebdo should be protected, as should Pam Gellar, but I think what they say and do is absolutely reprehensible. But it’s not the sort of reprehensible thing I think should be banned.

        But I also know how to detect patterns, and Team SJW is not taking up the view I’m talking about.

  3. Talk to the (Invisible) Hand | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] in response to Vox Day’s comment on Gamergate, over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia turned a comment by Marcus Ranum into a guest post, a post […]

  4. Roger Quill Says:

    May I then ask you if your position on Nazism and the ideology of the Klans? Certainly those would fit into your own category of grave ills. Would you therefore be inconsistent to not wish them to be under legal ban?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’m not sure who you’re directing this to, here. I was the one who talked about grave ills, but my whole point was that given their starting point about harm they really ought to want to ban it. Crude was the one who talked about supporting people being able to express even views that he considered reprehensible … but then your comment would be a rather odd change to lay against him, and given the examples would look to be an intro to accusing him of supporting or BEING those things, which is certainly not supported by his position. Either way, your comment doesn’t seem to address the two commenters, and of course, seems to have little relation to the post itself, as far as I can see,

      • Roger Quill Says:

        I think it rather does have bearing on it insofar as I think their is an inconsistency in the charges of you, or perhaps Crude more so.Certainly you would agree that the racist character of certain ideologies render such things harmful yet I’d doubt either of you would consent to a legal ban on propagating eithet.

        Pardon my ramble. What I am attempting to get at is that it appears insensible for one to work out that an individual believing something is harmful even immensely harmful should result in wanting it banned when personal experience indicates with your own beliefs would demonstrate it is not so.

        To borrow the terms here used, if Nazism is harmful and something which ought be left behind, certainly you at least would regard such sentiment as justified, would not these positions entail you should want Nazism and its products banned. If not it seems insensible at all to pursue the idea for those here objected to as having to want the propagation of that which they are opposed to to be banned.

        P.S. My apologies for double posting, I was not aware my initial comment went through. If you see fit can you please remove whichever comment you did not reply to as they are exact copies?

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, let me retrace the comment thread a bit there and expand it a bit. Crude commented, essentially, that their criticism wasn’t mere criticism or intellectual debate, but was aimed instead at, in fact, actually eliminating the thing in question — which is pretty safe when it comes to SJ criticisms of games, as they want those elements removed — and that the only reason they don’t outright ban it is because they don’t have the power to. My comment was that it always bemuses me to read them responding to comments that they want to ban or eliminate things from games that of COURSE they don’t want to do that how could ANYONE think that they want to do that when their reason for arguing against it is that it a) causes harm and b) causes the same sort of harm that they usually advocate for extra-legal and even legal action to eliminate. Crude then replied that it IS possibly to take the free speech line and say that you don’t support the views but support the right for them to be stated publicly and settled in the marketplace of ideas, but that he didn’t think that they were actually making that argument … which my clarification in this comment is aimed at making clear; the argument is less “I support your right to say/do these things even though I disagree” and more “I’m not going to get the law involved, but I’ll do anything else I can to stop you from saying that”.

        As evidence for this, note that a lot of the SJ line on free speech is restricting it to GOVERNMENT action, and saying that anything that a private organization does cannot limit free speech. This, then, includes firing people for things they’ve said that they disagree with even if it isn’t directly related to their job. But it’s a rather shaky argument to say, for example, that saying the wrong thing can get you fired but, hey, you’re not really limited in your free speech by the fact that your employment and therefore very survival can depend on making sure you never exercise your free speech in the wrong way. It’d be like saying that an employer can fire you because of your religion because, hey, freedom of religion only applies to the GOVERNMENT, not private citizens. No one making that argument would buy it in that case, so why should we buy it when it comes to free speech?

      • Roger Quill Says:

        Understandable. I for the most part disagree with issues of firing for off the job, at least, firings, although I myself, being an attendee of an explicitly ideologically Christian institution cannot agree to a total disapproval for such things.

        Pardon and thank you.

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