Imagining Decentralized Videogame Culture: Unprofessional Game Criticism

leeroy lewin

This first in a series on decentralized videogame culture.
What does that mean? It means a videogame culture of many different canons and histories, all equal through meaning. It means a videogame culture where competition does not undergrid all of our interactions. It means a videogame culture that avoids consolidation and institutional power as best as it can. Rather than organizing around fame, sucesss, and power, a decentralized videogame culture views game making as something people do, as inconsequential (or conversely consequential) as someone filming their cooking process, or someone writing sad poetry for no one else in a notepad app. An embrace of mundane game making. The de-nerdification of game making. The idea that all of us can make videogames and already know how to make videogames. Maybe not perfect feeling, industrial-made, commercial videogames, but videogames nonetheless.
Perhaps the sexiest thing about videogames is the fact that they are centralized, special, specific, professional. I will continue to do everything in my power to ruin that. To make game making as unsexy, and studious, as other mundane-but-fulfilling creative pursuits like creative writing, painting, photography, video-on-your-phone, learning guitar, and so on and stuff like that.
Most videogame critics are a specific, special kind of professional—most game critics are focused on Getting Paid. This is fine. I want to be clear that my critique does not come from a lack of understanding. Baked into the industry is performed whiteness, ableism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, tied together by colonialism, and ceding space in the industry will definitely cause these issues to fester. The mainstream should be contested and those who historically haven’t been heard, should be heard.
So, there is a clear way to organize. Lower the ladder and create new avenues in order to bring more equity to the game industry. If you are already “inside,” and by inside, I mean have access to resources that people on the outside do not, and nothing more conceptual than that, this is inarguably an effective pathway. Also, unionize, so these gains can be protected.
Organizing around Getting Paid means giving underserved people a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, there are no promises in this kind of work: an advantage is not a guarantee; we know there can only be so many successes, we know there is only so much visibility to go around. Getting paid brings everyone together, but without coherent values that make this accumulation more meaningful than survival, there is no “everyone” for people who are unable to make it or survive. What then should be done with invisibility?
Organizing around Getting Paid will also organize around the competitive logic of capitalist realism. Most of the time, problems exacerbated by capitalism aren’t going to be solved by more capitalism. Related, a lot of categories of games that end up ignored are non-competitive. There’s a lot of indie failures—there’s a lot of games that simply were shut out. There are student games and other kinds of games that are trying to break in. There are lots of dubiously legal games. None of these categories are well-served by professional writers or video entertainers whose job is to analyze and interpret popular culture, not mentor, network, or curate.
Where do we who do not have access stand? I have friends in and out of the industry, of course, but I don’t really have a good way in. This is not pitiable. This is entirely intentional. I haven’t worked for it and I’m not asking to have access by virtue of existing on the margins. I’m not playing by the rules of professionalism, and so, I do not have a professional career in the game industry.
This is also good. Why should I need any markers of being a working professional, if we are actually trading in artistic and cultural values, and not just the potential of landing a job? We are organizing around artistic, cultural, and political values, right? We are organizing around openly socialist, openly equal, openly anti-capitalist values, right?
Okay, I’ll lay off the guilt tactics, but, I’m noticing a lack of focus when it comes to organizing in gamedev and game criticism. Remember, there are verifiably mountains of valuable work that gets passed over by the game industry, “game journalism,” and most importantly, in my opinion, our extant game history. Historicizing is a pressing area of organization that cannot be conventionally be paid for in games. When it comes to issues of game preservation and historicization, a kind of work for which there is no paid alternative, should we just let the market sort it out? Excuse me, but I have to mark down a fuck no.
Given that there is a lot of valuable work that gets passed over, I’m not going to wait around to talk about it in a way that creates records, archives, and history, until it’s profitable to do so. This embrace of unprofessionalism and unpaid work allows for flexibility in what I get to explore and what I can topicize. It’s not glamorous, it’s barely activism, but I think these records should exist, even if the market does not deem them worthy of value
There are verifiably mountains of valuable work that gets passed over by the game industry. We know they’re not getting payment or recognition. Without some kind of dialectical opposition, they’ll never be recognized by the mainstream. In that light, should I organize a demand for myself, as a game critic, to receive payment or recognition, for highlighting these works that never will?
Given that there are verifiably mountains of valuable work that gets passed over by the game industry in a hobbyist, unprofessional capacity, it seems appropriate to match this work in an unprofessional capacity, rather than try to monetize or even capitalize on taste-making or scene-creating. I don’t want to be a culture vulture. I want to be a participant in an ongoing dialogue.
By refusing to incorporate these games into some kind of careerist agenda, to the extent that I have and can (I’m not an art ascetic, I’ll take $50 if you wanna give it to me), I attempt my refusal to replicate the dynamics of platform holders, who attach to whatever looks good in the moment, burying cultural and political context, burying harms, and burying workers. I hope to sidestep dehumanizing practices in game development through organizing around shared values, shared wants, and shared action. This can include seeking paid work, though it’s imperative to also include people who are working outside of that.
If we are committed to supporting marginalized artists, then we need to support struggling or failed artists, because these categories do overlap, and it wouldn’t be shameful to admit this if they were being received somewhere.
If we are committed to supporting a creative and artistically healthy game culture, then it’s also important that we support creatively flexible artists (and critics) who might be looking toward audiences in the future, or audiences of the past.
If we want to approach an accurate or representational history of videogames, then we should strive to incorporate game making practices that are beyond, beside, or within the dustbin of commercial or industrial game making practices.
To close this out, I want to emphasize that I do not believe in an obligation to do unpaid work simply because other people are doing unpaid work. What I do believe is that unpaid work has obvious advantages over paid work to achieve things that the market has yet to sanction as useful or profitable, things that will be useful or important in the future, based on art history precedent. There are important values that undergrid getting paid which also preclude being paid.
So, what I want to suggest is that unpaid artistic labors should be taken just as seriously as more traditional, transactional, audience facing work, as both being part of a shared arts culture.
published on 11/11/2020