literacy in small terms

max edits all the essays i write. everybody say hi to max, big round of applause to max, give lots of thanks to max. THANK YOU MAX

he put in a request though to do a little exposition on a common idea vextro treads on and around. we bring up like, games not being quite coherent and games not living up to an expressed potential. the best shorthand for addressing all of this is a statement starts to become a mantra. developers (or just as often inverse, gamers in interpretation) lacked the proper videogame literacy, and that’s why a game is. this a lot of assumed knowledge for my audience, and a lot of universalizing a concept that has no center, no core, no place of education. or I mean, you can’t go learn videogame literacy, so what we’re actually saying is that they “don’t understand videogames as well as we do” and that is pompous as shit. i don’t want to create hierarchies. i want this to be easily understood, i want it to be hopefully an accessible concept. i’m not the best at clarity, but i’ll put in an effort to explaining on my terms.

a lot of this is just paying forward ideas lana polanksy wrote in a response to ludonarrative dissonance as a concept making the rounds again. it hasn’t made the rounds much since. coherence versus incoherence is a really clear and direct model for a critic to adopt, though it’s usefulness is tied up with a critic’s desire to ascribe meaning or value to a work. which I mean fuck it, that’s what most gameswriters do anyway, so it’s a good model. my friend becky applied the framework what is a most comprehensive way, it flat out works, and it’d be nice to see a lot more people shifting away from the nebulous “the videogame is good because it makes me feel good and “the videogame is good because it’s appealing to the market” toward “this videogame is meaningful because of precedents in art and history, and I can prove it”

there’s some overlap in all of those models. value judgments come from trust and it’s easier to trust collective response, it’s easiest to trust our own good feelings. what i’m arguing is not against feeling, it’s against framing. singular hedonism, that X is good because it makes me feel good, sublimes X as the end point. and i think the endgoal of that is the exchange of service, to desire X and to make X desirable. market hedonism is self-evidently for the capitalist, it’s a metareflection on capitalist conditions, and it might be the most useful in a resigned sense. it is also the most boring.

granted there is no method that isn’t boring. there is no part of this that isn’t banally identifying things and sorting things and describing things. criticism itself is not glamorous work. what’s important is how much do we identify, which parts do we sort, and why we do it. i say this because i’m not asking videogames to go anywhere new when i speak of literacy. i speak of the study of aesthetics when i speak of literacy. it’s an old shambling thing, but can address a contemporary blindspot, when most don’t know how they feel about videogames, or how to talk about videogames, or if videogames matter. this framework can bring about conscious purpose, of criticism and discussion that can build up its fellows and create sustainability, by leading the question, by directing discussion with a sharpness. who doesn’t work with aspirations to improve?

so what does it mean to prove an alignment with art and history. what is historical hedonism? this is an expression of pleasure that comes from understanding context and place. it’s about what impact X has on a community, what kind of conversations it’s having with past and present ideas; it amounts to a weight of existence. i think it, of course, intersects with capital and markets, but it also has meaning without them. this is what’s being said when i talk of coherence. something making sense is not as insular as making sense in its individual context. it has to come from knowledge itself, it comes from learning and accumulation. coherence is something that’s predicated on context and history. it’s from a well of other videogames, of other writing, of any media, of life experience, that i gauge a new object’s meaning. i connect meaning, i spin of web of it, because meaning is all around us, existing invisible and inert until it’s given a name. criticism is making new meaning, but not of nothing. it’s taking meaning from meaning. it’s the meaning all around.

remember the experience of the first or second game you ever played, if you can. i wonder if it’s anything like mine. playing super mario world, as a 3 years old child, it was an erosion. it seemed as big as life itself, incomprehensible and impossible. i guess locked inside was whatever can alchemize into dreams. to me as a kid it seemed like pure volatile potential, partly because it was so difficult to finish a level, mostly because of how massive and alien the sensations were. gaming might be anti-development in a way. it overloads the mind and body with information, and then where does it go? anyway my point with this musing is that the experience of me playing super mario world as a child would make for lousy criticism. besides being a total struggle for words, it’d glorify mario as a kind of miracle, and essentialize what games are about. because it was the only game i’d played!

as mite condescending as this point is, i want to emphasis that there is no harm in learning about videogames by playing more videogames. actually playing games is the first step regardless, there can be no games criticism without games. approaching games with an open heart and mind, while being steeled appropriately for whatever awfulness that may lie within: that begins the loop of criticism. i can measure the impact of a game by other games i’ve played, i can trace a map of thought, politics, ideology, influence, by interpreting a connective web of works that i perceive to be in alignment. i’ve seen expressions from so-called critics again and again that old games do not matter or will not matter. as if a critic’s responsibility is not about context, explaining how we’ve come to be, definitively answering, creating meaning that stirs and compels and fixes a little bit that was broken. the present is only the past yet to be. so what do we gain by shutting out the past?

i do think it’s important for game critics to play games. literacy is not poptism, it’s not keeping up with trends. poptimism for now’s sake can’t create definite answers, it can’t create sanctuary, it can’t scry into a future. without connections to the past, there’s little evidence to speak definitively about the present, or future. without connections to gamedevs and artists, there’s no camaraderie, no shared goal, little connection. what’s your criticism for? why do you play games? figuring out those answers is an inseparable factor to what i mean when i speak of literacy. these questions are in a state of being answered and being nonanswers at the same time, but we have to try. literacy is that spark of purpose, it’s being confident and directive with pursuits of knowledge. it is not all important to play games. or, it’s imperative to have a focused, decided background, in the kinds of games that are interesting. it’s important to do research.

but games alone won’t generate or situate connections rooted in material or actual circumstance. yes game literacy comes from a recognition of everything that isn’t games. how great games aren’t. games are great and they’re not great of course, just like anything. or the fact is that games are just like anything else. cutting out myopia is essential to being whatever literate is, because it’s knowledge that’s situated in the world and in living, not solely hyperfocused, blunt, useless. I might be the minority that thinks that critics and gamers are doing okay. anyone leads an interesting enough life, we all have connections through and beyond videogames. there’s an impulse to make videogames a sacred space that speaks of itself though, to be escapist in framing and writing and purpose. but I think it is a matter of framing. I think the bottom collapses easily under conscious effort that all of this is just a part of anything.

the inverse is pretty easy to identify then. when someone gives videogames unhealthy importance, when they haven’t considered a past or future, when they care more about nostalgia than responsibility, I don’t think they have literacy of the form, and I don’t think they have genuine respect for it either. that’s all it is though. if anyone should strive for understanding, literacy, and working to a future, I think it is whatever critics are, whatever the thinkers and writers are. because what else is the labor good for? though it is a burden and it is difficult so I don’t think it’s necessary. but that is what I mean when I speak of game literacy. it’s not so much knowledge as it is attitude and responsibility. and still it is lacking.


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