Education, Gaming, and Criticism

by Sam Z.

There are problems with arguments that lump a diverse population into a single, monolithic category. There are problems with arguments that have a self-righteous or condemnatory tone, as though it is the audience that has erred while the writer remains free from sin. But these are problems of rhetoric and presentation, and take a back seat to the writer’s point – yet it’s all the worse for the writer when his readers see red rather than his thesis.

Such is, was, and will likely be the case for Solomon Wong’s article on gamers and art. It depicts the gamer population as an irrational, immature, and choleric. The article’s final line, “Gamers don’t deserve art,” comes across like the last, bitter word at the end of a full-blown argument – bitterness that, given that he cites the more atrocious slurs used against Anita Sarkeesian, is somewhat justified. And so, whether he gives the more straightforward version of his thesis in the title – “Gamers have no freaking idea of what art is” – or its spiteful corollary, Wong does his argument a disservice by distracting the readers most in need of convincing by giving them an emotive way out of the debate. Because he’s right: most gamers, like most consumers of any medium, have no clear sense of how to dissect a work of art for themselves, and so have no idea how to go about approaching anything as though it were art. But I think that the root of the problem lies in a lack of education.

A few months ago, I was chatting with a friend who had just completed her undergraduate degree. Eventually, we got onto the topic of the one literature course she had taken over the course of her education: Women and the 18th-Century novel. I was disappointed to learn that the professor’s lectures merely regurgitated the books’ different plots, rather than a nuanced study of, say, Wollstonecraftian feminism in the literature of the time, or what-have-you. But I was not surprised, because it was precisely the same kind of tepid amalysis I have seen on first-year students’ papers, where plot summary serves in lieu of argument – as though a Wikipedia summary could stand for a thesis! These kinds of one-dimensional analyses showed not simply a lack of understanding with regards to the formation of an argument, but an inability to read the different short stories with an eye for detail – say, the repetition of darkness and blindness in James Joyce’s “Araby,” or even the ideological premise of Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen.”

An understanding of these kinds of details is not dependant upon knowing the context these short stories were written in. Rather, it comes with simply reading the text:

“North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.”

“Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

My point is not to give a reading of “Araby.” Rather, I’m trying to illustrate the idea of close reading – the process by which both the existence and the effect of individual details (words, images, sounds, meter, and other features of the text) are parsed and understood. Nothing can be known save for minute particulars, and so close reading is a way of understanding by way of small details.

The problem my tangent is getting at lies in the fact that there is a lack of education regarding just how to read a text, or a film, or a piece of music. We do not determine the worth of a work by plot’s broad sweeps alone – it is in little details, whether they be a couplet, a sequence, or the use of a single word. Think of this scene in Bioshock Infinite, and how the simple rewording of a phrase in the spiritual – “There’s a better home awaiting” becomes “Is there a better home awaiting” – manages to exemplify the hypocrisy of Columbia, that gilded heaven built on a downtrodden hell. It inverts the Founders’ appropriation of religious tradition by using an aspect of that tradition to question the official image of Columbia. It’s subtle, it’s clever, and it touches a number of themes present in the game. But, beyond and because of all the above, it’s a beautiful little detail dependant on the alteration of a single world.

Good art develops from these kinds of details moving in concert. Good criticism depends on the critics’ ability to pick apart the threads in order to see how they work. The problem is that it takes a trained or learned eye in order to know how to pick things apart, and to express how these details work, all in order to be understood. I am not arguing for a cabal of elite critics, but rather for the education that allows consumers to become critics. As ever, Film Critic Hulk summarizes nicely a common reaction to this idea with regards to movie criticism:

THE PROBLEM IS THAT WHEN IT COMES TO MOVIES WE HAVE THIS ODD HABIT OF THINKING THAT:

1) WE ALL HAVE A LEVEL OF EXPERTISE JUST BECAUSE WE ARE AVID CONSUMERS.

2) ACTUAL EXPERTS DON’T EXIST.

AND NEITHER OF WHICH IS ALL THAT TRUE. IT’S THE SAME REASON SO MANY PEOPLE JUST ASSUME THEY CAN WRITE A SCRIPT / STORY OR BE AN ACTOR WITHOUT MUCH EXPERIENCE (HINT: THAT DOESN’T WORK OUT VERY OFTEN). AND IT’S JUST A FAILURE TO SEE HOW MUCH OF WHAT THEY ARE ENGAGING IS ACTUALLY TECHNICAL OR BUILT ON EXPERIENCE. WHAT MAKES IT SO FUNNY IS THAT IT’S THE KIND OF THINKING YOU RARELY SEE IN SPORTS. NOBODY ASSUMES THEY CAN JUST RUN OUT ON THE FIELD AND STRIKE OUT THE SIDE (IF YOU DON’T LIKE BASEBALL, THAT MEANS “DO REALLY GOOD”). PEOPLE DRIVE EVERYDAY, BUT NO ONE ASSUMES THEY CAN JUST HOP INTO THE DAYTONA 500 AND COMPETE. BUT FOR SOME REASON WE DO MAKE THIS ASSUMPTION WITH MOVIES ALL THE TIME. WE ASSUME THAT JUST BECAUSE WE KNOW THE END RESULT OF HOW A MEDIA EXPERIENCE AFFECTS US, WE THEREFORE UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKED ON US. AND IT GIVES RISE TO ONGOING HABITS OF OPINION THAT MAY BE TOTALLY JUSTIFIED ON AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL, BUT THEY ARE NOT “RIGHT” IN THE WAY THEY ARE DIAGNOSING WHAT IS GOOD AND BAD. FOR INSTANCE, SOMEONE CAN DISLIKE SOPHIE’S CHOICE BECAUSE IT MADE THEM SAD, BUT THAT DOES NOT VALIDATE THEIR OPINION THAT IT IS “A BAD MOVIE.” IT DEPENDS ON A CRUCIAL UNDERSTANDING OF FUNCTION, NOT MERE EFFECT.

To pointedly paraphrase his last point, we can have opinions and then we can have entitled opinions, where the latter is informed by education, an understanding of context, and, above all, the ability to notice and pick apart bits of data. The idea that a proper critique can be formulated merely by an examination of the broad strokes – the plot, the thoughtless, visceral response, or the more superficial presentation of characterization – is unsatisfactory at best. I am not trying to create an elitist hierarchy of criticism or understanding, but neither do I think that my points are controversial or foreign.

But learning the necessary critical apparatus is a complicated task. To give a few popular examples from my own branch of the arts, Terry Eagleton’s new book How to Read Literature is but the latest attempt in educating the public. Behind it stands Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, any of Harold Bloom’s more popular (i.e., non-academic) books, and others. They’ll talk about items like allusion (a naked girl with an apple is never just a naked girl with an apple), prosody (iambic, dactyl, trochaic, spondee, and so forth), rhetorical devices (synecdoche, metonymy, simile, and irony), literary devices (metaphor, and its deconstruction into tenor and vehicle) and then talk about how they cohere and support each other in pursuing some greater form of beauty. They’ll throw in Greek terms – anagnorisis, hamartia, peripateia – that have served as archetypes and models for centuries. There is a vast ocean of terms, ideas, and details that supplement the dissection of any particular text, and the same goes for different branches of the arts like film, visual art, dance, and so forth. But at its core, any critical analysis requires an eye trained in close reading. And that only comes with practice, just as learning to read sheet music, guitar fingering, or language require practice to the point of internalization. Again, I do not think I am saying anything new here – I am merely trying to make clear the scope of the work that is necessary.

To be fair, I do not think that the problem of education or understanding is specific to video games. As the quote from Film Critic Hulk and other examples indicate, the problem is endemic to our entire consumer society. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series made her wealthy by addressing the concerns of adolescent girls: dating, boys, marriage, and childbirth. But the way in which she addressed these topics is horrifying; in her final book, being pregnant means having this little monster determined to eat you alive inside your body. The formulation of this theme is troubling, to put it lightly. We need to inculcate a culture that has an eye for details like this, rather than one that lazily gets caught in the current of a vicarious plot without examining whether the inhabitants of that stream are any good.

Again, I am not arguing for an artistic oligarchy, or for an aristocracy of critics. Nor am I arguing that there is a ‘correct’ viewpoint with regards to individual pieces of art. The point of a critical education is to better arm consumers, to train their eyes and gild their tongues so that they can form their own entitled opinions. Not so that they can see things my way, but in order to give them a voice of their own. Criticism is not a series of absolute dicta; it is a dialogue, a conversation. But in order to have either of those things people must know how to see, and then how speak, how to use the right words for whatever context they find themselves in.

And so here again I must take issue with Wong’s tone. It’s one thing to note a problem with the way a community views its medium. But righteous anger is not an appropriate way to go about pointing out error. We are not Christ in the Temple, throwing over tables; we are, at the very least, educators, trying to teach a distantly-familiar language. And so we need patience, and the understanding that not everyone can be taught. There will always be idiots, or those too wrapped up in their own selves to think that they might not be the measure of all things – let them mutter hatred or ignorance to themselves. Those who wish to listen will listen, and learn, and add new voices to the conversation, provided we don’t spurn them.

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