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Games criticism as its own thing

The Critical Proximity games criticism conference in San Francisco. Leo Burke

I am currently in San Francisco to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). It’s the biggest event in the games industry, depending on what measuring stick you use. E3 in Los Angeles is the capital consumer trade-show where new games are shown to the press and the public.

The various Penny Arcade Expos are where a particular “gamer” community comes together to play games. But GDC is where tens of thousands of the industry’s developers and publishers mingle and discuss craft and share knowledge (and countless entrepreneurs try to sell middleware). Indie developers in hoodies rub shoulders with social media monetization experts in suits.

It’s a Mecca, of sorts, as everyone in the industry comes to San Francisco for the week because, simply, everyone comes to San Francisco for the week. It’s not rare to stumble upon someone in town for GDC who does not even have a pass for the conference. They are here to network and see their friends and attend the parties and other events held during the week.

Where the industry is, the press is. E3 is where journalists will see the new games, but GDC is where we get direct and intimate access to a range of developers without a PR handler lurking in the background. There is no shortage of press here – a reasonable number of whom are reporting simply to get access to the press pass over the expensive all access pass; writing a few articles seems like a better deal than forking out $2000 for an all-access pass.

So GDC is as important for many writers as it is for the developers it was initially for. Yet, the writers – the journalists and the critics – often feel like outsiders. There are no panels for our craft. We’re just kind of here, on the sideline, observing these developers. It’s something that has bothered me in recent years. As much as I enjoy GDC, I want to talk about our own craft, too.

This year, my wishes were answered. Not by GDC, but by a new conference, Critical Proximity, largely the brainchild of critic Zoya Street, appeared the Sunday before GDC to talk specifically about the craft of games criticism. In hindsight, it was the obvious solution that was just waiting for someone to actually do it: instead of waiting for GDC to accept talks on games criticism, we should have our own conference for our own craft.

And it was excellent. People spoke about craft, about community, about curation, about how to actually make money from your writing. There were discussions of the importance of writing in conversation with other critics by Zoya Street; discussions of “community” and the social activism aspect of criticism by Samantha Allen.

Zolani Stewart and Kris Ligman confronted the related issues of a normative canon and curation respectively. Academics discussed the issues with academic criticism; mainstream journalists discussed the challenges of writing criticism for mainstream audiences. A whole range of experiences and perspectives proved, above all else, that “criticism” is a broad term that covers a vast swathe of writers and intents, and that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It was a wonderful celebration of writing-about-games as not just the peripheral thing that happens “around” the industry and culture of games, but an industry and culture in its own right, with its own people and crafts and concerns. It was great to have a day that focused on us and what we do, before a week of being at the margins, just quietly observing.

The entire conference was streamed live on the website, and every presentation should be available for everyone to watch. Slides, too, are available to download from the site for most talks. If you are interested in the craft of writing about games, I definitely recommend a look.

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