Why Critique Has No Home On The Internet
I certainly have a lot to talk about today! Between reactions to a tweet I did on Monday about hate, to how people are reacting to my Jennisodes comment on mediocrity (reactions from Rob Donoghue, Greg Christopher), to, well, I have a laundry list of topics. I’m going to roll the first two together.
I mentioned my thought on hate, which in its compressed, unnuanced made-for-Twitter form, was:
I will now propose the Macklin definition of hate: Giving airtime or effort to things you don’t like.
It’s incomplete, but one of the questions I was asked, by Monica Valentinelli, was if there was room for critique in that. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
When I was given five minutes to talk about whatever on my recent Jennisodes interview, I chose to voice my disappointment at mediocrity. And while I tried to make it clear, I didn’t both because it’s the Internet and because I wasn’t working from an outline. This is something that’s bothered me for a very long time now, and I decided to give voice to it.
Here’s where those two things converge:
Critique cannot exist healthily on the Internet. So we cannot constructively point out the mediocre elements in games made popular. This inability to do so leads to a downward spiral of mediocrity.
I’m going to name a name, here, because everyone “in the know” either already knows or suspects it’s what I’m talking about: I think everything unrelated to game design on Apocalypse World is phoned in. Text design. Layout. Even fulfillment. And that’s okay for Vincent to do, because no one wants to slag him for any of it on ther Internet.
Why? The fans. His friends, who are going to have an emotional reaction to this. I’ll honestly bet Vincent himself doesn’t really care, but man, the people that look up to him will. Fans are the reason we can’t have critique publicly, because any attempt an book analysis will be drowned in a flamewar.
I want to make clear: I’ve read Apocalypse World a bunch of times. I’ve played it a bunch, run it a bunch, and as a game once I can get past elements, read forum posts to better understand it, talk with people who have more experience, man the game fucking rocks. The design is phenomenal. It’s everything else that’s problematic and, dare I say: lazy and/or rushed.
I want to make doubly-clear: I’m finally giving you an example because I have tried to find a way to talk about this without pointing to something, and I haven’t found a way that works. So, fuck it, I’ll roll the dice and deal with the flames if need be.
Honestly, I don’t care about helping Vincent. Apocalypse World’s been published. It’s done. Vincent’s a big boy, he’s done this enough to know what corners are being intentionally cut. I don’t see any accidents in his decisions with his products. He’s pretty fucking knowledgable and doesn’t need me telling him what’s up.
But my heart feels for the person who honestly wants to try, but is scared, confused, lacking knowledge, and again scared of this new endeavor. He or she sees the wild success of something unedited, poorly laid-out and otherwise looks like little effort went past rules design, and that gives him or her the permission to let fears rule the day and not try any of those things as well. The rushed or lazy products of popular geniuses allows talented neophytes an excuse to also not try.
For that reason, I want to pick books apart. I want to point out flaws so that we can talk about why they don’t work, when they would work, how to do better. I want to arm people trying this for the first time with information. I want explore these things we all love. And right now, I do privately, in IM and Skype conversations and drinks at the bar.
Always to people I know. Usually to the choir. And I’m honestly tired of that bullshit, because it feels so unfair to everyone who genuinely wants to engage this craft with the fullness of their heart and soul. Like, you know, me a few years ago when I said to Luke Crane that I thought not calling out products and talking around them on the Internet was “ivory tower bullshit.”
I’m going to reword the above: I so, so desperately want a world where we can critique in public. But we can’t, because of the fucking Internet. The agendas of everyone viewing are not universal. You don’t know if the poster:
- Actually likes the thing they’re talking about and wishes it was better (a.k.a. reading charitably)
- Has an ax to grind against the publisher/designer/whatever (a.k.a. reading uncharitably)
And readers have their own varied agendas:
- To comment and actually engage in learning & teaching
- To pepper their mind with thoughts for the future, but otherwise passively read
- To win points on the Internet by “defending” their favorite designer
- To respond emotionally about something their friend is involved with — both with the target of my critique *grr Ryan is Wrong!”) and with me for posting it (“grr Ryan is Right!”)
- To engage in the brain chemical reward cycle that happens with you tell someone they’re wrong on the Internet
- To win points on the Internet be “defending” the original post from those in point three above.
- To stir shit up, engaging in a different chemical reward cycle
Critique can be non-toxic if only the first two types are allowed to speak. But it’s the Internet. We may deserve better than this, but this is the world we have. We have no one skilled at moderation to direct the flow of attention in a critique. We just have asynchronous, fire-and-forget technology, the ability to execute a chemical reward cycle and walk away.
Feels like the Internet is why we cannot have nice things, which I think we say too often without feeling like we can act on it. (Yes, this is an emotional statement, since the Internet is pretty fucking cool in many other ways.)
To address one thing that Greg Christopher said:
Freedom is messy. And tearing down production barriers does result in a lot of crap.
Freedom is messy, and totally awesome. But the production barriers being broken down aren’t why we have a lot of crap. We’ve had a lot of crap since well before we were born. The problem is the lack of freely available knowledge. The barriers are social, not technological.
So, fuck it. I’m going to stop being a part of the problem by saying nothing. My intent for next week is to write about how neophytes can overcome some basic issues, without having the advantage of, as Rob Donoghue put it, being Ryan Macklin. And, damn it, I’m going to use examples. I’m going to break that rule. I will need some time over the weekend to collect those thoughts.
 Which I try to not let be an excuse. It’s just a fact of life I have to contend with.
 Folks from Story Games in 2008 may remember some bullshit called “The New New Honesty” — a term I hated, but was one of the core cheerleaders for. Which lead to be realization about how forums worked, causing me to start my now-abandoned forum Cultures of Play, which tought me really, really keenly how forums work.
 Why do people have blinders about the past that makes the present always seem more filled with crap? Seems to come up often in conversation lately.