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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[1] and because I wasn’t working from an outline. This is something that’s bothered me for a very long time now[2], 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[3]. 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.

– Ryan

[1] Which I try to not let be an excuse. It’s just a fact of life I have to contend with.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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33 Responses to Why Critique Has No Home On The Internet

  1. I, for one, am very much looking forward to your posts on the basic issues. I’ve long hoped that someone would put a primer together for all this.

  2. Chad Underkoffler says:

    “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 agree. This is editor/critic brain, trying to analyze towards leanable/actionable insights.

    “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[3]. The problem is the lack of freely available knowledge. The barriers are social, not technological.”

    If you include self-knowledge in there (“I realize I am not good at book production skill X”), a little desire for excellence across the board, and allow for different people to have different tastes in things, I agree.

    (I mean, man, I put out how many books of my own before I realized I was crap at layout? Three? )

    “[3] 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.”

    We’re getting old. And those kids in their baggy pants and Walkmans and penny loafers and Elvis music won’t get off our lawn.

  3. Rob Donoghue says:

    Y’know, long, long ago I stumbled upon what was the Nth rpg that someone had basically thrown together as an MS word file available via a download link on an Angelfire page. I don’t even remember what the game was, but it made me crazy. This was years back, but even then, I was blown away by the number of simple things (and in this case, simple == cheap or free) that hadn’t been done.

    What followed was a very positive project (http://sites.google.com/site/showyourgame/home) that I set up on Google pages which I then, frankly, let go fallow (when Google swapped from Pages to Sites and busted up some of the formatting, I lost the will to clean it up).

    The thing is, while this was an absolutely positive act, and one I could be proud of, it was exactly the kind of things that’s hard to sustain because such things feel like shouting into a void.

    All of which is to say, I actually am more optimistic about good critique on the internet than I am about the survival of positivity.

    -Rob D.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      Your experience is more or less why Cultures of Play died. Which talking about how a certain amount of toxicity is actually required for forum & topic sustainability is, well, another post.

      – Ryan

  4. Marc Majcher says:

    Right the fuck on. I am very eager to hear some of your detailed criticism and picking apart, especially things that a lot of us are familiar with, because I’m very strongly in point one up there. Also because I, like you, have read through books like Apocalypse World a whole bunch, and I don’t see the issues that you mention above. (I see other issues, but that’s another thing.)

    And I’m *really* interested to hear about what you see, because I’m really interested in learning about those things in the gap between what I, as an amateur in many respects and a consumer, don’t find immediately grating, and what someone with a more experienced or more developed sense of these things finds. Because learning about the things in that gap will hopefully allow me to make more informed decisions about my own products down the road; I’m fully aware of the trade-offs that must be made when producing a thing solo, and knowing more about what stands out to folks like you will help me make better choices when it comes to the inevitable corner-cutting down the road…

  5. Burrowowl says:

    I suspect that what’s happening here is an awkward transition period away from the kind of nurturing person-to-person constructive criticism we grey accustomed to growing up, when our teachers would praise our finger paintings and ask us questions about why the sky was painted green instead of telling us that the sky is really blue and you made a bad color decision.

    As people frequently lack the skill or attention-span to carefully craft a specific tone into a blog commment, tweet, or forum post, readers of internet criticism need to be wary. I’m not sure this is a skill that people who grew up before the intarwebs have developed to the point where it is reflexive and harmless. I liken it to spending a hard day’s work in a garden; you’re likely to end the day blistered and sore. If you don’t have the calluses already, you need to take care with your tools or you’ll hurt yourself.

    So my question to you would be: in what way are other media more suited to critique? Is a review in a newspaper or magazine fundamentally different than a review on a blog, and in what way? Or are those also ineffective or inappropriate venues for critique?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That is a damned fine thing to question. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to answer that in depth right now. But if I go on too long without doing that, will you ping me?

      Thanks!

      – Ryan

  6. Andrew Smith says:

    I get the point completely. If I can add something to the discussion, it is only that critique is a skill, and like every skill it needs to be practised in order to get better.

    In academia, for example, reviews of other publications are usually the domain of people who’ve already completed a degree or two. Anyone who manages to complete that kind of tertiary education has had plenty of practice and thoughtful feedback on their critique skill so that their critique fulfills Ryan’s point, “To comment and actually engage in learning & teaching.”

    From my perspective, I think the internet has a lot of nascent critique that gives the mature critique a bad name. And that means I really like the spirit of this post. And it means I need to continue to practise my critique. Thanks for the post.

  7. Devon says:

    I’m excited to see the criticism and learn the lessons from it.

  8. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Hopefully the negative reactions you fear won’t overwhelm thoughtful commentary.

  9. Jason Pitre says:

    First things first, thank you very much for your analysis of the problems of critique on the internet. In my personal opinion, there are a few factors that discourage positive and constructive criticism.

    1) The Eternal Reputation of the Spotless Mind; Some individuals, including yourself, realize that anything written on the internet will last in perpetuity. You admitted yourself in the Jennisodes that you avoid mentioning or criticizing your day jobs online for that very reason and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The challenge with this part of this internet subculture is that we tend to avoid even respectful and constructive critizism out of fear. We fear that our words will invariably be taken out of context, that our lack of inflection in text will lead to hurt feelings and that we will be permanently identified as “that jerk on the internet”. So we censor ourselves. We let others take sub-optimal paths without comment, because it is less confrontational and less risk for ourselves.

    2) The Anonymous Fucktard: The other major component of the net that I find is those who avoid the perpetual memory of the net by using ephemeral handles, nicknames and anonymity to add to the negativity. To put the most positive possible light on these individuals, some of them are trying to offer fair criticism of something they misunderstood. In reality, I suspect most of them are just out to beat someone who is ‘wrong on the internet’. Heck, some are even well meaning and are trying to defend the underdogs, Either way, these are the individuals who cause the most problems.

    So, the key approach in my mind is to encourage the former group’s efforts of criticism while making it very clear to the latter that it is strictly a cooperative effort. Perhaps the most effective approach would be for the creator of the original document to publicly ask for frank constructive criticism on their own site. Then, those good critics and reviewers would have to also spread the word and gather additional paritipation on the critique. I would be _eager_ to solicit that kind of feedback myself once I had anything ready for public discemination.

    Oh, FYI I have a post on my site (Steps to Publish an RPG) which might potentially be a useful reference or freely pilferable content for some of your “Basic Issues” discussions for new designers. http://www.genesisoflegend.com/2010/10/steps-to-publish-an-rpg/

    Cheers, best of luck and many thanks for your contributions to the community.

  10. Johnstone says:

    Is “phoned in” really the best term to use here, given both a) what it implies about the person “phoning it in,” and b) your mission statement?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Johnstone,

      I chose that phrasing deliberately. So, yes.

      – Ryan

    • Johnstone says:

      Ryan,
      Hm, okay. That makes me more interested to see you pick it apart, then. Or another book would be fine, too, I guess (I don’t want to encourage that flamewar you mentioned).
      -j

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Johnstone,

      Oh, yeah. AW will be far from the only book I’ll talk about. No, next week will be about several books. Including at least one I was heavily involved with.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Greg,

      HAH!

      I’ve been on this for several years now. My friends are pointing out that I’m just inviting failure again, like I did then. But, believe what you like. Let experience be your teacher and guide.

      – Ryan

  11. Josh Rensch says:

    I am really looking forward to this series. I hope high hopes thar people will respect what you’re doing and not flame the damn thing.

  12. Guy says:

    I’m curious, and sidetrackingish – so what did you learn about how forums really work?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Guy,

      That’s a sidetrack I wish I could get in to, but it’s a long post. I’ll add it to my list of blog posts to do.

      – Ryan

    • Brand Robins says:

      Forums do not exist to communicate information, build knowledge, or promote understanding.

      Forums exist to build phatic communication, form social groups, promote inclusion and exclusion, and to reinforce beliefs already held.

      Without a good source of tension and a defined center to hold and to contend against forums fail for lack of sustained interest.

      ….

      I could say more, but fuck, its Ryan’s blog. All I’ll say is that I quite liked Cultures of Play and Storygames drives me fucknuts, and yet Cultures of Play died and Storygames goes on.

      And not just because of all the fuckwits on Storygames. I still post to Storygames. Because I too enjoy the good old fashioned social positioning game.

  13. Narretei says:

    Might be a bit random but a technique of discussion comes to my mind that is sometimes used in modern philosophy these days: [Author] and his critics – publications.
    The main theory of one modern philosopher (say, Daniel Dennett or Paul Churchland) is the basis that stands up to discussion. Other scientists write up deconstructions or counter-aspects of certain points of the original theory. Whole thing gets summed up. Original author answers to the raised questions and contradictions. Argument continues over several publications etc. etc.
    In the end everyone has at least a basic idea how decisions about certain points of argumentation went.
    Sometimes I wish such an open trace-able form of constructive critism in more sectors of development..

  14. I’m really looking forward to you getting into this. I listened to the Jennisodes interview and thought you had some good points about mediocrity and I’m glad you’re going to go into more depth on the subject. Poorly done editing, lay out, etc has killed more than one game for my group. It’s extremely frustrating to play an otherwise awesome game that everyone at the table keeps saying “This is great, but…”

  15. Good shit.

    I’m pondering this hard, because I’m thirsty for the kind of critique process that’s focused, pointed and above all constructive, both for my own works and others’.

    I have a personal barrier to engagement, though. The rant on the podcast was really painful to listen to, because it used very judging language. I couldn’t help feeling, “Ulp. Am I one of the people on Ryan’s list?” When I heard you distinguish between plain shoddy work and the learning process of starting unskilled but growing proficiency…well, then I could relax a little. Not just because I could say, “oh, he’s not talking about me. Whew.” But also because the emerging portrait of what “kind of person” commits these mediocrity crimes no longer applied to me.

    Thing is, that portrait was still directed at somebody. Like, there ARE people producing work that fits the Macklin definition of mediocrity. I’m wondering if there’s a way to discuss that mediocrity without the judging language? Rhetorical: of COURSE there is; you did just that in your critique of Diaspora. You said, “It’s a fun game, the text has this problem, here’s why it’s a problem, and here’s how to fix it.” You didn’t have to say it was “phoned in,” or “lazy.”

    I mean, I’m just a guy; do what you want. I bring this up because, once again, I’m excited about this endeavor. I want it to happen, and for me to be able to engage with it. I appreciate the risk you’re taking. The internet IS scary for critique. Hopefully this will turn out to be a really positive and valuable thing with lots of goodwill on all sides.

    Peace,
    -Joel

  16. Robert Bohl says:

    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.

    I’ve been waiting for some time to have this criticism explained. Without explaining yourself, calling so many elements of the game “phoned in” is kind of a lazy sideswipe.

  17. Jim says:

    Ryan, I’ve enjoyed and found many of your posts about the details of production, editing and design to be very informative. Keep it up.

    You’ve been around a while. I’m sure you could cast a critical eye at some of the past projects that you’ve had a hand in, maybe specifically dealing with areas that you’ve had a direct hand in, and educate us further. Looking at your own material might serve as asbestos pants for this type of analysis in addition to the analysis you’re planning for Apocalypse World.

    Anyway. I look forward to reading the post or series when you get a chance to put down in some concrete form for us, the general masses.

    I appreciate a good teacher and you are a good teacher. So, thanks.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jim,

      Thank you!

      I have some critiques of stuff I’ve been involved in also in the queue. Not as many as I’d like — honestly, I already applied my critical eye in the process, and I don’t have the old drafts of games I’ve worked on to show a before/after. But I’ll be taking another look.

      When I started this, I asked for permission from Fred, Paul, Daniel & Brennan since I’ve worked with them the most. (Granted, it was more asking if they’d want to work with me again than permission, but they’re all cool with this.)

      – Ryan

    • Jim says:

      Ryan-

      No problem! I enjoy your work. I’ve especially enjoyed your articles dealing with editorial and production. This type of knowledge is hard to come by. Probably because everyone doing it is too overworked to bother putting hands to keyboard to write it down.

      And, I know that you a busy, so whatever else you are sacrificing to put a little of your insight into the world, it’s appreciated. That’s probably not said enough. So, there you go. Thanks.

      Keep up the good work. Looking forward to more on Mythender.

      -Jim