Students, English

Setting Game Criticism at “Medium Difficulty”

August 14, 2013
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With multibillion dollar profits and massive annual trade shows like the recent 2013 Electronic Arts Expo (or “E3”), computer and video games are obviously big business, but their ubiquity in contemporary culture has not yet translated into the academic attention afforded to film or literature. Whether this prejudice results from a perceived lack of complexity or simple distrust of popular taste, bringing games into serious discussion will not only take time but a great deal of critical work in order to bridge the gap separating “low” commercial culture from “high” intellectual labour.

As its punning title indicates, the website Medium Difficulty, dedicated to making intelligent game criticism accessible to readers both inside and outside the academy, performs this work. Founded by current SFU English department graduate students Nico Dicecco and Kyle Carpenter and former student Karl Parkennings, what began as a conversation between friends in FASS has developed into a much larger dialogue.

“We wanted a website that offered critical but accessible perspectives on video games, which we felt were under-represented. Since then, we’ve discovered that there is actually a pretty substantial network of folks writing great stuff about games for a critically engaged audience, and we’re thrilled to participate in that community.”

While stylistically diverse, the articles Medium Difficulty publishes have in common an aversion for jargon and a tendency towards personal storytelling that proves engaging without being simplistic. For instance, readers of Sidney Fussell’s article on homosexuality in games will encounter clearly articulated references to Judith Butler mixed in with critical analysis of Mass Effect and Skyrim. Another moving article by Samantha Allen adeptly filters her decision to leave the Mormon faith through the lens of her gaming life.

The website’s greatest success thus far – an anonymous article written by an American mercenary about the inaccurate representations of war in video games – shows the exploding potential for provocative approaches to this art form. In the article, “Call of Apathy: Violent Young Men and Our Place in War,” the former soldier recounts his own traumatic war experiences and compares them to the glorification of violence in videogames like Call of Duty. Visitors to Reddit, a web aggregator of user-submitted links, fervently “upvoted” the article, placing it on the front page of the site for several hours and leading to over 300,000 hits for Medium Difficulty in only a few days.

“It was very gratifying to know that we had touched a nerve like that. Working in academia tends to create a dark view regarding the reach of our critical work; it was exciting to have some part in the success of this piece,” Kyle explains.

Amongst the many articles on the site, these exemplary interventions each add an extra dimension to a commercial art form often perceived as low entertainment, and they reveal a large scale desire for smarter, more affecting game criticism. The editors of Medium Difficulty predict that as professed “gamers” start to populate the academy they will likely bring this desire into academic discussions as well, garnering increased intellectual acceptance.

As Nico and Kyle argue, “Video games are so young. We’re only starting to see a generation of active academics who have spent a substantial amount of time playing and thinking about games. The people who grew up playing games – the ones who fell in love with the NES as ten year-olds... or who were born after it came out – are only now  starting to land academic jobs. But even more than the generational argument, video games are becoming increasingly acknowledged as an important cultural phenomenon. Whether or not they’re accepted as aesthetically interesting, scholars have a responsibility to better understand the role that they play in contemporary society.”

Despite this growing acknowledgement of their cultural significance, video games have yet to find a comfortable home in existing academic disciplines. Although Nico and Kyle hail from the literature department, they insist that while “frameworks like feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and so on are just as helpful for studying games as they are for literature,” the tools of traditional narrative analysis only get at part of what is interesting about the embodied, procedural and interactive aspects of games, which “makes them distinct enough from other narrative forms to warrant nuanced, medium-specific approaches.” Citing tools developed by New Media Studies, they contend, however, that “methodological innovation in games research is proceeding at a dizzying pace.”

As for the long term goals of the site, Nico and Kyle remain modest: “First and foremost, keep it running… while it has been incredibly rewarding,” they explain, “a project like this requires an incredible amount of intellectual labour to keep updating with new content.”

Part of that rigorous intellectual labour to which readers ought to look forward is a new series of bi-weekly podcasts, with rotating contributors drawn from their pool of regular writers, which will enable informal debate of critical issues in gaming. Moreover, the editors will look to initiate expansion of their publishing platform, moving towards short monographs in ebook format in order to “provide our writers, and readers, with opportunities for longer, more sustained examinations of games and their surrounding culture.”

For now, Medium Difficulty is looking for people willing to get involved. “We are in talks with academics across the country who are interested in contributing to the site at an editorial level,” they say. Moreover, the site continues to welcome submissions from the general public. Interested writers are encouraged to submit their work.

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