Girl in the Machine
Monday, June 23, 2008
Musing over method.


As a student and especially as an English major, I find myself critiquing things a lot. Throw a piece of fiction at me and I can analyze it like no tomorrow, complete with a hefty paper with a fresh bibliography and title page, no charge. It's no question that I've found myself unconsciously critiquing every video game I play in a similar manner that I would something for class (minus the hefty papers), and after a while the analyst's chair starts getting a little tiresome.

I'm one of those English majors that's also heavily into writing fiction. I take more of a creative approach to my schooling than academic. Oftentimes I find my writer's mind at odds with my critic's mind. Obviously, in fiction, many things that you write can be analyzed in ways you never predicted, with textual evidence from your very own story supporting some political or social viewpoint you never knew was there -- or don't even support. What do you do then?

When it comes to critiquing the various and sundry aspects of video games -- from character design to plot to advertising and all the gooey parts in between -- I've found that many people will respond, "Well, the designers didn't intend for that to be sexist," or "Why would anyone put racism in a game?" or the ever-popular "You're reading too much into it." The thing is, the job of the critic is to respond to things that are, indeed, there, whether or not they were intended.

In the flashy world of English academia, there's a form of literary criticism called New Criticism. It's also my very favorite way to write papers and, incidentally, blog posts. New Criticism values close reading (or playing, as the case may be) and a strict exclusion of extra-textual sources, including authorial intent. Which, as a writer, can sting just a bit, to be honest. However, it's a Take What You've Got approach to critiquing sources that just plain works.

Here's the deal. Authorial intent, designer intent, and everything else in between, don't mean squat when it comes to critique. And this is why a statement like this:
"In terms of the reaction, we're in the business of entertainment. We didn't set out to make a racist game or a political statement. We did feel there was a misunderstanding about the initial trailer."
. . . just doesn't cut it. In the above statement to Kotaku, Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi takes a "It's not our problem, it's theirs" approach to the accusations of racism in the RE5 trailer. However, Takeuchi's intentions (nor the lack thereof) do not absolve the trailer's depiction of black people as inhuman savages getting mowed down by a sparkling white muscleman. The point of criticism is to espouse the themes and conventions inherent in human thought as produced in different media, and whining "But I didn't mean to do it!" simply cannot makes these themes -- either problematic or not -- disappear.

Which brings us back to my initial question: What's a writer / artist / video game designer to do when a critique reveals some important theme in her work that she neither foresaw nor intended? Getting defensive about it definitely won't help; it's out there, it's what it is. Absolutely everyone is prejudiced to some degree, including when it comes to race and sex. It's my firm belief that a lot of racism and sexism is actually subconscious, molded by our experiences of social conventions throughout our lives, and the first step to overcoming these prejudices is to recognize that they exist. You are not a Horrible, Awful, Terrible person for admitting you've done something prejudiced. The point is to see that it's there, and to do something about it; to fix it, to change how you think; to spread awareness to others.

This is the point of criticism. This is the goal of analysis: to find what's really there and encourage the good while establishing a method to change the bad. That's my approach to things, and I think that anyone can benefit from viewing things critically once in a while.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 11:04 AM + Link to this post
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