My thesis is online!

Just to show that there’s some reward to hard work, I now have my thesis online (hosted by my department). Whee. It’s a little terrifying, honestly, to have it up, but it’s the good kind of terrifying.

You can download or read it here, but I’ll include the abstract in this post in case you just want to congratulate me and move on. ūüėÄ

This paper explores the relation between criticism and establishment of narrative forms and genres, focusing on the cultural situation of video games. Comparing the context of early film criticism and contemporary video game criticism, I argue that the public negotiation of meaning and value codifies a new medium as it emerges. In the case of digital games in particular, contemporary critics approach the question of ‚Äúwhat is a game‚ÄĚ rhetorically, rarely addressing it outright but allowing metatextual considerations to influence their readings. I trace the sites of criticism, moving from newspapers and weekly periodicals in the case of film, to blogs and web publications in the case of digital games, and explore how the shifting reception of each form took hold in the different media available. I focus especially on the state of public video game criticism today, locating the persuasive strengths in the ability for quick communication between writers, as well as the easy dissemination of digital games. I ground my analysis in the game criticism produced in response to¬†Dear Esther¬†(2011) and¬†League of Legends¬†(2009) that visibly struggled with ideas of narrative, game, and interactivity.


And I promise I’ll write those other posts, someday…

How do we talk about character in eSports, Part 2

Continuing after a sick couple days…

So one of the difficulties of discussing character in League of Legends lies in the narrative complexity at work in the game. It’s a narrative complexity that is almost invisible to the players, but Riot has clearly taken great pains to establish the consistency of every part of gameplay. In the first part of this post, I was talking about the summoner/champion distinction that allows for 111 different playable characters yet a persistent identity. Now I’d like to talk about multiplayer interactions and how they are supported (or not) by the lore.

League of Legends is a game with no built-in singleplayer. You can create a bot game and be the only human player, but that sort of play takes the main gameplay mode, multiplayer, and substitutes bots for human players. Part of the point of¬†League of Legends is that it’s a game that happens when people get together and play it.¬†This also makes it incredibly hard to pin down and write about (if you should want to), because you probably want to write about the¬†metagame and about particular games, and it’s hard to do that when the thing is slippery.

But this is something that game critics should be used to, no? This is the bread-and-butter of NGJ, the whole point of describing a subjective experience of play.

Anyway. Moving on past that minor quibble (hah, minor), let’s talk about team composition. For many players, the¬†champion they select must help the team. At a basic level, there are certain prescribed roles that each team ought to have. To what extent the players fulfill these roles is up to them, but the cultural expectations do exist. In terms of the basic game mode, the 5v5 “Classic” game type played on “Summoner’s Rift”, there are 5 positions: top-lane, jungle, mid-lane, and carry and support teaming up in the bottom-lane. There are expectations for the kinds of champions you play in each of the lanes or the jungle, and this set of positions creates a well-balanced team that is hard to shut down based on champion selection alone. If, on the other hand, your entire team were to go support, or any other type, it might cause unbalanced gameplay from the outset. The point is to pick a team that will do well, but also one that you will enjoy playing.

when picking a champion to play out of my diverse champion pool, this is how i decide: 1. Where am I playing? (ie, what position am i playing, out of the standard, top, jungle, mid, ad carry, or support) 2. Who am I up against? (in draft pick, if the person I will be laning against has picked their champion, that gives me an opportunity to pick a champion who will have an easy time laning against them, mechanically, or pick someone who will counter their playstyle late game.) 3. What does my team need? (depending on what everyone else picked, do we have enough crowd control and peel? Do we have enough tanky people or do I need to pick someone who works with a tanky build?) 4. What do I feel like? (this is the intangible ‘fun’ quality. I feel like all of the champions can be fun in the right situation even if some of them are more fun than others. But what sounds fun right now?)

– LordCOTA

Now, there could be a lot to say about the construction of these roles. I’m thinking about other 5v5 competitions, most particularly the team kendo tournament, or futsal. But the thing that I want to emphasize is that¬†League of Legends¬†is a team game, first and foremost. Sure, it doesn’t always get played like that, especially in solo queue or duo queue, and in non-tournament/non-competitive play. But the game is structured to work well and to be fun if you play as a team.

And here, I’m going to drop a reference to a publication by Valve that addresses how to design for cooperative play, because it’s good and you should all read it:

  • Michael Booth. March 2009. “Replayable Cooperative Game Design: Left 4 Dead.” Game Developers Conference.¬†Slides

I think next time I’ll talk about how teams/community/individualism come up in the few times League of Legends gets discussed in¬†mainstream games crit.

How do we talk about character in eSports, Part 1

To continue from where I left off in the first post in this series, I am going to look at how people within what I consider “mainstream games criticism” (aka, the major blogs and sites) talk about¬†League of Legends. I mentioned the two camps of posts referenced in Critical Distance: two about the player community, and one about the character. Similarly, out of eight posts on Borderhouse Blog tagged “League of Legends”, six reference character design and two discuss the player community.

In this post, I’d like to talk about¬†character:

Defining “character” in¬†League of Legends¬†can be surprisingly tricky. On one hand, champions¬†are probably the most commonly identified “characters” in the game, with names, appearances, and particular playstyles. The champions are the face(s) of the game and they are the player’s interaction with the game world. ¬†Like in Diablo or Warcraft, you control the character’s movement and action to an extent, with paths and autoattacks handled by the game itself.

On the other hand, champions do not persist as player avatars past the duration of a single match. This strange feature is also supported by the lore. One of Riot’s guides to gameplay¬†identifies the summoner as the player’s persistent character, a force of political balance who fights by summoning champions.

A player in League of Legends takes on the role of a Summoner – a gifted spell caster who has the power to bring forth a champion to fight as their avatar in Valoran’s Fields of Justice. With all major political decisions on Valoran now decided by the outcome of the contests that take place in the battle arenas, a Summoner is the key force of change on the continent.

– “Summoner Information“, League of Legends¬†Learning Center, July 6 2010

This convoluted relationship of summoner to champion allows Riot to sidestep the issues raised by quasi-persistent champions: the champion serves as the in-match “avatar” of the summoner, in the same way that the summoner serves as the invisible in-game avatar of the player. There are a few characteristics of summoners and champions that complicate the idea of character in¬†League of Legends.

Summoners, for example, can heal their champion, damage opposing minions directly, teleport their champion anywhere in the Field of Justice they are in, fortify their team’s turret defenses, and a slew of other game-impacting results.

– “Summoner Information“,¬†League of Legends¬†Learning Center, July 6 2010

So we can see that summoners and champions both impact the game during a match, and summoners, though they do not have a manifestation on the field, have a direct connection with the game world.

I’m going to try to replicate a quick table here that captures the messiness of these two categories:

How character is spread over Summoner and Champion

How character is spread over Summoner and Champion (Google Doc version here)

I need to flesh out the terminology, but I hope you get the idea.

How do players talk about eSports?

In exploring the world of¬†League of Legends, I find myself stymied by some of the basic terminology. The application of “game” and “metagame” is counterintuitive for me, and it took a fairly lengthy discussion with my boyfriend (LordCOTA) who has been playing¬†League of Legends (for three “seasons”; more later)¬†to understand how they’re used in this context. So I’d like to replicate both some of what I learned, and some of how I feel about it. I am trying very hard to avoid some of my prescriptivist impulses, and instead, want very much to focus on how these terms are constructed by players and developers and random forum posters. Because despite not showing up in mainstream (as much as there can be a mainstream) games criticism, this vernacular theory is very important to me. (And I hope I can give it its due.)

I’m going to quote a comment on the first post in this quasi-series, to illustrate this point:

But lastly (and maybe most importantly) I think that the kind of engagement with map layouts, skills, balance, and even lore is often sequestered away in sites that are about becoming really really *good* at the game, and so there’s a feeling of just creating the same knowledge as is already out there.

– Ben Abraham, comment here

With that flourishing player discourse in mind, let’s look at “metagame” and “game”, and how these two terms work together to make League of Legends what it is,¬†halfway between classic video and computer games, and sports. In this way,¬†League of Legends¬†offers an example of how eSports are constructed by viewers and gamers alike.

Game¬†refers to¬†the mechanics of the game within the client, what you’re allowed to do by the game rules itself, the original product of the designers. The game includes stats, and is balanced based on the state of competitive play (both professional and high league). Riot Games tunes¬†League of Legends biweekly during the “season” when competitive play is happening, and makes bigger adjustments between “seasons”.

The metagame is set of rules and expectations for how the game should be played, built on top of the restrictions of the game mechanics.

“that’s what the community considers the appropriate way to play, and it follows the current state of the competitive scene of the game”

– LordCOTA

It is similar to emergent play in a way, except if emergent play describes the moment of surprise and unpredictability, metagame refers to when that previously-surprising action becomes standard.

High-level players try out certain modes of play, which eventually settle into what gets known as the “metagame”, which affects what Riot rolls out in their biweekly balance patches. As a newcomer to¬†League of Legends, I get somewhat confused by how people use “metagame” (and “meta”) to refer to things that I would consider part of the game, but in discussing it with my interviewee (lol) I think I have a better handle on¬†why¬†those terms are used in that way, and it’s actually fucking fascinating to me.

So here we have sports, where the “metagame” (LoL¬†version) is practically what we think of when we think of the game. Soccer isn’t a game about kicking a ball, it’s about movement and getting your defense to push up just enough to apply pressure but not enough to leave a hole, and of having a goalie, and people designated to go score goals and people designated to stop goals from happening. Football has a whole system of plays and roles; there’s a person on every football team whose entire purpose in the game is to be good at kicking. Nothing else, just kicking the ball between the goalposts. And, what happens in sports is that over time these cultural expectations of how the game ought to be played start to shift, because¬†really good people¬†start doing¬†really strange things, and the best part is,¬†they work.

And apparently, that same thing happens in¬†League of Legends, except this is called the “metagame”.

Next time: Stay tuned for a rebuttal of my points about game/metagame!

Why don’t we talk about eSports?

Or, Do We and I Just Don’t See it?

In trying to find an angle onto games criticism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to sports discourse, I had a discussion with my advisor (yay advisor, doin it rite), and he advised (lol) that instead of looking at eSports broadcasters and how they construct the game, I should investigate why eSports titles don’t show up in the main outlets of games criticism that I’m familiar with. I understand the danger of making sweeping claims about the lack of discourse, because it’s quite possible that I just don’t see it. And if this is true, pleeeeeeease tell me.

On the other hand, I consider myself pretty on top of current games criticism: I read Critical Distance almost every week, I follow a set of games critics on Twitter that keep me in touch with what’s going on, I read Borderhouse Blog, I read other outlets ranging from Kotaku to Nightmare Mode to certain tumblrs (this isn’t meant to be braggy; the thing is, as someone researching games criticism, I have to know these things). And rarely do I come across any kind of discussion of eSports titles.

For example, I’d like to look at Critical Distance. Critical Distance bills itself as a curated archive, creating a weekly round-up of critical writing on video games. It’s one of those sites that is central to games crit, and really does have its finger on the pulse, as they claim.

With our coverage we aim to provide both an entry point into the wide network of like-minded blogs and websites, and to promote up-and-coming or lesser-known authors. We are not, however, a site for original writing that is criticism itself, instead we aim to capture the videogame criticism ‚Äėzeitgeist‚Äô and act as a ‚Äėmemory bank‚Äô in this notoriously short-sighted and quick forgetting industry.

– “About“, Critical Distance

Keeping this in mind, let’s try an experiment. How often does League of Legends (or another eSports title) show up in the kinds of critical posts that are featured on CD? Searching the archive of Critical Distance (using their own site search tool) reveals three compilations linking to posts on League of Legends. Two of these compilations are from 2012 (December and August), and one from November 8, 2009 (within two weeks of the open release on Oct. 27, 2009).

For a site that has had weekly round-ups since 2009, the (admittedly not thoroughly controlled) numbers are dismal. I searched for some other games, popular and indie, using the same interface (CD’s in-site search). Here are the results in the order that I thought to search them, and remember, LoL had 3 hits:

I also did a (highly unscientific) attempt at widening the net by searching for “league”, got 14 results, only 3 of which referenced League of Legends and were in fact the original three results from my first search. As you can probably see, all of the games on this list had more results than League of Legends, except “dota”, another eSports/RTS title. Even “tetris”. Really.

Back to these elusive three posts! One of the posts, the most recent, highlights a discussion around character design: responses to Todd Harper’s open letter to Riot to claim Taric as gay.

In a similar vein, Zoya Street of The Border House responds to recent calls to ‚Äėout‚Äô League of Legends champion Taric as gay, challenging the assumptions taken in assigning Taric‚Äôs gender and sexual identity […]

UPDATE: Also recommended is Todd Harper’s response post.

– Kris Ligman, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: December 23rd“, Critical Distance, 12/23/12

I’ll definitely be returning to the centrality of character in discussions of eSports. Bother me if I don’t.

The other two posts, one from August 2012 and one from November 2009, discuss the League community and its notorious toxic behavior; these posts try to explain why the relationship between players within the game is often so riddled with negativity and zero-sum competitiveness.

At Moving Pixels, G. Christopher Williams actually attempts to answer the question of ‚Äúu mad?‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs a braver person than I, evidently. His piece is an interesting consideration of why League of Legends players so obsessively want to know if they‚Äôre hurting their opponents. The answer speaks quite directly to the lack of consequential signifiers in online competitive play, he says.

– Katie Williams, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: August 5th“, Critical Distance, 8/5/12

And from 2009: “The Blame Game“.

This is getting long, but I guess I just want to pause here: the three posts on CD talk about individual character representations (again, I’ll go into this more) or the community. There are no close-readings of the map or of the rules. The lore doesn’t enter into any sort of critical discussion, often.

Why not?
aka, stay tuned for the next segment, where I offer some rampant speculation!

Criticism vs. Reviews

In the past day, I’ve had the fortune of stumbling across two recent pieces that (as I said, apparently snarkily, in a tweet), illustrate the problems that come when people conflate “review” and “criticism” (and are really talking about reviews). ¬†It’s one of those things that I care about, not out of some misguided noble quest to preserve the integrity of High Games Criticism (that amazing new art form that all the kiddies are tweeting about), but to isolate the two functions instead of muddling them. ¬†Yeah, I am a bit of a systematic thinker. ¬†It doesn’t bother me too much here, though.

Basically, I distinguish “reviews”, which tell you what’s worth buying and playing, from “criticism”, which models¬†how to respond to a work. ¬†I think this is a fair distinction, based on…oh right, reading a fuckton of games criticism and games reviews (I’ll have a citation or thousands for this, because it’s kind of central to my reading; I’ll go into this emergent distinction later).

So imagine my response when I hear something like the following (in reference to a spate of negative reviews of a recent release):

I believe these criticisms are more a product of the current state of games criticism than they are legitimate detractors that keep it from being stellar.

– Drew Dixon, “Dissonant Reviews: Miasmata“, Bit Creature, 2/20/2013

Yeah, I understand the point that is being made‚ÄĒthat the culture of reception around games is hampered by false assumptions of equivalence‚ÄĒbut a very large part of me bristles against calling this “games criticism”. ¬†It’s a part of me that recognizes that whatever calls itself “games criticism” must be taken as such, but that objects to lumping in criticism and reviews. ¬†It only leads to misunderstandings of “critical”: as a negative outlook as opposed to a framework of interpretation.

Something of a different tone that captures this same slippage of “review”/”criticism”, can be seen here:

While film criticism rarely reflects the taste of the broad public, and music criticism has little in common with the pecking order of the charts and heavy rotation playlists, the game industry sees a direct correlation between game reviews and sales.

– Peter Krapp, “Ranks and Files: On Metacritic and Gamerankings“, Flow TV, 12/18/12

The rest of this piece is fascinating as fuck, and worth a read by anyone interested in industry response to reception. ¬†This line, however, stuck out to me (grad student bingo, just for saying “stuck out to me”) because of how game¬†reviews were contrasted, falsely, to music and film¬†criticism. ¬†Obviously those established forms of criticism have a detachment from the monetary value of the work. ¬†Whether this detachment is an illusion of immateriality or a real thing may be argued, and I think I might later. ¬†What is not up for argument is whether reviews and criticism serve the same functions in response to a work.

I lied, it’s up for argument, because this post exists. ¬†But. ¬†Assuming that everything anyone says about games is “reviews” is as bad as what I did last year, which was assuming that anything anyone said about games was “critical discourse”. ¬†Reviews tell us why it’s worth our time and/or money. ¬†Criticism pins down why it’s important to society, that it appears now. ¬†(To throw a wrench into the whole thing, journalism investigates the material conditions around it, and reveals them to us.) ¬†All of these modes of response form an ecosystem that support the development and evolution of a medium, form, whatever you want “it” to be.

And here I must thank Christopher A. Paul’s excellent text,¬†Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play, for helping me see some of the larger issues at work.

I care about words; I believe words have power (how many times do I need to say this, in every piece I write?). ¬†For games “criticism” to exist as anything other than a purely nitpicky mode, it has to have objects worth studying. ¬†For games to exist as valued cultural artifacts, there has to be a discourse that seeks to interpret. ¬†It’s this cyclic dependence (throw in the importance of preservation of the object in question, and you’ve got something I may want to write in a year or two) of object and reception, this endless feedback loop, that constructs something meaningful out of a new form or genre.

Consider it Reader Response theory, writ large.