Much of what I think of as tactics come out of pushing little plastic and metal figures across a series of squares, where it’s all about the relative position of things. After some excellent conversation on twitter, it struck me that the same could be applied to criticism.
Now, I do not pretend to speak to big C Criticism, where there are decades, even centuries of academic tradition, schools of thought and Deep, Meaningful Understanding. Instead, I’m talking about one fellow getting on the Internet and talking about a game he liked or didn’t like, and how that’s received.
This is on my mind of late because I’ve been bombarded by examples of how badly our hobby handles thoughtful but negative criticism. This is frustrating to me because well thought out criticism from someone unhappy with a product is incredibly valuable and useful in my eyes. It is a terrible shame that the expectation is that such a review is basically an invitation for an internet ass-whuppin.
So as I got to thinking about this, it struck me that there’s a large potential for disconnect when you consider the audience. Put simply, is the criticism written for the artist, or for the audience for his work? It’s not a hard question, and either answer suggests some specific things, that are easy to address. If the review is clearly directed at the artist, it is not unreasonable for the artist to respond in a personal fashion, perhaps even taking umbrage (because the reviewer has opened the door to dialog – more on that in a bit), but if the artist takes a similar response to a review that is very clearly for the public, then it’s the artist who is picking a fight.
And there’s the rub – if the answer is not clear, then right out the door you have an invitation for disaster as appropriate responses on one end become inappropriate responses on the other.
Now, it would be easy to suggest that the answer is to just assume all reviews are public facing, and consider communications directed to the artist to be directed to her. Sadly, things rarely work that way (especially on forums), and there is a natural bias for the artist to think they’re being addressed directly, even if that is not the intent.
This leads to a lot of seeds of unproductive discourse, so I want to talk about each kind of criticism and its role.
Criticism directed at the artist has its place, and is in fact a critical part of many creative processes. These critics carry other names, like editors, alpha readers or trusted friends, but their job is that of the critic, to speak to the work. However, it is critical to note that most of these contributors speak to the artist before the work is finished, and most of them would not presume to continue the criticism after completion. Once the art is completed, the number of people who the author is willing to listen to directly is limited by the bounds of her trust. Whatever element of the work goes out into the world, there is always some part of it that exists only between the artist and her work. To presume on that is to invite a strongly negative emotional response.
Yet that is exactly what a critic does when addressing his criticism to the artist rather than the audience. Even assuming the best of intentions – that he wants to help the artist’s next work be better and that he’s looking to foster a dialog – it is a vast presumption. The author is not obliged to enter into a dialog with a critic any more than the critic is obliged to think well of her work.
Now, this is not an incomprehensible instinct on the critic’s part. He wants to help and he wants to make a connection. Both of these are normal, human instincts. But he’s doing so in a manner comparable to the man who wishes to ingratiate himself by telling you about your mate’s flaws on the presumption that you do not know them and that clearly you’re looking to upgrade.
If, in contrast, criticism is directed to the audience, then there is no presumption. The critic is speaking to the subject at hand and, assuming good faith on the part of all parties, he’s on solid footing to do so. The artist’s personal relationship with her work is not being challenges, and the artist is free to take the criticism or leave it, as best suits her own judgment or taste. This criticism might ultimately be useful to the artist, but only if the artist chooses to make it so.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot to be gained from making it clear who you’re speaking to when you want to talk about someone’s game.
Now, I’ve put a lot on the critic’s head here, but there’s another side of the equation. If the critic is taking steps to keep the criticism from being personal, the artist needs to not take it as such. Yes, they may hate the thing you love, but that does not change it (or you), and you need to decide if striking them down with thunderous fury is worth everything you lose in squelching discussion.
But it’s not that simple is it? Most artists I know develop thick enough skins to handle the criticism, or have other ways to deal with it. They know that a critic who thoughtfully hates their work is still a thousand times more invested in it than someone who’s never heard of it and doesn’t care. But it’s not just about the artists, it’s about the people who love them.
And that’s the hard thing. You see someone says bad things about a book you love and who’s creator you consider a friend – the instinct is to kick someone’s ass. Even if the creator is chill about it all, her self-appointed defenders are quick to step up.
Yes, some very cynical folks exploit this phenomena, allowing them to keep their hands clean while their supporters run around like angry vikings, but I think they’re in the minority. In most cases the artist might not agree with the actions taken, but also appreciate the underlying sentiment, and thus won’t rein it in. Not that they really could.
The thing is that the friends and defenders need to realize that criticism, even negative criticism, is valuable to the artist. Squelching bad reviews is a Nile perch solution. It looks like it helps in the short term, but in the long run it makes things worse for the artist as fewer and fewer readers are willing to start the kinds of conversations that really bring a game to life.
If you want to do the best thing you can for your friends, then use these reviews as the basis for interesting discussion. Speaking as a creator, praise is nice, criticism is useful, but nothing is quite as amazing as knowing your ideas have helped push people to find other awesome ideas. Being criticized is far, far, far less important than being talked about.
Anyway, that’s just my take on it – obviously there’s no one true way to review or respond, but as someone who wants the world to be as full of as much robust discussion of the things I love as possible, I present my perspective.
1 – As an aside, it is kind of fascinating to me that this question can be asked at all. Before the internet, you had to be in a very particular time and place if you wished to direct your criticism to the artist directly. Nowadays, if both the artist and the critic are on the internet, anything goes.
2 – And no, you can’t always assume good faith, but if the problem is that the critic’s being a jerk, that is usually self evident. If it not so clear that as to be irrefutable, they’re probably just being snarky and it’s equally likely you’re just being oversensitive.