Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Critical Audience

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?[1] 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[2], 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.


  1. One third possible audience is the relevant artistic community. I'd think this is both a less presumptuous and more productive target than the artist in most cases.

    That said, it is still a more challenging target than the audience of the work. But I know I've learned ways to improve my own craft by reading critiques of others' work.

  2. And I just posted a 1200 word essay which could have used an editor on what I think are the qualifying areas a reviewer should think about when reviewing. I should have read your post first this morning.

    It's on my mind so I'll likely post more and/or refine it. I'm trying to come up with review criteria that's really quite neutral and takes some of the subjectivism out of the review and comes back with "here you are in these categories." I feel it's more useful overall to show why a game fails or why it succeeds.

    One thing that always bothered me about RPG reviews are things like "I do not like X kind of game is Z is Y type of game so THE GAME IS LAME." And I don't think that's useful. What is useful is feedback on things like "I cannot read the headers through your distracting font" or "I could not follow the instructions on how to generate a character for play from the provided text because of A, B, and C."

    Yes? No?

  3. It's often quite difficult for any sort of artist to step back from a project, especially an amateur project (in the sense of being done for the love of it, rather than for a professional paycheck). This means that any criticism, no matter how well intentioned or phrased, is going to be viewed as personal. It's part of human nature.

    It's only magnified in electronic communication (because of the confusing lack of signals, or the need for overly exaggerated signals). Again, it is a new media and we aren't really used to it yet.*

    [I shall ignore how the "expectation to be praised" in Western society has contributed to this problem; there is enough discussion on this in children's education and motivational texts, beyond mentioning that it is also a strong component.]

    On the other side, the critic is also personally attached to the project. They care enough about it to spend their time analysing why they liked or disliked the project. But it is important to remember that it is only their opinion.

    Criticism of criticism is useless. It contributes nothing. Responding intelligently to criticism on the other hand, and even entering a sensible dialogue with the critic, allows an exploration of possibilities. It won't change the project (which is already released and therefore can be assumed "fixed"), but it may point out how other people can see and use the project.

    And there is nothing worse than simply leaping to the defence of someone without addressing the concerns raised. It closes down any possibility of reasoned dialogue.

    To paraphrase Mike Ford, there are three distinct projects in every production, the project the artist created, the project the audience viewed, and the project that dances under the wild moonlight that is a combination of both of these other projects. Which one is the true one?

    Some people will like your work. Some people won't. But the people that tend to get slammed are the ones who really like your work, except for the little bits they might have preferred done differently. The nice bits are, with tabletop role-playing games, you can do it differently.

  4. Hi!

    Thanks for this article. Very well thought-out -- and the fact that it pretty much matches my own thoughts on the subject doesn't hurt, either.

    I hail from the French-speaking part of the gaming world and there, we have another problem with criticism: it's a fairly small milieu and many people who critique also happen to be authors, hence the question of conflict of interest.

    Have you seen this kind of thing as well? Any thought on how to fix it, if at all possible?


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