Confessional writing makes for interesting reading, not always useful criticism

I found myself nodding to some of the points Jonas Kyratzes made when I read “Would You Kindly Not” yesterday. Since I usually don’t spend much time on Twitter, I missed the conversation around “The Ethics of Selling Children” the first time and only started digging in after Cameron Kunzelman posted Samantha Allen’s guest essay “Can We Kindly?“. That was when I started investigating by reading through each essay in turn.

Here is where I agree with Jonas:

I realize saying this may upset some people, but the fact that an experience is traumatic, or that a writer writes about aspects of their personal life that are usually not discussed, does not necessarily make them intellectually relevant to the argument at hand. What particularly worries me is how easily such personal elements can give a powerful emotional charge (because they are powerful, of course) to a piece of writing that otherwise lacks merit, and make it very hard to criticize without appearing to criticize the author as an individual.

It’s true. It’s become very hard to write anything in response to the trend of “confessional writing” that had become a major part of the video game blogging scene. How can you disagree with what was written is if is that personal in nature? You can’t.

Which is not to say that others have not tried. I have seen many try to dispute reactions to games and been shouted down as maintaining the patriarchy and even outright sexist. Sometimes the accusations have been true, and others times it often doesn’t matter once the fighting starts about the interpretation.

Part of the problem is the form and the other is power.

Blogs are suited to a confessional tone. Most are run by personalities and the audience knows what to expect from them. The brand-as-person model fuels sites like Destructoid and especially Kotaku as they capitalize on having staff who write about their interests. It makes the writing personable and engages the reader.

However, it also encourages writing that details how a game made them think about a time in the past or to get angry about certain problems. All of which makes for entertaining non-fiction reading, but doesn’t always say much about the game in question. That same reaction could have come about while drinking coffee or standing on the street. However, in those cases, the game was a part of the core experience.

This is where, I think, Mattie Brice comes into the picture. Her latest essay, “Decolonize me“, makes the case that those who would critique personal experiences are “colonizing” the community. By pushing back against the trend of personal reaction, they are forcing a certain type of writing that doesn’t deal with the gamer as a person at all.

She’s probably right.

As I can easily imagine others, and I include myself here, don’t find confessional writing useful as a review, critique, or anything other than an honest reaction to an experience. It’s the natural outgrowth of New Games Journalism to take the power away from the game and imbue it in the writer. It’s about their thoughts and feelings, not if a particular skill level is needed.

It’s also the impact of feminism on the field too. Academic writing, the background from which many bloggers have sprung, often emphasizes the text itself and downplays the reader herself. That has changed as the “I” has made its way into more writing. Personal reactions, and  those outside of the patriarchy, have slowly fought their way into traditional writing.

However, just because it is new doesn’t make it better. And just because it is “traditional” doesn’t make it best.

While I think some have, indeed, have probably exploited their past to write in the present, others have not. And I don’t think all who write confessional essays do this either. Some of my personal heroes in the field include people like Jenn Frank, Leigh Alexander, and Patricia Hernandez, all of which have, at one time or another, written long personal essays about their lives in connection to videogames. Do I think those essays explained something about any of the games they mentioned? No. Do I think the essays were important regardless? Absolutely.

As Brice points out, writing “Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author.” There is a distinction here though. Personal experiences can be used in criticism, but isn’t automatically criticism in and of itself. It’s a valid response to a work — as all responses are.

Confessional essays are vital to the growth of the field. Without authors daring to bare their souls before an audience in their connection to what they have played combined with their own past, we risk giving up the power to change things. However, let’s not confuse honesty with de facto criticism.

In reading confessional writing, we may confront ourselves through the lens of another life, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way to read a game. We may learn about the struggles hidden from our privileged eyes, those we ignore without seeing, through an essay connecting a videogame to a troubled past. We may even come to appreciate how a game points a light on an issue we didn’t know existed. All are needed.

Anyway, that is what I think.