I have come to the conclusion that ‘pretentious’ no longer means anything when used to describe a videogame. We ought to stop saying it.
Currently, it’s pretty much the most damning word in the biz, particularly when it comes to indie games. In many internet communities, it’s used to apply the marks of tribal exclusion. Angry internet people apply it willy-nilly to nearly anything that they don’t understand (like pOnd), even if those things are, from the perspective of your average vocabulary-having individual, not in the least pretentious. The press members who write for these people sometimes do this, too.
Okay, so a lot of people use the word to mean ‘intellectual.’ These are the kind of people who believe that games somehow resist study, or that intellectualism in gaming is somehow objectionable. They are the enemy, etc. etc. I don’t really want to talk about this. It makes me too angry and I start typing too many words about how much I dislike ’core’ gamer culture. (This post has undergone 4 revisions and was at one point over 2000 words long.)
Other people use the word ‘pretentious’ because it’s easy. These are the people I’m bothering to have an argument with. If a word is too easy to use—if we can slap it in any old place without feeling that we need to think about it—we shouldn’t be using it. ‘Pretentious’ is one of those words, like ‘gameplay,’ or ‘interactive,’ which are simply too vague to be critically useful. Instead of ‘interactive,’ I’ve started talking about ‘agency’ or, better, ‘degrees of agency.’ At this point, ‘interactive’ is basically a feature-list word, and it’s hard to control the meaning of a word that’s owned by commerce. You can slap the word ‘interactive’ on anything, and so long as your game involves user activity—even the kind of ‘press x to continue’ stuff Kent recently wrote about—you can probably get away with it. As for ‘gameplay,’ I flat-out don’t use it. If you have to use the word ‘gameplay,’ you’re not thinking hard enough about how you’re playing.
Anyway, ‘pretentious’ is now in the bin with ‘gameplay’ and ‘interactive.’ According to Merriam Webster, the actual definition of ‘pretention’ is:
expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.
At least, this is the best suited definition from the list. Oh, also: the given synonym is ‘showy.’
Okay. How do games express importance, worth, or stature? How do we tell if and when those are unwarranted? Exaggerated? Affected? What makes a game ‘showy’? Is that really all we need to say about a game—‘it pretends to be more important than it really is’—when we want to create productive criticism? It’s the vaguest kind of unsupported opinion. And if you’re going to bother supporting it, the weakness of the word is going to make it hard for you to do it to anyone’s satisfaction.
Honestly, we’d be better off using different words. Different phrases and ideas, anyway. Instead of trying to decide whether Braid, for example, made ‘unwarranted’ claims of ‘importance,’ we should be talking about the intellectual and emotional risks it took, and asking whether they were worthwhile. (Answer: they were.) What about a game that took similar risks, but failed to live up to the promises those kinds of risks often make? Some people think that The Path failed in this way. I think that The Path failed on a variety of levels—it had that awful collection mechanic shoehorned into it, for instance, and had a variety of irritating and unnecessary control problems that made it less an experience of transcendent/horrifying discovery and more an experience of frustrated ambling. But I also think that it was very emotionally effective and ultimately, therefore, a kind of success. People need to talk more comprehensively about Tale of Tales’ games—to dissect why they seem so abrasive, even to people who are willing to enjoy that kind of experience. They don’t need to pull a Jim Sterling. I know he’s not really in the best position to advance the quality of games criticism, working for Destructoid and all, but he certainly doesn’t make it easier for those of us who are trying.
‘Pretentious’ is not the kind of word to use if you want to have a debate or win an argument. It does not make friends. It is good for screeching at the choir, but screeching at the choir is not something that people ought to do at all. In my opinion. At any rate, most of the games writers I care about already avoid the word. I’m just pulling ‘pretentious’ out as an example because it’s bothered me recently—there are plenty of other problems with the words we use to talk about games.
One of the books which has had the greatest impact on me personally is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s about how new scientific fields form—about how we lose trust in old ‘paradigms’ of science and grow, slowly, to adopt new ones. The process invariably involves a certain kind of indoctrination: new generations of scientists must grow up learning the new standards and the new vocabulary in order to communicate or perform productive research together. Scientists need a shared vocabulary and a certain critical mass of shared beliefs in order for them to talk with each other about anything. The same is true for any group of professional people for whom communication is a primary concern. A strong vocabulary with enthusiastic support from the people who use it will be much more useful than one they constantly argue about, or one too coarse to communicate the important nuances of their work.
We have an awful coarse way of talking about games.