Wednesday, December 11, 2013

running CD: one man's experience

Critical Distance is, in all seriousness, one of the most ambitious projects on the internet. As a weekly list of contemporary discussions of video games curated by volunteers for free, it’s not a project for only one person to sustain, which is why you see different organizers and staffers over the lifetime of the site. I recently took two shifts and thought I would share my experience and thoughts.

Theoretically, the submission process is crowdsourced. Readers find good writing about games or authors write something they think is valuable, and a link to said article is submitted to the CD Twitter account. Then the organizer reads the submissions and puts them into a nice post at the end of the week.

In practice, that’s not at all how things work. I only received about seven submissions each week. What I actually did was create a new Google document for that week’s CD. As I came across something game-related, either through my personal Twitter feed or my RSS reader, I put the link into the doc before I even read the content behind it, which is ultimately where the majority of links in a given week’s CD originated. At the end of the week, I shared the document with someone who had access to the CD Twitter account, and they added that week’s submissions at the bottom. Of the approximately seven submissions, at least three would be duplicates of what I already had.

On Saturday morning, I would trawl through my list and each link would get read...more or less. If I thought the content was appropriate, I would edit the list to add in a sentence summing up the argument or otherwise describing the article for my own reference, as well as grab the author's full name for citation. If the article didn't seem appropriate, I would delete the link. The final step would be organizing the post. Topics and themes tend to congeal over the course of a week, and it’s just a matter of writing the connective tissue and a quick intro/outro. To be honest, cleaning up the post would be the easiest part.

Problem #1 with the process as it exists today is that the organizer needs to do all the footwork of collecting the posts as well as reading, evaluating, and summarizing them. Fortunately for me, I’ve spent the past four years building a network of people who continually write or link to great stuff. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty high bar to expect of anyone else who might want to help out with CD.

As a partial solution, now that I know how sparse submissions are, I will try following my previous habit of keeping links to everything I read in a week. Instead of a private Google document, I'll push new links to the CD Twitter account much more frequently. In order to solve the specific problem of the organizer needing to collect all the posts, we can start backing away from the idea that submissions need to be stellar, perfect articles. I think submissions need to be much broader in general, and we can leave the gating up to the organizer for that week. That leads into the next problem.

Problem #2 stems from the arbitrary and opaque criteria for selection. A common question about CD asks, “what makes for a good submission?” And in all honesty those criteria change from week to week.

There are some loose guidelines about what kind of articles CD doesn't want to curate. For example, straight news don’t tend to be a good fit for CD. We assume you’ll use one of the many daily gaming news sites. Reviews tend not to make it into CD because if you want to know whether or not to buy a game, you can just go to Metacritic.

However, I can easily come up with several counter-examples where daily news or commercial reviews of a game become stand-ins for larger issues in the community. Gamespot’s GTA 5 review was a critical part of understanding how the game community navigates misogyny. Rock Paper Shotgun’s interview with Blizzard broke a bit of news when Blizzard was caught off-guard by questions of the representation of women.

On the flip side, I felt quite comfortable linking articles I hadn't completely read or fully understood. If an article seemed as though it would provoke a more full discussion, that was good enough for me to include it. Similarly, I had no trouble throwing away a link if I felt it didn't belong for any number of reasons: it’s boring, it’s repeating conventional wisdom, it’s an isolated experience without enough context, or (this didn't actually happen in my experience) it’s presented poorly.

CD has two ways to handle the problem of arbitrary selection: 1) establish some sort of metric for selecting a piece and rigorously run every article through a rubric, or 2) embrace the inherent mutability of curation. Argue the benefit of curating CD for a week as the chance to feature what you think is important, as long as it holds up to some general community standard.

I’m fine with option 2 at this point. The community standard I believe in the most has been firmly demonstrated by Kris’ previous work: empathy toward others, especially the marginalized. CD demonstrates this standard by being accommodating to readers’ needs, especially by making it clear when we link to content that has the potential to be triggering. It would go against a lot of core principles of CD to link to a piece solely to mock it, although a laughably terrible piece might be politely linked if it galvanized a larger, more interesting discussion.

In general, CD would probably not link to someone arguing that women were objects due to biotruths and everyone should shut up about diversity in games because men have it really awesome right now. I guess someone will say that’s a “feminist agenda” or a “social warrior platform” or something, but to me it’s much more about building a welcoming and inclusive community in a space that’s historically been extremely hostile to anyone who isn’t white, straight, male, cis, etc. If CD is going to be a proxy for “what games can mean”, that ideal can’t be realized without embracing the full spectrum of experiences of everyone who plays games as well as all the reasons they do or don’t play certain games.