To judge or not to judge

I'm not sure whether I'll be judging the IF Comp this year. Mostly that is just because it is a time-consuming process and I'm busy, but that is a reason so banal that I would not needlessly consume your time by sharing it in such a public place. This post is about another, deeper reason. "Deeper" doesn't necessarily mean "more important", but it does mean "more interesting".

Here is the deeper reason: I'm no longer sure what judging something like the interactive fiction competition is supposed to be. And that's because I'm no longer sure what my relationship to the authors is supposed to be.

The relationship between reader and author can take roughly four forms. (There are undoubtedly more, but they may not be relevant to this discussion.)
  1. The author can be the producer of a product which the reader consumes. The demand that the reader makes on the author is to provide a product which pleases the reader's particular tastes, and judgement is given depending on how much it did in fact please. This judgement is unapologetically subjective.
  2. The author can be the creator of a work which the reader attempts to helpfully comment on. Instead of being producers and consumers in a market place, here we conceive of ourselves as part of a limited community of people who help each other out, and who share the goal of creating works that are as good as possible. We try to be positive, or at least constructive. We point out what went wrong, but with the aim of teaching the author to do better next time. And "better"doesn't necessarily mean "maximally pleasing to us," since we recognise that not everyone in the community has the exact same tastes. Our judgements are inter-subjective, and made with a view to community standards.
  3. The author can be the mostly irrelevant  person in the background of the work itself, of which we attempt to be the critics. We must let the work speak for itself, and we must then do it justice. Our aim is to understand the work perhaps better than the author did; to show its wisdom or its folly; to learn from it how our craft works; and to increase our understanding of whatever themes the work is about. Our judgements strive to be objective and appeal to the unlimited community of critics (which includes all of the future), even though we know that we will always fall short. And the judgement might well be that a work is entirely worthless. Achieving artistic success is hard.
  4. The author can be a person trying to communicate personal experiences, and we are the sympathetic audience of potential friends. We might get a narrative about a boy struggling to tell his parents about his homosexuality, and we understand that this is the author's attempt to work through his own experiences in this situation, or perhaps those of one his friends. We are not called on to judge, or at the very least, we know we have to be careful with judging. Generally, friends ought to listen; maybe give advice; perhaps help out in some other way; but, in most cases, not judge. And we are at least in some sense the author's friends; those with whom he or she attempts to talk about whatever is painful and hard to talk about.
Now, I have never had any trouble choosing between these relations when writing about books or works of interactive fiction. With books, I choose resolutely for number 3. The book is the work of art; I am the literary critic; and the author is irrelevant (and often dead). With interactive fiction, I have always tried to create a mix of number 2 and number 3, depending on the maturity of the author as author. Someone new to the form can use some encouragement from the community, so I'll try to do more of 2. (I know I have often failed at this, sometimes massively so.) An established author is probably more interested in real criticism, especially since quality criticism is often much harder to get than craft advice.

But the two relationships I've always resisted being in are 1 and 4. To judge a work simply by how much pleasure it has given me is shallow and overly subjective. And who cares? Nothing irritates me more than so-called reviews that merely expose the subjective likes and dislikes of the reviewer and then either congratulate or castigate the author for catering or not catering to them. And to not judge a work at all, but accept it as the tale of a friend -- well, I want to say, I'm not your friend. If you want to talk about difficult stuff in your life, by all means do so, but do so in private situations, not in the public channels that we use for the dissemination of art works.

And I still largely agree with that sentiment. But I also have to come to terms with the fact that this neat distinction between public and private has weakened, and will continue weakening. It is becoming routine to talk about your private life in semi-public places like Facebook, and completely public ones like Twitter, internet forums, newspaper columns, or, indeed, novels and pieces of interactive fiction. And so my blanket dismissal of everyone who releases a work of art in order to talk about his or her subjective feelings is no longer fair. I might still resist the trend. But it would be unjust to hold those who follow the trend accountable for not sharing my resistance. And indeed, given that public means of communication have opened up new ways for people in minority positions to find recognition and develop their voice, that resistance itself is becoming increasingly unjust.

Sharing your pain has nothing to do with art. (Pain can fuel art, but the pain must then be transformed into something that is no longer the artist's pain.) But I am not enough of a Nietzschean to claim that art is the ultimate goal, and that human suffering is insignificant compared to it.

And so, while I can still dismiss 1, I have to reconsider my position with respect to 4. Is it really the case that interactive fiction community is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? I don't think I am in a position to make that decision -- nor do I wish to be in that position. And is it really the case that the interactive fiction competition is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? One might think that a competition is not the channel for voicing one's pain or other feelings. But even that is not clear. The competition is like a megaphone; it amplifies one's voice far beyond what is possible outside of the competition. It is more than a competition; it is also the prime place for speaking in our community. Making it off-limits to certain voices and stories would constitute an act of injustice, even if one had the best arguments in the world for it based on the essence of competitions or the traditions that constitute "us".

I bring all of this up not because of an academic interest in different form of judging and not-judging, but because, if I am at all right about current trends, 4 has become more important in our community in the last few years. And this leaves me in a bind. For while I can see how to combine 2 and 3, I really don't see how to combine 2, 3 and 4. How can I judge and not judge? How can I focus on the person behind the work and strive to forget that person in order to see the work objectively? There may be some Hegelian synthesis waiting to happen here, but I'm not seeing it.

How to judge the interactive fiction competition? I don't think the organisers could solve my problem by giving rules for that -- those rules could still be unjust, and "Befehl ist Befehl" never exculpates -- but what they do say only makes things more difficult for me. For this is the current slogan of the competition:
An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.
This then is supposed to be, not just a competition, but also a celebration. But how do those things go together? How can we judge and celebrate at the same time? Isn't celebration an event in the realm of mercy, rather than one in the realm of judgement?

How to judge the interactive fiction competition?

How to judge at all? With the division between the public and the private gone, how can we do justice both to subjectivity and objectivity, to our being able to speak as well as to our being able to speak? How can we capture in one thought, in one discourse, in one work both our individuality and our transcending of that individuality -- both of which are essential to our humanity?


  1. My overall response is: Yeah. :)

    I've written more than one review on IFDB (eg where my review ends up being more about these issues (the number 4s) than about the game, because I end up in a position where various kinds of assessment seem difficult at best, or pointless at worst. Obviously I don't see the point of having this discussion with or for myself in front of other people too many times - that's not why I go to review games.

  2. I'd say that even #3 was never truly objective. It may be that in that case one tries to set aside one's relationship to the author in order to address the work more fully, but one can never completely set aside oneself, one's knowledge and limits, emotions and biases.

    I still agree that it is a challenge. I think in practice there are a number of strategies for dealing with this, including reviewing just one kind of games. That would have a different effect from excluding them from the comp entirely, since other reviewers will still take them on, and their words will still be heard. Or, in some cases, I say "I don't feel that I can/should critique this game, but I am listening."

  3. I don't find these categories quite as closed as you do.

    As between #1 and #3, certainly one aims for something objective, but in the end I don't feel confident in my own objectivity, and I tend to think that revealing my own biases is fairer than pretending to occupy a more rarefied critical space than I know I do. So although I agree it's quite pointless to say simply "I enjoyed this!", I'm not as negative as you seem to be about saying "Here's what I thought about this, but bear in mind that my views may be influenced by the fact that this is/isn't the sort of thing I find interesting". To me, that seems a fair thing to do.

    I find #2 and #4 inevitably blend to some extent too. Even works that don't smash down the door between public and private quite often leave it ajar, and there seems to be something "of the author" in many works. I don't think that's new. Less experienced authors are especially inclined to leave remnants. One of the reasons I try to be constructive and balanced (i.e. I try to find some (honest) good things in the games, even if my overall judgment is negative) is because I don't think I can forget that the games do actually have authors, or necessarily want to do so. This is not naive celebration: it's trying to find things which are actually worth celebrating, which is different, and I think legitimate.

    For me, #4 only becomes critical if the door between the private and the public has been smashed down completely, i.e. with something that is overtly and avowedly confessional. I can't say I've actually noticed that happening to any great degree, though I agree it might make me uncomfortable. For me the difficulty remains much more striking the right balance between "ruthless" honesty and constructive (but still honest) criticism. I'm sure I get it sloppily wrong both ways sometimes, of course.

  4. I think #2 is where we should be aiming for with comp reviews, to subjective evaluate works according to our understanding of the community's consensus standards, if there is such a thing.

    #3 takes time, and I don't think it can be done well during the comp judging period. It takes time to see multiple people's interpretations of a work and understand its context, its influences, and the work it influences. Important, but one for the future.

    #4 is irrelevant. If you don't want something to be judged then don't enter it into the comp. If something is entered into the comp, a personal, confessional nature doesn't mean it can't be interpreted and critiqued. Maybe there isn't a community consensus standard for these kinds of personal expressions yet, but one day there will be one.

    1. Mmmmh, Dannii. I don't know.
      There's something "higher", here, at stake than a competition, in my opinion. Although (I guess everybody got it by now) I indeed have a problem with mixing oranges and apples, I firmly believe that if some people whose voice is usually silenced have found a place where to speak, we should facilitate that speech in any way. It's our duty of human beings to let minorities speak. To let them vent what they can't elsewhere. If this means killing the IFComp (and I'm going on a tangent, here!), so let it be. The FIRST and most important thing is that those people can speak. I say this because I feel that too much straightforward criticism of such pieces could prevent others from speaking, too.

      This said, I'm much in the same situation as Victor (hi, Victor!). How can one possibly relate -- compare -- two pieces like a middle-school parser game with one of these poetical struggles? How in the Earth can they belong to the same chart? People have already answered this question, but no answer convinced me, so far. It's like -- I'm repeating myself -- a Comp for both Fantasy Movies and Folk Songs. (Also: the evident lack of interactivity in some of the games it's something I'd like to discuss, too, but maybe there's too much meat on the grill already).

      Well, again, sorry: no answers from me. Only stupid questions. Can't help it.


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