When I watched Keith Burgun argue with someone who dismissed his writing and theories in their entirety, I felt like I had watched an alleyfight in an obscure neighborhood. This wasn’t something familiar to me, it wasn’t clear why they were fighting, and, from an outsider looking in, it seemed like Keith Burgun received an undue amount of scorn.
My experience with remotely observing people who induce passionately dismissive responses tells me that there’s usually a non-accidental reason for it. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, though. Sometimes, it seems entirely justified: Ann Coulter comes to mind. At other times, it can be because that person has said something that clashes with a lot of people’s beliefs and no more, which is what happened with Warren Farrell at the University of Toronto. Since I couldn’t be sure about which side was right, I spent several hours reading through his posts, his writing, and criticisms of his writing. “What Is A Game Designer?” was excellent, so clearly there is more to him than my first impression.
Initially, this was going to be just a reddit comment. Then I read the Amazon reviews that were equally scornful of him and realized this conflict extends to mediums where people use their real names, like Gamasutra, where I’ve written a handful of things. It’s evident that if I want to give a defense of Burgun’s work, I should do it with my real name and not my internet name.
There is a distinction to be made between Burgun, the persona, and Burgun, the writing. Equating the two amounts to ad hominem. He could have a reprehensible persona but excellent ideas, and an admirable persona but terrible ideas. (I am distinguishing between “persona” and “person” because how you present yourself on the internet is only a fraction of who you are.)
After following Burgun’s interactions with others for a while, it paints a picture of why, as a persona, he is disliked. His reddit interactions explain as much. He is occasionally dismissive of criticism, and does not explain why, exactly, criticism of his ideas is wrong, if he indeed thinks it’s wrong. He doesn’t do this all the time, granted: this is a criticism of his work that he allowed on his blog, even though he didn’t’ have to. Still, he does it enough to frustrate readers, especially when the person criticizing him is doing so in a reasonable way. This is an approach similar to that of bloggers like PZ Myers, who has received similar criticism and drawn similar levels of controversy.
As is typical when you dislike the persona, though, there’s a temptation to dismiss everything associated with it. People who would normally say “this is useful writing” change their complaint to “this is trash writing, worth nothing of value, and the conclusions alone render it worthless.” An easy way to hurt the person is to hurt the thing they’ve made, and the quickest way to dismiss someone who has made an argument is to jump straight to the absurdity of their conclusions. Admittedly, I felt less sympathetic for Keith when I saw how he looked down on others, and didn’t want to write this. But his ideas are still worth defending, in spite of that.
Currently, the top Amazon reviews for his book are two 1-star reviews and one 2-star review. This is not the sort of thing that happens when you are giving a balanced or objective criticism of a work. A 1-star review by definition means that a work is worthless or close to worthless. Burgun’s work, while imperfect, is not worthless. His article on difficulty is a useful way to think about difficulty, even though I disagree with his conclusions. 1-star reviews cannot possibly be accurate ratings of work like this; instead, they’re closer to what happens when you feel like the author is your enemy, a la Elizabeth Anderson’s review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology, a book that quite directly attacks her field.
To add to the polarization, each “side” of most helpful reviews – the pro-Burgun side or the anti-Burgun side – has a contingent of maybe 10 to 15 people who have marked the respective opposite “unhelpful.” So, the most helpful 5-star review has about 10 people who consider it unhelpful, and likewise for the most helpful 1-star review. The exception is for the 2-star review, which I still consider too harsh a rating. The review distribution is also, predictably, bimodal.
The most common criticisms of Burgun are that he defines terms too narrowly, does not cite existing literature on the subject, has a condescending or dismissive attitude, is not an expert on game design because he has designed one game, and fails at creating a seminal work on game design. Some of these are more relevant criticisms of his work than others. None of them delegitimize his work in its entirety.
Criticism of his attitude is hardly relevant to criticism of his work. While it’s certainly frustrating to read work from someone who is dismissive or condescending, their attitude alone does not make their claims invalid. Tucker Max’s “Why You Should Not Go To Law School” essay is famous for its controversial attitude, but its merits are in its reasoning and not its attitude. He could be even more dismissive: “if you go to law school, you are an idiot and should jump off a bridge, and here’s why:” – it still wouldn’t render his work bad.
But suppose that you do argue, as some have done, that his reasoning is poor and that he defines his terms narrowly. In the case of game design, it’s not even necessary that his reasoning be foolproof or that his terms be airtight. It certainly helps, but theories can be useful despite their imperfections. If it’s understood that his definition of “game” and “puzzle” are definitions specific to his theories, there is no problem.
To explain why this is the case, I will draw an analogy to Bufang Liang (CosmoVibe), who has been a controversial figure in a subculture of video games. To briefly summarize a decade’s worth of hobbyism, there is an entire subculture based around the game Stepmania, where users create custom “notecharts” or arrangements of abstract notes to music. This has been systemized increasingly in the past several years, and Bufang has gone so far as to create a notecharting text that incorporates his method for doing so. Many of the same criticisms levied at Burgun have been levied at Bufang: he is dismissive of opposing theories, defines terms narrowly, and does not thoroughly argue his case.
Despite that, Bufang’s writing is still useful, because it does the following: elucidates a methodology, provides constructive mental models, outlines a unique approach for development, and explicates a great deal of conceptual matter that was previously implicit. The last bit – the explication – is worth it alone. But in reading Burgun’s work, I get the impression that it’s similar. He provides a methodology and set of theories that are, certainly, Burgun-specific. His definition of “game” excludes some things that I think are games. But his models and theories of games are still a useful way of thinking about video games, even if they may be “Burgunian” as opposed to universal.
The criticism that one has defined terms narrowly or failed to cite similar literature do make it difficult to claim that one’s work is “seminal,” in the sense that it is an authoritative work intended to be the standard for a discipline. But this, alone, does not warrant a 1-star review. Were Shigeru Miyamoto to write a book on game design, I frankly wouldn’t care how many works he cited – he could still contribute insight regardless. Insight is not contingent on how many people you’ve referenced who may think similar things.
This is when, presumably, someone pulls this card out: “but Shigeru Miyamoto is an expert on game design.”
Certainly. Remember, though, that ideas come before design. Any designer’s theories exist before they put them into practice. And at what point did he become an “expert”? He certainly didn’t attend a school for it. The first game that was inarguably Miyamoto’s was Donkey Kong, and arguably, he knew a great deal about designing before then. Spielberg was Spielberg long before he had even made a movie. I contest the assertion that Burgun needs to have a library of games under his belt for his ideas to have merit; Miyamoto’s ideas were clearly worthwhile by the time he made Donkey Kong, and Spielberg’s were arguably so before he even made a movie.
Hell, Arin Hanson (“egoraptor”) made an impeccable primer on “Show not Tell” game design and it’s questionable whether he even makes games at all. Does he? Who cares? It’s obvious that he’s communicated a great deal of clarification and insight either way. If he decides to make games one day, great. That wouldn’t legitimize his ideas after-the-fact, though; they’re already legitimate.
Besides, games and movies are focused on the end result. It would be one thing if Burgun had neither made nor played games. But who knows how many games Burgun has played? Roger Ebert, when criticizing a movie, appealed to criteria that were, at their core, theoretical. Were he willing, he could have expounded his theories of a good movie. Ebert neither wrote, nor directed movies. Ebert’s criteria of “a good movie” come strictly from watching and analyzing them. Those criteria are not meant to be universals; they would, however, still be useful.
Take, for example, Burgun’s figure on page 22 of Game Design Theory, which diagrams a story distinct from a game. “Story” is a linear path from point A to point B, while game is a web of points. This was criticized for being “condescending” and “contradictory,” because he says “I am not saying a story is simpler than a game” under the figure. You could see why someone would think this: the graphical representation could lead one to believe that Burgun thinks stories contain less complexity. But after reading Burgun’s explanation, it’s clear that he means stories are less complicated with respect to events engaged before the endpoint. He is not saying that stories are less complex mediums, only less complex with respect to their event engagement.
Certainly, some of his principles can come off as insulting, such as:
“Is your goal to tell a story? Consider a linear, temporal medium such as prose, cinema or comics. I’ll get into this more in the next section.”
Games are interesting to me principally because they are a storytelling medium. When I wrote about disrupted familiarity as a storytelling device specific to games, I was describing a device in video games that I feel is best used in video games, because it is difficult to pull off in novels or movies. Burgun’s view definitely doesn’t gel with my own, and it’s tempting to say he’s wrong because it doesn’t encompass everything I think a game should have. In spite of that, he makes a number of game concepts abundantly clear. His explication of abstraction and his corresponding scale of the abstract to the literal, e.g., is one of the best I’ve seen.
Truthfully, I suppose I feel compelled to understand where Keith is coming from because the criticism of him hits close to home. In a lot of ways he and I are similar: he has written about his game-related ideas on Gamasutra, and so have I. He has a website titled after his real name where he writes about his ideas, and so do I. He has written a book with his ideas, and I am attempting to have one published. It’s easy for me to empathize with his position, even if I disagree with both his ideas and the way he engages critics of his work.
The criticisms of Burgun, though, are too dismissive to be realistic. The 1-star reviews should be more like 3-star reviews. It is abundantly clear that Burgun has played a lot of games, thoroughly analyzed them, and knows what he wants from a game – even if he has not designed a library of games. An explicit articulation of his theory may not serve to be an authoritative, all-encompassing work of game design theory, but that does not make it completely illegitimate. There is a good deal of worth to his ideas, and discrediting them entirely does no one any good. I enjoy his writing, and will continue to read it. I hope others do the same.