Future-proofing Critical Distance

criticaldistance_kotrt_newI was speaking with one of my favorite game critics the other night. He told me, wistfully, of how proud he was of his most popular article to date, and how he wished he could take credit for it — but he couldn’t, because he’d face untold harassment.

This is sadly common. Every writer I’ve known who has signed their name to a deeply personal piece of writing — especially if it’s an account of the harm they’ve experienced in life — has faced no end of online abuse for doing so. They also seem to get pigeonholed, shut out from being known for any of their other contributions to become, instead, that one who wrote that one thing. The latter might be natural of how we process microcelebrity within our incredibly niche sphere of writing but it’s unfortunate and frankly awful all the same, and taken together with the former, it poses huge risks and endless disappointment for writers no matter if they sign their work or don’t.

(This is not, I should add, some impassioned defense of “confessional writing” or whatever semi-pejorative you wish to drum up. My stance at Critical Distance has always been that we welcome all kinds of critical games writing and commentary, which is great, because what we receive each week is always richly diverse. This here is decrying the fact we can’t seem to talk about assault, sexism, racism, harassment and so on without the writers inviting those same things upon their head, as though the universe decided it must prove a point.


I wanted to tell this critic friend that “some day things will be better.” That some day we will grow out of fouling up comments sections and hurling abuse over social media. But I doubted it would happen within the lifetime of this present games crit ecosystem of ours.

Meanwhile, we’ve all seen what the ephemeral nature of the web does to the critical writing that already exists. Check out all the 404s this (quite well intended and lovely) Twitter bot has drudged up, just by going through Critical Distance’s archives. A former colleague of mine, Mark Filipowich, blogged recently about this as well. The longer C-D goes on, the worse this problem is going to get.

At that moment I imagined my critic friend’s work not only never seeing proper attribution, but evaporating into the digital ether when the site which hosts it dies, or moves, or revamps. Not only was it all but certain we wouldn’t be around in time to see a web readership that could treat his brave words with the respect they deserved, it was a pretty sure thing even the words themselves won’t outlast us.

It’s been proposed a few times now that Critical Distance create some sort of anthology, and I’ve always been a little resistant to the idea. Obtaining the rights would be such a headache, I told people. Organizing, doing the layouts, motivating volunteers, going through the endless debates of how long and which pieces and do we want to do a print version… It’s hard enough to do that sort of thing without distraction; it’s an unimaginable drain on your energy when you have a full-time job on top of that.

But this needs to happen. I’m convinced of this now. We need to do something to preserve some of this writing before it vanishes.

And there are other projects Critical Distance needs to get a move on as well: more Critical Compilations (we welcome your pitches!), an updated search engine, more foreign language coverage, new podcasts, cross referenced tagging system, resources for new writers. These are all things we’ve discussed (and continue to work on) behind the scenes, but it’s slow going. We’re a completely volunteer outfit, most of us work, and all of us find our free time in short supply.

There’ve been suggestions for how to help remedy that too, of course. I’m not going to launch into proposals for those today, but they should sound familiar: tip jar buttons, subscriptions, funding drives, etc. Frankly I’m a leery of asking for money until I send out the remaining backer rewards for my GDC trip — those are still coming, I promise — so don’t expect to see C-D rattling a coin jar in your face in the immediate future, but still. This is something we need to address, if we’re going to be able to commit the human resources to seeing these projects happen.

Please note this is not saying Critical Distance is in jeopardy of shutting down. Ben and I have enough worked out between us that we’re pretty sure we can sustain the site for quite a while. I’m talking about expansions only here. Mind you, I think some of them are pretty necessary — post tagging and the anthology in particular. Especially the anthology. If we even print one copy and bury it in a time capsule somewhere, I want this work to survive. It’s the least we owe these writers.

(No, I am not actually suggesting we print out a single copy and bury it somewhere.)

So, there you have it. Someway, somehow, this is a thing I want to see happen. When Ben handed Critical Distance off to me in 2011 I was mostly concerned with just following on the path already set out ahead of me. Now I have worked on the site nearly as long as Ben has — hard as that is to imagine for me, still — and it feels like it’s time for the site to start growing up. After all, it’s here to outlive us both.

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  • Max Chis  On 08.25.13 at 7:05 am

    What about the possibility of creating something such as the Something Awful Let’s Play Archive? Aside from external links, the LP’s in there have been pretty well preserved, hosting both the text and any videos and images present within the LPs.


    Couldn’t something similar be done for the blogs? It might be a little complicated in terms of finding a way to convert the code from various different blog hosts and professional website articles to a common form, but it seems like it’d be doable, provided there was funds to maintain it. Alternatively, couldn’t PDF images of the articles in question be taken and then be placed on such a site?

    • Kris Ligman  On 08.25.13 at 10:48 am

      Both mirrored webpages and PDFs are ideas that’ve been discussed, but there are a few differences between something like a critical article on, say, The Escapist, and an LP on the Something Awful Forums. There, the LPArchive admins (mainly baldurk really) are taking forum thread posts and reformatting them under the Archive’s style guide as distinct pages. You could reasonably argue that it changes the experience, perhaps not significantly, but non-trivially.

      I’d be worried we couldn’t likewise argue taking a webpage and reproducing it as another webpage.

      There’s also the rights issue. People submit LPs to baldurk to be archived. Getting permission for the same for all the links for C-D is a much taller task (although as Evan notes in the comment thread below ours, it may fall under fair use — but that in turn circles back to my first point).

      A PDF also has promise, but as some have noted, what about hyperlinks? There are plenty of articles where links aren’t really important and a few where they really, really are. And that’s not getting into the works of criticism that are, themselves, interactive.

      So, I’m not rejecting either suggestion out of hand, but I think both pose some unique challenges. Any approach we take will, though, so it’s valuable to read what people want to see. I really appreciate your input!

  • Evan  On 08.25.13 at 9:12 am

    It would not be so hard for someone to write a Python script that fetches each link on Critical Distance and archives it as something like a PDF (or just the original webpage as-is). The question is what one does with that. The best solution from a user perspective would be to add a link to the cahed version next to each normal link, in all future and post Critical Distance posts. Something like, “I’ve spoken off-and-on of new and cool things coming to Critical Distance, and I’m happy to finally share a few rambling thoughts about some of them (cache)….” It’s not clear to me, however, if that would fall under fair use. I think that it would, based on a ruling about Google’s cache: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2006/01/google-cache-ruled-fair-use

    Critical Distance could then be future-proofed itself by just offering a compressed download of all posts and cache files.

    Ultimately, I think that would be of more use than an anthology, which suffers from issues of additional curation issues, failing to preserve everything, and failing to protect future posts.

    • Kris Ligman  On 08.25.13 at 10:34 am

      This idea has a lot of promise, to be sure, provided we could reasonably argue fair use. I’m a little uncomfortable with assuming that without direct legal counsel — courts like to side with big business over individuals, if only for the rationale that Google is “providing a service” with its cache, and we would only (from the face of it) be repeating that service for a niche audience.

      Also, there’s the question of discoverability, since a lot of writers don’t want to affect Google’s algorithms with duplicate content (disclosure: I am only vaguely familiar with this). It’s one thing that Google’s cache is actually WITHIN its own search engine; ours would not be.

      However, those two quibbles aside, I’m really liking this solution. It’d be a lot more elegant than an old-fashioned anthology, and achieve our ultimate goal of preserving EVERYthing on TWIVGB. I’ll bring it up with the team and see what they think.

      • Evan  On 08.25.13 at 12:06 pm

        The idea could be amended so that a link to the cache is only provided if the original page is gone. Critical Distance could archive everything, and then caches could be made public upon the demise of a website. That would be a little trickier to automate, though. I’m not sure offhand how one would write a script that could identify missing pages, given that website all respond so differently to 404s. Someone more familiar with web programming might be able to come up with a way (I use python to scrape the web for data sometimes, but nothing as intelligent as that). The more specific reposting might affect whether it is fair use, too – I can’t really speak to that beyond what cursory internet searches tell me, since I am not a lawyer.

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