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Experiments in Criticism

Reviews and other essays on Actual Play performances, games, and media cultures past, present, and future.

An Experiment in Criticism Begins


Welcome to the start of a modest experiment, where I review Actual Plays -- podcasts, livestreams, videos, television shows, and live theatre performances that use gameplay to tell stories. Actual Plays have a long history, but are a comparatively-new media form -- and one that has had some scholarship, some media attention, but little in the way of full-fledged criticism. As the game industry, academia, and journalism are all on fire, it seems all the more important to do this work.


These reviews will be hosted here, and you'll be able to read them for free by clicking the "Sign Up" button on the upper right.


Who the hell am I?


I'm Emily Friedman. I wear many hats: in my day job, I'm an associate professor of English at Auburn University, a public land-grant university. They hired me as a specialist in the eighteenth-century with training in book history and digital humanities. While I still study and research in those fields, I've done so in some funky ways: my dissertation was on endings, my first book was on the history of smell in the early novel, and then I turned to researching the history of people who didn't circulate their fiction in print, and then I started thinking about games (tenure and academic freedom are useful, guys). Careers have a funny way of growing -- as many Game Studies scholars and Actual Play creators of my generation know well.


After a decade+ of viewing & listening to Actual Play I began to write about it in an academic way in 2018 and it became a major part of my teaching and research in 2021. I now work alongside dozens of brilliant scholars to try to understand this form, its history, and its future. I conducted a major survey on Actual Play audience and creator practices in 2023, and am beginning a second research protocol of qualitative interviews with creators. I am currently writing a book on the history of digital Actual Play, and as part of a twelve-person collective am co-writing a book on Dimension 20 intended for both fans and classroom use.


Outside of academia, I also write about Actual Play as a contributor to Polygon, and serve as a judge for New Jersey Web Fest.


What IS Actual Play?


For those not familiar (welcome!): Actual Play describes performances of tabletop roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons) for an audience beyond the players at the table. "Actual Play" was originally a term used to describe transcriptions or recordings of gameplay shared either for design analysis or for recordkeeping in a game group (see Evan Torner here). Now these performances are shared with wider audiences, who consume them to see a system being played or just for the pleasure of a special and unique form of collective storytelling.


Some people also use the term "live play," which honestly annoys me because most of the people who do so aren't referring to shows performed live. (I digress)


What will I review?


My goal with this experiment is to reflect on as many different corners of the Actual Play field as I can. That means dipping into older shows from this 15+ year history of the form and brand new offerings, audio-only alongside video-first, edited and livestreamed, of all budgets. To pace myself, I've set myself the task of one review each month, though I may be able to increase that at different points.


Why are you writing these reviews behind a signup-wall on your low-traffic website instead of at Polygon (or many other nerd media outlets)?


A few reasons. For one, regular reviews are really hard to justify by most outlets, because of how most are driven by SEO (search engine optimization). Ever notice how "Critical Role" or "D&D" get crammed into headlines where it seems to make no sense? SEO is why. That severely limits which shows I can focus on at paying outlets. There's also demand to be "timely," which means either writing immediately following a show's release, or tying the show to a trending topic. "Hot takes" are found in abundance -- here, I'm trying to give some more slow-braised consideration. Finally, because of editorial labor and the desire to reach as wide an audience as possible, most outlets have really tight word counts -- which is actually a useful and important constraint, but one it's nice to get to put aside here.


In addition, trying this project out first in a space that has a little bit of friction to "enter" (but no cost) allows me to try out different techniques, tones, etc. without bringing All The Heat of The Internet down on my head or on the shows I am reviewing. It's also why I reserve the right to deny access to anyone who engages in bad faith practices such as plagiarizing my work, sharing portions for inflammatory reasons, etc. You can absolutely disagree with me (been wrong before, will be wrong again), but I'm trying to make a space for generative critique, not flame wars and dunks.


Will you ever monetize?


Honestly? I don't know. I'm extraordinarily lucky to have a full-time, tenured academic gig, where I teach and write about this stuff as part of the gig. That job requires me to write a book in order for me to get promoted. So this project is mostly designed to help keep my brain's mental knives sharpened during times when I might not otherwise write much at all (teaching-heavy semesters).


As my website (and thus this project) is currently constructed, I don't need reader support to keep the lights on. However, in the future that might change: for example, if I was to move to a newsletter platform like Buttondown and my readership grew to even half the size of my Twitter following, then I'd be on the hook for anywhere from $30-$80/month in hosting fees.


My method


For most shows, I will review one or more episodes (not whole seasons or campaigns). That said, for some of these first attempts, I will likely be familiar with more of the show's catalogue.


Figuring out "how much" is necessary to hear/see is a tricky question, and part of this exploration process. Most web fests have shows submit only 30 minutes, which is sufficient for some kinds of judging, though not all. As my students and I found out during an experimental coding analysis conducted in 2021-22, the first half hour of most Actual Plays is a terrible sample of what the full show is like. (That said, it's worth noting to Actual Play creators that your audience is absolutely deciding whether to keep listening/watching in the first 5-10 minutes).


And while longer immersion is ideal, it radically increases the amount of labor. For example, another attempt to review Actual Plays was Role Play Review, which aimed to listen to about 3 episodes of the show being reviewed. But the podcast found that a heavy burden, even with alternate-month releases, and only 4 episodes of reviews ever appeared, and the show has not updated since June 2023.


My goal is to assess a show on its own terms. This doesn't necessarily mean authorial intention as much as understanding different contexts and mediums that Actual Play has been created in over time. That means not comparing edited work to unedited live, or audio-only podcasts to video content also released as a podcast. It also means noting change over time (a 2022 podcast is -- hopefully -- going to be different than one that started in 2016) and to an extent making some allowances for the vast differences in production budgets across the field.


What I want to communicate to you, dear reader, is what a work is like, not just so you can decide whether it might be of interest to you, but also where it fits in the history and different branches of the form. Context is easily lost in discussions of Actual Play, especially as time goes on, and I'm in a position to help bring it back in.


An important note: while my work in Polygon has largely focused on spotlighting the strengths of Actual Plays in order to promote the art form, my work here is more complex. I want to talk about weaknesses, moments of friction or even failure, shows I bumped hard off, to try to understand the form better. That means that this is not a curated "best of" but something more unsparing. I already have one review in the queue about a show I really dislike and had to force myself to listen to in full.


Disclosures


At the time of this writing, I am a paid employee of Auburn University, and paid for my writing when commissioned by Polygon/Vox Media. I know I am considered a "content creator" (influencer) by Wizards of the Coast, who from time to time sends me copies of new releases. I have also received similar review copies or teaching materials from Cephalofair, MCDM, Chaosium, and Darrington Press. As part of my early field work in Actual Play, I performed as a guest on Abraxas' Precipice, My First Dungeon, and Gimme Da Loot. The first two pay performers a nominal fee, and the last was for charity fundraising. I have not served as a consultant (paid or unpaid) for any Actual Play beyond casual conversations or interviews about the form.


That said, should any of that change, I will update this introductory post as well as post a standalone notice, and any reviews would include that disclosure. (My guide for this is primarily inspired by Polygon's Editorial Ethics and Guidelines on top of FTC requirements and the disclosure requirements of my employer). To give a highly unlikely example, if I was to consult on a Regency-themed game by Darrington Press, and then review an Actual Play of the game produced by Critical Role, I would disclose that connection. I would also do so in a (more likely) case where I had received a copy of the game without financial exchange.


In addition, like many long-time researchers, my work brings me into comparatively close contact with many people involved in the making of TTRPGs and Actual Plays. I have interviewed many for Polygon, several have visited my TTRPG class (virtually or in-person), and I have had informal conversations with far more. A few I consider friends. This is a trickier part of the work. Generally speaking, I will try to frame my prior experience with creators associated with an Actual Play under review.



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I've been looking forward to this series, and excited to see where it goes!

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I've been looking for in-depth reviews. The world needs this.

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This seems like a really cool project! I'm looking forward to reading your reviews!

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