Scott Eric Kaufman Taught Me How to Love Games

Waypoint Columnist Cameron Kunzelman eulogizes a giant of media criticism.

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Dec 9 2016, 10:27pm

Header Screenshot courtesy of Desert Golfing

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities. 

Scott Eric Kaufman died a couple weeks ago. That name might not mean much to you, but chances are if you're a nerdy person who has been on the internet that you have read something by him over the past few years. He wrote the Internet Film School column for The A.V. Club, did the political beat for Salon, and was a former academic who spent a whole hell of a lot of time talking about Batman, Mad Men, and Buffy.

He's the guy who taught me to care about video games. I never met him, and I only spoke to him directly one time. But I can say, without any doubts, that this column wouldn't exist without him.

I went to college to study literature. I cared a lot about art film, and I was neck-deep in Charlie Kaufman (who is, as far I know, unrelated to Scott). I watched a lot of documentaries that never made it to home release. In short, for a time, I was truly intolerable (cue some readers nodding their heads in present-tense agreement).

Then I ran into Scott Eric Kaufman explaining Batman Begins. I don't know how I discovered it, and I prefer not really knowing: Struck blind on the road to being the worst kind of undergrad, I became aware of ways of looking at things that didn't rely on or reduce them to their reputations. You could just look at a thing, enjoy it, and try to figure out why you enjoyed it. What made the thing happen? It was a revelation, a true breaking point.

I started writing about comics and games instead of Victorian novels and American Modernism (maybe to the disappointment of my advisor). I started paying attention to how mechanics functioned and how certain characters spoke to me (or didn't). I started reading games in the same way that I would have read a novel.

It was all online, it was all free, and none of it talked to the reader as if they were incompetent or incapable. 

All of this is common sense now. Or, at least, there are people wandering around in the world who can give you some pointers about this now, but I had never been given the tools for this. I don't think I had heard a literature teacher, or maybe any kind of teacher, talk to me about video games and how to understand them. I didn't think that there were tools to understand them at all; they were like some kind of arcane spellcraft put together by technical wizards on the other coast of the country.

Kaufman didn't give me those tools directly, but his blog was this lively space where you could see a critic trying to put his own tools together. In a series of posts later collected as The Visual Rhetoric of SEK, Kaufman walked through the basics of how to read a frame of film or a page of a comic book. In 2009, I read SEK doing basic formal analysis of the images in The Dark Knight, and it changed how I talked about things. You could just look at something, identify the patterns that emerged, and then draw conclusions from those patterns.

It was all online, it was all free, and none of it talked to the reader as if they were incompetent or incapable. Kaufman put  his ideas (and himself) out there, and he hoped that people would pick up on either. It was generous and kind. It pulled me out of a morass. Years later, I'm writing this column, and I'm still using some of the same basic tools that this man gave me without knowing.

He was funny while he did it. Disgustingly funny. He could make being interviewed by Kirk Cameron's handler into a comedy bit, or he could turn teaching notes about a Warren Ellis comic book into an engaging and funny back and forth. He was remarkably good at predicting the feelings and thoughts of the people who were reading him, far better than I will ever be, and he could do it all at the drop of a hat.

Kaufman was a model of being able to talk to different people about things you love. In the world of writing or making videos about games, we often have a hard time "crossing over" to people who don't have as much investment in them. The shorthand we use in games, like "the 4x genre" or "roguelike", mean almost nothing to your average person who only plays Candy Crush or the new Madden every year.

[Kaufman] taught me that there's nothing worth gatekeeping around film, or comic books, or video games.

But those people have as much stake in having fun with games as I do. My dad, a man as far away from "gamer culture" as one could possibly be, accidentally came upon Desert Golfing recently and played it for hundreds of courses. He's not all about the newest indie weirdness; he just likes to play games.

Kaufman taught me to take that engagement seriously. He taught me that there's nothing worth gatekeeping around film, or comic books, or video games. He showed me that the best use of my time was showing people what I appreciated or disliked about something and then showing how I got to that feeling. And he gave me the tools I needed to get started in those explanations.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida eulogized a friend by saying that he had time "allotted" to share with that friend, that his life was better for the time that he overlapped with another person. I feel the same way about Scott Eric Kaufman.

He wrote to me, once, in a Facebook message. I had mentioned him in a piece that I wrote, and he reached out to me. I tried to strike up a conversation, but he never responded. And thinking back on it, the worst thing possible would have been striking up a friendship; he remains alien to me, a figure above it all, a sassy Prometheus who handed some stuff down from on high and then went on about his life.

I am here, and he is dead, and the only thing I can do is try to explain my debt to him. It's an obligation of carrying a fire, of writing and thinking and talking in public about the things that I love or the things that annoy me to no end. It's about helping other people develop the tools they need to understand the things that haunt or fascinate them.

The hope of this column is understanding endings, finalities, and all of the other moments when things close off. It's painful to have to talk about Scott Eric Kaufman's ending. I wouldn't have the tools to understand it without him.