25 Mar 2012

Likes, Dislikes and Opinions

Videogaming is experiencing something of a golden age at the moment. We have largely mainstream acceptance for our hobby, while the creative medium outstrips any other in most metrics. We’re also very fortunate to have open communication with those that create our games, from social mediums such as Twitter through to forums and even large-scale events.

The problem is, we’re crap at providing feedback. Sure, we’ve mastered the art of shouting “This is crap” or “This is good” as loud as possible by as many people as possible. But let’s be honest, humans mastered the art of shouting loudly thousands of years ago. We’ve kind of moved beyond the idea of yelling “Fire!” or “Look, Mammoth!”. We’re dealing with PCs and consoles now, not rocks and spears. Last I heard, your iRock didn’t hook you up with Reddit.

So what gives? In this age of free and frank exchange of ideas, how can we improve the chances of getting the kind of games we want to play? And just as importantly, how can we ensure that when developers and publishers get it wrong that we don’t bludgeon them into silence with noisesome complaints? We want to be heard, but we also want them to take risks and come up with fresh ideas, right?


Before I started blogging about videogames in general and MMOs in particular, I used to document them on Wikipedia. While it’s great training to help develop research skills, it’s ultimately a soul-destroying experience for two main reasons. Firstly, the publications that covered the early days of videogaming are largely lost to history, meaning articles on many gaming legends have been purged due to a lack of “reliable sources”.

By far the bigger reason though was that it runs counter to the notion of creative writing as a platform for sharing both information and opinion. I was reading all these great articles where authors celebrate the great and good by extolling a game’s virtues. They don’t just stipulate that something’s good or bad, explain their opinions and weigh up pros and cons. And they could do it in such an entertaining way that it was a joy to read.

It’s probably no surprise to you that after a while I grew tired of Wikipedia and its critique by committee and abandoned the project for pastures new. I still had an itch to write, which is how this blog came about. The difference is that now I get more freedom to decide what I write about and, more importantly, how I do it.

But it isn’t as broad as liking or disliking something in general terms. As an example, I like all ice-cream, but I prefer Ben and Jerry’s to Haagen Dazs because of the creamier taste and more interesting textures. Further in, I prefer coffee, banana and toffee flavoured ice-cream because I feel they work better with the cream base, and besides I prefer fruit to be in a frozen yogurt or sorbet. But put a bowl of ice-cream in front of me and I’ll still eat it happily.

It’s this bit about the granularity of likes and dislikes that I wish people would get more, particularly when offering their opinion on videogames and MMOs. I completely get that there are games which have elements we don’t like, or that are made by publishers who’ve done some questionable things. But the important thing is to make sure that our feedback is specific, proportional and targeted. Otherwise there’s a big risk of us being seen of as perpetual whiners, fanboys or worse. Our thoughts and opinions are pretty meaningless if we just operate as a toggle between pure love and outright hatred.

There’s also an important reason behind providing more specific feedback – it helps developers make better games. Sure they might be unable to fix your particular issue for your particular game, but it means that next time around they’ll be able to iterate on it and improve it. You can see this easily through the patch notes for World of Warcraft. If we’d come out raging against the game, bombing review sites and whipping up frenzied campaigns, would the game have lasted through seven years and three expansions?

In the face of a wall of criticism, developers are likely to do something we’ve accused Hollywood for years – play it safe. That means no more risky storylines or plot themes. No more exploratory game styles or new concepts, at least not by the mainstream studios. Instead it’ll be wall-to-wall Michael Bay: grand explosions, impressive budgets and finely polished product, but ultimately nothing new. We want developers to feel they can take risks, safe in the knowledge that fans will be reasonable but fair in their response. Currently we’re not there, favouring the loud and uncompromising approach promoted by many of the online communities in existence today.

And that’s really the nub of it. We live in a world that’s more connected than ever, where the only thing faster than the speed of light is the speed of bad news. It takes mere moments to write a forum post, start a campaign and amass a legion of followers with a common grievance. Sometimes that’s a great thing, but when it becomes our default response it loses its meaning, instead being seen as a knee-jerk reaction rather than a considered response. It’s the same with review-bombing – if we grossly penalise games for proportionally minor yet significant issues, we’re destroying the value of those outlets as a reflection of opinion. Knowing what goes on with Metacritic user reviews or Amazon product reviews, would you pay them any more than a cursory glance?

It’s why, in the absence of a reliable and reasonable way of aggregating public opinion, we still need people to write about videogames and share their views. And let’s be honest – reviews aren’t there to help validate your own opinions or justify which games you buy. They’re there to help you make an informed choice if you’re unsure what to buy. If someone rates a game differently to you then that’s fine – it probably means that they have different opinions of the game. But that’s the thing about opinions – there’s no right answer. Scores are all subjective, and wailing against someone for giving a game a different is like wailing against a friend for liking a different band or film.

That doesn’t mean that as individual consumers our opinions aren’t valid – far from it! But we need to get better at articulating and expressing our opinions as sharp tools operated with precision, rather than crudely wielded blunt objects. A carefully written blogpost, an expressive YouTube video; there are several tools that allow us to put our stake in the ground and say “This is my opinion and why I have it”. Several videogame critics have started their career in that exact fashion, through developing a voice for their opinion.

As a culture, we have one of the most effective ways of providing feedback to those who provide us with our entertainment. Developers and publishers are keen to talk with us, discuss our concerns and use that to make better games. Community managers are there to help us share our opinions with those developers and publishers. But the system is only as valuable as the information we as players and consumers put into it, and collectively we’re doing a pretty poor job.

So the next time you’re asked to jump on a campaign or help promote a cause, ask yourself some questions. Does the response we’re giving fit with the size of the problem? Can I help with making the message clearer or more specific? Does this encourage developers to make the kind of games I want to see? And most importantly: does this help move gaming culture forward?

The future of gaming and games development is in our hands. Our opinion governs what games get made and how they’re created. Let’s make it count for something.

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