There’s a whole bag of controversy raging around the internet of late. Of subjectivity versus objectivity, of fact versus opinion, of divergence versus convergence. Who should write about games, what should they be allowed to say, what should even be considered as a game. There’s also been an incredible backlash that has pushed people out of gaming completely, and it’s been horrifying to watch.
Anyone should be free to have an opinion on a game and share it publicly – you, me, anyone. The tools are cheap or free. Websites should also be free to hire who they want for those opinions. Don’t like the opinion, or trust the person giving it? Choose someone else. The number of voices in gaming grows every day, and there’s no shortage of places to find them. But that’s a great thing – gaming culture is growing to include more than ever before. Yes, there’ll be growing pains, but there’ll also be new games to play, new concepts to unearth and new directions to take. Who doesn’t want that?
So that’s the short answer. The TL;DR. But if you want the whys and wherefores, read on.
I write about video games for money. Not very much – certainly not enough to do it full-time – but it’s something I’ve been doing for about three years now. Before that, I wrote for myself and blogged for free in a couple of places.
More than likely, I would write about video games whether I was being paid to or not. And there’s a really simple reason for it: because of the feels. The ‘Would you kindly’ moment in Bioshock. The first time I defeated Ragnaros in World of Warcraft, alongside thirty nine people I’d never met. The times when my boss organised his team meetings in Halo 3 party chat, rather than on some soulless conference call.
It’s because I believe video games are the best form of art: one that we are active participants in, rather than experience passively. Because I believe they represent the best possible way in which to understand the complexities of humanity. And because, just as with the early days of film, I think we are only just beginning to understand the potential of the medium.
I think that anyone has a right to share their opinion about a video game, how they are made, the culture that surrounds their creation, and so on. Doing so makes the movement better – some might refute that opinion, some might agree with it, and others might use it to make new, different games. That’s a win on all fronts: gamers get more choice, and games criticism grows richer as a medium.
I don’t think anything deserves a free pass. No game is perfect, as they are created by imperfect beings. But we’ve also discovered that games designed by committee or focus group end up being bland, soulless and uninspired. We want to play games that are fun and engaging, but make us think and feel something as well. That’s the difference between, say, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2.
It’s why I also think that there’s room for both objective and subjective criticism in games. Because there’s a technical root, gamers need to be warned about poor performance (or conversely, graphical miracles). But because there’s also an artistic root as well, there needs to be subjective space. Does the gunplay feel right? Is the musical score setting the right tone? How about the scriptwriting and dialogue? All of these are subjective to a greater or lesser extent.
What I don’t think is justifiable is shutting people out from being able to criticise something at all. You might disagree with their opinion, and that’s fine. But sending death threats to get them to stop? That’s a whole level of wrong. You don’t win a debate by pummelling someone into submission, you do it by having a more compelling argument. The hallmark of a good critic is someone that might disagree strongly with your opinion, but would rigorously defend and respect your right to share it.
This is the nugget: on the one hand we want more choice from our developers. We’re tired of sequelitis, of regurgitating the same old crap with a coat of paint and a new number on the box. Games are expensive, and we want to make sure our hard-earned cash is spent rewarding studios that produce original, satisfying and rewarding experiences. But on the other hand we want to desperately preserve the status quo, for popular franchises to remain the same but get incrementally better. FIFA, Madden and Call of Duty all have their fans, and studios shouldn’t feel afraid of serving those fans with a tried and tested formula. A game that doesn’t win critical acclaim for being unique, original or genre-stretching can still be heavily enjoyed, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so.
I think that the video gaming enthusiast press is, by and large, a fairly benign entity. That said, I do think there is room for more transparency and greater clarity about what is being performed (and equally, who is doing it). We could probably do with more separation between news reporting and opinion sharing, and make that distinction clearer to readers. As individuals, we should probably also be clear about our specialist areas – are we news reporters, columnists, critics/reviewers, or something else?
Generally speaking, people write about games because they share a passion for it. They’re enthusiastic about gaming at some fundamental level – that’s why it’s called enthusiast press – and want to celebrate the good stuff. Even those who come from a cynical or negative viewpoint are doing it because they want gaming and the associated industry to do better – to serve a more diverse audience, to give gamers a better deal, to treat developers less like a commodity, and much more besides.
Take a look at a site like Gamespress and you’ll see masses of press releases every day. They get checked for relevance, rewritten in the house style, and reprinted almost everywhere. A new studio has opened. A new game is coming out. This game is adding that heavily requested feature. This game has notched up this many preorders. These are the weekly platform charts. This is the reality of factual gaming news. Informative, but repetitive.
Gamers have shown they want more than the facts. They want context – has this thing been done before? What is the studio’s history like? Who are the names behind the game? But they also want opinion – can this game be made? Is it likely to be OK, or will become a stench-ridden mess? Hands-on previews, interviews, opinion editorials and reviews all contribute to this, and it’s a perpetual cycle with each release. For an MMO the cycle gets even tighter, as each major content update brings its own flurry of activity.
All this is opinion, and that’s what a large chunk of writing about games boils down to. And there’s a nagging fear at the back of a gamer’s mind – can they trust this person’s opinion? Is their opinion being swayed by shiny swag, or a comfy hotel room, or some other unsavoury influence? These questions are becoming important because gamers are increasingly encouraged to preorder games blind, usually because of some rare Collector’s Edition, or because a retailer is offering bonus content if you do. Miss the boat and you’ll regret it, but slam your cash down on a high priced lemon and you’ll regret it more.
In part, I think it’s why I think livestreams and videos have become increasingly popular. Not because writers are terrible, but because a livestream of an unreleased game allows a gamer to vicariously play the game alongside the broadcaster. The commentary can be entertaining and informative, but it’s not the core of what’s being shared. Instead, gamers are being given more powerful tools to help form their own opinion. Because digital distribution has made it cheaper and easier for developers to provide early access to their games, it’s also becoming more prolific. There are more voices and more opinions than ever before. And that’s a great thing.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think there’s inherent ethical corruption in the gaming press. What I do think is that there are a lot more people with an opinion on the games we play, and it’s incredibly naive to believe that everyone will share the same opinion. As more people play games and talk about their subjective experiences, I’m sure that those opinions will diverge further, just as I’m sure there are people out there who enjoyed the second and third Matrix movies.
I’m not saying there isn’t corruption. I’ve heard of outlets charging developers to review their game, offering a sliding scale of advertising bonuses if they cough up. Likewise, I’ve been offered money from publishers to review their product on my blog (which I’ve always declined or ignored). And more recently, I’ve heard of a publisher trying to exert influence over an upcoming youtuber, offering greater access in exchange for some unsavoury requests. These are the practices we should be trying to stamp out, as they actively harm the root of what gaming is about – the celebration of fun.
On Clarion Calls
This pretty much begs the question: if I think the gaming industry can do better, why am I not lending my voice to the public and very vocal movement? In my mind there are a number of reasons. Firstly, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to separate the part of the movement that is focused on improving the industry, from the part that’s focused on hounding people out of the industry completely. Silencing voices through fear and intimidation is not something I support. You might disagree vehemently with something a critic has to say, but they absolutely have a right to say it. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Have a better, more compelling argument, rather than a louder megaphone to shout them down with.
The second reason is that the movement has no clearly defined goals. Better ethics? Yes, but how? Most sites have an ethical policy that contributors must adhere to. If they don’t, ask for one. If they do but you feel it’s insufficient, request changes and explain why. If writers aren’t adhering to it, point it out to them. But ultimately, if an outlet does not hold your trust, the simplest thing to do is walk away and replace it with one that does. If you feel that none of them do, start up your own. Giant Bomb and Rock, Paper, Shotgun both started out as a group of people wanting to express their passion in a particular way, and gained a following as a result. It’s happened before, it can happen again.
Thirdly, I’m concerned that the movement is being co-opted by people who do not have gaming’s interest at heart, but rather want to use it to further their own agendas, goals and ideals. I find this latest development even more alarming, and I fear that it will destroy more lives and careers before it ends.
As long as games are being made, I’ll keep having – and sharing – my opinions about them. That includes how they’re made, the people that make them, and the societal climate that influenced their genesis. It means that I’m interested in every part of a game’s DNA, rather than just the end result we install on our PCs or slap in our consoles. But it also means that I don’t feel an obligation to be universally congruent: I can be strongly against gun ownership, yet still love shooting people in the face in Team Fortress 2. A doesn’t necessarily exclude B from existing.
I’ve also caught flak for my opinions. Some people disagree with them, or would like me to be more cynical or critical, and that’s fine. I’ve found that the key part is to back opinion up with examples, as they show where a particular opinion originated from. I’ve also been called a shill (and worse) by people who disagree with my opinions, but find it easier to take shots at me rather than argue against what I’ve said. During the 2011 England Riots, one particular individual was desperately circulating my address in the hope they’d attack my home. Unsurprisingly, I took issue with that.
Ultimately though, this isn’t about me. This is about other people. About gamers that have always been gaming, but have only recently found their voice about the games they play. About people who want to join in with gaming, but have always felt like an outsider looking in. About those who look at games in an unusual way, or feel unsatisfied with what gaming currently offers. This isn’t about gaming shifting away from what is made and enjoyed by millions already, but about gamer culture growing wider and embracing more concepts than ever before. It’s not about acting as gatekeepers on what should be considered a game, but celebrating games in all the forms it’s found in.
There will be changes and growing pains. I’ve been blasting away for thirty three years and bore witness to a few, and have no doubt I’ll see more. But I still believe it’s a utopia worth striving for.