(writing this in 20 minutes)
This has been boiling around in my head for years, and now there’s some big internet kerfluffle with people I deeply care about arguing with each other, and I feel like maybe I could offer a suggestion that would help an awful lot of people feel better about things.
Being the kind of person who wants everyone in the world to be happy, I figured I’d write about it. I’m also well aware that discussing an emotionally-charged topic is as safe as navigating a minefield.
So before I dive in, please understand one thing:
I believe that just about everyone assumes they’re A) a good person, and B) doing the right thing.
Coming to this conclusion was challenging for me personally. I had to deal with people who did things I felt were wrong, and could not understand their conviction in doing so. When I realized they believed they were doing the Right Thing, a lot of stuff made more sense.
With that in mind, let’s talk about corruption, review scores, and how to fix what I think is a perception issue.
A great deal of people I trust believe games journalism is corrupt.
A great deal of people I trust believe that it is not.
The consumers have A Reality, just as the journalists have A Reality. Discussions of entitlement or corruption stem from that. Consumers see journalists giving games unwarranted scores, so they assume journalism is corrupt. Journalists, not feeling that they are corrupt, respond with the assumption that hey, if consumers were expecting a particular score, they must be entitled.
Much of this goes back to “Gerstmanngate,” an incident in which Jeff Gerstmann was let go from Gamespot ostensibly because he gave Kane & Lynch a score that most consumers with agree with. The advertisers complained, Gamespot corporate applied pressure, and Jeff lost his job.
The gaming industry also has a long and storied history of ‘bribing’ journalists with free trips and gifts. Of course, journalists swear up and down that this does not affect them, that they can remain impartial, that they can write unbiased reviews, and, as crazy as it sounds…
I believe ‘em.
I do not believe the industry is corrupt.
I do believe the consumers are seeing something real. They’re not responding to nothing.
Remember what I said about people believing they’re doing the right thing? Imagine someone calling you corrupt when you believe that you are not. You’re probably going to go “hey, I’m not corrupt! You’re a bad person for calling me that!”
This is a pretty normal human response.
Most writers I’ve met react this way when wrongly accused of being corrupt. The problem is, instead of going “hm, I wonder what made them say that,” it’s “oh, they must just be bad people who hate for no reason at all.” Rare is the writer who resorts to introspection, asking themselves what might have brought about such accusations.
As a result, we, consumers and journalists alike, arrive at an impasse.
And nobody talks about why consumers and journalists might arrive at drastically different opinions about the way the world works.
I think I have an answer. And, hey, if I’m wrong, feel free to tell me so. I think this is the way the world works. Maybe I’m not in possession of all the facts, but I believe I’ve found a good area of exploration.
To put it in the simplest of terms, consumers and journalists consume media differently. This is obviously very generalized, speaking to trends, rather than individuals.
This difference of consumption leads to different responses.
Before really jump into that, here’s some trends I’ve noticed in games reviewing:
1) Games with strong audiovisual presentation and simple controls get high scores despite problems they might have.
2) Complex games that require multiple playthroughs tend to be reviewed poorly.
3) Open-ended games, like City Builders, are rarely explored in any meaningful way.
There’s plenty of other stuff, but I think these are the three big ones, and here’s why I think they are the way they are.
Games journalists rush. Not all, mind you. But I’ve seen plenty of reviewers talk about how quickly they play through games, how burnt out they are on playing them, and stuff like that. I remember one of the industry’s most prominent reviewers once tweeting that he’d just beat three games and written/completed their reviews for publication in a mere 96 hours.
The games he mentioned, based on my personal experience, all took about 25 hours to complete.
Even if that’s his job, most people work 8 hours a day. That’s 32 hours of work in a 96 hour timespan. If his schedule is to be believed, he rushed through seventy-five hours of gameplay—more than twice what a normal person would do in the course of a workday. When that was done, he spent several hours (I could do three two thousand-word reviews, including all revisions and images, in six hours or so, and I type at 110 wpm) preparing the reviews for release.
While this may not be typical of everyone, the sentiment expressed—“wow, I just beat a game super fast”—is a fairly common one in my experience. Worth noting, I think, is that Kotaku (the site I do most of my freelancing for) tends not to rush its reviews, and lo and behold, they tend not to get the same amount of hate for their reviews as other sites.
Consumers handle games differently. I work. I go to school. I do freelance writing. I’ve barely gotten in to Shadow of Mordor, and when I do, my play sessions will be two or three hours at a pop. I’ll probably spend a month or two on the game. If I’m really dedicated, I’ll get through it in a week or two.
In film, we’re taught that audio is one of the most important things in film. It is so potent that we were actually banned from using audio in our early film classes so that we had to rely on visual storytelling. Audio’s so powerful that it can become a crutch. Nobody really notices this in games, but if you look at every “bad,” highly-reviewed game out there, you’ll notice that they all have great sound design.
Throw in some nice graphics, and the game becomes more appealing.
When someone rushes through a game, hurrying to get their review score out before anyone else, the audiovisual impression slams them in the face and goes “hey, you, this experience is AMAAAAZIINNG!”
So they give the game a score that a consumer, who plays through at a different pace and in a different way (pausing to explore, testing certain mechanics to see if they can break the game, etc), would not give the game.
By playing differently, their opinion of the game is different.
Take, for instance, SimCity. A Large Website once reviewed EA’s latest installment, giving it a glowing review (I think it was a 9?). Consumers, on release, discovered that, among other things, they could build roads underwater, a glaring bug.
They took to the streets calling corruption—the game had, after all, been reviewed in a state of isolation, prior to the disastrous always-online requirements would become apparent. Whatever special arrangements had been made with EA gave the impression of corruption.
I have no doubt that the reviewer was above reproach. He played the game in a relatively short time, gave it a score, and went about with his day.
So of course he, and his friends, got mad when people called them corrupt. They weren’t. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They’d merely consumed the game differently.
Complex games that require multiple playthroughs tend to fare poorly because most reviewers fail to get to the “real game.” Platinum’s got deep mechanics in its titles, but a player rushing through the game won’t notice that. Only a player who stops to really take it all in will see that. The same’s true of city builders and other sandbox games—players often stretch these games to their limits. Reviewers, in contrast, tend to follow the campaign and tutorials to see that things work, write their review, and call it a day.
The rush to score a game hurts a reviewer’s ability to discuss the game in any meaningful way.
People have told me that I’m Kotaku’s best writer, and I think they’re wrong, but I think they feel this way because I approach writing about games more along the lines of the way the audience consumes them.
When writing about The Silent Cartographer, I didn’t rush through it once and offer my opinion, I played it four or five times, then handed it off to my roommate and silently watched him play, making more observations to write about. Dishonored was much the same way.
So, lo and behold, my writing comes across more like the average consumer would play it, my opinion ends up more in line with what they expect (my goal is to express conscious thought about subconscious response), and the audience loves my writing.
Anywho, I’m just kinda rushing through this, and it’s probably not the best thing, but I thought it might make some neat food for thought.
Basically, how you consume games will influence how you think games ought to be discussed. Right now, I feel that journalists and consumers both treat games differently, and as a result, come to frequent disagreement.
Consumers have seen this for so long that they assume there must be corruption.
Journalists have heard the corruption charges for so long that they assume there must be entitlement.
Which… brings me to the only thing I intend to say about Gamergate.
There are really bad, ugly souls on both side of the discussion. Made worse is the fact that good people have fallen in with these people and are trying to demonize the other. The vast majority of people in Gamergate that I have met are not, in fact, all about hating women.
They see what they believe to be a corrupt industry trying to tell them how to be good people. To them, this is hypocrisy. So they respond with a kneejerk “don’t tell me what to do! You’re corrupt!”
The industry, of course, not seeing itself as corrupt sees this response and goes “wow, they must hate women! They’re bad people!”
And then it escalates.
But I really do think it comes back to this age-old review score thing.
People I respect, trust, and value deeply happen to be on both sides of the conflict. People who I feel are toxic, horrible wastes of the pleasure it took to make them also occupy positions on both sides of the discussion.
Nothing’s going to change, though, unless we all realize that most people honestly want good things for people. They just have this preconception that the other side is bad, so nothing they say can be of any value.
Approach people with compassion. Recognize that some people really are bad. Recognize that most people really are good.
And treat ‘em good regardless, okay?