Hate the Player…

Even if you’re not a gamer–even if the only thing that comes to mind when you think of games is a mustachioed Italian plumber–you know one thing: the gaming community is… passionate. Now, you might use different words (obsessive, geeky, hardcore), but the sentiment is the same. It’s a huge reason for why people fear games and gamers. It’s a huge reason for why most of us feel alienated, both in and outside the community. But it’s strange, really, when you think about it. Because while so much of youth culture encourages apathy and self-serving irony, the love of games remains pretty much untouched, still unbridledly genuine. In the gaming community, you will find no shortage of zealousness. And that might be because from art critic to everyday-COD- fanboy,  when we play a game we put something very valuable on the line: our egos.

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In my last post we talked about how games are special for this exact reason. They’re interactive so the content relies on one huge variable: you. Games are hard to talk about because every playthrough can be vastly different, and every aspect of gameplay is altered by the personal baggage you bring to it. This not only makes them difficult to review and critique, but also places them dangerously close to the fabric of who we are as people. It’s no wonder, really, why the community is characterized by a notorious toxicity of exclusion and aggression. And it’s true, unfortunately. Read any type of game commentary, whether a review, critique, or hell even a youtube comment, and you’ll get a sense that the author is walking on eggshells. They tiptoe around controversial opinions, and when they don’t–when they are brave enough to make anything close to a value-judgement–they tack on an absurd amount of ifs, ands or buts to defend against every conceivable counter argument. It almost starts sounding like a hostage situation, where the opinion is the hostage and the commentator is the cop trying to talk down a murderer. And that metaphor is not that far from reality, because game reviewers and critics brace themselves against an expected tirade of personal attacks and death-threats whenever publishing an even mildly controversial opinion.

And therein lies the conundrum of this beautiful, yet destructive community of people who play games. I’d be lying if I said passion isn’t a lot of what endears me to the industry. It takes a special kind of bravery to be part of such a villainized community, and even greater bravery to dedicate years and years of your life (and sanity) to creating a game that will, in all likelihood, be either ignored, laughed at, or just plainly hated. People who game care. They care a lot. And that kind of willful vulnerability is far too infrequent in the age of pre-meditated selfies.

But it can also makes us look like a bunch of immature lunatics. Because the language of discussing games is almost always reduced to an egocentric pissing-contest where the reviewer/critic is trying to outwit the game designer, the gamer/youtube-commenter is trying to outwit them both, and the last thing people are talking about is what actually matters: the  game.

The bottom line is that games are great because, at their core, they’re forcing us to make things personal. And games have a problematic community because they’re inherently personal. It’s what makes me think they can be a ground-breaking art form. It’s what makes the rest of the world scoff whenever I try to defend their artistic value. It’s a Catch 22 at its finest.

The solution to the problem is not to try and think of things more “objectively” (whatever the hell that means). The concept of discussing a game while ignoring the actual player’s experience is so laughable that an entire spoof website exists about it. Similarly, the study of games in academia–which is so bafflingly abundant and massive that one begins to wonder what psychologists ever talked about before video games–is usually such a steaming pile of horseshit. Because it tries to objectively and uniformly dissect a medium that’s power comes from the unrepeatable subjective experience of it.

Making games less personal is neither desired nor possible. But that doesn’t mean things won’t get better. Part of the solution lies in setting an example: when someone has a different opinion than you about a game, do not argue with them. And by that I mean, whenever possible, try grounding the opinion in your own distinct experience. If someone says they think Ocarina of Time is overrated, instead of throwing around a bunch of absolute statements about how every critic agrees that it’s the best game ever, I will instead say something like this: “I think Ocarina tapped into something pretty universal, which is why so many of us love it fanatically. When I was young and lacked confidence, Ocarina did a great job of empowering me. Lots of people remember feeling powerless and insignificant as a kid. But Ocarina made the kid equally as skilled and integral to progression by forcing the player to alternate between child and adult Link. It made us feel valued.” Two things happen instantly: A) It’s harder to rip to shreds because, hey, I made it clear it was my experience. B) I’m not questioning the validity of the other person’s opinion, but am instead providing context to help them understand an alternative perspective. I’m not arguing. I’m discussing. Now obviously this doesn’t fix everything (and many reviewers already try to do this.) But I think trolls will find it a lot harder to troll when they’re the only idiot trying to win a non-argument.

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Basically, I think the solution to our problem lies somewhere in making games more personal. That is, instead of an egocentric pissing-contest, let’s make our community more like an egocentric show-and-tell.

I know the problem is much bigger than all that. This problem seems to be just another symptom of a bigger disease. Video games are such a new and strange phenomenon, we’re still learning what it means to have video game literacy (if you will). Intelligent language for discussing games just hasn’t been developed fully yet. I’ll probably do a whole other entry about why typographical societies have such a hard time articulating and identifying the value of mediums like games.

But for now, the take away is this: do not be discouraged. The fact that people take games so personally is more evidence that they matter. This is our community, not theirs. As we evolve, we’ll gain more and more tools to silence the dangerous and vocal minority (or rather, the dangerously vocal troll within us all.)

And anyway, it’s better than being a bunch of blasé hipsters. And that’s something we can all agree on.

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