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17 September 2015

Videogame fans will have more fun if they don’t take games criticism too seriously

Games are considered to exist in competition with each other in a way that no other creative works are, and their fans mind more about critics.

By Phil Hartup

Perhaps it is the existential futility of it all, perhaps it is the steady building up of repressed fury caused by network errors and lag at the worst possible times, or perhaps it is just that we are served by an industry that delights in treating us like lab rats one week and marks for a long con the next. Whatever it is, videogame fans can often be very sensitive people. Not sensitive in the sense of being aware of the emotions and needs of others but sensitive like a landmine that’s been designed to kill ants.

This is not a trait unique to gamers of course. We live in an age where any opinion or criticism expressed within a public forum might end up provoking outrage from somewhere. From the political left you can expect an earful if you make a poorly judged joke about women and from the political right you’ll be savaged if you make a complaint about a poorly judged joke about women. The world of social media feels like a mass of belligerent porcupines, each poised to jab a load of quills into anybody they feel is attacking them.

The culture of games lends itself powerfully to this dysfunction. Games are considered to exist in competition with each other in a way that no other creative works are expected to be. They are scored, ranked, numbered and aggressively compared to each other. Even the platforms people play their games on are the subject of perpetual rivalry. They also ask a lot of their players, both in terms of money and time. Players are encouraged to feel like they are part of a community, that they have a personal stake in how a game is perceived.

In this context, taking criticism of your favourite thing as a personal insult isn’t as huge a mental leap as it might at first seem. Rather all it takes is a series of small leaps.

A person might read an article that says that a game they like has problems, let’s say for the sake of this example that it a critic has said it is sexist.

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The first leap is that the reader interprets this as the critic saying that the game is bad. Not bad in the sense of being poorly made, but in the sense of being morally wrong, a corrupting influence in the world.

Having once made that leap, the reader can easily extrapolate this into being a personal criticism. The logical progression is that if they enjoy a thing that a critic thinks is sexist, then the critic must be saying that they are sexist too.

It is not difficult to imagine how fans end up seeing criticism as an insult. If a critic points out that a game has ugly graphics or that a story makes no sense, those are criticisms of the quality of a game but they do not invite a moral judgement. If somebody says a game is racist or sexist that carries more weight because we live in a society that is trying to eradicate those kinds of prejudices*. As a result some people are more comfortable simply denying or arguing against this kind of criticism rather than accepting that something they like might not be pure as the driven snow. Such discussions seldom end well.

There is also a sense that criticism on issues like racism and sexism carries a threat to the subject itself; that critics want to purge these elements from the culture. Now the dirty little secret here is many do want that, and why wouldn’t they? There is no artistic value inherent to sexism, racism, or any other form of prejudice.

But that doesn’t make criticism a destructive act. Nobody gets into criticism because they think their chosen subject is perfect, but that doesn’t mean banning things that don’t measure up. The same free expression that says a game can include unpalatable elements also covers the right of critics to pour scorn upon them. Freedom of expression also enshrines the right to point out that the critics might be wrong. Though perhaps most importantly of all it gives us all the right to ignore everybody else if we don’t care to hear from them.

Angry reactions to criticism aren’t always provoked by issues as incendiary as racism or sexism. A critic can incite strong reactions simply by saying that something is bad. When a critic lays into somebody’s favourite game for simply being a terrible game the inference that a fan can take from this is that they have no taste, that they are predictable and easily amused. People find this so insulting they are often compelled to rage against it, even when the criticism is overtly being played for laughs.

Criticism is of course not inherently noble or free from bias and malice. Criticism of culture can be a stick to beat people with, deriding them by proxy for how they choose to spend their time. It can be a vector for prejudice of all kinds, particularly if the subject of criticism is popular with a particular demographic outside of the writers own.

Ultimately though, as objectionable as criticism of the things we love can feel at times, the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t about us. It is just another person’s opinion about something somebody else made. Worrying if the ways we spend our time meet with universal approval is a very efficient way to suck the fun out of everything. Whether it’s a videogame, a TV show, a book or whatever, the things we like should be happy places for us, redoubts against the world, and it absolutely doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about them.

*Yes I know that is an oversimplification and open for debate in itself, but the generally accepted principle is that they are bad things.

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