Gamers Aren’t Over

dead_on_computerThis weirdly out of synch article is doing the rounds and has stirred up a lot of the same old vitriol and hate, yet again. Why? Well it all stems from the same ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing I blogged about not so long ago. As I said there, the ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing is almost entirely bullshit, but it has raised some important issues about integrity in games reporting, nepotism and more broadly the relationships between studios, publishers and review sites. The best advice remains ‘listen to fan reviewers’ but that’s difficult if you want to pre-order and get all your extra shinies.

Whether the ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing is bullshit or not (it is) is largely irrelevant to this larger conversation and also irrelevant to the wider conversation about game content, creation and tropes that has been going on for some time now and that is a much more important issue to which this idea of the ‘erasure of gamers’ is a final, ungrateful, kick in the teeth.

Obviously, coming from tabletop gaming I have a slightly different perspective, but computer games are really just going through what we’ve already been through (and continue to go through) only tabletop games are smaller and more vulnerable and – perhaps – even more sensitive to these kinds of attacks.

I’ll be repeating a lot of the same sort of things I’ve said before, but there’s no harm in collating them in a single blog post and updating them.

I also think that this is a good time, not a bad time, to speak up on these things because there is a head of steam and an existing, engaged, public conversation with a relatively high degree of awareness that can’t just be swept under the rug this time.

So let’s deal with some of these things:

  1. Corruption in games journalism.
  2. Social Justice Criticism
  3. Gamers Are Over
  4. Where do we go from here?

Corruption in Games Journalism

Video games journalism has hardly ever been particularly honest. Perhaps in the early days of hand-coding and fanzines things were different and the internet has allowed the bloggers and youtubers to create something more like that where the message can’t necessarily be controlled and you can – perhaps – get a halfway honest opinion out of someone.

Big sites and what remains of games magazines though? As I talked about in the other blog on this subject, if you want free product to review, if you want early previews and information and to get into launch parties etc, you’d better do what you’re told. A friend who used to work in games journalism once reviewed an MMO and gave it an average, not even a bad, score. This caused a series of issues with editors and with the publisher of said game, relations between the site and the company and eventually led to them leaving that job. This is why scores tend to congregate around 7 – as one of the lowest ‘acceptable’ scores.

Smaller studios, foreign ports and indies can’t – usually – have that much pull but issues such as reviewing games you’re funding or those written by people you have personal relationships with are a problem there too. Even if there’s no actual problem it can create the appearance of one.

If you want an imperfect analogy, most games journalism is like Fox News. It’s ‘a news’, not ‘the news’.

Where this starts to get a bit muddied is when it intersects with…

Social Justice Criticism

Gamers have basically been being shat on via dubious, ‘social justice’ based criticism for some years now and the only reason – I think – that there hasn’t been that much of a backlash to it is because the tactic of branding any dissenters as misogynistic trolls is such an effective tactic. This is especially true when there ARE horrible trolls out there (personally I doubt many, if any, actually hate women they just know how to get a rise).

Still, without condoning the nastiness that does go on it is very easy indeed to understand where the resentment and anger comes from. When you’re told you’re evil, toxic, hate women, hate minorities, are shallow and every other horrible accusation in the book – as a community – day after day, week after week, year after year, resentment is bound to build up and it’s bound to explode in the form of anger.

Is there valid criticism to be made? Is there constructive criticism to be made? Absolutely, but we don’t get that. We get hit pieces and hatchet jobs, we get frauds like Anita Sarkeesian being elevated and lionised by an industry that is apparently running scared and unwilling to plant a flag in the ground and say ‘no, we support free expression and we’ll make what we want to’.

And yes, I’m satisfied Sarkeesian is a fraud. There are plenty of exhaustive resources online detailing the hows and whys and I’ve found it sufficient to convince me of the fact. If you want to see things that address her actual videos I recommend Thunderf00t’s series about her on Youtube and you may also wish to back The Sarkeesian Effect (its far from perfect as a project, or in tone, but it’s at least something).

Why get so worked up over the censorship and attacks on gamers and gaming? It’s only games right? It isn’t important, it it? The people attacking it seem to think it is important and to a great many people their safe haven, their escapism, their fantasies, are tremendously important and as a maker of art, games and other creative endeavours its important to me in terms of both livelihood and creative freedom – a basic human right.

From a gamer perspective, Sarkeesian and her ilk just look like yet another Jack Thompson or Patricia Pulling – and there’s really no reason to think they’re not.

Gamers are Over?

People just love their bad statistics and will often quote various spectacular sounding figures, especially when it comes to the gender split, to justify criticising whatever game or product has upset people at the time. Over the last couple of days it’s been talk about a near 50/50 split, or that adult women gamers now outnumber teenage male gamers.

The problem with this is obvious to anyone who has been through this roundabout before. It’s including games like Farmville and Bejewelled, it’s including people who watch Netflix on their Xbox and it’s not reflecting the reality.

What makes a ‘real gamer’? I have no bloody idea really. I guess it’s someone who isn’t just a consumer of games, but a fan. Someone to whom that’s a part of their identity much as you might identify yourself as a punk, a goth or a heavy metal fan. A lot of people look down on what you might call ‘casual gamers’ but I don’t want to do that. It’s great that more people are playing games of all kinds, but the fact that a lot of grannies started playing Wii Sports or that Madge in accounting spends her whole lunchtime matching fruit tells us precisely nothing about how we should approach AAA console titles (which are still predominantly a male audience, generally 3/4 male or more).

I write tabletop role-playing games. What can the popularity of monopoly (an awful, awful game that’s nonetheless hugely popular) really tell me about designing dungeon encounters, combat systems or how to make my – very different – game appeal to a wider audience?

It can’t tell me a damn thing.

The data is bad – and it would be useful to have good data. If we had accurate data from the appropriate genres and subgenres – and we wanted to reach out to a larger female or minority audience – we could do so based on actual data, rather than on hearsay, rumour and opinion. Of the triple A titles, which ones do appeal the most to women, and why? Which ones appeal to racial minorities, and why? ‘50% of women are now gamers’, when you define ‘gamer’ to include people who play Minesweeper on their office PC, it’s effectively meaningless.

Another analogy. What can a successful romantic comedy tell us about how to cast and direct our next blockbuster action movie?

Answer, almost fuck all. What makes a successful romantic comedy is hugely at odds with what makes a successful action flick.

Are ‘gamers’ over? No. No more than comic book fans (as opposed to ‘people who read comic books’) are over, or film buffs are over.  Some people are more than just consumers of a particular form of entertainment, it’s part of their identity and who they are. If ‘gamers’ are anything they’re the fan-leaders, the opinion formers, the motivated consumers that shape and lead and can make or break a game.

They’re not over, they’ve not vanished, they’re still important and trying to erase them or characterise them as trolls is to insult your main fanbase.

Where do we go from here?

The whole ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing might be bullshit, but it has created a large scale public discourse that could become useful, if it’s not derailed in the usual way by painting every critic and concerned gamer as a misogynistic troll. There are real issues that need to be discussed but it needs to be an actual, respectful, thoughtful discussion.

It needs to be a discussion with two sides.

It needs to be a discussion that uses all the facts, not just the convenient (or inconvenient) ones.

Will that happen? I don’t know. I can hope so and – as a hopefully reasonable, intelligent and engaged gamer and game creator – I would like to try and steer things that way.

I guess we’ll see.

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