A really unpleasant gaming trend is getting louder and louder of late, where it’s considered of vital importance to observe when other people are “bad” at games. And of course insinuating that one is “good” at them at the same time. Such an attitude reveals an extraordinarily narrow-minded view of gaming, and indeed of humanity. It’s really time for it to stop.
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There are a few running jokes about me on RPS, from being a bad healer to being far too attractive and clever. In their number is that I’m “bad at games”. And I happily take it, because I’ve deliberately opened the door to it. Over the two decades of my doing this, I’ve deliberately been open about how I don’t enjoy it when games have large difficulty spikes, when I’ve not been able to get far into a tricky game, or argued that it should always be possible to skip ahead in games. I’ve said it because it’s true, or at least it’s what I think, and few others are willing to. There’s a bravado, a need to appear to be the best in the world, which obviously most critics out there are not. Everyone’s just not willing to admit it.
And no surprise when there’s such hostility out there now. A few days ago Polygon uploaded a half hour video of one of their writers playing Doom, and yes, without doubt, the player during the recording isn’t performing particularly well at the game. Clearly playing on a console, he or she spends more time shooting at walls and the floor than the enemies, and appears to be ill at ease with the controls. It’s weird that Polygon uploaded it. But what you cannot tell from the video is whether the person playing is having fun. They could have been having a great time.
However, that is not how the video has been received. Loud voices have declared it as proof that Polygon as a site is incapable of providing expert opinion on games, despite there being no suggestion that the player in the video is the person reviewing the game. Whether the player was enjoying themselves, whether they were forced to upload the video of their first half hour getting used to the controls because bosses wanted footage while the clicks were high, whether they were used to mouse/keyboard controls and struggle with a gamepad for shooters (I know I do), whether they were drunk or high… nothing else is considered. Instead any potential expertise is called into question and they are laughed at. And I think this is really sad.
And this is as nothing compared to the roaring tedium that’s surrounded the release of Dark Souls 3, Stellaris, and any number of other games that are notably difficult to play. Unless one is the best at the game, one cannot claim to have opinions. Which is such a warped way of thinking. (I recently wrote about how I found Stellaris impenetrable, and received some rather strange responses. I’ve not played Dark Souls 3, because I detest boss fights at the best of times. I’m not personally affected by either, but I’ve read so much nastiness directed all over the place.) Because a person can have a splendid time with a game while being terrible, mediocre, quite good, or brilliant at it. Because games aren’t exams. And treating them like they are is ugly and stupid.
This attitude has had a very peculiar side effect on games journalism, too. It’s ever more the case that anyone reviewing a game daren’t admit to struggling with it, or finding it too hard in places, or admitting they had to give up at a certain point, because they will be on the receiving end of absolutely ridiculous abuse. I know this because I refuse to be bullied into being dishonest when writing about my own experiences of games (which are, of course, reflective of a large proportion of players), and as such receive a lot of said abuse. But few are joining in any more. Reviewers make ridiculous claims about completion times of games, fearing that if they say it took them eight hours, and everyone else says six, then they’ll look “bad” at it. Rather than, I don’t know, took more time to play it. There’s an idea. Or, and this would be just fine, weren’t as skilled at it as another reviewer so took longer to finish it.
Despite taking a couple more hours than someone more skilled, that person can still have an expert opinion on the game. Because the notion that they’d need to be top of the high score table before writing anything is… it’s really fucking stupid! Good grief, why is this even a thing that needs saying? Never mind that they’re going to have had a limited time to play the game and write about it, and not the weeks or months post release to become an expert. But for fear of cruel backlashes and public humiliation, us hacks are more likely to pretend we didn’t have problems, and as a result write a dishonest or far less helpful article about it. Screw that.
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I recently reviewed Homefront: The Revolution. I know for a fact that I wasn’t as “good” at the game as another journalist I know. I chatted to him the night before it came out, after I’d written my review, and he mentioned how long he’d played it for. I realised I’d been playing for far longer than him and hadn’t got as far. And I had the thought, the worry, “Oh no, what if…” And caught myself. Because I’d written 2,500 words of considered, competent criticism of an intricate game, about which I had conflicting feelings. It turns out that his perhaps being “better” at it (or indeed playing it less thoroughly, missing side quests, etc) had no impact on my ability to write a damned good review of the game. Go figure.
Somehow as a gaming collective we’ve allowed notions from the likes of eSports to infiltrate our expectations of how ordinary people play games. They play them normally, not as world champions. In fact, if a games critic is to be of any use to the largest proportion of readers, they need to be in a position to have a normal experience of a game. They cannot be inept, someone cannot usefully review a game if they don’t understand the rules, or aren’t able to play it. However, they can certainly write about that. Reading about those experiences is revealing and valuable and informative. Not that they’d likely want to in the hostile and cruel atmosphere into which such things are received.
In this mess people have lost sight of what a review is for. It’s not a world-leading gaming expert explaining how they’re best at it – it’s a regular gamer who is hopefully an expert writer, eloquently describing their experience of the game. The farther a person drifts from this criteria, the less useful the criticism becomes to the largest number of readers. And in turn, the presentation of such high expectations, such high demands to be considered acceptable, puts off those reading, regular players of games, makes them feel unwelcome. It has a huge impact.
The loudest voices are almost always from the smallest minorities of gamers, and when someone writes about – or videos themselves – being less “good” at a game, it is these loud voices that respond. Furiously and often cruelly, mocking and chastising, and ultimately dismissing, because they might have a better aim, or a greater affinity for a particular genre. However, as is very often horribly demonstrated by those doing the mocking and dismissing, what they aren’t better at is informative and entertaining writing. Which might rather be the key.
I’ve made the decision to ignore dull people shouting insults at me for having normal experiences of games, I’ve committed to putting up with it. (I know some could respond arguing I’m only saying this because I’m “bad at games”. I’m not. I’ve decided I’m officially “quite good” at games.) But that shouldn’t need to be the case. No one should be struggling to enjoy the entertainment of playing games in this wretched endemic culture of “GIT GUD!!1” I know that I play games to be entertained, challenged, surprised, changed, soothed, and agitated. I do not play them to be the world’s best, and it’s preposterous to expect that of critics, YouTubers, friends, anyone, and wildly illogical to desire it.
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Shaming people for being less “good” at a game is gross. Requiring those writing commentary/recording footage of the experience of playing a game to be better than you at it is infantile and irrational. Games are not a competition, unless they’re a competitive game. So go have fun, and enjoy everyone else having fun.