Much derision and digital ink has already been spilled on the topic of fanboyism and video games. One cannot post a negative review of Smash Brother Brawl, no matter how popular you are, and not expect a mountain of steaming hate to be heaped at your door. The same goes for countless other revered games, be it Halo 3 or Twilight Princess. Any attempts to pose a poignant and insightful criticism of a game that has been hyped by the media is generally a good way to get kicked in the back of the head. Yet give it a few months and the tides always roll back, the fans move on to another game. Or even better, they calm down enough to actually notice the flaws in the game and maybe agree with you. What kind of relationship do we then establish with this “no negative thinking allowed” approach to criticizing newly released games?
The first question is what exactly is motivating these people to rabidly defend this stuff. The always-illuminating Brainy Gamer had a great essay and several comments that hit at the heart of the issue. The average underage gamer probably only gets one or two games a month along with one console. There is a natural instinct to defend that purchase as the best choice because it is, no matter what, that gamer’s choice. Abbott also makes the distinction between a critical piece and a review, since one involves the cultural importance of a game and one involves whether it’s worth shelling out the cash. One is looking at the game’s importance in terms of the growing canon of video games, the other is looking at how much fun it is. These do not always coincide nor do many consumers necessarily care. Zork is a historical landmark in video games. The average player should look at it to gain a better understanding of the medium’s origin and appreciate the clever dialogue. But I can’t imagine many people advising someone to shell out twenty bucks for it just to play for fun. When we tell people they really need to play a game, how much should that advice be conditioned to our wallets? Because once someone drops the hefty price on a game that’s fresh out the gate, that’s it.
Another observation on fanboys is Leigh Alexander’s oft-cited piece the Aberrant Gamer essay, which outlines the problems in expecting any kind of objectivity from gamers or reviewers anyway. We are psychologically conditioned because of our familiarity with a mascot to like a game. We trust Mario, we like Master Chief. Anything they do is going to garner a more favorable response than something entirely new. It’s also inherently a part of gamer culture to identify with its symbols and icons.
Yet beyond the rabid screaming posts of death that makes many journalists quiver, there is also the fear that giving a game a bad review is like giving video games themselves negative input. GTA IV received so much press and attention from non-gaming media that for the brave few who pointed out flaws in the games, it almost comes across like they’re insulting video games themselves. They’re insulting our public image by criticizing our daring attempts at being art. Which makes dealing with the fans all the more difficult when you know you’re shooting them and your beloved art form in the foot.
All of these issues are something a critic should be aware of before ripping into a newly released game: some people like a certain title no matter what, there will be plenty of time to say a game isn’t a classic, and the standards of greatness are not the same as the standards of marketability. And like it or not, game critics play a role in developing an artistic medium in our slightly disturbing way. The final issue with these problems is the outcry that objectivity is the ultimate solution. The problem being…people who want this don’t quite understand what they’re asking for. Objectivity is not about being unbiased, it’s being able to accomplish a task without any emotion or concern for the consequences. A truly neutral reviewer is perfectly capable of explaining why a game deserves a 1/10 just as much as they are capable of explaining why a game deserves a 10/10. They do not see a game or art, they see a thing. What the objective viewpoint then asks is what they want the thing to do. Do they want it to be good? Bad? Irrelevant? And in my personal experience with lawyers and objective thinking, most people are horrified, disgusted, or confused by this. Not only is the objective opinion fully capable of agreeing and supporting everything you say, it’s capable of making your opinion look stupid and idiotic at the same time. An objective opinion may look at a game neutrally, but it is still being steered by something.
Unlike Sergeant Slaughter, who wisely advised me as a child that knowing is half the battle, I believe that being aware of these issues is pretty much all of it. What you choose to do with your writing while being mindful of these issues is up to you. Between the gamer who has already spent cash on a game they now must like, the personal prejudices, and the dangers of objectivity…how do we talk about video games? Lester Bangs, a prominent music critic, once wrote, “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.” It does not seem so great a leap to conclude that the problem with fanboyism is that they are looking at one face and game critics are looking at another. Destructoid’s 4.5 for ‘Twilight Princess’ comes from the lack of innovation and how quickly the game will be forgotten. 1UP’s perfect score of 100 for the same game comes from how fun and rewarding it is for Zelda fans thinking about buying it. Such a system of dual-perspectives on video games is not just necessary in terms of proper critical assessment, it’s about being fair to the games themselves. Not every game can change the way we think and play video games. There can only be so many breakthroughs like Ocarina of Time per decade, per century. For a critic looking at both sides of a game, perhaps the higher standard of the future can wait for the right time.
// Notes from the Road
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