Of trolls and shills: In defence of the Angry Gamer

Gamers are angry.  They’re mad as hell and, apparently, they’re not gonna take it any more.  The gaming press, which represents video games in the media, doesn’t like this.  Games journalists frequently accuse their own readers of being obstinate, entitled, misogynist trolls.  While the press has valid concerns over genuine abuse, in general I don’t think the press is being fair on traditional gamers, and here’s why.

Before the internet came along to disrupt everything, the video games press existed mostly in print magazines with a monthly release cycle.  With no other source of news and reviews, people who cared about video games were forced to treat the word of games magazines as gospel.

Today, the video games press exists almost exclusively online.  Websites like Polygon, Eurogamer, IGN and Kotaku are widely read in gaming circles.  These websites have highly engaged communities who contribute regularly to the comments below the articles.

The relationship between the video games press and its readership has become riven by mistrust.

Judging by the content of these comments, they come mostly from traditional gamers, by which I mean people who own a dedicated gaming console or PC and who have invested several years in their hobby with regular game purchases and keen attention paid to industry news.

Traditional gamers are taking advantage of online publishing to engage with the video games press in a way they couldn’t do with magazines.  And they are using this power to voice their displeasure.  In the spirit of competitive multiplayer, games journalists are responding in kind.

The relationship between the video games press and its readership has become riven by mistrust.  How did it come to this?  And who’s right and who’s wrong?

Gamers wondered about the cozy relationship between games publishers and their friends in the press.

Several notable scandals have hit the video games press in the last few years, which have shaken the trust of both sides.

In 2012, Bioware’s action RPG Mass Effect 3 released to fantastic reviews from the video games press.  A string of nines and even perfect tens greeted its arrival.  Reviewers praised the strong storytelling, which had become a hallmark of the series.  But when gamers got their hands on it, they noticed that the last act of the story, and the final 10 minutes in particular, deviated wildly from their expectations.  Indeed, many voiced the opinion that the game’s end was so bad from a story perspective that it rendered the whole series of games worthless.  Some prominent journalists like IGN’s Colin Moriarty responded by defending Bioware’s right to make artistic choices as they saw fit, and accused gamers of being “entitled”.

In 2013, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines turned out to be a broken mess, overturning the hopes of many gamers who had read glowing previews from press events held at Gearbox’s offices.  Gamers complained about the difference between the game featured in the previews and the game they were actually able to buy, and wondered about the cozy relationship between games publishers and their friends in the press.

In the last year, gamers’ trust in YouTube personalities was shaken when it emerged that many were paid by large video game publishers in return for positive coverage of their games.  Gamers have long been quick to doubt the motives of their journalists, and it doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to suspect that members of the press accept similar deals without transparency.  Many journalists responded to this controversy by stating unequivocally that they do not accept bribes, and yet Paul Tassi lamented recently on Forbes the perpetual state of suspicion in which games journalists are still held.

Polygon’s Chris Plante paints a picture of members of the games industry assaulted on all fronts by an angry mob baying for blood.

In the last few weeks, the relationship between press and readers has soured further with controversy over already-controversial games developer Zoe Quinn, creator of Depression Quest, who has been accused (in the least) of having an affair and (in the worst cases) of exchanging sexual favours for positive coverage from a games journalist.  Further accusations of lies and manipulation have been piled atop this ugly mess.  Kotaku, who employed the journalist in question, denied any wrongdoing took place on their watch.  The press has in general responded by defending Quinn and some journalists have taken to labelling her detractors “sexists” or “misogynists”.

I could list many more controversies.  I haven’t even mentioned Anita Sarkeesian.  This rocky relationship between games developers and press on the one hand, and gamers on the other, was summed up nicely by Polygon’s Chris Plante in his article “An awful week to care about video games”.  Plante paints a picture of members of the games industry assaulted on all fronts by an angry mob baying for blood.

Rather than tar all gamers with the same brush, Plante divides gamers into two groups at opposite ends of an argument about whether and how gaming culture should open itself to new ideas and new people:

One side has folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child that has learned they are getting a little brother or sister but wants to remain the singular focus of his parents’ affection.

The other side has opened its arms, unable to contain its love and compassion, because they understand they are no longer alone.

So what of these obstinate gamers?  Are the journalists right?  Are these people as entitled and as sexist and as paranoid as the press frequently makes them out to be?  Or do they have good reasons for thinking and acting as they do?

The press should cut them some slack – or at least show a little understanding.

Plenty has been written already in the video games press about the faults in gamer culture.  Since there’s an imbalance of power between widely read professional journalists and below-the-line commenters, I’ll be writing in defence of the Angry Gamer.  I fully expect to crash and burn like Atticus Finch, but let’s give it a shot anyway.  Here’s why gamers are right to be angry, and why the press should cut them some slack – or at least show a little understanding.

Gamers have their consumer rights trampled on

Video games seem to have a unique tension between their value as art and their value as a consumer product.  Their value as art is only beginning to be recognised, and those who do recognise it (most prominently in the gaming press) want to see video games reach their artistic potential.  However, at the same time, video games are relatively expensive as pieces of consumable media, costing much more at the time of release than a cinema ticket, a hardback book, or a music album, and consumers have a right to expect a certain standard.

Most gamers are quick to defend video games’ artistic merits.  But they also want to get good value from their £40 / $60.  So when a preview or a review in the press has potentially misled someone about the value they will get from a game, that person will be understandably grieved.

After £40 and probably 40 hours of playing, the game did not ultimately deliver the promised experience.

The Mass Effect 3 controversy was a great example.  Prior to the game’s release, Bioware manager Casey Hudson specifically told gamers that all their choices would matter and that the ending would not be a choice between three simple options.  When it turned out that the ending gave the impression of ignoring most player choice up until that point, and was exactly a choice between three simple options, gamers – buyers – were angry because they felt misled.  And they were angry because no-one in the gaming press bothered to report this discrepancy in their reviews.

The Angry Gamers were called “entitled”.  Yes, they were entitled.  They were entitled to the gaming experience they were promised before they bought the game.  And after £40 and probably 40 hours of playing, the game did not ultimately deliver the promised experience.  And those who called Bioware on it were mocked.

Who wouldn’t be angry at that?

Gamers are regularly baited by the media

It’s hard to stay calm when the publicly visible representatives and proponents of your hobby in the press regularly bait you into responding angrily.

Some members of the video games press have developed a strange fondness for luring their readers into an argument, with a provocative headline or a controversial figure used to prove a generally uncontroversial point.

The generally level-headed Erik Kain provoked apoplectic rage at Forbes with his article titled “Sony’s Boring PS4 Is Winning The Console War Despite More Exciting Competition“.  The article was in fact a sound explanation of why the PS4 is doing so well, but many readers didn’t get passed the headline and immediately voiced their anger and accusations of bias in the comments.  Kain explained that part of the point of the article was to see how many readers would bother to read further than a provocative headline.

Meanwhile, the ever socially-liberal Eurogamer stoked its own fires of rage with the headline “Why we need more developers like Zoe Quinn“.  Readers rushed to the comments to complain that Eurogamer could have justified its support of experimental, artistic games with any number of examples but chose a currently controversial figurehead purely for the clicks.

Gamers don’t want to be baited by their own press and get understandably touchy about it.

It’s easy to laugh at Angry Gamers getting wound up over seemingly trivial offences, but when seen as part of a trend these incidents are harder to ignore.

Traditional gaming culture has a long memory of the vilification gamers received in the mainstream press, as their hobby was accused of corrupting children’s minds and being the leading cause behind high school massacres in America.  Regardless of the merits of individual articles (and I rather enjoyed Kain’s experiment at Forbes), gamers don’t want to be baited by their own press and get understandably touchy about it.

Gamers would be right to wonder: where’s the love, the camaraderie, and the respect that we have earned together?

Gamers see their hobby and identity threatened by change

Ever since Farmville took over our Facebook feeds, and Candy Crush seemingly had a place on every iPhone home screen, and Kinect started taking over living rooms with its all-seeing eye, traditional gamers have worried about the state of their hobby.  So-called “casual games“, and the people who play them, have been blamed for the dumbing down of games as a whole.

There’s a fear that traditional games, under social and commercial pressures, will cease to be.

Without a doubt, video games are changing.  More people are making them and playing them than ever before.  Many people enjoy the increasing diversity of experiences on offer.  But some gamers also worry that the massive demographic change behind games will change their hobby and their cultural identity for the worse.

Katherine Cross wrote on Polygon that “The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games“.  She was speaking of the fear that traditional games, under social and commercial pressures, will cease to be.  This fear is expressed in this paraphrasing of a reader’s comment:

“You shouldn’t have given Gone Home such a high score because if game designers see games like Gone Home getting so much acclaim then we’re not going to have traditional games anymore!”

Cross pours cold water on the concerns from the gaming community.  And yet, gamers might be right to worry that video games will soon be very different, with traditional experiences harder and harder to find.

Strategy games are barely alive outside hideous pay-to-play monstrosities on mobile.

For some traditional gamers, who have been playing games for twenty years or more, the decline and near-disappearance of some kinds of game is a sad development.  Complex flight simulators are gone. Strategy games are barely alive outside hideous pay-to-play monstrosities on mobile.  RPGs are rarely as deep as Baldur’s Gate 2 was all those years ago. And in their place, gamers see one-button endless runners topping mobile charts and motion-controlled dancing games on stage at E3.

And as much as I enjoy artistically experimental games like Proteus, the fact is that many such games that aspire to break out of conventional gaming genres are mechanically shallow and are barely “games” at all in the sense that they have explicit objectives, rules and competition.

I can sympathise with gamers who see the industry at the heart of their hobby following a trajectory that leads to oblivion:  “interactive experiences”; games designed around micro transactions ; games compromised by touch and motion controls; incomplete games prolonged by endless paid DLC…

When the gaming press says “you don’t belong here any more”, these gamers understandably lose their shit.

At its worse, this fear of change threatens a gamer’s very cultural identity.  While Ben Kuchera wrote on Polygon that “Gaming is not the most important thing in my life”, many people have developed a close interest in games over many years and self-identify as “gamers” or even “hardcore gamers”.

Gamers have long been mocked by mainstream media and society for being “geeks” and “losers” and “basement dwellers”, and this victimisation has created in some a very strongly held identity, borne of soft cultural oppression and the resistance to it.

So when the gaming press – their press – comes along and says, “your identity doesn’t matter”, “these games are for everyone, they’re not yours”, or – even worse – “you don’t belong here any more”, these gamers understandably lose their shit.

Gamers need to feel legitimate

Gamers have been forced through a very odd transition.  For years, traditional gamers were victims of insults thrown at them from non-gamers who didn’t understand how their hobby was affecting mainstream culture.  Then, in the space of a few years, these traditional gamers found themselves in a battle where they don’t understand how mainstream culture is affecting their hobby.

Some traditional gamers have responded by lashing out.  They have gone from victims to bullies, practically overnight.  But like many bullies, they act badly because they feel powerless and marginalised in their own way.

These people are not your enemy unless you make them feel like garbage.

It’s true that there are aspects of video games and their surrounding culture that need to change.  Unquestionably, video games do not treat or represent women or ethnic minorities or religious belief or sexuality with any kind of accuracy, maturity, diversity or respect.  And too many developers and journalists are subject to abominable threats.

The video games press is good at championing these causes.  But it also needs to champion other causes, that are equally important to gamers.  The press should champion consumer rights and side more often with their readers over their friends in the industry.  The press should celebrate great game mechanics as artistic achievements, and not reserve that accolade for expressionist experiments or socially progressive character options.

But most important, the video games press should recognise and value their readers and the traditional gaming culture that has made all of this possible.  Without traditional gamers spending years and hundreds of pounds/dollars supporting their hobby and spreading the word, video games would not be the cultural phenomenon they are today.

These people are not your enemy unless you make them feel like garbage.

Perhaps that ought to be the lesson for all sides in this conflict.

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