Even though I've played games for 24 of my 28 years on this planet, I wasn't really passionate about them until fairly recently. I've always loved them and loved playing them, but for most of my life they've been little more than my preferred source of entertainment, the thing I'd do to pass the time in the same way people watch TV. I'd play them, talk to people about them and read about them, but I never really thought about them beyond deciding what I wanted to play. After all, why would I? For most of gaming's history, the majority of games were just that, games, a type of toy or puzzle that you'd play with to amuse yourself. They certainly weren't something you'd do if you wanted to feel something beyond the joy of victory or the frustration of defeat. The reason was simple: I lacked emotional involvement because the majority of games weren't showing us what they were truly capable of; that amazing, wondrous thing they can do that no other form of entertainment can: draw you into another world where you can live another life and do the things you've always dreamed of doing. Most games seem like they would have been doing this on paper, since they weren't really that different at a fundamental level than the games of today, and a few of them did, but for the most part the technology wasn't there. Developers were shackled by the limitations of what the hardware could do. In the past decade, and this generation in particular, most of those limitations have disappeared and the creative minds behind those games could do pretty much whatever they wanted to. The only limit that remained was their imagination. Games, to me and to many others like me, had stopped being something you played with for fun. They had become something you experienced, involving you on a level a million miles beyond any passive form of entertainment.
My new-found excitement about games coincided with the rise of the online gaming press and gaming communities, but my enthusiasm for them was lacking. I wanted hear how people felt about the games they were playing, and share my feelings with them, and debate and discuss the things these games were doing that made us feel the things that we did but the moments I saw this happening were rare and apathy set in. I would read dozens of reviews of a game on dozens of different sites and see most of them say the exact same thing in the same sterile, clinical manner, and most of the discussion I saw was either about how to beat the game in question or people saying that they liked it or it sucked. When blogs started taking off, I thought that I would finally have what I was looking for, but things wound up getting worse. Some people were talking about games as if they were something more than a product and how they made them feel and what they did to make them feel it, but a lot of them were acting like journalists and discussing them as objectively as possible. And the communities tied to most of the blogs and gaming sites started out fine, but eventually became the domain of screaming children, who would throw nasty, horrible fits any time anybody would commit the sin of having an opinion that didn't mesh with theirs. What finally broke my heart, though, is Metacritic and how it made the number at the end more important than what was actually said in the review, and everybody giving the game similar scores, had created what appeared to be a consensus, turning opinion into fact in the minds of many of the readers despite what the critic had to say and instilling many of the critics with the fear that having an opinion outside of the consensus could cost them the respect of not just their readers, but their peers and potentially harm their ties to the industry. This combined with the way hype, excitement, and expectations had in most cases guaranteed major releases, exclusives in particular, nearly unanimous, glowing praise had made criticism of the most popular games all but vanish from the major channels. Destructoid was for me the last bastion of people people discussing games and being open about the opinions they had, and while the contributors to the site are standing firm, along with most of the community, I now see what has happened in the communities everywhere else start to happen here on a massive scale and I just have to say something. I love games too much to keep quiet.
While you may not think games are art, they are creative works, and even though we have entered the fifth decade of games existing in the popular consciousness, the medium is still very much in its infancy. If we want games to continue to grow, evolve and live up to the incredible potential that they have, they must be studied, discussed and debated, not just by those in the industry, but by those who play them. We have to share with others the experiences we have with the games we play, our opinions of them, what they did right, what they did wrong, and how those successes and failures made you feel, and what it was the game did that made you feel that way. And we must also be more than just accepting of differences in opinion, but we must also consider them and gain the insight that comes from seeing things from a different point of view. And we must be honest both about the flaws and failings of the games we enjoy and the successes of games we did not. And we must do this as maturely and intelligently as possible, stating not just how we feel, but why we feel that way. The price of silence is stagnation.
This is an impassioned plea and a rallying cry, going out to all those out there with a love of games and a voice. To the journalists, the bloggers and members of the countless communities, we all need to be open and honest about our opinions and with each other, and we must all do so knowing that differences in opinion are not a divide between us, that they do not invalidate each other and that they are the key to greater understanding. We must think about games critically and attempt to understand what it was that caused you to feel the way that you did, adding the ever important “why” that gives an opinion substance, solidity and, most importantly, a degree of rationality to something as irrational as your personal feelings and beliefs. We must do these things in the unique ways our positions allow us to, to use our particular strengths to their fullest.
I know it isn't easy being a member of the gaming press. You have been marginalized and even ridiculed by those outside of the world of gaming. But you have held fast and provided your audience with much of what they desire, and in a much more professional manner than what members of the mainstream media has led others to believe. You all as journalists bear a heavy burden: objectivity. Opinion has no place in most of what you do, and this is exactly how it should be. The problem arises when you also make efforts to keep opinions out of the one place where they do belong: reviews. A game is a piece of culture, a form of entertainment, which means that outside of the technical aspects of a game such as whether or not there are bugs or if the framerate is stable, all judgments are based solely on the opinions of the person who is doing the review. A game isn't a vacuum cleaner, and you aren't Consumer Reports. You should still review objectively, but only to the extent of keeping an open mind that is free of any preconceived notions you may have about the game. When you try to hide that the opinions contained in the review are in fact opinions, you create the illusion that the things you are saying are somehow fact, and this is made worse by breaking all of the elements down and giving them their own scores, as if there is a way to scientifically test a game to see if it is fun or if the visuals are aesthetically pleasing. The effect this has is the reviews of games turn mostly into a series of statements about what the game is and what it does and how well it does those things, but it doesn't deliver the one thing reviews are supposed to have: what the game was like for you, your experience with it, your thoughts about it, what you liked, what you didn't like, what you thought it did well and where you thought it fell short. Your reviews are often a listing of features with all emotion taken out of the opinions you present, which makes the review read almost like a press release. Watch a car review done by Motorweek. This is what you are doing. Now watch a review done by Top Gear. This is what you should be doing. Don't say what it is, say what it is like, and why you think it is the way that it is, what makes the good things good and the bad things bad in your eyes. And most importantly, be honest. I know reviews are often intended to be consumer advice, but the style of review most of you employ is actually doing the consumer a disservice. Thanks to Metacritic, people aren't just going to one or two places to read reviews of a game, they're going to many, many more, and when they're doing that much research the unique opinions of the multiple critics and the reasons why they felt the way they did allow them to make a more informed choice, since it lets them see who has similar taste to them, and how they enjoyed the game.
I find something off-putting about how a consensus about games tends to form. It strikes me as odd that several different people from different backgrounds with different tastes can all play the same game and all feel essentially the same way about it. This becomes even more off-putting when it's a major release with a lot of hype behind it and high expectations for it and the shared opinions are overwhelmingly positive, especially a few months down the line when we look back on those games and the same people who told us how amazing and flawless the games were start saying that maybe they weren't quite as good as everybody was saying.
I know the reasons why there is so little variance in opinion, but they don't justify it. You may fear that giving a triple-A title a less than stellar review would harm your connections to the industry, costing you the access and exclusives you depend on or the ad revenue that keeps your site up. But here's the thing, they need you a lot more than you need them. You are how they communicate with the public, the way they let the consumers know about their upcoming product and build a buzz about it, which you do by filtering out some of the hype they present the information with and making it seem less like an effort to promote something they want to sell to your readers. They have, for the most part, turned you into an extension of their PR department. You owe them nothing. If anything, they owe you. If they threaten to cut you off or pull their ads over a tepid or negative review, do what a journalist is supposed to do and tell your readers what they have done. See if they do it again after being exposed as trying to extort a good review out of you. You're not supposed to be their friend, you're what keeps them in check. And besides, it's better for them in the long run if you're honest about what you thought the game was like. Think back to the first things you wrote, the critiques you received for them, and about how you write now. Now think about how your writing would be now if the only feedback you got was positive. You'd still be making all the same mistakes and you wouldn't have improved much, if at all. You're doing the same thing to developers with the glowing reviews you give the titles which are expected, for whatever reason, to be good. If nobody is telling them where they failed, they'll continue to fail.
As for the feelings that deviating from the consensus or going against expectations will somehow cost you your credibility, you're doing that with what you're doing now. You wouldn't think there was something wrong with someone else in your field if they had an opinion contrary to the popular consensus, and neither will they. What about your readers? Read the review's comments section and the negative feedback you're getting. You will probably have noticed a few things. There may be a few people respectfully disagreeing with you, and telling you this calmly and politely, but look at how angry the bulk of them are and what they're upset about. It's not what you said in the review, it's the number you attached to it at the end, and how they think it deserved one that was higher, even if the number you gave it still indicated that the game was, in your opinion, good. You will also have noticed all the insults they're throwing at you, using the noun form of “bias” as an adjective and how you're on the payroll of a competing company, or how you just did it to troll for hits, or how you're an idiot and wrong because other sites gave it scores that were two tenths of a point higher, or that you had no taste because you liked something they didn't more. You may be hurt by this, but just keep one thing in mind: they are freaking out and saying all these horrible things not because of what you said about the game, but because the number you gave a game they haven't even played yet wasn't high enough for them to be able to reinforce the high expectations the hype has given them, justify their fandom or, in the case of exclusives, use it as ammunition in the numbers war against other 12 year olds who own the competing console and are doing the same thing to them, along with thinking that everyone else is as delusional as they are and think the same way they do with the same narrow world view and the thought process that everything that isn't contained it their accepted collection of “good” cannot possibly be anything other than horrible and as such must be exposed for the offal that it is and destroyed. These are not rational people, nor are they the majority of your readers.
And now a reality check for the bloggers. You are not journalists, so don't pretend that you are. That wasn't an insult, so don't take it as one. If anything it's a compliment. You are not journalists, which means you have absolutely no reason to be objective in any way, shape or form. You can do more than report the news, you can react to it and give your insights, opinions and commentary. Nobody is expecting you to keep it empty and factual. This is, when you get down to it, is an amazing bit of freedom to have, so use it to your fullest. People are listening, so speak your mind. There is nothing wrong with having opinions, even strong ones. A lot of you are doing this now and are doing a great job, and you should encourage your peers who aren't to do the same. And what I said above about reviews applies to you, too, although a lot of you have been doing this for a while. Keep it up.
And finally, mature members of the community, You know why it may seem like you're surrounded by hooting idiots, and that nothing intelligent is being said? It's because you're not talking. So get to it, post in forums, write community blogs, start sharing ideas and getting into calm, rational debates. If you start doing it, other people will, too. And remember, what you have to say is more important than what the press and the blogs do, since you are the people who actually buy games. Don't think that just because you don't have a large audience for your thoughts that what you say doesn't matter. Ideas travel. And thank you to those that already are, you warm my heart.
So please, let us be open with our opinions, put reasoning behind them, and share them. Let us debate and discuss, study and analyze. Let us move things forward. We have to, it's what gaming deserves.
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