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Let’s Have a Heated Debate

Mrs Merton preparing for a heated debate, which is likely to be more sensible and mature than most video gaming debates

There’s been a slew of articles here on NHS of late debating the merits of next-generation consoles, the rise of mobile gaming and the sustainability of current industry models. And not just here: in the wake of E3, it’s been a popular topic all over the internet. I have nothing that I especially want to add to that debate, but what I do think is rather more interesting is the manner in which that debate has been conducted.

I was inspired to write this piece after watching a discussion on twitter between @will_luton, the creative director of a mobile gaming studio and games journalist @robfahey on this very subject. Aside from the topic itself, there was a rapid acknowledgement between them that it has become a curiously polarised and rabid discussion, in which adherents to one side or another not only ferociously defend their opinions in a joyfully fact-free manner but seem to insist that the model they’re defending is the only viable one. And that this isn’t just coming from fans, but some senior corners of the industry as well. Recently, I did see a piece discussing the topic on CVG that rose above the muck, but aside from that, it’s been a remarkably unhelpful debate.

This is sad, but not terribly surprising. Outside of politics and sport, there’s not a topic of conversation I know that’s capable of reducing people to raw, screaming bundles of quivering indignation faster than games. You can see it everywhere: conversations in game stores, the message boards and comments threads of gaming sites, even in press releases. That it exists is pretty much indisputable. The more interesting question is why.

There are various angles one could consider. Perhaps the most obvious, given the grammar failures and logical fallacies you’ll commonly see in these debates, is simply that the participants aren’t terribly bright. I don’t really buy this. For starters, there’s circumstantial evidence that gamers tend to be slightly smarter than average. More compellingly, you can see the same shrill tones rapidly being adopted in exchanges between well-known gamers and writers that you know full well are capable, upright human beings most of the time.

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Another possible factor is money. Gaming is not a cheap hobby once you’ve shelled out for a console and are paying upfront for AAA games on release day. If you’re on a PC things are arguably even worse given the exorbitant cost of high-end hardware. So pinning your colours to the mast of a particular platform involves backing up your decision with sizable sums of money which, in turn, is likely to make people feel needy for reasons to justify their choices. There’s mileage here, because there are similar effects observable in other high-cost interest groups like home cinema and hi-fi. But it can’t be the whole story. Debate in games is noticeably angrier than in other areas, and the disease still affects gamers who are lucky enough to be able to afford multiple platforms.

The revolting Aris Bakhtanians preparing for a debate about his reptilian comments on sexual harassment in games

There’s a clue, I think, in the nature of these discussions. Can you imagine someone as crass and pig-headed as Aris Bakhtanians feeling enabled to defend his grotesque sexism on a audio-visual fan board? While audiophiles vigorously debate the merits of lossy versus lossless audio formats, do you really hear them demanding rigid adherence to one model to the exclusion of all others? What’s strikingly different about debate amongst gamers isn’t so much the manner of delivery, but the level of maturity. Refusing to acknowledge other people’s feelings and opinions, even if you don’t agree, is immature. Rigid adherence to a fixed and absolutist point of view, regardless of logic and reason, is immature. Shouting and sulking when you don’t get your own way during a discussion is immature. Simply put, the unfortunate hallmark of a lot gaming debate is a lack of maturity.

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Which of course begs the further question of why this should be the case. And here we have a chicken and egg problem to solve: is gaming discussion immature because gamers are immature, or do otherwise sensible gamers commonly lose their marbles in gaming debates because the pervasive culture around them is immature?

To answer that I think we need to delve down into the history of the industry. It’s easy to forget in the modern era of mainstream games that gaming was once a minority hobby, and one that was largely confined to children. The very term “game”, divorced from digital connotations still has powerful connections with kids and immaturity in the minds of most adults, as anyone involved with board or role-playing games can tell you.

There’s no single point at which video gaming suddenly became acceptable and mainstream: it’s been a long, hard slog to get there. But it’s undeniable that most of the major outlets for news, commentary and criticism date back to the early days of that transition when games were still perceived as an activity for kids, and many gamers were twentysomethings, teenagers or younger. A lot of the big name sites were founded around 1996 when those in my generation, the first who grew up with the hobby and therefore represent the torch-bearers for carrying it into the mainstream, were around 20. They, naturally, aimed their material at those age groups because it was representative of their audience.

Too many gamers react like this when confronted with opinions they don't want to hear

The problem is, simply, that for most outlets, the writing has never grown up. Why would it? For starters, let’s face it, there is something slightly disturbing about grown men pretending to be digital barbarians ploughing their way through hordes of orcs. And in turn, the industry product itself has never grown up: even those of us who’d like to see more mature, more interesting games aren’t getting them, as John Walker lamented on Rock, Paper, Shotgun a couple of months back. Without a mature audience, why would the product grow up? Without a mature product to comment on, why would games journalism grow up? And without mature journalism, why would debate grow up? And without mature debate, there’s pretty much no hope to improve the level of thinking that fans devote to games. It’s a horrible, self-perpetuating circle which ends up leading otherwise sensible, mature people to think about games at the level of teenagers.

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What hope is there for moving on? In the short-term, none. In the medium term, a great deal. There are two big name sites, Edge and Eurogamer, that frequently manage to strike a higher tone. Initial signs are that the newest kid on the landscape, Polygon, is gunning the same direction. Articles discussing the level of infantilism in gaming, debates like the one which inspired this article, small blogs improving the level of commentary are all becoming more and more frequent. All of us, writers, readers and commenters alike are part of this process and can do our bit to help. Just like gaming’s journey into the mainstream, it’s been a long hard slog, but those of us trying to pull debate out of the mire are finally gaining critical mass.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

8 thoughts to “Let’s Have a Heated Debate”

  1. The core argument is a nonsense. Its the same as arguing Sega vs Nintendo, Amiga vs Atari ST, Playstation vs Xbox.

    Mobile gaming does not currently effect anyone’s home console experience. it only adds to it. We can only speculate on future events and the technologies we may or may not embrace. The current gaming model may well die out but what replaces it falls on the consumer.

    Maturity is key and in my experience the quiet masses of considerate thoughtful humans always get shouted over by the flaming internet trolls of noisy.

  2. “For starters, there’s circumstantial evidence that gamers tend to be slightly smarter than average.”

    This doesn’t mean that they are capable of having a discussion rationally, or are socially mature enough to have a conversation, in my opinion. Whatever their age.

    “small blogs improving the level of commentary”
    Like this one and the community here? I don’t read any other gaming site, really. Maybe that is to my loss. But then again, I am 42 with a family/full time job/no time left for me, and I get the sense that the staff here is somewhat near that age, with families and other responsibilities and appear to have perspective similar to mine.

    “let’s face it, there is something slightly disturbing about grown men pretending to be digital barbarians ploughing their way through hordes of orcs”

    I politely disagree – I don’t see it any different than multiple adults moving a piece of plastic around a square grid buying fake real estate to build fake houses/hotels in an attempt to bankrupt (yes, bankrupt) their friends and family. Your method may be more sophisticated(i.e. bits and bytes in a virtual world), but Monopoly can be just as disturbing. I cant think of other examples off the top of my head at the moment – still working through my morning coffee.

    Anyway, I think what you are lamenting about in gaming discussions is a subset of a larger issue – the state of discourse in general is shoddy.

  3. I found a chart that shows the “sudden” time that gaming “became acceptable and mainstream”.

    I think the big problem with gaming journalism, & the (digital) gaming industry as a whole, it’s still new. It moves fast & evolves (from an outsider’s perspective). The only other tougher job (and more serious of course) is war corresponding.

    The hobby itself is much more intimate & involved to “buy into” than most others as well. I know my football team isn’t going to win or lose based on my cheering (or booing). But when I play a video game, I’m all positions of the team. If in a group of friends (clan or guild), I could be the general manager, coach, recruiter, cheerleader & newscaster … on top of being the lineman, receiver & quarterback. I personally allocate around ~$5000 USD a year towards gaming (includes games, travel, LAN party hardware, food, computer & laptop upgrades, etc..) so when something goes awry (have to get my “fuck you Mass Effect 3 & IGN” in ;), I’m of course out for blood, mayhem, vitriolic tirades, animal cruelty, destruction of public property, anarchy & littering. And that’s all before lunch !

    It took rock ‘n’ roll what, 30-50 years to become acceptable listening ? It’ll take at least another complete generation for gaming industry too (especially with gaming merging “traditional” markets of [cell] phone, TV, cable services & esports into it’s definition).

  4. I think there a couple more reasons why gaming generates such intense feeling: 1) the amount of time that it takes and 2) its fundamental interactivity. Fact is, a lot of gamers spend a shockingly large amount of time playing games. Spending triple digit hours on a game is not terribly rare; I can think of at least half a dozen games that I’ve done that with (granted, I’m a single guy). Spending that much time on a hobby is possibly an even bigger investment that the associated financial equivalent, especially if you have a lot of other obligations. To then have someone come by and say “yeah, those hours were basically wasted” is a major slap in the face.

    Secondly, the fact that gaming is interactive gives the player ownership over the medium in a way that other media just can’t simulate. When not investing huge amounts of time in gaming, I tend to read a lot of fantasy novels. I have strong opinions about many of them. However, I’ve never felt like I anything more than an observer of their greatness and/or failure. Contrast that with a game like Dark Souls, which I could appreciate both as an observer and as a participant. If Dark Souls was a novel, everybody would have read the same passage (though not necessarily interpreted things the same way) and watched the story unfold in the same manner. But, as Dark Souls was a game, my exploits in the game manufactured the great moments of that experience. They would never happen to someone else; those events cannot be truly duplicated. By forcing the player to at least assist in generating the memorable moments of each play session, gaming effectively makes the player the owner of those events. When someone tries to take down gaming, people freak out because they see their own creations under attack.

  5. It really does all come back around to the “gamer” mentality. Fuck “gamers”. They ruin everything. They’re why we can’t have nice things.

    It’s a maturity issue, and it has to do with the majority of gamers from PREVIOUS generations being preteen boys, teenage boys, and man-children. When the mobile versus console, casual versus hardcore debate flares up, it’s almost always a sign that the “territory” of the 18-25 year old “gamer” is under assault. What if GIRLS liked games too, and what if there were games that WEREN’T sexist and objectifying of women? What if there are games that aren’t geared toward fifteen year olds with all the time in the world? What if games have wider appeal than to fucking “otaku” and die-hard PC gamers that never wanted the 90s to end?

    TO THE RAMPARTS, GAMERS! START A PETITION!

    This of course does trickle down to the discourse, because you’ve got these major sites and blogs that are written by, for, and about teenyboppers. It doesn’t matter if Kotaku runs an interesting, thoughtful article. The item above it is a review of McDonald’s Snack Wraps and the item below is a leering article about female cosplayers followed by a comments section filled with “funny” memes and locker room talk.

    The ratio of people that WANT to read serious, thoughtful, and interesting games writing to people that want Consumer Reports reviews and teenage boy talk is tremendously skewed. Sadly, we’re on the losing end of that equation.

    It _is_ changing in some quarters, and there are plenty of smart, passionate, and even funny writers working in games writing right now. Part of the trick is changing the _audience_ though, and that’s one of those boiling the ocean kinds of things.

    But then again, it doesn’t help when the industry from top to bottom still panders to the teen boy mentality…that’s changing too, which is why you’ve got all of this angst about folks wanting to broaden audiences and expand the reach of games beyond the dingy, parents’ basement set.

  6. It’s late on Friday and I need to go home to take care of my sick wife, so I will sum this up as brief as I can. Just about everything listed are very good reasons for the heated debate, but also:

    Shit rolls downhill, and games are easy to enjoy by everyone so people of all walks of life and decencies have vocal opinions on the matter.

    People play games to have fun, so any attitude which comes along for the ride is cavalier.

    Not everyone in on the debate is a rational adult. You never know when you are discussing (see arguing) with an entitled 13 year old and an open internet connection.

    And last, there are plenty of sites out there still, before the debate begins, who don’t report gaming journalism as journalism, and instead treat it like a group of friends hanging out in 8th grade trying to “out-cool” each other with knowledge or prestige (tear down bad games, make assumptions on dev process, etc.) NHS is excluded from this of course, minus Michael Barnes 😉

  7. I feel that one of the problems is just the consumer’s ignorance on games in general. People who look at is as a hobby are more interested into the deeper workings and will do things like day one purchase The Witcher 2 because they know about it. Where as there’s plenty more people who would glance over the box because the game isn’t fairly known as compared to something that get’s pimped out on a regular basis like CoD or Killzone, even though TW2 can’t hold on to all these accolades. Consider Half Life 2 one of the greatest games ever, though the only college friends whom I know played it are in the single digits, but with one sneeze of Portal 2 and that number goes to maybe three times that.

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