Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Politics, if you’ll permit me to utterly mangle a phrase, is the third rail of videogames these days. So it’s with some trepidation that I write this – not least because Steven Poole is the brainy one around these parts. Funnily enough, he didn’t go for my suggestion that I do the cleverclever stuff this month while he writes about how annoying his kids are while crowbarring in a load of dad jokes. Next issue, perhaps.
Relax. I am not about to draw parallels between the current political climate and The Videogame Hate Movement Which Shall Not Be Named, because it’s already been done far better than I ever could do it. Nor am I about to pen some blog-style confessional about how, I dunno, Stardew Valley helped me feel better about, say, Brexit, because there’s already too much of that nonsense out there. I don’t want to talk about politics at all, really – but the state, and the quality, of discourse around contemporary politics reminds me so much of the current videogame climate. Both are, of course, entirely, miserably awful.
The Guardian columnist John Harris recently put this perfectly. “Outlets that value the idea of dispassionate inquiry and dogged research are feeling the pinch,” he writes, “while a great ocean of polemic... grows ever larger. There is a new kind of outlet that fits snugly into this new world. It decries supposedly objective stuff as hopelessly biased while claiming that its own overheated polemics shine much brighter light on the truth.” Harris is not merely talking about bloggers, but pundits and social-media gobshites. He quotes the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind, who gets right to it: “They cannot comprehend the difference between analysis and advocacy… So they think their own advocacy is analysis, and regard the analysis of others as advocacy.”
Both were, of course, writing about much grander and more vital causes than, say, the implementation of loot boxes in Shadow Of
War. But every time something like that comes up I am struck by the complete nuance vacuum that is the current videogame discourse. On one side, anyone daring to try and understand why these things exist in games, or how they might be made better, is a corporate apologist or a shill who hates their audience. On the other, anyone dismissing out of hand the notion of microtransactions in full-price videogames is an entitled, whining man-baby.
The problem is that both points of view are equally fed by partisan media. On Twitter, a noted content creator (ugh) will alert their enormous following to the existence of something in a game they deem to be against their audience’s interests as consumers. The claim will spread across forums and social media. Smelling an opportunity, others will rebut it out of hand in forum posts, articles, tweets and videos; others will try and get to the truth of the matter, likely landing somewhere in the middle of the argument. All will be decried for doing the wrong thing for hateful, or at least suspicious, reasons. Later, the game in question will come out, and chances are it will all have been a fuss over nothing. But the damage is done, and the result is a game that, having been publicly tarred and feathered, is harmed for no good reason – making postrelease monetisation methods all the more likely in future, naturally, so thanks for that – and everyone on both sides just feels more marginalised and angry and entrenched.
Matt Lees, a writer and YouTuber, wrote the definitive article about the link between the videogaming right and the forces that gave us Brexit and Trump. It appeared in The Guardian last year. But I think this goes back even further than 2014, where Lees sees the comparison emerge. It tracks back to two of the oldest terms in online journalism: clickbait, which is pandering to an audience by telling them what they want to hear; and flamebait, which does the opposite, poking a corner of the internet with a sharp, shitty stick. Depending on your point of view, the two concepts are interchangeable. The analysis becomes advocacy, and so on.
Yet whichever side of the divide you fall on, I hope we can agree on two things. First, we are unfairly harming the prospects of games with scant regard for the facts; and that secondly, we are all getting both dumber and angrier. And yes, to be clear, I’m talking about games, not politics. But the two feel increasingly similar, all hope for reasoned discussion drowned in an ocean of polemic, where only the extremists survive.
The result is a game that, having been publicly tarred and feathered, is harmed for no good reason