Back in August of 2018, I had the pleasure of responding to a Sunshine Blogger Award. After I answered the eleven questions, I, in turn, proposed eleven of my own. To shake things up a bit, I tagged more than twenty random people at once. Though I enjoyed reading these answers, I have to confess that one in particular stood out – and not in a good way, unfortunately. One of the questions I asked concerned what cinephiles could learn from gamers. One individual, in lieu of actually answering the question, took this opportunity to go on a rant on how gamers are anti-intellectual, racist, sexist, exclusionary, and any number of pejoratives anyone versed in the hobby has heard countless times. In doing so, they unfairly put every single well-adjusted person who enjoys gaming into the same box as white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and any number of unorganized bullies they would want nothing to do with.
The sad part is that it’s a typical example of how gamers tend to get portrayed in the media as well. It’s so pervasive that certain gamers have bought into it, and actively feel shame engaging in the hobby. You should never feel shame doing something you like – provided it isn’t immoral, of course. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out the media constantly putting down gamers could be a contributing factor to their bad behavior. After all, gamers have spent entire decades trying to prove they’re not monsters, yet the media pushes that narrative without any signs of stopping. If you tell a group of people they’re monsters for a long enough time, you don’t get to act surprised when they abandon their humanity and become just that. Note that being shunned doesn’t give a person a blank check to behave poorly; barring a debilitating neurological impairment or a truly extenuating circumstance, everyone has the ability to do the right thing.
Fortunately, despite the media’s best efforts, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, one thing I’ve observed over the years, which has become much clearer as time has gone on, is that gamers are remarkably progressive in certain fields compared to consumers of other media. Despite being apparent to anyone willing to do even the slightest bit of cursory research, they barely ever get reported in favor of clickbait articles detailing outlying gamers losing their minds, with the writers not knowing or not caring there’s much more to them than that. By this point, I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m not one to blindly go with the flow, so if the mainstream media wishes to demonize gamers, here’s an article praising their strong suits.
Now, to make things clear, the purpose of this editorial isn’t to ignore reality. I cannot deny certain pockets of gamers have certainly proven to be all four of those things that individual spoke of and more. I also don’t wish to downplay the very real instances in which would-be gamers have been shunned for incredibly petty reasons. Any of these grievances deserve to be called out for what they are. However, by that same token, you have to remember that many of these issues aren’t endemic to gamers specifically. One of the biggest reasons they tend to get the worst of it is because video games still haven’t quite reached that level of mainstream acceptance where most people can rightly dismiss the bad apples as not representative of the group as a whole. After all, if a mass murderer were to cite a favorite film as the blueprints for their crime, the media wouldn’t then go out of their way to damn cinephiles. In fact, if the film in question was mainstream, they would likely dismiss the perpetrator as a lone wolf. So now that I have established where I stand when it comes to gamers’ representation in the media, here are four ways in which I feel they can claim to be ahead of the curve.
1. Gamers have established a stronger community than consumers of other media.
Video games are quite a bit different from other entertainment mediums out there in a number of ways. The single most defining characteristic that allows them to stand out from other mediums would be their interactivity. Though this interactivity has a treasure trove of implications writers must account for when penning a scenario for the medium, its most interesting effects are the ones that extend beyond the games and to the players themselves.
To wit, The Legend of Zelda was a groundbreaking game when it debuted in 1986. In an era when gamers were used to sidescrolling platformers in which the objective was “go right”, they had difficulties accepting the idea that they actually had to find Level 1 before they could begin in earnest. While Level 1 itself was easy to find, the same couldn’t be said for the later ones. By the time they reached the second quest, they would find themselves ineffectually wandering all over the place in search of the next dungeon.
What were they to do? They could call the official Nintendo help line, but many of their parents would understandably forbid such a course of action. They would instead do the next best thing: ask a friend. In playgrounds throughout the world, young gamers would swap tips with each other, allowing their friends to progress. This led to a mutually beneficial relationship that transitioned well into the internet age. Many of those kids would begin writing walkthroughs online, giving a new generation the advice they need to succeed. Even typing an obscure issue into a search engine or forum is likely to get you the advice you need.
The help gamers give even extends beyond the medium, for they have set up numerous admirable charitable efforts over the years. Being the creative types that they are, they have gone about doing so in various ways whether it’s through creating humorous videos, speedrunning, or driving a virtual bus for multiple days in a row.
While some have argued the gaming sphere is exclusionary and prone to gatekeeping, in practice, I feel they’re really no worse than consumers of other media in that regard. If anything, the fact that this poor behavior is still regularly called out means it hasn’t been normalized. The same can’t be said of the film community, whose journalists regularly write think pieces forsaking their audience whenever they don’t see eye-to-eye.
While people justifiably lament whenever thirty-somethings indulge in the practice of gatekeeping on gaming forums, it should be noted that Mr. Gleiberman was 59 when he wrote this rather blatant example of gatekeeping. The worst part is that I know this is far from the only example out there. It’s funny because he struck me as the type who decries gaming hobbyists as a bunch of disillusioned shut-ins with long-atrophied taste buds. Based off of this behavior I can say he and his ilk share more common ground with the negative gamer stereotype than they would like to admit.
2. Gamers generally don’t put up with shoddy products.
I have remarked in the past that 2009 was a particularly bad year for films. There are various reasons as to why I hold this opinion, but the most obvious was the fact that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen spent the entire summer dominating the box office. Cinephiles and critics had to watch in horror as an incomprehensible, puerile mess conceived during a writers’ strike broke multiple records, making over $800,000,000 on a $200,000,000 budget.
Gamers are far less likely to let a scenario like this occur. Though this admittedly isn’t a complete apples-to-apples comparison, I can safely say that if a game coded as well as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was written ever appeared, gamers would have let it drop like a lead balloon. After all, there’s a reason you don’t tend to hear of games such as Lester the Unlikely, Quest for Camelot, or Deadly Towers. In the rare instance you do hear any of these games mentioned, it’s invariably with the intent to mock or criticize them.
Not even being a product of a reputable company can save these horrendous efforts from bombing. The core personnel behind Free Radical Design made a name for themselves as members of Rare, giving us classic games such as Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. After breaking off from Rare, they continued to have success in the sixth console generation with TimeSplitters and its sequel. The second they released the abhorrent, poorly programmed Haze, they effectively and unfortunately signed the company’s death certificate.
Even Nintendo, the company that has a claim to the title of greatest developer in the business, wasn’t immune. Metroid was considered one of their big three franchises alongside Mario and The Legend of Zelda. In 2009, they joined forces with Team Ninja and released the problematic Metroid: Other M the following year. Rather than allowing it to become a hit, writers and independent journalists spoke against the game’s blatantly misogynistic writing and unpolished gameplay. The result? Despite being from one of gaming’s most famous franchises, Metroid: Other M took two years to sell one-million units – a far cry from the success Nintendo’s first-party titles usually enjoy.
I can imagine right about now that many people are going to counter my point by bringing up the Call of Duty franchise. I relent that the modern military shooter as a whole turned out to be an exercise in unfortunate implications, and watching the developers attempt to stretch the goodwill from the classic Modern Warfare was equal parts insulting and embarrassing. However, I think it helps to put things in perspective. One could make an argument that the plot of an average Call of Duty installment made after Modern Warfare would fare as well as Michael Bay’s output with critics if they were films. I wouldn’t argue with that. However, while I myself tend to review games based off of their single-player experiences, you have to remember when it comes to gameplay, the installments of the Call of Duty franchise aren’t bad as much as they are uninspired.
Even the installment often cited as the series’ nadir, Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, is serviceable as a single-player game. Similar to Metroid: Other M, the horrible writing was what weighed it down. Not only that, but the game’s reception can be used as further evidence to prove my point. Although it wasn’t a sales disappointment in the traditional sense, the backlash to Call of Duty: Ghosts ensured the planned subseries died before it had a chance to thrive.
One of the very few examples I can think of in which a game of the caliber of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen became a hit was Duke Nukem Forever. While more cynical enthusiasts used this as evidence that gamers were getting dumber, I think it’s easy to write off as an isolated incident. Duke Nukem Forever had a notoriously long development cycle with nearly twelve years passing from its announcement to its eventual release. In the interim, it gained a degree of mysticism to the extent that I can believe fans were going to buy it simply so they could be a part of history. It didn’t matter whether it was a masterpiece or a dud – nothing would stop those people from seeing this narrative through to the end.
The point I’m trying to make is that while gamers have allowed works of questionable quality to become popular, they are generally better at weeding out the turkeys than their film or music-loving counterparts. Executives can make an insipid film or a bland pop artist successful as long as they promote them extensively, but all of the marketing techniques at their disposal couldn’t make gamers buy a poorly coded mess en masse under most circumstances – just look at Ride to Hell: Retribution.
3. Gamers are quite a bit more inclusive than the media would have you believe.
As longtime readers know, part of what spurred me into reviewing video games in the first place was a general dissatisfaction with the medium’s critical circle. Mainstream critics had an uncomfortably close relationship with the publishers themselves, leading to many instances in which they overlooked glaring flaws in favor of appeasing their benefactors. Independent critics didn’t fare any better. The loudest voices betrayed a strange mixture of immaturity and dogmatism. In the face of these two extremes, it’s remarkable developers were able to learn from any of their mistakes.
Therefore, a belief I subscribed to for the longest time was that video game critics needed to become more like their film-loving counterparts. After all, you could count on a film critic to professionally voice their opinions. No conflicts of interest. No sophomoric writing. No rose-tinted nostalgia goggles. Moreover, being an older medium, there are entire fields of college studies dedicated to the art of film criticism. This means, in theory, they had plenty of time to discover what has and hasn’t stood the test of time. As I alluded to in my first point with Mr. Gleiberman’s article, I was completely wrong. Film journalists can be just as immature as the caustic game critic of your choice – they just use bigger words when in fanboy/fangirl mode.
In fact, it was through reading articles penned by film journalists that I learned to appreciate just how progressive and open-minded the video game community can be. I am adamant in my stance that Undertale is one of the most important works of the decade. To an even greater extent than Planescape: Torment, itself an impressive effort, it told a story that bent and twisted the medium in many creative ways. Shortly after its 2015 release, it became an overnight success with a fanbase that endures to this day. One could argue that it would have never become a success had it not been for the journalists who praised it, but I believe this triumph belongs to the gamers themselves. It was through their word-of-mouth and effective use of memes that it reached such a large audience.
This ties into what is perhaps the greatest strength of the gaming community – they have no problems supporting independent efforts. I don’t get this same sense of solidarity from the film or music community. Do you have a strange taste in films or listen to any obscure music? Hope you like being called a hipster. However, if you say you enjoy playing independently produced video games, you usually aren’t saddled with those connotations within the community. In fact, if you do a good enough job selling your friends on these premises, don’t be surprised if they begin trying them out in turn.
Along those lines, I typically get the sense that even the most highly respected international efforts tend to play second fiddle to American films. This has never been a problem that has existed in video games. As soon as the arcade scene fully blossomed, Japanese efforts were accepted with open arms alongside the American ones as evidenced by the worldwide success of Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Even as the profound Japanese influence over the gaming industry waned in the 2000s, you always got the sense that international efforts had an equal shot of winning accolades as domestic ones. The 2010s alone saw Polish and Japanese efforts win “Game of the Year” awards alongside American ones. I have a difficult time imagining such a thing occurring at the Academy Awards.
I feel one of the most striking incidents I could use as proof of the gamers’ forward-looking attitude could be traced back to a certain indie developer panel. Among the developers was one Phil Fish, better known as the creator of Fez. A budding Japanese developer asked what the panel thought of games from his own country. Phil Fish tactlessly bellowed into his microphone that “they suck” and “[Japanese developers needed] to get with the times”. This wasn’t helped by fellow developer Jonathan Blow electing not to apologize for his peer’s outburst, instead agreeing with Mr. Fish’s sentiment.
Needless to say, people were furious at their behavior, and rightly so. The argument has been made that Phil Fish, being a decidedly outspoken individual with no filter, had a lot of people raring to verbally tear him apart before he appeared on the panel. In other words, they merely used his incident to justify getting angry at him. Even if that’s true, I posit it doesn’t invalidate their disgust. Phil Fish made his statement under the assumption that his audience thought Japanese games were terrible as well. He quickly discovered that they were markedly more inclusive than he or Mr. Blow could have imagined.
4. They have fewer qualms leaving their comfort zone.
I feel the best way to illustrate my final point is with a parable of sorts. One of the most memorable films I saw in 2017 was The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy about a mute woman who befriends |and later romances| an amphibious creature was doubtlessly one of the most creative pieces of science fiction I had seen in years. I wasn’t surprised when the Academy nominated it for Best Picture, but I resigned to myself that it wouldn’t win. The Academy always struck me as a particularly conservative bunch with a propensity to snub anything outside of a very narrow definition of what they considered good. This meant anything in the science fiction and fantasy genres had practically no chance of winning. This wasn’t a new trend; historically, enduring science-fiction classics such as Aliens and Star Wars didn’t receive much recognition by the Academy when they were released. Even films with high concepts such as Memento or Groundhog Day were routinely ignored, placing the onus on cinephiles to give them their vindication.
In short, I was going into the 90th Academy Awards expecting to see Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird sweep the competition. Never did I imagine that The Shape of Water would pull through and win it all. In light of the Academy’s history, I was happy to see a film with such an ambitious concept win. It wasn’t the kind of film I could see winning even five years prior to that ceremony. For that matter, fans of Lady Bird couldn’t believe what happened either.
It led to quite an impressive protest on Twitter. As fans of Lady Bird are not at all like the anti-intellectual, racist, sexist, exclusionary people known to the public as gamers, I was positive they wouldn’t stoop as low as slandering everyone who didn’t agree with them. So how did they respond to The Shape of Water winning over Lady Bird?
They slandered everyone who didn’t agree with them (among other things). Interestingly, this is one of the few times in which I observed the backlash spill out into real life as well. When walking through town the day after the ceremony, I observed a particularly loudmouthed individual scoffing that a film with a concept such as The Shape of Water could win, insinuating those who liked it are idiots.
“What does any of this have to do with my final point in an editorial about how gamers are ahead of the curve?” you may ask. It’s simple. The entire time this backlash was occurring, I couldn’t help but snicker to myself. Gamers wouldn’t have bat an eyelash at something like The Shape of Water; up until the controversial third entry, they had no problems supporting the Mass Effect trilogy – a series that featured plenty of interspecies relationships. Even then, the controversy stemmed from the game’s ending, which demonstrates just how much they invested themselves in the story and its characters.
Indeed, gamers regularly accept works with far stranger concepts than that of The Shape of Water. There are games wherein kids roam the countryside with monster companions, a woman attempts to escape from a snarky artificial intelligence using a gun that creates portals, and a young child finds themselves having to restore the sun of a dying world. Furthermore, one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time is a plumber who strikes floating question mark blocks to obtain flowers that allow him to shoot fireballs at bipedal turtle-like creatures. In video games, this zaniness is merely par for the course.
If you want more evidence, you need not look further than the reaction to GameSpot’s 2013 “Game of the Year” results. Despite The Last of Us being a fan and critical favorite, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds managed to pull an upset victory. Many fans of the former were furious, yet the incident got me to realize just how different gamers are from cinephiles. With the possible exception of graphic novels or manga, I can’t think of another medium in which fans would be outraged that a zombie apocalypse story lost to a fantasy one for the top accolade. I myself remarked in the past that The Last of Us is too safe for its own good. Although it’s an assessment I stand by, you can use it as a curious benchmark for the kind of material gamers deal with. A gritty zombie apocalypse story with a bisexual deuteragonist is considered safe in the gaming sphere. If that’s safe, imagine what gamers consider avant-garde.
I feel the best way to end this editorial is by mentioning the highly revered film critic Roger Ebert. He may have condemned video games in 2010, but he did stand out from his peers in a number of ways. One of his greatest strengths was that anything had a chance of receiving a four-star review from him. This was a man who placed Spider-Man 2, Spirited Away, The Big Lebowski, M, and Seven Samurai on the same exact same level. Good luck trying to argue that case with other film critics. Do you like Spider-Man 2? You must be an easily impressed comic book nerd with hilariously low standards. You enjoyed Spirited Away? Don’t you know cartoons are for kids? You think The Big Lebowski is genius? You only like it for the memes. While it’s true that M and Seven Samurai are universally respected among cinephiles, I am positive if anyone else expressed they are on the same level as the previous three films, this hypothetical person would be dismissed as a poseur – regardless of their background. Therefore, one thing cinephiles and film critics should learn from him is that there is more than one way for a work to be good. Ignoring the “games aren’t art” screed, I do think that gamers should follow his example as well, but I’m not as worried about them. I can rest knowing that in most cases, telling a gamer to be open-minded is like trying to teach a fish how to swim.