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GamerGate and the Corruption of Criticism

The “GamerGate” video game controversy is complicated to trace in its particulars, but it was one of 2014’s most interesting under-the-radar media bias stories.  Strip away the various personal conflicts and scandals, and you’ve got a classic story about the corruption of criticism… a perhaps inevitable process that finally overcame humanity’s newest art form last year.

The core complaint of GamerGate activists was the politicization of gaming press by social-justice activists, with a side order of good old-fashioned behind-the-scenes personalized string-pulling — in other words, personal relationships between game designers and journalists warping the shape of gaming journalism.  The same thing has happened to just about every other art form over the centuries.  Modern communications technology set a pattern with cinema and Hollywood journalism that was followed fairly closely by video games, on a roughly comparable timetable.  Of course, because GamerGate happened on the Internet, the battle between consumers and the journalist class they came to view as corrupt was fast, loud, and confusing when it finally broke loose, everyone who thinks it’s over claims victory for their side, and there’s some lively disagreement about whether it’s over.

Hot arguments are kept sizzling by high stakes, and the stakes are very high in the video game world, which is moving as many dollars as cinema, music, or professional sports.  The biggest entertainment product launch of 2014 was not a movie or record album, but a video game, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.  It’s part of a franchise worth $10 billion in sales.  Historians may disagree about exactly when video games ceased to be a niche or fringe market, but to judge from profit and loss spreadsheets, they went mainstream quite a while ago.  They’ve also gained a good deal of pop culture acceptance, figuring prominently in one of network TV’s most popular shows, The Big Bang Theory, along with incidental mentions in countless other movies and shows.  Gaming is something just about everybody does now.

2014 might go down as the year gaming truly arrived as an established art form, however.  It has developed a critical elite, which some consumers view as politicized and out-of-touch.  You don’t really have an art until you’ve got critics and mass audiences sneering and jeering at each other.

Politicization also heralds the transcendence of an art form.  The critical elite begins thinking about the social significance of the art and dreaming of ways it could be used to nudge the masses down the road to Utopia.  Arrogance is the inevitable fallout from artistic maturity.  Someone always starts thinking about how the art changes its consumers, rather than merely entertaining them.  The social toxicity of “bad” or misguided art is inevitably debated.  All of this began happening with motion pictures soon after theaters became ubiquitous across America.  I wonder how many veteran critics of Hollywood’s Golden Age would look upon GamerGate with a knowing smile, recognizing the broad outlines of controversies from their era.  To borrow a saying from another avenue of geek cultureAll of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

The truly unique aspect of gaming is interactivity.  No other form of art features anything quite like the player’s interaction with his or her videogame.  It’s difficult to imagine any comparably interactive art form reaching audiences numbered in the millions, generating billions of dollars in revenue.  Interactivity makes criticism even more subjective than it is with books, movies, or music.  It’s a whole new dimension, every bit as important as the aspects of gaming that closely parallel older media.  It matters what a game looks like, and how good it sounds, and how compelling the story is… but is it any fun to play?  And if it’s a lot of fun to play, do those other aspects really matter?  There is a lively sub-genre of independent games that use simple, archaic graphics and sounds while emphasizing gameplay — sometimes in a deliberate effort to evoke games from previous generations, sometimes because flashy graphics and sounds require a lot of money and manpower to create.  Fans of such games would argue that their rough graphics or threadbare plots don’t cancel out the sheer fun of playing them.

This works the other way around, too, and that’s where the inevitable conflict between critics and average gamers is spawned.  Some videogames are lavishly praised for their beautiful appearance or story quality even though they aren’t very much fun to play.  Some of them are over very quickly; some provide virtually no challenge to the players, becoming more like an interactive tour of a fantasy world than a “game”; a few aren’t really “interactive” at all.  The subjectivity of criticism can lead to such games receiving high praise from professional industry journalists, while the average player ends up wondering what all the fuss was about, burns the thing off his hard drive after a few hours of disinterested experimentation, and goes back to Call of Duty.

That’s the kind of subjectivity and critical distance which opens the door for politicization.  A critic with such axes to grind can find ways to dismiss a good game whose subject matter he disapproves of or lavishly praise one he supports while downplaying its drawbacks.  Interactivity really is highly subjective, so it can be very difficult to say “this game is absolutely fun to play for just about anyone” or “nobody will enjoy spending time with this game.”  Among other factors, game difficulty is a sweet spot that can be tough to hit.  Games that are too tough will quickly turn off casual players, while those which are too easy offer little challenge to the veteran.  Add the complications of multi-player modes that can usher the unruly hordes of the Internet into your interactive entertainment experience, and who can really say a particular game review is completely off the mark?

Even more than with earlier forms of entertainment, gaming leaves a huge amount of wiggle room for the insertion of critical agendas.  Not all of them are political.  For a non-political example, look at Alien: Isolation, a fixture on many Best of 2014 lists.  If you read its award citations carefully, you’ll notice that many of them sound apologetic or defensive, because the critic found the goals of this game far more laudable than its execution.  Some explicitly praise it hoping that other designers will create more games of its type in the future, not because this particular game was the best release of 2014.  The goal praised by these critics is the creation of a tense atmosphere reminiscent of the first Ridley Scott Alien film from 1979, whereas most games using the iconic Alien are more directly inspired by James Cameron’s action-packed sequel.  The problem is that some players didn’t find Alien: Isolation all that fun.  It’s gotten Game of the Year consideration from sources that gave it fairly mediocre ratings when it was first released.

These observations are not meant to pick fights with people who truly enjoyed Alien: Isolation — never let anyone argue you out of enjoying something! — but to provide a benign example of critical corruption.  (Count me among those who really like what this Alien game was trying to do.)  Inserting any larger agenda into the evaluation of an art form is corrupt, whether the agenda is good-natured or not.  Giving the latest Star Trek movie high marks because you love Star Trek and want to see more movies is intellectually corrupt.  Everyone with an agenda thinks their agenda is good-natured… which brings us back to GamerGate and its arguments over feminism, social justice activism, ethics, and so forth.

Once a critic decides there are considerations beyond the inherent quality of what he or she critiques, the critical enterprise becomes activist, and all that remains is to quibble about which flavors of activism are justifiable.  Should a fun game be trashed because it contains politically objectionable themes?  Should a mediocre game be excessively praised because it sends a message the critic finds socially positive?  When such questions become difficult for critics to answer with words of one syllable, controversy erupts… and the art form in question has found its place in the grand galleries of our common culture.  For better and worse, gaming is about more than just playing games now.

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