Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Editorial: The Dangers of Gamer-Group Think

Batman: Arkham Stigma

Writer's Note: The majority of this article was originally published on MyIGN, but there's a lot of new content written just for The Future Machine readers.

Some of the internet's most popular gaming sites could be viewed as the ambassadors of perception. The previews and reviews offered to loyal readers inevitably have an affect in shaping not only the way a game is perceived by the public prior to its release, but also how the game is actually judged when it is played (for my WWE fans, think of video game review sites as 'the jokers at commentary').

Earlier today, IGN, the most popular and powerful entertainment site around, published a preview of Murdered: Soul Suspect. The preview was fairly negative, the headlines attention-getting and also not unlike an elaborate, articulate user-comment, and the preview was only of the first ninety minutes of the game. Despite the relatively brief experience the author had, the tone was somewhat absolute - suggesting that this is the way everyone will and should feel about the game. The author did not write that, of course, it's simply that this is the feeling one walks away with. There's very little wiggle room for those who want to believe there's a chance the game could still be good, despite the fact that it's not finished yet.

In Murdered: Soul Suspect gamers play a ghost-detective trying to solve his own murder.
Now the author (hopefully) knows that they will stir the internet pot with this preview, that their negative words will elicit an immediate, equally negative response to the game (at least from many gamers who are quick to jump on any sort of bandwagon). More often than not, negative reviews and negative previews are met with resounding endorsement from the users, where as positive previews and reviews (especially for large-scale Triple A titles) are met with disdain.

It would be nice if the previews at IGN ended up leaning more towards a potentially positive outcome regardless of the writer's experience (the game isn't available to play yet!) or at least allowed more room for the game to be good. These previews read more like snap-judgments, expressing pure disappointment from an emotionally charged point of view. They might be accurate assessments of an individual perception, but they contribute to a larger environment of negativity - which is ironic considering this is a passion and pastime that elicits so much joy.

Regardless of the article and what it stirs up, it remains the author's right to explain their individual experience. This must be appreciated even if we don't like what they have to say. And the author did acknowledge there's still time for the game to get better.

But that is not something many commentators seem to comprehend. The majority seem unwilling to maintain an open mind, unwilling to develop a unique perception based on actual experience.

This is an increasingly negative trend that has deeper implications with regard to the maturity of this gaming generation - the values of the culture, the mindset of the culture, the intelligence of the culture.

The writers and editors of popular gaming/entertainment sites are certainly culpable in permitting a negative environment to flourish (believing it's solely in the community's hands is shortsighted), but I feel the most blame (if blame must be assigned anywhere) falls on the easily swayed, self-important gamers themselves. The absolute confidence with which they subjugate their will to the will of a writer, a website, or a massive corporation is laughable and depressing.

I've perused the internet enough so that I am no longer very surprised by the vitriol exchanged in comments sections between anonymous users.  What does surprise, and concern me, however, is the increasing willingness to abandon individual thought, to disregard formulating nuanced opinions in favor of the almighty and comforting group-think.

Message boards are certainly not the place to look for well-constructed thought-exchanges.  They are a playground for people (mostly men on a site such as IGN) who must be of a certain level of intelligence (they created a profile and have internet access for God's sake), but simply enjoy resorting to simpleton insults and nasty sexist, racist, and/or homophobic slurs instead of engaging in an actual discussion. 

The ease of such an exchange, that ugly little twinge of joy they get from "owning" someone with a "witty" quip like "You mad?" is far too enjoyable to pass up.  Even I'm guilty of a snarky remark or two in my day, but it's usually for the sociological experiment of seeing what response I'll get. I want to understand what it is about the human spirit that has resulted in the internet being what it is.

We all seem like weak, complacent, sarcastic, ironic, opinionated, closed minded jerks!

We could easily seem like passionate, intelligent, democratic, fair-minded, and strong human beings given the massive resource for information the internet provides.

But the internet, for the most part, appeals to our nasty inner-child, and I don't necessarily blame or despise the angry, thoughtless commenters for destroying the world, people who simply sling insults. It's those that pretend to be informed or those who wield their ability to Google-search as proof of an almighty intellect that do real harm.
What concerns me most is that in our current digital environment the perception of a product or work of art can be shaped prior to the experience of that work. We now inevitably formulate ideas about art (games, movies, comics, etc)  based upon a preconceived notion, and that notion can forever determine that work of art's stature in the world (and even how people experience it).  In this way, our thought-process, and our art is corrupted. 

Based on a variety of user comments, articles, and the like that I've read in recent years, it's become clearer to me that if one reviewer, or a handful of reviewers or commenters formulate a similar opinion (or if their nuanced opinions are reduced to a simple, singular tone over time) that the experience, and stature, of a video game or movie will be negatively affected.

The most recent example of this phenomenon occurred with Batman: Arkham Origins. Moving forward, I will focus upon the internet's reaction to this game and express my own, personal experience with it.

We, the internet community, the gaming community, and Batman fans, all rolled our eyes and shook our heads when we learned that Rocksteady (the studio behind the original Arkham series) wasn't making the game, and especially when we found out that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill weren't on board to reprise their iconic roles. 

The game might as well have been subtitled Arkham Stigma.

I didn't even pre-order the game. And I'm a huge Batman fan. And the gameplay videos and the developer diaries didn't help put the game over in the least, as none of the game-developers seemed adept at public speaking, and the game literally looked like a cash-in copy and paste.

And then the reviews came out. And they weren't very positive. Not totally negative, but there was a general sense that it just wasn't "living up to the franchise".

Are we all investors? Businessmen with a bottom line?

Why do we use such language when analyzing art?

The predominance of the word "franchise" is indicative of a childish desire on the entertainment community's part to want to sound savvy and adult in their online discussions. I'm always shocked by the number of commenters who will cite ratings statistics, box office performances, and pre-order numbers as support for their arguments. Why not use personal experience as support? Why not formulate a strong, nuanced opinion of a work of art and rely on that to try and convince others you are correct? We've dehumanized ourselves, reduced our minds to electronic ads and corporate soap boxes.

And a game like Arkham Origins suffered because of it.

I think IGN actually did a decent job reviewing the game (though the comment that "Batman games are like pizza..." is an unfair, internet-snark-bait assessment).  Overall it's an honest, straight-forward critique that summarizes one person's experience  - that is all. The game got stamped with a scarlet letter when several sites gave similar reviews and the majority of the internet community followed suit with sarcasm, irony, and disdain.

I was affected by it at first, and nearly missed out on what might be my favorite video game narrative of 2013.

A week after the game released I suddenly felt like I was missing out on something, that I had to see what it was like and judge for myself, so I broke down and bought a copy. As I awaited Origins' arrival in the mail, I gradually became more and more excited to play it. No longer reading the internet, my own natural predisposition to like something, to want it to be good kicked in. With sincere anticipation, I ran downstairs the day it arrived, tore it out of the packaging and popped it in my Xbox. Such is the joy we should always feel when getting a new game, and the internet has the ability to taint that.

After I dusted the cobwebs of gamer group-think from my brain, I discovered a truly excellent video game.  My experience of the game was one of pure, unadulterated pleasure from opening to closing credits.  This is certainly due in large part to my Batman-fandom (the game is made for Batman fans after all), but mostly because of the stellar origin story.

I found it a more focused narrative, overflowing with more emotional depth than either of the previous Akrham games.  In this story the characters (particularly The Batman and The Joker) actually have a motivation, and it's personal like any good comic.
Yes, the top half of the map is a recreation of Arkham City, and yes the city is much more empty, and not treated with as much "love".

But I would take a powerful Batman-story that has me engaged in surprisingly emotional arcs over an amusingly placed Penguin "Easter Egg" any day.  It is as though WB Montreal relied upon the foundation established in Arkham City, the environment and the mechanics, so that they could tell a story with more love, more humanity, and more depth. That is where their efforts went, and it paid off.
And they managed to keep a pretty massive secret in their marketing, a twist I simply never saw coming.

I wanted to feel intimately connected to the events of Batman's life, not simply advance through one cool enemy encounter to another, and I feel that Origins finally gave me that emotionally-charged Batman-experience. 

Bruce Wayne is tested, even contemplates giving up towards the end of the game. He is pushed to a new limit, forced to face his humanity and learns that he cannot accomplish anything on his own.

Gamers mature along with a young, brash Bruce Wayne. He grows. He becomes a man. This is a human story about loyalty and strength not often found in any medium let alone one that typically puts players in the mind of emotionless brutes and thugs. And by the end, much like Nolan's Batman films, you truly feel the selflessness of Batman's actions.

He becomes The Dark Knight over the course of twenty-four hours. There is one particular section of the game that involves diffusing bombs on an already burning bridge, saving several trapped Gotham citizens.  I truly felt like a hero when I finally diffused the bombs, as the game rewarded me with gratitude.

Arkham City, at its best, is about the bond of two old enemies. At City's simplest and most prevalent, it's about packing a bunch of beloved comic book characters into an unnecessarily convoluted, bloated plot that reveals nothing about Batman's personality (except for the fact that he's a badass, which we all already knew).

I find it hard to believe that I am so alone in my experience Origins. I know it crashes for some, that it's buggy, but my playthrough was pretty clean. The minute details of The Batcave, the brief cutscene of Batman entering the Batwing and taking off whenever players leave for the city, the obvious dedication of every voice actor, and the surprisingly deep origin story that pays homage to the greatest graphic novels of all time adds up to, in my mind, a game far better than the one the internet has seemingly played.

To this day people post snarky, angry comments on Facebook whenever Origins' page is updated.  For so many people to be so disappointed by something that is, very simply, good, is downright odd to me and indicative of our willingness to forgo individual understanding in favor of communal validation.

It's as though we decided not to like this game, to create a mountain so high in our mind that Origins was doomed to fail before reaching the summit.  The same happened with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.  We just decided not to like it as much as The Dark Knight, despite the fact that in many ways it is a clearer, more heartfelt, powerful Batman story and film.

We never just played a game or watched a movie.  We just compared.  We just judged.  We wanted to be right. 

It's hard to be the one person saying "No!" in a roomful of people saying "Yes!".  But I encourage you to be that one person, so long as your thoughts are intelligent and honest.

The truth about these games is, taken individually, they are brilliant, and when juxtaposed with a previous iteration it becomes clear that each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Arkham Asylum is still my favorite Batman game for it's clarity, pacing, and how it revolutionized the genre.  But Origins will always beat Arkham City in mind, for its story and intensity.  But I still love them all, because they are all good.

Inevitably it comes down to what you, individually, value.  If it's a completely new engine, new city, new buildings, new gadgets, and new character models and a flawless game that never freezes, you won't like Origins.  If it's something honest and powerful you want (and Batman-related), this game was created for you

If you value which way the prevailing wind blows, your voice will be lost in a sea of sameness, but you'll be dumbly happy.

I believe that if we weren't so quick to judge, if we didn't give into that desire to be a member of the cool kids' club, we'd have purer experiences of the medium we love, and we'd be more able to preserve its worth.  And besides, none of us are cool, kids.  We're all just trying to figure this out.

And, to remain true to my own edict, I'll end on a positive note. Not everyone who commented on that Murdered: Soul Suspect preview was so quick to toss their interest in the game out the window at the first sign of trouble.

So there's hope.

As much-hyped games like Thief and Titanfall become available, let us remember an open mind and a positive, realistic perspective is always the best path to take. These works of art, flawed or not, and the human race, deserves as much.

Live long and prosper.


  1. This was a very interesting reading, I'll be linking it in every social page I have, because you really hitted something important, I wonder if the same will happen next week when Spidey 2 hits American teathres for example.