I’m a fan of Cracked (dot com), and I get that it’s supposed to be a humour site. I also get that complaining about a lack of journalistic rigour in one of their articles is like complaining that the presentation of a Happy Meal is too impersonal. They’re in the business of trading gentle laughs and obscure trivia for virality, and that’s fine. But this recent article by David Wong really irritated me, for several reasons.
David Wong’s schtick is to cook up superficially compelling arguments based on feel-good folk psychology that reinforce the reader’s prejudices on a subject. Synthetic profundity that sounds good until you analyse it in any detail. The most famous of these is the entertaining “What is the Monkeysphere?”.
Sporadically he applies this technique to the subject of video games. The reasoning behind this is unclear, as it’s obvious from even these infrequent excursions that Wong is only aware of games in terms of the few clumsily reported stories about them that penetrate the mainstream media.
The entire piece is underpinned by the ugly, divisive implication that “gamers” refers to a tribe of privileged American young men. It is (ironically) a perception of people who play games in the second decade of the 21st century taken straight from the ridiculous and clueless way in which they’ve been marketed in America for the past thirty years. American games magazines are full of these extraordinary relics, routinely depicting their target market as Bart Simpson-esque teenagers or bottle-glassed dorks who buy games explicitly because they contain obnoxiousness and gore.
His first point, “We Can’t Shake the “Lonely, Anti-Social Virgin” Stereotype” immediately and obliviously launches into a tirade against GameCrush, a service that was universally derided by even the most unreconstructed elements of the games media, where it wasn’t simply assumed to be a hoax. That some entrepreneur was clueless enough to assume that there would be a market for a convoluted phone sex service without the sex says nothing about the vast majority of gamers.
There are of course valid arguments to be made about the appalling level of sexism and other antisocial behaviour that ooze to the surface wherever people are allowed to communicate anonymously, but that’s as near as Wong gets to forming one. Some people behave badly online, some other mysterious people who it’s imperative that we impress rightly condemn them for it, so we should all feel bad. All the American college-aged guys, that is.
The second argument (“The Industry Thinks We’re All 17-Year-Old Douchebags”) is essentially a restatement of Wong’s misconception that ghastly American marketing reflects the views of either the creators or consumers of games, with a big fat side order of confused puritanism. The concepts of “kitsch”, “camp”, “exploitation” and creative works not being entirely earnest reflections of their creators’ beliefs (i.e. “fiction”) seem to have sailed over his head.
A sniffy appraisal of a sex scene from God of War (so shamelessly over the top that it’s genuinely bemusing that Wong would assume that its creators must be Beavis and Butthead at the height of their creative powers, rather than a team of respected, well-adjusted industry veterans taking the piss) is followed by still more bumbling context-deprived examples. (Um, no David, Sakura in Street Fighter IV is not a “grown woman in a Japanese schoolgirl fetish costume”.) Again and again it’s taken as implicit that you can’t have sexualised characters in a game without them being shameful and grubby.
The fact that the American retailers effectively banned any discussion of sexuality from mainstream games for years is infinitely more deplorable than any of the grievances in the article.
Wong has run out of steam by the third argument (“Video Game Storytelling is Still at the Level of B Movies”), so attempts to change the topic to one he’s more comfortable with (screenwriting). He characterises all game writing as awful on the basis of a handful of shooters where it is largely irrelevant. His entirely sound methodology for this sampling is to take a list of the top grossing Xbox 360 games (so story-led PS3 games like Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain and PC games like every adventure game ever and Dwarf Fortress can be conveniently glossed over), which is like taking the top grossing airport carousel thrillers as a barometer of the state of literature. More sweeping generalisations follow, with more neuroticism about not being considered sophisticated.
Even if we dispense with Wong’s dishonestly selective sampling, most games writing is awful, I’ll admit. But when storytelling has worked in games (e.g. MGS, Machinarium, Ico, Mafia, Psychonauts, Spider, and stacks of Lucasarts, Infocom, Telltale, Valve and Bioware games) it’s been as good as anything in any other media. And that’s before we get on to player-generated stories – the real stories – it’s no coincidence that most of the games in that top-grossing list have extensive multiplayer modes.
Marching wearily on to the fourth argument (“We’re Still Obsessed by Shiny Gadgets”), Wong gives up the pretense of having a coherent theme to whine about graphics nerdery, delivering another daft and agonisingly protracted film analogy in the process. If you want to make an analogy, complaints about technical deficiencies in the long-awaited Alan Wake can be likened to complaints about a botched DVD transfer of a long out of print movie, among home cinema buffs who care about these things.
Wong’s assertion that the entire industry is obsessed with technical novelty to the exclusion of all else might have been plausible five or ten years ago. Today the majority of games are being played on the Wii, or on smartphones, or in browser windows, and bleeding edge technical showcases are if not quite a niche, a lucrative specialist market rather than the be all and end all.
At this point in the article, most of the attempts at humour have been bled out and replaced with strident, ill-informed histrionics. The nadir is the final point (“We Have Some Serious Entitlement Issues”), again a topic where many genuine grievances could be aired, but again one where Wong has just vented misplaced anger at something he doesn’t understand.
After some hand-wringing about piracy of the Humble Indie Bundle (based on the widespread confusion of the concepts of “value” and “worth” – giving something away makes it harder to justify paying for it, not easier), he lays the blame for Spore’s failure solely on piracy (spoiler: Spore was quite shit) and claims that PC gaming is dying, which is presumably why sites like Rock Paper Shotgun get so little traffic and can’t find anything to write about, and why Gabe Newell probably uses diamond-encrusted ancient Egyptian artifacts to scratch himself. (All those people without job titles in the credits of Valve games? Horrified archaeologists.)
Unforgivably, Wong has the gall to claim that consumer ire over issues such as Ubisoft’s disasterous DRM policy and Modern Warfare 2’s lack of dedicated servers (both cases where people are simply being asked to pay more money for less functionality – there is no room for interpretation there) can be dismissed as adolescent tantrums, which goes beyond misfiring comedy to being mildly offensive.
I can think of one group of people who are obsessed with being seen as mature, caring about approval from strangers, and whining about how terrible people are in response to utterly inconsequential perceived slights, and worrying about whether their hobbies are ‘cool’. It isn’t “gamers”. Maybe when David Wong has moved on from his self-imposed teenagerdom he’ll appreciate that.