I'm really feeling it!

The Apologist Problem

Last year, we saw some broken games. Assassin's Creed Unity was...well, just look at the picture. Halo: The Master Chief Collection required a day-one patch that still left players unable to connect to multiplayer games, the meat-and-potatoes of the series for many gamers. DriveClub, Far Cry 4, and the next-gen Grand Theft Auto V all saw varying degrees of launch issues. Destiny still has numerous bugs to work out, with Bungie seeming to prioritize those that let players exploit glitches to make the game easier over those that actively interfere with game play.

Speaking of Destiny, Bungie has made some questionable design choices. No matchmaking for raids, not letting players trade items, and locking players who don't have the requisite DLC out of some multiplayer play lists are all design choices that welcome varying degrees of controversy. Most players defend Bungie's decision to not include trading and matchmaking with very good reasons, but some take the criticism very seriously, as if the game is immune to any kind of deconstruction.

Destiny isn't the only game with this kind of devotion from their fans. I know lots of gamers, and have lots of discussion about games both online and off, and more than once I've encountered some form of apologetics when it came to games, developers, and publishers.

I couldn't begin to recall all of those conversations, and even if I did, it would only be anecdotal evidence for the point I'm trying to make—that apologism is not only bad for the games themselves, but for gaming culture—so I'll be talking in generalizations without citing specific examples. This is meant more as a think piece to generate discussion, after all.

Apologetics is a discipline that has its roots in religion. Apologists (as the practitioners were called) would defend their faith against critics while supporting and recommending it to those on the fence. There's nothing wrong with this, and the discipline is applicable to all kinds of philosophies. However, within the Christian church, there arose a way of thinking called presuppositional apologetics. This was a school of thought that dictated that the Bible was the only source of rational thought and sought to extinguish the logic of other world views. These aggressive apologists weren't interested in responding to criticism; they sought to deconstruct and invalidate opposing schools of thought, using their own conviction as the only source of logical reasoning.

These are the kind of apologists we see all too often when it comes to video games. They stand fast that their favorite game, publisher, developer or hardware manufacturer is without flaw—every design choice is sound, every technical aspect flawless, every game play mechanic implemented with fluidity and grace. Any obvious flaws will be easily fixed in an expedient manner, so there's no need to fuss over them. With their conviction in these truths, they shout down all of those who would dare to criticize their favorite thing.


Video game apologetics can be as simple as having double standards, excusing the faults of your favorite games and the people who make them even while railing against those same faults in other games. For some, the conviction runs deep, and they have come to idolize their favorite manufacturers and publishers, building a mythology of them being benign, even charitable, corporate bodies in a sea of otherwise ruthless, heartless robber barons. They believe that their favorite organization truly cares about gamers and wants them to be happy. This is one that I encounter quite often, and when I try to explain that while some for-profit organizations are more fair and generous than others, all any of them really care about is their fiscal reports. This is often met with static.

Other apologists call into the credentials of critics, especially if they form an opinion about a game they haven't played for at least 30 hours. While those who have played a game are far more credible in forming any type of serious criticism than those who haven't played it—and if you're writing a serious review of a game, you should play it at least long enough to get a feel for its strengths and weaknesses—it is entirely possible to form an opinion based off of reading and research, especially when it comes to basic design and debugging issues. I can't testify to the quality of the shooting mechanics in Destiny because I haven't played it, and I wouldn't try to attack or defend the game's fun factor because of that. However, I don't need to have played the game to know that Bungie has opted to not include some features that are mainstays in MMOs, to express that I disagree with those decisions, and to ask why those decisions were necessary.


But to the video game apologist, the fact that I haven't played the game gives me no credence whatsoever to ask questions and levy criticisms at the game, even concerning things that I do know for a fact without having played it. It's as if the game is a walled-off community and I have yet to gain entry, therefore everything I say about what goes on in there is mere speculation and not to be trusted.

Apologists may cite games that the critic has enjoyed which they feel are inadequate, and use those as a barometer concerning the critic's tastes and whether they should be forming any opinions about any game. It doesn't matter how well-stated and sound the critic's logic is—that argument, to the apologist, is rock solid. Another popular form of apologist logic dictates that if you pay for a game, you have accepted it as is, and thus shouldn't criticize—after all, making a video game is hard work, and we should be happy just to have the privilege of playing them. This is cited even when there are game-breaking bugs in the release copy, because since the developers will fix it that makes it okay that consumers paid $60 for a game that doesn't work.


Finally, the apologists will lean on the old adage when all else has failed: it's just a game. Don't like it, don't play it.

It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with liking a game, even if the vast majority of the gaming community absolutely hates it. You're talking to the guy who logged well over 20 hours of Too Human on the Xbox 360, and did so gleefully and without irony. But all of the time, as much fun as I was having with the game and as addictive as snatching up loot was, there were some absolutely horrible design flaws, numerous missing features that would have made the game much better, and don't even talk to me about the unskippable valkyrie scene. Part of loving something is acknowledging its flaws, even if you don't constantly trumpet them. Defend the game if you can, but there's no need for hostility when someone dares to suggest your favorite game may be less than perfect, or the publisher who has brought this game to you maybe isn't the best in town.


When apologists shout down critics, either in a formal or casual setting, they are discouraging healthy debate and constructive criticism, eliminating a significant portion of the game development cycle. After all, developers and publishers listening to and responding to fans is both the first and last step of any game's development, and the more of it they do now, the less they have to do in the future.

Refusing to hear negative reviews and opinions sends the message that gamers really are the all-consuming lemmings that Leigh Alexander said we were, and that we'll gobble up anything that is thrown at us, regardless of quality. This leads to broken, mediocre, derivative games all over. Even worse, it creates a toxic environment where those who dare to go against the norm are not welcome—and isn't the desire to escape such an environment what drove so many of us to gaming in the first place?


Gamergate, according to conventional wisdom, had its roots in misogyny and racism in the gaming community. I won't disagree with this, but there was a third part to the equation—apologetics. We saw a significant portion of the gaming community say that, not just their favorite parts of it, but the gaming industry as a whole was immune to criticism and met critics with open hostility. This is bad, very bad. It shuts out new gamers, discourages development of unique and thought-provoking work, and discredits video games as a viable art form.

One reason that I don't watch FOX News is because, more often than not, their "debates" are usually the station talking head shouting at the opposing party they have brought on for a token appearance. It's glorified, even celebrated, bullying. That's not what video game discussion should be like, but unfortunately apologists often turn it into that. Doing so does nothing but create resentment and perpetuate unflattering myths, and us gamers already have enough of both. We don't need anymore.


My name is Brandon. I used to watch my aunt and my mom play Frogger while I was a baby, and I've been a gamer ever since. My paying job is as a librarian. I currently write Library Journal's "Games, Gamers, and Gaming" column so that librarians all over the nation are informed about games and gaming culture. I'm on Twitter and Steam aslevel250geek, so feel free to look me up.

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