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Why People Get Upset at Game Reviews

Illustration for article titled Why People Get Upset at Game Reviews

I’m sitting here, staring at my blank screen, wondering how on Earth I’m going to tackle this. I’ve written and deleted sentences over and over, trying to find the right words, to maintain some balance between criticism and diplomacy. I know I’m not the best writer out there; I’m an internet commenter, an armchair quarterback, an amateur who knows his place and sincerely wishes he could be out of it. It’s with pride that I note that some of my comments have received more responses than the articles I’ve commented on—and not because I write troll bait, but because many of the responses I’ve received are thoughtful, intelligent, and exciting to read. I’ve discovered and learned so much, speaking with people of diverse and interesting backgrounds, learning so much about everything from nanomachines to the theory that drives theatre.

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And it’s because of this need, this desire for interesting discussion surrounding a medium I love so much that I write. I realize I’m no pro; my sentences are stilted, my words often poorly chosen. While I would absolutely love to write about games in a way that reaches a broad audience, I understand the fact that I am, quite simply, not presently good enough to do so.

As such, you might find it a bit weird that I’m about to criticize professionals with far more education, experience, and talent that I am likely to ever have. It is my hope that you understand that I’m not writing out of arrogance, but out of a sincere desire to kickstart an interesting discussion surrounding the criticism of video games.

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So let’s talk about Dragon’s Crown.

Over the past, oh, I’d say two years, the idea of social activism has gained a foothold in games discourse. Like any topic, I have my own agreements and disagreements with the content evolved; I personally believe that human beings can and should be represented with honesty, and as such, I agree with many of the criticisms that this is not presently the case; games can and must improve. Unfortunately, some of this activism goes too far; some critics make bold claims based on faulty premises. Others criticize things for the appearance of being ‘on the wrong side.’ Some suggest that artists have obligations to their audiences and society as a whole, others criticize those audiences for enjoying things they find offensive.

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Dragon’s Crown, if you’re not familiar, features an art style based on hyperstylization. Everything and everyone is exaggerated—it features loincloth-sporting men who possess shoulders as broad as the men are tall, women with breasts spilling out of their skimpy outfits. Some people, in the interest of fighting the good fight, have claimed that the art design is offensive because the women are so sexualized, handwaving the hypersexualization of all the characters by suggesting that men want to look like a cartoon version of Conan the Barbarian.

But I’m not really here to defend Dragon’s Crown. While I’ve read a great deal about it, talked at length with friends who love and hate it, watched plenty of gameplay footage, and done everything else I can to understand the game and the controversy surrounding it, I don’t have it, nor do I have any interest in playing it. It’s not my kind of game, nor is it on the platform of my choice. I feel comfortable talking about how the cartoonists I’ve met regularly engage in the habit of exaggerating the characteristics of the people they draw, making them hyperbeautiful, hyperugly, hypersexual, hyperrevolting. I feel comfortable calling out the blatant absurdity of the suggestion that only the design of the women is offensive, because men allegedly want to look like hilariously-proportioned mountains of meat.

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I’ve provided, I hope, the context of the debate surrounding Dragon’s Crown, because I want to discuss abehavior that showed up in the debate. It’s because I want to highlight a behavior that I feel that I should refrain from linking the review I’m going to criticize; I believe the author only had the best intentions, as did whatever editor or editors may have worked on the piece. It’s my goal here to criticize a behavior, not people who wanted to do something right.

Of the many reviews about Dragon’s Crown, one generated a great deal of controversy. The comments were some of the ugliest I’ve ever seen, on all sides of the debate. It exploded into services like Twitter and websites like Reddit or NeoGAF. People messaged me about it in private. It seemed as if, no matter where I went, someone was talking about the review, either praising it, criticizing it, screaming at the critics, or screaming at the critics of the critics.

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On that note, let’s talk about Scott Pilgrim for a minute. If you’ve not read the comics, you should. If you’ve not seen the film, then you should definitely get on that, because this is a link to an article about reviews of the movie. It’s about how, when reviews about Scott Pilgrim game out, a great many reviewers chose to assault the audience for a movie they didn’t enjoy, appreciate, understand, or whatever else you feel would best describe them.

Even now, on Twitter, almost a full month after the review was published, I still see the occasional defense of the review by its editors. My impression is that they believe the review is attacked because of its ‘brave’ stance in arguing that women should be treated well.

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I believe them to be mistaken. Most people would agree that women should be treated better than they are; that’s not why people are mad.

They’re upset because they enjoyed the game, and because the reviewer, much like people who reviewed Scott Pilgrim, couldn’t help but denigrate them. The very first sentence suggests that the only audience who could enjoy the game are boys in their early teens, ‘obsessed’ with fantasy. Dragon’s Crown is described, elsewhere in the review, as juvenile. The game’s art style is repeatedly claimed to be gross. But it’s always done within the context of judging people who might enjoy the game.

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People tend to get upset—even irrational, in some cases—when they feel insulted, and insulting the audience is exactly what the review did. To quote Linda Holmes from the Scott Pilgrim review:

“Hating Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is perfectly fine. It’s got a style; you sort of embrace it and dig it or you don’t. But when there’s too much effort given to tut-tutting the people you imagine to be enjoying it, or declaring and promising that only narrow categories of losers and non-life-havers and other stupid annoying hipsters could possibly be having a good time when you’re not, it sounds pinched and ungenerous. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a little bit jealous and fearful of obsolescence.”

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The review in question isn’t a good review because it’s fighting the good fight. The response to the review isn’t solely because bad people don’t like being called out for bad things. It’s because a rather bland, workmanlike review (“you can turn in quests and get rewards” is about as useful a statement as “in this game about basketball, you have multiple players who throw the ball to each other to get it in the goal so you can earn points and win”) took the time to insult its audience.

Contrast this with Cara Ellison’s take on Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. She reports her feelings, but she owns them—instead of judging people who might enjoy the game, Ellison explains how it makes her feel and does her best to convey why it might be troubling. I disagree with her interpretation of the game for a number of reasons, but I respect her opinion. Where I feel like discounting the Dragon’s Crown reviewer and discarding the review as trash, I look forward to what Ellison says next. I follow her on Twitter now. She stimulates thought. She says interesting things. She doesn’t demean or diminish. Cara Ellison makes gaming discourse a better place.

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When I read a review about Madden that suggests its players are all dudebro sports fans, I don’t learn much, nor do I value the review or its reviewer. When Owen Good writes about Madden 25, he talks about both the broad and fine details of the game, providing a comprehensive review that anyone could benefit from reading. I wish more people would write like him.

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The idea driving a lot of activism, particularly game reviewing today, is that we’re supposed to make the world a better place by making sure people are adequately and honestly represented. But it seems like some people are doing the very thing they want to fight against; to take one side, they feel the need to attack the other. The Dragon’s Crown review isn’t the only piece of games writing I’ve seen like this, sadly.

Game reviewers, I get it. I’m not one of you. I’m just a commenter. I should know my place. I’ve seen what happens when people criticize games reviewing—the wagons are circled, your critics are laughed at, and you shrug it off. I doubt anyone’s going to read this, nodding their head sagely, and say “wow, I’d never thought of that before.”

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But I hope you will, because consume your product, and I’d like to see better quality work; I’d like to participate in better discussion.

Originally posted on my blog this morning; thought you might enjoy it.

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