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An impassioned plea for apathy

As long as online discussions of games are dominated by those who yell the loudest, it's going to be impossible for fans to engage in honest, productive debates. It's time to step back, take a breath, and become better citizens.

I can't take it anymore. Every day, it seems like people are all atwitter about another irrelevant nontroversy. Matters that a normal human being would dismiss as trivial are elevated, on the internet, to grand morality plays where nothing less than our fate as a species hangs in the balance. It is fucking ridiculous. If we could find a way to channel self-important outrage into kinetic energy, our dependence on foreign oil would be finished tomorrow. Instead, we're going to choke on it.

The latest? A reviewer at Gamer Limit didn't like The Witcher 2. Now, you or I would hear about this and think, "Huh, someone has an opinion about a video game. I wonder what I should have for lunch." Witcher 2 fanboys hear about this and see a battle as pivotal as the invasion of Normandy. They regret that they have but one life to give for a game they enjoy.

It doesn't matter to them that reviews for the game are still almost uniformly positive. If anything, that's all the more reason to start wailing on the one guy who didn't like it. You let somebody step out of line just this once, and what happens the next time? We might have to start dealing with a real diversity of opinions, which would require us to engage with games critically, and with one another respectfully, and that just sounds too hard. Easier if everyone repeats one another.

I haven't played The Witcher 2, and I have no idea if I'd agree with Bobby Hunter's criticisms or not. But they sound fair to me. He talks about a tricky interface, cumbersome combat mechanics, and a storyline that didn't resonate with him. These sound like things that lots of gamers complain about. Not only do they sound reasonable, but I've read positive reviews of The Witcher 2 that make the same points! It's not as though he accidentally played some other game.*

Of course, there's a bigger issue here. The reason many people claim to be outraged -- the reason people think they are justified in firing whatever insults and accusations they can imagine at the writer and the site -- is because the Gamer Limit review dragged down the game's Metacritic score from 90 to 89. The horror!

We all know it's bullshit that developers have powerful, often unfair incentives to hit a certain Metacritic score. I was heartbroken to hear that the Fallout: New Vegas devs missed getting a bonus by one lousy Metacritic point, especially because I consider it to be nearly a masterpiece. But does the fault really lie with the reviewers of New Vegas, who accurately mentioned that it was buggier than a Victorian whorehouse?

Further, if CD Projekt, like Obsidian, does have the fate of their business riding on a 90+ Metacritic score, something I have not seen seriously suggested, then whose fault is that? I would suggest the blame should be apportioned in this order.

1. The executives who made a boneheaded deal.

2. Metacritic, which wields its influence like a cudgel.

3. Fans who, by giving a shit about Metacritic, grant it its influence.

5,000. Someone who wrote a bad review of The Witcher 2.

What do these people want, exactly? All critics to march in lockstep all the time? You hear so many complaints about how reviewers don't use the entirety of the 0-10 scale, but as soon as someone does, it's a bloodbath. Why, it's almost as though people want a validation of their own opinions, and nothing more.

What bugs me most about flare-ups like this are the accusations of bad faith. I don't doubt that there are people out there who are not interested in writing good, honest criticism, and see controversy as a shortcut to pageviews. But there is no evidence -- none -- that this is the case here. I happen to have right here a link to another review that Bobby Hunter wrote of an action-RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Let's see what kind of incendiary lying bullshit he made up about it just so Gamer Limit could get more hits.

Oh wait. He gave it a high score! Even weirder, his approach is consistent across both reviews. What he liked about Reckoning -- smooth combat, fast-paced action, and competent adherence to genre tropes -- he found lacking in The Witcher 2. Whether you agree with his conclusions is beside the point. Judging by his work (what a concept!), he's not somebody who flings shit at the wall to see what sticks.

The way so many people default to this line of attack tells me that they don't have anything substantive to say. They just want to gang up on someone. They want to elevate a simple disagreement into a clash of good versus evil -- with themselves radiating pure white light, of course, no matter what garbage they sling, because they are armed with the correct opinion about a video game. That's borne out by reading the comments on the piece. Not that I'm suggesting you read the comments, if you value your sanity. You could guess what they sound like, and you'd be right.

You know what the truth is? Writing a negative review sucks. It feels terrible. You know that a lot of dedicated people worked hard on something, and put a lot more hours into it than you did, and you're about to tell people that it's no good. And if you know that you're going against popular opinion, you have to live with the very real possibility that you're about to become ground zero for the next round of targeted fanboy fury. Many of the angry commenters suggest that Hunter should quit his gig as a game reviewer because he didn't get the same value from The Witcher 2 that so many of his peers did. I would suggest the opposite. The day that he pretends to find something in a game that isn't there for him, that's when he should quit.

Really, though, it's not this particular case that bothers me as much as the pattern. Whether it's a negative review of The Witcher 2, or the ending of Mass Effect 3, or somebody saying he felt weird at PAX, the story is the same every time. The mob moves, locust-like, from one controversy to the next, with no sense of perspective or decency. They'll pick Bobby Hunter's bones clean today, forget the whole thing within a month, and then swarm the next one who strays from the pack. Guaranteed.

People, I am begging you: the next time you read something on the internet that spurs you to anger, wait a goddamn minute before you react. Stand up. Walk out of the room. Pet your cat. Ask yourself what you're so pissed off about. Ask yourself if it matters to your life and your experiences. Ask yourself if your response is going to help.

If you're still mad after all that, okay. Go ahead and write a searing blog post.

*Read this, from Jim Rossignol's orgasmic review of the PC version:

It’s a peculiarly ill-judged baptism of fire (literally at some points). Where you’re expecting a game to teach you how it works and lead you by the hand, The Witcher 2 offers nothing but a few text-based tips boxes. If you don’t take time to figure out that you have to constantly dodge away with the spacebar, or use magic to buff your combat, you are going to struggle. And the game does not tell beginners this. The spells are barely mentioned, and you’ll need to stop and figure it out for yourself if you want to know what they do. While there are situations in which they /are/ introduced to you, at no point are you explicitly taught that it is a lot easier if you use the shield power to protect yourself in combat, for example

That's almost exactly the same thing that Hunter complained about. The difference is that Rossignol liked the game despite this, while Hunter didn't. Isn't that... good? Isn't that what we want from our writers? Different perspectives? When I read Rossignol's review, I thought to myself, "This does not sound like a game for me." It didn't make me want to string him up for liking it.

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