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Toward a Positive Discourse

Or: How not to be a dick on the internet all the time.

 

I am probably the least qualified person on earth to be preaching this to what is inevitably the choir, but I made a Resolution this year, which is a rare thing in and of itself, but even more oddly I resolved to be less of a dick, even though being a dick gets you lots of hits on your blog.  Being a dick gets you a lot of attention in the short term, and perhaps some hearty "hear hears!" or "amens!" from the virtual peanut gallery, but it rarely results in long term upward momentum or change.  It's pretty easy to actually reverse progress with a bitter enough tirade.

 

The Goal Here

So in moving toward a more positive discourse in games writing and games communities, one begins to run into some funny speedbumps.  Firstly, what is positive discourse?  I think of it as people talking passionately but respectfully about topics that really matter to them.  Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in positive discourse at a fantastically high level.  Second, if one is to recommend positive discourse as something worth pursuing, both the call to arms AND the person making the call must actually practice said principles.  I have made it about 6 weeks so far, so, as I said, I am probably the least qualified person imaginable to be writing about this.  But it's a start!  Also, I am quite certain that I am not the first nor the last person to think this is worthy enough to justify a blog post at the very least.  I'm writing this anyway. Finally, I will endeavor to actually communicate this idea in accordance with its own rules.  You, reader, will judge my success.

 

This Game Sucks

This basic thought comprises at least half of games "journalism" and games commentary and games community posts.  Given that different people like different things for different reasons, one has to assume that on some level, the majority of the time, this is not actually an argument that can be won or lost.  It is an arbitrary statement of subjective personal value, nothing more.  It doesn't matter how many anecdotal bits of evidence the writer provides, nothing can make them right.  Or wrong.

If you subscribe to this idea (as I try to) then it follows that the meaning of the statement is null, and the only valid aspect to be examined is the tone.  If you don't follow this idea, that attributions of objective game quality are suspect, then ironically you are proving this same idea correct.  I believe that these statements don't have meaning; you believe they do.  Subjectivity!  Thusly, when "judging" a game (or anything else, or anyone else), tone is absolutely paramount.  It is all that is left.

So, I have resolved to spend more time worrying about how I say a thing, versus collecting enough anecdotes and rigged examples to support my insupportable claim in the Court of Internet.  It is important to have a well-supported argument, but that is merely an engineering problem.  Houses need foundations.  Tone is the thing of interest here because it is optional, but also because this is what people will react to, and this is what will stick with them when they finish their read.  If you are concerned about the lasting impact of your writing, that you must consider your tone carefully, rather than simply ejecting the contents of your brain unedited into the public sphere.

 

This Game Was Personally Unsatisfying In Some Regards I Guess

This brings us to an important pitfall in this whole idea of positive discourse, which is the risk of saying nothing, or worse meaning nothing.  For example, many people define constructive criticism as "you must point out the good as well as the bad".  I tend to define it "you must offer clear, concise, considered suggestions for improving the piece."  This is because I find the latter much more useful.  The former, while padding your ego, and potentially notifying you of your strengths, does little to tell you how to correct your weaknesses.

Be confrontational, challenge established ideas, write a stirring call to arms about something as banal as tone of writing, but do it with respect for your peers and for your audience.  This is hard to do.  Unless you're Oscar Wilde, of course.  If you think you might be, you're not.  He's dead.  And a genius.

 

Nothing Spent, Nothing Gained

Anyways, the crux of the thing, which you have to decide for yourself, is whether or not it's worth the effort.  I believe it is.  Don't just declare, as I did last week, that "Nathan Drake is retarded." Take the extra few seconds, that's all it takes, to edit yourself and provide a simple suggestion or two.  If a problem is easy enough for you to see, then it's definitely easy enough for you to at least suggest a possible resolution!

"I wish Naughty Dog had made the platforming less linear and more intuitive.  Many obstacles look like they can be climbed, when in fact they can't.  Others look surmountable but are in fact invisible walls.  More time spent visually communicating the effective uses (or lack thereof) of the objects in-game would have vastly improved the experience for me."

Ok, that took a couple of minutes, and might be too flowery and long-wordy for some.  It isn't nearly as catchy and punchy as "Nathan Drake is retarded."  But look at the upside; it will avoid kneejerk reactions like:

"What?!?  Uncharted 2 was awesome.  If I liked it, and you hate it, does that mean you think I'm dumb?  Because my dad can beat up your dad, asshole."

Which is a reaction to your tone as much as your sentiment.  And, if your words ever find the creator of the work you're considering, the creators are far more likely to take it seriously and take it professionally, rather than a trivial personal attack.

I think we justify mean writing as "punchy" or "edgy" when what we really mean is "easy" and "lazy."  It's easy to be a dick on the internet.  Millions of people do it every day, and not because it takes so much effort and so much time.  Take the extra minute or two to raise yourself up above the rabble and engage in positive discourse: write something that will outlast that exciting day or two of microcommunity forum outrage.  Do something that matters.

 

One Final Tangent

My friends and I have worked in myriad forms and functions as freelance specialists for a variety of enormous organizations.  I've seen a really similar series of events and reactions happen recently in dealing with conference organizers, with game publishers, and with writing publishers too.  All of us, myself included, have mistaken incompetence for malevolence, and no good has come of it, just as no good has ever come from some snarky, mean post of mine.

That's not to say incompetence is insignificant, but when confused with malice it poses a significant threat to a relationship that is bogged down more by harsh realities than by any personal misgivings.  All of these reactions have followed the exact same timeline or structure.

First, the large organization in question seeks out and entreats the freelancer or speaker or writer to submit their work.  The organization is excited to work with you, and looks forward to reviewing your submission.

Second, the freelancer or applicant sends in their submission or project.  It is met with significant but vague resistance, usually by email.  Key phrases are "can you elaborate on this?" Or "can you expand on how you will realize this?"

It is common at this point, as the freelancer, to feel a little put out.  "Hey," you say, "you guys called me, remember?  Take it or leave it baby."  You want to type this, and hit send, more than you've wanted anything in recent memory.  But in all likelihood, they haven't even reviewed what you sent them.  They browsed the materials, looking for any excuse to put the ball back in your court so they can get back to Farmville.

This sounds bitter and sarcastic but I assure you I am being as honest and sincere as I can.  If you don't clearly understand and empathize (not sympathize) with your contact at this giant business, you will definitely draw counter-productive conclusions.  So let us resume the timeline with a more clear understanding of the circumstances of the account executive whom we are communicating with.

Third, the freelancer politely and patiently responds with clear answers to the vague inquiries, while also carefully and tactfully contacting people who work with or above the vacillating contact. Weeks pass, maybe even months, but eventually, painfully slowly, all the paperwork is in place, despite the fact that they don't have enough points for that new tractor just yet.

This is just how these things work.  It is incompetence (whether voluntary or not), not malice, that is obstructing your progress.  Losing your temper or getting snarky will only make them work "harder" to find reasons to put off completing your account.  The only real solution is to not depend on large companies for your income, but hey, that's the real solution to most problems!

 

As If You Are Even Still Reading This

That's about all I have to say on this topic.  I'd like to simply close by quoting Ben Ruiz, my constant mentor in all things positive:

"The world is awesome and people are awesome and games are awesome and art is awesome and you are awesome. It's really, honestly, absolutely, as simple as that."

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