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We Are The Fanboys: Bias in gaming culture

One of the criticisms gamers like to throw at reviewers they disagree with is an accusation of bias. But is the idea ingrained in gaming culture on a far deeper level than we'd like to think?



I bought the new GoldenEye yesterday and have spent the past few days reading reactions to the Wii exclusive from reviewers and fans on the forums. The response to the game has generally been positive, especially from Nintendo fans grateful at getting a game from third parties that was more than an afterthought franchise knock-off or cheap Wii Sports cash-in.

Fans and critics have always had a tempestuous relationship, scarred with accusations of irrationality and bias flung in both directions. There's inevitably a review which raises the ire of a fanbase desperate to hear that a game they're looking forward to will justify their anticipation.

When a criticism or score appears that calls that into question, a familiar scenario usually plays out where fans round on the reviewer with accusations of bias, and then start fighting amongst themselves (usually a few days post-release, when said fans have had a few days' time with the game) about whether the criticism was actually justified and if those detracting the writer were simply reacting in the manner of that most loathed of all gamer stereotypes, the fanboy. Games Informer gave GoldenEye a score of 65%, presently the game's lowest score on Metacritic (but only by 5%). Guess what happened next.

Fanboyism, and its implication of obsessive bias in favour of a particular brand or company, is an ironically interesting insult (apologies for appalling alliteration) to have been adopted by gamers. I've found that many people in times of argument, myself included no doubt, often accuse others of doing what they themselves are guilty of, whether intentionally or not. Gamers, quick to label their brethren as discriminatory, are perhaps equally blind to how deeply rooted bias is not just amongst gamers and reviewers, but gaming culture in its entirety.

An article I wrote a few months ago speculated on what gaming could gain from 'auteur theory' - from film studies discourse, where a director becomes the 'author' of his film by asserting control over almost all aspects of its production and using certain signatures, either visually or thematically, to mark the film as his or her own - and how it could lead the way to the industry eventually attaining the same broad respectability as cinema, theatre or literature. The debate that followed was well-argued on both sides, but a response came up that always baffles me whenever its head is reared: gaming, a handful of respondents replied, doesn't need to be considered 'respectable'. It's doing just fine as it is. Why should we change to make other people like us more?



I'd imagine a few people here, or anywhere, would have a measurable amount of sympathy for that view. Defining individuality is of course an integral part of growth and finding one's place in the world. It's possible there was the misunderstanding that in suggesting the gaming industry adopt aspects of auteur theory, the implication was that the medium try to attain respectability through emulation. Nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, my very first blog post here (written back in February - how time flies!) argued precisely the opposite. But where establishing individuality is an integral part of self-development, so is learning from other people and making concessions as to fit into greater society. Is an individual really an individual if no-one cares that they exist? Answers on a postcard, George Berkeley fans.

Accidentally, gaming culture seems to have deep roots in those kinds of 'one of us or one of them' ideologies. While those who made the aforementioned comments in response to my article were no doubt fans of cinema to some degree, the implication that gaming could learn anything from another medium was greeted (in those cases) with defensiveness or outright anger. The bias is subtle, but strong: gamers want their hobby to be a sacrosanct form, untainted by the fingerprints of its populist entertainment brothers, yet are quick to object when it is not given the same respect. If you're not in the family, you don't get the hugs, as goes the expression that I just made up.

Gamers' antipathy towards outsiders has been made uncomfortably clear throughout the Wii's domination of this console generation. The arrival of players whose interest in the form was sparked through the easily understandable presentations of how to control Wii Sports rapidly tore a chasm between them and those used to playing with more traditional controllers. The terms 'casual' and 'hardcore' were not new (I first heard them related to the PlayStation 2, when 'casual' gamers were those seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that console's success and only playing the most heavily advertised or branded games, a la Grand Theft Auto or FIFA, rather than building up extensively researched libraries) but never seemed so distant or so venomously applied: those who played the Wii were not 'true gamers', but outsiders participating menially in a fad. Traditional controllers were far too complicated for their simple minds.



The worst part was not only having this view come from gamers, but also developers and console manufacturers. Microsoft were keen to mark out their console as one for people inside the 'hardcore' group, while even Nintendo, at first emphasizing how the Wii was 'for everyone', began to make distinctions between games for their 'core' audience and those for newcomers: their latest term 'bridge title' is not any better, implying a method for turning one type of gamer into another. After all, what could 'core' gamers have to learn from anyone else?

Third-party developers are more guilty than anyone of propagating such segregation. Wii Sports, simple though it may be, achieved success by being entertaining for everyone, well-made and easy to understand, but not lacking in depth. In the PR-speak of third-party developer press releases, 'casual' has instead become synonymous with 'dumbed down'. For the Wii's many failings, it brought new gamers to the table by making its flagship title easier to understand, not shallower in gameplay terms. I've successfully played that most 'hardcore' of genres, the FPS, on the Wii alongside distinctly 'casual' friends, because the link between action and on-screen reaction is more visibly evident (point at where you want to shoot, squeeze the trigger), not because the game being played is somehow beyond their comprehension.

Though translated through a new medium, the argument is ages old: conservatives (the self-annointed 'hardcore') attack liberals (casuals) for not understanding the value of tradition and history and being unable of seeing the dangers of never looking back. Liberals attack conservatives for living in the past, blocking the path of progress and accepting outside perspectives. Never a thought given that perhaps the best path lies somewhere in between. Gaming can survive on its own, no question. But it'll be financial survival, squeezing innovation out to the furthest margins until all that's left is us, playing the same games over and over again.



Already there's a growing sense of frustration at repetition sneaking into our favourite games: a popular complaint is how every Zelda game seems identical. Like many Japanese companies, Nintendo pride themselves on keeping employees for the length of their working lives: but for how long can the same people keep producing new ideas? Meanwhile, sci-fi games repeatedly recycle the same space marines and Star Wars knock-off aliens and planets. Genre-bias is just as prevalent in gaming culture as console fanboyism or cultural conservatism: I was no great fan of Heavy Rain, but my objections were predominantly to the abject standard of the writing. As a project, I have nothing but admiration for it looking beyond the 'geek genres' (fantasy, action and sci-fi) and seeking to push the medium to pastures new. Were gaming culture more welcoming to outside influence, even the horizons of those 'geek genres' may begin to expand. We have more than enough Star Wars and Aliens-type sci-fi, but where's our Solaris? Does every fantasy game have to draw so heavily on Tolkien? Why is it assumed that games can't do comedy? Why isn't the games industry backing its independent sector in the same way that film studios have branches for indie distribution? Objectivism is fine, BioShock, but when will gaming discover a philosophy of its own?

A theory for this underlying xenophobia might stem from gaming's origins at the hands of the stereotypical basement coder, shunned and labelled by outside society. Now that there are people knocking on his door (and the stereotype is always a 'he'), letting them in feels more like a surrender than a reconciliation. Perhaps there too lies the basis of the vehement gamer hatred of bias and fanboyism: having been discriminated against, a true gamer must be objective and embracing of all, be that Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft. The trap of screaming bias is that it can often lead to the prosecution becoming more guilty than the defendant. We must never be judgmental, not like the outsiders. The tragic truth is that at the moment, if we choose to call ourselves gamers, we are the fanboys whether we like it or not.

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