At last the Twitter universe has been moved to action (through the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag and associated) and shown just how in the minority Gamergate has always been. It’s terrible that it had to come to a threat of a mass shooting to get there, but the shameful, mealy-mouthed, “well they were asking for it” sanctimony of gaming’s Tea Party has finally overreached. The gaters now stand naked and accused, and no-one serious will ever come to their side again. Gamergate is over bar the shouting. Gamergate is dead.
So what comes next?
- The Age Of Merit
Gamergate started for several reasons but was largely propelled by the idea that games have merit. Consider, for example, the reaction of fans to Polygon’s review of Bayonetta 2. Most reviews declared it to be a great game, worthy of praise. Polygon, on the other hand, found fault with its sexualization and down-marked it as a result.
The fans foamed. WHY though? In any medium it’s normal to have dissenting or assenting voices. Indeed look at Metacritic and you’ll see plenty of cases of divergent responses to the average. Some reviewers thought Destiny was great for example, while others thought it decidedly meh. But nobody want to organize a boycott against them in the manner that they do with Polygon over Bayonetta 2. The difference is to do with why down marks are given.
In gaming fan culture it’s considered legitimate for a reviewer to down-mark a game because they just didn’t like the controls, or because the gameplay seemed thin. Similarly it’s considered legitimate if a reviewer is perceived as overly enthusiastic, to up-mark, as long as their review does not seem bought and paid-for. Both kinds of divergence are assessments of merit, as though the game were a car being reviewed on Top Gear. It handles well and does a great job on the curves, and the interiors smell nice. Both can be argued objectively.
That inherent presumption of merit has been a feature of gamer culture since its foundation. It is so strong that it’s seen as the default, as something utterly intrinsic. Reviewers are hailed as true by the culture if they speak to merit and talk about content as an aside. Equally they are pilloried if they are seen to go against the grain. An average meritocratic fan will happily accept that perhaps a game has content issues, but also to say that to fault its score on that basis is false. It would be like Top Gear marking down a car because of its paint job.
However the meritocratic way of thinking is at odds with where most experimental games have been going, and it has been for years. Your Dear Esther, Gone Home, Stanley Parable, The Passage, Depression Quest, dys4ia, Bientôt l’été, Proteus and many others don’t fit on a merit table. They either have little or no gameplay, no replayability or any purpose beyond exploring them. They are often poorly engineered, and yet attract considerable praise. In the meritocratic view they’re like Top Gear giving higher praise to a Reliant Robin than a Bugatti Veyron purely on aesthetics. Meritocrats fundamentally just don’t understand that kind of thing, and tend to interpret it as an attack.
In a sense, it is. Its roots lie in gaming’s history.
- The Era Of Founders
The founderwork era was the time when most gameplay innovations were discovered and incorporated into what we now consider classics. When video games were first invented this period of discovery was rich. As developers figured out what games were and how they worked it seemed as though the world was changing from week to week. As games expanded into new platforms and modes of interaction, this same sense of discovery happened over and over, providing many of what we designers call “verbs” with which to work. The language of games was in the process of being found.
This era didn’t come to an end one bright Tuesday in 1994. It started to gently tail off. Video games became less startlingly innovative and more incremental. The move to 3D, for example, brought many kinds of console game to a new kind of life, but their core loops remained as they were. In some cases the slowdown in innovation could be blamed on publishers walking away from certain kinds of games, but in others it was simply common sense. There are only so many ways to make an action-adventure character naturally control with a joypad, for example. Eventually you just repeat that paradigm from one game to the next.
The end of the founderwork didn’t happen in a straight line either. Since 2000 five major shifts (the arrival of broadband, the DS, the Wii, the iPhone and Facebook) have led to resurgences in founderworks at various points. However it’s noticeable that in all cases the relative discovery period has been much shorter than in previous times, and indeed many of the successful games in newer formats drew direct lessons from older games already established.
- The Era Of Masters
In the mid 90s something else started to happen. The relationship between players and games started to change. Gaming audiences started to settle into defined sub-audiences for long-lived franchises. They became fans of studios and propelled them to ever-greater successes along certain lines. The design of games started to become more of an independent discipline, one that combined and recombined existing verbs rather than striking out for new ones.
This I peg as “the masterwork era”. Starting with games like Mario 64, the industry began to change from a bunch of upstarts painters into Renaissance studios barreling away on huge paintings at their masters’ behest. The masterwork era was when the marketing of games settled around genres, and when there was significant budget made available to do that. However, much like the Renaissance masterworks, that money came with strings. The Pope wanted religious paintings and so Leonardo, Michelangelo and so on all had to work within a brief. Similarly the big game studios that made big-name games mostly had to work within defined genres like first person shooters or roleplaying games. They didn’t get much opportunity to color outside the lines.
Much of the industry engaged in a competition of exponential growth. Games tried to become genre kings by spending a lot of time and money and either succeeded or failed utterly. Thousands of studios went to the wall, but many of their staff got hoovered up into ever-larger teams working on ever-more-sophisticated games. They still do. The extremities of budget used to create a Destiny, for example, continue that tradition. After Destiny there will be another even bigger attempt at a shooter. After Grand Theft Auto V there will be a Grand Theft Auto VI, and that game might cost a billion dollars to develop.
Exponentially growing games align well with meritocratic thinking. The games being developed are high on convention and experimentally shallow (both mechanically and in terms of narrative) but it can’t be argued how well executed they are. GTA V, to take one example, is an enormous feat of engineering. The meritocrat sees this as good. It can be compared, like the Top Gear guys arguing over latest Lotus or Ducati. It can be objectively assessed or understood and rated. Progress can be reported and the customer can feel good about his purchase. It looks like approaching perfection.
But the masterwork era has started to draw to a close.
- The Era Of Artists
Depending on your viewpoint, a few years ago either the greatest or worst things to ever happen to the games industry happened.
The first was the rise of digital distribution, and with it app stores, Steam, social networks, metrics and direct communication between the developer and the customer. The second was the emergence of open cross-platform tools like Flash, Unity, GameMaker and Twine. For the first time in history game developers did not have to be elite programmers with an in-depth knowledge of the secrets of platforms, and therefore did not need to buy expensive development kits just to be able to get a seat at the table.
The result was a Pre-Cambrian Explosion of games. Many were terrible. Some were great. Many were retro-ish or casual. Some were different in ways never considered previously. First on iPhone, then in other places like PC, games became liberalized. Whole new companies sprang up from nowhere, and the indie in the modern sense was born.
For game makers these two events spawned a revolution. Designers new and old found a voice, put interactivity to previously unknown uses and found new audiences. Whether in a highly commercial or creative sense, the liberalized game developer was able to step away from the grind of exponential development and do something different. The “artwork era” had arrived.
Games started to have meanings. Games started to be about something. Games started to completely discard all pretense of being about what they were “supposed” to be about, from Anna Anthropy to Zynga. Rather than follow the path of the masterworks, these new games came at the problem from right angles. And some of them succeeded in part because the gaming media was very enthusiastic for them. Why? Because the games press is bored by the prospect of writing about masterworks. They’ve seen them all before, multiple times.
In the artwork era games are fashion. Games are sometimes important for the long term, but equally may be super interesting only in a moment. And that’s fine. Games can have a point beyond how they function, but also a point in the absence of function. Games can be built to not be played. Games can be built to not be winnable. Games can be built to play with those ideas. Most of these uses are pretty fringe, granted, but in the artwork economy of games that doesn’t mean they are bad. Much like the art world, games are starting to acquire a dimension of interestingness absent of their utility.
But meritocrats fundamentally do not understand any of this.
- The Age Of Catastrophe
Where your average game maker believes that the last few years have been a golden age of access and opportunity, your meritocratic gamer thinks they signal disaster. Theirs is not an age of embracing multiplicity and fringe game content. Theirs is an age of angrily asking why can’t game developers manage to release games bug-free any more, and why can’t they get technical details like framerate right.
Remember they’ve been used to seeing games like cars for a long time, with masterworks that seem to reach ever closer to perfection despite their astronomical cost. Meritocrats have glimpsed the infinite, in their view all these new kinds of game massively step back from that. They are exercises in un-merit. And to the meritocrat that can only sound like one thing: A repeat of the North American Video Game Crash.
Meritocratic folks don’t understand this new era built on culture, fashion, relativism and personal expression. Much like the people who complain that modern art isn’t art because it’s not paintings and statues, the meritocratic gamer has LONG had a problem with that whole way of thinking. Like the car fan who thinks Top Gear should stop with the road movies and celebrity interviews and get back to the cars, the meritocrat intensely feels that all talk away from function constitutes perversion. That to get too far into that ruins the main purpose of the game review. And in turn giving voice to that kind of thing threatens games. Hence Bayonetta 2 and talk of boycotts.
And that in large part is what underpinned the support for gamergate. In games you will find fans who passionately argue that the only way to save the industry from ruin is to place developers back under the yoke of platform holders. You’ll find many fans who think the secret to saving games is to constrain the number of available releases in order to ensure “quality” as Nintendo did in 1988. You’ll find plenty of Reddit readers who believe that connecting creators with players has been fundamentally a bad thing and that the intermediaries of publishers and platforms are needed to prevent dodgy developers from ruining games. In short, unlike any other medium, meritocrats have come to believe that they want less voices rather than more. That perfection can only be attained if developers are forced to aim for it. (And yes that is as nuts as it sounds).
They can’t see that the orthogonal game is simply different, and that it might not be intended for them. They don’t understand that games don’t have to exist in the “red ocean” of competition on specifications between masterworks, and that there are "blue oceans" out there for types of games and players that don’t relate to their values. They don’t understand that their values are not intrinsic, but rather conventional, and that conventions can change.
In large part the meritocrats are simply ignorant of a world outside their borders. They tend to know very little about what happens outside Steam and consoles. They tend to be baffled by the rise of Facebook or iPad games. They tend to be the ones arguing that Gone Home isn’t really a game. Theirs is a small island, and nobody’s managed to explain to them why the age of artwork games is actually a great thing, nor to get them away from their catastrophic thinking.
Their problem is not - and has never been - about how reviewers review or the ethics of games journalism. Those are surface details. Their problem is that they feel left behind. They don’t know what cultural criticism is, for example, and so interpret it as an attack on who they are. They don’t understand that just because a game doesn’t sit well on the old merit scale doesn’t mean it’s a fraud. The scale is simply wrong. And having largely witnessed this all develop around rather than through their culture, they started shooting the messengers. That in turn eventually led them to attempt to conduct an academic pogrom, and to threats, all while insisting that they were the reasonable ones.
That was gamergate.
- Long Live “The New Games”
StopGamerGate2014 shows just how out of touch meritocratic thinking has become. As games have expanded and gone both niche and mainstream, their reach has long surpassed the old dichotomies. There are players alive today who’ve never played numerous classics and don’t care, for whom the movements in games are more like the movements in music. For whom innovation is irrelevant and culture is more important. For whom games are a brave new world for all new reasons.
Games are not as they were. Games will never be as they were again. Between tools and access the nature of what can be done in the industry (and beyond) has fundamentally shifted. What “games” even meant back in the day is simply no longer true. The era of merit, of the “The Old Games”, is over. This is the time of “The New Games”.
Gamergate was an opportunity for a great wave of rage to let forth under a dozen different pretexts, but ultimately it was only ever about standing against the tide. Much like Dylan fans who screamed blue murder when he went electric, gamergaters were the players who bought so deeply into an ordered universe of console vs console and high-grade title vs high-grade title, like car fans, that they never paused to consider whether their entire frame of reference was small time.
The New Games are scary. They go in a dozen directions all at once. They are deeply connected to the idea that games are culture and that movements in culture matter. They are largely unconcerned with the idea that games require scores or merit, or objective assessments. Meritocrats thought they understood the universe, but the universe changed - and with it the sense of what games are.
The old games are over. Long live The New Games.
Meryl Coker is a painter currently based in Los Angeles. Her work, which primarily consists of narrative series, pairs theatrical imagery with layered allegorical narratives; it’s visual storytelling in a fine art context. She is fascinated with the idea of cultural iconography; her work incorporates numerous visual references to Biblical, Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology, as well as the occult, modern and classic fantasy, and contemporary pop culture. Her most recent series, Nova Scotia, was a collection of illustrations for a novella of the same name by Lee Landey, a friend of the artist. It is, in his words, a “post-modern Satanic fairy tale.”
i totally forgot that gawker artists featured me once
Now don’t get me wrong, I love how the Persona 3 movie series is panning out. But I would pay unnatural amounts of money for another series from the female protagonist’s POV.
More than anything, I want those Akihiko Sanada love arc scenes to come to life. Ugh.
same tho ugh