The gaming community has a reputation for being loud about its opinions.
Take the response to The Last of Us, Part II. After the game’s release, hordes of hyper-critical comments took issue with the game’s direction. While some of these were thoughtful critiques about narrative structure and gameplay, those were drowned out by the flood of people angry about certain events in the story, and others angry about the game’s diverse cast.
While that last group is made up of bigots whose commentary is less than worthless, the other group poses a bigger problem. To a large extent, many of these criticisms about events in the story were, at best, poorly formed. They disregarded the groundwork laid by the first game, the themes presented in the second, and reflected a knee-jerk opinion formed more by their individual tastes and expectations than the actual quality of the game.
Think of it like someone who rants about the ending of the original Star Wars trilogy, saying that it made “no sense” that Darth Vader would turn around and save Luke. Or, someone upset that Obi-Wan died in the first film because “good guys shouldn’t die.” The first displays remarkable ignorance of the groundwork laid before that event, while the second is more about personal taste than anything wrong with the film.
While people are entitled to their own opinion, a problem occurs when someone loudly spews it at every opportunity, amplified by the reach of social media. In poisons the well of discourse, leaving folks uncomfortable with discussing the work in question and drowning legitimate, helpful criticism in pointless noise. It feels, occasionally, like some gamers have a bad habit of speaking without thinking and expecting others to clean up the mess.
These people have missed an important fact about public dialogue: that artists don’t just have a responsibility to make good work… audiences have a responsibility to engage thoughtfully with that work before speaking about it. Failure to do so damages dialogue about the game and the possibility of artistic improvement.
This responsibility is the topic of this article. We’ll start by discussing a key part of the theory of communication—that any message sent is also affected by the receiver—before diving how this affects your responsibility as an audience member. Then, we’ll cover the effect that social media has had on the power of individual audience members. Finally, we’ll show why gamers have a responsibility towards developers.
Communication: Two Sides
Any form of communication, whether it’s a talk with a friend or a video game sold to large audiences, is never one-sided. The receiver of any “message” has a role in shaping how it is received and how successive messages are crafted.
According to the Shannon Weaver Model of Communication (sometimes called “Information Theory”), “messages” occurs in something like six stages:
- The “sender” comes up with a message (in this case, the idea for a video game and the themes it contains).
- They “encode” the message into some form that another person can receive (such as spoken words or art).
- The message travels along a channel to the receiver (in this case, that channel is the video game being played).
- The “receiver’s” eyes and ears and other senses “decode” the message.
- The “receiver” internalizes and absorbs the message.
- The “receiver” then gives “feedback” to the “speaker,” which influences later messages.
You may have noticed something about this model: the “sender’s” role ends after the second part and doesn’t resume until the sixth!
There’s more. The S-W Model acknowledges that, at every point in this process except the first, the message being transmitted is vulnerable to “interference.” These are outside factors influencing how the message is received, and they occur at every stage. In stage 2, limitations of the game engine can force developers to whittle down the “message” they hope to convey. In stage 3, your console could glitch out and force you not to finish the story. In stage 4, you can be playing in low light and miss an important visual detail.
Interference isn’t just “physical.” It’s mental. Outside “intrusion” at any stage of the communication process can affect you emotionally and influence the way you interpret message. Constant glitches in stage 3 could sour your mood and make you look poorly on the game (even if the problem had nothing to do with the game). Your hangover could make you more irritable towards the game’s loud noises. And being depressed during the ending of a sad game could result in looking on in unfavorably. In every case, these influences affect how we “internalize” the message.
These interferences are notoriously difficult to deal with. After all, many of them are situational and fleeting. But, in every case: factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the message, itself, are affecting the way you interpret it.
This is important because, when folks are upset at a “message” they receive (such as a video game), the true source of their disdain may come from interference at one of these levels. What’s more: this interference could even be caused by biases the receiver brought into their interpretation, or a desire not to put the effort into thinking about the story being presented to them.
Communication is a two-person act. It’s not as simple as the “message” being “good” or “bad;” interference and your own perception play a huge part in the way you interpret it. The same is true for any game you play.
If our judgments about a game are so easily influenced by interference—including the interference caused by our own mental schema—our relationship to the messages we receive (and, thus, the art we consume) shifts. Speaking up about our disdain for a game, without thinking about what we’re saying and how outside factors may be influencing our opinion seems less like passion, and more like ill-advised impulsivity.
This is especially true when you consider that not everyone is qualified to be a critic about everything. In the same way that some people can pick out the subtle details in a work of art or the bevy of flavors in a good meal, there are some people more equipped to speak critically about a game. And if you become aware of your limitations but stillinsist on speaking passionately and “authoritatively” about something you may not currently be equipped to discuss, you step into the arena of arrogance.
Note that this does not mean you aren’t entitled to your opinion or to voice that opinion. But, saying “I didn’t like this game” is very different from saying “this is a bad game.” What’s more, the intensity of your opinion has an effect on others. What you say matters. While you have the freedom to speak, you also have a responsibility to speak thoughtfully, rather than subjecting others to your verbal vomit.
This is especially true when you realize the outsized effect of speaking up on social media.
Social Media’s Megaphone
Over the last decade and a half, social media has become an increasingly prevalent part of our lives. Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… these have all become massive public forums where everyone has the power to reach a massive audience (with some caveats that we don’t have time to get into).
On the one hand, this has greatly empowered everyday folk, with noticeable benefits. Powerful people are now being held accountable through movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and marginalized folks can find accepting communities online that could, legitimately, save their lives. This would not be possible if social media didn’t allow (almost) anyone a voice.
On the other hand, the ability of anyone to speak up has a downside, particularly in regard to media criticism.
Average audience members are not good critics. Critics are trained not to give a knee-jerk reaction to what they watch. They think about what they’re going to say and craft arguments to prove their points. Average folks don’t. Worse yet: social media sometimes rewards them for it. Controversial comments get engagement, and engagement puts the controversial comment in front of more people. And what better way to make a controversial comment than to vomit out the first angry bit of criticism that comes to mind?
The problem doesn’t end there. You see, human judgment is very easily influenced. In Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein note that the individual judgments and opinions of people in group settings are often heavily influenced by those who speak up first. It sets the tone. They’re also influenced by the passion and surety of the speaker—whether they’re for or against them.
Now, think about who is likely to speak up first about their problems with a game: outside of actual critics who get advance copies of the game, it’s most likely going to be someone passionate (perhaps too passionate), without other things going on in life to distract them (which could interfere with their interpretation of a game by giving them a limited perspective), and who doesn’t take the time to think through their criticism before they make it.
The end result? Social media, for all its benefits, has created a situation where ignorant, overly passionate comments are able to set the tone for the dialogue about a piece of art and dominate the discussion of it. It becomes difficult to speak about the game without those bits being mentioned.
Why You Should Be Thoughtful
So, here is the situation: your interpretation of a game is heavily affected by factors that may have nothing to do with the inherent quality of game. This means that, when you criticize a game, you have a responsibility to acknowledge those factors—including a deficiency in your own perspective—in the forming and spreading of your opinion. This is especially true when you consider the way that social media amplifies the same controversial comments that are likely to be the most ill-thought out, as a poorly-thought out criticism can set the tone for public discussion of the game in question.
But, aside from saying something you might regret… why should you stop to think about your interpretation of a game and take a break before commenting?
The key is that sixth part of the S-W Model of Commuication: Feedback. Good creatives are always looking to improve in their work, and one key to that improvement is audience feedback. They need to see what fans think of the work to sharpen their skills and improve the next project. Social media offers an unprecedented opportunity for them to feel the pulse of their audience.
So… what happens when that tool is hijacked?
Social media firestorms aimed at a developer have three major effects: it makes them more reluctant to take risks (because they’re afraid of such intense and sometimes threatening criticism), it makes them uncomfortable, and it makes it difficult to search through the noise and find legitimate criticism that will strengthen their work.
It also affects other fans of the work. It is legitimately difficult to discuss The Last of Us, Part II online without it quickly devolving to the same knee-jerk criticisms from a year ago. As a result, regular and thoughtful fans will be more reluctant to discuss the work. It could even poison the well and scare people away from trying the game in the first place.
This isn’t just about video games. The fact of the matter is that not every thought, opinion, or criticism is valid, and they definitely don’t always need to be voiced. If someone who despises fantasy novels starts talking about how the worst thing about Lord of the Rings is all the Elves and Dwarves and magic, we can safely dismiss his opinion. And if he starts screaming about it, we can probably feel safe saying he shouldn’t have wasted everyone’s time by starting this argument in the first place.
Sometimes, the wisest thing we can do is acknowledge that our anger is due to our own expectations, not due to a flaw in the story we just witnessed. And to take that information and be smarter about when and where and especially how we speak about it. Thoughtful communication like that can help turn online discussion of gaming into a much better place.