Aside from recent events, if you listen to the industry, it turns out we’re pretty easily duped… how and when did this happen?
Whilst #GamerGate continues to rumble on, it occurred to me that most “gamers” have given up on the whole topic.
If you think that’s sad, you’re probably right but more importantly, it’s only indicative of an acute trend in the last decade or so. One which has shifted the goalposts, instead of gamers dictating the trends and success stories, it is the industry manipulating and coercing us into following pre-defined lines. In an industry that is worth tens of billions of dollars annually, and where the average spend for game development has increased exponentially, it might not be a surprise to find that companies are doing everything they can to ensure their expensive products are successful.
The problem is, those means may be a little hard to stomach when you pull back the curtain and take a proper look.
The first example came last Friday, as news broke of Dave Anthony (former director of the Call of Duty series) giving a talk to a US Government think-tank, on the nature of PR and how to sugar-coat unpopular decisions. For most, it made chilling reading; “When we have a new product that has elements that we’re not sure how people will respond to, what do we do as a corporation?” he began, before finishing with, “We market it, and we market it as much as we can – so that whether people like it or not, we do all the things we can to essentially brainwash people into liking it before it actually comes out.”
Think about that for a moment. They push marketing, repeating the same old lines and same old tropes, because they know if they say it enough, we’ll say it as well. If they put a positive spin on it, people will tend to forget the bugs, the shoddy consumer treatment and the general samey nature of most iterations. We get overwhelmed with news because ultimately, that’s the whole point. Saturate someone in something long enough and they’ll grow to at the very least tolerate it, and if you can convince them along the way they like it, they’ll probably convince themselves they like it. We’re into some serious Orwellian stuff right here, but it gets worse. Much worse.
Because most of this has happened in traditional gaming media – a media that is happy to continue to fire a minigun into its feet to the point that it’s both hilarious and gruesome to watch. As more turn to YouTube and Twitch for better quality and standards, turns out that the industry is starting to cover that now.
Such was the case with Shadows of Mordor – a game which, by most measures, didn’t need a huge amount of marketing interference. But, as TotalBiscuit and Jim Sterling have pointed out this week, if you wanted to get review copies of the game, you were obligated to sign up to a raft of oppressive measures and rules that dictated every note of what a person could and could not say or show about the game. Videos had to be positive, use uplifting language, encourage people to buy the game and such forth. Footage couldn’t show bugs. The reviewer couldn’t mention Lord of the Rings, or any character in that canon (except, one assumes, Gollum, because he appears and all). Videos had to promote a positive outlook on the game, and all videos had to be vetted 48 hours before publication by the PR Company handling all of this, so they could request changes if need be to maintain a positive vibe about the game and its release.
This is draconian – most people pointed that out, but they pointed it out by also pointing out that it was draconian compared to other contractual agreements. Turns out, this whole idea of a PR Agency dictating the terms and vibe of videos is nothing new; it’s rare they go into the kind of explicit detail that Shadows of Mordor did (and few use Content-ID rules to take down any footage not vetted by the agency), but it’s only interesting because it went that far out of its way to make such a big deal of it. Most people already agree to contractual obligations in order to obtain review copies, and some of those rules may indeed be that they give the game a positive spin, whether they like it or not.
The sad part is; we swallow all of this bullshit.
And so to #GamerGate. It’s still supposed to be about the gaming media and its shady deals and practices, but the media and various other people successfully managed to counter it (or Godwin it, in my opinion) by firing back that all critics of their methods were sexist, racist, nasty people who should be dead, therefore bringing it back to a topic where the aggressors could be coerced into submission. There are still pockets of resistance fighting that good fight, but more have just grown weary of it. The sad reality is that when repeated often enough, when it floods so many websites at the same time and solidifies an agenda to the point that even the BBC and traditional media cannot tell what it was about in the first place, that’s the tone that gets set. People are sick of the issue. I am sick of the issue. They want it to go away now, to be buried under mountains of content and be ironed out over time, but the problem is that this keeps happening! It’s been happening for years, often enough and aggressively enough to be tantamount to bullying. It’s an incredulous development that the places which are supposed to report on the industry have such open contempt for their readers. I do hope they are using that money for therapy. Very EXPENSIVE therapy, I’d hope.
When did we become such pushovers?
I always thought gamers were a strong breed; especially the more hardened. But it turns out we’re as malleable as the rest, I guess. Our opinions are set by people who want us to tow a line, and follow it to the letter. What we play is seemingly dictated by shadowy PR agencies, hiding behind other people, puppeteers pulling the strings and grinning as we clap along with their little Punch and Judy show. Success is no longer down to games being good or the quality of games on any given platform; it is down to how much time you can spend in the press, in the columns on gaming sites, to keep reminding people that your game is “coming soon”, or how awesome you are. After so many disappointments this year, the sad truth is that there are lots of people waiting for Destiny DLC, despite the fact so many felt let down by it. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome. Watch_Dogs is likely getting a sequel. And despite a critical hammering, chances are good that UbiSoft will be equally as successful with that. Even when we don’t like games; we still seem to be trusting just enough to give additional DLC a go, or buy a season pass and hope we get something out of it. No-one seems to remember that it’s our own money and the best way to change things is to withhold our money long enough to instigate change; because we’re willingly (and sometimes stupidly) handing it over, long before this new content is even a glimmer in a developer’s eye.
We’re certainly wising up to pre-orders; they’ve been down for a while, but other elements are becoming part and parcel of the way things happen. Microtransactions still creep into far too many top-tier games; it’s an insidious plague that we shouldn’t be encouraging but, sadly, some people do. Season passes, as I said, we pay for up-front, with no guarantee of quality and rarely are we offered so much as a screenshot, just being told, “We’ll give you some stuff”. Despite so many season pass crimes in terms of content length, breadth and quality, we still seem to trust them. Sometimes long before a game is released.
Because, let’s be honest, that’s what we’ve been told isn’t it? The industry is hurting. Things are so much more expensive. Peoples jobs are on the line. It’s awful to fail. And so, we’re manipulated to part with money, hoping to get something back from it, but seemingly supposed to also treat it like a charity donation. “£25 can protect and save a developer in its natural habitat. Give now! Save our developers!” At no point do we consider that, sadly, sometimes bad games happen. It’s awful that studios go bust and get broken up, but I’m still not completely sure that’s a terrible thing. It’s business. It’s not all sweetness and light, and we certainly shouldn’t see them as charity cases because they have money issues. WHY do they have money issues? What is going so bloody wrong in their world that they need money up-front from us for mysterious purposes, for content that sometimes isn’t even properly planned out yet? And why are we not asking those questions? Why are we supposed to feel bad, and not the industry which has pushed so hard to be all HD and super-graphics-charged and 1080/60 and all that stuff? Why am I supposed to feel bad for not buying a game?
Here’s the thing; I’m not drinking the kool-aid any more.
I will be as critical of every game as I can be; if you are a good game, great. If not, then you don’t get my money again. Treat me like a mug, and I will take my business elsewhere (sorry UbiSoft, but this means you. I am 18 months clean of EA. I can live without you!). If you keep hammering me with media e-mails or commentary or promoted posts, I’ll be super-suspicious. Why is there such an effort to push this game? I’ll play what I want, when I want, how I want. I’ll enjoy the good, I’ll rubbish the bad – and no doubt I’ll make poor gaming choices, because truth is we always have and we always will – and I’ll cherish those gems as and when I find them. Most importantly, I’m kind of done with this whole media bullshit thing. What’s the point in getting news that is laced with such toxicity? We’re a commodity, but never have we been treated with such utter contempt; cattle get nicer treatment on the way to an abattoir. I’m so tired of being treated like crap. I’m also tired of being a shield; “Oh you’re mixed race? Awesome! How lovely. And disabled to? That makes you SUPER SPECIAL!” (Sadly, these people can’t understand why I make a wry smile and nod when they stress that last part, because I’m thinking, ‘And you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?’) And yet despite being one of those minorities they want to protect, I’m still being insulted and belittled by those very same people. “You’re dead to us! Gamers suck! Go away!” Uhh, sure. But I won’t be coming back! And please stop using me as a shield. You can’t speak for me, and I’d much rather you didn’t try.
And what’s more worrying, I consider the continuation to reclaim #GamerGate to be a waste of time. Because ultimately, it’s what these people want, isn’t it? They are provoking people into giving them the exact reaction they want to further an agenda they have decided should be pushed. What was a good-intentioned concept is tainted by knowing that they can use our anger and resentment to good effect; to genuinely be seen as the victims of ‘horrible people’, to be seen as the bullied, not the bullies they have been for so long. Because it only matters if you get us to swing at them when all are watching. Doesn’t matter the years of psychological abuse, because that one moment we swing at them when people are watching will be the only way people see us. The attacker, not the downtrodden. And hey, if they can pull someone like Anita Sarkeesian into the firing line to make us appear misogynistic and awful, so much the better!
And this is the new world order; we march in step, and every angle we think we have to get out just funnels us into a dead end, where we’re humiliated and held up as examples of what is wrong with our hobby. It should be terrifying that we’re in this predicament; but what can we do? We can’t not play by their rules; if we don’t play, we open ourselves up more. The question is how do we, as gamers, get back ownership of our hobby and our persona when we seem to have so long ago given it up to people who have proven themselves to be terrible stewards of our trust?
Perhaps it is time we give up the “Gamer” tag. Let it die. Let the old guard have it; a decaying, rotting specimen that they were so eager to covet, so willing to use and abuse that they forgot how to use it responsibly. But could we really come up with something as succinct, as to the point, as all-encompassing? That’s why “Gamer” is so powerful; it can pretty much cover everyone who has ever touched a video game in any form, from Angry Birds to World of Warcraft. It’s why it holds such power. It’s why, without control over our own persona, we’re in such a mess.
It’s a real mess. And I don’t envy those who want to keep fighting, because it seems like a battle against impossible odds. We’ve become sheep, being herded from one place to the next. The industry, the media, the games media, PR agencies – all shaping us into being what they want, and controlling those who feed us information as best they can, because that’s the only way they can earn a living. Pushing us down when we threaten to rise up. Manipulating us when we seemingly grow tired of something. “Don’t go, you still love me, I can change, we can make this work!”.
Truth is, we can’t make this work. Not like this, anyway. This isn’t about sexism, this isn’t about racism, or shields. This isn’t about any of the silly arguments we keep having. It’s about control. It’s about who has the control, who is the dominant in the relationship. As it turns out, that… isn’t us, I’m afraid.
We’re not in control, which – when we hold the money in this situation – should be something to be concerned about.