This is the second part of our videos about Monoculture in the gaming community and journalists in particular. If you haven’t watched the first part then click the card above to enjoy it.
This time we will dig deeper into some of the concepts and ideas we discussed last time.
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And now let’s start.
When we talk about Monoculture we need to agree on what it actually means.
The word has many meanings but in our case, it refers to a prevailing culture marked by homogeneity. Some see globalization as the biggest force behind monoculture in the modern era. People in different continents, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, watch the same movies and listen to the same music.
In the gaming world, journalists tend to aggregate closer and closer in their opinions in what looks like a monoculture where all opinions become replicas of each other. Once a narrative is set it becomes harder for a journalist to deviate from the group.
In part one of the video we were criticized for not providing enough examples of this point, so let me take the chance now to provide you with a fresh example that is still developing.
Days Gone reviews.
The game faced very harsh critical scores ranging from 5 to 6 and rarely touches the 7s in any of the major publications.
Gamers had a different opinion, independent gamers on youtube and on many outlets expressed their stark disagreement with these reviews and went into great lengths to explain to the viewers why the game is much better than what the reviews might indicate.
First, major outlets focused on their reviews on the bugs in the game. By now most of these bugs are already fixed. They were not that problematic, to begin with.
Second, they moan that the bike fuel runs out quickly, without mentioning that it is abundantly available in the game.
Those who played the game without a deadline to deliver a review agree that the moments of searching for fuel are among the most enjoyable in the game. Third, they argue that the game is repeating and borrowing ideas from previous games. Do these people even understand that not every game needs to reinvent the wheel? Fallout 4, The Evil Within and Sekiro didn’t bring anything new to the table. It seems as if they start the review process with a score in mind and then search for reasons to support it.
Last time we argued that review scores should be abolished, some of you asked us to provide an alternative instead of simply arguing against something.
I have an alternative not just for game scores but to reviews in general, it is the power of word of mouth. A true friend will never tell you to spend 60 dollars on a product he or she doesn’t think you’ll enjoy.
My friend’s Lars word is worth to me more than all gaming reviews combined.
It’s the word of mouth what really matters and not an arbitrary number by a gaming website reviewer. Word of mouth is what makes or breaks the future of a product. Ad agencies know that it is more effective than any commercials, review scores or preorder exclusives.
Destiney 1 sold more than 12 million copies despite the 6s and 7s from gaming websites. Titanfall 2 on the other hand despite all the praise and enthusiasm of gaming websites, combined with a big ad campaign by the mighty Electronic arts failed to meet its sales expectations.
Gamers slowly but steadily are learning when to ignore reviewing websites as they increasingly notice that most reviewers have no skin in the game.
There is an asymmetry between risk and reward. If you like the recommendations they make they get more and more followers and if you don’t like the game only you will bear the 60$ cost of the game.
Their reaction would simply be, it was your choice, no one forced you to buy the game. compare that with a friend where these asymmetries disappear. If his recommendation is right, you’ll be grateful for him and if it’s wrong at the very minimum he will feel sorry for misguiding a friend.
One could argue that an alternative to review scores is users average score, right? well no.
Scores through this method only incentivize players to rate with extreme scores in order to change the average to a more desirable score. If someone who thinks a game with an average score of 6 deserves a score of 8 will give it a 10 to achieve that.
Amazon reviews are a good example of that, the vast majority of ratings are one and five stars with very little in between.
This method also risks punishing multiple games by a publisher or a developer because gamers might disagree with one policy in one particular game, like in the case of Borderlands 3 exclusivity to the epic store on PCs. Gamers went to the steam store and gave all the games by Gearbox a one star rating in protest.
A silver lining in game reviews is fan funded channels, I noticed that reviewers who rely on fans funding tend to be more authentic in their reviews than a reviewer working for a publication. They have skin in the game. They are exposed to a downside if they misguide their base.
I may not be the biggest fan of Jim Stirling and his opinions, but there is no denying that something is noble, respectable and authentic about putting your neck on the line and give your followers a chance to punish you if you betray their trust.
In general, I’m not the biggest admirer of the role of a critic, for I don’t see or understand the reason why the taste of someone is of a higher value than the rest. A reviewer is not experiencing and playing the game in a better or more sophisticated way than the rest, so why grant him a special status.
I see a critic as someone who injects him or herself in the equation between the game developer and the gamer without adding anything substantive to the equation. An unasked for middle man.
But I won’t pursue that line of argument any further here because I know many of you like some reviewers and critics and I respect that, so I’ll stop here for now and jump into another point I wanted to expand on from our previous video.
Last time we argued that our gaming discussions and debates are too technical and they should focus less on that and more on the games themselves.
Now many of you pointed out that it is short-sighted to ignore the technical aspects because a game that is technically broke will ruin the experience no matter how good the other aspects of that game are.
I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, to the contrary I think a game should reach at least a minimum technical level before reaching customers hands and once that level is reached we should move on in our discussions and debates into deeper and more enlightening aspects of the games.
To explain my point I will borrow a concept taught to MBA students called the Herzberg’s Two-factor theory.
Herzberg argues that in an organization two factors can influence the motivation and satisfaction in the workspace; Motivators and Hygiene factors.
Hygiene factors won’t encourage employees to work harder or make them happier and satisfied but the absence of these factors can make them unmotivated and unsatisfied. Getting your salary at the expected day is a Hygiene factor, you won’t jump in happiness knowing that you received your salary at the expected day, or brag in front of your friends that you receive your salary in time. It’s something expected by default, but you’ll be unmotivated and angry if the opposite happens if you get your salary very late.
So Hygiene factors when fulfilled they remove negativity from the working atmosphere and make us reach a neutral level of satisfaction, not positive and not negative, and once that is reached the second factor in the Herzberg’s theory, the motivators, things like recognition at work, growth, and advancements, are the ones responsible for making a positive impact at your motivation at work.
So, Hygienes, don’t make a positive impact, but their absence make a negative one. Motivators, make a positive impact once the hygienes are fulfilled.
To apply the same principle on games, I see technicalities like the Hygiene factors, they do not necessarily make a game great but their absence makes a gaming experience miserable, like Hygienes they can move us to the neutral zero level and from there the equivalent of the motivators in a game is what makes a gaming experience unique and enjoyable. Things like interactivity enjoyment, level design, story, ideas and immersion in experience are what makes the experience worth repeating.
Some of you argued that I wouldn’t enjoy a book if the printing quality was bad or I wouldn’t enjoy a movie if it keeps on freezing every couple of seconds. And I agree with all of that. At no point did I argue for lowering the bar and accepting a product regardless of its technical aspects. But if a product reaches an acceptable level in technical aspects we should, move on with our debates and discuss the product for what it is in essence.
Imagine if The New York Review of Books devotes one or two paragraphs in every book review to the printing quality, the fonts, the font size, the paper quality and the weight of the book. I think you get my point, it’s not that I don’t think these things don’t matter, it’s simply that we value these products for the essence of what makes them unique.
I played The last of Us when it came out on PS3 in 720p resolution or maybe less than that on a horrible TV and I played it last month again on a PS4 Pro in full 4k, on a superb LG OLED TV with HDR and a better anti aliasing and character models with more than double the number of polygons.
But did any of that increase my enjoyment of the game more than the first time? Not one bit.
Some of you might say again that I argue against all of these technicalities, no, not at all. But this is not what makes the last of us the great game we all love and play.
Unless something is technically is broken about a game, I don’t see a point in discussing the hard disk space it requires, does it run natively in 4K or does it use the checkerboard solution? does the game support Real-Time Ray Tracing or not? and if it supports it, is it through a hardware solution like in Nvidia RTX Graphic cards or a software solution? endless debates of technicalities that I don’t deny their importance but I put them second to the gaming experience itself.
And that’s why I suggested last time to expose ourselves to experiences outside of gaming because otherwise we keep on making our own bubble and through group think and repeating some of these ideas they become a dogma that is hard to argue against.
I leave you now with the words of Jordan Sparks, a game developer who also teaches the next generation of game developers. His words affirmed my belief in everything I said here and in the first video. He commented:
(I make games and teach others how to make games and I have similar ideas to what was presented. I always tell my students to avoid domain dependency (albeit not in those exact words), and social proof, and to have more interest than just “making games”, which I think stunts growth as a developer. My biggest game claims to fame in my artistic practice came from ignoring the domain dependency defined by my peers, profs, and local games community. I do think we are still stuck in that bubble that believes that games, as entertainment, can only be “fun” and we lack too many developers willing to actually attempt to do something to elevate games as more than that and to conduct a lot of research past surface-level concepts or only done exclusively by the writer. I tell students to forget fun exclusively and focus on engagement, which can be done in countless different practical and emotional ways, “fun” being only one of them. It’s what I earned 2 degrees studying and it’s a position I harp on a lot to games people. My students are fascinated. Games community people either love or hate that ideology. Institutions hire me to speak on it for classes and conferences, so there’s that. However, we need to have more developers and journalists who treat games as more than a toy, which is partly a result of the capitalism of the industry.
Technical aspects do need to be highlighted in some respects as it is a technical and multidisciplinary medium. The example was an extreme, but arguably common example of a way it doesn’t matter and is just built for product placement. However, we should be asking how that technical aspect plays into how the game experience is presented. I don’t care if it’s running on PS4 or PS4 pro, but I do think it’s interesting to note how the hardware changed or factored into the design to some degree. So much of game design history was modeled after hardware limitations after all.
In any case, me and my company are trying to do our research and our part towards taking ideas of gaming in a different direction, however that turns out)