In the year and change I’ve been writing about games, I’ve never had to deal with an angry commenter.
Plenty of factors smoke-screen me from the internet’s most brutish trolls. I’m a white, straight, twenty-something male writing for a relatively unknown personal blog, for one. But still, I’ve never written a game review that didn’t include its share of critiques, even when discussing my most personal of sacred cows. I’ve called out misogyny and violence when I felt they hampered or muddled a mechanically enjoyable experience. The fear that this will be the time some unlucky Googler stumbles upon me talking smack about his favorite game plagues me every time I click the “Publish” button. I don’t even really know why; I stand by my opinions, and usually feel I do an adequete-to-darn-good job expressing them. But the outraged internet commenter is an unpredictable beast. He doesn’t care about logic, or crossing the aisle, or really much of anything you have to say once the first shot’s been fired. From that moment on, he exists purely to make you feel awful and upset about disagreeing with him. This reaction frightens me because I value my blog as a space to work out well-reasoned, multifaceted opinions. I can go embarrassingly nuclear in internet arguments with the right sort of cretins, and I’d hate for a wrong-headed, over-the-top insult on my part to betray the thoughtful and level-headed discourse I’ve had thus far with my commenters. (Fair warning to libertarians: just go ahead and skip my BioShock review, whenever I end up getting to it.)
Unlike me, Carolyn Petit does not have the advantage of writing for a small audience, or of critiquing games’ male-centric worldview from the inside. Nor is she writing for people specifically attuned to and educated in feminist and transsexual language and ideals. Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V is right there on Gamespot.com’s splash page, and I cannot imagine the worry and anxiety she faced as she waited for the gaming world to react. But Petit stuck to her convictions, and called out one of this generation’s biggest games — a great, ambitious, monster of a game, by her own admission — on not successfully subverting its latent misogyny. The price of this observation, this uneasiness about entering a virtual world not made with her in mind? A single docked point, lowering her review score from a 10 to a maligned, pathetic 9.
Now, let’s not get into the fact that, last I checked, a 9 out of 10 was still an “A” or “A-,” even within gaming’s absurdly curved score system. Or the fact that if I were to give Grand Theft Auto V: This Time You Can Run Over Hookers as THREE Dudes! the same score on this very site (not that I have, or ever will, give a game a numerical score on Playing the Canon), I’d probably at worst be called a troll, not stripped of my gender identity and threatened with physical and sexual violence. Gamers’ issues with women and transgendered individuals is its own can of disconcertingly phallic worms. (But not unrelated; we’ll get to that in a minute.) Gamers who comment on mainstream sites like IGN and Gamespot have had a fetishistic, obsessive relationship with review scores for years. Gamespot’s 8.8/10 review of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess caused enough backlash to turn the score into a legitimate meme.
I don’t think I’ve heard a single positive thing about Twilight Princess in the last two or three years. I’d guess that many of those who originally balked at it would find that 8.8 generous, now that the game’s sunk in.
To people who read criticism with even a passing engagement, these “controversies” can only look like a riot at a mental institution. Why does the mere admittance that a game is flawed send so many of these twerps into vitriol-spewing tailspins? Some of the blame lies with the video game industry itself. Metacritic scores greatly affect how publishers treat their developers, one of the few horrible truths about gaming culture that gamers actually seem willing to own up to. But Rockstar North and Nintendo EAD aren’t in any danger from this practice; in fact, the smaller developers overshadowed by these giants would kill for a 9/10 from Gamespot. Is it simply that we still view games as products and not art? A positive but imperfect score for a nightstand on Amazon or a restaurant on Yelp is more likely to turn me away than a three-out-of-four star review of a film. But the bizarre and overblown denial of buyer’s remorse this implies still does not explain the hand-wringing and bile that met Ms. Petit’s GTA V review.
The problem as I see it is that the rabble-rousers don’t care if the score reflects the contents of the review, or even the experience of the game itself. They want validation, but not of their game of choice as an artistic statement, nor their purchase of it as a wise consumer decision. They need review scores and aggregates to be no less than perfect so they can cite the universal acclaim as pseudo-objective proof that their hobby has value. A huge portion of people who bought GTA V on release probably plan to play it for at least fifty or sixty hours. That’s no small amount of time for a person to spend on a leisure activity, and critical acclaim is one of the few things these guys can hold up to prove obsessing over a violent, nihilistic virtual reality has value. They have no interest in critiques or less-than-perfect scores because reviews don’t exist as debates or discussions to them. Validation is more important than conversation or analysis, and a 10/10 score allows them to say that Grand Theft Auto V is smart, well-crafted, and worthwhile.
But refusing to engage with the tricky greys of imperfection and debate only leads to hivemind consensus. The mainstream gaming community’s refusal to accept any response to their darlings other than “10/10, Amazing” bleeds into its problems accepting someone like Carolyn Petit or Anita Sarkeesian. When one looks to consensus for validation, one also looks to establish a point-of-view where he is the norm. Gamers long ago established the sort of experience they needed reviews to validate: violent, adolescent power-fantasies starring white dudes. Now that these are the stories game critics acclaim and expect (and I should note that I’m as guilty of this as anyone), it’s set a precedent for any other voice to be greeted as a weird outlier. So now, we have white male gamers huddled around Grand Theft Auto and BioShock Infinite and countless other games someone outside their circle dared to question this year, like cavemen gathered around a fire batting away intruders with clubs. This is perfect. This is ours. 10/10, AMAZING.
I haven’t played GTA V. Trustworthy friends assure me it’s awesome. Yet if past entries in the franchise are any indication, I doubt it’s as smart or satirical in its depiction of women as it thinks it is. Like Seth Macfarlane or Robin Thicke, Rockstar has a bad habit of simply trotting out lazily racist or misogynistic jokes and equating a half-ironic smirk with “satire.” That doesn’t invalidate the game’s ambitions, just like those ambitions don’t invalidate Ms. Petit’s misgivings about the game’s attitude toward women. Consensus is a powerful security blanket; it lets you feel included and intelligent without ever having to engage with the opposition — or really, even your own opinions. But review scores and hyperbolic adjectives will never be as illuminating as an actual exchange of ideas, nor will they lead to as powerful and nuanced art.