By request: Reverse causation between love for a game and negative attitudes toward it

By request of big.metto

So… this is kind of a weird, or at least convoluted, topic request. If I’m parsing it correctly, the question is, “Does a connection exist between the popularity of a game and negativity about it?” If I’m not, well, please look forward to several paragraphs wandering in the wrong direction.

But yes, a link does exist between those things. This is hardly unique to games. It’s true of everything. Popularity is a huge target that something paints on itself. Insanely successful movie? Here comes the Internet to tell you why you’re stupid for liking it. World-changing music group? So overrated, and let me tell you why with my manifesto masquerading as a Tumblr account. Popular video game? Clearly a creation for n00bs and casuals, I mean seriously.

We’ve all been guilty of it. I certainly have, though I’ve long since learned to temper my attitude. Call of Duty is the biggest franchise in gaming? Well, I don’t care much for it, but there must be something to the series if 20 million people buy it every year. Your tastes are not my tastes, but my tastes are not inherently better than yours.

I would say the “reverse causation” in question is born of several factors, which is to say that there is no single formula to account for it. Your reasons for railing against a beloved game may not be the same as the reason that guy over there complains about it.

A big part of this phenomenon, I think, is a zero-sum fallacy — the idea that popularity and success are somehow finite in nature, that by becoming popular a game “steals” popularity from another, perhaps worthier, game. Like popularity is a ledger with a natural tendency to balance itself, and each word of praise for a hit is debited from the value of a niche game. At its most extreme expression, this notion results in something along the lines of the recent Internet nastiness directed largely at women, minorities, and indie games — which I suppose is something of an inverse of the “reverse causation” phenomenon in terms of punching up vs. punching down. But the idea is the same. Straight white men who love big-budget packaged retail games from AAA publishers have become utterly apoplectic with terror that giving a voice to those unlike themselves will somehow diminish their own capital. As if every copy of Depression Quest sold (which is to say, downloaded for free) reduces the likelihood that Valve will ever make Half-Life 3, or something.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way. The games business isn’t a stagnant concern, or else the industry would still be generating the same revenue as it did in 1981. But no: More people become interested in games, the medium grows, it becomes a more valuable industry. Video games generated $2 billion in revenue at the beginning of the ’80s versus the roughly $20 billion the U.S. market alone accounts for these days — even factoring in inflation, that means one country’s worth of video game enthusiasts generates five times the amount of money that the whole world did three decades ago. That’s known as “growth,” and the bigger the industry becomes, the broader the spectrum of games it can support.

I don’t get the violently close-minded attitudes of people who lash out as if struggling desperately for survival at the hands of a serial killer when the words “Anita Sarkeesian” appear, but I can understand why the reverse causation thing happens. The medium has evolved and shifted as it’s grown, and certain kinds of games have become more scarce. The ballooning scale and costs of the big games that serve as the industry’s base line necessitate big budgets, and companies like Activision have reinvented themselves to work at the Call of Duty/Destiny/Skylanders scale; there’s no room in that company’s budget to produce another niche title like A Boy and His Blob.

“But that wasn’t niche back in 1990!” you say. Sure, but the market was a lot smaller then. Yesterday’s hit is today’s obscure corner of game design. I wish more big publishers could take a page from Ubisoft, actually. Yes, Ubi has become this massive entity that runs something like a dozen studios that build annual franchises on an assembly line, but the company allows its various factories to produce funky small-scale games like Child of Light amidst the 10-million-or-bust releases. But even so, the existence and sales of Assassin’s Creed and Halo don’t preclude the existence of quirky JRPGs or old-fashioned 2D platformers. As the big corporations grow, they create more space for smaller studios to step in and fill in the gaps. Square Enix would never green-light something like Etrian Odyssey, but they don’t have to, because Atlus makes it — and Atlus is small enough that the series can be a success selling 100K copies worldwide, whereas a Final Fantasy title that dings in at two million copies is regarded far and wide as a flop and a disaster.

So yes, it’s perhaps natural to look at Call of Duty with resentment for how it overshadows the rest of the industry. But its existence won’t keep Nippon Ichi from cranking out salacious fan service that will cater to 50 thousand people. On the contrary, if Call of Duty and Madden NFL didn’t exist to bring casual players into the fold and increase the install base of the world’s various consoles, there might not be a big enough market to support Nippon Ichi. These different audiences need one another.

To a lesser degree, I think an inherent distrust of corporations plays a part here as well. The sense that big companies only look out for their bottom line and the well-being of their investors, while persistently underestimating the intelligence of their players. Or worse, ignoring intelligent players in order to appeal to as big and dumb and broad an audience as possible. Some game that sold 10 million copies can’t be as good as my little niche favorite; anything that successful has to be dumbed down for the casuals.

But most of all, the problem stems from a lack of empathy, an inability to respect others’ perspectives. Sometimes it’s not the big games that get the reverse caution treatment; often it’s smaller games with a dedicated fan base. It’s always easy to make fun of, say, EarthBound fanatics, because they’re so earnest about it — heck, they even describe their enthusiasm with in-jokey cult references. But who are they hurting, really? So they like to write about a game as if it were divinely inspired. Clearly, it touched something inside them in a way no other game has. That’s pretty interesting! Maybe you don’t get EarthBound the way they do, but does that make their connection to the game any less valid? Not at all. And it doesn’t devalue your love for your favorites, either.

Whether it’s dudes whose entire window into gaming consists of Call of Duty multiplayer and the latest GTA, kids who prefer Angry Birds to Mario, or devotees of cult niche games, the one thing these others have in common is that they’re someone else. Their tastes are not our own. They’re third-person pronouns, not first. And, again, as we’ve seen demonstrated recently with frightful force, people who wrap their own identities up in their hobbies and pastimes often take praise for or discussion of someone else’s favorites and concerns as a slight to their own. It’s not just that those other games are being hailed for their quality; by extension, those others are placing themselves above us. The game we like is being slighted; which means our tastes are being criticized; which means we ourselves are being attacked.

Of course, this is utter nonsense, but it seems so true on some awful, fundamental level, inside our bestial little hindbrains. Maybe it’s borne of the unresolvable conflict between wanting to be unique and yet to be accepted by the group. Whatever the case, it leads wiser people than myself to sneer and posture about video games, making broad denigrating statements about others on the strength of their tastes in popular entertainment.

For my part, now that I’m old and mellow, I feel pretty dumb about the unflattering generalizations I’ve made about fandoms over the years. I mean, really, who cares? Like, I still think Xenogears was a bit of a botch job, but more power to you if you like it in spite of that. And if you still think it tells one of the greatest stories ever conceived, that’s cool, too. I can be happy for you simply knowing how much the true literary greats are gonna blow your mind when you get around to reading them.

tl;dr: Hug it out, everyone.

Man, I hope I was answering the right question there.

10 thoughts on “By request: Reverse causation between love for a game and negative attitudes toward it

  1. It’s things like this that remind me why I follow your writing. You always have such a tempered view of things. There’s insight and analysis without the incredulous cynicism that seems so common. Some things in media can be troubling, but no need to stokes the flames of ideological war.

  2. The early part of this post reminded me of something that happened with a friend of mine, who likes video games but isn’t nearly as passionate about them as I am. After he bought a PS4, he went out and bought a few games for it, and one of them was the latest Madden, and when he was showing me his games, he seemed kind of sheepish about that one, like I was going to mock him for buying it or something. I don’t know where that came from, because I don’t do that! It’s true that my interest in Madden is about 0, but I don’t think I’ve ever made fun of him for playing any game he enjoys. (Well, I might tease him for how long it has been taking him to get through Dark Souls, but that’s different.) I dunno. Maybe he saw some other super passionate gamers shitting on it and just mentally lumped me in with them.

  3. Halfway into reading this I kept thinking:
    This is great.
    Ito gotten so very off topic.
    But this is still great.

    If your wife brings up the prospect of you working outside of the games industry again, I would happily appeal to her for the many reasonable gamers who have such an appreciation for your writings (and ramblings).

    tl;dr Thanks Jeremy.

  4. This phenomenon where people form ingroups and outgroups based on identification with certain games or types of games–sometimes to the point of contempt for people who play non-identified games–is really fascinating.

    It seems like studying this could potentially shed light on prejudice, tribalism, tacit assumptions (e.g., “the game we like is being slighted; which means our tastes are being criticized; which means we ourselves are being attacked”), communication…

    Are there any social psychologists lurking on message boards doing just that?

    In terms of economics, I feel like you’ve presented the tip of an iceberg: all of the gaming genres make up something like an ecosystem, and some frail, rare species (Nippon Ichi title) can’t survive (sell) unless there’s a larger, common keystone species (say, Call of Duty title) affecting and adjusting the environment, which makes it possible for smaller titles to find a niche and survive, some of which may be pests or perceived pests (callback to tribalism)…

    Anyway, random thoughts from a lurker.

  5. “I can be happy for you simply knowing how much the true literary greats are gonna blow your mind when you get around to reading them.” I feel this final statement negates a lot of what the rest of this post has been trying to say. I’m not at all a fan of Xenogears, but I feel this line reads like “I can be happy knowing some day you’ll discover, you know, GOOD writing.” This comes at the end of a small treatise that, at least partly, declares that we shouldn’t be too haughty about our own opinions.

    Maybe I misinterpreted that line, or the message of this post, but that’s my two cents.

    • Sorry you feel that way. I thought the light, self-deprecating tone of that last paragraph would make it clear that was meant as a tongue-in-cheek remark.

  6. I disagree with the logic that the zero-sum attitude towards popularity is a fallacy. Entertainment is a business and is influenced by where the money is. Surely everyone has seen some band, TV show, movie series or game franchise go in a direction they personally don’t care for by chasing the latest trend. At the same time if you liked a game and want to see a sequel to it, if that game wasn’t popular you’re probably out of luck.

    It is in my best interest that what I like is popular enough to continue to be created and influence other works so that they too will likely be something I like. It’s also in my best interest that what I really don’t like isn’t that popular so that there is less risk of its influence “infecting” the stuff I do like or creators that used to make stuff I like switching into something I don’t.

    Ever lamented that your favourite Japanese videogame companies have moved much of their development to phone games? They’re doing that because phone games are popular in Japan. A company only has so many resources so they follow the money and if you’re not in that target demographic, tough luck. The “threat” of losing out because you’re on the wrong side of what’s popular is real and anyone that’s been following games for any decent period of time has probably been affected by it at some point.

  7. Lots of good points. But I think you’re underestimating the amount of horrible things developers do to their games in response to the forum-majorities on the internet a little bit. They talk warmly about “engaging with the community directly”. And then end up changing their designs or approach to answer knee-jerk proposals, in a genuine effort to make their games sell.

    In some ways, that’s the reason why some of these extreme noise-campaigns exist. After all, these people know they have an impact. Not because their opinions are good, but because they represent the dominating market. Which the developers themselves, not “evil” producers or PR firms, adjust to. In an attempt to make the huge hit.

    Outside of that, the narrative goes that you have to decide to make a game for a smaller niche audience. It’s not the case, of course – all of these extremely aggressive communities represent niches, some larger than others. But because that narrative is so present (and forcefully maintained, by gaming press not in the least), it excludes the idea that different games can appeal to new audiences or cross around them. So it’s made out for many – for good reasons – to be a choice between attempting to appease everyone (and destroying any shred of originality that might have been there), or deliberately making a cult classic.

    • Can you give any examples of developers making radical changes to games based on spurious forum feedback? And I’m not talking about an MMO runner fine-tuning some item or skill balancing based on widespread complaints. In my experience, studios pay attention to feedback but don’t make sudden, calamitous changes to a game’s design as a result.

      • Mm. I think it’s a tendency that many developers are completely honest about. They will tell you that “they want to make a hit, of course!”. But they’re not completely clear on what that actually means in practice. If you asked I’m convinced they’d actually tell you, though.

        I’ll give you a current example. So Obsidian’s kickstarter went well with Pillars of Eternity, it was going to make money even before the kickstarter ended. At some point they’re leaving the marketing and sales to an external company – Paradox. They’re all right (even though they’re from Sweden), they’re doing things like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. So getting in on a “risky” project like Pillars of Eternity must have been a pretty sweet deal for them. Now, remember that all of Paradox’ titles have been advertised, and survived in reality, on youtube sponsorships and word of extremely fast flapping mouths and clicks. That’s not a criticism, that’s just pointing out something that happens to be true. They don’t develop brilliant games that look flashy in trailers, but they are very skilled at getting youtube personalities to endorse their games (by sometimes paying them), and they are good at getting internet communities to respond positively to what they’re doing.

        And with Pillars of Eternity, like any game, there has been a vocal group of people who dislike elements of it. They dislike these elements so much that they “question” whether the kickstarter pledge for “Obsidian makes an old-school 2d-style rpg” is fulfilled if they don’t make the game turn-based, introduce BG2 style “romances”, and have experience points for minor battle victories and picking locks in rooms you don’t want to travel to, etc. There are several exhaustive lists of what “fans” of the genre apparently want. I’m just a gm and like playing role-playing games with friends, so I have no idea about any of this.

        At some point, Joshua Sawyer, who is the lead on the project now, happened to introduce terms such as “grognards” to describe die-hard fans of a certain specific type. And he’s used terms like “degenerate gameplay” to describe type of gameplay that makes the immersion break, and that leads you away and rewards you for spending time with parts of the game that isn’t interesting.

        And predictably, the internets don’t like that. The internets will have people who feel personally insulted, as the term was obviously specifically targeted at them, etc. Because they.. furiously like picking doors for exp? I don’t really get it, but there is an internet majority of.. 10 or something out there that furiously wants every rpg-game to have exp for lock-picking. And having that proves.. something about the quality of the game.

        And these people are extremely active on several forums discussing the game at the moment. Often with the same handle, and with the same posts. Over and over again.

        No one minds this stuff, not really. Even if it isn’t going to affect Obsidian, or at least so we think, it’s annoying that it basically ruins every possible discussion. “Oh, what a nice piece of writing that dialogue was. -But did it have Minsk and Boo? I will now explain in 3000 extremely erudite phrases, in bad rhyme, how little I care about the dialogue if it didn’t have Minsk and Boo”.

        Anyway. So Paradox was brought on board with a q&a team in August, around when the beta released. And since then, we had a very steady stream of pushes for changes that would take a very unique character building system (that I’ll be likely to use if I’m GM’ing again, btw. It’s brilliant..), that had very solid synergy with both combat and story. In the sense that the attribute setup gave you abilities that made narrative sense. A character could have strengths and weaknesses, without essentially being dead weight in a situation where “dexterity” is needed to affect attack rolls, for example. In combat, the actual enemies could suddenly be more varied as well – in fact, one hyper-specialized party would be likely to run into another specialized party and get nearly wiped. While if you used the strengths of different characters to exploit the similar weaknesses of the enemies, you would have a fairly easy time. In the same way, the character types you could describe, that would guide that character outside of combat also made sense. The dexterous and intelligent swordsman would not naturally choose the brute force option because of his attack roll, etc. This makes for very easy roleplaying, since you choose your character and then play into it. I could go on for a very long time – this system was a really good piece of work.

        It had the drawback, however, of not being identical to BG and d&d. And at the start of the month, Obsidian updated the backer beta with changes that essentially transferred out the significance of several of the attributes to class abilities, as well as grouped together important abilities in fewer attributes. So that all those varied builds I was talking about no longer work. And combat ends up being one-dimensional and flat.

        But now, bigger numbers pop up over the heads of the enemies after each kill. So now the internets are happy. Essentially, it’s now exactly as the grognards wanted all along.

        This sort of annoyed me a bit, the kickstarter being a way for Obsidian to make a game, not for “Ospikop” and “Snoop489” to contract Obsidian to make their game. And I ended up having the Obsidian actually defend their choices in the end.

        Josh, lead design: “I think our modified stat array is better than the one we had and produces a wider array of viable characters of all classes than you’d find in any IE game. That’s always been the goal.”

        Got that? That’s Joshua Sawyer, a guy who seems about as affected by peer pressure as a mountain. “The system is better than it was”, according to Q&A who have read the forums until their eyes rolled into their heads. And it gives a “wider array” of viable characters than the “one stat determines class” tendency in d&d. Which anything does.

        That the system was more interesting, or interesting at all, while also not cutting suspension of disbelief in pieces and slamming it to the ground — was simply an accident, in other words. And you have that from the lead designer.

        And that’s how the changes are done to projects half-way. There was an idea back here that was brilliant. But it will never be seen by the general public. It will never be tested in the market, thanks to idiots who believe internet-majorities are representative, and that they are a valuable audience representing 2million clicks on youtube.

        And once the game actually is released, people who don’t spend 90 hours a week on the community forums will wonder what in the world all the fuss was about. Specially as they find the current system – the one that Obsidian actually picked in the end – simply uninspiring at best.

        And once the game releases, no doubt Paradox will also “detect” that and sell the story and writing instead. While when the characters don’t fit in it, that will all just be an unfortunate side-effect of Obsidian being as usual a bad developer, of course.

        Which in a sense they are, when they don’t stick to their designs, and are convinced at some point that changes – for very few other reasons than that “people have demanded them” – must be made.

        But that’s how it happens. And when you talk to the “developers” – or more commonly, with the producers and PR firms promoting the developer – they won’t mention that. And these folks won’t sit on their stories for ten years and then finally let on a bit of “regret”, like some of the Japanese developers do. This will all just be gone.

        And what is the actual reason for that? It’s the fact that a unique, original and intelligent system and a design — isn’t something we prop up any more as a selling point.

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