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.