The idea that “objective” reviews and reporting should be the ideal has come up again and the critical sphere is correct to point out that it this is not really possible, or not even desirable. There will never be some universal process for evaluating games unless you accept that one specific viewpoint, which is as much as any good review can hope to offer, could be superior to all others. And I think it is pretty clear that people who call for more objectivity are actually calling for subjectivity more closely aligned with their own viewpoints. But even if an entirely objective review were possible– which it isn’t– I doubt its existence would quell any of the highly emotional accusations of bias, collusion, or friendship between game developers and those who write about them that fly around the internet. Opinion on its own isn’t the issue. Instead, this happens because suspicions of collusion threaten a very specific, delicately constructed relationship that the game industry has built with some of its best customers.
We tend to say the problem lies with “gamers”. Consider how successful and widespread “gamer” is as an identity despite the fact that it hardly means anything at all. The reason the gamer identity has become so laden with bad connotations– misogyny, Doritos– is because the identity itself doesn’t really matter except for one crucial aspect: the buying of games. As long as “gamer” means someone who spends money, preferably a lot of money, on products that are produced by the game industry, the rest of that identity is left undefined. There’s no incentive for the largest groups that do things around games to attempt to define gaming as, say, something that makes you interesting, or as a noble pursuit. Anything anyone knows about “gamers” is just that they purchase games.
I want to talk about a certain kind of good customer. As a group they are an important source of revenue. Since “gamer” doesn’t mean anything, I will call them “consumer-kings” (the gendered term is intentional). Central to the notion of the consumer-king is the purity of his agency to make decisions about what to choose to experience. We could imagine him in front of a table brimming with a stunning variety of exquisite foods, much more than he could possibly eat in one sitting. He looks at each of them, enjoying their shapes and colors, imagining what they will taste like. There are many aspects to consider, so he is surrounded by a group of people whose job it is to talk about the dishes, to tell the stories behind them, and otherwise add new dimensions to his aesthetic reverie. His advisors are educated and opinionated, and he suspects some of them might secretly look down on him. But at the same time, he revels in their attention and in the notion of having his own, equally valid opinion to contrast with theirs. At the end of the discussion– which has taken all day– they always defer to him. After all, his own critical thought is the highest and most important faculty in his choice of repast (even if that process leads him to conclusions that are overwhelmingly similar to everyone around him).
As anyone who has worked in retail or the service industry knows, interacting with consumer-kings can be a pleasure at times when interests do coincide and the conversation is respectful and stimulating. At other times these kinds of customers are exhausting and a pain to deal with. Either way, they’re almost always extremely good for business. When the sommelier chats with a diner about wine for twenty or thirty minutes, the diner is all but guaranteed to order a flight, or two, or three. As someone with things to sell, you want to get your customer into that place– that little palace of the consumer-king where he feels safe and able to enjoy himself and delight in the array of products in front of him. There are no troublesome outside influences, and because of that, he is only too happy to spend the money you ask of him.
The world of games upholds the comfort bubble quite well (at least for a certain kind of person). Vast troves of media and content are generated about games every day. It’s easy to get lost in considerations of what game does what well, what game looks the best, sounds the best, which game is the most anticipated, which game might give you the most pleasure when it is released. Ranks of community managers answer questions, assuage fears, absorb complaints, and generally work to make the consumer-king feel respected and important. Slogans like “by gamers, for gamers,” or “power to the players” are uttered. And developers, to varying degrees, continually thank and celebrate their “fan communities”. (I don’t mean to imply that this is done by developers with the intent to deceive. Game developers by and large genuinely appreciate the fans their games have made and are in total awareness of the debt they owe their community in supporting their efforts. But even these real feelings of appreciation for fans can lead to expectations that are later not borne out, since most developers ultimately answer to business and not the fans.)
One thing that’s able to pop this bubble of delight, however, is the suspicion of secret disinterest or outside influence. If the king’s advisers were being disingenuous– that is to say, if they were lying to him– it would undermine and disrespect the very basis of the consumer-king himself. Therefore the unaccountable anger brought to the fore by suspicions of bias, review score guarantees, and other sinister, mostly-imagined deals is so strong not because it results in a deviation from the platonic review ideal, but because it violates the sacred consumption space in which the consumer-king seeks to exist.
The flip side of the consumer-king is an exceedingly loyal customer who will spend a ton of money on games one way or another. Even at the height of his righteous anger, he will probably only avoid one or two platforms or publishers out of spite. He might contribute toxicity or otherwise cause real problems for real human beings. But because of the way our system works, his desire to return to the pure happy consumption palace wins out over the other concerns. At the end of the day he puts money into the system by buying games, and that is the bottom line, the most important fact about him. He is a “gamer”.
* * *
What the king in front of the dining table doesn’t realize (or what he does realize and doesn’t want to be reminded of) is that it doesn’t matter much what dishes he actually chooses every night. What matters is that the ritual of the dinner spread will repeat tomorrow, and the next day, and on forever.
* * *
The importance of upholding a ceremony even in the face of its obvious ridiculousness is demonstrated perhaps most dramatically in the spectacle of E3, which is set up like a great tournament where consumer-kings can cheer on as their favorite brands and intellectual properties engage in showy gladiatorial fights against each other. E3 is run by the ESA, the trade organization that all major publishers belong to and which advances agendas in their common interest. Therefore the sense of competition at E3– who had the best showing, who made the most embarrassing mistake– is all part of a larger circus put on by what is for all intents and purposes “The Industry”.
Which is not to say that the competition between, say, EA and Activision or Microsoft and Sony isn’t real. (I’ve been a footsoldier in some of those battles.) But money spent on, for example, Call of Duty versus money spent on EVE Online, or almost any other game you’d find featured on Steam or the App Store, doesn’t change a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Any of those expenditures support the platform ecosystems maintained by the small handful of platform-owners, and help to pay the cadre of professionals that work at studios and publishers and media outlets. In other words, the larger structures of the world of games benefit no matter what specific titles the consumer-kings buy. So it’s best to keep them in their little palaces where they’re happy to talk and talk, and then pick their specific dishes for the night.
This situation isn’t the result of a grand conspiracy or a master plan from some shadowy power broker. Things simply settle into being this way because this is the kind of system that works, in that it makes money for the right people, and because it reinforces itself.