Social Advocacy in Game Reviews
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage.
Let’s talk about a hypothetical game. A video game. A video game that doesn’t exist. Let’s say it’s called… Fled Bread Dimension. Fled Bread Dimension Two in fact. It’s a sequel to the popular but unremarkable Fled Bread Dimension One.
It’s not a real game.
And let’s say as part of the making of this hypothetical game, the hypothetical company behind its creation was revealed to be engaging in some shockingly harmful internal practises. Practices that led to its staff being over-worked to ridiculous, life-degrading levels – admittedly without it being something universally true. Public claims that extensive overtime was voluntary turned out to be less than authentic. This from a company that in the past has punished those that escape their toxic work environment by cutting them out of credits in a ‘they’re dead to me’ kind of manner. None of this is new.
It’s still not a real game. We’re just spit-balling here.
Now, let’s say the game is released and, by all accounts, it is a triumph. It’s well paced, well-written, with remarkable attention to detail and a staggering amount of content in the box. Let’s say it is unquestionably a quality product polished to a perfect shine. Let’s say no reasonable person can levy more than a few relatively minor objections. It’s a great game. Fled Bread Dimension Two is a tour de force. A platform defining title – the kind of thing for which people will buy a console just so they can play. It collects perfect and near-perfect scores left right and centre.
Should you buy it?
Turns out, you don’t need to stress yourself about it either way – in the end, your sale doesn’t matter. It sells about 17m copies in eight days, earning its publisher about $725m in revenue. But why wouldn’t you buy it? After all, everyone says it’s amazing and the brief online furore about some arcane workplace drama was typical Twitter flash-in-a-pan performative outrage. Vanishingly few of the reviews spoke at all about the exploitative labour practices that produced the game. Most of those that did have it as a footnote or brief link that is detonated safely away from the main content. Those that put it front and centre of the commentary are a small, noble minority. The positive reception of the game dwarfs and smothers the negative reaction to the methods of its production. In the end, it all seems to be worth it – certainly for those at the top who will reap a significant personal share of the profits.
This post isn’t really about Red De… about Fled Bread Dimension. This is about social advocacy in game reviews. Mostly about the obligations we have as ethical critics. How we can avoid incentivising workplace practices that lead to mental and physical health issues in the service of producing what is unnecessary entertainment. This is not code-breaking in a war or counter-terrorism in peacetime. This is all done, in the end, in service of a disposable goal. If nobody made another game ever again, there would still be enough abundance that you could play a new thing every day of your life and still not run out of options. They’re just games.
I am intensely conflicted about this issue though. The reviewer in me says ‘If the game is good, it should be reviewed as such. You’re not evaluating a process, you’re evaluating a product’. That’s true, and it has an agreeably purist shine to it. However, the critic in me says ‘critique should aim higher and it’s absolutely fair to consider outside factors when assessing the merits, or otherwise, of cultural products’.
The concerned consumer in me though has perhaps the cleanest and most accurate take on how I feel. It says ‘These bastards shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this bullshit’. They really shouldn’t, but that’s not exactly a noble sentiment even if it speaks to the heart of the matter.
When Grand Theft Auto 6 comes along, with the same stories of a hostile working environment, stress and crunch this brief and intense outrage is not going to have made a difference. We’re not going to look back at Red Dead Redemption 2 (YES IT WAS RED DEAD REDEMPTION ALL ALONG) and say ‘Well, now it’s clearly a problem’. We won’t. You know how I know that? Because these are not new issues. Rockstar hit exactly the same headlines with GTA 5, and it hasn’t made a dent in the sales of that or the sales of RDR 2. GTA 6 isn’t going to be dented by this. All they need to do is weather the storm – baton down the hatches while the winds are blowing and trust to the fickle memories of the consumer to inoculate them against real fiscal consequences. Meanwhile, those that work for crunch-driven companies continue to have the best years of their lives eaten away in service of frivolity. Chewed up by ever increasing demands in an ever more competitive environment that treats hard-working, dedicated professionals with all the concern they’d have for of disposable lightbulbs. Burn them out, cast them aside. It’s not like they’re real people.
Unionise, for God’s sake. Never trust to the generosity of a corporation – you’re just an inconvenience on a spreadsheet somewhere. Regardless of who and where it is you are only present there until they can remove your entry with no ill-effect on the bottom line.
The thing is, review scores sell games. There’s a reason why some game publishers will now base bonuses and other preferments on the accumulated Metacritic score that a game earns. There is a direct – albeit not entirely predictable – link between review score, game visibility, and eventual sales. If demanding ‘voluntary but not really’ overtime and 100 hour work weeks is what it takes to make someone a billion dollars, you can bet your bippy they’re not going to hesitate in enforcing the same when it comes time for the next game. Hand-writing editorials and social media virtue gazumping has no real effect – people have already moved on from the issue. They’re barely even willing to look up from their controllers long enough to acknowledge that ‘Oh yeah, there was some kind of thing about crunch, right? It’s all sorted now though I assume’.
Imagine though if every review outlet had decided to knock the game down a few pegs in the scoring, purely because of the process by which the game was produced. I don’t know how much of an impact it would have had, and in the end it’s impossible to say since we can’t do an A/B test. I’m willing to bet though that Sam and David Houser would have made considerably less personal profit. As Jim Sterling often says – ‘companies don’t just want some of the money, they want ALL of the money’. If there was a real, measurable financial cost to exploitation you’d find the management culture over at Rockstar, and other companies flying under the radar, turning on a literal dime.
All of that is way outside my control. However, what isn’t outside my control is social advocacy within the reviews I do. I mean, we already include a fair bit of advocacy in our teardowns but really board-gaming still doesn’t suffer from these corporate wide issues of corporate malpractice. There just isn’t enough money in the hobby yet – compared to the blockbuster budgets of AAA video games, board gaming represents a sleepy hamlet as yet untroubled by the excesses of raw, unshorn Capitalism. Even as investment companies start to take an interestwe still haven’t seen the beast raging through, teeth bared. Whether it even happens depends on whether we’re in a bubble or not – it’s entirely possible there will never be enough money in board-gaming to bring the wolves to our town. We might never live in a world where we see the bared teeth at the necks of our designers and developers. On the other hand…
Social advocacy though is still important. We might not see people driven under the taskmaster’s whip to make sure that horse balls shrink properly in the cold. We’re still beset with issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to be the best hobby we can be. Sexism is still rife. Representation is still an issue. Business models continue to evolve, and often become problematic in the process. We have environmental issues we should be considering when talking about disposable games, and lazy cultural stereotyping that is still more common than it isn’t. Oh, and accessibility – still a thing that isn’t well taken into account. Dunno if anyone is paying attention there.
There’s plenty we can talk about in terms of building social advocacy into reviews, and if we want any industry to change we have to be mindful of the tools we have available for changing it. I don’t doubt that this is a path available. I also don’t doubt it’s effective once you’ve built up enough of an audience to make it land provided that audience will stick around.
Is it right to force this into commentary though? That’s the thing I’m less certain about because that ‘stick around’ factor is important.
Within Meeple Like Us, we have some pretty strong firewalls between our advocacy work (done in teardowns), our critiques (done in reviews), and our industry and cultural commentary (done in editorials). There is some bleed between these but it’s not common – only when there is an observable impact from one to the other. That firewall is there for several reasons:
- I believe that people need to opt-in to certain kinds of content for it to be effective. I don’t want to push too many of my editorial views into teardowns and reviews because that’s presumably not why people are reading them.
- Accessibility is a relatively niche concern, and an inaccessible game might still be fun. Those that don’t have accessibility issues should still be able have a game assessed in a more appropriate light.
- Sometimes a game’s merit is in an accessibility profile, and whether I like the game or not is irrelevant to its value in that use-case.
There’s also a degree of pragmatism here. To begin with our reviews existed purely to set context for the teardowns, but over the past couple of years the reviews have generated more traffic than our (relatively) unique accessibility work. A site that did accessibility-focused reviews of games would do much less business on the door. Thus, it’s possible to come to Meeple Like Us without an accessibility need and still find writing that is (hopefully) interesting and relevant. We’d be in a much weaker position, I think, had we gone through an approach that integrated review and advocacy, and as a consequence we’d have a much smaller voice when pushing for accessibility. I mean, we’re not especially widely known anyway but we do okay for a written blog in a very niche area.
From a pragmatic ‘don’t spook the horses’ stance it’s always going to be a safer approach to separate out advocacy and review. Those that care about your agenda don’t need to be told, and those that don’t won’t be moved. That’s not why they knocked on your door. The people talking about corporate malfeasance in Rockstar probably aren’t, in most cases, the same people that wrote the reviews. In many cases too, the readership doesn’t much overlap either. Different audiences are served by different kinds of content and we are making a mistake if we assume otherwise.
But still… separating these out so people opt-in to content makes it trivial to decouple action from consequence. Nobody need be confronted by anything that is challenging, or forced to face their own role in exacerbating hostile attitudes and cultural practices. They don’t even need to roll their eyes and click away – they’re never presented with that dilemma in the first place. Imagine if we integrated accessibility analysis and review into one post and based our score on the combination. Everyone that came here would need to either untangle the two for themselves or simply accept a review score that put our advocacy agenda front and centre. You certainly wouldn’t find Chinatown getting a five-star review with an accessibility profile like it has. That would be less generically useful to people but it would be a more effective way to make people engage with the issue that is core to this site’s identity. An agenda need not be accessibility focused in order for this to be effective. It just needs to be integrative. I mean, in video games crunch is an endemic problem – it’s not just Rockstar, although they have systemised it to a degree far beyond the industry average. You could talk about crunch in many AAA games. If it was resulting in scores being docked people would sit up and take notice. For that to work though, it needs to be near-universal. It needs to be something you can’t simply avoid by going to another outlet. If that happened, fair working environments would definitely become a business advantage.
But again – is that right? It seems like media outlets should be doing more to disincentivise harmful practises, but it also doesn’t seem authentic to make it a matter that impacts on a discussion that should focus on the quality of a product in its home environment. Few reviews, even the best, can pull off a relevant and coherent criticism of social context. Those that can will still almost always come across as preachy.
At what point is your agenda germane to the review, and at what point are you the ranting zealot who finds a way to bring your crusade into every conversation? Sure, people can’t ignore a zealot in front of them but they rarely find reasons to come visit unless coerced. When was the last time a street preacher convinced you the end of the world genuinely was nigh? In some cases, perhaps most, unrestrained zealotry only results in people discounting your views entirely and that’s no way to change an industry.
Perhaps the solution then is simply choosing when to throw the punch so that its unexpected velocity causes it to land because nobody is expecting it. Perhaps we need the social advocacy of a sucker punch . Ideally when it is particularly pertinent to the critique. For example, we talked about the business model behind the Arkham Horror Card Game in our review because it’s a reason we felt uncomfortable in recommending the game. Normally people might expect to see that kind of thing discussed in the teardown, which it was, but it also had a sensible home in the review. I know from discussions I had with people after it was published that they paid more attention as a result. Not all of our readers read all our posts. Plenty of people come here without ever reading a teardown. They couldn’t leave the site without at least being aware that there are issues to be seen in the way the business model works.
For many reviews, you can plead ignorance. It’s a complicated world and nobody has time to investigate everything from every angle before they form an opinion. In the case of RDR2, critics have no moral authority if they claim ‘we just didn’t know, m’lud’. Anyone that wasn’t aware of the social media backlash to the 100-Hour Work Week is just not paying enough attention to the industry to be a credible professional. While punishing Rockstar for this would mean a number of companies got let off the hook, it would make them at least wary about the risk for the future. This is how a lot of criminal prosecution works after all. It’s not that you will get caught. It’s that you might get caught and part of your punishment is for you to act as a cautionary tale for others. A single bad review can have pretty significant Metacritic impact, even if only because people take it more seriously than can possibly be justified. Maybe instead of being disappointed that so few game outlets talked about the problems at Rockstar, we should be glad that a few did. Not everyone needs to be singing from the same hymnal all the time – just often enough, and unpredictably enough, that companies cannot simply ignore the risk.