March 23, 2008 8:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
We throw around lots of insults on message boards and comment threads, but there is perhaps none so common – and so virulent as fanboy.
What does that word even mean? Dictionary.com has no idea, but UrbanDictionary.com has several definitions. “A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture… but who lets his passion override social graces.” “A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless [sic] of if they suck or not… a pathetic insult.” “An arrogant person… [who takes] the console war very seriously, as if it were a real war.”
Perhaps only in games does being a passionate fan become a negative. In film, hobbyists might have loyalty to certain directors or screenwriters, and comics has its Marvel versus DC – but is this sort of aggression so prevalent on movie or comic book websites?
This column has been quick to evaluate mob psychology in gamer behavior and condemn it as one of the major elements restraining games from attaining widespread social legitimacy. But fanboyism is a much more complex issue – particularly because none of us is immune. Not even the press.
The "Friend Response"
The human brain is engineered to respond with fondness directly proportionate to how often it sees something. Faces that it sees on a regular basis are programmed into the mind’s memory as “friends” – regardless of whether or not that’s really the case. Watch the same news anchor on a nightly basis, and your subconscious will instinctively consider that person as an ally of yours, even if you never meet the newsman face to face. When the mentally unbalanced send emotional letters to newsdesks or stalk actors, convinced that the actor is “in love” with them, it’s a maladaption of this so-called “friend response” mechanism, the stalker’s brain becoming all-too-convinced that that regular visual presence is a genuine element of his or her life.
But despite how people behave in comment threads, you don’t need to be insane to have a “friend response.” Just take the case of what might be called the average lifelong gamer. Chances are, his or her first console was a Nintendo, and his first favorite game was a Mario, maybe a Zelda. Even in eight bits, those characters were preserved and personified in a chain-reaction of positive association – perhaps even more quintessential than being “real people,” Mario and Link became proxies for our positive associations with our experiences. Mascots for our pleasure, just as they were for the company they represented.
Our Secret Language
We often discuss our desire for characters we can really believe in and fall in love with. But Mario, Sonic, Samus, Snake and others have even transcended characterization; during our long relationship with them, they became more like a language – just like a word, each of them is a single-symbol shortcut that corresponds to a distinct emotional loyalty, reinforced by the fact that for most of our lives, gamers have felt part of an exclusive minority culture. That also explains the affinity for Atari T-shirts, 1Up mushroom wristbands, and game-related forum avatars and profile pictures – though to us gaming is as important as any other hobby would be to non-gamers, we are more likely to attach to symbology, and more passionate about the color of the flag we carry.
Most lifetime gamers, then, have a built-in bias engine, whether they acknowledge it or not. For some, it’s much more conscious and overt – hence the “Fanboy” network of platform-specific sites, hence forum flamewars, hence almost frighteningly irrational ire over certain reviews. Most reviewers dread having to evaluate a new flagship Nintendo title of the Mario or Zelda heritage; while the PlayStation 3 struggled to gain traction in the market early on, every new release was viewed as a flashpoint as fans were desperate for a killer app, and detractors were eager to see it fail. Those early reviews, then, might as well have been a general’s decision in a war.
For others, it’s beyond awareness – I certainly do not suggest that all gamers are conflict-craving flag-carriers who flock to message boards to vehemently defend even the slightest perceived insult against their favorite characters, developers, publishers, consoles, what have you. But the truth is, the cultural lexicon of games is still so young that it’s quite small, and therefore the repetition of certain elements or characters over time has been, and continues to be unavoidable.
None of us did not grow up with Mario, for example, and none of us is immune to the “friend response” of that repetition. And even those of us that might have managed to avoid the tide of early fandom have probably developed a counterculture – in favor of PC adventure games, in favor of the Japanese import palette, in favor of another, less-appreciated mascot, with our faith all the stronger for having been minimized in an already-small arena.
Inherently At Odds?
There’s a quintessential conflict here, however. A reviewer must weigh, for example, a Nintendo franchise title in the context of the franchise’s history. Should someone who’s never played a Mario game in their lives be reviewing Galaxy? Shouldn’t Metal Gear Solid 4, when it’s time comes, be weighed at least somewhat in the context of its prequels? Shouldn’t games intended for the core market be evaluated by someone from the core market?
In any event, game journos play a lot of games. A lot. And it shouldn’t be otherwise; how else to generate an educated opinion but from experience? Game fans deserve evaluation from writers with at least as much experience as they themselves have.
Reviews, then, demand that same kind of strong experience that also cannot prevent that cultivated, long-lived emotional response from becoming an ingrained subconscious reaction. Every reviewer, whether he or she is aware of it or not, is a fanboy.
I would like you to briefly indulge me by participating in an exercise. Remove all of the mascots and familiar faces from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and replace them with original constructs. Notice, if you will, the somewhat clumsy user interface, the high percentage of total content that must be unlocked to be enjoyed, the complete lack of usability of the Wii controls, and the lack of significant graphical or gameplay progression over the previous generation. It's true that even then, you’d have a good game. But would you have a 10 game?
What does it mean that I’m hesitant to even state my opinion that it’d be a 7 game? And what does that crap even mean, anymore?
Hanged In The Court Of Opinion
Game reviewers are taken to task often brutally if the readership catches even a whiff of bias. Lately, discussions of game journalism have revolved around whether reviewers should be “fully objective” or not – as if such a thing were possible. Game reviewers are cut of the same cloth as their audience, and having made their career out of it, might even be more likely than the audience is to have a few hairs rise on the back of their neck at the sound of the Hyrule Overworld theme, no matter in what context they hear it. They’ll never be able to completely resist the flood of positive association they feel when they see a familiar character, hear a familiar tune – a positive flood that can, and probably often does, influence a positive impression of a game.
In this Metacritic-driven era, then, where game companies must show high scores to their investors and where those scores determine their next moves, it’s love that makes the world go round. Fanboyism rules the video game industry.
What’s the solution, then? To accept that reviewers will be inherently biased toward their cultural icons and attempt to assemble as diverse an opinion pool as possible? To demand more “outsiders” write major franchise reviews, even if they’re less knowledgeable about the context?
The idea that game reviews somehow need reform or lack integrity is as prevalent as it is because fanboys are consistently displeased with them. It’s because of people’s innate, inherent and inextricable personal passions that the game audience is so impossible – just utterly impossible – for reviewers to please, to say nothing of game developers.
This constant discontent has the potential to disillusion both game journalists and game development. Fanboyism has become the stalker’s dangerous obsession with the TV news anchor, the unbalanced person who strangles a lover to death.
It may not be possible to stem the tide of fanboyism. It may not be desirable, either – who wants to be told that they must love their favorite thing less? But can it be de-venomized, at least, to minimize its ripple effect on people’s careers, and by extension, the health of the industry?
It can begin with game reviews – just picture what the industry would look like if there were a commonly agreed-upon moratorium on numerical scores. Second, let’s let go of the idea that a game review is akin to a product evaluation – it is that, but let’s accept that they’ve attained a complexity that completely invalidates the way we once did things, parsing games out by their technical components and then switching, jerkily, into an evaluation of subtext and the subtleties of personal experience.
If a reviewer’s positive experience of a game is influenced by its familiar franchise elements, it’s not a disqualification – it’s safe to say that most of the fans would experience that same influence. But for the sake of the industry’s future, the stamina of the developers (and please, the sanity of the journalists), let’s relinquish this idea that there is such a thing as “unbiased” for any single one of us, no matter how hard we try. I propose we embrace our own subjectivity, neutering fanboyism by accepting it -- because it sure ain't going anywhere.
[Leigh Alexander shamelessly declares herself a Metal Gear Solid fangirl, but still is too scared of you to discuss her console preferences. She is editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer