It feels transgressive to enjoy games sometimes. It’s easy to get caught up in the eternal draw of optimization, the belief that everything could be improved, or that there are better uses of time, material, or interest. It’s true in the context of a single game, and it feels true when approaching games as a professional critic. Further, it almost feels enforced in the games community. There are “good” games, and “bad” ones, and people who fail to like the right games, or like them the correct way, can very quickly find themselves on the business end of ridicule, or an argument.
In that way, enjoying games feels like it can be doing something wrong. Underneath everything else, it feels like there’s a strict script one must follow: Games are played “right” when done right, and anything less efficient or less appropriately critical is missing the point. Only like good games, consume them voraciously, and leverage every bit of criticism you have against those that fail to meet appropriate standards.
It’s so sad to me there are so many things in the way of finding joy in the process.
A few days ago, my Twitter feed circulated a piece by Tevis Thompson titled “It’s Not Coming Back,” a piece focused on setting fire to fans and critics for buying into the con of videogames. The piece, at some length, takes the reader on a caustic journey through the failures of buying into the con of Red Dead Redemption 2, videogames in general, and how players are complicit in letting the ongoing lie fool them into forgiving the worst transgressions in the name of getting back the nostalgia of what games were before and never be again.
Combined with the titles of the upcoming articles in Thompson’s ongoing series, I walked away from the article with a distinct taste of bile in my mouth. Thompson, for whatever value the points may have, comes across like someone who hates games. Not dislikes them, but actively loathes them. Finds them, to their very core conceits, contemptible. If a game is enjoyable, be it for a bit of simple enjoyment or the game equivalent of mouthfeel, Thompson feels they should be scorned both for what they are, and what they aren’t.
Phrased briefly: if you enjoyed these games, you are wrong. Further, you can only enjoy them if you fail to suitably exhaust these games of any pleasure, any mirth, by vetting their worst elements. It’s one thing to challenge your flaws, but Thompson seems unhappy with just that step. Instead challenge until there’s no happiness left, and if the game does not survive your fury, then it has failed, and you with it.
The swamp that such criticism builds feels inescapably bleak.
I find myself returning eternally to a belief I struggle with constantly: There’s no wrong way to play. It’s a belief system I rhetorically subscribe to without hesitation, but one I struggle to internalize myself. I have on countless occasions had to take breaks from games because I cannot adequately separate the idea of playing a game well, and playing a game right. If I can’t play well enough, or my teammates aren’t doing their part, frustration is the only thing I get out of it. A play experience crafted entirely from frustration and anger isn’t play at all.
So when I sit down and read the words of Thompson, and the terminal belief that there’s never getting fun, joy, or “good” back from the precipice of the cliff modern games find themselves on, I find myself bristling. Who is anyone to say there’s a definitive right or wrong reading on a game, a reading that either gives or takes merit to the entire experience? It feels like so much joyless cynicism wrapped in harsh words.
The deepest struggle is perhaps Thompson’s language, an unflinching string of fury that denies even the concept of enjoyment. Said in no uncertain terms, those who enjoy games have utterly failed to challenge them. Period. That finality offers no patience, no counter-argument, and no courtesy. A “Thank you for reading” omitted in favor of more bile, spilled across readers without a single care for alternatives. Strong writing, perhaps, but writing that sacrifices everything in the face of having just a little more room for expletives.
There was a trend in the late 90s and early 2000s toward more bile, more anger, and more cynical disaffection in games criticism. Critics whose tastes were right, the others were wrong, and anyone who disagreed were idiots for failing to see truth. A tone mirrored by modern online personalities so convinced of their logic and rhetorical superiority that empathy is a consideration so unimportant it’s omitted entirely. Objective rightness comes for you and your enjoyment, and if you failed to get to that conclusion yourself, you deserve enjoyment even less.
I’m not willing to throw Thompson under the bus for the opinions in the piece, but it’s one I want so desperately to be rid of in games culture. “The right way” in games is a subject so inextricably mired in gatekeeping, in tonal superiority, in the self-indulgent belief that minced words are wasted, that each of its successes means games get that little bit more exclusionary. That those who speak softly are at worst less valid and at best less valuable. Those who choose to broadcast what they enjoy slightly more likely to be set under the guillotine for failing to challenge themselves enough. As if allowing oneself to enjoy things despite problems is just as bad as failing to consider the problems at all. No nuance, no explanation, just spite dressed up in Sunday best.
But in that rhetoric is the same scaffolding that builds calls to “Git gud” on Twitter. It’s the same thing that denies the idea of easier difficulties or accessibility options because it takes away from the “purity” of what games should be. Built in is the same idea that whoever needs even cursory consideration—be it for mental health, physical disability, gender, race, or even just an utter disinterest in difficulty for difficulty’s sake—aren’t welcome in games because that’s not what its community or its critical sphere needs. In short, it believes those without skin thick enough to take the bile aren’t welcome.
Whatever it is Thompson believes isn’t coming back, the swamp that flowed from its passage is no better. Gatekeeping, cruelty dressed as concern, and self-serving scorn aren’t what games need either. Folks don’t need permission to enjoy the things they enjoy, and trying to take it back just makes the community worse.