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Growing up, I often felt a heavy weight of expectation whenever I found myself playing video games against boys. Oftentimes it felt like it wasn’t just me playing. It was as if, to them, my performance reflected an entire gender, and would be added to their arsenal of stereotypes to pull from the next time a girl asked to play.
That apprehension still rears its head today. When I’m asked to play with friends — or worse, with people I just met — I see the relaxed faces around me and I wonder if I’m the only one whose heartbeat just skyrocketed. Despite this lingering dread, I’m happy to say things have gotten better. Though I still brace for the snide comment, but it rarely comes. Even when it does, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see other players, even guys, step in to squash that behavior.
This isn’t to say that the gaming community’s toxic and self-imposed exclusivity is a thing of the past — a fact I was painfully reminded of when, last month, veteran journalist Dean Takahashi had the audacity to suck at a video game.
Takahashi, a lead writer at VentureBeat with a career longer than I’ve been alive, attended Gamescon last month where he previewed the much-hyped “Cuphead.” This run-and-gun platformer, painstakingly rendered in hand-painted and inked art reminiscent of 1930s cartoons, belongs to a genre unapologetic in its difficulty. In his feature “My 26 minutes of shame with an old-time cartoon,” Takahashi struggles with the game’s tutorial and fails to make it past the first level as he dies again and again. But while he considered the video a bit of fun at his expense, thousands of viewers considered it discrediting to his position.
Criticisms flowed in, particularly after journalist and media critic Ian Miles Cheong helped reignite a conversation popular during the height of Gamergate: Should writing or gaming skills determine who writes reviews?
Seeing Takahashi’s get raked over the coals, his worth boiled down to a single instance of playtime, took me back to those days where I held my breath whenever a match ended and braced for the judgement of my fellow players, waiting for them to justify or deny my space in their world.
The most cited issue I saw among Takahashi’s detractors was concern that his opinion of the game’s difficulty would influence his opinion of its quality (even though the video was not advertised as a review). Curious, I wanted to see if games renowned for their difficulty had experienced any such bias in reviews.
A quick (and by no means all-encompassing) survey of Metacritic showed that some of the medium’s hardest games such as Dark Souls III, Super Meat Boy, and Devil Daggers scored between 80–90 among industry critics. Interestingly, fans routinely voted these titles a few points lower, though difficulty was mentioned in few of the reviews. VentureBeat’s own review of Dark Souls III, considered one of the most difficult in the series, rated it an 80 out of 100, calling it the “zenith of the Souls brand.”
Now this is in no way a definitive study of the issue. But my inability to easily find examples of the bias Takahashi’s critics cited made me question its prevalence.
I agree that if a reviewer cannot play a game, then they should not review it. Just like someone who does not possess the necessary vocabulary or background to understand the nuances of a certain novel should not write its review. But I also know that, just as with book and movie reviewers, video game news sites typically assign writers to the genres in which their interests and skills lie — provided their staff is large enough.
In Takahashi’s response to the uproar, he apologized if it wasn’t immediately clear that his video wasn’t a serious critique. But he didn’t mince words when it came to those mocking him.
“Here’s where my nonapology starts. Gamers need to stop being mean to those who aren’t skillful. They don’t need to put others down to elevate their own subculture. Games have gone viral.”
Yes, video games are a uniquely interactive medium, and yes, that means writers need to successfully interact with them to provide a comprehensive review. But why should we expect them to be e-sports level players to tell if a game is fun or not? It seems more like a shortcoming of the developers if a game’s quality falls along with the difficulty setting.