So I read "WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?" and wanted to write some things.

Let's find out!
Let's find out!

Keep the conversation as respectful as possible. If you want the book for yourself, here it is on Amazon.

I read a lot of people saying there wasn't much of a point to reading WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? but I've never been the type to take someone else's word as the end of a conversation, not looking into it myself. Video games have been my hobby of choice since I was very young, and I've been fascinated by the evolution of the industry and its public perception ever since. When I saw the buzz circulating around WTF Is... I knew I had to read it for myself, even if only to differentiate myself from the pack of people mindlessly bashing on it just from excerpts.

I wanted to give the book more credit than that.

I decided early on that I would go through each chapter, making highlights and keeping notes, for this purpose. I'll try to keep the amount of excerpts limited, because I do think people who are interested in this topic and have a heroic amount of patience should consider spending the few dollars it takes to breeze through what is a relatively short piece of work, made up of only nine chapters. Phil Owen is, if nothing else, an interesting fellow with a lot of passion. Due to that, I'm going to do my best to make this review more about the content of Owen's arguments, because I don't want this to become personal at all.

Off we go.

Preface.

I only ever wanted one thing from video games: for the act of playing them to be a good experience, and meaningful in a way that is reminiscent of other forms of art that I enjoy. People around me are constantly insisting that games today deliver that. Those people are very, very wrong.

I don't say that out of spite. I want games to be good and effective art, but games are not good or effective art. The accepted current consensus is that games are good enough, and that's brought on a period of rather intense (to me) artistic stagnation. For me to say, then, that games are not good enough is not an insult, but constructive criticism.

As with any sort of criticism, it isn't enough to just say that a thing is a problem. You have to say why it's a problem and, if possible, how it can be fixed. My goal here is to do just that.

I really wanted to start with this because this is the most important thing to keep in mind throughout this entire reading. It is the premise of the whole thing. Phil Owen's stated goal is not just to highlight what he views as problems in the industry and how games are made, but to specifically and constructively offer ideas on how to make it better. This is how WTF Is Wrong With Video Games opens, and so I set my expectations accordingly.

Right away, though, I have questions. "The accepted current consensus is that games are good enough" is a statement that Wikipedia would append with [citation needed]. Who is saying this? Where is this consensus coming from? I don't say this to pick a nit, I'm genuinely curious where Owen gets this idea. The beautiful thing about games is that they are in a constant state of change. Games have changed more, and more rapidly, than movies, television, music, or books, ever have in an equivalent amount of time, or even over generations. New mechanics, new art styles, new storytelling devices, new means of interaction, even whole genres have been invented before my very eyes as I have grown alongside the hobby. And in all this time, I have never seen a "consensus that games are good enough" unless it was from fuddy duddies who looked at Resident Evil 3 and thought "Man, games can't ever look better than this, they may as well pack it up!"

If gamers are anything, they're insatiable. Always demanding new things. More things. Bigger things. Weirder things. The industry often struggles to meet these demands, but for me, it makes video games amazingly varied and creative. But let's get back to Phil Owen's mission statement.

Those four things, plus my generally negative temperament, put me in a unique position as a game journalist. And it put me in the unique position of being equipped and able to write this book. Speaking of which, this is the point where you wonder what exactly I'm going to say. So here's a quick rundown.

I'm going to start by telling you how and why nearly all games are extremely ineffective at being art. Then we'll examine the culture problems that maintain that subpar status quo, both on the industry side and the press and community side. And we'll also discuss how the fucked up American idea of capitalism, especially that of the tech sector, drives all of it.

This is getting pretty broad! How will Phil Owen manage to fit all this in?

Now, there are, of course, limits to my knowledge and so my focus here is actually going to be reasonably narrow. First off, my area of expertise is strictly the industry as it exists in the Western world; my coverage as a journalist has rarely extended to Japanese games, and I've never been to Japan, and few Japanese devs come to American events like E3, the Game Developers Conference or Penny Arcade Expo. From what I've been told, studios over there operate similarly to studios over here and many of the complaints I have about the industry here also apply, but I don't have enough direct knowledge to speak with confidence about the Japanese side of things, nor would it be journalistically sound to do so.

I'm also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there's far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I'll be throwing down here.

What is fascinating about WTF Is... is that Phil Owen often displays a level of self-awareness toward the fact that his arguments defeat themselves, and that's a big part of the reason I wanted to dedicate a section of this blog just to the Preface, something that in most other books would be a short and inoffensive bit of nothing. Here, though, it's almost a microcosm of every problem with Owen's arguments. The title of this book is "WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion dollar creative industry refuses to grow up." and right off the bat Asia is off the table, much of Europe is presumably off the table, and indie games are off the table, because 1. Phil recognizes he lacks any knowledge of the Japanese side of the industry (which is effectively where the core of the industry was birthed) and 2. Phil openly admits the indie space is actually too varied and interesting for his arguments to apply. In other words, if he did include indie games, he knows he would be wrong.

The trouble here is that you can't just remove major portions of the industry when the book advertises itself as being about the entire industry. As a portion of the video game business these days, indie games are no longer flash games on Newgrounds. They're big, they get major press conference spots from all of the console manufacturers, and a very large portion, if not a majority of games on Steam could be considered independent releases. As with many things, the preface of the book is a sneak peek into the fatal flaws of later arguments. Let's keep moving though and get this section out of the way.

These aren't hard and fast rules, though. I am the author here and I'm going to talk about what I want to talk about. But I'm explaining this now so you'll know that when I say things like "most video games are terrible," a sentiment I express a whole lot in these pages, you'll know generally which ones I'm claiming to talk about with some amount of authority.

Please don't assume this is comprehensive, however, even within that specific scope. If I were to go through the entire list of video game garbage I found severely lacking this book would be far too long and nobody would read the whole thing. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

Good-natured and productive conversations generally don't begin with deeply negative, conclusive statements. Those end conversations, they don't start them. Still though, let's give it the good college try.

Chapter 1: Art.

The first chapter opens with Owen recounting a story about watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the nature of foreshadowing. Movies work with a specific kind of language and sets of cues, he argues, that make them very deliberate works. Everything you see, Phil says, serves a purpose and that contributes to a tighter product than most video game stories end up having.

In film, we sort of subconsciously pick up on these clues and internalize them, because we've been watching movies for a long time and we understand how they function as art. Movies have a language of their own through which they communicate ideas via every tool at their disposal, whether it be dialogue, facial expressions, lighting, any number of other visual or audio cues or, yes, a sneeze.

...

Video games work quite a bit differently than that most of the time. You won't see all the key elements contained within the full package that is a AAA video game have the meaning that a sneeze will in a movie.

This is probably the most frustrating recurring argument of the book. "Why don't video games function more like movies?" Here, I can play that game too. "Why don't books function more like music?" "Why aren't paintings more like movies?" "Why isn't TV more like Let's Plays?" Is it because, perhaps, that they are different things?

But let's argue on his own terms. What amazes me the most here is that Phil Owen repeatedly deconstructs his own arguments without realizing it (which he will do again in Chapter 2 as soon as it opens) and this is just another example of that. Phil demonstrates here how movies developed over time their own specific language, their own specific metaphors, clues that we intuit, as the means to tell convey their "art", and this is what he terms "movie logic." In what may as well be the same breath, however, he turns to video games and judges them harshly for not living up to film standards.

What somehow eludes him is that all artistic forms have their own language that they have developed over time to convey their message and entice the viewer. Paintings developed their own techniques and stylings that movies and books do not share. Books, music, poetry, TV, comics, they all operate under different standards and practices because they are all different. Various artistic mediums do not all draw from the single "story-telling methods" pool. Video games, too, operate in their own way. Removed from context, many of these art forms seem weird. As per Adrian Chmielarz's review:

Video games have their own language. They use what I call “gaming metaphors”. Tools, conventions, techniques. A health meter is one, and an unlimited pause time before making a difficult choice in Mass Effect is another. Both are not something that exists in real life and makes logical sense, but we understand and can decipher their symbolic and practical value in a video game.

All art forms have their own “metaphors”.

For example, on the surface level, movies are incredibly weird. You watch people as if you were a ghost standing near or even floating above their heads, and yet these people do not seem to be aware of your presence (so-called “camera view/angle”). For some reason, your ghost is able to jump in time and space (so-called “cuts”). And in some scenes, you can clearly hear the music being played by an orchestra, even though there’s no orchestra in the place our ghost is observing (so-called “movie soundtrack”).

Songs are just as weird. Instead of telling a story like a normal person, the singer uses their voice to emulate an instrument that speaks (so-called “singing”). The singer also often repeats themselves (so-called “chorus”). And for some other unexplained reason most songs feature one of the instruments offering a variation of the main melody (so-called “solo”).

And don’t get me started on the books. Why are most of them artificially divided into sections (so-called “chapters”)? Why are they presented in a code we need to decipher, like when we have to understand the difference between a period and ellipsis, a row of three periods (so-called “punctuation marks”)? Why can a detail take a thousand words to describe, when no one does it in real life?

Phil is comparing apples and oranges. He even seems aware that he is comparing apples and oranges. He has demonstrated the cognitive abilities necessary to explain why apples and oranges are not the same. Yet, he still chastises the apple for not being more like the orange.

He continues with a criticism of the shiv-making mechanic from The Last of Us that leads into another gameplay criticism of Gears of War's active reload mechanic.

In fact, the idea of gameplay as instituted by game developers seems more concerned with preventing you from participating in the art. If the gameplay is itself part of the art, then that's fine (and there are some games that you could argue are like that), but endless repetitive shooting or dungeon crawls rarely fit that bill. Instead, the gameplay is merely a substanceless activity that just exists. In other media, we would say that having a large and prominent, totally meaningless component constitutes bad art. In games, we say that's just how it's done. Maybe games are art and maybe they aren't, but if they are, nearly all of them are ineffective at being art.

Ultimately, this is the philosophical difference Phil Owen has with the world of video games. Gameplay, the interactivity that makes video games unique, especially gameplay for its own sake, is "substanceless" and in his view cannot be effective art. Once more he justifies this by saying "In other forms of media, this would be bad." This is a non-argument. It is not "other forms of media." Games are not movies.

Chapter 2: San Andreas.

This chapter could alternatively be titled "Phil Owen argues against his own premise that movies are inherently superior and is too oblivious to realize he's doing it."

It begins with a synopsis of the blockbuster disaster movie "San Andreas" starring The Rock, and breaks it down as a disconnected set of action sequences and obstacles for the main character to overcome. He then says:

All this comes off as checking items off a list. Well, we need some falling skyscrapers in LA, and we need a shot of a big-ass crack in the ground, and we still think baseball is cool and AT& T Park is pretty recognizable so we need to put that in there somewhere , and we need a tsunami, and on and on. There's zero effort to make the absurd sequence of events seem organic, and you can feel it.

Your average big-budget video game is just like that.

Now, I know you're probably thinking "Wait, he just spent the entirety of the first chapter waxing poetic about the superiority of film narrative, and now he's basically admitting that movies share many of these exact flaws, almost like all media has good and bad works" but just wait until the end of this chapter, because it gets more ironic.

Uncharted 3 creative director Amy Hennig has said the development team decided before the story was written that there would be a big set piece on a sinking cruise ship, and this is the sort of thing that very often occurs when you operate this way. The end result is prone to be jarring and disjointed. Hennig seems to be a believer in that system, though, having worked in the industry for a long time.

This is an odd criticism, because many long-time authors will tell you that it's not unusual for them to have specific character moments, twists, or big sequences in mind, and even write them out, long before they're actually integrated into the larger narrative.

This begins a short section where Owen talks about consistency and themes, and how games are, you guessed it, worse than movies. He takes aim at Dead Space.

Glen Schofield, producer on Dead Space and the one who commissioned the pitch demo, said one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard a developer say: "The primary theme of Dead Space is dismemberment." That completely nonsensical statement explains just about everything about the way developers too often think.

Owen presents this as if it is self-evidently absurd, but I fail to see the absurdity. Video games are a primarily interactive medium, so it makes logical sense that many games would build their gameplay from a central theme like, say, dismemberment. This theme informs the gameplay, the monster designs, and even the disconnected way in which the USG Ishimura has to be repaired one segment at a time. It informs, by extension, the entire lore of the monsters you are fighting, and the means by which they are created. Dead Space is arguably one of the strongest video game examples in making the case for developing along a theme that plays to the unique aspects of video games as a medium, yet Owen finds it nonsensical.

It's hilarious because it makes little sense that shooting off a monster's arms would kill it more quickly than any other method,

The above quote is especially peculiar because of what he says less than a page later:

What matters in creating fiction is not to use logic that makes sense in the real world, because that is creatively limiting. What does matter to creating effective fiction is internal consistency: what happens in the story only needs to make sense inside the story.

He's mocking Dead Space for doing something he thinks is silly and unrealistic but says video games shouldn't be constrained by real world logic, only the logic internal to their stories, which Dead Space explicitly does. What is he even saying.

Bringing it back to the opening argument to close out the chapter, he says this about Bioshock Infinite.

The joke, which Levine didn't get, is that he wrote a story that wasn't even really about shooting dudes, and many of the stories we get in video games wouldn't be about shooting dudes if they were adapted directly into other media.

Yeah. Many video game stories wouldn't be a bunch of random action sequences if they were converted to Our Film-making Most Holy. It's not like there exists any nonsensical action set-piece collections in film. Like for instance, the movie this Chapter is based on. Chapter 2 is a very bizarre chapter that repeatedly contradicts itself, and try as I did to straighten it all out, this chapter was as confusing and disorganized as he accuses most video game stories as being.

Chapter 3: Exploitation.

Yet again Phil Owen writes about how films do something this way, and video games do it this other way, and this is bad, on and on. There really isn't much new here that he hasn't already alluded to at length.

Game development is a whimsical and confusing process. You have producers at the top, then technical and creative directors and various tiers of designers and artists and programmers, but what you don't have too often, in AAA especially, is someone who's really in charge. Sure, they claim that the producers and directors are in command, but that doesn't quite mean what it means for a film director or a TV showrunner.

It's worth noting that this is a very idealistic view of how movies and TV shows are made. Much of the time a showrunner or a director answer to a studio or a network in largely the same way game development teams answer to their publishers, and Owen sort of just glosses over the reality that live action entertainment has a heavy technical aspect that goes far beyond the romantic notion of one guy and his camera. There are set designers, mic operators, special effects teams, concept artists, marketers, and more, and all of them must operate in tandem. TV shows and films often have massive teams, and in this way game development and film development isn't terribly different.

The rest of the chapter is mainly Owen arguing that writing in games is more of a collaborative process than writing in movies, and that it's not taken nearly as seriously, with writers in games not being specific writers but rather an "Anybody can write a fucking sentence" attitude. All of this is anecdotal. There's not much more to this chapter, honestly.

Chapter 4: Development.

In this chapter Phil Owen get incensed by semantics.

Film also uses the term "development" to describe a key portion of its creative process. When a film is "in development," it means the powers that be are formulating a plan for production, and this is, ideally, when the screenplay is written. Then you have pre-production, where crew members build sets and make costumes and get everything else ready for filming, as well as prep visual effects (pre-viz); followed by production, when the movie is actually shot; and finally post-production, where behind-the-scenes wizards finalize the visual effects with the live action stuff, audio is retouched and dialogue redubbed, and the film is edited into its releasable form.

Video games, in contrast, only have one stage of production: development. From day one until the team is laid off after the game ships, the game is just "in development."

...

That's why movies have delineated segments of production and plan extensively before production even starts -- they'd prefer to avoid those situations because it’s bad for business.

But the creators of video games are developers. Their job is not to produce games but to develop them. It seems like a meaningless distinction on its face, but it does serve to inform a mindset.

The reason it seems like a meaningless distinction is because it is a meaningless distinction. It's also just outright wrong. Game development absolutely uses these exact same terms and phases of development, but Owen inexplicably just lumps it all together under the umbrella of "development" with absolutely no separation. All in order to make a point that, also, doesn't make any sense. Owen speaks of film development in this chapter as if he believes movies all beautifully fall in place like magic, and any deviation or reshooting spells inevitable disaster, recounting examples like several Exorcist movies. Once again Adrian Chmielarz deconstructs this far more effectively than I would:

And by the way, the iteration process is actually heavily used in movies. Scripts undergo multiple revisions. The point of rehearsals is to increase the quality of delivery. Filming involves multiple takes. Editing takes weeks or even months, and multiple versions of a movie are produced and tested on the audiences.

Back to Owen being contradictory:

Meanwhile, the shooter, as a genre, is as packed full of games as any other, with many studios working under many different publishers that are all intent on doing shooting their own “unique” way. It's awkward and it's wasteful, but only if you think of games as an artistic medium or you don't like throwing money away.

Set aside the fact that this excerpt oozes condescension and think back to the Preface for a moment. In the opening of the book Owen talks about what he perceives as stagnation in the video game space, that there is a consensus that views games as "good enough." Here, Owen is directly arguing that a genre attempting to present a variety of gameplay systems and ideas is "awkward and wasteful" if you "think of games as an artistic medium." Huh? The only way this makes sense is if Owen has a complete and utter disrespect for gameplay to the point that he doesn't even believe it should change, ever, and it's just story ("the art stuff") that matters. Owen here is openly defending creative stagnation in the single most important and differentiating factor of video games, their interactivity, while the premise of the book is that he tires of all games feeling the same.

The chapter ends with Owen recounting how Amy Hennig once explained the important difference in how games and movies are made, and how they can never be the same, by stating that game development is by necessity iterative. That game development is largely about creating a bunch of systems that are unpredictable, and because of this, strict planning in game development is not possible the same way. Owen just dismisses this without any kind of argument, stating matter-of-factly "It's an excuse that belies their true priorities. Software development is what they actually care about, not making art."

Thanks for starting this constructive conversation.

Chapter 5: The American Dream.

In a remarkable swerve, WTF Is Wrong With Video Games suddenly starts talking about the nature of capitalism and the concept of "the American Dream." If there was ever an indication how narrow a perspective this book is written from, this would be the best one, as much of the points made here don't really apply as well outside of the US.

The modern concept of the American Dream -- telling us that we can accomplish anything should we only have the will and put forth the effort to pull it off -- has a strangely evil subtext: should you fail to to do whatever it is that you set out to do, it's on you. Success is being offered up freely to you, and it's entirely up to you whether you take it. The American Dream claims the system is built to facilitate your success, and all failures are individual, not systemic. In other words, if you don't achieve your goals in life, it's because you weren't good enough, or you didn't try hard enough.

Anybody with eyes, ears and/ or half a brain knows this is bullshit, of course. American society has always been rife with inequality and prejudice that prevents individuals who don't fit one ideal or another from finding success, often no matter how hard they might try.

Owen is, of course, right about this. American society has always been messed up, though most societies around the world have always been a little messed up. A lot of the beautiful stories of old about how America is a prosperous land of opportunity, where anyone can make it, are anecdotes at best, and often fabrications at worst. How well this critique can be transposed onto the video game industry, though, is questionable.

The video game industry in the West has fully adopted the rhetoric of the American Dream, and within the relatively small scope of that business it's been quite effective at propping up the status quo. It's an industry run mostly by white people who are mostly men, and they'll keep it that way as long as they can.

This implies a level of malevolence on the part of the game industry that Owen really never offers any proof exists. After some criticizing of Ken Levine (Side note: Phil Owen does not care much for Ken Levine or Amy Hennig) he recounts an anecdote (shocker) that says something utterly untrue:

I once spoke with an executive in the video games industry who described the typical game developer as existing on the autism spectrum, or at least being a pretty anally retentive sort. He didn't say that at as insult -- he included himself as part of that characterization -- but instead to point out the single biggest core problem with the industry as a whole: that the majority of folks involved in it are "cut from the same cloth." He said that in the decades he's worked in games, each new "generation" of developers he’s seen entering the business have been of the same type as those leaving it (and as is the case in any tech business, the population skews young). Everybody is looking at things the same way, and that's why we rarely see any significant creative growth over time.

This is where this book would completely fall apart, had Owen not been wise enough to realize he needed to totally discount independent game development from this book. "The American Dream" is a chapter largely about how there are massive barriers to entering the business that are, in his view, largely put there to keep women and minorities out, but you simply can't pretend to be writing a treatise on the state of the industry without mentioning one of the biggest growing parts of gaming right now: Indies. There is actually increasingly less of a barrier to entry, perhaps less than there has been ever since the days of the fabled garage developer, and it's only getting better for them.

The industry has been incredibly supportive of this trend, with Sony and Microsoft now regularly giving independent developers significant chunks of time on their stages, practically fighting over them. Game journos have a quite close and uncomfortably friendly position with indie devs, too, and they practically get free advertising. This leaves aside the fact that his characterization of the industry as a white-man's game doesn't even apply to Asia or much of Europe.

The Video Game Dream is the means of continuing that cycle by scaring off folks who don't fully buy in to the way the industry does things. To succeed in video games, you have to really, really like video games. You have to be committed to the cause, in a sense, before you even start that quest. And so the issue is that not a certain personality type is drawn to games. The issue is that the ruling hegemony inside is intent on making sure only those they see as being One of Them are welcome.

It's difficult to even know where to begin with an argument that it's a bad thing that the gaming industry be populated with people who like the hobby. Owen expands on these points a bit more in Chapter 8, but it is worth noting how many times he expresses frustration with the expectation that people in the industry should like and respect the medium. I don't even. These arguments border on conspiratorial.

There are plenty of stereotypes pertaining to what a “nerd” looks like, many based in reality: white guy, glasses, shitty clothes, awkward demeanor. We complain about that perspective because it’s obviously not representative of the full scope of people who participate in nerddom. But those are the stereotypes because for a long time that was a pretty apt description for the people around who were openly engaging in nerdy shit. Those people you knew who played Dungeons & Dragons looked like that, and so did pretty much any engineers or scientists you met, and so did your friend who was super into computer shit. And Bill Gates, who was the face of nerdiness for decades, is exactly that.

Video gaming has never been an activity exclusively for the stereotypical nerd, but in the Western world it has largely been the product of those types. And they claim ownership of it and tend to treat anyone who doesn’t fit a certain mold (male and white, in that order, most often) with skepticism. Just ask any woman reporter about that -- there’s no shortage of tales of game developers asking the women interviewing them if they play games. In more casual situations or online, you’ll often see the man-nerds grill women on their knowledge of whatever nerd shit they claim to be fans of. So-called “gamer cred” matters, and if you don’t look like whatever their concept of nerd is at the moment (the stereotypes change but being a man is a constant) they’ll just assume you don’t have any until proven otherwise.

This is a classic example of Phil Owen not realizing how his statements conflict. Paragraph 1: These stereotypes of autistic nerdy guys with shitty clothes being into gaming are largely based in reality, so perpetuating it isn't so bad. Paragraph 2: Perpetuating the stereotype that girls and guys often don't like the same games is totally not based in reality and if someone uses this stereotype, they're evil and trying to keep women out of their club. Stereotypes about straight white men are evidently fine, but stereotypes about girls, even if they too share some basis in reality, are not to be spoken of.

I think questioning someone's "gamer cred" is shitty and you shouldn't do it, and being gay I get a laugh at some awful, stupid stereotypes thrown my way. But I don't think it's fair to pick and choose which stereotypes are okay to talk about and which ones aren't if you're not even going to bother substantiating your argument in any way.

Look, let's just finish this chapter off by all admitting a few things.

  1. This industry has been hard for a lot of women. All of us need to be more mature about sharing this space with a more diverse crowd, but things are getting better, have been getting better for a long time, and most people ain't so bad. Gaming doesn't belong to anyone.
  2. The video game industry is, true to what Owen argues, kind of a nightmare from a labor perspective. As a kid I talked about wanting to be a game developer when I didn't know any better, and as an adult I am fairly thankful I never even took half a step down that path. This industry chews up employees and spits them out, and hopefully, given time, conditions will get better.
  3. Olivia Munn exists.

Chapter 6: Ethics in journalism.

If you had told me before I started reading WTF Is... that the chapter inspired by the-movement-that-must-not-be-named would be kinda alright, and include several portions that were shockingly reasonable, I would not have believed you. That may have something to do with the fact that my expectations for it when I read the chapter title were subterranean, but let's recap a lot of the positives, for a change.

The irony of GG is that the louder it got, the easier it became for a portion of the gaming public the games media could feel totally fine about criticizing or even mocking. Not only is it OK to tell GG folks and their weird ilk things they don't want to hear, but it's almost a mandate at this point among the more left-leaning publications, and those that don't fit that category will just avoid altogether the kinds of topics that set GG off. Considering how regressive GamerGate is, that's been a good thing in some ways, but by dividing us along a very distinct ideological line -- or party lines, even -- the campaign has also managed to do real damage beneath the surface.

The rallying cry for GamerGate for a long time was, "Actually, it's about ethics in game journalism," a phrase that was turned into a meme even while GGers kept saying it over and over. While game journalism definitely has huge ethical issues, the side effect of that infamous phrase being tossed around so much is that any meaningful public discussion of ethics in game journalism was killed dead where it stood. Because GamerGate, the organized group of harassers, wants to talk about ethics, the media refuses to do so on principle. The party line among liberal gamers is that GG is wrong about everything, so we can't even hint that it could be right about something — even if it was right by accident.

At this point I was doing cartwheels. Two paragraphs in a row that I agreed with. Owen spends a lot of this chapter recounting anecdotes of reveal parties, being too friendly with industry insiders, sketch-as-fuck previews, and how there is far too much consensus among big and influential game journos. In this respect I think it's possible that Owen is right by accident, but at least there is some nuanced talk in a book that has thus-far traded very little on nuance.

If I feel like pointing out anything, though, it would be this: Like the rest of WTF Is... Phil Owen spends almost all of this time targeting the AAA side of the industry. When he mentions how those who write about games are schmoozed at events for Alien: Isolation, Homefront: The Revolution, and the critical consensus surrounding Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 3, and Bioshock Infinite being too monolithic, he's right. But he's also only really talking about the big-budget segment of the business. That level of being emotionally compromised, too attached, it is a far more common thing these days from the indie devs, who are less flagrant about it (mostly due to lack of cash money to throw such parties, I would imagine) but hang around gaming publications a little too often to have any kind of moral highground on this topic. This is another reason I am disappointed Owen doesn't talk at all about independent game development.

Indie game devs are an elephant in the room when it comes to the ethics conversation and very few people admit it.

Chapter 7: Me.

This chapter is mostly, as you would expect, about Phil Owen the person. Since I don't want to make this about him personally, I'll just include some relevant bits and move on, since there isn't much about his broader arguments about the game industry here anyway.

  • Phil Owen was born in 1987, making him only about three years older than me. This was probably revealed earlier, but who cares.
  • He got his start working as an unpaid intern for IGN's entertainment division (in his words "the section of the company dealing with movies, TV, music, tech and whatever else there is to cover that isn't a video game") in 2010.
  • Out of this, knowing some folks, and a pinch of luck, Owen got a contract writing gig at FileFront, so his writing career with video games is only roughly 5 years old.
  • He was fired from this position in early 2012. He took some time off games writing and began doing freelance work later that year, which is roughly what he has done since.
  • He once got into a bit of a fight with Stephen Totilo over an article he wrote about Shenmue III as a Kotaku guest writer.
  • He really likes Alpha Protocol.

Chapter 8 & 9: Accessibility & Mass Effect.

I combined these two chapters because they sort of go hand-in-hand. First, Owen talks a lot about how he likes to cheat in video games "because I know better than I ever did when I was a child that games are built to occupy your time rather than be art." This is all well and good. Owen recounts examples including Dragon Age: Inquisition as a game with an obnoxious amount of filler side-content that is built more to pad out the length of the game than to really accomplish anything. I can get behind that complaint, having played through games like Xenoblade: Chronicles and found its amount of filler to be very off-putting.

Owen uses this to build to the main point of Chapter 8:

This way of constructing games highlights yet another major problem with the way the industry operates: it is anti-accessibility. The idea that games are definitely art should mean their appeal could be broadened significantly, but that isn't the case.

These arguments, of course, don't make much sense. Throughout this book, Phil oscillates between arguing that gaming is creatively bland and stagnant, yet impenetrable. What's especially odd about this argument is that he uses games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 2 as examples that do it all wrong. Those series are examples of the game industry doing exactly what he prescribes: Diluting the initial appeal of the franchise in order to appeal to a wider audience, which both games were successful at doing, for good or ill. Each game not only streamlined their mechanics substantially to make them more simple to play, both franchises went out of way to appeal to marginalized social groups (in ways that were often cringe-worthy and weird -- See: Steve Cortez) in contrast to the usual white dude heroes.

It should be noted history has often shown that, if your interest is in creating something that sticks true to its principles and really has a core message or point, broadening your brand is the exact opposite way to make impactful "art." It's strange to see someone who values art so dearly openly argue in favor of something that leads to the watering down of the end result. Owen continues this line of argument with a bizarre goalpost:

Publishers probably have some focus groups telling them this is what gamers want, and loud angry internet people are always whining that many games are not long enough. But there’s data that tells a different story. With the prevalence of “achievements” and “trophies” awarded for completing certain tasks in modern games, it’s possible to get an impression of how many actually make it to the ends of games. When you look at achievement and trophy data on Xbox and PlayStation, it seems clear the kinds of time-wasting systems present in most games are decidedly not what even most of the people buying them actually want.

First off, when you look at the data , you'll see that the ideal (in terms of what the folks in the industry hope for) for games is a completion rate in the 40-50 percent range. That's appalling on its own, but we'll let it go for now. What's more illuminating is the completion rates for the longest high-profile games. The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition come to mind for being both horrendously lengthy and well-regarded by critics. They also have very low completion rates: 23 percent for Dragon Age and 21 percent for The Witcher as of this writing many months after those games were released.

...

For a business that insists it needs to sell millions of copies of every game it puts out in order to be successful, it's a curious way of doing things.

I have a somewhat unconventional way of determining what people want. It's called "the amount of people that bought it" aka sales figures. GameSpot reports as of late August that The Witcher 3 (another example, by the way, of a series that streamlined and broadened its appeal over the course of its iterations) has sold over six million copies. Inquisition sales numbers have never been disclosed, but EA describes it as "the most successful launch in Bioware's history [based on units sold]." A curious way of doing things indeed.

More to the point, I fail to understand why Owen seems to think that the amount of people who don't play or don't finish a game should have their opinion elevated above that of those who actually do buy and finish those games. Owen derisively refers to this as "the nature of nerddom. Gaming is not for everyone, and the community doesn’t really don't want it to be." but he doesn't really make any point beyond "games should sell to more people, just because." It seems more logical to me that the person who has experience and interest in something is more of an authority than a person who has neither.

WTF Is... trades a lot on comparisons to other media forms, but if this standard was applied to most other media, not much would ever get made at all. How many people only watch a handful of episodes of a TV show compared to the amount of people who finish the whole thing? How many people only listen to a single or two off an album compared to people who listen to the complete work? How many millions of books are bought each year that are never read in their entirety? Owen never bothers to explain why games deserve this higher level of scrutiny.

Finishing up.

I'd like to remind everyone how this book opens.

As with any sort of criticism, it isn't enough to just say that a thing is a problem. You have to say why it's a problem and, if possible, how it can be fixed. My goal here is to do just that.

If that was the mission statement of WTF Is... then it completely failed at living up to it. Phil Owen spends many chapters accusing the video game industry (or rather, a certain part of it) as being bad for a variety of reasons, many of which make little sense, but Owen never gets very specific about why these problems exist, or how to resolve them. This book opens talking about constructive criticism, but constructive is an inherently positive descriptor; it must be specific and something that can realistically be carried out. Owen never breaks down these problems in ways that can be realistically addressed nor does he ever attempt to list possible solutions. Talking about how much you're sick of something but then ending your angry diatribe with "but I'm just trying to raise awareness because I care" doesn't cut it.

For that matter it's questionable whether or not what Owen even lists as problems actually are problems. Most of the book can be summed up as "this isn't how the film industry does things, therefore it is bad." Other supposed problems - such as the idea that it is a bad thing that the video game industry be populated with people who actually like video games, or that games should cater to the interests of those that don't play them - are nonsensical.

Video games is an artistic medium like any other. There are good games and bad games, games that feature big tits or somber tales of death, games that are short and long, minimalistic or heavily cinematic, complex and simple, the list goes on. You can't put video games in a box. The implication underlying the book that video games "need to grow up" is farcical. No one video game speaks for the whole medium any more than any individual singer, TV series, or collection of books can be used to stereotype their respective mediums. That bullshit needs to end. There is nothing inherently immature or inartistic in creating something meant for entertainment.

So WTF is wrong with video games? The way our critics talk about them certainly comes to mind. I've heard plenty of people talk about how they dislike Britney Spears music but never that Britney Spears is tarnishing the very medium of music and must be stopped before the message of her music causes social harm. That sort of thing was probably said by Focus on the Family at one point or another, but I hear that shit about various video games all the time. There's something Owen says in Chapter 7 that is rather telling:

As that sort of company operating with a network of sites, the purpose Break had for building up editorial content on FileFront was not to do journalism, really. It wasn't about serving the public good or pushing a political agenda;

That is Phil Owen's view of journalism in his own words. It says all that needs to be said about why there is so much consternation in the public discussion about video games. When pushing an agenda comes before the pursuit of facts, dialogue about an issue becomes several orders of magnitude more difficult. Just ask the UN.

The title of WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? is really a misnomer in the end, because it openly admits to not covering anything outside of the Western big-budget AAA development space. Yet even then this book wouldn't really be an accurate representation of the industry. WTF Is... is a collection of contradictory arguments from beginning to end, backed up by a mere handful of anecdotes. For a topic that does deserve a deeper conversation, that's pretty unfortunate.

If you're interested, you can find Phil Owen on twitter as @philrowen. He ends the book by pointing this out, so don't blame me.

67 Comments