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.

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konig_kei

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You're a fool for not selling this on Amazon. You could have made hundreds of dollars maybe. Anyway dude sounds like he was born with a beret on and a red scarf around his neck. Thank you for your service. Lest we forget.

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ArbitraryWater

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Oh boy. This book sounds like a piece of work alright. It's like a worse version of Roger Ebert's argument about why games aren't art from almost a decade ago, actually.

And while you've taken the high road and not gone after Phil Owen personally, I will take the low road and say the passages included in some of the reviews I've read make him sound like someone who isn't very fun to be around.

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awalkawesome

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Edited By awalkawesome

This really just seems like the contradictory ramblings of a man that got bored and decided to write a book with no editorial over site what so ever. Most of the chapters seem to have very little to nothing to do with video games other than a slight mention. Then the fact that he completely skims over independent game development and the issues with that makes it read like someone that simply wants to spread ill-will about AAA development. Not to mention that he constantly compares video games to movies (and other forms of art) which are two completely different art forms and need to be treated as such. The whole thing is pretty frustrating to even read about.

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Yummylee

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Edited By Yummylee

So I just read WTF is wrong with WTF is Wrong with Video Games? and...

I don't have much to add other than this was well written and engaging from beginning to end. I certainly never intended to read the book to begin with, but I feel that you've given me all the more reason to make sure I never somehow become curious and opt in to giving it my time and money. It's just a shame something as well thought out as your write up doesn't have more of a platform beyond a sometimes mildly active forum like this.

@arbitrarywater said:

And while you've taken the high road and not gone after Phil Owen personally, I will take the low road and say the passages included in some of the reviews I've read make him sound like someone who isn't very fun to be around.

He definitely seems like the sort of Polygon-esque videogamesman who seemingly base their entire video game coverage career all around being anti-video games.

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Oldirtybearon

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Edited By Oldirtybearon

Wiseman @marokai said:

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.

Oh that was totally being said; just not by anyone that mattered. All of the kids I hung out with had a uniform opinion on Britney Spears and pop music in general. Teenagers are stupid and tribal, though, but it does speak to the idea that this kind of thing is always happening, will likely always happen, and is just a byproduct of stupid people having stupid children. Smart people really need to start fucking again, but I digress.

The only thing that Phil Owens has over the kids I hung out with is that he has a platform on the Internet. All of our spaghetti was contained to our own clique, so whatever contentious, contrarian, or outright trollish commentary we had to offer was contained within our sphere. This book and its author has slipped on a banana peel and fell right into a decent starting point for having a conversation about how our perception of people has changed now that we know so much more about each other thanks to tools like Facebook and the Internet in general. As unintentional as that may be, Phil Owens, I guess, is a useful idiot in that regard.

Well, at least the blog was a good read. Kinda wish you'd go for the jugular more often because the high road sucks balls.

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TheHT

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Edited By TheHT

Holy shit that preface. Always a good sign when your position comes with a pile of caveats and disclaimers of things to be disregarded in order to facilitate not tailoring your language to your argument and your position to reality.

Good write-up!

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Frybird

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Edited By Frybird

Thank you for that comprehensive criticism, although, sadly, i already expected that from reading the first chapter when it was released on....it think polygon? A week or so back.

Defending Tropes in Movies while mocking the how and why of a Shiv in "The Last of Us" needing more than one blade...

(Yes, it makes no realistic sense, but in having to construct a shiv out of multiple parts, you not only create scarcity in gameplay, you also push the player to be extra careful and thorough when looting the enviroment, moreso than just putting a realistically scarce amount of blades in the enviroment. Which would be what a post-apocalypic survivor does. And now i thought 2 Minutes longer about this than Mr. Owen seemed to have done [And guess what, there is a ludonarrative reason for Active Reloads too if you care to look at it!])

...already told me what i needed to know about what approach the book would take. Mainly one that seems to be unconcerned with creating feeling and atmosphere through gameplay and rather takes the easy way by parsing the surface level of a games narrative and take stabs to it. Which you might say may be the opposite of being "constructive".

It's a bit sad given that i DO think gaming could and should grow up and improve upon narrative. But comparing games to movies and books is just walking into the same traps game developers regularly do and applying the wrong measurement to strengths and issues of the current game market.

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wchigo

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Fantastic write-up and I enjoyed this piece from beginning to end despite not knowing about the book's existence until I stumbled upon this very blog.. I applaud you for not demonizing Mr. Owen and actually bringing about reasonable and well-thought out retorts to his arguments, which for better or worse seemed like he just took whatever off the top of his head and put that down on paper, figuratively speaking.

It's kinda sad but actually probably more funny that something like this would get out there, but I suppose that's both a pro and con of self-publishing these days. While it seems like the book could have actually been a decent look into the games industry's underlying way of working, it instead is a completely opinionated piece that seems greatly misinformed and extremely contradictory even to his own arguments. I cannot stand people who cannot even see the contradictions in their own arguments or those that argue past them as if the contradiction doesn't matter, so it is unlikely that I will ever read this piece aside from the fact that I would not like to waste my time on it, nor would I like to financially contribute to Mr. Owen.

Once again, outstanding blog. :)

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odinsmana

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This was a great write up. It was better than most editorial pieces I have read in a long time.

It\s just sad that this won`t get more publicity. There have been many times I have found more well thought out and well written arguments and viewpoints on these forums about different subjects than in the featured articles on pretty much any video game sites and it`s sad that only a handfull of people will ever see them.

Again, great article. I hope a lot of people will end up reading this.

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Naoiko

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Very great article dude, it was very informative and enjoying to read.

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StarvingGamer

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Ok I really need to go to sleep but just reading about the preface and ch1 all I can say is hooooooly shit this guy suuuuuuuucks. I'll definitely come back to read some more when I wake up, this is too delicious.

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newmoneytrash

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Yeah, I've read some excerpts and not only does he seem like a thoroughly repugnant person, he also just doesn't seem like that good of a writer?

The part where he talked about his 'weaponised brand of negativity' is some of the most eye rolling shit I've ever read

This is a cool blog post, though. You deserve some kind of award for suffering through that for the greater community

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AdequatelyPrepared

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Excellent write-up, and we thank you for your services for this with this. I don't understand how a guy that sat down and decided to write and self-publish a book about video games and the culture surrounding them could have such a loose grasp of how different mediums being across messages in different ways.. Doesn't really matter, because at

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

I would have called it a fucking day.

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ThatAintFalco

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This guy is a piece of work and that's all I have to say. Great deconstruction.

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j_unit2008

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Man, that was a good read. And thanks for writing this up. It was a solid way to start my day.

On the subject of the book though it's disappointing (although sometimes amusing) in its failures. The argument of how games need to "grow up" definitely has some merit and plenty of room for nuance, but Mr. Owen refuses to dig anywhere below the surface. Even more frustrating is that his surface observations and analysis are even deeply flawed.

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generic_username

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Wow, awesome piece. Thank you for writing this up, (and being so... not-personal-attack-y about it, that makes your arguments stick a lot stronger) it was absolutely worth reading.

I really struggle to understand why people who seemingly hate video games love to write about them so much. How lost would these people be without a medium to actively shit on and be bitter about? (On a side note that is kind of personal-attack-y, this guy must be totally legit and objective and everything. His anger towards the medium couldn't possibly be due to a very short-lived career in the field that mostly ended upon being fired.)

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Humanity

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@marokai I'm of the mind that any long form writing based on games tends to degenerate very quickly into a matter of subjective hand wringing. I recently read Ian Bogost's book about how we should talk about video game in the context of critiquing them. The book is a collection of short essays that tackle a variety of topics with a heavy dose of speculative interpretation that we've come to expect from opinion pieces written by game critics. Some of them are interesting while others kind of make you shake your head a little. Ultimately though the whole lot is basically a 200+ case of "so here is my offbeat idea about X and Y" with some decent historical backdrop sprinkled in but no real through-line. It's a one man show that you'll either agree with or you won't but one that more often than not leaves you kind of indifferent. Games are entertainment, and while serious discussions can certainly be raised around them, in the end they are meant to be a lighthearted form of escapism. We don't sit down in front of our TV's after a long day at work to pickup the controller and start brooding about social inequalities - that is a byproduct that lately all games media seems to have gravitated towards - we pick up that controller to have fun, and that is something that a lot of people seem to have forgotten somewhere along the way.

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alistercat

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Edited By alistercat

If only some outlet, say Polygon, would give a breakdown like this instead of just posting an excerpt as if they endorse/tacitly agree with it. It feels like an internet argument off the top of the head rather than thought out. It wouldn't take too much to see a contradiction like with the dead space example. If you're just writing a forum post it's understandable.

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mazik765

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Often times I think that the thing more broken then any flaws video games as a medium may possess is the way we talk about video games (especially on the internet). Far too often these criticism, legitimate or otherwise, end in a needlessly cyclical shouting match about who is in the right and who is in the wrong, when often times being right or wrong is not relevant to the debate. So many of these arguments we need to have are so much more nuanced than "we are right, you are wrong" and Mr.Owens touches on some of these (you mention GG, for example) but they do little to enhance, or even detract from his overall thesis. It feels like many of the chapters are simply...there.

This is my long winded way of saying that this article is the antithesis of these online shouting matches. You have created a great example of how one can criticize an idea for it's inconsistencies or contradictions without attacking the person who made them. We're all in this hobby (more-or-less) together, and this type of rational discourse only helps to enhance the experience for everyone involved.

Great job!

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Sinusoidal

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Sounds like an extended forum rant in book form. Does that qualify for publication these days?

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chebbles

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That was a great read, thanks for taking the time to write it!

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TreeTrunk

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you went IINNN!

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riostarwind

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riostarwind  Moderator

After reading this blog I just want to say you did a great job analyzing all of his arguments. While also putting together a valid counter argument along the way. Plus that was a interesting read overall even if I doubt I'll ever read the book this review was based on.

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456nto

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I honestly don't think that this book is deserving of criticism. He obviously struggles with writing coherently and he has trouble getting his point across. His writing just isn't evocative, it's sort of boring and meandering, and he frequently contradicts himself. I just don't know why I should be listening to what he has to say. Does he have experience in the industry? No, he doesn't. Does he have hard evidence to back up the points he's making? Not really. All of his evidence is anecdotal and that just does not cut it when you're trying to put forth objective arguments like "nearly all games are ineffective at being art" (which is a weirdly juvenile thing to say, considering that "art" is entirely subjective).

Returning to the part about his writing not being evocative, let's sample a paragraph: he describes your stereotypical nerd as having "shitty clothes". It was once an apt description of people who were "engaging in nerdy shit". They might be "super into computer shit", sort of like Bill Gates.

This guy should stick to forum posts.

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hippie_genocide

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This guy reminds me of Leigh Alexander - people so at odds with the industry they cover that I can't help but ask "why don't you go do something else? Something you'd enjoy more?"

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Aeschylus

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"The idea that games are definitely art should mean their appeal could be broadened significantly"? I just want to stop this bloke and ask if he thinks How I met your mother is more artful than a Wagnerian music drama, or if fifty shades of grey is a better example of western prose and storytelling than Joyce's Ulysses. The idea that art should be accessible and broadly appealing is ludicrous and ahistorical.

Great job by the way! I really enjoyed reading your criticism.

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hermes

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Great read. Extensive and fairly informative. I didn't knew about this book, but reading some of the excerpts you include I can only think he has some valid points, but maybe it would be better presented if it weren't included in such a biased analysis and holier-than-thou attitude, or by generalizing issues of particular games to the entire market.

If anything, it sounds a lot like confirmation bias, the author believes there is a lot wrong with videogames, to the point that the title is a pretty loaded sentence, so he sees everything as confirmation of his premise.

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baka_shinji17

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Great job duder. I always enjoy your posts.

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SgtSphynx

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SgtSphynx  Moderator
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reverendk

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This guy reminds me of Leigh Alexander - people so at odds with the industry they cover that I can't help but ask "why don't you go do something else? Something you'd enjoy more?"

This is the perfect comparison.

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brandondryrock

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My biggest problem about telling other people something isn't art is that art is subjective to the person it is being presented to. Some people may say that video games shouldn't be considered "art," where as I do consider video games art. The point of art is to elicit an emotion from the individual. Once video games get over the stigma of just mindless violence, maybe they will be considered art from more people.

Since this author brought up The Last of Us, I'm curious if he played through the game, or just knows some minor facts about it to write this book. If he did play through it, I'd be really surprised if he didn't feel any emotions during that campaign, whether it be from the visual design, or the interaction of the characters, or even the music.

In my opinion, if someone starts an argument with "this thing isn't art," then you have a lot of work to do to persuade someone to agree with you.

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Cav829

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Edited By Cav829

This was a very interesting and complete write-up on the book. The crux of your evaluation that he's self-defeating his entire argument from the get go is pretty spot on. Dismissing indie games and other sects of the industry right off the bat is equivalent of dismissing art cinema and, hell, the majority of movies actually up for any kind of awards because they lack the budgets and the financial success of big-budget blockbusters.

Austin did a much better job briefly on a Beastcast takling about the issue in the gaming industry that has struggled to create room for gaming to be experimental and aim to be art for the sake of art. Take the recent "The Beginner's Guide." Jeff nailed it on this week's podcast when he said this is the type of game that isn't for everyone. It in no way can ever, nor should ever, aim to sell millions of units. The messages of that game aren't going to be of interest to some people, and that's okay. The "gameplay" in there isn't something that is going to be for a lot of people, and that's okay. The constant debate out there of "value proposition" in gaming is just a giant mess when it comes to these types of games as well, because with any work of art, the correct length is the necessary length the author needs for the work to convey what it needs to. And that in and of itself is an entire can of worms in an industry where standard gaming experiences are typically grouped into standard length based on price point.

The subject of gaming advancing as a medium is certainly an interesting subject for discussion, but this would appear to lack the nuance and broad perspective necessary for such a book. It sounds like the equivalent of a generic "this is why Hollywood is creatively bankrupt" forum rant.

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Maluvin

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Edited By Maluvin

Thoughtful and thorough write-up. Good job.

Taking your write-up at face value and based upon what I've read and heard about this text elsewhere I feel like this was a book where the author had a premise that made total sense to him in his head and conversation but didn't necessarily connect together nearly as well as he thought it did. My adviser back at college once told me that your argument might not be as sound as you think it is unless you can get it on paper in a form that makes sense to other people. That seems to be the case here because it just feels like there are a lot of propositions put forth that don't necessarily flow together into logically necessarily inferences.

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GrantHeaslip

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Edited By GrantHeaslip
@odinsmana said:

This was a great write up. It was better than most editorial pieces I have read in a long time.

It\s just sad that this won`t get more publicity. There have been many times I have found more well thought out and well written arguments and viewpoints on these forums about different subjects than in the featured articles on pretty much any video game sites and it`s sad that only a handfull of people will ever see them.

Again, great article. I hope a lot of people will end up reading this.

I'm with you here. This is in fact significantly higher quality (both logically and grammatically) than the excerpt printed in Polygon. Marokai doesn't have an editor and isn't being paid. It's frustrating that so many of the positions in the (more-tenuous-than-ever) industry are taken up by people who so plainly don't like the industry they're covering, don't like the audience they're actually writing for, and in many cases just aren't very good at writing.

Not speaking about Owen in particular since his appearance in Polygon was an op-ed, but his brand of hostility is far too familiar. I saw an excerpt in which he described the audience of the outlet he was fired from as "shitlords." Gee, wonder why that didn't work out for him.

I don't post here as much as I used to, but when I do post a blog here, I'm almost always extremely pleased with the quality of responses. Obviously writing articles on the high-traffic games blogs is going to invite a certain baseline level of obnoxious response I avoid here, but I reject the notion that the gaming "community" (which I think is a questionable notion in and of itself) is particularly bad.

@456nto said:

I honestly don't think that this book is deserving of criticism. He obviously struggles with writing coherently and he has trouble getting his point across. His writing just isn't evocative, it's sort of boring and meandering, and he frequently contradicts himself. I just don't know why I should be listening to what he has to say. Does he have experience in the industry? No, he doesn't. Does he have hard evidence to back up the points he's making? Not really. All of his evidence is anecdotal and that just does not cut it when you're trying to put forth objective arguments like "nearly all games are ineffective at being art" (which is a weirdly juvenile thing to say, considering that "art" is entirely subjective).

Returning to the part about his writing not being evocative, let's sample a paragraph: he describes your stereotypical nerd as having "shitty clothes". It was once an apt description of people who were "engaging in nerdy shit". They might be "super into computer shit", sort of like Bill Gates.

This guy should stick to forum posts.

The thing is that a lot of the excerpts I've seen would be classified as "trolling" on your average internet forum.

Owen's lack of even passing familiarity with the industry was probably the most laughable thing highlighted by Marokai. It's true that games are generally referred to as being "in development", but it's always been quite obvious to me that AAA games go through distinct phases, including pre-production. How could someone in the industry not know this? You tend to hear about the stages after the fact because the games industry is more secretive than the film industry, but that fact has absolutely no bearing on the degree to which games are or aren't "art".

If anything, I'd tend to think that keeping the development process more opaque would look more artistic than the constant rumour mill fodder about movies being "in development" or "optioned" or whatever. If Owen has a problem with business and "art" blurring together, he should be livid about the movie industry as well.

@humanity said:

[...] Games are entertainment, and while serious discussions can certainly be raised around them, in the end they are meant to be a lighthearted form of escapism. We don't sit down in front of our TV's after a long day at work to pickup the controller and start brooding about social inequalities - that is a byproduct that lately all games media seems to have gravitated towards - we pick up that controller to have fun, and that is something that a lot of people seem to have forgotten somewhere along the way.

Agreed, but as you say, that idea seems to be lost on a lot of the press. I tend to chalk it up to a sense of inferiority -- I get the sense that a lot of writers don't like the idea of just writing about toys, so they try to draw an inevitably-tenuous line between games and broader social issues. "I'm not just writing about this fun, goofy, intricately-designed character action game; I'm writing about how Bayonetta 2 is emblematic of the patriarchal power structures dictating that video games should appeal to straight white male gaze and also that the gaming hegemony wants to keep women out."

I obviously can't speak for writers, but I often read an article and get the distinct sense that it was written to appeal to the author's Twitter clique rather than the broader audience that's paying the bills. Obviously shamelessly catering to your audience isn't good either, but surely there's a better balance.

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If he's speaking specifically about AAA games, he's right. They try to replicate film when it comes to story, but fail because games aren't films, therefore they cannot utilize all of the tools a film can. If a film tried to be a game, it would fail miserably.

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@rongalaxy said:

If he's speaking specifically about AAA games, he's right. They try to replicate film when it comes to story, but fail because games aren't films, therefore they cannot utilize all of the tools a film can. If a film tried to be a game, it would fail miserably.

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I vehemently disagree.

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Great review, and thanks for linking to Adrian's review, also some good stuff there.

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@hippie_genocide said:

This guy reminds me of Leigh Alexander - people so at odds with the industry they cover that I can't help but ask "why don't you go do something else? Something you'd enjoy more?"

This is the perfect comparison.

It is possible to both really enjoy something because you care about it, and be extremely critical about something because you care about it. There's a mutual overlap that tends to cause both of those things, especially when being critical comes across as being "at odds with."

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My 57 year old dad could not conceivably understand how to ever complete a modern game with any 3D movement in any control scheme. He also is not aware of how self referential it is regarding the history of the industry. So I'd argue that accessibility is not required to be art but it is required if you want more people to accept it AS art.

And as an aside.

Games still have the issue of making a statement about killing things or some other idea and then making you kill 100 dudes to get to the next cut scene. Not all games but a lot of them that we hold up high as the arbiters for people you haven't gotten familiar with games yet. BioShock, Mass Effect, The Last of Us. Even examples like Thomas was Alone is not a great example of high art to someone who has never touched a controller before.

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I don't understand what drives this kind of people. They spend their lives and careers spewing bile, constantly criticizing things in the most condescending way without really thinking about what they're saying (this is pretty clear reading the excerpts you posted), for what purpose? I wonder what they think about when they're alone with themselves.

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@reverendk said:
@hippie_genocide said:

This guy reminds me of Leigh Alexander - people so at odds with the industry they cover that I can't help but ask "why don't you go do something else? Something you'd enjoy more?"

This is the perfect comparison.

It is possible to both really enjoy something because you care about it, and be extremely critical about something because you care about it. There's a mutual overlap that tends to cause both of those things, especially when being critical comes across as being "at odds with."

Yeah, it's possible, but especially in Alexander's case it doesn't seem to come from a good place. Her articles always come off as self-aggrandizing, like she's sneering down her nose at "gamers" and gamer culture, as nebulous as those might be. It's filled with such derision and disgust, I wonder why continually write about something you obviously can't stand. I should note that I haven't read anything she's written in the past couple years.

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Edited By ProfessorEss

Great read @marokai.

I just don't get it. I just have no way to relate to the writer and people like him. These people define "evolution" and "maturity" wholly by what they believe "evolution" and "maturity" is and run with it as though it was a dictionary definition. Also, the fact that gameplay seems to rarely even warrant a footnote (outside of narrative dissonance) in these pieces tells me that I'm clearly not playing games for the same reasons as these people.

I started gaming nearly a decade before Owens was born and what I've seen can only be described as an awe-inspiring amount of evolution. I firmly believe (personally, no proof) that these books and articles are being written purely because as @grantheaslip said, "a lot of writers don't like the idea of just writing about toys".

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Edited By Onemanarmyy

Haven't read the book , but from reading OP it sounds like this author doesn't have the right knowledge available to be speaking about all the issues in AAA gaming.

From the snippets provided, it seems like he doesn't exactly know how the film industry and the game industry develop their products and therefore the points he raises are automatically questionable.

It just comes off as someone that's very jaded by the spree of Assassins Creed, COD, Uncharted, Resistance, Gears games we've had for a few years and decided to write a book about why that period sucked for him and what he wants out of games instead . By not even mentioning indies, because it makes it too hard for him to write his book, discussing art will simply be an incomplete picture and not very useful.

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@hippie_genocide: FYI, she currently runs a site that almost exclusively runs content about games she thinks are cool. Not exactly mean or hateful.

Anyway, yeah, this book seems kind of dumb. However, it seems like there are some decent points buried under a bunch of bad stuff. I've spent most of my life almost exclusively playing console AAA games and I will agree that a great many of them are very stupid. God of War feels like it was written by a 12-year-old. Far Cry 4's story barely made sense and each new character was more insufferable than the last. Bioshock Infinite makes you kill a bunch of black people fighting for their freedom so it can deliver a half-assed false equivalence about how power corrupts people. The Last of Us is just The Road: The Video Game (though Left Behind was terrific).

But, as you said, the way he states in the preface that he won't talk about foreign games or indie games almost defeats his whole point. He could use those sectors to support himself, but he doesn't want to do the research. Japanese AAA games often fall into the same holes as Western ones. Also, some indie games are heavily inspired by AAA, bringing both good and bad elements over. If he had bothered with those topics at all, he may have been onto something.

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Using a sequel to a reboot of a movie series about talking man-apes from the 1970s as an anchoring example of meaning and art in film is hilarious. As if the concept of foreshadowing is unique to whatever movie he saw that week. The brilliant part is that it ends up foreshadowing his entire book, essentially using limited examples to indict an entire industry. Exclusively focusing on AAA games is ignoring the vast majority of what's available, announcing to your readers that you're too lazy to cover indie, Asian, or European games doesn't excuse you to make sweeping generalizations of them.

Hats off to you @marokai, I wouldn't have bothered to read nearly as much of his book as you have, nor would my critique of it be nearly as level headed as yours.

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Edited By clagnaught

I'm not sure if I'll get through this blog post, but I'd just like to say it's a really good read so far.

One comment I would like to make is the argument against something like how they build the game of Uncharted 3 before they have the story beats ironed out. People can think of other examples I'm sure, but I just want to throw out one random example. With North by Northwest, the core behind how the film was made was Alfred Hitchcock said he always wanted to have a climax of a film take place on top of Mount Rushmore. Then he and the writer worked on more ideas, and then the plot came later.

That's not to say that this is the right or wrong way to do things. Structuring a form of media in this way can lead to some impressive results, like in the case with North by Northwest. That film feels like an adventure, you go across a lot of different states, and you have these iconic moments with Mount Rushmore and the dust cropping scene. With Uncharted 3, I don't think it works as well. However, I don't think this is because the game was designed in such a way. Uncharted 3 always felt like there was some change in the story during production and that lead to inconsistencies. Some of my bigger complaints was whether or not the villain had any magical/special powers and the pirate ship section. The game's internal logic didn't match up quite right when it came to the villain, and when I escaped the pirate ship section, I couldn't think of a good story reason why that existed. When you compare it to Uncharted 1 and 2 and The Last of Us, those games didn't really have those issues.

Even if they slapped sections together for those games, it didn't feel like it. At the end of the day, that's all that matters. Does everything make sense? Is there flow? Does it work (is it exciting, dramatic, entertaining, etc.)? And that goes for everything, not just games.

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Edited By Cerberus3Dog

Man oh man, Owen says

"Those four things, plus my generally negative temperament, put me in a unique position as a game journalist."

My understanding of a journalist's profession is someone who has come to a question, premise, or theory based on their own experiences and researches factual arguments to prove or support their assumption. He came to the premise. He loses his whole argument somewhere in between (I'm paraphrasing), "I can only talk about Western AAA games to support my premise" and "I can only support my premise if I don't do the same thing for movies as I did with games, I need to talk about the whole movie industry." The logical leap he has to do to make the fundamental argument is nuts.

@marokai Dude, you're awesome. Loved the breakdown. You said it best:

What is he even saying.

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Edited By Marokai

I appreciate the kind words, everyone.

@brandondryrock: It's funny to me thinking back on it now because I don't think in the entirety of WTF Is... Phil Owen ever actually defined what he even believes art is, or what the point of art is. I agree with your interpretation; the point of art should be to make you feel something. Whether or not that's anger, happiness, elation, even sexual arousal, it doesn't really matter, just that it stirred something within the audience (and that it was to some degree intentional). Games do that. Gameplay itself can do that.

I guess it's just super crazy to think back over the book and realize Owen never bothers even defining the term.

@aeschylus said:

"The idea that games are definitely art should mean their appeal could be broadened significantly"? I just want to stop this bloke and ask if he thinks How I met your mother is more artful than a Wagnerian music drama, or if fifty shades of grey is a better example of western prose and storytelling than Joyce's Ulysses. The idea that art should be accessible and broadly appealing is ludicrous and ahistorical.

Great job by the way! I really enjoyed reading your criticism.

Well said. I was tempted to call it an empty appeal to popularity, but that wouldn't even be accurate, because the examples Owen uses in his attempt to argue that games should try appealing to more people did just that and were successful at it. It went from wrong and based on a faulty premise to just being incoherent.

@yummylee: Thanks, though I really don't mind that what I write isn't read by many people. I just like getting my feelings written down sometimes. It's as much for my own mental health as it is anything else.

@generic_username: It wasn't until I read Chapter 7 that I realized he basically ended up writing about games by accident and has only been doing so probably for less time than I've been a fan of Giant Bomb. When you think about the book with that information in mind, it's kind of crazy this book is presented as authoritative in any way. As a matter of fact, this is from Chapter 7:

Here's where I point out that writing about games was not particularly something I wanted to do at that time -- I might have been living the dream, but it was someone else's dream, not mine. FileFront fell into my lap, so I took the work.

@456nto: I pretty much agree. You would think that the reason a person would write a book about a topic like this as opposed to an editorial is because there was a whole host of criticisms that naturally flowed around a certain theme, but that's not the case at all. Many of the chapters are so disconnected from each other, and repeat themselves so often, it felt like a bunch of long forum posts just bundled together and sold as a book as opposed to something he set out to write all at once. It's sort of ironic the book ended up that way considering he makes those same complaints about video game structure.

@humanity: I'm usually mainly disappointed by the fact that most games writing these days has very little to do with gameplay. When I read books like this I feel like most of these people are just former film students and when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, etc. It seems like that's only gotten worse in recent years, too. It's not that I think that stuff doesn't matter at all, but games aren't TV shows or movies, and people should spend more time talking about what makes video games unique as opposed to aping film criticism standards. That, and yeah, whether or not something is entertaining or not does matter. I'd like to see more people like Matthewmatosis in mainstream game publications and less stream of consciousness pieces.

@grantheaslip: I feel like it really comes down to the fact that not a lot of people actually read what they're about to post. Either because they don't care or because they have poor editorial oversight, who can say. All I do is try to read my posts out loud to myself before posting them. I still make plenty of mistakes though. Games critics just seem critical of everything except criticism.

@clagnaught: Totally, totally. It doesn't always work, and it can even be risky, I just think it's strange that Phil would react as if this was completely unheard of.

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Edited By moonwalksa

Huh, good and interesting review for something I'd never heard of until now, and well-written. It's a shame he stole that title, because it'd fit great on a tell-all from somebody who actually works in the industry and wants to address the massive systemic labor issues, rather than some guy who worked as a writer at games-related sites for a handful of years and decided to publish his not-fully-informed thoughts.

It feels too cheap and easy to say "they don't understand what they're talking about" to criticize a work as substantial as a book (or even a significant news article), since that sort of thing is a pretty involved endeavor that normally brings in a lot of research and editing and effort - so of course the author would think it through and of course they'd know what they're talking about, if they had to put in all that. But in the case of this book, at least from what I can tell by your review, it seems like most of his criticisms boil down to a specific core problem: Phil Owens doesn't understand what the word art means.

Because seriously, that's where almost everything he says trips up (some of his arguments trip up in other spots too, obviously). He thinks "art" is basically a synonym for storytelling, and you can see him go back to that assumption over and over again. That mistake is especially obvious when he writes off the concept of gameplay as a meaningless thing, but it's really shaping the way he views both the games and film industries, and hell, he even mentions it when describing music in the excerpt you posted. It's not necessarily that he thinks film is inherently superior, but that he recognizes that almost all films are narrative stories (especially the popular ones that he references... I wonder how he'd do with an experimental film that's filled with non-narrative content, or if he even knows those exist), and his expectations for Games As Art are shaped by his expectations for storytelling in visual media because he thinks that's what art is supposed to be. Incidentally, because of his Art=Storytelling mentality, he's not even questioning (and probably not even considering questioning) the idea that a major studio film might not be art - there's an argument to be had there from the standpoint of art philosophy and whether or not one considers a focus-grouped project designed to maximize sales as a valid artistic expression, but that's not a discussion that Owens is even remotely ready to approach. I could probably go on, but honestly, it probably doesn't need to be explained to people here why it's flawed to claim that making games more cinematic and story-driven and accessible is the way to advance the gaming artform.

Anyway, to drop the academic politeness for a moment: The dude's a fucking caveman-ass philistine. fuck em.

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The whole 'are games art' question is so baffling to me, still. A person uses a medium to introduce me to characters whose well-being I care about, and places them in environments and situations in order to make me experience complex emotional states and provoke me to think on certain issues.

If that's somehow not art because electronics are involved in the process then you clearly missed the part about art being based on the human desire to express oneself and share emotions and thoughts with other human beings.