Arguing Usefully About Games


Wow, school takes a lot more time than I thought. If you’re seeing this post, though, it means that I’ve built up a nice reservoir of content for this blog, and you should be seeing a regular stream of posts once more.

But, in the meanwhile, something happened to me recently that inspired me to write a post. I was at the bar the other day when I got into an argument with one of the regulars about games, specifically Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. I had brought up the game as an example of a good game with bad boss battles (a point I’ve hammered to death before), but the regular relented, saying that Shadows of Mordor was “a piece of shit” and “the worst game of that year”.

“No it wasn’t,” I relented. “Tons of awful games came out that year.” For reference, Shadows of Mordor came out in 2014, the same year as Rambo: The Video GameSonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and The Letter, a Wii U horror game mostly constructed of assets stolen from the Unity Store. No use, however, as the argument quickly hit a stone wall.

What I realized early on, and tried to get across, was that the argument this particular fellow was making wasn’t “Shadows of Mordor was the worst game of 2014″, it was “Shadows of Mordor was the game I had the least fun playing in 2014″. While that second point is far more watertight than the first, it also doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a useful metric by which to judge someone’s taste for games, but you can’t really argue it. There’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to prove it right or wrong, and we were both fools for doing so.

There’s a greater point to be made here, one which applies to a lot of domains, not just video games, but one that needs to be made nonetheless: liking or disliking a game is different than the game being good or bad. In fact, “good” and “bad” are extremely vaguely defined metrics that mean totally different things to different people. They could refer to the quality of the visuals, the story, the controls, the gameplay, the level design, the character design, basically anything. All of those metrics are inherently biased, of course, although that bias usually matters around the threshold between satisfactory and unsatisfactory, with extremes tending to invoke unanimous decisions (no matter your definition of “good visuals”, you’d probably be willing to say that Bioshock Infinte looks pretty good, and Condemned: Criminal Origins looks pretty bad).

However, the weights people give to these different aspects of games vary greatly, thus rendering all of them fairly irrelevant in trying to define a universal definition for “good” or “bad”. Ultimately, what most people would consider the metric is “Did I value my time spent with the game?” or, for a more narrow view, “Is this game any fun?”

Herein lies the problem: this measure is completely personal, and there’s no way to argue between two of them. You can’t say that your enjoyment of a game is so great that it nullifies someone’s non-enjoyment. You can’t even say that a majority’s non-enjoyment nullifies a small minority’s enjoyment. Ultimately, two people are going to have two different says as to if a game is good or not, and thus, the measures of “good” and “bad” frankly don’t even exist. They’re just shorthand for “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it”, respectively.

However, this isn’t to say that one can’t argue about the quality of games, it just means you need to realize something about argument. In instances like this, the point of argument is not to change the other person’s mind. That’s impossible. You can’t invalidate someone else’s experiences. In this case, an argument has a different use, a very valuable second use that most people forget an argument can have: it forces you to explore, elaborate, and evaluate your own stance.

It’s really easy to form an opinion about things, especially games. You play it, you decide it’s good or bad, and you move on. When you argue about those opinions with other people, it forces you to really consider why you feel like a game is good or bad. Having to put your ideas to words really makes you think them through. Why is Titanfall‘s movement system so good? What about the dialogue in Battleborn made you not like it? Explaining these sentiments to others in a way that makes them understand usually has you think through opinionated statements in a way you never do otherwise, in a way that you can’t take them for granted.

For the record, the reason I like Titanfall’s movement is that wall-riding is bitchin’, and I like to play games which present interesting decisions in movement and map design (it’s also why I play Roadhog in Overwatch).

Saying your opinions out loud is also a really good way to figure out if they’re stupid or not. I went through a phase in my youth where I would vehemently argue that Call of Duty was a bad series of bad games, and would frequently get into shouting matches about it with my much more level-headed friend (who I now deeply sympathize with). The arguments went something like this:

“They’re terrible games! They don’t innovate at all!”

“Why would they innovate on the gunplay? It’s really good!”

“Well, yeah, but it’s boring!”

“I think it’s interesting.”

“It’s just the same boring war setting every time!” (This was around Modern Warfare 2)

“It’s a genre. Plenty of the games you like take place in the same fantasy or sci-fi setting every time.”

“Nuh-uh, there are little nuances and changes that only the real fans of the genre wold appreciate.”

*Stares at me with a knowing and disappointed look*

At that point, I felt pretty stupid. I didn’t relent, because I’m stubborn and arguing is a fun way to kill some time, but I pretty much realized at that point that my reasons for not liking Call of Duty were pretty flaccid. I’m still not the biggest fan of the series, but I have a far more moderate mindset as to why (I just don’t like to play games that railroad-y), and wouldn’t get into such a heated argument about it anymore.

This is the true use of arguing about games: it makes you understand the mindset, likes, and dislikes of players, including yourself, to a much greater degree than if they just explained it. When people feel like they need to defend their arguments, they will strengthen their points with concrete details and reasoning, and focus on what they believe are their strongest insights, which gives you greater understanding of what they value in games, what they pay attention to. Similarly, when someone goes after your arguments in an aggressive manner, they poke holes in your reasoning and find hypocrisies that you would never have noticed before, forcing you to think about why item X is a negative in this setting but not another, or why you’ve been reasoning in this faulty way, or even maybe how you’ve been going about this game in a way contradictory to how the game wants you to go.

The most crucial observation, however, more important than every other one, is to not take it personally. Never attack the other person, just their points, and never misinterpret a criticism of one’s logic as an insult. Think of an argument as a training match between two boxers. Your goal is to improve your own technique and your partner’s, and to both grow in the process. You can’t win a training fight. If you’re looming over your partner while they’re down on the mat with a bloody nose, you didn’t win. You’re just an asshole.




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