Gamespot, Goodrich, and Games about War

So, yeah, this happened:

http://e3.gamespot.com/video/6381457/a-matter-of-authenticity

As I said on Twitter, this was actively (nay, “authentically”) painful to watch.

Why? Bunch of reasons.

First, I don’t feel like this interview should have happened in the first place. It wasn’t even really an interview, or at least it wasn’t clear who was interviewing who. It LOOKED like a designer taking a writer to task for what he’d written about the game. If it really was that, then there was no reason for Gamespot to go through with this, because it opens the door for developers and publishers to gleefully intimidate everybody and anybody who says a mean thing about their games. Writers aren’t necessarily going to be the snappiest debaters, and that’s not what they’re being paid to do.  McShea would have been better served by some sort of email exchange scenario…which would have been interesting to read.

Second, there was just a complete lack of communication there. Someone needs to tell Greg Goodrich that “authentic” is basically a synonym for “realistic”. Claiming that you’re being “authentic” but not “realistic” just doesn’t work as a defence.  I’m not saying he was being deliberately disingenuous. How could I? I’m not camped out in the man’s head and have no idea why he’d make one argument over the other. I believe he was being honest, but never clearly communicated what he thought the difference was.

Third, though, was the fact that Tom McShea is a game writer who should know what the hell ludonarrative dissonance is. I feel like Clint Hocking needed to roll in from stage right, yell “LUDONARRATIVE DISSONANCE!!” and then run off or something, just to tell Tom what he’s on about. The thing he’s complaining about, and that Goodrich is avoiding, is that attempts to add in plot and characterization moments that are “authentic” mean absolutely jack if they’re being constantly undermined by the gameplay.

I can understand why Goodrich wants “fun” gameplay, and why he’d be following the Battlefield/Call of Duty lead. They’re popular and, yes, they’re a lot of fun. But those games aren’t remotely “authentic” in their combat in any way, shape or form. Attempts to try to make a serious, authentic, powerful story in the face of this cartoonish version of military combat is going to be so incoherent that it’s just going to come across as laughable. No matter how many real Marines or SEAL guys you base your story on, it’ll end up as farce.

Yet McShea never really brought that one home.  Maybe he would have if Goodrich hadn’t been in his face.

Another thing that bugged me, though, is one that never really gets discussed that much, either in the McShea piece or in the interview:

What about the guys on the other side?

One of the reasons people were really offended and disturbed by Medal of Honor, from what I saw around Twitter and elsewhere, was that real-life tragedies were being served up as gaming content. The tragic situation in the horn of Africa that has given rise to the Somali piracy problem is not something to be treated lightly, and a lot of the people in those situations end up having little choice about who they can or can’t fight with. It isn’t just the stories of the western soldiers that deserve telling; there’s a lot of stories on the other side too, of people who are just as human as the men they’re fighting against.

Yes, the men (and it is almost universally men) who send them in are often brutal warlords and dictators. Many will be violent thugs. But you can’t blithely assume that most of the people you’re fighting are going to be like that. That was already somewhat of an issue with Modern Warfare, but Modern Warfare carefully subverted and leveraged the issue; from what we’ve seen with Medal of Honor, that isn’t happening here. It’s played straight.

That’s where these claims to “authenticity” completely fall down, unless there’s a whole lot more here that I haven’t seen.  These are complex sociopolitical and geopolitical issues that sweep up a lot of people into conflicts that they don’t really want yet can’t see the means to avoid. If you want to be “authentic”, you can’t handwave that away and turn the opposing force into straw figures in a warmed-over shooting gallery. You can do goofy depictions of violence, and you can do realistic, disconcerting depictions of violence…but mixing them together ain’t gonna fly.

(McShea did touch on this a bit with the whole “headshot!” thing, and that’s where I thought he was strongest, but he didn’t seem to follow through on it.)

One last thing:  I winced a little when I found out that McShea was making these critiques without first-hand experience of the game. Goodrich had a fair point in bringing it up; McShea probably should have made a point of trying out the game before sitting down to discuss it. In fact, a really great way to do this would be to have the discussion while playing the demo, which would have given McShea the opportunity to show what he was getting at. He needed to know what he was talking about, and it would have been good for him to be able to illustrate his points.

I suspect the PR handlers wouldn’t be okay with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodrich were wary too; but if Gamespot had made it into a condition for the interview, it might have made for an excellent moment of game criticism, instead of the somewhat painful experience we saw here.

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5 thoughts on “Gamespot, Goodrich, and Games about War

  1. Adrian Forest says:

    I had a big rant about this “interview” on Twitter, and I agree with the general sentiment that this was a shameful display of wilful ignorance on the part of a game dev who should know better. I also thought the whole tone of the encounter, the barely-concealed hostility on the part of Goodrich, was awful. I was expecting Goodrich to resort to taking a swing at Tom McShea, though if he had, the video probably wouldn’t have been posted. It was an ambush by the dev, and Goodrich’s frequent asides to off-camera allies really made it seem like he’d set it up that way. That’s not the way devs should engage with people who have legitimate criticisms of their work and its presentation.

    A couple of points on your post though:

    First, authentic is *not* a synonym for realistic. Realism relates to how close the game is to an objective reality. Authenticity is about how close the game is to an experience. My impression was that this was, in general, the distinction Goodrich was trying to make, but a) he didn’t articulate that well, and b) it just shifts the debate sideways. How is regenerating health, or more broadly, presenting war and combat as entertainment, treating the experience of the military personal Goodrich uses as shields for criticism in a respectful manner?

    Second, I don’t think using the term “ludonarrative dissonance” would have helped McShea in this instance, for any number of reasons. The term/concept is not universally accepted among game critics, let alone among developers. Especially among big commercial developers, my impression is that most non-review game criticism is ignored or even derided as useless waffle. And dragging in terminology that comes from a not-uncontroversial place isn’t necessary to make the point anyway.

    McShea not having played the game is an issue, but I don’t think it’s that simple. He should have at least played the previous game before writing the original article, but I understand the time pressures involved with covering E3, and that’s a broader problem with how games news coverage happens. He should have played the new game they were discussing as well, but that’s really in the hands of the dev and their PR people. As it was, Goodrich kept offloading stuff to the single-player game that McShea wasn’t given access to, and that’s just unfair.

    There are two takeaways from this for me: firstly, that Goodrich is a shameful representative of AAA commercial game developers, and if he’s actually representative of the attitudes to criticism of AAA commercial game developers in general, that’s an incredibly sorry state of affairs. Second, the overwhelming majority of the fan response to this video, on Gamespot and elsewhere, is sympathetic to Goodrich’s “it’s just a game” argument, and damning of McShea for even raising questions about it. This really seems to illustrate that the primary audience for these games is just as uncritical and wilfully ignorant about the issues involved as Goodrich is, and that’s probably an even more unpleasant state of affairs. Both those things are real problems for a medium that’s trying to be taken seriously, and I don’t know what the solution to either one is.

    • craigbamford says:

      There’s a lot in your post to consider. One thing, though: “Realism” as you put it is chimerical. There’s no Objective Reality to reflect; or, at least, there’s none that us lowly mortals can possibly opine upon. What “realistic” means is pretty much what you state “authentic” as meaning: an accurate reflection of subjective experience.

      It didn’t feel like that was a distinction that Goodrich was trying to make, either. It just felt like Goodrich was trying to evade a commonplace and well-understood word by using a different word that meant roughly the same thing but wasn’t as well understood. That’s a pretty authentic ploy in this case; milspeak is absolutely rife with that sort of thing.

      You’re right about “ludonarrative dissonance” as a term. Like a lot of critical terms, it’s way too complex to bust out in a face-to-face interview. The jargon would just get in the way. The core idea behind it, though—that game mechanics and game context are at odds with one another—is utterly apt to this case. If McShea were more informed about the concept, I think he would have been able to deploy the critique more effectively, instead of flailing about as he did. (If he WAS familiar with it, then there’s an entirely different problem.)

      The problem with the whole Goodrich thing, and the audience response, is that there is a point there. There’s a great danger in missing the fact that people really don’t think of games the same way that they do about real life. That’s the crux of the whole violence-in-games argument: that adults (and arguably teenagers) can distinguish between a mass of polygons on a screen versus real life. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t tell the media critics “we’re okay, games aren’t making us sociopathic killers” while turning around and castigating audiences when said critics aren’t looking.

      The issue is that Goodrich was clearly also trying to have it both ways: he was trying to pretend that this is “authentic” when it isn’t remotely so for more reasons than you can count, and yet retreated to “IT’S JUST A GAAAAME!” whenever called on it. That’s childish: as McShea tried (and sadly failed) to point out, there are an infinite number of excellent and compelling games that don’t feature mechanics derived from a mix of Halo and Modern Warfare. Goodrich et al have chosen to make that sort of game. They’re ultimately accountable for that choice.

      As for being able to play the single player? Well, McShea and Gamespot didn’t need to have that dressing-down happen in the first place. They could have easily made a playthrough of the single-player a condition of the game. If Goodrich et al didn’t allow them to do so, McShea could have called him on it and said “we asked, and you wouldn’t let us”. McShea and Gamespot could have gotten leverage, since Goodrich et al were clearly really anxious to respond. They didn’t, and so we ended up here.

      • Consumatopia says:

        Re: realistic, consider a weather simulation. It’s not intended to convey a subject experience related to weather, it’s intended to predict events in the actual world. Or, if we insist on taking this No Objective Reality all the way, it predicts events that I will perceive in the future. But while it might tell me how much rain falls or wind blows, it won’t try to tell me how wind or rain feels. If the simulation is accurate, it’s realistic.

        On the other hand, I might try to build a Weather VR machine–you wear waterproof VR googles showing you what a thunderstorm looks like while I have showers and fans to soak you and blow you around. If being in my machine feels like being in a thunderstorm, it’s authentic. But it tells you nothing about whether its going to rain tomorrow.

        But I don’t think that’s how Goodrich is using “authentic”. To him, I think it means that it “feels real”–not that it matches the subjective feelings of a soldier, but that it matches what the player believes (or wants to believe) is the subjective experience of a soldier. Of course, authenticity is the wrong word for that. I’m not sure what a better word would be, though I think there ought to be one because it’s something a lot of game designers are aiming for.

        It’s even possible that Goodrich is trying to use authentic to mean *sincerity*. As in this is a reproduction of his (and the player’s) *authentic fantasy* of being a soldier. Combining a serious storyline with cartoony gameplay would make sense then–he and his players sincerely desire to be the kind of person who accomplishes dangerous, difficult, yet important work, but don’t actually want to do said work or risk said danger. To change the game to suit demands for tactical realism–either from someone who actually wants a military simulation to hone their fighting skills, or from critics complaining of dissonance between gameplay and narrative–would be insincere. Needless to say, using “authenticity” this way in the context of games would be confusing. But if you’re trying to compose a fantasy, confusion and ambiguity might be what you wanted. If Goodrich can say “authentic” when he means fantasy-fulfilling, and gamers hear “authentic” and think “this is what its like to be a soldier”, then everyone gets what they want.

  2. It’s becoming pretty obvious that AAA game developers and publishers do not handle criticism well. Or at least, understand the appropriate responses to whatever criticism is being thrown at them. They never learned how to deal with it until the rise of alternative game criticism in the last few years.

    When websites like IGN are lining up to give the developers their 9.0 score, regardless of whether the game deserves it or not, they feel entitled not only to high scores but high sales as well. It’s not a matter of earning a 9.0 and a spot on top of the best seller list, but that they automatically deserve it because they made a AAA game.

    Plus, McShea’s argument was coming uncomfortably(for Goodrich) close to questioning the military fetishism that modern FPS games employ. Goodrich spent years of his life on this project so I understand why he would want to defend it. As far as criticism goes, this is extraordinary light. McShea was trying to be as respectful and pleasant about it and Goodrich was acting as if McShea called his game murder porn for racists(which I believe some, but not all, military shooters are slowly turning into.)

    If Goodrich wants to know what harsh criticism really looks like, he should read Roger Ebert’s review of North.

  3. I don’t have a problem with either participant expressing their views on what a military game “should” be. Why worry about precedents or chilling effects? This is what discourse looks like. As for resolving their debate, the fact is, they’re talking about 2 different kinds of games. The developers are making their game, not Tom Shea, so that’s that.

    One can make a game that’s authentic or realistic *in some respects* and not others. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Tom completely didn’t acknowledge the input of real soldiers into designing the game narrative, or what weight an audience might put on that, as compared to combat realism. Tom only experienced the combat, not the narrative, and then “went to town” with his editorial. So his weighting of combat vs. narrative is biased.

    I see Tom as a possible demographic for a certain style of game, the kind that makes one miserable. If someone felt like doing that kind of project, and was willing to accept that the audience might be smaller, and that the game might make less money, then one could just make those choices as a developer and just do it. Just as when one goes to a highbrow film festival, one finds a lot of movies that don’t appeal to the general public, that are frankly a bit boring and hard to sit though. But that’s the price of “striving higher” and not going for the tried-and-true in Art. At a film festival one will see several dull films, counterbalanced by a particularly brilliant film or two, from filmmakers who took risks.

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