It's Okay To Be Bad: Skill, Shaming, and Game Literacy


#1

I’ve started noticing it more when people say “I’m bad games.” I’ve noticed that this is more common with (cis) women. (Allegra and Simone over at Polygon and Danielle and Danika (and I think Natalie?) here at Waypoint come to mind.) I also see capability the subject of frequent shaming between players online.

This kind of reaction to a narrative medium is something unique to video games. I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m bad at listening to music,” or “I’m bad at watching movies.” This is because games do inevitably require levels of execution in order for the medium to function, but it’s also because of video games’ history in traditional games and sport.

Back when the infamous footage of Dean Takehashi playing Cuphead came out, many people (frequently those associated with GamerGate) responded frequently by saying that critics need to be good at games to accurately assess them. But why? What does someone’s skill level have to do with their ability to critically analyze the aesthetic properties of a game? Why is skill put above “literacy”? Isn’t it more important that a critic is capable of bringing knowledgeable critique and analysis the systems and narratives at hand than being able execute them properly?

What place do you think game skill takes in critique?
How do you think game skill and game literacy intersect?
How do you feel about your skill and skill in general in games?

I’d like to make sure this thread is open for discussion, but I am admittedly posting this to kind of just tell everyone: Hey! You don’t have to be good at games to love them! Treat yourself right! :slight_smile:


#2

It’s not just games, either. I hate to give this as an example, 'cause he seems like a really nice guy, but Michael Angelo Batio is a guitarist that a lot of other guitar players hold in high regard for no reason other than his (admittedly, incredible) technical abilities. He’s really bad as a songwriter and I don’t think he ever put out a single memorable melody, but he can play incredibly difficult solos on two different guitars at the same time, and a lot of people eat it up. Meanwhile you have a ton of punk bands whose guitarists can barely play basic riffs and yet they still manage to make great music.

And there could be room for both, by the way. It’s fine to appreciate technical skill. I like listening to (and playing) complex solos. I like to watch an Overwatch pro play Widowmaker and get an obscene amount of headshots. But the problem is that under capitalism, there’s no place for that sort of broadness. There always has to be someone at the top, and the only way to get that is to have a very rigid, objective-seeming measure of what’s good. And that’s bad for art and, really, for all fields.

Personally, I can do pretty well when it comes to platformers, hack-and-slash and action RPGs, but what I play more than any other game is Overwatch, which I’m pretty bad at (placed high silver just last night!). I plan on making a video at some point about how fun it is to fail at something and to learn to get better, even if you never actually get good, and I’ll do that as soon as I’ll manage to convince myself that I really believe that.


#3

I don’t think that skill is a necessary requirement in order to have a valid critique of games, but much like other forms of criticism, having an informed background of the themes at play is going to make your critique more meaningful and complete. Someone who critiques historical non-fiction for a living isn’t going to bring the same kind of insight or depth to the latest Kendrick Lamar album.

As someone who is garbage at fighting games, I will never be able to give an informed take on a combo system or move set. I can certainly critique the latest Street Fighter or MK for its portrayal of women and costume choices, but any take I have on its underlying gameplay is practically meaningless save for other people in my exact same situation. It’s not an invalid critique, it just has a limited audience. The same goes for games that are trying to capture a specific, real world activity. A review of Gran Turismo or Forza from someone who has experience with auto racing is going to be more informative of how well it emulates the sport, and someone who has played a lot of racing games can talk with authority as to where it lands on the spectrum between arcade and simulation. Someone who is awful at racing games and smashes into the wall at every corner isn’t going to be able to speak to that in the same way.

So in my opinion when you’re trying to have a critique of where a game stands in its own particular niche or the depths of the mechanics, skill and experience are helpful.


#4

Minimal. There’s a difference between understanding how a game works and executing on that. It’s rare that a game is only better understood by being more skilled. It might take more time sometimes, sure, but critical analysis of game’s mechanics and systems can still happen no matter how competent someone is at execution. Ahem - This is even true of fighting games, no matter what some might say in response to fighting game reviews.

Basically, skill may help lead to quicker mechanical understanding of a game, but it’s not the most important trait a critic can have, or even necessary. I’d much rather a critic be able to communicate why a game works than be good at it.

And the idea that skill is necessary for criticism is limiting to the types of criticism we can provide in the games space. We all complained about the limited critical voice seen in the God of War reviews. Similarly, why would we only want criticism from folks who are incredibly skilled at games or have experience with that type of game?

I’d argue they don’t in most cases? Execution and understanding are two different things. My understanding of how Overwatch’s classes work and interact and counter each other does not make me any better at aiming a cursor at a target or even provide better moment-to-moment game sense.

I have a designer’s mind but the coordination of a sleepy puppy. It’s only getting worse and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely okay with it. I play a lot of games with my friends and I’m always the liability or getting stomped on, which sucks. As for single player games, this is a bit less frustrating as I’m only playing for myself, but it still can be frustrating sometimes when I understand how to do something but can’t execute it. I think I’ve started playing more turnbased games and boardgames because of this. It allows me to play to my strengths, so to speak.

As for skill in general, despite everything I’ve said up to now, I do believe it has an important role in games. Overcoming challenge is still an important tool in game design. High level competition is still super fun to watch.


#5

The thing about the “games critic are bad at games” narrative that drives me crazy is that if that’s true, then so are most players! I think it’s more likely that the people voicing these complaints don’t appreciate that their own skill level is significantly higher than the average gamer. There’s definitely an element of toxic masculinity at work as well, but I’ll let someone more eloquent than me handle that.

The worst is when it’s directed at a Let’s Play video and the comments are filled with people pointing out every missed item, or how there’s technically a more optimal way to fight an enemy; the thing is, when I’m watching a video like that, it’s almost never because I want to watch someone finish a game in the most efficient manner possible. If that’s what I wanted I’d watch speedruns! I’m usually just trying to kill time and soak in a game’s atmosphere and/or I enjoy listening to the player(s).

Anyway if you need to be good at games to enjoy them, I’m a lost cause. I love the Souls-borne series, but despite putting hundreds of hours into those games over nearly a decade, my skill level has never risen above “decent”. And that’s just PvE! I’m still shocked every time I win a PvP match. The same goes for strategy/4X games - I’ll happily sink countless afternoons into Civ/Stellaris/etc. even though I long ago realized that I’m happiest playing at low difficulties. The only game I can ever recall actually getting good at is Binding of Isaac, and I’d never expect anyone to dedicate as much time I have to that game in order to enjoy it.


#6

While I agree with you (and constantly defend myself on why I like Shorter more than Coltrane), I think there’s a huge distinction between literacy (ability to critically “read” art) and creativity (the actual impetus for creation.) I have a lot of issues with skill worship in music. Musical skill, if we’re discussing this, is very much concerned with the actual creation of that art, rather than simply enjoying it as is the case with game skill. I call myself “bad at guitar”, but enjoy the music I write. Those are still in some capacity linked.


#7

People who expect reviewers to play at the skill ceiling (literally a top thousandth of a percent of players - when we talk pro players, they are such a rarity as that’s what it means to be elite and dedicate a significant part of your life to training as a pro) have outlandishly unreasonable expectations. It’s also so weird because games at the time of review don’t even have a solid meta; the collaborative process of discovering the various optimal strategies and counters has barely begun when a review is being written for launch (and the part of the process where the developers respond and push the meta with patching will change where things end up anyway). And if it’s not about the skill ceiling (which would seem an impossible expectation) then it must be about literacy (which isn’t the same thing as skill at all).

I’d say that a good review understands the range of skills of players who will be encountering a game and provide meaningful discussion of how a game adapts to suit each player. One of the things I dislike is “oh I played it on the default difficulty because that’s what the devs intend to be normal” when actually a reviewer should be poking at the difficulty systems and working out the range and how they change the play. They shouldn’t throw out that excuse for not engaging with it as if they are A. N. Other Player because their skills may be higher or lower than what this game considers the middle/default skill level and getting a better idea of the game means engaging with that set of options (which is becoming easier as games get better at allowing changing difficulty at any point or offering a massive range of small difficulty tweaks that can be enabled and disabled as you play to create an experience tailored to each player).


#8

My quick 2 cents: I think many people who are bad at a subject are better at teaching/critiquing/thinking about that subject.

Teachers, coaches, writers, whatever, if something comes too naturally to you you are not predisposed to think about it and study it.

Many of my best teachers were not good at their subject when in school themselves, they had to work at it, and thus learned it better, and learned to teach/think about it. Same for sports coaches (many top soccer/basketball coaches were middling players at best.


#9

So, I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think there are some cases where this is true, but when difficulty in most games is some variation of “raise/lower your capability and raise/lower opponent capability,” I don’t think a critic needs to bother checking each difficulty. I think where it does come into play is when difficulty options change systems, adding or removing mechanics and the like. Difficulty systems more focused on increasing or decreasing the direct list of descisions a player needs to make. But as it stands where many difficulty systems change numbers and that’s that, the only thing a critic should hopefully do is (like you said) is make sure they are playing at the difficulty that will provide them the best reading of how a game works.


#10

personally, i place a lot of value in seeing reviewers/players that are fallible in terms of mechanical skill, who make plenty of mistakes – i’m definitely not a top-tier player of nearly any video game, so someone approaching how a game works exclusively from that perspective without addendums about average player experience is interesting, but useless to me in a practical sense. an excellent player thinking combat is a breeze doesn’t mean someone else more in my skill bracket will feel the same way.

this is actually why i think certain top-tier overwatch streamers are more interesting and more helpful for me to watch than others! her own assessment of her skill could be affected by some of the points you laid out in your first post, and i’ve occasionally thought that she’s too hard on herself in certain situations, but EeveeA having the knowledge to assess when she’s played poorly in a match and share what she’s doing to improve offers something really unique that a lot of other top-tier players don’t have.


#11

I mean, most shooters are about pointing at people and making them fall over. It’s so standard, but if it was normal for reviewers to just ignore it, refuse to engage with it at all, and not consider it a core system because it was pretty standard then we’d have something to say about the quality of the review process.

They should engage with the system as much as to understand what it does and does not do, what it can and cannot offer to players, how it will and will not change the experience from the one they are having. If that just means some enemies become less of a bullet sponge or the player character becomes a tank then that’s absolutely something that is regularly discussed as impacting the wider feel of the game (find an Uncharted review talking about bullet sponges, now look for how many critically engage with the difficulty system and how that intersects with this avenue of criticism - the lack of this is a major hole in engagement with the game as a set of systems including tweakable settings like difficulty).

Also, if reviewers never talk about difficulty systems (after exploring them in each game they review) then they are never bringing up games which fall short on this feature. That’s one of the feedback mechanisms that gives developers ammo to use when telling executives they need the budget to expand this feature - a load of reviews that all point out where a system wasn’t as good as it could have been. If we can point at this stuff then we can claim (correctly or not) that we can improve review scores (which the studio head wants to get paid more) and that can improve sales (which the publisher/producer wants) by dedicating more focus to making sure our difficulty system is good enough to not get dinged in a review (and possibly even good enough to get a section of praise).


#12

So this point about Uncharted is really good! I wasn’t even really considering how difficulty is a system, despite how much it changes the game. Looking at it that way I can see that examining difficulty in this way provides better understanding of a game and where its strengths and faults lie. So thank you for clarifying your thoughts!

To your final point, it isn’t a critics job to provide feedback to a developer, or really help them in any way. I understand why it would be beneficial for reviews to provide this sort of feedback, but that’s not really the purpose of criticism. But I agree with the sentiment!


#13

Apologies up front, I think I have a point here but this just might be a rambling mess.

I understand why we there is a narrative of some people being “bad” at video games, but I generally believe that this narrative exists only because video games have a visible win state. Almost everyone can actually pick up a controller and play a game. It just might not be what we consider to be optimal play.

The idea that a person needs to be able to play optimally to be “good” at games feels somewhat unique among narrative mediums, because I find we don’t hold people to the same standard in other mediums. We don’t consider people bad at reading unless they have trouble with the actual act of reading, we don’t think people are bad at listening to music unless they have trouble with the act of doing so. However, we don’t consider people bad at reading a book or listening to music if they miss all the themes in the story or can’t pick up on symbolism. In this way, video games feel unique in that to be considered “not bad” at them, you can’t just engage in the act of play, you have to play optimally.

So we really should just standardize how we talk about narrative media and say that as long as you can do the act of playing a game, you’re not bad at games…
Or we start shaming people for how bad they are at ingesting other media…
Both are fine in my book


#14

Most game criticism I see is experiential rather than analytical, and the experience of playing a game at a high level of skill can be radically different from playing at a low level. So from that perspective, this is another reason we need a wide spectrum of voices in the discourse. Critics who are good at a game and those who are bad at it illuminate different parts of the whole.


#15

One complication is that, in video games, skill and difficulty can limit simple progress through a work in a way that doesn’t really apply to other media. As you said, I might not understand all the ideas that are being explored in a particular novel. But, as long as it’s written in a language I can read, I can literally work my way through to the last page. Same with films, I might not understand all the decisions the director made about framing or appreciate whatever other film techniques she used, but as long as I sit in front of the screen for long enough, I’ll make it to the credits. Some games aren’t like that for a non-negligible portion of their audience. A game can, on its own accord, prevent you from finishing it.

Difficulty of particular works is and always has been a way to gate-keep. That’s true in every medium–I’m a real literature buff because I’ve read XYZ, I’m a true film guy because I have important thoughts on ABC. But in games that gate can be a barrier to the experience itself, not just a barrier to joining the associated cool-kids club.

I mentioned the idea on the thread about game length, but this is another reason I wish more games had a chapter select or some other way to skip ahead. The fewer choke points, the better.


#16

War and Peace is the Dark Souls of books


#17

It’s relatively unimportant to the kinds of reviews I’m interested in because skill (in the way it’s described here) is only directly applicable to a narrow band of questions surrounding difficulty. Those questions aren’t particularly interesting to me in a critical setting. I’m open to the idea that skill might be more relevant in a more straight-forward should-I-buy-this-game style review, because there difficulty would be more directly related to the questions those reviews ask.

I think they don’t need to intersect at all. One limited caveat is that a critic would need to be skillful enough to be able to actually play and experience a broad range of games. But I think that is a pretty low floor and that nearly anyone experienced enough with games to want to become a critic would meet it.

Average-ish, I sit somewhere in the big lump of the bell curve.


#18

One problem is I think “skill” is a loaded word, does it mean “good”? “above average”? or just competent? is beating a game alone a show of “skill” or should it be reserved for only those that are able to play on a higher level?

I also think alot depends on the outlet itself. If you are approaching reviews as a form of consumer protection/ advocacy like an IGN or Gamespot, I think it is valuable to find reviewers who at least line up with the intended audience. It would be a disservice to have me review a fighting game for that audience, for instance.

In a freeform more academic styled site like waypoint or or even non-news site like kinda-funny or giant bomb, then it doesn’t matter at all. Write whatever you want.

But i do think there is something to be said for experience and base competence at the game. Keza McDonald’s review of boodborne 2 (i hope plzzz) will be more valuable to me than someone less familiar with dark souls.


#19

I have a whole load of thoughts on this, many of which are not compatible with each other, so apologies for the rambling incoherence of the following thoughts and comments.

Total agreement. I think a lot of it is socialized, and comes from the way the space was historically characterized, especially in its competitive aspects, as heavily male. Citing friends is obviously anecdotal, but, in my circle at least, I’ve mainly heard this from cis women (and never from cis men; that mainly is to encompass a couple of non-binary friends who also have said similar things). I have a friend who’s beaten Hyper Light Drifter (with a trackpad instead of a mouse or controller) and reached Hollow Knight’s true ending and still (genuinely) says she’s “bad at games.” Which if you know the difficulty those particular ones, is bit of a ridiculous claim.

Total agreement again. Enjoy games at whatever level you want to enjoy them! I am never, ever, ever going to finish Enter the Gungeon, but I adore that game. I will never get a chicken dinner in PUBG, but that’s fine. Still appreciate everything it does.

Total agreement, as with @Shivoa’s comments on difficulty as a system, and slight disagreement on @Fanshawe’s comments on skill being unimportant in critical analysis. I do think that difficulty (not levels necessarily, but a pure base dififculty) meaningfully affects game narratives. Celeste would have lost something (in my reading, maybe not in everyone’s, but definitely in mine) if I hadn’t died 3000 times before finishing the main game. Hence the devs’ comment about how they had made the Assist Mode to make the story more accessible, but how it wasn’t the intended way to play the game.

And this is not a thing that only exists in games! I have never finished Infinite Jest, but it’s pretty well known that the tediousness of flipping back and forth between endnotes and the main text is an intentional part of reading that book. That changes if you have, say, an e-book version where you can tap a number and immediately read a footnote. Difficulty is part of the text. It deserves to be interacted with like any other system, and I do think discounting it as a system misses a significant potential narrative or thematic component in a lot of games. There are other examples, but this comment is already going to be horrendously long so…

We don’t, but we (or at least I) generally also don’t look for literary/film/music criticism written by people who miss the themes of a story or can’t pick up on its symbolism. And this is where I think I differ a bit from consensus here on a couple of things. Partially because I come from English academia, where it’s viewed as kind of imperative that people writing narrative critiques finish (usually several times) the books they’re writing about, I think critiquing a game that one hasn’t finished, as @Fanshawe kind of alluded to, can leave a potentially big hole in analysis. There have been a lot of discussions around here (sometimes motivated by this point) in the past about whether critics should have to finish games to write about them and while I think the idea of “finishing” a game isn’t nearly as simple as it is in other forms of media (i.e., how many endings would one have to find, or how many hours would one have to play, or etc.), I ah, do actually think that seeing a game’s full narrative arc is pretty important if someone is doing a comprehensive critique. This isn’t limited to narrative criticism; for some games it actually can transfer into criticism of systems or mechanics. Undertale becomes a significantly different game if someone makes it two hours in and stops without seeing the turn at the end.

Conversely, in run-based games that deemphasize endings (roguelikes and lites, also stuff like PUBG which btw is a rogue-lite don’t @ me), this changes a bit. At that point, I think it becomes more about hours/runs played, because these games often have systems that take several runs to really grow familiar with. Similar concept in a different framing.

But at the same time I think the thing limited critics more often than pure difficulty is just available time. In an ideal setting, someone writing about a game would have unlimited time to actually play it, but that’s not our world. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve done archival work with games, and the hardest aspect of that was trying to fit everything I wanted to fit into my limited time there. And I did play a lot of games without finishing them, surveying very specific mechanics and instances and how they were represented across different styles and types of game. But in the work that came out of that, I didn’t write on those games in the same way that I did the ones I actually finished. Ultimately I think my opinion goes something like—you can be absolutely “Terrible At Games” and still write effectively on them, but that has to be part of the writing.

Wow that was a mess. Feel free to tear me apart y’all. If you made it through that essay, you deserve it.


#20

I consider myself pretty mediocre at games, accurate or not, because I don’t put in the time to excel at any one of them. at the same time it gives me the opportunity to basically pick up anything and understand it quickly

I also wrote about this a while ago, but our ideas of difficulty are deeply tied into our perception of meritocracy?

short version is that we consider games a space where everyone is equal and can do as well, which means if someone isn’t or can’t theyre just not trying hard enough and therefore don’t deserve a voice