Skill is glorified, universally

Dean Takahashi’s Cuphead play and the feedback it got seemed to have shaken some of the gaming media, as there has been a slew of posts popping here and there defending the lacklustre game play. Gotta defend your own tribe, I guess. Maybe the most snicker worthy text goes to Dante Douglas’ Videogame Culture needs to Stop Fetishizing Skill. Douglas, like so many others, has a sort of romantic view on the Third and Fourth Generation of games, where they were hard as hell. Much like nowadays, there were number of games that were difficult, which were eclipsed by the number of games that weren’t. Mega Man and Super Mario games, for example, were easy enough for five years old kids to play through.

Douglas’ main argument in his text is that you don’t need to be good at a game in order to criticise it. We can give him this just fine, to an extent. Games as a medium require execution and certain level of skill in order to be able consume them. People can play Street Fighter II at the easiest level just fine and experience what the game has to offer just fine, nobody expects them to go and win an EVO tournament. However, if you’re unable to play the game to even beat one opponent, then you’re far from being able to see what the game has to offer. Perhaps this is a bad example, but the would be the same across the board; consumption of video games require some skill and ability to learn the rules. Douglas vilifies the consumer groups who put weight on experience than observation by claiming skill has been fetishized. If Let’s Plays and other forms of watching someone else playing a game, then gaming media has no reason to exist anymore. All game journalists end up being obsolete under this mindset, and they’d turn into tech journos at best doing interviews and reports on game development and advertisements.

Wait, no scratch that. All those could be delivered by these streamers directly from the developers in joint attempt to close the gap between developers and consumers. All the reports on game development can be done that way too, or game companies could those directly via their PR staff. A video game journalist is a specialised job in that they’re required to practice journalism as well as be able to objectively view the level of excellence a product has through its consumption. At least with new media’s streamers and Let’s Plays we know where the producer stands. With game journalists we have to guess whether or not they’ve been paid up, whether or not there’s an agenda behind this or if there is an agreed stand across different companies how to handle a story.

However, you still require that mechanical interaction in order to, and I hate to use this term, experience the game yourself. We can’t experience what others do just yet, the technology doesn’t exist to create psychic links between human minds. You can not assert other’s actions as your own as an outsider. We tend to do that anyway, humans are emphatic beings in that sense. Yet, you can’t tell what sort of book your neighbour is reading just by watching him read.

His take on games evolving from just being puzzle boxes to stories is inaccurate. Games have always been about stories the player is a part of. It is unfortunately common to see people forgetting that video and computer games are part of game and play culture, all of which have stories as part of their structure. Playing GTA is essentially a play of Police and Robber, where the player plays the part of the Robber in an a more elaborate virtual environment, but the core is still the same. The Police this time around just happens to be an AI and the play is more controlled and directed than what kids would have. There is no real other way to experience the play than take part in it yourself. Certainly you can watch someone else play the part for you and have an onlooker experience. That, however, never replaces the experience of play itself.

Douglas’ argument that skill needs to be dropped from games in order for something better to happen for the industry and sub-culture is very much in the woods. While we can always discuss what a game is (a thing that we don’t really need to discuss any further, the question has evolved into what isn’t a game [Visual novels aren’t]), that is beside this whole discussion and an unnecessary addition to the mix. Game journalists need to step up and deliver what is expected of them by their consumers, the people who ultimately are responsible of them being employed. Attacking your customers is one of the worst tactics you could make.

In addition to Douglas’ ending his text in a very dishonest way of claiming They’re just games, there is praise to be given to a journalist or a reviewer who goes his way out to completely consume a product in order to wager all of its merits first hand. A Let’s Play shows you the visual side of things, yet you wouldn’t be able to describe the action of it. This is where game play can’t be directly compared to books or movies, as advancement requires, demands even, a genuine action on the players’ part. Not everybody is able to do so, and there’s nothing wrong in that. However, if you’re a journalist who would rather consume puzzle games rather than fast-paced actions games, it’d be better to stick to your repertoire in order to produce quality pieces.

Skill may not be fetishized, but it certainly is glorified within game cultures. This is nothing out of ordinary, as any hobby or sub-culture that contains a definitive action positively glorifies a finely executed action. Dean Takahashi’s struggle to beat the Training level and the first proper level of Cuphead would be like watching a reviewer struggling to build a plastic model of a tank and never managing to glue anything together. You can’t review a model properly unless you’re able to build it, and if your skills aren’t up to the task to execute the action to the end, you’re left on second guessing through someone else’s actions.

Why is skill glorified then? Perhaps one of the prominent reasons would be that skill in a given game isn’t exactly just that. A well executed game play doesn’t just look good, but also shows knowledge of a given game and genre as a whole. Being able to beat Super Mario Bros. doesn’t meant you’re a skilled player. Beating Super Mario Bros. without dying once, using no Level Warps or using any items however does show one’s skill. A reviewer isn’t expected to a tournament level player like Daigo to be able to consume Street Fighter III Third Strike, that is to say they’re not expected to pull of Moment #37 , but they are expected to throw Hadoukens successfully. Speaking of SFIII, if you’re interested in hearing what are the consequences of reducing skill gap within competitive games, Core-A Gaming has a good video on it.

That comparison isn’t exactly fair. Competitive gaming has always required more effort to gain probable skill in it than non-competitive, through self-imposed challenges and restrictions to “compete” against something is as old gaming itself. However, competitive gaming Journey, the player’s evolution from low-tier challenger to a skilled player, does give enough leeway to compare it to single-player games’ challenges, where beating the game and its challenges is part of the fun. This has been the backbone of majority of electronic games in its short history, where the player is expected to learn to rules and functions and develop enough ability to play the game head-to-head. This certainly is skill build-up, but it’s not skill as Douglas refers in his text.

Rather than forcing a square peg down a round hole by arguing game culture should drop difficulty and the required skill that it brings with it, it would be better if the game developers could produce games to expand the market and create new games to cater low-end game players, who for whatever reasons can’t muster the execution to challenge the higher-end products. This isn’t said in a negative tone, but in a fashion where we must face reality of different games suit different people. It’s like with food; a foodie with tomato allergy can’t consume foods with tomato, and simply observing someone else consume the food won’t cut it. You need someone who can in order for him to consume the food and be able to tell you about it.

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