Talking About Games: A “Good” Game

Words: 3875 Approximate Reading Time: 25-35 minutes

There’s a decent likelihood you’ve encountered a situation similar to what I’m about to describe, whether as a direct participant or merely as an observer.

Person A is playing a game they really like. They encounter a friend, or a coworker, or go onto a forum, and talk about how much they’re enjoying the game. Person B (friend/coworker/member) says that the game sucks. An argument ensues, with Person A trying to argue that the game is good, and Person B defending their position that the game is bad.

This kind of conversation plays out often. Not just with respect to video games, but with respect to plenty of other subjects such as books, movies, and art. The exact circumstances may change, but the core is still there.

It is a common response to this situation to claim there’s not really any such thing as a “good” or “bad” game. There are only games a person likes or dislikes. So if I say that a game is “good,” it just means I like it. And if it’s “bad,” I dislike it.

But I want to argue that we don’t really believe this claim, and it isn’t even accurate. In fact, it ends up disrupting conversation about games, because it puts a stop to important discussions. Just think: how can we talk about whether a game did something well or poorly if “well” and “poorly” are reduced merely to like and dislike? How could a developer improve a game if every potential change was reduced to a gamble about whether it will make more people like or dislike the game?

My objective here isn’t going to be to give a definitive definition of what a “good” game is and what a “bad” game is. That can be the subject of its own discussion. Instead, I merely wish to present the idea that we can separate “quality” (whether a game is good or bad) and “taste” (whether I like or dislike the game).

The Problem with “Relativism”

Allow me to start by looking at the idea that there is no basis for claiming that there are genuinely “good” or “bad” games. That is, the idea that quality is entirely subjective. This idea exists outside of the present conversation, and is broadly referred to as “relativism.”[1]

The argument for relativism most commonly proceeds as follows: people have different opinions about games – some people might think a game is good, and some people might think a game is bad – and without any definitive truth to tell us whether the game is good or bad, the correct answer must simply be that there is no such “truth,” and instead all that matters is what each individual thinks. If you think the game is good, then the game is good to you. And if you think the game is bad, then the game is bad to you.

This theory makes a lot of intuitive sense. If you’ve ever been in an argument with someone about whether a given game is good or bad, you’ve probably felt frustrated about how the conversation appears to go nowhere. Surely, if it were possible to reach an actual conclusion, the conversation wouldn’t go around in circles, so the only real conclusion you can draw is that it all must depend on perspective, and there’s no way to reach a consensus.

So it makes sense, but there’s an important gap in the argument. Namely, this is being presented as an all-or-nothing proposition. If we can’t agree on everything about a game’s quality, then it’s completely impossible to say whether a game is good or bad. In other words, for a game to be good or bad, we need to be in agreement about every good and bad aspect. If we can’t agree, then the whole thing falls apart.

But this marks the underlying problem with the relativistic argument. Just because we can’t agree on everything does not mean we can’t agree on something. A game might have a control scheme that is awkward, and while we can get used to that control scheme, it doesn’t mean we can’t come up with better ways to orient the controls. Or a game might include an open world that has nothing to do, at which point we might be able to say that the game would have been improved by adding more content to that world or removing the open world in the first place.

Put another way, a game could have particular good qualities without the game necessarily being good as a whole, or particular bad qualities without being bad as a whole. We can isolate particular elements of a game and analyze them on their own. Putting them all together and judging the game as a whole may lead to disagreement. We will end up weighing different components according to our tastes: how much do you care about the story, versus the graphics, versus the gameplay, and so on? Your weighting might be different from mine, and that can lead to disagreement about whether a game as a whole is good or bad. But it doesn’t mean we can’t analyze games and look as some of these elements from what we might call an “objective” standpoint.

To help explain these two concepts, imagine that you’re in a store looking for a lamp. You walk through an aisle, and find one you like, and buy it. You take your new lamp home, remove it from the box, put in a lightbulb, set it down, and plug it in.

There’s only one problem: the lamp doesn’t have a switch. There’s literally no way to turn it on. At this point, you have a lamp that does not actually provide light.

We can have disagreements about what the best kind of lamp would be, but at this point we can all agree on something: a lamp, in order to be a lamp, should be able to provide light. What you have is something that was sold to you as a lamp, but in fact isn’t one. It’s just a decoration that looks like a lamp. It might still look nice, but in fulfilling the basic function of being a lamp, it’s doing a bad job.

That is how we can look to these elements of the game and call them “good” or “bad.” A game that falls short in these individual elements is like the lamp that doesn’t turn on. It can still be good or useful in other ways, but it’s still doing a bad job in a particular context.

Of course, in the lamp example, we’re just focused on one particular quality of the lamp (giving light). With games, there are more components (gameplay, visuals, sound, narrative, etc.). But each element can be analyzed in this same respect. And the same basic metric – is it doing the job it should be doing? – can be used for that analysis.

Here’s a second problem: as people play more and more games, they get more and more experience that allows them to make better comparisons. If you’re not very familiar with the construction of stories, then every story may feel amazing. But as you become more experienced with different narratives, you can more easily spot flaws, plot holes, poor dialogue, and mistakes like that.

If you’ve been playing games for a long time, you might have experienced this yourself. Some games that you might have enjoyed when you were younger may seem too simplistic now. Or perhaps you notice glitches or messy controls that before you didn’t care about because you were so intent on getting through the game. It’s entirely possible that those games were simply not very good, but at the time you were playing them you just didn’t have the knowledge that was required to notice. It’s only now, once you have the experience, that you can look back and realize the flaws.

This principle applies in many areas. Expertise, broadly speaking, is something that allows you to see in greater detail the things that other people might miss. And one way you get expertise is through experience (other things are helpful as well, of course). So the more you read books, the better you get at noticing sloppy writing. The more you watch movies, the better you get at noticing bad direction. The more you cook, the better you get at tasting and noticing flavors. And so this experience you gain over time helps you to become more acquainted with what makes a game good or bad.

There is a limit to what expertise can do in this context. Expertise cannot override taste. So even if you’re an expert, you can’t tell someone else that their like or dislike of a game is wrong. But by the same token, their like or dislike of the game does not affect the quality – or lack thereof – that you’re pointing out. If a game is flawed, those flaws don’t magically disappear simply because a person likes the game.

The point here, though, isn’t to say that experts are the arbiters for gaming. Although often we acknowledge that expertise is good. That is why we have things like game reviews and game criticism. If we genuinely believed in this kind of relativism about games, these people would have no meaning: a game review written by someone else couldn’t tell you whether you’d like it, and a critic could never offer insight that could be useful for players or developers. To some extent, the fact that we give so much attention to reviewers and critics, and even attempt to dictate what “good” reviews and “good” criticism look like, all indicate that we in some way acknowledge that this idea of a pure relativism isn’t really true.

The Language of Taste

So how should we talk about our likes and dislikes within this context? What does this mean for our everyday conversations?

The easiest way is to try to separate the concept of “liking” from the concept of “goodness.” The former refers to taste, while the latter is about the actual quality of the game. While we often equate the two, keeping them separate is important, because it helps us to talk to other people. As long as we’re stuck with this subjective idea, we’re essentially using the same words but not speaking the same language.

So rather than thinking about a game being good if you like it, a game can be good and you can dislike it. Perhaps the game just isn’t to your particular tastes. Perhaps the game belongs to a genre that you don’t particularly enjoy. I don’t care for most multiplayer games, so arena shooters like Overwatch, battle royale games like Fortnite, and MOBAs like League of Legends are games I don’t like. But I can look at them and understand why other people would like them and find them fun. They can still be good games. I don’t have to like them. Because whether I like something doesn’t have any bearing on whether the game is good. My tastes do not impact the quality of those games.

On the other hand, a game can be bad and you can like it. Perhaps you recognize the game’s flaws, but you like the game despite those flaws. Or perhaps you even find the flaws so charming that you like the game because of those flaws. The flaws don’t make the game good. Often when this happens, the game takes on a different atmosphere than what was intended: a serious action game might come across as a surreal comedy. The game is still doing a bad job, because it’s not fulfilling its intended function. But you can still like that game. Because a game being bad does not prevent you from deriving enjoyment from it. The game’s quality does not have to impact your taste.

This mindset can be helpful in overcoming one of the biggest hurdles in discussion. Because we can often get defensive about the games we like, we can end up being our own worst enemies when it comes to talking with other people about games. If someone criticizes a game you enjoy, it can feel bad. Surely you wouldn’t like a game that was bad, right? And if that’s right, and this other person is saying the game is bad, then it must mean something about you and your judgment. So then you have to do one of two things: either you have to accept the criticism and stop enjoying the game, or you have to attack the person who is attacking the game (and indirectly, attacking you).

Of course, there are some people who do couch their attacks on games as attacks on the players who like them. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if people are doing that, they’re jerks and can be ignored. But as long as a person is just trying to analyze the game itself, then it’s better to acknowledge their statements and treat them as part of a serious conversation about the qualities of the game. They can be wrong in their criticisms. Maybe their criticisms are unhelpful, or set unrealistic expectations, or are unfair, or misunderstand something. So you can push back if such a response is warranted. But the key is raising the conversation to a level of actual dialogue, rather than mere bickering.

Note that this process can play out in the reverse. Perhaps there’s a game that’s widely beloved, but you don’t enjoy it. But you have good taste, right? And if you have good taste, then you would logically have to like a game that was good. But you don’t like this particular game. So the only possible answer is that everyone else is wrong, and the game is overrated, right? But this response is merely the inverse of what I described above. You’re essentially confusing the actual qualities of the game with your own feelings.

So mashing together the “goodness” of games with whether you “like” can be an easy trap to fall into. To help get out of it, it’s useful to try and step back. When you think about a game you like, ask yourself why you like it. And keep digging when you do so. Don’t accept simple answers. “I like it because I find it fun” won’t cut it. What specifically did you enjoy? Would other people enjoy those aspects? What might they dislike about the game? The more and more you can think about the games you like on a deeper level, the better equipped you’ll be to talk about them with other people. And as a nice bonus, you don’t have to worry about feeling bad if someone criticizes a game you like, or if other people are having fun with a game you don’t like.

Why Should We Care?

So if we’re going to adopt this method of talking about games, you might rightly ask why it matters. Why should you care whether you separate these ideas of quality and taste, versus just looking at everything through the lens of whether you like or dislike it?

I’ve already mentioned a couple of times that rethinking how we talk about quality helps our dialogue with other people. You can have a conversation with another person about a game, and you can describe that you liked the game, but as long as one or both of you are stuck in the mindset that “goodness” is merely a question of “liking,” then you won’t be able to explain why you liked it. Either you yourself will be unable to explain because you yourself won’t know the answer (you’ll fall back on “because I thought it was fun,” which won’t be helpful), or you will be able to explain but your interlocutor won’t be able to understand.

This problem may seem small: it’s not like we have to understand why we like games, or why other people like games. It doesn’t prevent you or anyone else from playing or enjoying games.

But it’s a foundational element of discussion. The way we talk about games in private influences the way that games are talked about in public. How we react to these topics in these small-scale conversations is what we carry over into discussions taking place on a grander scale.

I also mentioned the problem this mindset imposes on important parts of the gaming industry. Imagine, for instance, that game reviews were written entirely on the premise that everything was subjective. The review itself would make little sense: the reviewer could say “the music is good,” but that would always be mere code for “I happened to like it.” And any attempt to explain why the reviewer liked the game would be empty, since that explanation would itself rely on subjective preferences. It would be subjectivity all the way down.

Then imagine trying to apply that kind of review to your own life. After all, the main point of reviews is to help you as a consumer decide whether or not to buy a game. So how could you look at a review and know what it means for you, if everything was purely subjective? The best you could do is find someone who happens to like and dislike the same games you do, but even if you were lucky enough to locate such a reviewer, you still wouldn’t know if the next review would lead you to a good purchase or bad purchase. Because no two people are going to have the exact same set of preferences. So at some point your interests will diverge from the reviewer’s, and then you’ll be back at square one.

Think also about the process of criticism. Criticism, in and of itself, requires some understanding that the criticism does or could have value. That is, that when you or someone else is critiquing a game, you are trying to explain why the game is good/bad, in a way that those explanations can be used to derive principles. Those principles, in turn, can then be applied to examine other games and for future use in making games.

But if we keep thinking about the quality of games as a purely subjective issue, then criticism disappears. Because you can try to offer a critique, but that critique exists in a vacuum: it has no broader applicability. You can create principles, but what use will those principles be? Those principles apply solely to you, or at best to you and the people who happen to agree with you. The most you could say is that you’re thinking carefully about your likes and dislikes, but those likes and dislikes become largely irrelevant when viewed by others. A person can disagree with your criticism, and then what happens? There is no basis for arguing that your criticism has any validity beyond being your mere opinion.

The issue of criticism brings us to the larger reason why it is important for us to think carefully both about our enjoyment and the way we talk about games. Because from a design perspective, understanding why certain elements work and certain elements don’t is incredibly important.

Imagine that you’re making a game, and it ends up being successful. You read a bunch of comments from players telling you how much fun they had with your game. You feel good about all of this, as well you should.

So you try to make another one, and it ends up being a failure. Players hate it, and they have no qualms about venting their dislike loudly.

So now imagine all of this taking place in a world where everything is purely subjective. What lesson can you derive from all of this? The simple answer is: nothing. You could try making a third game that’s similar to the first one, but there’s no guarantee it will be as popular as the first. In fact, if it’s just a copy, people might be annoyed that it feels lazy. So instead you try to iterate on the basic system, but without any further information, you don’t really know what you’re doing. So you make little tweaks, but you don’t know if those tweaks will lead to people liking the game more, or the opposite.

Trying to make a game in this world would be possible, but incredibly frustrating. Because you can try to copy things from successful games, perhaps combining elements, but each time you do this you don’t actually know what you’re doing. It’s all the equivalent of guesswork. Even worse, it’s the kind of guesswork where you’re not receiving any feedback to tell you when you’re on the right track: either a particular combination works and people like it, or it doesn’t and they don’t. There doesn’t really end up being an in-between. It’s a world of the blind leading the blind.

But now imagine that not everything is subjective. We can tell when certain aspects of a game are done well or not. A story might be well or poorly written. A game’s sound design might mesh well with the rest of the game, or not. A mechanic might be well or poorly executed. And the more we can start to analyze these parts, the better understanding you as a designer can get about why certain ideas work and why others don’t. So rather than having to guess, you can get a feel for whether a certain combination of mechanics is going to work well or not, and also figure out how to tweak them so that they could work out well. Rather than having to abandon ideas, you might realize that they are workable with a bit of alteration.

Concluding Remarks

How we talk about games might seem unimportant, but it can influence a lot of other things. It can influence the wider conversations that occur, it can influence our own enjoyment, and it can even influence how games get made.

So for the sake of all of these things, it is worthwhile to try to get out of the mindset that a game being good or bad is merely a matter of opinion. As intuitive as the conclusion can feel, and as tempting as it can be to resort to it (especially when the games we like are being criticized), being stuck in this mindset ends up being more destructive than helpful. We don’t have to completely abandon our opinions in doing so. It’s possible that you might, through this process, arrive at some principles that cause you to change your ideas of what games you do and don’t like. But that’s fine: as long as you still have games to enjoy, that will be all that matters at the end of the day.

It would be nice if it this process were simple. Unfortunately, it’s not. It will take time to build up the habit. But as long as you’re paying attention to how you talk about games, and catch yourself if you ever fall back into the trap, then you can eventually escape and arrive in a world of thought and dialogue that is much richer than the one you originally inhabited.

[1] Not to be confused, of course, with the actual scientific theory.

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