Being Comfortable with Our Own Judgments

Words: 3508 Approximate Reading Time: 25-30 minutes

I continually find myself obsessed with the ways we talk about games, and it feels like every now and then there’s something that happens that demands more input. Some take that feels so strange or terrible that it’s worthwhile to step back and say “hang on, let’s pull this apart.” It can be hard to know when those takes are offered in earnest, and when they are offered because people feel the need to say something, but my approach has been to try and take things seriously unless given direct evidence that I shouldn’t.

The take that spurred this essay was an article on Inverse titled Elden Ring is Undeniably Game of the Year – and That’s a Problem. The article’s basic argument is that while Elden Ring is a really good game and it makes sense why it would have won Game of the Year at The Game Awards, that popularity means that people will end up trying to play it who probably shouldn’t. Casual players or newer players may try Elden Ring and bounce off of it, and decide that maybe they shouldn’t play other games, therefore scaring away potential members of the gaming community. The article goes into the very real and possible frustrations that players less experienced with the FromSoftware games could run into, and caps off the post by noting how an informal poll run on Twitter by the author showed over 70% of players haven’t finished the game.

The arguments here are…not great. My initial reaction upon reading this was to add a note to the end of my essay on games for first-time players (which at time of writing had already been completed and scheduled). Because I agree that it really isn’t a good game to introduce someone to the medium of video games. In fact, I even agree that there are people that Elden Ring just isn’t for. But the conclusions drawn from those premises don’t follow.

Elden Ring and its popularity aren’t the problem. We are.

So instead I wanted to tackle some of the deeper misunderstandings present in the article. Misunderstandings that are much more prevalent with how we often approach and discuss games – especially popular games. And hopefully we can use these misunderstandings as lessons for how to become a bit more reflective.

The Subjective/Objective Problem

I’ve written so many times on the issues surrounding how we talk about “good” games. Because the language we use isn’t reflective of what we mean. Even when we try to focus on a purely subjective understanding of “goodness” – there is no such thing as a good game on its own, but just what you or I like – our actions tend to betray us. The two solutions are to become more aware of how we react when others talk about what they like and dislike, or to change our approach about what we think “good” means.

My own argument has leaned towards the latter end, and I will sum up my position in the following way:

“What constitutes a good game and what we like are aspects that can be separated.”

I say “can be” because they often aren’t. In fact, that failure to separate ends up being a problem.

When faced with the issue of which games are good and bad, we often follow a very simplistic logical chain: I like good games, therefore if a game is good I like it (or will like it if I play it), and if I don’t like a game it must be bad.

The chain makes intuitive sense. It would be rather silly to actively like bad games, after all – why waste your time playing those? And if you hate good games, then really that just says you don’t have good taste. But obviously we do have good taste, so really we never hate good games, it’s just that those games we hate aren’t actually good.

Of course, picking at the logic even briefly reveals how flimsy it is. This logical chain only works if – for example – I am the only judge of good and bad. Whatever games I like are good, and whatever games I hate are bad. Which means if you like a game I hate, then you like a bad game.

But naturally, that doesn’t make sense from your perspective. Instead, the wrong person is me.

The only way the logical chain works is if we do indeed propose that “goodness” is entirely subjective. But to accomplish that, we need to get rid of how we judge others. If you like a game I don’t like, it doesn’t mean you enjoy a bad game or lack taste. You and I just have different subjective experiences.

As I said, though, that behavior doesn’t comport with what we see in the real world. People are often faulted for not liking things deemed “good.” Or for liking things deemed “bad.”

The article in question in fact rests on this premise: if you try to play Elden Ring and don’t like it, you may decide games aren’t for you. But why? There are tens of thousands of games in existence, the vast majority of which are radically different from Elden Ring. Why couldn’t our hypothetical player go with some of those games instead?

The argument rests on the presumption that by not enjoying Elden Ring – a game heralded as Game of the Year – there must be something wrong with that player. Our hypothetical player judges themself as unworthy of playing games, because they don’t enjoy one of the Greatest Games Ever Made.

Which is why I bang on so much about trying to disentangle “like” and “good.” Why I try to emphasize how it’s okay for us to dislike good games and like bad games.

The error we fall into comes from the fact that as social creatures, we humans want to be accepted. And part of being accepted involves feeling like part of the “in” group. If the majority of players really love Elden Ring, then to prove that I am a Real Gamer I should also play and enjoy Elden Ring. And not doing so – whether by not trying or not completing it – removes me from the group.

Part of this mentality is driven by the “toxic” members of various communities. The “git gud” members in the FromSoft communities, the pushy members of the Undertale community, the hardcore members of many competitive or MMO games. Whatever it may be, these people often establish the basic definition of what it means to “belong” to the group. And those definitions highlight how some people don’t get to belong.

But part of this is also on those of us who fall on the outside. We often give in to those toxic people, rather than pushing back. Rather than saying “Fuck what you think, toxic player. You can like whatever games you want in whatever way you want, but your opinion of me is irrelevant,” we seem to continually be on the defensive. We give in by making these discussions about how development is being driven by toxic players. The FromSoftware games are tough. There are lots of challenges, the game doesn’t tell you every little thing you want to know, it leaves you to figure out things for yourself. There are absolutely imperfections in the game. But the game is tough in those ways because that’s what the designers wanted to make. It’s not tough in those ways because it’s trying to appeal to the most gatekeepy part of the gaming audience. The causal arrow, so to speak, is running in the other direction.

If we could strip all these trappings away. If we could ignore the toxic players. If we could stop seeing our personal worth as being derived from liking “the right things.” If we could feel empowered to say “I don’t like this game, and I have no reason to feel guilty about that or defend my dislike.” There wouldn’t be a problem. Elden Ring could be a really good game – Game of the Year – and a lot of people would not like it, and they could play other things and enjoy those other things. No conflict. No feeling bad.

Like I said before, the problem isn’t Elden Ring. The problem is us.

The Study of Games

The last little bit of the article covered an informal Twitter poll. The author put up a brief question about whether or not users had beat Elden Ring. 53 people responded, with about 28% of people saying they had, 43% of people saying they had dropped off completely, and 28% of people saying they hadn’t yet but were planning to. This result was used to highlight the problem: if the game were more inviting, more people would beat it.

So let’s talk about research and statistics. That’s right, we’re going to get super technical, now.

There’s a famous saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The origin of the phrase isn’t really known. But the origin doesn’t really matter. The point behind it is that statistics are often used to support claims and give them the illusion of facthood. It’s easy to dismiss a claim when it’s just an idea, but much harder if there are numbers presented to back the idea up.

The problem with using statistics is that they require knowledge of what you’re doing. There are a lot of errors that you can fall into when using stats, and most of us aren’t trained to keep an eye out for those errors.

Let’s cover three here.

Sample Size & Bias

Elden Ring has sold – as of November 2022 – roughly 17.5 million copies. That’s a lot, but doesn’t even break the top 50 so far in all-time rankings. It’s a success, and the number will probably keep increasing over time, but it’s certainly not going to be the best selling game ever made.

Okay, but that’s still a big number. Is 53 Twitter users a good sample?

The first question we should ask is if 53 users is enough. To which the answer is “not really.” Generally speaking, it’s better to have more respondents than fewer. But there are also formulas that we use to determine how many people you need to survey to get a reliable result, depending on how big your population is. In this case, our population is 17.5 million people, so how many people do we need to survey to know what proportion are finishing the game?

At a bare minimum, probably 100. But if we wanted a really reliable result, probably somewhere in the vicinity of 200-400. It depends in part on how confident we want to be in our results, and what we think the distribution of players looks like. But 53 people isn’t really a great sample to use for this kind of argument.

Moreover, when trying to pull together a sample, it’s important to keep in mind who is responding. Because we’re drawing from a sample of the population, if that sample is skewed in some way, then our results will be skewed. Part of the reason we try to increase our sample size is to account for that skew – the fewer people in the sample, the more likely we get some skew.

What we’re looking for in a survey is a random sample of the population. Is a Twitter poll good for that? Not really. At least, we don’t have a way of being sure it is random. Since a Twitter poll is going to be answered by people who see the poll, and the people most likely to see the poll are going to be followers of the author, we need to know if the followers are themselves a random sample of the Elden Ring player population.

These are admittedly minor issues. It’s hard to get a sense of what the numbers “really look like,” but there’s at least some confirmation of bits and pieces. At the very least, the proportion of people who have beat the game may well be in the range of 25-35%, based on, say, Steam achievements.

The reason I highlight these issues is not really to dispute the numbers themselves, but to draw attention to the fact of how unreliable these kinds of polls are. They’re something we should avoid using unless we know the limitations of the results that we get.

What Do the Numbers Say?

Sometimes we like to say that it’s important to “let the numbers speak for themselves.” But that phrase is never really true. Numbers exist in a story – in fact, usually a series of stories. And so ultimately it’s up to us to figure out how to tell those stories appropriately.

Let’s go back to the results as presented in the article – over 70% of people haven’t finished Elden Ring. That is a shocking proportion, on its own.

But the first thing we need to do is break down that 70%. Firstly, it’s composed of two separate numbers – a group of people who played the game and bounced off of it and thus didn’t beat it (43%), and a group of people who haven’t beat it yet (28%). That first breakdown is itself important – the big 70% doesn’t seem so big when you realize that a huge chunk of that number is composed of people who intend to finish the game.

Okay, but let’s dig deeper into that 43%. The argument being presented is that over 70% of people not finishing the game shows how Elden Ring needs difficulty adjustment. Already, we have to take off a chunk from that. 28% of people appear to be fine with the difficulty (at least so far). But let’s stick with the 43%. That’s still a pretty big number, even if it’s no longer a majority.

Okay, but why did that 43% bounce off? The author’s argument boils down to difficulty, and it’s almost certain that some portion of players will bounce off because the game is hard. But what is that portion? If players are bouncing off because of other reasons – the game is too big, the player doesn’t have the time to invest in the game, the player doesn’t like the actual controls or the aesthetics of the game – then it would be wrong to lay those problems at the feet of difficulty. We could ask in some cases whether the game could be better designed, but sometimes it’s a matter of subjective opinion, not of actual quality.

So in presenting these numbers – 70%, and then 43% – we need to ask what’s actually going on within those numbers. It’s easy enough to make up a story about why people fit into a particular group. But unless we know that for sure, we need to avoid making further claims. All we can know from the results is that 43% of people bounced off of the game. That is the only story we can really tell there.


The last bit, and I think the most important part of why this poll and the argument being presented radically misunderstand things, is the context surrounding the question itself.

So the question being presented is as such: “What proportion of people who played Elden Ring actually beat it?”

It’s an interesting question on its own. And the result is that less than 30% (if we use the poll results) of players have beat the game. That number is then used to show a problem: 30% is too low.

But to make that argument, we need to pose another question: “What proportion of people who play any game actually beat it?”

Thankfully, we do have a bunch of data on that question. The answer is highly dependent on the game, but the result usually hovers somewhere in the range of 20-40%.

Which, of course, is a range that 28% falls pretty comfortably in the middle of. Elden Ring is pretty normal, then.

The argument is that the number of people who finish the game would go way up if the game gave players the ability to address the game’s difficulty by adjusting it. To test that hypothesis, let’s look at a roughly comparable game that does have adjustable difficulty settings: Witcher 3. If we take a look at the Trophy completion, we find that the proportion of players finishing the game on any difficulty is…40%. Which is certainly more than Elden Ring, but not a massive proportion…and is basically within the normal range.

The problem of the argument being proposed is that it fails to understand why players don’t finish games. Some players bounce off of games for a variety of reasons – they don’t like the aesthetics or the controls or they find the game too difficult. Some players just get bored and eventually stop playing. Some players have other things they need to do in their lives and forget about the game. The presumption is that people not completing Elden Ring is purely a matter of the game being too difficult. But the fact of the matter is that the real problem is that the game is huge and there’s a ton to do. We should go into this argument expecting a massive drop-off, and then ask if Elden Ring is out of the ordinary.

It is the context of a question that needs to be prized above all else. Before trying to gather or use any statistics, we need to be thinking about what our comparison is. What is the “standard” that we are comparing our results against? Because if we don’t know, then we can make just about any result seem surprising.

Concluding Remarks

I love Elden Ring. I would love for everyone else to love it, as well. But I also acknowledge that there are plenty of people who won’t like it. And it is absolutely an imperfect game. There are flaws. I’ve complained about some of those flaws myself in this blog.

The issue I have with this Inverse article isn’t that the author bounced off the game. I think her experience is perfectly valid – as is the experience of others who have bounced off. I don’t think Elden Ring is for everyone, and if I think someone wouldn’t like the game, I would do (and in fact have done) what I could to warn them of that.

The issue I have is with a misplaced assessment of what “the problem” is. In a sense, it’s the desire to say that there’s “a problem” in the first place. The popularity of Elden Ring combined with the fact that it is difficult is something we should not be seeing as a problem. If Elden Ring were something that everyone had to play, or were the only game in existence, then it would be a problem. But we have choice.

Instead, what’s being described here is a social issue (and to some extent an economic one, too). There are gatekeeping assholes in the gaming community that ruin things for others. Those gatekeepers make people feel bad for bouncing off of Elden Ring. Those gatekeepers make people feel bad for not playing “the right way.” The gatekeepers poison discussion in a variety of ways.

But the solution to these gatekeepers isn’t to alter the games themselves. There are plenty of discussions about accessibility to be had, but the discussion about accessibility when it comes to difficulty rests on the premise that every player should be able to start a game and beat it – if they can’t, that’s a problem. But there are only two reasons for that to be a problem in actuality: 1) because other people are being assholes when you don’t beat a game, and 2) because you feel like you’ve wasted your money.

The first problem is what I mean by this being a social issue, rather than an issue with the games themselves. We are allowing our perceptions to be driven by those gatekeeping assholes. Really it’s only the economic issue that should be in focus here. If I can’t finish a game, if it is literally too hard for me (and I have certainly encountered a handful of games like that), then it says nothing about my self-worth. I shouldn’t feel bad for not finishing it or finding it too hard. I can just not like the game. It is only the fact that I’ve lost money that matters. Which is not a small issue, but is not what we focus on when having these discussions.

So rather than continually focusing our discussions about accessibility on gatekeeping, let’s focus on the ability for people to make their own decisions. Let’s allow people to bounce off of games. Let’s not make people feel guilty if a boss is too hard. Let’s not make people force themselves to do things they don’t want to do. And let’s focus on what we can do to make games financially accessible so that people don’t have to feel like they’ve lost something when they do bounce off of a game.

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