The Lies We Tell Ourselves
EA is the worst company in America, Ken Levine is one of the most influential people in the world, and we have no problems keeping things in perspective.
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Gamers are the most hyperbolic people ever.
See what I did there? Ha ha ha! Phew…OK, jokes aside, things seem to be getting a bit out of hand here, people. Take a look at what's been happening lately.
Electronic Arts was voted the worst company in America in an online poll on The Consumerist, topping a bracket of 32 outfits including operations like Ticketmaster, Comcast, AT&T, and Wal-Mart. In the finals, EA proved considerably less popular than Bank of America, beating by a nearly 2-to-1 margin a bank that was caught fabricating legal documents so that it could foreclose on people's homes and was accused by the government of discriminating against people with disabilities. (And let's not forget the $5 per month fee for having a debit card that they planned to enact.)
And what has EA done that's so horrible? Granted, they're charging $40 for a Battlefield 3 cheat code, they haven't done enough to squash credit card fraud in FIFA 12, and they've enthusiastically embraced distinctly anti-consumer trends in Facebook games. Yes, that's all rotten, but it probably isn't quite the same as forging documents because you're in a hurry to put people on the streets.
In another online poll, Time asked readers who belonged in its Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. Ken Levine somehow made the cut, and as of this writing, more than 69 percent of voters approved of his inclusion. That's a considerably larger percentage than was garnered by the likes of Barack Obama, Rupert Murdoch, and Vladimir Putin, each holding in his own way more influence than any single human being should probably be allowed. I'm not even sure where Levine would be on a list of the most influential game developers of 2012. He hasn't shipped a game in five years, and if Take-Two's track record of missing major release dates holds true, he might not be shipping one this year, either.
And then there's BioWare being reported to the Federal Trade Commission over the Mass Effect 3 ending. The hype train got out of control, promises about the game's ending were made but not kept, and angry cupcakes were sent. But is it something we need to literally make a federal case out of?
The gaming industry has been built on hyperbole from the earliest days, and recent events are just an expression of that.
People dismiss the significance of these events because they're just online shenanigans and Internet polls, but for this industry especially, online doesn't make it any less real. The good caused by the #RetakeMassEffect charity drive for Child's Play was real, just as the warm, fuzzy feelings instilled by the overwhelmingly successful Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter project were real. The shame we should feel as a community when we squander those passions on petty grudges or undue lionizing is likewise real.
Even if these actions could be dismissed as the work of a vocal minority in the restraint-free world of online opinion venting, it's somewhat appropriate that they embarrass all of us by their lack of perspective. The gaming industry has been built on hyperbole from the earliest days (as one should probably expect from any spawn of serial entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell), and recent events are just an expression of that. Every facet of this business is predisposed to hype what's next and disregard the rest. Publishers need to goose sales year-over-year or risk share price stagnation, so this year's Madden is always the biggest, best, and most genre-redefining representation of the sport (at least until next year). The next generation of hardware is always a bridge over the uncanny valley for developers instead of a painful stint in physical rehab learning how to walk again. And every business model innovation is a fresh opportunity to engage with gamers in exciting ways, and not just a monument to monetization.
Meanwhile, the public constantly demands better, faster, more. Gamers consume new product with a delirious fervor, digesting titles that took years to fashion in a single weekend, then dismissing them to the realm of irrelevance with a muttered "worth a rental." The culture is permanently primed to talk about the latest and greatest, and much as people may proclaim a desire for unvarnished previews and mercilessly harsh reviews, the message is muddled when any hint of negativity toward an anticipated title is met with cries of foul play.
In between the publishers and the public is the press, equally complicit in fueling the hype cycle. Gaming outlets are well served by making readers believe whatever they are covering is as massive and meaningful as possible, "must see" content every time. And with the industry providing a constant stream of new games, the press has become chained to a treadmill of forward-looking features, a procession of previews culminating in reviews that hit the Web before the games hit shelves. And then all too often it's on to cover the next big thing, with no pause, no reflection, and perhaps most damningly, no perspective.