March 25, 2017

The Hype Train Broke

A tiled background of sonic jumping. In the foreground a red sonic runs with rainbow text splashed across reading "FUN IS INFINITE"

These last several months have a been a strong one for the video game hype machine. So far we’ve been hit with a shiny new Pokemon game, a fun-sized NES, the juggernaut that was Pokemon Go, the hotly anticipated No Man’s Sky, and the reveal of the Nintendo Switch, among other things.

And that’s to say nothing of this:

Imagine the cutest little puppy you can think of. Now, imagine it was made of yarn.
(Source)

 

What a time to be alive.

In the meantime, the hype train thunders on. Coming up soon we’ve got Sonic Mania, a new Crash Bandicoot game, a new game from the makers of Banjo-Kazooie, a Resident Evil installment with the subtitle Biohazard (I’m sorry, it’s biohazard. It’s a throwback either way), Hideo Kojima, this, and a high-tech remake of one of the most popular RPGs of all time. You know the one.

And in a matter of mere days, Nintendo is going to be releasing a new game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for their current generation console, the Wii U, as well as for the Switch. For anyone who’s played the original Zelda game and its sequel, it’s exciting to watch the series take another look at its open-world roots, and experiment to see what happens when you mix those old-school roots with modern hardware and design practices in an environment where “open-world console games” are in vogue. (As someone who sings the praises of the NES Zeldas, I’d especially like to hear what Tevis Thompson thinks of this new one.)

…Meanwhile, my little brother is asking whether the boomerang is going to be in it, and why you can’t bake, or make pickaxes.

Look, getting excited for new games is fun and all, but there are downsides to the aggressive hype cycles we seem to be getting dragged through more and more often, for fans as well for the games themselves. To wit, the first draft of this essay opened with the line “I knew No Man’s Sky was going to tank. I wish I’d written this earlier.”

This post is a long time coming. I’ve written many drafts of this, and it incorporates passages from essays that will never be. It’s given me a lot to look back on, and in looking back I’ve noticed a number of lines that are downright spooky. Lines like this:

“Oh and also? Bad news, guys. No Man’s Sky is probably gonna tank the same way. I can already see it happening. When we enter the Critical Hype Zone, no game survives.

And I’m not saying it’s going to be a bad game, don’t get me wrong. It’s probably gonna be a great game. It’s just that that’s not going to matter.”

Or lines like this one:

I honestly worry sometimes that the hype surrounding [Undertale] is growing too fast, and that all this hype is going to burn out soon and get replaced with a massive backlash.

And it all happened, just as expected. Faster than expected, in fact. Leigh Alexander already had it figured out when she wrote about it following its reveal at E3 2015:

“I felt a deep ache blossom in my chest for cheerful, ambitious Sean Murray of Hello Games, who with No Man’s Sky is coming up with the kind of interesting, spirited technical experiment that, left to its own, could quietly inspire an entire generation of fans of all ages, wandering the world from their computer. But on stage, humbly promising literally infinity, this game now creates incredible expectations, a certain bar The Consumer expects it will reach, certain questions it must be able to answer, and immediately. What if it needs more time? What if it needs to turn out a little differently? Can it ever get out from under the awe created by this glimpse? Will it be chained to the awe in that room today for the rest of its life?”

I don’t know, but things look pretty bleak right now.

Really, if you think about it, the whole culture surrounding videogames, if you can even call it that, is driven by hype. Every major game that comes out seems to have this major marketing push behind it, and more often than not the only reason we even care about the game is because of all the work marketers do to drill the game into our long-term memory.

Things are also going to get worse because now the internet can pull off a hype job that would put even Nintendo’s marketing department to shame. You could even argue that the pro-viral design methodology of social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, our most prominent means of communication as fans on the internet, makes it even easier for this to happen without us trying to. Every time an Undertale or a Five Nights at Freddy’s comes out, the internet explodes with page after page of fanart, fan theories, fandom polymorphous. And okay, I’m sure that EarthBound has generated a fair amount of fanart over the last 21 years or so. But that was a gradual process. People had time to discover EarthBound, to examine it at their own pace. The game had time to grow its prestige organically, free from constricting demands, and free to break from expectations instead of being chained to them.

People were practically bombarded with the other games, and let me tell you, there are a lot of angry netizens who will decry them just because of their fan reaction, because they had nowhere to hide, no peace and quiet from that neverending song.

It’s a little bit like being strapped down and forced to listen to all 10 hours of this:

I think I can sympathize. Okay, stop, stop.

Months before this essay was even an idea, I had a Discord conversation with some of the +10 crew on the topic. Here’s a relevant quote:

 “I read that conversation you had with Mr. Trautman about cycles of relevancy in gaming. I found it very interesting, because in most cases, if we’re talking about works of art, it can take years, even decades, for a population to fully understand it.

Undertale is only seven months old, and already people are saying we should shut up about it.😐

It just seems like there’s implicit assumption these games are supposed to be considered disposable.

Like, we’re supposed to go through one and immediately move onto the next one.”

4000 years? 10 years? I can’t see any game lasting that long now, though. Not even close. Even if we somehow manage to overcome the daunting preservation hurdle.

So we scream and gush until we get a headache, we wear the whole thing out, and we move onto the next game, which we will wear out even more quickly.

And that’s just how we are now, isn’t it? Sure, a good portion of the Undertale fandom was made up of young, overexcited kids with social media accounts (which wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t all screaming in unison.) But the adults weren’t that much better, for the most part. Hype is an all-consuming, all-destroying vortex, but isn’t it also kind of expected at this point? I feel like the end result of all the grooming the industry has been doing to players is a fan culture that only knows how to amplify hype and regurgitate memes, to flatten everything into a meme.

Looking at the way we’ve grown up surrounded by ads, the way most of the culture surrounding games in our youth was a big ad, all company-owned magazines and animated tie-ins and movie cameos and toys and drawing contests. How repetition passed for engagement, how the best way we could think of to appreciate a work was to get its music arranged by an orchestra and its pixel art rendered by a famous mangaka. Every game reduced to a mutating thoughtgerm. And of course, the industry was a huge part of this. We never really got the chance to be anything else. There were films before Hollywood, but there were few games before the industry, and for a long time, few accessible games outside it.

Thus the industry is allowed to pander to its base with unchecked power. It demands more and more extreme acts of loyalty, and it gets this from us by worming its way into our childhood memories and calling us to action at the sound of a whistle, a word sunken deep into our subconscious, that only we can hear. It fabricates shared history, an ingroup for the insecure, wiping our tears and feeding our fears in order to pose as the cure. And for acting on these fears, it rewards us with scraps of acknowledgement and a sense of belonging. It reinforces. It trains. It grooms even those unsusceptible to fear. We’ve been bred into these perfect consumers that will sublimate our entire identities into a game for the three years leading up to its release and the three months following it, and then toss it out like a cheap commodity the moment the industry wants to sell us something else. And these endless bids for loyalty are coming from all sides, every game aggressively marketed to the point that they’re all competing for our attention. (“Hype hype hype! Forget that old game that came out two months ago, start getting excited for the new one that comes out in six months!!!!!!” -Quote by Raeyn during the above Discord conversation.)

And so there are a lot of people whose only understanding of “engaging with media” is informed by Nintendo vs. Sega ads, Video Game Orchestra Concerts, launch parties, expensive merchandise, and ritualized brand loyalty. So instead of serious discussions about a game’s structure and narrative and meaning, we get “Smooth McGroove – Megalovania Acapella”. And of course that’s going to be annoying, but it’s only annoying because it seems to be our only mode of engagement, repeated ad nauseam.

And I don’t even have a problem with the guy! It’s just the larger pattern, you know? It’s not that we can’t have that basic kind of appreciation when a new game comes out. It’s just that we often don’t go much further than a surface appreciation of the game, as critics and especially as players, and exceptions to this rule are, on the whole, relatively obscure to the public (though not nonexistent.) Meanwhile, people see this endless barrage of memes as the face of the game and assume that whatever’s causing it must be pretty vapid, which makes them hate it even more. I can’t blame them for doing so. I was lucky to go into the game with practically no context, when it was still new, on nothing more than a recommendation from my little sister, who often played music from its soundtrack on YouTube.

There seems to be a level of hype beyond which no game can survive intact, after which it either is dead on arrival or gets massively over-popular to the point that the discourse surrounding it is reduced to an endless string of memes and everybody has a massive hangover, and it finally collapses under its own weight as the backlash sets in. Either way, the game itself is lost, replaced with an imaginary projection of all those fans’ hopes and dreams into the form of the game. This part usually happens before the game is even out. And of course that imaginary game is going to feel good for you to think about, because you imagined it, and it’s everything you could ever want. But this becomes a problem when our collective projections push the real game into obscurity, reducing it to a pale reflection of its decoy. It becomes especially problematic when you consider that there’s no way you’re going to get the exact game you been imagining so meticulously, because you did not make the game, nor was it made for you specifically. And even if you could, you’d be outnumbered millions to one by a crowd of angry gamers who wanted to have their imaginary game made, all of them with wildly different, mutually exclusive demands. To please an audience under these circumstances is impossible, absolutely impossible. Heaven knows the Final Fantasy VII remake is going to bomb. There, I’m calling it.

So it’s no wonder what happened to No Man’s Sky, or Mighty No. 9, or Undertale, or Sonic Generations, or any of these things. It’s a pattern. It’s a system. It’s only going to get worse.

Worse because the industry knows so well how to play to this, giving us extremely vague trailers that beg for interpretation, to be picked apart and rebuilt, to be projected onto because in reality there’s nothing there, nothing substantial at least, and you need a way to fill in the gaps. And all this happens before development on the game has started in earnest, like with Project Sonic, which, at the time this was written, wasn’t going to be released for another year. All we have to go on are a suggestive images and a promise. It looks like it’s trying to channel the fan favorite Saturday morning series from 1992, the dystopian, vaguely political one, by giving us shots of wrecked cities, patrolling robots and an angry Sonic. That and throwing around words like “Resistance.”

People are going to get really upset when they realize that it was not, in fact, written by Ben Hurst, and does not play like anything he would have written. That is generally not the kind of story the modern incarnation of Sonic Team specializes in, or even makes. We have no reason to expect something like that. And yet.

Studios know how this routine works, and will milk it for all it’s worth, given the opportunity. Game companies promise things they can’t deliver all the time. The only reason it makes more news when Peter Molyneux does it is that he outright says that he promises these things, while big publishers like Sega just imply it, just subtly enough for you not to implicate them. Maybe Molyneux is just a victim of the status quo, unable to execute the standard operating procedures.

But when the game finally does come out, you’re brought back down to Earth, violently. You’re forced to realize that the game was not really made for you, not you specifically. A whole population of players is forced to recognize that the game was not made for them in particular, either. Never mind that they couldn’t all get their contradictory fantasies fulfilled simultaneously! Forget what the developers were trying to express with it! What about the things I wanted? What about what I was promised?

But the developers didn’t promise you anything. They may have promised certain things to themselves, but clearly you don’t care what any of that was. And that is what particularly bothers me about outbursts like these, about extreme hype cycles and their extreme hangovers, that they are no friend of art, no friend of communication between author and audience because the audience can’t hear you over the sound of their precious Pygmalions, no friend of worthwhile aesthetic experiences because that experience is all expectations and no substance.

It was the same way when The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker came out. People derided the art style as childish at first, mostly because they’d just come out of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and expected a Zelda that was dark, edgy, no cream, no sugar. But a significant part of that was fueled by a tech demo shown at SpaceWorld 2000 for the still-in-development Project Dolphin, later GameCube:

But I guess people missed the whole “tech demo” memo, because they began to think that this was an accurate picture of the Zelda they were eventually getting. Then Wind Waker came out, and you end up with a lot of players who felt personally betrayed. Never mind that what they got was one of the most expressive (and technically daring) aesthetic spaces ever to appear in a console game. It wasn’t what we wanted, darn it! And so we would be unable to look at the game without those blinders until years later. But wouldn’t it have been so much better if we could see the game for what it was? If we didn’t have those blinders to begin with?

Besides, what we wanted was boring. It often is.

A BRIEF TANGENT ON SONIC

If we’re going to talk about the perils of fandom, we can’t not talk about Sonic. You know, Sonic the Hedgehog? He’s on record as having possibly the worst fandom in all of gamedom (or at least, the most volatile one.) Coverage on them ranges far and wide, but there are three sources that I want to bring up most. The first is an old but still serviceable article on the history of the fandom, drawing into focus the specific events that most fractured it, and helped to finally break it apart. The second and third are videos on the topic by DarkspinesSonic and Ian Danskin that present the fandom as a pretty good example of what happens when you wind up in that hypothetical situation where you have that split fandom with mutually-exclusive demands…and try to pander to them anyway, full steam ahead.

As you can see, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Sega’s constant shake-ups of the core Sonic flow and the resulting split in the fandom may have helped foster that oh-so-scary sense of brand loyalty you see in the most obsessed fans. Every fan now has a playstyle they feel personally wronged for not seeing in the next big Sonic game. As Danskin said, Sonic is targeted at kids. Every Sonic game was somebody’s first.

It’s all been very enlightening, but there are still a few nagging questions for me to puzzle out. I’m not trying to refute anything that others have been saying about the role the constantly-changing landscape of the Sonic series had in eroding any footing the fandom may have had. I just want to contribute what I can.

As much as I can understand the fandom’s reaction to the ever-growing number of Sonics on the blue market, I don’t think this reaction, that is, a reaction this volatile, is either inevitable or default. Part of this weird back-of-the-head feeling stems from my own relationship with Sonic as, like DarkspinesSonic, I can’t think of a Sonic game that I particularly loathe for existing, at least not the same way most fans have a few. I don’t even have a favorite, for that matter. I like the quirkier titles like SegaSonic the Hedgehog or Tails’ Skypatrol. I like that the series gets to go places design-wise and isn’t stuck with a bunch of repetitive sequels that were only pumped out because this is a franchise and games beget more games. I like that it plays fast and loose with its formula, that it doesn’t really even have a formula to begin with, not a strict one anyway. I like that it’s closer to an anthology than an -ilogy.

I enjoy the games for what they are, not for what I think they ought to be. A lot of the complaints about every new iteration of the Sonic setup amount to the game not giving players what they were expecting. But I like the series precisely because the games are all so weird and unique. It’s one of my favorite ongoing videogame series out there partly on the grounds that the sequels feel so much more justified here than with other sequels in other series (Like, for example, the NES Megaman games. If you’ve played one of them, you’re more or less set.)

And now here comes Sonic Mania, and it makes me want to sigh. I don’t know whether that’s a sigh of relief that the fandom might finally be getting what it wants, or a sigh of resignation because we’ll never have the chance to learn the lesson we so desperately need. It doesn’t even really do anything that hasn’t been done already. I mean, it looks nice, but honestly, I need a new classic Sonic about as much as I need a new Ristar.

And I’m not even mad. I don’t even hate this game. (I can’t. It’s not out yet.) There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with playing a solid Genesis-model Sonic game every once in a while. If I ever get to play it, I’ll probably like it. But the difference is that if I like it, it’ll be despite the fact that it doesn’t do anything new or creative, whereas if the fandom likes it, it’ll be because of this, and if we’re gonna applaud a game for something, I can’t think of a lot of things that would be worse than this. And I think that’s what that nagging feeling in the back of my head is getting at:

Maybe Sonic isn’t the problem here.

…Can I just say we all have really bad standards? Yet again, what we wanted was boring.

Look, Sonic is really personal to a lot of people. And of course he is. He’s all about being cool. Another difference between “cool” and “fun” is that “cool” is supposed to be a part of your identity. “Cool” is something you’re supposed to identify with. People try to have fun. People try to be cool.

It doesn’t help that Sonic Team practically baited its young players into using the series this way. The world Sonic gives us is so plastic yet so attractive. The classic series is about a hedgehog who goes (*announcer voice w/ echo*) SUPERFAST EXTREMESPEED and has to kick an evil genius out of his metal fortress on a moving island before he can get the 6 Chaos Emeralds, which provide unlimited power. Said evil genius builds another metal fortress which is now an airship. The hedgehog kicks him out of this fortress (by going even faster), but the evil genius escapes to his EVIL SPACE STATION, which Sonic blows up by GOING SUPER SAIYAN (Just roll with it) using the power of the 7 Chaos Emeralds (There are 7 now. Again, just roll with it.) But then the evil genius relaunches the space station and tries to steal the Master Emerald (How many emeralds are there?) But Sonic stops him using the Super Emeralds (Oh my God…) and GOING HYPER SUPER SAIYAN…In accordance with the prophecy.

Sonic has always been kind of a superhero, and a magnetic one at that, but these elements seldom stole the spotlight, instead being used to supercharge the existing subtext while their less savory side effects were kept in check. At his best, sonic was a superhero that combined Batman’s “wow” factor with Superman’s basic decency. In the hands of the best writers and designers, the plastic could be made to look like wood. Sometimes it could even be swapped out for wood. (I should stop here before I completely lose track of this metaphor.) But by the time we hit the mid-2000s, many of the founding members of Sonic Team had left the building, and any sense of restraint that had gotten them through the Adventure Series flew out the window. Look at the games made during this period, and you’ll find a lot of uncomfortably familiar tropes. Sonic in a romantic relationship with a human, complete with kiss? Yep, already happened. Sonic dies and comes back to life? That happens too. Loads and loads of unwanted characters, that amount to little more than a color swap, a skill and a personality quirk? That was more or less the cast then, Especially Silver the Hedgehog. OP OCs? Shadow is faster than Sonic, and stronger than Knuckles, and that’s when he’s wearing his inhibitor rings, which he removes at the end of Sonic ’06 to blast through an army of Shadow clones (He didn’t remove them earlier becaUSE THE POWER MIGHT DESTROY HIM!!?1.)

I think we could more or less sum that era up with a joke:

What’s the difference between a Sonic Team staff writer and a Sonic fanfic writer?

The staff writer gets a paycheck.

Don’t get the joke? Then how about a Pop Quiz! Which Sonic fanfic is the following monologue from?

“Who am I…? The key to the mystery lies with the one who calls himself “Black Doom”. He told me to gather up all of the Chaos Emeralds, and then, disappeared. I don’t know what, or who he is, but the answer must lie with the Chaos Emeralds… that much I do believe. GUN soldiers were foolish enough to try and get in my way. After defeating them, I was able to get my hands on two of the Chaos Emeralds. I’ll stop anyone who tries to get in my way!”

The answer: None of them. These lines were taken Shadow the Hedgehog, the 2005 videogame by Sonic Team.

I think at least part of the reason the Sonic fandom is so gonzo and over-the-top is because the Sonic fandom are the kind of people who were able to watch this:

And love it unironically. Which is, yeah, mostly kids, and the kind of people in general with low enough self-awareness to contribute to Bad Sonic Fan Art. I don’t think It’s surprising that Sonic became the icon of the unrestrained raging id. I think the series taught its fans how to engage with it. At that point, Sonic fetish porn was just the next logical step. (Granted, any fandom involving talking animals is bound to reel in both sexual and non-sexual furries one it gets big enough.)

But that’s just one part of the way the series taught its fans how to engage with it. The other part goes beyond the games themselves, straight through to the politics of the companies that published them.

Up until the mid-2000s, Sonic’s reputation wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it is now, and you could still tell stories about that one kid in your class who was just consumed by little blue fastball. All videogame companies endeavor to instill this kind of loyalty in their fans, but Sonic alone went above and beyond. And it makes sense, looking back. The Sonic fandom was always a kind of “cool kids club.” Collecting games, comics, Kids’ Meal toys and the like was a way of showing that you belonged somewhere. It helped that Sega, and by extension their mascot, had been positioned as an unfairly overshadowed underdog, the Luigi to Nintendo’s Mario. Sonic, for all his swagger, was more like the put-upon nerd that you wanted to stick up for, and Nintendo was the “bad guy” that wanted to take him away from us. Actually, the bad guy could be whoever you wanted it to be…even non-believers.

The perfect testing ground for this ticking time bomb was the Console Wars, and here Sega already had most of their work done for them. It’s not like Nintendo was hard to get mad at by this point, given the laundry list of legitimate missteps they’d made in the wake of their total market dominance, from their bowdlerizing Standards and Practices to their harsh treatment of third-party developers and beyond. But the decisive element in the Sega Master Plan was their deployment of the rhetoric and metaphor of war, inventing a narrative of collective struggle with which to unite a group of people that otherwise had little in common besides a mutual dislike of certain video games. The Console War was, hands-down, the single most effective marketing move ever loosed upon the gaming public. It’s no surprise that the big players still rely on that narrative to this day. Most console companies at the time would’ve been satisfied to give their users an in-crowd and a sense of street cred, but Sega? Sega went a step further. Sega gave them an enemy, emotional stakes, shared values, and an endgame, whether they were fighting Nintendo as embodiment of a status quo that treated them like children or Nintendo as embodiment of The Man (I don’t know how many of them were savvy enough to take the “decadent corrupt monopoly” route.) Sonic was their Lady Liberty. Only now it was even worse because at this age they’d practically imprinted on him.

Although things only got worse from there, I’m not quite willing to say that the Console War was the source of all of this, or anything more than a symptom of a much broader problem, although it may have been one of the many incidents that fed into that problem. Besides, the memetic inertia generated by Sonic’s underdog status never really died down, even after the console wars ended. Nintendo was swapped out for Sony, then for fans, then for critics, and then finally for IGN and practically everyone else. It doesn’t help that Sonic was so heavily marketed to kids; Not only was every one of his games someone’s first Sonic experience, but for a good chunk of those kids it was also one of their earliest videogaming experiences, period.

That…can’t be a good thing.

I wrote a long time ago about how there’s a tendency with long-running game franchises to chase the fleeting shock of the new that is often associated with formative gaming experiences, and the personal ideals and desires that end up projected onto those games as a result. In a word, hype. The Sonic fandom is what happens when that becomes the only lens through which a game can be viewed. This is what happens when you, the company, recreate that emotion en masse, when you try to manufacture it and succeed. You, the fan, become emotionally invested, maybe a little bit over-invested, in the success of some mascot, some surrogate dad in a profit-lined diaper who could never give you what you’ve come to depend on it for. And it’s hard to think critically, or even rationally, about something you’re that invested in. It becomes so easy to get hostile at any “bad guy” who you’re convinced is going to take that away from you.

But that’s not really any different from telling us that Fox News wants to take our games away, is it? “Sonic Fan” was and is an identity the same way “Gamer” is now (with all the unpleasant implications that comparison implies.) What you see with the Sonic fandom is the space where those two identities feed into each other. I’m still not 100% sure what it is about Sonic that makes people like this, but when you combine it with an already toxic gaming culture, you make a bad situation even worse.

A lot of these identity problems are part of the broader gamer culture, and have been for a long time, but the X10 multiplier that was Sonic’s “cool” factor irritates the problem like a bad rash. The Sonic fandom isn’t different from videogame fandom in general. It isn’t different from Hype Culture, from fanboy entitlement, from the backlash surrounding Mighty No. 9 or Undertale or No Man’s Sky or any game that people get personal about. It’s just magnified.

WHAT EXACTLY IS BEING REFLECTED HERE?

Another passage from the Sonic Dreams Collection essay that seemed insightful at the time:

A fandom is a reflection of its object. When that object is put on trial, the fandom will be its testimony. It’s the reason why comedians are encouraged to ask themselves who’s laughing at their jokes when they try to be edgy. It’s also why courts now ask potential jury members whether they watch procedurals like Law & Order and CSI: Miami. It seems like a no-brainer; People tend to assimilate at least small parts of the things they like as a matter of course, and people tend to get attached to works that align with their tastes and worldviews. The work dictates the culture.

It might also explain why the Sonic fandom is so much more toxic than that of, say, Steven Universe.”

As I said, it was a very old draft.

In the time since I wrote it, the most maladaptive members of the Steven Universe fandom had managed to chase a fan artist off Tumblr and an official artist off Twitter, among other incidents. I don’t particularly like Zamii070 or her art, but she was so stricken by panic at their bullying that she had to be taken to the hospital to avoid committing suicide, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

But this is normal, isn’t it? Isn’t this how we’re supposed to talk about the shows we like?

Is it really? Is there any alternative?

There’s a post by Sarah Horrocks about the pitfalls of fandom titled “Fans Are The Worst: An Article”. It wasn’t talking about Steven Universe specifically, but it does touch on the forces that compelled certain members of the fandom to react the way they did, even if the perceived “threat” was ultimately a false alarm:

“So you need for example, Kelly Sue to always walk this perfect line and manifest your perfect ideal as a feminist, because if she didn’t, it would somehow undermine your own values, because you aren’t living for yourself, you’re living through someone else and the idea that they should live a perfect life to validate the self that you have sacrificed in your devotion based solely upon the affect of their art, not them personally.”

Although I don’t completely agree with it in that I don’t think that it makes sense to define the term “fandom” by its worst possible attributes and associations (I haven’t sent Yoshio Sakamoto any death threats! I feel fairly secure in my identity! Does this mean I’m not a Metroid fan?) I can understand where that feeling comes from, and I think it’s deserved. In the events leading up to the incidents, it wasn’t always clear whether some fans were simply cheering those on or trying to live vicariously through them. The latter of these is liable to mess up in a thousand different ways, for obvious reasons.

This kind of behavior feels so common now that you forget how much of a given it isn’t or shouldn’t be, that it begins to feel like the best we should hope for, regardless of the circumstances, whether the work in question is beloved or reviled.

After all, compared to the Sonic series, it’s a little bit ironic that the bile-raising behaviour displayed by these Steven Universe fans is a result of the show’s universally positive reception. Though not implausible; The Steven Universe incidents lie at the intersection of fandom and callout culture, the former feeding the latter until it bursts all over everyone within a 30,000-webpage radius. As for the cause? I don’t feel like the most qualified person to talk about it, but I can point you to someone who is.

Besides that, I did have a potentially insightful conversation I had with my editor during the creation of this piece, in which I said the following:

“And the more I read about it all, the more you do start to see this pattern of fans feeling like they’re owed something.

Last night, it dawned on me:

“This is just like with the Sonic fandom.”

I originally said that a fandom is a reflection of its object, but now I think it’s a bit more complicated than that,

at least once you go beyond a superficial level.

Then I read this comment on an article covering the incident, and it all clicked for me:

<p>A comment on an article about one of the Steven Universe fandom incidents. It reads:</p><blockquote><p>"I don’t think it’s straight popularity.<br>Antisocial people are more inevitable the larger you get, true.<br>But especially in groups that are heavily “identity” based, I find just spare to fare story decisions inevitably cause this.<br>I saw this in BtVS decades ago after S2, S6, and S7.<br>I’ve seen Star Trek go through this as different groups identify with it.</p><p>"In general parts of the core “group” can’t account for different tastes and different flavors of enjoyment.<br>It seems if you have a fanbase that’s more superficial, often they grow much more healthy behaviors.<br>It’s just something people enjoy, not something that requires a battle royale.</p><p>The more passion, the worse the excess unfortunately."</p></blockquote><p>The commenter's name is Carl.</p>
Here is a link to the original comment.

That’s what it all comes down to.

And of course people are going to get personal about this show. It’s been so validating for so many people.(edited)

And again, people are using this incident to say that “all discourse is bad” or whatever.

It’s just been one huge trainwreck.

But don’t worry about any of that. Just enjoy the show. The show is great!”

There’s a reason you don’t get mobs for Mario.

CONCLUSION

I can understand why these things happen the way they do. In the moment, it feels good to like things. I can understand and appreciate the joy that comes when people or things you like are successful, and who doesn’t like to think and talk about the things they like.

It’s healthy…to an extent.

But if there’s a line…

…I think we’ve crossed it.

I think we can all agree that this has gone way beyond any definition of “normal” or “healthy”.

So what are we supposed to do about that? Just talking about it and spreading awareness can help, but the problem is obviously much bigger than just that. I don’t have all the answers to this question, and think it would be dishonest of me to act like I do. I sincerely hope other people pick up this conversation and take it someplace interesting.

But I think the first way to address this problem is to address the underlying conceit. Would I really want to play a game that gave me everything I wanted? What would I gain from an experience like that?

I want to be shown things. I want to be spoken to. I want to peek into someone’s mind, and reap the fruits of their experience. I can’t get that by being pandered to. I have my likes and interests, but I can’t subsist on those alone. There’d be nothing else to be exposed to, nothing new to discover. All I’d discover is myself. I would stagnate.

In the meantime, I’ve got a few questions for you, reader:

  • Is there a game coming out soon that you’re interested in?
  • If so, how much of the game have you seen?
  • Have you seen a trailer for it?
  • Have you seen gameplay footage of it?
  • Have you seen a demo of it?
  • Have you played the demo?
  • If all you’ve seen was a trailer, how long was it?
  • Was it released shortly after the game was announced?
  • Does it include gameplay footage? More to the point, does it not?
  • Has this game been heavily promoted?
  • Do people talk about the game a lot? If so, are they excited or skeptical?
  • It is a game from a series you’re nostalgic for?
  • Does the game exhibit moral/political values that you, the player, share?
  • Is it a game you’ve wanted to exist for a long time?

And, most tellingly, are you a fan of a game that has not been released yet? Can you recognize the potential problems with that position?

These questions are intended to help you gauge your susceptibility to the kind of hype that tends to get the better of people pre-release. I encourage you to think them over in your spare time.

EDIT: Almost forgot! Special Thanks to my patron, Raeyn. (My Patreon is here.)

By the way, I’m taking commissions for games on certain platforms. See this page for details.

Radical Helmet
About Radical Helmet 8 Articles
A purely digital, low-poly entity. I love my helmet. You can reach me at radicalhelmet@plus10tofireresist.com.
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