My apologies for the second two-month break in a row. Aside from finally finishing NieR: Automata (which I might have a few things to say about soon) I haven’t been doing very much game-related at all since writing that review of Persona 5. My focus was primarily on my duties at work, and it’s lately been on my search for a new job following the recent completion of my one-year contract. Anyone who’s found themselves in this kind of spot can probably relate.
Still, I have to keep myself sane, and so I have to take some time out of the day to write. And today I feel like writing about a prevalent concept in game journalism and criticism that I find completely maddening – fan entitlement, or the idea that fans of certain series feel unduly entitled to have things done “their way”. This is a very interesting concept to me, especially since it seems to crop up more in the world of PC and video game criticism than anywhere else. It’s also a concept that, as you can tell from the title of this piece, I find to be utter bullshit.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, refer to this piece written by Jim Sterling, a very well-known, ridiculously dressed game reviewer who produces several popular review series on Youtube. Sterling is best known for his legal run-ins with garbage game developer Digital Homicide, but he also wrote the above article for Destructoid several years ago in which he claims that hardcore fans were “ruining” newly announced titles in long-running franchises. The following excerpt sums up his position well:
It’s the sheer selfishness of these so-called “fans” that really irritates me. They don’t care about other fans, or even the developers. They don’t give a shit that if a developer catered exactly to them, that they could risk making a game with limited appeal and lose money. You’d think a fan would be happy to see a game in their favorite series make some money, but apparently not. The more hardcore the fans, the less happy they seem to be.
We have all seen the sort of hardcore fanboy/fangirl that Sterling seems to be writing about here. The type that demands that each and every aspect of the upcoming game in his favorite series be absolutely faithful to his vision of what makes said series special. And naturally, each hardcore fan of this type might have a slightly different vision for the series. However, the picture Sterling paints here of the legion of lunatic fans threatening to ruin good game series with their obsessive complaining leads us to ask three questions:
1) How many of these sorts of fans are there?
2) Are their complaints based on obsessions over minor aspects of the series, or are they grounded in reasonable concerns?
3) Do the above two questions even matter?
It’s impossible to accurately answer the first question because one man’s deranged fan is another man’s standard consumer. One subset of fans might really care about a game’s artistic style and might be irked when that style changes, for example, while a second might only care about whether the gameplay is fun and well-balanced, and a third might really be bothered by a subpar soundtrack. Which of these sorts of fans are foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics, and which are perfectly sane and reasonable people?
The second question ties into the first. Take all of the above hypothetical subsets of fans, dump them into the same Discord server or subreddit and they may well tear each other apart, because each of those fans is either obsessing over a minor aspect of the game or is expressing legitimate concerns about the game’s quality depending upon their points of view. Most people will probably agree that the sound Sonic the Hedgehog makes when he jumps doesn’t really matter when considering the overall quality of a Sonic game, but the fact that Sonic CD used a different jumping sound effect from the classic Sonic games of the Genesis/Megadrive bothered at least a few fans enough that they felt they had to bring it up. To most of us, Sonic’s jump sound is no big deal; to them, it is. Are their concerns automatically invalid because they’re not shared by a majority or even a significant minority of fans?
The most critical of these questions, however, is the third, and my answer to it is an emphatic no. Whatever the ratio of sane and rational to insane and lunatic fans is in any given fandom, wherever you choose to draw that line, it simply doesn’t matter because potential buyers of games cannot possibly have an entitled attitude regarding those games. The concept of gamer entitlement, and more broadly of fan entitlement, is completely bunk.
Let’s get technical about this. According to Merriam-Webster, entitlement is “a belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.” And a privilege is “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.”
When you buy a PC or video game, are you expecting to be granted a privilege; that is, a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor? No. Almost by definition, a privilege is given for free or for a nominal sum, or as an additional part of an exchange (for example, I contract to work for you, you contract to pay me a salary, and I receive the added privilege of using your company’s parking lot.) When you buy a game at retail price, however, you’re paying more than a nominal sum for a product that you hope will be worth the price in terms of the enjoyment you derive from it. It’s an equal exchange: your hard-earned money for the work of the game’s developers. Under the circumstances, therefore, neither side is entitled to anything before the exchange is initiated: you aren’t entitled to a game unless you pay for it, and a game’s developers and publishers aren’t entitled to your money unless they can convince you that their game is worth buying. The same principle naturally applies to any kind of product, whether it’s a work of art or entertainment or otherwise.
So when some fans of the Fire Emblem series kvetched about Nintendo censoring one screen in one of the DLC missions in Fire Emblem: Awakening featuring Tharja, the fan favorite creepy goth mage girl, bending over in a swimsuit in the North American release of the game, was that an instance of fan entitlement? If the DLC had been provided as a gift to players, you could perhaps argue that it was, but it wasn’t – we had to pay for that mission. You might think the complaint about this very minor instance of censorship was silly, but it was not an instance of entitlement if those fans were not going to buy the DLC otherwise.*
The next time someone makes an argument about fans acting “entitled” and being “whiny”, then, think about whether that’s really the case. The truly insanely hardcore fan with the long list of extremely specific demands is relatively rare – rare enough that such people seem to be pretty much ignored by developers and even mocked by their fellow fans. But one can’t blame fans for having certain expectations of their series they follow. When Jim Sterling wrote that “[y]ou’d think a fan would be happy to see a game in their favorite series make some money” he missed the mark completely – when developers make conscious decisions to change their series to appeal to wider audiences, they necessarily run the risk of alienating their established fanbases. As in any business, the developers are taking a calculated risk that may or may not pay off, and they can’t really complain if they lose old fans as a result – because they were never entitled to those fans in the first place. 𒀭
* By the way, Awakening is a great game that I highly recommend if you have a 3DS. Aside from the couple of missions that are specifically designed to provide you with tons of gold and EXP, though, the DLC content isn’t vital to the experience. Especially not if you’re playing the beach DLC just to see Tharja’s butt, because you’ll be greatly disappointed if you’re playing a North American or European copy of the game, which you probably are. If you’re looking for that kind of material, just go to Pixiv and plug サーリャ into the search bar (but not while you’re at work – I can’t stress that point enough.)