when should you listen to fans? (fucking never)

thematically, these screenshots mean nothing; once again, I’m not using them for illustrative purposes but to break up the post so it isn’t visually exhausting. these screenshots are from digimon cyber sleuth and will be until I say otherwise, if I say otherwise.

hi, so there’s A Discourse floating around and I’ve been thinking about it because it’s about How People React To Things, and that doesn’t just mean how we, as artists, make things people react to, but how we react to the feedback from all of this.

I am an artist, I make art. I have thoughts about how we oughtta react to the responses sent our way. So that’s what this is. This is largely written from that perspective, but it’s also for people who aren’t artists but who want to converse with them; it’s for you if you want to think about art and the artist-audience interaction in any way. But it’s from the perspective of someone who has slaved away on something they think people might like and nervously hopes that people might love it.

So I’ve got this game, Adios. It has a pig farmer in it, and that pig farmer helps people dispose of bodies for the mob. I do not really have any emotional reaction to this myself, because I watch mob movies all the time, but some people have reacted strongly to the premise alone. Adios does not have any trigger warnings whatsoever, but the game itself is about a man who is absolutely going to die at the end of the story. Doesn’t bother me none; just watched Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and Forrest Whitaker gets shot at the end (several times!) and, again, like, this does nothing to me.

But.

Back in 2010, a dumb cop procedural show aired an episode about a serial killer. It gave me the first panic attack I’ve ever had. Scared the bejesus out of me. This was because I had known a serial killer; the guy’d come over to our house a few times, and after he was caught, I’d been told that he’d been scoping out family out as a target. We came really close to being killed. That’s pretty scary! I’d never really dealt with it until that episode, and they just kinda sprung it on me, and since the serial killer in the tv show was inspired by the guy I knew, it hit really hard. That episode was just the thing I needed to get over a trauma I didn’t even really understand that I had.

As an essayist, if you’ve read my writing, you know that I talk a lot about the idea that art can help people. It’s why I invoke Tarkovsky’s “the primary purpose of art is not to communicate ideas but to prepare us for death, rendering our souls capable of turning to good” idea as often as I do. My belief, my absolute, firmest belief about art is that we create it to deal with things.

That is what art is.

That is why we are drawn to make it.

When art speaks to us, it’s because we tap into something deep within ourselves that matters to us. We aren’t just sad because a boy loses his dog in Old Yeller, we’re sad because we know what loss is.

Art lets us grapple with that kind of stuff, and that’s really cool.

But! Some people might not want to experience what I experienced watching a dumb police procedural, right? Like, that doesn’t necessarily need to be sprung on them.

This is where things get a bit thorny.

Like, I read a while back people arguing that trigger warnings were actually psychologically more damaging to people than not including them. I’ve seen people demand fixes based on imagined slights (more on this in a bit). I know that for me personally, having to confront the emotion organically was what I needed most.

But the thing is, trauma, and dealing with trauma, isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are other people who really can’t deal with certain things; the pain is too great. There are topics I intentionally avoid because I don’t feel comfortable with them, because they’re about things that happened to me when I was much younger, and I’ve got a therapist for that. In fact, I’d probably resent someone if they forced me to see something dealing with my trauma in a way I wasn’t comfortable with.

So, since you know what I’m about, you know why this could give me pause, right? If I think art is meant to help people deal, then art that does the opposite is a problem, right? If it hurts people, it has likely failed as art.

Some people will hear “your work does a bad thing,” and that is either true or it is not true. If the author didn’t intend to cause harm, then it’s perfectly reasonable to understand a bit of indignance; “I didn’t do that, I did my best to make something cool. I cared very deeply about it, and now you’re telling me I’m doing something I definitely do not have any intention of doing? Fuck off.”

But, hey, we all have blinders, because we all have unique lives. Every single one of us has had experiences nobody else has had; our brains are wired unlike anyone else’s out there. It is conceivable that what we do, as creators, may have caused an issue accidentally.

Take Adios, for instance. There’s a taco company called “Taco Toto.” I wanted to call it “Taco Toro,” but that name was taken in real life, so I went with “Taco Toto,” because of the alliteration that reminds me of a local taco place that was everywhere when I was growing up, Taco Tico, and because Toto is the name of Dorothy’s dog.

Someone told me that “Toto” is a lewd slang reference in their language the other day.

So that’s not great.

Not my intent, not my experience, totally valid reasons for doing what I did, but hey, someone else is gonna have a very different reaction to the name of my taco place.

If you know basic communications theory, you already know this; communication requires a sender and a receiver, and there is always some degree of signal interference, which can range from literal signal interference to someone thinking about someone’s sex parts when they hear the name of a dog from The Wizard of Oz.

So let’s say someone comes to you and says something that you didn’t intend, which you believe is ridiculous.

I’ve found that in trying to convince someone of a point, directly invalidating their concerns, which they feel are real, can often cause them to entrench. I am personally interested in convincing them towards a position I believe to be better, so I’d like to offer a phrase that has helped me work out a lot of problems.

Here it is: “take it seriously.”

Like, heck, I was reading just last week about a woman who died in the hospital because her doctor didn’t take her seriously. He didn’t believe her. If he took her seriously, then he could have done the tests; he wouldn’t have been gullible for listening to her. Instead, he would have done his due diligence and she wouldn’t have died. Since he didn’t take her seriously, she died.

That fuckin sucks.

For the people who go “what happens if a doctor believes someone who might have something like Munchausen By Proxy instead of being skeptical? Couldn’t that cause harm?” I think “take it seriously” handily solves any possible worries you might have that someone is being dishonest. If you take someone seriously, do an investigation, and find there’s nothing wrong, then you aren’t dumb, you did your due diligence.

So, if we believe that art helps people, and someone says “your art is not helpful,” then I am not asking you to believe them and do whatever they tell you, because I know you’re afraid of being taken for a fool, but I am going to ask you to at least take it seriously, yeah? No one is gonna think you’re an idiot for at least listening.

When I was assaulted back in 2013, I was laughed at. A cop had literally pulled my boss off of me, and I’d gone to HR, and not once did they actually take me seriously. I’m not going to speak for all victims of violence, but I can tell you — all I really wanted was for my fears to be taken seriously. If I had, they could have investigated, found out what happened, and done the right thing. Instead, she locked me in a room and proceeded to threaten me (‘don’t you ever report me to HR again!’) and try to make me sign a document confessing to being insubordinate.

I would have really appreciated being taken seriously.

I once wrote something like “war is madness” for an article, and some guy stopped me, indignant. “You should change that to something else, you’re hurting people.” Knowing how tedious the process of changing an article for a major web publication is (I had no CMS access myself and would have to start emailing people to get it changed), and believing the statement was not harmful, I decided to at least make sure I could understand him.

His contention was that the piece harmed neurodivergent people and they would be caused significant anxiety by this. I learned that he was neurotypical himself and was not speaking at anyone’s request, but had simply decided what I’d said might be causing someone, somewhere, distress, so he took it upon himself to demand I change my piece.

Thing is, I’m neurodivergent.

So I politely declined.

Look at that. Took him seriously, his claims were bogus, he was trying to tell me how he assumed I would feel and butted into a lane that wasn’t his to be in; his claims were bogus, I moved on. But if my piece had caused harm, I would want to try to work towards a conclusion and not do harm.

Look how easy that was. All you have to do is take people seriously. If you find out they’re serious, then wow, you have an opportunity to help someone! If you find out they’re bogus, well, cool, now you know for a fact you can ignore them. Completely justified. Take things seriously.

Truth is, I don’t really know what to do when people are right. Take Adios, for instance; if someone were to message me and say “my father was eaten by pigs, and this game really upsets me,” I’m unsure what to do; it’s currently “overwhelmingly positive” on steam. Should this one person’s unique trauma outweigh the vast number of people who clearly value the game?

It hasn’t made a significant amount of money; would somehow getting all the actors back into the recording booth, spending weeks of my time rewriting the entire script, and maybe even paying to re-model and re-animate a new animal species really be worth changing for just one person?

Probably not.

Like, in that case, hey, maybe harm has been done, but it was inadvertent, the store page made it clear what the game was about, and the person went ahead anyways.

Since I’ve read that trigger warnings do cause duress in people, I find myself worried that including them might be worse than not. I’m unsure of how to handle that myself, and it’s still something I’m thinking about. I know my pieces often attempt comprehensiveness, so I don’t like saying I don’t have a simple answer, but… that’s really the case here. I do not know what the answer is. I am hesitant to include trigger warnings in the work. Store page? Sure. But in the work? I dunno.

In a recent case last week, a trigger warning indicated an event occurred in the past when it actually occurred in-game. That was an error of ambiguous wording. Text is generally easy to change in games compared to everything else (unless you’ve localized it for multiple languages, then oh boy, but it’s still easier than remodeling and re-animating an entire shooter), so the fix seems relatively easy; they set incorrect expectations, and those should be fixed.

this

this shit right here

is where shit gets weird.

Apparently somehow the discourse morphed into some people arguing that game developers are bad for ever setting incorrect expectations. I didn’t follow all of the discourse, but a lot of people (whose opinions I value greatly) followed it to the point of people apparently saying that the onus is on game developers to literally change anything if people tell them they expected something different, or demanding that games always be safe for everyone.

This led some suggestions that had a very “the customer is always right,” vibe, and since I think that’s horse shit, I’m going to explore this a bit.

First, people have weird expectations all the time. When I first pitched Adios, the first response someone sent to me was “this sounds hilarious!” Okay, Adios is not a comedy though, it’s a melancholy game, and after it was published, people have remarked on how sad it made them.

Sometimes, those expectations are reasonable, like that time a game said “we have cloud saving,” and it did not, in fact, have cloud saving at all, and many people had correctly pointed this out. Cloud saving was patched in way after I lost my save.

Other times, those expectations are reasonable for the consumers, but then the consumers respond based on their expectations and not what’s in front of them, like with Brutal Legend, a game I will not type the umlaut for. That game was advertised as if it was a God of War-like game, in both trailers and the demo, as I recall, but the bulk of the actual gameplay was kind of a not-that-great real time strategy game. People reasonably reacted with frustration — that’s $60 out of pocket that they can’t just return since brick and mortar stores won’t let you return games that are opened — but the game itself isn’t really as bad as people would have you believe. It’s primarily different.

Other times, the developers don’t so much lie as they do message poorly, like when Sean Murray played super coy with a lot of No Man’s Sky details, and fans hypothesized a nonexistent game that just wasn’t the final experience. So that’s kinda on both of them, even though the fan response was outsized in how horrendous it was (and there may have been some shady shit too, like how Murray said you’d be able to meet your friends in game or something, and that was not a feature available until it was patched in years later).

A lot of fucked up expectations just come from fan theorizing, though. Like, look at how people get mad at game conferences when some anonymous 4chan post is like “oh man, silent hill is gonna be there!” and then it isn’t there; nobody promised it would be, but the gamers get mad. I remember some people getting mad at Adios because they thought somehow we were taking budget away from like, the next Gears of War or something, even though we were at an indie showcase. But they thought there’d be a megaton and they had nowhere to direct their ire when there wasn’t, so they were mean to us.

I saw a guy get mad the other day because the fruit in one game didn’t explode as prettily as another. I saw people get mad because they thought the resolution of some puddles was worse in the shipped game than the trailer. There are youtubers, like Crowbcat, who literally try to make developers look bad by recontextualizing comments and stuff as ironclad promises and marketing copy that they lied about. Hell, I saw an interview the other day with some fighting game devs, Masahiro Sakurai and Katsuhiro Harada, talking about how it’s so hard to say anything, because fans will latch onto any remark you made like it’s all clues to your next game.

Like, gamers, I dunno how to tell you this, but sometimes, you make a puddle and then you find the game isn’t super performant and since you want to make a good game, you gotta crank the settings down a bit. Better to play at 4k60 than it would be to have random framedips because a puddle isn’t working right, wouldn’t you agree?

I saw a tweet today where a guy said that one of the playtesters on a game flagged a major bug because “a character cannot shoot another character, because they’re in love,” and apparently this was… because the playtester had decided to ship the characters. The designers did not intend the characters to be in love, that was just something this guy had come up with on his own.

And that’s where things get sticky. Players see trailers, they build elaborate theories, then they get mad when their theories, which they made up, turn out not to be true. There’s a picture of a man that showed up on my timeline recently. This man has made a video game. People think he’s secretly Hideo Kojima. Over on the reddit, they’re arguing that a photo of the man shows his ears in shadow but they’re the same color, so the light must not be real and the man is a fake cg render.

Imagine if a jury freed the Boston Bomber because reddit had decided that someone else was the killer (spawning the infamous “we did it, reddit” meme) and reddit deserved to be right. Then imagine the innocent guy going to jail because reddit was wrong.

You ain’t owe fan communities shit, boyo

People do not deserve validation for making shit up and being disappointed when they’re wrong. Full stop. If someone comes into your game with the wrong expectations about what the game is, there is a point where you cannot control that. Don’t be like the guy I mentioned above, who now has people arguing he’s a CG render, and egg them on, only posting plausible deniability remarks occasionally. It encourages more bad fan behavior, and you’ll probably get some sales out of it by people who are skeptical but hear all the buzz, but that tacit encouragement only means they’ll keep doing it and hurting other people. So maybe don’t, even if yeah, you’ll probably get some sales out of it.

My point is: you can only go so far. If you say “this is my game, this is what it’s about,” and someone goes “wow I thought it was about something else,” even if their ‘evidence’ is all just shit you said taken out of context, or random guessing… you owe them nothing. Happens all the time. I bought something not long ago that ended up not suiting my need; I thought it was a stereo cable, it was a mono cable. My bad. I don’t need them to change the cable to suit my needs. I refunded it ’cause it wasn’t for me.

“It isn’t for you” is tricky, though.

Take the Dark Souls discourse, right? The game is supposed to be hard. I get that. But what’s hard for you and what’s hard for me are two different things. Imagine an NBA player watching some kids play with 7 foot hoops and marching over there and raising the basket and going “basketball isn’t for you. It’s too easy.”

Sure, yes, if you’re 7 feet tall, a 7 foot hoop is nothing.

If you’re 4 feet tall, a 6 foot hoop is everything. A 10 foot regulation hoop is impossible. You have to clear a full six feet — that’s 150% your body height — to get to a 10 foot hoop. A 7 foot basketball player only has to clear 3 feet, that’s 42% of their body height. 150% vs 42%. Pretty big difference, right? And that’s not even taking into account the kids aren’t pro level athletes who’ve hit maturity yet as opposed to guys who do this for a literal living.

My disability means that adjusting parrying timings and things so I don’t end up with my muscles spasming out of control. It does not mean I am playing it easy. I am putting in more effort than a healthy person on every single activity in my life.

So “it isn’t for you” can be asshole talk. I’ve S-ranked encounters in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but some of those quick time events are built for people who don’t have muscle spasming issues, and so I’m really struggling with certain fights I shouldn’t have to. The game is absolutely for me, but my body doesn’t always agree. An able bodied friend beat it in a night. It’s taken me months.

But I mean… also, not everything is for you.

If I make a game about, say, a guy who loves his dog, and you don’t like dogs, the game isn’t for you. If you were bitten by a dog as a kid, then there’s trauma associated with that. Game still isn’t for you. If the game is wildly popular and all your friends are playing it and you feel like you’re missing out… well, it’s still not really for you, it’s for people who love dogs. There’s a difference between this and “this game should be hard,” and it comes down to this:

“Hard” is subjective, but it can be accounted for, and “a unique situation where I don’t like the premise of the work at all,” is related to subjective experience but cannot be accounted for.

I don’t like salmon because of childhood trauma. That doesn’t mean that I think no store should stock salmon; some people do not have the issue and they love salmon. My trauma should not get in their way; it isn’t actually traumatizing me for other people to enjoy salmon, the traumatizing thing is for me to actually have to try to gag it down.

So sometimes, a game might be about something you don’t care about, something that doesn’t appeal to you, whatever… and that’s perfectly fine. A friend of mine streamed a game called “The Missing” to me the other day. Looked cool, said I should play it. No thanks, I don’t like sidescrolling games, even if some of the mechanics ideas were super cool. The game isn’t for me. I don’t need to demand they include a first person mode to make me happy.

(however, for any game with third person mode, I do often joke that it would be better in first person and am genuinely delighted when games do include first person modes, like The Evil Within 2 did)

This is where “respect the designer’s vision” comes into play. If someone wants to make a sidescroller, and all my friends are playing it, but I don’t really love it… that’s okay! This actually happens a lot. Many of my friends love survival crafting games, or roguelike-ish boat crew games. Whatever, not my thing. I won’t buy those games.

But! If a game developer made a game about you, yes, you, the person reading this, and they made a game that was about why they thought you should die in a fire, and told all sorts of lies about you in the game, and just were generally really shitty to you… you don’t gotta respect the designer’s vision. They’re being a dick. To you. Personally. There’s nothing sacred about it; art deserves criticism!

So if you boot up a game and it has stuff you don’t like in it, then ask yourself if it’s really truly hurting anyone. If I’m playing a game and it has a bunch of racial slurs in it, then that’s probably doing hurt. However, you can’t always know, especially if the experience is outside your wheelhouse. If a game is doing a thing that might be good or bad, but you don’t personally know, then don’t be like the guy who told me “war is madness” is somehow probably hurting people. Go ask the people who might be affected? I’ve asked some people and heard “oh, no, that’s fine,” before. You don’t gotta be worried everything everywhere is secretly harmful.

Offer feedback if you definitely know something is causing harm. Trust me, my vegan friends are not bothered by playing Monster Hunter, if you’ve never spoken to a vegan about it, maybe you should ask them first.

Sometimes, you’ll get mixed responses! I genuinely don’t know what to do about that. There was some content in one type of game that some marginalized friends said felt insulting, and some other marginalized friends said it felt validating. I’m not marginalized in that way, and I feel fundamentally wrong about deciding which of my friends is right about their feelings, so I don’t think I can, right? The game in question really impacted me in a crucial way; I’ve got an essay in the works about that. I don’t feel comfortable talking about the elements that I can’t speak to because I’m afraid of talking over the people who are actually impacted.

I can tell you that I, personally, being a marginalized person because of my disability, really doesn’t like people skirting around and assuming anything and everything might be offensive to me; I didn’t need someone going “let’s run over to the… I mean go over to the…” when I was in my wheelchair; I actually found it insulting. But I’m me. I’m not everyone.

So, yeah, good rule of thumb: if you think something might be offensive but you yourself do not know? Ask the people who you think might be affected! But it isn’t always a fix for everything, because not everybody agrees; no group is a monolith. So… you can start there, but it won’t solve everything.

Speaking of “rule of thumb,” did you know that some people have spread a really fucking weird story about how “rule of thumb” is about abuse? Yes, apparently someone made up the idea that “rule of thumb” referred to the width of a stick a husband was allowed to beat his wife with back in like the 1600s in Europe somewhere. Total fabrication, but then you have people going “oh no, no, you can’t say that!” because they think it alludes to abuse when that’s not the case.

Hell, when I was a kid, my dad dragged us out of the movie theatre and had a very stern talk with us in the car about how communicating with spirits is an evil “new age agenda.”

He was upset about the Hamlet Ghost scene from The Lion King.

It was my sixth birthday.

Shakespeare, who you may know as the writer of Hamlet, is definitely not New Age, lol. He had ghosts in several of his stories; Caesar’s “I will see thee at Phillipi,” to Brutus in Julius Caesar is a whole thing.

So… sometimes people are just wrong. Sometimes they say “this is bad” and they just do not have their facts straight; if someone is offended at the phrase “the rule of thumb” because they think it refers to a time when they could be beaten, I don’t know what to do about that; they’re incorrect, and you’re not actually hurting them. My soul was not at risk because The Lion King had a ghost in.

Still never seen the whole movie to this day.

My point is, if you’re a creator, people can bring things to the table you can have nothing to do with, not intend, and that you in no way could reasonably be understood as having created — there’s no “Toto is not a cute little dog from The Wizard of Oz, it’s slang for a sex organ” here. People are just… bringin baggage and you have zero obligation to take any action just because they feel entitled to your time and energy.

Do you think Disney really needs to retell the Lion King story because my dad didn’t know about Hamlet? No. My dad was just wrong about Hamlet. That’s all there is to it. You don’t owe him any narrative notes.

But, hey, again. Take it seriously. If someone airs a grievance, listen to it, gut check it, do some actual research, talk to other people who might be affected. Get a sense of what people are feeling, you know?

Just take it seriously.

When a person says “you can’t use the word idiot because — no human being alive ever heard this — the word used to refer to people with mental health issues, and so that might offend people today,” they’re stretching. Some people are just doing a never-ending game of “trying to find new things to get mad about.” I grew up in a super conservative christian environment; I saw lots of this, people constantly trying to go “I’m righteous, thus, I have power, and you are not righteous, so you have to accept this power I decided I have.” They want you confessing to them, crying in front of them, whatever they can do to be above you. They’re way beyond the idea of actually trying to mitigate harm.

I once read an impassioned open letter saying “hey, I have Downs Syndrome, please stop using the R-word, it really ruins my day,” and the person meant it. Cool, it seemed acceptable with my middle aged peers, but that’s something I don’t need in my vocabulary. When someone tries to position themselves an authority on language that pre-dates any living human being so they can find New Things To Go Viral About, okay, maybe don’t trust them on that.

I don’t know how to say it more clearly than this:

Don’t be the person who goes “I didn’t mean to cause a problem, so I didn’t,” or “everyone who criticizes me doesn’t respect art” or whatever. You’re not a sucker for taking someone seriously. If they end up being wrong, cool, you have no obligation. But at least start off taking ’em seriously.

Just try to do right by people.

PS: yeah I legit don’t know what to do about trigger warnings, sorry about that. I’ve heard they help and I’ve heard they harm. In my experience, they don’t work and it’s better not to have them. So for now, in my work, I’m not gonna do trigger warnings, but I won’t begrudge anyone who does. If I find out they’re really good, I’ll start using them.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.