On Idol Worship
Trigger warning: harassment
This one's been a long time coming.
If there's one thing I've been banging on about a lot recently, it's idol worship. Or hero worship, or putting people (or corporations) on a pedestal, or however you want to call it. The idea that some people, some companies, just can do no wrong. That some people, some companies, get put on this pedestal where even the slightest criticism is not welcome. As someone who routinely criticises certain companies, or the game industry as a whole, this is something I'm intimately familiar with and it's exhausting to deal with.
I will be using examples from gaming spaces for the most part, because that's where I spend most of my time and where I have first-hand experience with this kind of behavior.
Of course, this isn't JUST confined to gaming spaces, I would argue that it's a big problem in our culture and something that a lot of people engage in, consciously or not. And I want to address this, hoping that this sparks some kind of meaningful discussion.
I want to start by clarifying what I mean when talking about idol worship.
I do not consider it harmful to be passionate about something. That's good! By all means, be passionate about the things you like, I'm passionate about making video games.
The problem is this kind of fan culture where some people, some companies, some products, whatever, are held up as being perfect. Put on a pedestal. And when any criticism, no matter how mild, is voiced, it is met with backlash ranging from things like snide comments to outright harassment to actual death threats, doxxing and assault. Nothing is perfect, no person, no corporation is beyond reproach, and it's time that we (as a figure of speech) kill our idols and stop putting things on pedestals.
Passion is good, blind adoration and deification is not.
The thing that made me want to write this blog post is the reaction to the highly anticipated game called Cyberpunk 2077, both before and after its release.
The developer of this game, CD Projekt Red, is one of those companies that have been put on a pedestal for years. It was a critical darling, with many gamers fawning over them and excusing all of the horrible worker abuse at the company (which was known for years) because this was the good company, right? The company that cared about the gamers! The company that made The Witcher 3, which we all know is a masterpiece, right?
The people worshipping CD Projekt Red had decided that Cyberpunk 2077 was perfect before the game was even out. And when the early reviews started coming out, any review that didn't validate their hopes that the game (which they hadn't even played!) was perfect just wasn't acceptable.
Hell, not even actual facts were acceptable.
A reviewer who reported that the game gave her a seizure was targeted by the loyal followers of the church of CD Projekt Red. She was subjected to harassment, which included emails that contained material designed to give her more seizures.
The corporate loyalists spouted conspiratorial nonsense as well, claiming that there was an "agenda against CD Projekt Red" and that the press had it out for the game, despite a lot of the reviews praising the game, because remember... just praising the game isn't enough. Anything other than uncritical, unconditional, universal praise is not acceptable. The job of reviewers, in the minds of these overzealous fans, is to offer validation to the fans and to give uncritical 10/10 scores.
(also, just saying... To all the people who participated in this harassment or defend it; go fuck yourself.)
It's not just CD Projekt Red that's put on this kind of pedestal, either. Nintendo fans are known for similar behavior. I still remember the reaction to Jim Sterling's 7/10 score for Breath of the Wild, where a bunch of the fans flipped out at them for the score and for their criticism of things like the game's weapon durability system, and because their score apparently took the game's Metacritic score down or whatever. These fans took it so badly that they took down Jim Sterling's website with a distributed denial of service attack, because that's obviously the mature thing to do in that situation.
People also flipped out over a Grand Theft Auto V review that gave the game a 9/10 and was almost completely positive, because of one small paragraph mentioning how she thought the game was questionable in its attitude towards women. Didn't matter that the review was mostly positive otherwise and gave an incredibly high score, it had one small bit of criticism, and that was just going too far.
I also want to highlight the reaction to Jim Sterling's No Man's Sky review, where fans of the game had a real normal one and took down Jim's site again.
I can't, of course, not mention that time Zelda fans completely lost it over GameSpot's Twilight Princess review, which gave the game an 8.8/10 score. The reactions were beyond parody.
I am critical of a lot of the business practices of these companies, such as the inclusion of "loot box" mechanics (which are de-facto gambling mechanics) in a lot of games and the constant worker exploitation that these companies engage in. This kind of criticism gets cheered on when it's directed at the likes of Electronic Arts or Activision, which are companies that a lot of people already dislike, but when it's a company that people like, the same people who criticise EA, Activision or Ubisoft (whose HR department and leadership has spent years covering for sexual predators. But bring that up, and you're shouted down by fans who want to enjoy the latest Assassin's Creed game) for these things suddenly make an exception when the company doing it is a company that they have decided is "one of the good ones". You see, it's different when CD Projekt Red demands that its workers work overtime! After all, they're the good guys, so they're right by definition.
I have friends who had overzealous Nintendo fans coming after them because they dare to criticise the company for some of their business practices, or because they had unpopular opinions about some of the Super Mario games.
I know at least one friend who has had some very bad experiences with Steam fans because he is critical of the platform and the company running it.
I am reminded a lot of soccer fans. More specifically, the soccer hooligans who tend to flip out and riot whenever the team they're loyalists for loses a game.
This is cult behavior. I swear.
I'm not drawing these parallels to religious fundamentalism just to be edgy.
I am serious. I genuinely think this is cult behavior and I think it's worth looking at it through that lens.
No dissent is allowed. No criticism. Don't think, don't criticise these companies, don't even just say that a game is good. "Good" or "great" isn't enough. A score that isn't a 9/10 or a 10/10 means that you actually secretly think that the game is bad, at least in these people's imagination. Nothing except unconditional praise is acceptable, and this is enforced through harassment, threats of violence and acts of violence against those who don't fall in line and offer these people the validation they crave. And if you do offer criticism, it can't be valid, because, remember, these companies can do no wrong. No, it means that you have an agenda, you're trying to destroy their favorite company or you're just offended or whatever. Those who express ideas that go against the beliefs of the in-group are shunned, misrepresented and demonised. It's pure dogmatism.
Those who are fans of these games but don't agree 100% with these overzealous fans? Well, those were never real fans to begin with, right?
This stuff is why I keep drawing parallels to religious fundamentalism.
Again. This is cult behavior.
Also, I know that some people will scream "not all Nintendo fans", "not all CD Projekt Red fans" or "not all soccer fans" regardless of what I say, and these people probably haven't even read past the first few sentences of this blog post.
But for those who are engaging with this in good faith and are worried that I'm lumping them in with the kinds of people I've been banging on about, I want to make it as clear as possible that this isn't my intent.
I am only pointing fingers at the people who actually act and think like the people I described above. Not the people who like these things and are genuinely nice people, and a lot of them are nice people.
For what it's worth, I grew up with Nintendo games and still like them.
So why is this stuff happening?
Like with a lot of things, I don't think there is a clear-cut, definitive, black and white answer. I think there are several factors that contribute to it, though.
For starters, a lot of these companies have spent years, if not decades, pandering to their fans and conditioning them to be loyal to the brand. After all, from a business standpoint, a loyal customer who keeps buying your products and defends them against criticism is just good for business. This is, of course, not at all exclusive to the game industry. Comic book publishers have done the same thing, and both Marvel and DC Comics have legions of corporate loyalists willing to go to bat for them.
I also think that the concept of a parasocial relationship plays a role in this. To summarise, this is when fans develop a one-sided relationship with a public figure, a corporation or some other entity and do not realise that this relationship is one-sided. For those who aren't familiar with this kind of academic language, just think of Justin Bieber fans. (at least, the obsessive ones.)
The fan believes that they have an intimate connection with their idol, but the idol doesn't reciprocate, and most of the time, doesn't even know that the fan exists. It is the illusion of a friendship with a complete stranger.
But, to the person experiencing this parasocial relationship, it feels like a real friendship. So when someone criticises their idol, it feels like an attack on one of their friends.
Of course, a lot of companies, as well as public figures like celebrities, cultivate this kind of relationship in their fans in order to exploit it for financial gain. I recommend taking a closer look at how a lot of celebrities refer to their fans with terms like "family" or "gang", suggesting an exclusive in-group that the fans are part of. CD Projekt Red constantly refers to their fans as "gamers". Also, have you ever worked at a job where you were roped into team-building exercises and you were told that you're "part of the family" or that "we're all in this together, we're all pals" or something like that?
This kind of language, whether intentional or not, serves to obfuscate the truth about what's actually going on.
There is no family, no gang, and you're not all in this together.
You are a consumer.
That's the truth of the matter.
I do want to point out that CD Projekt Red has spent years hyping up Cyberpunk 2077 before its release. And this is a common thing in the mainstream game industry, with No Man's Sky being another well-known example of this.
There is almost certainly an element of sunk cost fallacy to this, where people get more and more emotionally invested in a thing because they've already spent so much time waiting for it, so it has to be worth it.
And with that comes more defensiveness, since being confronted with information that suggests that it might not be worth it leads to cognitive dissonance.
I also think that, as cynical as I'm sure this may sound, some of these people just like to harass people because it makes them feel big and powerful. Maybe they don't feel in control of their lives, they have a shitty job that they hate or just had a bad breakup, and they engage in this sort of behavior because it makes them feel like they're in control, and possibly gives them an outlet for their anger.
Those people probably need some form of therapy and, honestly, I do not know how to help those people. I'm not a therapist and reaching out to these people is outside the scope of my capabilities.
Lastly, I think that a lot of people just take their passion to unhealthy extremes. As I said before, passion is good, but it can go too far and become an obsession. I think that for a lot of the people I've been talking about, the object of their passion has become entangled with their identity. It has become part of their personal identity, and as such, criticising a game like Cyberpunk 2077 gets taken as an attack on an aspect of their identity.
And when we feel personally attacked, we get defensive, we lash out, regardless of whether the attack is real or imaginary.
And, again, companies are absolutely willing to exploit this. Remember, it's not about you, it's about the bottom line, and if they can manipulate you into becoming a corporate loyalist who will buy all their products and go to bat for them, that only serves their interests.
As a society, I think we need to change the way we look at companies, at celebrities, at artists and what not. We need to stop deifying people and putting them on pedestals. It is time that we stop creating idols and heroes, and that we see these idols for what they are: human. With all of the flaws and imperfections that entails. No one is perfect, no one is above criticism, and no one should be put on a pedestal and treated like a god.
We need to be aware of how we're conditioned to look up to certain people or companies, so that we can resist this kind of conditioning and instead form more healthy ways at looking at the world and our fellow human beings.
It is time to knock these idols, these heroes, these corporations off of their pedestals and see them for what they are: as flawed and fallible as everyone else.
It is time to engage with the things we're passionate about in a better way.
It is time to kill our idols.
That's all I have to say.
If you're still reading, thanks, I appreciate it. And I hope you have a good day.
I have a question for you.
Have you ever heard someone complain about people who like or dislike a certain game, or movie, or TV show, or other piece of media, and how "no true fan" would do that? Or maybe you've even been on the receiving end of this at some point?
If you're into geek stuff, like comic books or games, the answer to this question is probably yes.
It's a form of gatekeeping, a problem that plagues a lot of subcultures. The example I gave above is, of course, far from the only way that this happens. And, as someone who grew up with and loves games and spends a lot of their time in gaming spaces, I have been on the receiving end of this more times than I can count. I have a lot of friends who have been on the receiving end of this in the past and shared their experiences with me. I also make games, and I've seen this same behavior in game development spaces as well. I want to talk about this and take a stand against it.
And towards the end of this blog post, I want to talk about how I think we can solve this, or at least begin to work towards a solution to this problem.
I want to start this thing by talking about the forms of gatekeeping that I have experienced, as well as what people I know (not naming names) have experienced, as well as behavior that I've witnessed in spaces that I've been in. As a kid who mostly played Nintendo games on handheld devices, other kids often told me how I should play "real games" instead of "this Mario stuff". The games they played were almost always Call of Duty, Halo, something like that.
I often see people complaining about "casual gamers" in a derogatory way. Especially when companies "pander to casuals" by adding in features that make the game easier or more accessible to newcomers. For some reason, however, the companies rarely get the blame for this, the "casuals" do, even though the companies are the ones making these decisions. Don't get me wrong, I think it's valid to feel alienated when a company makes certain decisions for the sake of mass appeal and I think those decisions can mess with a game's quality. I've all but lost interest in Pokémon due to how much the newer games hold the player's hand. But those are the developer and publisher's decisions and blaming "casuals" for a multi-million dollar company's decisions is just absurd.
What I think is even more absurd is to claim that entire genres are "not real games" and that people who like those genres aren't "real gamers".
I also often see a certain subset of gamers claim that "women don't play video games" or "LBGTQ+ people don't play video games" or whatever when complaining about things like a game having a trans character or a character creator in a game letting you choose to make your character non-binary. First of all, getting upset that a game gives other people that option is really selfish because not everything is about you, but this claim that women, or non-straight, or non-cis people don't play games is factually incorrect. They do play video games and, yes, they're gamers. The "fake geek girl" crap is just exclusionary bullshit and can fuck right off.
There are also disabled and neurodivergent people who play video games and getting upset over a game adding optional features that make a game more accessible for those people is selfish as hell.
As a teenager, I got into coding and making games in Game Maker (back then, it wasn't called Game Maker: Studio yet) and I was often told that all Game Maker games are bad and that it's not a real engine. And, sure, a lot of games made in it were bad, but I wouldn't hear the same people talk about how a lot of Flash games or games made in other engines are bad. And the amount of smug condescension didn't help either.
And even as an adult, I still see the same kind of attitude from other game developers. RPG Maker isn't a real engine, developers who use Unity, RPG Maker, Game Maker: Studio, et cetera, aren't real developers, real developers make their own engine, blah blah blah. Putting aside the fact that both Unity and Game Maker: Studio are functional engines and some of the most popular and greatest games of the past decade were made in those engines and that there are quite a few good indie titles that were made in RPG Maker (To The Moon and Finding Paradise being examples of that), why this attitude? What's the point? Keep in mind that I'm not saying that any of the engines I just mentioned don't have problems. I use Game Maker: Studio and it's got enough problems for me to write a separate blog post about. And I tried RPG Maker in the past and found it to be such a pain to work with that I switched back to GMS, and that's not even going into the limitations of the engine. But I'm not going to sit here and claim that all games made in RPG Maker are bad and "real developers" don't use it, that's ridiculous. I might as well start talking in a posh upper-class accent.
A close friend has told me in the past how it bothers them that developers often treat game development as this club that you only get to be part of if you have accomplished certain things. Like, how he's been called a "fake developer" because he hasn't released a game yet, even though he's currently working on a game and I know he puts a lot of effort in it.
But, I get it, I suppose. Someone who spent months if not years to code their own engine from scratch might feel a bit of resentment when they see that someone made a working game in a few months in Unity or Game Maker. Someone who's been in the industry for years and released several games might get annoyed when someone who hasn't released anything yet calls themselves a developer and other people recognise them as such. I don't think that's justified, though. After all, someone else having an easier time doesn't mean that you can't take pride in your own work. It doesn't take away from your accomplishment. If you are only capable of taking pride in your own hard work if everyone else has to work just as hard, I'm sorry, but that's entirely a you problem.
I still remember the huge pile of toxic bullshit that was the discourse about whether Dark Souls and similar games should have an optional easy mode. I even joked about it on Twitter. The sheer outrage that some fans of those games directed at people for even just suggesting that the games should have an easy mode was just absurd. The fans I'm talking about would argue that adding in an easy mode was "against the vision of the developer", but if that was all that this was about, I don't think that explains the vitriol. Also, if the part about the developer's vision was true, people are allowed to criticise the developer's vision. Just saying. Regardless, I don't believe that this explains the scope of the outrage. I think it goes deeper than that.
Remember when the same shitstorm erupted after a modder added an easy difficulty into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice?
A mod that people could just choose to... I don't know, not install?
Again, it became this whole discourse, and a lot of people got upset over the fact that someone made a mod. The fact that this mod existed was enough to upset people. No one was forcing their vision on the developer, nothing, it was a fan-made mod for the game.
Also, I remember when people got upset that Star Fox Zero had an optional mode where the player cannot die, because the idea that someone might complete the game in that optional mode upset them for some reason.
As if these people feel that just the fact that other people get that option somehow magically diminishes their own accomplishment?
It's great to take pride in your work. If I coded an entire engine from scratch, I would be proud as well. Don't tie your identity and your self-worth to your work, though. The same goes for being good at playing difficult games.
I will never forget this post I read several years ago. Back then, I was into Touhou, and I spent a lot of time in Touhou fandom spaces.
And I came across this post, I think it was a comment on something on DeviantArt, but the person was talking about how they didn't want Touhou to become mainstream, because they liked how being into Touhou felt like being part of this club that only they and their friends knew about. That was their reasoning.
And I think that comment, probably unintentionally, does a much better job at explaining what drives a lot of this elitist gatekeeping behavior than a hundred think-pieces like this one ever could.
The root cause of this behavior, I think, is people wanting to feel special. To have this kind of elite status or whatever. To be part of this secret special club that no one else is part of. And if just anyone can get into game development or complete Sekiro, well, doing those things doesn't make you all that special anymore, does it?
But how do we solve this?
I don't know.
I don't think that there is a perfect solution. But I think there are ways that we can address this problem and work towards solving it.
As someone who helps run an indie game Discord server, I speak out against this sort of behavior when I see it in that server and I do my best to create an inclusive environment. I do my best to encourage discussion and to discourage people from taking disagreements personally, so on.
And as a developer and someone who has a lot of friends who make games as well, I often have conversations with those friends about this issue and how we should go about addressing it if our own games get popular enough to gain a following. I am of the belief that the community you build is the community you get, so I think it's important to build your community on inclusivity from the start. If you don't address toxic behavior when it happens, the toxic people will just keep doing it because they realise that they can get away with it, and before long, the toxic people will drive out everyone who isn't comfortable with their behavior and become the only people left. Better to address this sort of behavior before it becomes a huge problem. Don't cross that bridge when you get to it.
Of course, if you're not a community manager, you can also help deal with this problem. Just call it out when your friends do it or when people in a community you're in do it.
That's all I have to say.
If you're still reading, thanks, I appreciate it. And I hope you have a good day.
I am Bas de Groot, a starting indie developer. This blog consists of me rambling on about game development, stuff I like and issues that I care about, such as LBGTQ+ issues, neurodiversity and the flaws inherent in our capitalist system.