Kotaku's Luke Plunkett recently wrote an opinion piece entitled Why It's Stupid to Hate Call of Duty So Damn Much. Intrigued by the headline (and always a sucker for a well-considered opinion piece to counter the never-ending stream of gaming "list-icles" out there) I decided to see why people were stupid to hate on what is essentially the biggest game franchise in the world at this moment.
Some disclosure before we talk about Mr. Plunkett's article—I have no vested interest one way or the other in Call of Duty. I played a small portion of CoD: Modern Warfare's single player campaign, found it to be decent enough, and never finished it because I had other titles to review. When it comes to CoD I'm largely indifferent. I don't skip the games because I have anything against the series—but solely because I find realistic modern day military shooters that focus on online multiplayer aren't my cup of tea. I like my shooters in fantasy or sci-fi settings with an engaging single-player campaign. I've always felt that if I wanted to do the things CoD or Battlefield or the various Tom Clancy games ask of their players, I'd just enlist instead. The only point of this is to make it clear that I'm not a Call of Duty hater. Truth be told, I mostly don't give a shit about the games one way or the other. I'm too busy playing stuff I like to spend a lot of energy on titles that don't really interest me (so why are you prattling on here, Bracken? I hear you thinking… Patience. All will be clear soon).
With that out of the way, I plunged into the Kotaku editorial. It starts off strong, with Plunkett talking about how CoD inspires some really venomous reactions in gamers—and how CoD haters are quick to take to the Internet to voice their distaste for the game continuously. Having seen it happen, I know what he's talking about.
After that good beginning, it all goes bad. How does one even justify a statement like this:
"Take a look at any comments section on almost any video game site on Earth and you'll see the same thing. People wondering aloud why the series is so popular, complaining about its incremental updates, mocking its design and lambasting those who have the tenacity to actually enjoy it.
Those people are idiots."
So, you're an idiot if you find CoD's annual updates that charge $60 for incremental changes or you don't like the game design? Really? This is where the level of thought and discourse is at on one of the biggest gaming blogs on the entire Internet? I agree that lambasting something others like that you don't is pretty idiotic—but how can you lump people in with legitimate issues? Oh, but wait—it gets worse.
The article then goes on to make the distinction that it's okay to dislike Call of Duty, but that it's stupid to hate it. And why is it stupid to hate it? Because people who hate a mega popular video game are "obnoxious elitists."
Yes, forget for a second any of the real and valid reasons you might have had for hating Call of Duty. They don't matter. You're an obnoxious elitist. It's that simple.
In Mr. Plunkett's defense, he does eventually say that there are valid reasons to criticize the franchise (followed by "there are plenty of reasons to love it as well"—he never bothers to acknowledge what those reasons might be, of course), but that's only after he's assured us that if you hate CoD then its only because you're the type of gamer who longs for the days when gaming was "uncool" and niche or are certain anyone who likes the game (and Madden, the other perennial whipping boy of gaming) is just a casual gamer who doesn't know anything and isn't as "hardcore" as you are. How is painting people who hate CoD with these broad brushstrokes and generalizations any better than the behavior he's attributing to "the haters?" How is it okay for him to talk about millions of people loving Call of Duty? If hating an inanimate object is ridiculous, wouldn't loving it be just as stupid? Shouldn't it only be acceptable to like the franchise by his earlier logic? I'm nitpicking, but I didn't set the rules of this debate in the first place.
I get that Mr. Plunkett is talking about a certain segment of gamers—but he's lumped a whole lot of other people in with bad apples by insinuating that anyone who dares to dislike the game's design or release structure is an idiot. There are very valid reasons to be troubled by what franchises like Call of Duty are doing to the gaming landscape. It's a successful franchise that other franchises will look to emulate—often in the worst ways possible. Just one example is that full priced yearly releases with relatively minor upgrades are not a good business model for publishers or gamers. It's myopic to think that Call of Duty exists in a vacuum where it doesn't affect the rest of the industry. There's been a certain segment of gamers who've always vocally opposed things like yearly releases with little added in terms of features to justify another full price retail purchase. Before this, it was Madden. There was a time it was Tony Hawk. At one point it was Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Fans will say "don't buy it if you don't like it"—and they're right—but that doesn't make it wrong to discuss these issues. It's not wrong to point out why you don't like Call of Duty just because a billion other people do. A billion people love Justin Bieber, too—does that make him above critical reproach? Does that mean those us who don't like his music shouldn't articulate why we don't like it?
And this is where Mr. Plunkett's piece really starts to lose the plot—he says "people don't walk around calling themselves "moviers", and pretend they're the only ones allowed to watch films. Everybody watches movies, some more than others, everyone with their own likes and dislikes. Same with books, same with TV, same with music."
He's right, no one calls themselves "moviers"—they call themselves "cinephiles" or "cineastes" and they very much exist. And while some of my fellow cinephiles can be "obnoxious elitists" who laugh at people listing something like Transformers as the greatest film they've ever seen, and sneer at people who call films "movies," the majority of them are passionate about the artform and interested in sharing their knowledge and perspective not to belittle people, but to help them see things in a broader context. I know firsthand—I've spent the majority of my adult life writing about film.
In the grand scheme of things, this is yet another example of gaming wanting to have its cake and eat it too. Gaming is oh so desperate to be recognized as a form of art—but articles like Mr. Plunkett's demonstrate that gaming isn't really ready to endure the critical analysis required to be taken seriously beyond the confines of mere entertainment. Yes, there's a vocal contingent of "gamers" who hate things for the misguided reasons the editorial points out—but not everyone who hates Call of Duty or Madden or Halo or some other gigantic franchise is doing it solely to be cool, hip, or iconoclastic. If gaming ever hopes to be taken seriously as an artform, if it ever even dreams of rising above the level of disposable culture, it's going to need the gaming equivalent of cineastes and bibliophiles to help get it there. That means people with passionate opinions about things—good or bad—and maybe people not afraid to hate a wildly popular franchise.
There will always be people railing against popular things for no other reason than because it's easy attention and makes them feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, that's just the nature of discourse in the Internet age. However, there's not only room for passionate opinions both positive and negative in the realm of gaming—there's a distinct need. This is particularly true of cogent and thoughtful negative opinions, because "game journalism" has demonstrated that it's mostly just a cheerleader for the industry and only marginally interested in being truly critical. Ignoring or attempting to marginalize dissenting opinions by labeling the opposition as "haters" and "obnoxious elitists" is no better than the trolls on message boards who say little more than "Popular Game X suxxorz." It's okay to hate a game or a franchise. It's perfectly acceptable to be passionate about your hobby. It's all right to stand up and voice your negative opinion about a game or franchise in the face of overwhelming positivity—just make sure you can support that opinion logically and add something to the conversation. That doesn't make you an "obnoxious elitist"—it makes you a fan of gaming. From where I stand, there's nothing wrong with that.
Author's note: After Mr. Plunkett's article went up, I replied to him on Twitter with some questions in hopes of opening up a dialogue. Mr. Plunkett hasn't responded at the time of this writing, but if he chooses to at some point I'd be more than happy to let him clarify his side of the issue.