Why Totalbiscuit’s Video on Specific Definitions is Both Harmful and Frightening

Justin Keever | Sep 25, 2014

Last Sunday, I was relieved to see that someone had responded to John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s video on the importance of specifically defining what a videogame is. I rather enjoyed Joe Parlock’s article: it was well-mannered and effectively provided a brief counterargument to Bain’s video, saying that Bain’s definitions were rather arbitrary, and that “traditional” games and supposed notgames are really only differentiated by small changes in mechanics. And yet I felt that Parlock’s response was a little inadequate, in that it failed to both capture how utterly weak and ill-conceived Bain’s argument really was, and how this particular video was merely a small addition to the problematic work that Totalbiscuit makes a living on. Totalbiscuit has been a blight on the discussion surrounding games for years: he subsists on the cult of personality surrounding him, his regressive, reductive views on games, and his self-described cynicism (placing him within the popular “angry gamer” archetype, an infuriating genre of “criticism” that deserves its own article). His video on definitions isn’t a single flub form an otherwise innocuous commentator: we’re dealing with the kind of person who has (quite recently) leveraged his own white male privilege to sell himself as a voice of reason while still managing to subjugate and insult the woman (and really women in general) he’s ostensibly trying to not comment on. We’re dealing with someone who has publicly expressed his distaste for art and believes that despite that, he can safely call himself a critic of the videogame medium. Zoya, while talking about TB’s treatment of women (in the previously linked article), makes a salient point about Bain in general: he doesn’t know what criticism is. He has no critical lens by which to judge games, his interests lie in “value for money”. This is a problem that has been epitomized in Totalbiscuit’s video on “specific definitions,” that I think is worth observing closely: it isn’t just his argument that’s damaging, it’s his entire perspective on videogames.

I won’t link his video here, as it is 20 minutes long and a complete and utter waste of time, so here’s a bit of context: Totalbiscuit’s released a video a week or two ago that ostensibly defends “specific definitions” in the domain of videogame discourse. What he’s really doing, of course, is defending the notion that saying that something is “not a game” is a valuable, useful way of describing those oh-so nebulous entertainment software products like Glitchhikers and Dear Esther. He goes on to explain that something’s status as a game is entirely based on whether or not it has a failure state, the implication being that “true” videogames have a particular challenge element. Elaborating, he explains that for something to be a game, it must involve a player actively working in opposition of a rule-set, occassionally citing the Meriam-Webster definition of “game” to support his argument. Mr. Biscuit goes on to justify his belief in his supposedly stringent definitions of a “videogame” by saying that it is his responsibility is to “inform or protect the consumer from making bad purchases.” He goes on, saying “that is what most people’s channels or websites should be built on if they are involved in critique or review… we should accurately describe what those experiences actually entail.” He goes on to claim that calling something  “not a game” or a “nongame” is not, in fact, an insult, and that games – I’m sorry, the bizarre and mysterious cultural objects that you interact with via a physical input that creates a change within a digital environment that are in no way videogames – like Dear Esther and Proteus and the like instead occupy some kind of new medium, or some sort of hybrid game-art medium, and that simply calling them games would be inaccurate.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this video, other than the profoundly antiquated nature of Bain’s argument. First: Totalbiscuit’s definition of “videogame” is rather fickle: the exact definition of “game,” and of the game-defining “failure state,” seem to change entirely based on the commentator’s tastes; i.e. if Totalbiscuit likes it (or if history is definitively not on his side), then it is a videogame. And if he does not, then it is not. He explains that failure states are what signify gameness, and then in the same breath excuses the Monkey Island games by claiming that not grasping a puzzle and failing to progress is an “implied failure state.” By this line of logic, a failure state does not have to be concretely expressed by the game itself, and is defined simply by a lack of progression. By this metric, the supposed nongames that Totalbiscuit speaks about in his video, like Proteus and Dear Esther, are games by his own standards: both require explicit player interaction to move their respective experiences forward. Failure of progression is a constant possibility: should the player fail to find the gathering of fireflies in Proteus, or walk the wrong way down Dear Esther’s linear path – or if the player were to just not move their character in either game – then they will have reached one of those “implied failure states” that act as the metric for Monkey Island’s gameness. However, Totalbiscuit’s logical lapse is admittedly already irrelevant: Dear Esther, the most infamous “nongame” of them all, has an explicit failure state. You can watch it for yourself in Totalbiscuit’s video: should the player walk into the water in Dear Esther, they will reach a black screen with a brief message, and then respawn back on the island, near where they drowned. Bain’s argument doesn’t fall apart with the ironically imprecise definition of the implied failure state, it falls apart at its very foundation: when the quintessential nongame has what you your defining feature of the videogame, your argument about what a game is holds no water.

Of course, Bain could have very easily made a much stronger argument against Proteus and Dear Esther and Glitchhikers being games. He is inadvertently drawing on the strict formalism of the foundational work of the academic discipline of game studies, making claims similar that are at least somewhat similar to those of noted ludologists like Eskelinen and Juul. As outmoded as the arguments of these ludologists are, they could provide an intellectually rich foundation for anyone trying to make an argument like Totalbiscuit’s; if you’re really trying to prove that Dear Esther and Proteus and Glitchhikers aren’t games, you may as well cite Jesper Juul’s essay on the definition of a game. You’ll still be wrong, but you’ll have cited the work of a trusted academic, proving that you are sufficiently informed and engaging with ideas that have true precedence in gaming discourse. Totalbiscuit, naturally, does not do this. Instead, he repeatedly cites Merriam-Webster as the be-all end-all of knowledge and meaning, saying that his insistence that games need failure states ties into the dictionary definition of game: “a physical or mental activity or contest that has rules and that people do for pleasure.” Citing the dictionary does not grant any kind of intellectual credibility; in fact, it does quite the opposite. Citing the dictionary stopped being acceptable in high school.  This lazy rhetorical tactic might have been acceptable if he had just used the dictionary definition as a quick baseline for the wholly uninformed, then expanded upon that definition with more in-depth material, but he never does. The entire precedence for his argument is drawn from those dictionary definitions. Biscuit’s inability to draw from the vast wealth of work that supports his flawed argument (and articulates his points better than he possibly could) shows that Bain is either woefully uninformed or actively anti-intellectual: he either didn’t know, or made the conscious choice to not include academic material in his video. And when you’re making theoretical arguments, it’s best to include some theory.

Moving away from the elements of his video that are merely harmful to those which are utterly infuriating brings us to his hypocritical insistence that “not a game” isn’t a pejorative term, arguing that calling something “not a game” or a “non-game” benefits the consumer because it informs them of what they are purchasing. That is bullshit, plain and simple. I’ll direct you now to Totalbiscuit’s awful video on Dear Esther, in which he repeatedly states that Dear Esther isn’t a game, going so far as to say that it has “no interactivity whatsoever1.” Listen to his little chuckle after he asks “Why is this on Steam, again?” Listen to the bemusement with which he repeats the phrase “it’s not a game” like the mantra of the world’s least cultured cult. Listen to his disgust as he utters “TheChineseRoom,” recoiling from his own words as though he can feel his credibility lessen with each syllable. Listen to that and tell me he isn’t accusing Dear Esther of “not being a game” to insult it; that he isn’t merely justifying his lack of enjoyment attempting to discredit Dear Esther’s gameness entirely. The venom in his words betrays the intent of their use. Dear Esther isn’t just a nongame; it’s beneath him because it is a nongame.

Our Cynical Brit goes on to submit that games like Glitchhikers and Proteus (I’m sorry, by the way, for repeatedly mentioning these games, but these are the focus of the video in question) are so far away from the “rule-sets” that govern what it is to be a videogame that games like these should be considered a whole new medium; or at the very least, they should be considered some kind of “crossover medium, taking elements from videogames and mixing them with elements from art exhibits and installations.” Here we witness John Bain’s utter lack of understanding of what exactly a medium is. Art exhibits are not mediums onto themselves. No one insists that Philip Guston’s “Red Painting” is not a painting simply because it’s unconventional and it hangs in a gallery. No one challenges a painting’s status as a painting depending on whether or not it hangs in a museum or above a hotel bed. I can hardly articulate a counter-argument to Totalbiscuit’s point here, it’s just so utterly wrong. That’s just not the way artistic media function: someone works in a medium like paint or film to create art. They do not work within the medium of “art.” Hell, even the more conceptual, gallery-focused works of “game-art” that TB seems to be attempting to gesture towards still qualify as games. Benjamin Poynter’s In a Permanent Save State was played live with a musical accompaniment in Sierra Arts Foundation Gallery, yet it was sold on the iPhone App Store as a game2. Mary Flanagan’s [domestic] has seen the light of day only in exhibitions and videos of said exhibitions, and yet it is thoroughly recognizable as a game: for all its surreal abstraction, [domestic] is still a Quake 3 mod (complete with shooting mechanics!).

I’ll sympathize with Bain for a minute and admit that the definition of “medium” has become a bit confounding since the introduction of New Media to the art world. The whole notion of calling videogames a medium is a bit problematic, since videogames technically do not fit the traditional definition of an artistic medium. After all, “videogame” is not a material that is manipulated by an artist, but the end result of manipulation of several forms of digital art. Yet what we collectively call the videogame has recognizable behaviors and components that allow us to identify this subgenre of digital art as a medium all its own: a medium that is most readily defined by creators calling their works “videogames.” Ideally, we’d approach unconventional, avant-garde games like Glitchhikers or Mountain (and the former isn’t all that unconventional) with an open mind, and examine how each new experience works in relation to what we understand about games. And yet here we have Totalbiscuit, claiming that the best thing for videogames is for the creators of pieces like Proteus and Glitchhikers to stop defining their work as videogames, ostensibly so they can branch out creatively without being hamstrung by the limitations of the definition of games, while simultaneously preventing the public from ever accidentally spending money on a digital game that doesn’t involve shooting monsters. It should go without saying that fighting for Glitchhikers and Mountain and Proteus to be considered nongames is the best way to keep the medium stagnant.

But John Bain is invested in stagnation: his livelihood relies entirely on the maintaining the (awful) status quo of mainstream games discourse. Bain is threatened by games like Dear Esther and Glitchhikers because he lacks the intellectual and critical tools to approach them intelligently. He makes a living playing games and recording his moment-to-moment reactions to them, thus abiding by a format that simply doesn’t allow for measured, careful consideration. On its own, that’s ok: plenty of people are making a living shouting “Oh Shit!” whenever something mildly exciting happens while they’re playing a videogame. But that’s not Bain’s modus operandi: his so-called “first impressions” videos (his popular “WTF Is…” series) exist in a bizarre limbo between let’s plays and reviews, in which he feels the freedom to give uninformed live responses while still making overarching qualitative statements on the games he’s playing. What Bain fails to understand is that by combining uninformed reactions with overzealous, Fox News outrage-esque punditry, he has inherently failed in his mission “inform and protect the consumer” because he is filtering his supposedly objective (a word he doesn’t use, but gestures to quite a bit) presentation of the content of a game through the lens of what he deems important: the fact that every single one of his videos begins with 5 insufferable minutes of a graphics options menu speaks multitudes about Bain’s priorities. He comes at games with a decidedly old-world perspective, treating them technical products whose performance needs to be evaluated, as though having a sub-60 FPS framerate is the equivalent of a car having a sticky accelerator. Listen as he dismisses Samurai Gunn for being locked at 40 FPS, or as he attempts to mod Need for Speed: Rivals to increase the game’s frame rate, breaks the game doing so, and then criticizes it for being broken.  He is incapable of making qualitative judgments on games as a medium of creative artistic expression: his interests lie in whether or not they perform to his standards. He treats games like tech demos for his overpriced GPU, perpetuating PC gamers’ entitlement to the very prettiest textures and lighting effects in videos like this one, wherein he calls conspiracy about the lowered graphical fidelity of Watch Dogs on PC, the modded version of which he professed ran just fine on his 6,000 dollar gaming machine. This kind of spec-focused nonsense isn’t criticism: it is consumer reports. His qualitative judgments are based solely in the functionality (with an emphasis on fun!) of games, with little to no thought to any kind of thematic or ideological implications. This is his focus by his own admission: he is all about consumer advocacy, placing the entirety of his focus on making sure that the people who watch his videos don’t make bad purchases (insert snide comment about neoliberalism and the way Bain perceives his audience’s value here). But in reality, he isn’t just consumer reports. He’s consumer reports with the veneer of actual criticism, actively making value judgments based on criteria that haven’t been at the forefront of actual critical discourse for at least 15 years. And because these tired elements like graphical fidelity, framerate, and fun3 dominate his perspective on what makes a videogame worthwhile, he lacks the tools to intelligently approach games like Glitchhikers and Dear Esther meaningfully (that is, anyone who cares about Glitchhikers doesn’t care about whether it runs at 60 FPS), so instead of just finding his niche of games and focusing on that, he covers these art games and belittles them, calling them “nongames” in order to maintain the illusion of his relevance to the gaming world writ large. You can’t claim to be youtube’s #1 PC Gaming critic if you completely fail to understand an entire subset of videogames. Best claim they’re not games at all, and make your problem go away.

Totalbiscuit’s video on definitions isn’t even all that popular, relative to some of his other work: at the time of this writing, it’s sitting at just over two hundred thousand views (his most popular videos have upwards of 3 million views). But even if this particular video has gained less traction than some of his prior ones, it’s hard to merely ignore regressive, uninformed arguments when they’re being spouted by someone who’s accumulated over 1.7 million followers. Bain’s video on definitions reflects the point of view with which he approaches all videogames, and the notion that millions of people would turn to a perspective like his to shape their own values as to what a game is and what makes a game worth playing is, to use his own words, fucking terrifying.
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Endnotes:

1He said this while showing a gameplay video! I’ll assume Bain didn’t realize he was using the keyboard and mouse and just assumed the main character’s movement just happened automatically)

2And was, funnily enough, promptly removed from the iPhone App Store, with Apple reportedly claiming that it had violated their guidelines regarding “objectionable content” for supposedly targeting a corporation (the game is about the Foxconn Suicides).

3Yes, fun is an outmoded criterion for the quality of a videogame. Get used to it.

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1 Comment

  1. this is an amazingly insightful and interesting article. i always felt like there was something off about TBs vids and attitude but couldn’t really put it into a coherent explanation.

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