Subjectivism v. objectivism; can a game suck?


I stuck around after Thursday’s lecture to ask my philosophy professor a brief question. But as often happens, a brief question turned into a fascinating conversation.

It’s always a treat to get her insight, and this was no different. But as interesting as discussing philosophy can be, it will always be usurped by the mid-evening need for pizza and french fries. My mind’s thirst for intellectual nourishment slowly lost ground to the growling demands of my empty stomach.

In accordance with my audible physiological needs, I trudged across campus to the university dining hall.

While my dinners are usually a solo affair, I was pleasantly surprised to find a few friends had also just answered their bellies’ call to action. We gathered at a dimly lit corner table and, as always, began discussing the most indispensable component of college life.

Video games.

Paramount early in our discussions were comments easily summarized as “Call of Duty 4 split-screen this, Halo 3 online that.” But later, the conversation shifted into a discussion about the best games of the last few years. And as I listened to grandiose proclamations about the greatness of games like Heavenly Sword and Assassin’s Creed, I recalled my earlier philosophical discussion and made a profound realization:

They were wrong. Indubitably, irrefutably, unquestionably wrong.

“Whoa, Derek,” some of you may retort. “Maybe to them, Assassin’s Creed is one of the best games ever and Heavenly Sword doesn’t suck. To each their own, right?”

And you wouldn’t be alone in that belief. Many argue the concept of a bad game is inherently broken and what defines a bad game, or even a good game for that matter, is based entirely on personal preference. For example, you might point out that while Katie J. Fragger considers a DS game awful, Johnny B. Gamer may think it is the best game in years. In philosophy, subjectivism maintains the value of a given variable—an object, ethical view or, in our case, video game—is wholly determined by the individual.

Much like the saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” subjectivists argue a person can never be wrong about a value judgment.

For the video game consumer, subjectivism is a simple and seemingly logical way to assess value, essentially allowing them to justifiably label any game he or she enjoys as good. So pervasive is this view, it seems, that a rising movement of gaming subjectivists has negated the validity of the journalists and critics who serve them, suggesting games journalists are little more than hype-inducing amateurs who cannot be taken seriously. However, my criticism of subjectivism isn’t entirely focused on this growing view of games journalism.

Rather, I take issue with the assertion that a given game’s value can be decided simply by whether or not someone likes it.

Consider the fundamental basis of the subjectivist argument. Is someone who sings the praises of Super Mario Galaxy really assessing its value no more accurately than a person who calls it Nintendo’s worst? What about Katie J. Fragger, who tells Johnny B. Gamer that Ubisoft’s universally panned Red Steel is the best Wii game to date?

What if a person insists Chicken Shoot is a better shooter than Metroid Prime 3 simply because he or she liked it more? Are we really willing to grant the subjectivist claim in these situations, in which even hardened subjectivists have to acknowledge the argument loses some validity?

I mean, come on. It’s Chicken Shoot.

To embrace a subjectivist view in video games is to grant critical merit to any bargain shopper browsing Wal-Mart’s Wii section, even if her or she prefers Ninjabread Man to Twilight Princess.

Fortunately, there is an opposing view, although it may be an even harder pill to swallow. Objectivism contends value judgments of a given variable can be wrong. Furthermore, an objectivist argues there exists not only an incorrect value assessment of a given variable, but also a correct one. Unlike the alluring, to-each-his-own simplicity of subjectivism, objectivism makes much more intricate arguments. It can also be complicated since it can describe two very different positions. In fact, objectivists fall into two distinct categories: the realists and the relativists.

Realists believe there are universal and intrinsic features that determine the value of a given variable and these features alone are the criteria that define good and bad.

This proposition begs an obvious question—what exactly are these intrinsic value features, and how do we identify them? The realist is admittedly vague but insists they are the sole means of accurately determining value. In an argument that initially seems preposterous, the realist also claims only a select group of people have senses of value judgment heightened enough to detect these value features.

In other words, some people get it and others just can’t.

The realist defends this position with interesting arguments, asserting these intrinsic value features—the traits that make a given game good, for example—exist in the same way smell, color and taste does, as entirely tangible aspects of the universe. Some folks may be incapable of detecting them, but the realist argues that does not negate their existence. Just as a colorblind person cannot accurately see color and a deaf person cannot distinguish sound, so too exist those unable to sense value features.

Relativists, however, take a very different approach to determining value. Unlike the subjectivists, they feel a person can be wrong about his or her value judgment. But the relativists also disagree with the realist view that value can only be determined by an intrinsic set of value features. Essentially, relativists take the middle road—they maintain value is prescribed not by some intrinsic trait, but by the designation of value through a community agreement.

The relativist/realist split is perhaps most clearly explained like this.

Each of the two objectivist positions face a difficult problem, however.

The realist faces the aforementioned evidential question. Color, for example, has a physical story to tell in regard to its judgment, involving light meeting the retina. But the realists’ supposed intrinsic value features are left with no reliable, physically explainable access. With what faculty do we make these decisions?

Relativists are confronted with a more pressing issue. If asked why a community reaches an agreement on value, their argument could quickly change into to a realist proposition. For the relativist, unless he or she answers that the community decision is completely arbitrary, their argument asserts the community designated something as good because it is good. Their proposition is suddenly rendered obsolete—the relativist would then be supporting a decidedly realist claim.

Like Pit’s Centurion-calling final smash, these philosophical ideas bounced feverishly through the corridors of my mind as I quietly chewed my tasty Greek pizza, sipped my crisp, refreshing Cherry Coke and listened to five reasons Assassin’s Creed is the best non-Halo 360 game. I made it to reason three before I interjected.

“Nope,” I quipped. “You’re wrong.”

Surprised looks were shot at me from every direction. I rarely interrupted someone on a ranting roll, understanding full well the value of a healthy pontification. After a second or two of silence, my friend, taken aback, asked me why I felt he was flawed in his leg-humping assessment of Assassin’s Creed.

“Because I am a realist,” I replied. “And you are wrong.”