We all have guilty pleasures; sordid love affairs that we’re often too ashamed to admit to. Or, if we do admit to them, we play it off like it’s funny or an endearing part of our being. We either hide the stuff away – like a squirrel collecting nuts for winter – or we cope. Very rarely do we shout our weird fetishes from the rooftops.

No, I’m not talking about sex stuff. This is an article about video games. Bad video games, specifically. They’re my “guilty pleasure”. Though I don’t feel particularly guilty about it; I’m not ashamed that I have a spot in my brain wired for joy from bad games.

To most people, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would I actively and deliberately sully my precious free time with subpar entertainment?

Oh, I don’t know. Why do people spend their time bathing in the scent of barnyard and stepping in excrement just so they can ride a horse? Why do hipsters spend so much of their life living ironically? Why do people watch movies with Kristen Stewart in them?  These are all questions that I can’t answer, but I can tell you why I have so much fun playing bad games.

My predilection most likely started with childhood trauma (don’t they all?). Those weekends where I  forced myself to enjoy that awful cartridge I rented from the video store. The times I begged and pleaded my mom to buy a game, then discovered it was absolutely terrible the moment I turned it on. When my mom asked me later, “So, how’s your new game?” my reply was always an over-enthusiastic, “Great,” as I walked the long walk back to my room to wallow in the tears of wasted opportunities and shattered dreams.

That’s how I ended up with “Captain Planet and the Planeteers”, “Doom Troopers”, and… ”Shaq-Fu”. People, I actually CHOSE “Shaq-Fu” over other games. That was all me. What was I supposed to do, though? I was told that if I didn’t pick something at that exact moment, then I wasn’t going to get anything! I panicked and, as a result, began one of the most depressing episodes of my life. That’s rough on a ten-year-old. But I learned. Oh, did I learn.

When I was young, these were intense moments of regret. It never took long to recognize that I just made a grave mistake. And, for a kid, these are some of the worst mistakes I had ever known. I don’t want to assume the responsibility for all of the horrors my youthful self endured. I subjected myself to MOST of it, but my parents assisted on occasion. If it weren’t for them, I would’ve never ended up with a Virtual Boy. That’s right, I never asked for it. I never even posited the idea into their heads, but they got me one for Christmas one year. That was certainly a surprise.

They made it up to me when they bought me a Nintendo 64. I’ve forgiven them. Don’t worry.

Still, I spent a lot of time playing hundreds of matches of “Mario Tennis” on my Virtual Boy and dominating the competition in “Teleroboxer”. I beat “Shaq-Fu” with every character, learning how to effectively manage its craptitude. I listened to the horrible Shaq rap CD single that came with the game. I even got a friend to play “Shaq-Fu” with me…once. I wasn’t going to let this stuff get me down!

I’m sure you all have shared similar experiences, even if none of them can top the “Shaq-Fu” Tragedy. Kids are hearty and resilient, adapting to most situations that are thrown at them. As such, we made the best of these occurrences. We PLAYED these games, unwilling to bend or break to their craptacularness.

For me, this kind of life experience really stuck with me. I’m capable of finding the fun in games that I know I shouldn’t. Hell, these days, I’ll even admit to purposely seeking out bad games, seeing if I can find some perverse enjoyment in something that others find appalling. Spending real money on things that no one else ever would.

For others, this would be abnormal behavior. After all, willingly dropping cash on something you know is going to be bad is idiotic. That’s what reviews are for, right? To stop you from doing such irresponsible things.

I’m not an idiot, though. At least, not when it comes to this. I think playing bad games is a legitimately valuable way to spend your time. So, I’m going to show you the light. The dim, yellow-stained light.

There is overwhelming rhetoric amongst gamers that there is nothing of value that isn’t reviewed highly. This kind of mentality has led to an over-emphasis on review scores – and using those scores as evidence for objective arguments. Not to mention the rise of Metacritic as a tool for publishers to dangle carrots in front of their development studios, only to snatch away at the last second if the scores aren’t high enough.

I hate this approach to reviewing games, which is why it’s great we don’t use scores here. But, I also hate it because everyone has wildly differing views of what the numbers actually mean. Some people take a more moderate approach and view a 5 or 6 out of 10 as average. But there are others who would view that score as bad, looking only to throw their money at games that are an 8 or even 9 out of 10. If you don’t know the scale a reviewer is using, then your perception of how they’re rating the game could be totally off.

This causes people to avoid games they may otherwise have wanted to play. Preferring NOT to judge something for themselves, but to let other people influence what they should or should not buy. To me, that is nothing but pure weakness. A complete lack of confidence to judge things for yourself. You could argue that this prevents you from getting duped, like with “Aliens: Colonial Marines”, but that kind of vociferous urge to lie to gamers is rare, even in our current, money-grubbing state of the industry.

I’ve already stated this in a previous article, but you need to take chances with games every now and then. You can’t let rationality win out all of the time, because listening only to what others recommend actually isn’t very rational. Sometimes you have to take the leap of faith and ignore everything that is being said about a game. No reviews, no previews, no message boards. Just go and buy something you want. Form your own opinion of it and then go back and see how you match up with others.

If it’s bad, so what? You got to form that opinion yourself.

As a well-rounded gamer, you can’t truly appreciate what is good without experiencing what is lousy. The only way you get better at being able to tell the difference is when you’ve played as much of both as possible. I understand that isn’t possible for everyone, but every bit of experience helps.

If you only ever expose yourself to games that have near perfect ratings, you’re not going to be very well qualified to discuss a game that is merely good or even average. You’re going to think they’re worthless, since you have so little to compare them to.

Bad games help give you perspective, informing you of the difference between good and bad game design. They teach you about the importance of pacing and making sure the gameplay is varied and without tedium. They show you how crucial it is to make the controller an extension of your own body, allowing for perfect responsiveness and control, so you can’t blame the game for your failings.

The more bad games you play, the better you get at picking these things out in good games and knowing exactly why it is they’re so good. You’re able to communicate about them better.

Ours is also a culture in which it’s hip to relish in the dreadful, abominable, and horrendous glow of bad movies. Cracking jokes at their missteps and making the best out of a hugely flawed experience. So, why aren’t more people doing that with games? Invite some friends over, power up some shitty software, and make a night of it the same way you would do for a film. Embrace the ugly graphics, cringe-worthy voice acting, clunky controls, and glitchiness that reside within them. Laugh and play along, instead of hate.

The points I’ve already presented aren’t the only reasons I play bad games. Curiosity, very often, gets the better of me. There are times when I have to see something for myself and satiate my urges for the unpleasant and blatantly imperfect. Some of the time, I end up having fun… unironically.

By allowing myself the opportunity to play the dreck, I gain a better sense of my own personal tastes. I learn what I value most and what I can’t stand. If I end up liking a game that is universally panned, I get a better sense of what I appreciate in games and what I’m able to forgive.

“Alpha Protocol” is a great example of this. I love “Alpha Protocol”. I have an obsession with Bond films, so being able to play as a spy in an RPG was a dream come true. The game features hugely meaningful and impactful dialogue choices, that affect relationships with other characters, what missions you’ll go on, and what supplies you’ll have access to. To me, it was just so much frickin’ fun.

But, I’m not the type to ignore faults in a game, even if I like it. “Alpha Protocol” is plagued by a myriad of issues. It’s an unattractive game to look at. Textures are dirty and muddy and the character models are about on par with what you would see on PlayStation 2. The controls, especially for shooting, are fundamentally broken. They’re as responsive as a teenager given manual labor. Then there’s the stability of the game’s code, which is like an elephant walking on stilts made of rusty scaffolding.

“Alpha Protocol” is a BAD game. People are not wrong about that fact. I enjoyed it anyway.

Playing bad games is something that has made me into a rational, even-minded, knowledgeable gamer. It’s not a mark of shame.

If I had listened to what everyone was saying about it, I would’ve deprived myself of that experience. I would’ve ignored and passed up a game I honestly like. I know it’s bad, but that’s okay. I’m comfortable enough with myself to share my opinion of it. But I’m also aware enough to admit its faults and agree with legitimate criticisms.

It bothers me when people can’t admit that something may be wrong with a game they enjoy. This goes for both good and bad games. We don’t have to compromise ourselves and our feelings for something by blindly defending it. We can still like something while also criticizing it. We don’t have to act like nothing is wrong with it, but we can share our experiences. By doing so, someone might decide to give something a shot and enjoy it.

Of course, there are times when I recognize a game is trash, don’t really enjoy it, but stubbornly refuse to quit playing. It’s like some kind of badge of honor for derelict gamers. I find myself with a strangely intense desire to play these things. This is entirely illogical and probably stems back from that previously mentioned childhood trauma. I’m not sure if I can explain this one away. At this point, it’s okay to nod at the crazy person and back up a bit.

Instead of steering people away or towards these games, we’re better off educating them and letting them make their own decisions. Experiencing the bad is an important part of engaging with entertainment. We shouldn’t be trying to tell people what to do and deprive them of refining their tastes.

Playing bad games is something that has made me into a rational, even-minded, knowledgeable gamer. It’s not a mark of shame. I wear this mark with pride, because I know that I’d be a far more ignorant and less tolerant gamer if I didn’t try to experience as much of what the industry throws at me as possible.

You shouldn’t go to the extremes I do; that would be weird and a waste of your time. But you also shouldn’t try to strive to live in a bubble of perfection. That utopia doesn’t exist. Try to make the best out of the bad stuff that gets thrown at you. If you open up your mind a little, you may just find some more games you like.

 

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