"When you are writing a review, obviously your personal experiences and your opinions are going to be a huge factor there. But as far as I'm concerned you still need to make a decent effort to look in from the outside, look through the window, put yourself in the shoes of others." - John Bain (a.k.a. Total Biscuit)
I had a white whale of an article that tormented me for a few years...continually revised and re-pitched, ultimately abandoned when I couldn't find a buyer. But don't let me oversell it--the idea was simply to refashion a piece already twice-written: The Veil of Opulence, by Benjamin Hale, and the subsequent Sometimes I Dream That He Is Me, by Jay Caspian Kang. Hale coined his eponymous term to describe a phenomenon whereby people who aren't well-off evaluate problems as if they were an affluent "other." As he puts it:
"Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. "If I were such and such a wealthy person, they ask, "how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services I will never see or use?"
Hale focused on the election implications of this veil, but noted that the concept shows up in other fields, too. Kang picked up that baton and applied it to sports, and I was of a mind to put it to video games. I was going to call it "A Veil of Opulence +1." Hah-hah.
It would be a pretty straightforward calque, really. All I'd need to do was point to the nearest game enthusiast website--to the moneysplaining editorials and forum posts with their admonishments about how corporations "exist to make money" and how instead of complaining about any given topic, people should "vote with their dollar." That's the veil of opulence in action, compelling gamers and press-types to play the janissaries to a corporate sultan, carrying Microsoft or Activision's banner into battle against their own kind.
The piece I'd envisioned atrophied, even as the veil proves to be a mainstay in the discourse about games. It's a seductive sort of fallacy, one that can prey on our more admirable desire to be empathetic, to understand a situation from all angles. But it only really offers a specious impartiality, because we're not being objective when we put ourselves in someone else's shoes. We're just adopting their subjective viewpoint as our own.
So, that lede quote, then. The broader context for it is a video by John Bain (nee Total Biscuit) that's ostensibly appealing for critics to be more objective in their approach to video game reviews. But the method Bain offers for moving towards this objectivity is a telling one. Not--I don't know--conquering the self via some quasi-religious ascetic ritual (I'm picturing robed, chanting game reviewers hitting themselves in the face with copies of Big Rigs: Over the Road), but by putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It's not quite the veil of opulence, but it might be its even-more-fucked-up bastard son. The Ramsay Bolton to its Roose, if you will.
If you're wondering who the Biscuits of the world are referring to when they lament that a critic didn't consider someone else's opinion, try to envision the scene painted by his own quote. A critic on the outside, looking in through the window, picturing themselves as someone inside. And if that Dickensian image doesn't make it clear, you could check out some of the comments posted in response to Daniel Starkey's recent review of the Inuit game Never Alone. Starkey is himself Native, and related in moving detail the way that the game stirred his feelings about his ancestral roots. A depressingly common response? "It's a well-written review but at lot of it seemed to be a case of "I'm a Native American and so this spoke to me on a personal level". What about those who will play it and aren't Native American or Inuit or of a similarly endangered culture?"
Ah, so it's getting a little clearer, now. We could also note the Polygon reviews that Total Biscuit brings up in his piece: one for Dragons' Crown, (about which Bain previously had this to say), the other for Bayonetta 2, each citing their respective games for sexism. Versions of Bain's complaint were there in the comment sections when I took issue with the portrayal of women and minorities in Dead Rising 3, or when Carolyn Petit did the same for Grand Theft Auto V.
As real, honest-to-goodness cultural criticism finally begins to assert its place in reviews, the reactionaries put off by these new voices are searching for a way to tamp them back down without sounding like terrible bigots. A call for objectivity makes for a convenient way to back into suppression of progressive voices. It sounds innocent enough, and it plays on our impulse to be comprehensive and magnanimous. But the truth is barely disguised--it's just a call for subjectivity that this conservative bloc is more comfortable with. What Bain and the rest are asking for is for critics to voluntarily don the veil--but instead of evaluating a game as if they're an affluent "other," they're to evaluate it as if they were someone more reflective of the assumed majority.
Hence, "we just want more voices [so that it's easier to dismiss this feminist critic]!" Or, "really, review scores are problematic and should be done away with [especially now that reviewers are giving low scores to games for misogynistic content]."
"It's great that this Native critic shared his thoughts about this game..."
"...but Why Wasn't a White Guy Consulted?"