Vague Patch Notes: On fans and fanboys in MMORPGs

Sometimes the theme is just disappointment.

When you play Final Fantasy XIV, you are going to be stuck playing one of an assortment of jobs, with no actual customization to distinguish your Ninja from any other Ninja short of your ability to play the job. The game has a needlessly restrictive and limited housing system. New players can be locked completely out of any efficient way to earn gil, especially on populated servers with established crafters. The mandatory main storyline can often get meandering and doesn’t even get really good until you’re almost into the first expansion. Trading an item to an NPC requires an obnoxious interface instead of just talking to said NPC with the item. The game’s third expansion is introducing two gender-locked races, an archaic mistake that the development staff already knows not to make.

I absolutely love the game. It’s replete with wonderful stuff. I’m an unambiguous fan. None of that exempts it from criticism on any of the above points (or others, but that paragraph is already top-heavy), and that’s as good a place as any to start in on a discussion of the difference between fans and fanboys.

“Fan” as a term is an interesting one because it literally derives from “fanatic.” “Fanboy,” on the other hand, is a more modern portmanteau based off of “fan” on its own. It’s sometimes swapped for “fangirl” as appropriate, but “fanboy” is generally used more frequently. And it refers to fans that… well, hew much closer to that “fanatic” root.

See, the only criterion for being a fan is liking a thing. Enjoy baseball? You’re a baseball fan. There are indisputably degrees of fandom, so you have the guy who watches most of his favorite team’s games within a couple days and the girl who has a long-running analysis of every baseball team’s stats for a given season with all of her walls plastered in team memorabilia, but they’re both still fans.

But then you have the dude who starts a brawl in his local bar when someone expresses affection for another team, who screams at the lady’s analysis when it says that the team doesn’t have a likely shot at making it to the World Series. And that’s a fanboy.

Superhero landing!

Fandom, at its heart, is a positive exercise. It’s about saying that you like a thing and want that thing to be fun and good. As a fan of World of Warcraft, for example, I want WoW to be a fun game that’s inclusive to all sorts of different playstyles (both my own and those others enjoy), telling good stories, and offering fun adventures. It’s why I own various bits of WoW memorabilia and have opinions about characters in the game’s history – because I’m a fan.

Fanboyism takes that to the next level. It’s not that you want this to be good; it’s that you’ve decided that the game being good is a fixed point to structure yourself around. “WoW is good” is a constant for a WoW fanboy mind, which means that anyone who says “WoW is really not very good right now” isn’t just disagreeing with you but is actively attacking the game. It’s quite likely that these people have some sort of malicious agenda being fostered by saying mean things about the game, he concludes, because of course it’s good – that’s just a constant.

So what inevitably comes out of the fanboy thought process is that this is a case of someone being jealous, or malicious, or stupid, or any number of other things because it couldn’t be just a matter of informed critique. There has to be some other motivation for saying this thing that you’ve enshrined as A Good Thing might actually not be all that good.

We’ve all known people like this. Heck, we all have this tendency, however much we indulge or ignore it. I’d be a liar if I said there were things I’m not occasionally inclined to defend on a knee-jerk level, when I don’t have a moment of wanting to just whip out a contrary “no, you’re just criticizing in bad faith” before I take a moment and re-examine my actual rationale. It’s human. We want to defend the things we like.

The problem is when it starts to override the ability to actually discuss things that work or do not work, and when we start to conflate “I’m having fun” with “this thing is good, therefore it’s fine and the people saying it’s not fine are being mean or cruel.” I’ve discussed before now how you can be having fun with things without them actually being good, just like you can not be having fun with things and still recognize that they are good.

For that matter, it’s a problem of assuming that your enjoyment has to be a fight of some kind, that people need to agree with you or else it’s not actually enough. If I’m enjoying FFXIV (which I usually am) but noticing a huge amount of discontent in the playerbase, there’s a reason for that. Something is going awry. The problem isn’t people being unhappy with the game; the question is why they’re unhappy, and they may actually be more right than my personal enjoyment.

It's fine, everything is fine, this is fine.

I enjoyed the heck out of WildStar when it launched, even as I watched people noting negative feelings toward the game. My goal wasn’t to start telling people that they were wrong or kick at them for being negative; it was to understand that stance and analyze it alongside my sense of “well, I’m having fun.”

The fanboys, of course, were quick to defend the game. The raiding focus was going to work, the endgame focus was going to work, this was going to be a big hit once it… whoops, never mind.

Yeah, that’s the other side; fanboys aren’t actually helping the object of their obsession. More often than not, if you’re noticing a problem and the community would rather shout you down than address it, you’re just going to leave instead of talking about it. If there were an easy ratio of fanboy to normal fan for a given game, it’d serve as a good warning sign for the health of a given title.

And hey, let’s not pretend that always understanding every individual issue and why people are dissatisfied with something is easy. It’s possible for legions of angry fans to be angry about one thing and wrong about another. It’s possible for people to latch onto the wrong point and parrot it back and forth endlessly. It’s possible for outsized negativity to take root and cause a collective conclusion that’s a few degrees south of where your genuine reaction should be, so a movie that you might have otherwise thought of as “not very good, but not awful” turns into “the worst thing ever” as an acceptable target.

But it can’t turn a movie from “I loved this” to “I hated this.” Or a game. Or a book. Or a show. Or anything else. If everyone has something negative to say, there’s probably a good reason for it.

So before you start leaping to the defense of something you love, take a moment to step back and ask why. Enjoying something doesn’t mean blinding yourself to its faults, and willingly ignoring red flags isn’t necessary to still have personal enjoyment of something. Being a fan is fine, but being a fanboy just isn’t a good idea.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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