Why does Tony Hawk think YOU think his game sucks?
Released right at the cusp of the Christmas ’09 shopping season, Tony Hawk RIDE (just like that, in all caps, ’cause it’s CRAZY!) featured a humongous plastic skateboard controller and an equally enormous price tag of $130, but promised to revolutionize the genre. Instead, RIDE got slammed almost universally by critics, as reflected it brutally low Metacritic score of around 50%. Message board denizens also savaged this thing, sometimes harshly even by “some anonymous Internet dude” standards.
Why? Well, pro skateboarder and fan of attaching his name to things Tony Hawk thinks that it’s because you and almost everyone else were biased against it from the start. As he told some place called the Sudbury Star in an interview:
“They were ready to discredit it before they even tried it, and if it didn’t play exactly how they imagined it… I think that they’re just not giving it a fair shake. And I think a lot of them came into it with an attitude that it’s going to suck.” 1
In addition, Hawk tweeted:
“Most snarky critics had their minds set before ever seeing/playing the game.”
And while the guys over at the Penny Arcade webcomic had some fun with this quote by pointing out the absurdity of people’s buying stuff they expect to hate, Hawk may have a point. Maybe he’s an extreme pro psychologist in addition to a skateboarding superstar, because he’s talking about something called “confirmatory information bias.”
This fancy little term refers to the fact that humans tend to focus on information that confirms their existing beliefs and ignore information that disputes them. This is a pretty robust phenomenon, and neuroscientists have even identified a pair of brain bits that may be responsible. The first is the anterior cingulate cortex, which activates in a particular way when we perceive something we believe to be an error. The second is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a bit of grey matter just behind the forehead which, in the words of neuroscientist and author Jonah Lehrer, acts as a kind of “delete key” (or “B” button or “Circle” button if you’re a conlsole gamer) that literally erases things from our mind when they don’t jive with our model of how the world should be. 2
A lot of people looked at RIDE and saw the ugly continuation of a trend created by fake plastic rock games like Guitar Hero and continued with stuff like DJ Hero –games with high price tags and huge, cumbersome peripherals that start to pile up very quickly in small apartments. They didn’t like being asked to play $130 to squat on something that looked like one of Michael J Fox’s hoverboard props in Back to the Future II. In addition, the Tony Hawk games have kind of become passé in the last few years, losing their cool factor to upcomers like EA’s Skate games. So people kind of wanted RIDE to be terrible.
Based on the above quotes, Mr. Hawk seems to argue that reviewers, being in possession of human brains, were not immune to confirmatory information biases. When they played the game, this bit of human psychology led them to ignore the good parts of the game and focus on the bad bits. Maybe this same bias in thinking led people to overestimate the number of times technical issues arose, like sensors not picking up on their frantic hand waiving. The result? An irrational hatred for the game based on immutable preconceptions and not the merits of the title itself. It’s YOUR fault.
Of course, maybe the data could be explained by the alternate hypothesis that the game is terrible and people don’t want to pay $130 for something that that’s going to make them wobble and flail like a fool and that they don’t have storage space for in the first place. You know. That’s also possible.