The further I get from my childhood, the closer I come to articulating what I miss about it. Through the confusing fog of nostalgia, it’s easy to mix up what you thought you loved, with what you actually loved. I don’t miss being a kid—I’m both taller and funnier as an adult—but I do covet the endless enthusiasm I once brought to anything new. I miss how I would love imperfect things before I later learned to be ashamed of them. I want that back. I’m taking it back.
The platonic childhood ideally contains a set of years where you’re just allowed to love things because they exist. Space? Memorize the entire solar system and go from there! Deep seas? Learn every type of whale and then rank them. Those years come to an end, and there’s an expectation for your priorities to shift. To grow; more mature, less frivolous, more gender-specific, less weird. We realize that the imperfections we love in our art and hobbies are no longer a comforting texture; they’re a liability, open to criticism.
So, it follows, are we. As children, we’re told that “we are what we eat.” This is just as true for the media we consume. For those of us who built a personality or a defensive wall out of the art we loved, this can become a turning point. This realization can be tranquil or traumatizing, but there’s no going back: We are all shown how the things we love are not loved equally by the wider world. That wider world includes the entire internet.
And it’s making us fucking miserable. I would know: I’ve loved unpopular art my whole life, and I’ve apologized for and rationalized that love for far too long.
I was raised by a single Mom who split her time between working with my Grandma to keep our family alive and realizing both her sons were rapidly-expanding clusters of chaotic (and eventually, diagnosed) ADHD energy. When she learned that we didn’t just like video games, but would spend DOZENS of hours playing them together in quiet focused harmony, she must have felt like she’d discovered fire.
Our weekly ritual fell into place: On Friday nights we would get some sort of takeout food and visit the local Blockbuster Video to rent a game for the weekend. Did it completely curb our elemental chaos? Hell no, every single one of my childhood injuries came from trying to execute a pro-wrestling move on my younger brother, or vice-versa. But it gave us stability, novelty, and kept us happy for a weekend (if the game held our interest).
There was a point in time where I was confident I had played every Super Nintendo game ever made. When my brother and I hit the Blockbuster SNES section, we didn’t have the luxury of choosing what we wanted—we scrambled for leftovers. I was years away from becoming a voracious reader of gaming magazines, so our selection process was more holistic. How did the box art for Pilotwings make us feel? How did the name Radical Rex sound when I said it out loud? Which games would be fun for two players? (Bad, good, and not enough, respectively.)
My life was full of rented video games, and I had no real way to know which ones were terrible or critically-acclaimed. Was Maximum Carnage derivative and shallow, or did it regularly make my brother yell with excitement as he recognized Marvel characters from his trading card collection? Was Diddy Kong Racing an ambitious Mario Kart clone, or the ultimate test of our brotherly gamer skills as we tried to unlock T.T., a talking stopwatch? When you love something, who can tell you you’re wrong? Blockbuster Video was linked to so many positive memories that it was almost inevitable I’d work there during high school. I quickly became their resident game expert, sharing my excellent taste with any customers who needed it.
One day, a Mother and Son came into the store, looking for N64 games ahead of March Break. I chatted away while pulling my favorites off the shelves, explaining how the (perpetually scowling) Son could switch up his time with single-player or party games. Rocket: Robot on Wheels, Mischief Makers, Iggy’s ‘Reckin Balls, or even Chameleon Twist and Buck Bumble if he was up for a challenge. I had spent dozens of hours with those games, and loved them all. It was like sending a slightly younger teen away with an armful of my favorite memories.
A week later, I saw them browsing the DVD racks, avoiding my gaze. I launched into a speech, asking the Son what his favorite ‘Reckin Ball was, when he cut me off, matter-of-factly. “Those games all sucked. I played Unreal Tournament instead.”
That’s when I began to realize that I had unpopular taste. And maybe I should feel bad about it.
On paper, the child wasn’t wrong. (In reality, he hurt my feelings and I’m writing about it 18 years later, but it’s fine. I’m over it. It’s fine.) None of those titles can be found on Metacritic. In the eyes of the world’s largest aggregate review site, most of my favorite N64 games don’t exist. What few reviews I can find—mostly ancient pieces from Gamespot and IGN, or time-displaced appraisals of Virtual Console rereleases—slap these games with scores between 3/10 and 6/10. (Rocket, the sole exception, was developed by Ghost of Tsushima developer Sucker Punch, published by Ubisoft, and received a 9/10 from IGN, the same score it gave to Ghost earlier this summer. In Metacritic logic, they are equally good. Your move, Ubisoft.)
It’s not like a bored pre-teen made me realize that art is subjective. I had been an awkward, chubby Black child with LensCrafters wire frames, increasingly-bad skin, and no musical knowledge outside of Will Smith and ABBA until I hit middle school. I was very familiar with criticism and/or bullying. But this was different, the start of a foundational shift. I was equipped to handle the idea that individual things I liked weren’t for everyone. But everything? Including my absolute favorite things and warmest memories? If those were deemed trash, if my childhood was a 3/10, what did that make me?
For the first time, I wondered: Am I a bad person if I like bad things?
I was three-deep into video game magazine subscriptions by my mid-teens, The words of Dan “Shoe” Hsu, James “Milky” Mielke, and Seanbaby “Seanbaby” Seanbaby had become familiar and comforting in an otherwise perpetually awkward time. Looking back, I can’t remember a single review score. But when I read a well written game review it was like talking about the same movie with a handful of friends—you were all going to have different takes on it, but they didn’t invalidate your own.
But there’s something about the totality of an aggregate system that adds a sense of false legitimacy. A single voice, a handful of them even, can be enjoyed or dismissed lightly. But when the cold algorithmic math of 45 Trusted Critics comes to bear on the third Phoenix Wright game and says it’s (only) an 81 out of 100, it feels final. A game that made me cry so hard I fell asleep is objectively worse than Boom Blox Bash Party for the Wii.
Those numbers don’t match my experience, and they certainly don’t validate it. There are two ways to deal with this type of personal reckoning: One that can add new dimensions of joy and light to how you view the world, and one that will leave you fighting the world around you in a futile attempt to reshape it to better reflect your feelings.
But if you choose the fighting, just remember that it never ends.
Asking someone about their favorite book, album, movie, or game is a loaded question. They’ll usually give an answer that’s accurate enough to serve as a macro-level view of who they are as a person. If you’ve ever filled out (or read) a dating profile, you know what this looks like.
My favorite movie? I could say Raiders of the Lost Ark to show I appreciate critically-beloved classics with an adventurous streak, or I could go full Millennial nostalgia and say A Goofy Movie. Favorite game? Should I hit you with a curve ball and say Wind Waker, or lean on my artistic cred and go with Shadow of the Colossus? When we share the things we love most, we’re engaging in a sort of social shorthand, hoping to be seen or make a connection. Fans of Citizen Kane and The Room are making equally broad declarations about the art they love, and how you should view them because of it.
We don’t really have those signifiers for anything in the middle ground; art that isn’t celebrated enough to become a household name, or infamous enough to make simply watching it an act of passionate rebellion. Despite the majority of all art ever created falling in the gulf between “historically terrible” and “transcendent masterpiece,” we rush to disregard them.
When I say “we,” it’s important to remember that many people love art without viewing it this exact way. They honestly and unapologetically love what they love, and by all accounts if you try to make them feel bad about their taste, you’re being an asshole. But somewhere along the way, nerd and enthusiast spaces became highly self-critical. Maybe it’s impossible to literally make something a key part of your identity without becoming defensive. Maybe we felt pressure to justify our continued interest in Childish Things well into adulthood. Maybe we’re just all art snobs of a different stripe. But this is very much a universal problem shaped by a specific cultural mould. This becomes crystal clear when I talk to someone about the movie I love most and see their reaction.
My favorite movie is Speed Racer. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, released in 2008, and currently sitting at a 40% Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I love that movie in new ways every time I see it, but I make no excuses for its many, many faults. I just really enjoy what it attempts to do, and I’m happy it exists and that I get to share it with people in my life to see if they feel the same. (So far: Only my wife.)
We are the stories we tell ourselves, and the art we love is a huge part of that. It is an extremely vulnerable act to admit that a show, book, movie, or video game helped you understand yourself in a better way. We don’t talk enough about the imperfect things that made us who we are: imperfect people. Earnestness and honesty aren’t just diametrically opposed to the chaotic laissez-faire vibe of the modern internet, they’re also a hard check to the idea that anyone is “self-made.”
It also flies in the face of irony, which has long become a tool for people to express their fondness for unpopular things without the obligation to be real and acknowledge the sincere reason they like them. I’m not saying people don’t genuinely love art that’s “so bad it’s good,” but I’d challenge them to look past laughing at The Room to see what’s clicking for them on a deeper level. It’s often a moment shared with someone, or a moment where they felt in touch with themselves. Irony is an excuse to stop digging for those revelations.
But all of that is easier said than done.
As someone much smarter than me has already said: Criticism is a kindness.
But on a mechanical level, it’s something even more universal: One person explaining how something made them feel to another. All art is emotional, and that can be scary. If we limit our discussion about Star Fox 64 to its graphics, gameplay, and mechanics, then we don’t have to talk about how the scene where the ghost (?) of James McCloud returns to save his son made me cry when I was 9 years old. But I love that game because of all those things; how disparate parts came together to make me feel things and remember them for the rest of my life.
If a game makes you feel angry, happy, excited, or free, it’s creating an emotional response. Most of the time, it’s creating the desired emotional response, even though it’s even more interesting when someone’s reaction to art even surpasses the expectations of its creators. It’s why I love these videos where developers watch speedruns of their own games, openly shocked at how someone else has done things with their creations that they could never have planned for. (Speedrunning is an emotional act as well. I’ve seen too many runners break down in joy and tears to ever say otherwise.)
It’s not controversial to say that number-grade systems are an imperfect—if not actively harmful—way to review video games. Even with that knowledge in mind, I’d be lying if I said a bold 4/10 beside a game I loved (or, more often than not, was preparing myself to love in advance) wouldn’t make me pause for a second while that old question flashed across my brain.
Am I a bad person if I like bad things?
A score is essentially a TL;DR for a critic’s entire conversation with and about a piece of art. It’s an objective structure erected around an extremely subjective exercise, but it resembles systems that can and do impact our lives in very real ways. While I recognize that a game getting a low score can’t really hurt me, it might remind me of the low scores in other parts of my life—low grades, low income, low credit—that absolutely can.
It makes sense that if you love something, you’ll disagree with someone who didn’t. It also tracks that we are predisposed to take numerical scores more seriously, both because of an often-misguided appeal to “logic” over “emotion”, and because of all the other ways having low numbers can ruin your life.
It is easy, and even satisfying, to love something that has “universal acclaim,” as Metacritic puts it. You’re on the right side of history. Math and the universe have combined to congratulate you on your good taste and keen insight. We become champions and patrons of art we love, and tend to feel a sense of personal victory when those things succeed financially or critically.
Most importantly, it saves us from having to dig deep and explain why we love a popular piece of art. At a certain point, that love becomes self-evident; everyone knows it’s good, and you don’t need to justify it. When your favorite thing isn’t popular, the first question anyone will ask when it comes up in discussion is, simply, “Why?”
I didn’t realize how long I had gone without explaining to a friend why I loved something they couldn’t see the appeal of. Ten years ago, I would approach those moments with an evangelical fervor. It wasn’t enough for someone to get where I was coming from, they needed to feel the exact way I did by the end of our conversation. Sometimes it worked, I can be pretty convincing.
But I can’t remember feeling accomplished or happy after those interactions. Knowing another person had become a fan of what I loved didn’t make my experience any stronger, and it almost felt like a cop-out. I’m genuinely happy when I can introduce someone to something they end up loving, but someone sharing my enthusiasm doesn’t increase my own through transitive property. So if someone loving the same thing I do doesn’t make me appreciate it more, why would the opposite be true? Nobody else could validate or nullify my feelings. No number of low scores or rave reviews could fully articulate what that piece of art had done for me. I had to do that for myself.
You have to care about something very much to get upset about its review scores. But it’s not really about the games or the scores; it’s about us. It’s about the logical conclusion of an earlier question, the only real question once pop culture becomes a foundational part of your personality:
Am I a good person if I like good things?
If everything you love is universally acclaimed, aren’t you equally valuable and important? If you could have objective proof that your taste was good, your opinions are valid, and your life wasn’t a waste of time, what would you do to obtain it?
Would you rage at reviewers that threatened your status-via-someone-else’s-art? Would you mount coordinated score-boosting/bombing campaigns to support your view of yourself or diminish someone else’s? When you have decided that your life can be validated by external numbers, where does it end? How can it ever end?
It’s a bottomless pit, and the internet is full of people falling forever. Of course they’re miserable, of course we make each other miserable. We’ve given the keys of our own identities over to aggregate review sites and watch our chosen scores like hawks, ready to swoop in as soon as a single digit deviates.
It’s a goddamn shame, too. If you’ve decided you can only be happy with scores in the 90s, all you’ve really done is limit your joy to 10% of life’s experiences. I didn’t know how to really love all the art in my love until I gave myself permission to love all of it.
When we want the world/the internet to celebrate something we love, we seek the end result (connection and validation) without any of the steps in between: The hard work of putting ourselves out there and looking for friends and communities that see us the way we wish to be seen. Ironically, the Internet is outright hostile towards the most scientifically-proven way to feel validated and seen by other people.
It’s all about vulnerability.
There is no way to truly talk about why we love a piece of art without being vulnerable. We see ourselves in the art we love, and that’s just as true (if not more true) when the art is deeply flawed. Talking about why we love something exposes us. Talking about our flaws exposes us more. Doing both at the same time is such a Herculean task of emotional honesty that it makes sense that some would choose to burn down half the internet rather than admit that they love first person shooters because they help them feel powerful in a world that’s often left them powerless.
It’s not easy, and sharing intimate details online can be actively dangerous for many people who are already vulnerable in real life. But it’s the only way I have ever found to finally feel some level of validation—and more importantly, acceptance—for my great taste in unpopular things. It’s scary to champion things with flaws. It’s hard to stand tall when you know your position isn’t unassailable. But that’s true for everyone, and it’s the most reliable way I’ve ever found to connect with other people.
The journey to realizing that I can love something and not have that love echoed through a chamber of enthusiastic fans or codified with suitably-high review or sales numbers has been instrumental in helping me love myself. I don’t need everything in my life to be a 90 or higher. Life isn’t a series of universally-acclaimed moments. I have learned so much more about myself by recognizing when I love something with clear flaws, and digging to find out why.
Star Fox 64 gave me a supportive father when I needed one. Ghost Trick taught me about forgiveness when I had a hard time finding any. Chameleon Twist reminds me of my brother and inspires me to be weirder. PaRappa the Rapper helped me see myself in the world.
It can be terrifying to write these things out loud, and even stranger to say them to another person. But these moments of connection, of systems and data and music and design and gameplay coming together to make us feel things, are what we’re trying to pay tribute to when we see review scores we don’t agree with. The numbers don’t match our feelings. Holding those numbers, those words, or the individuals who share them hostage until they change won’t change that.
We want our passion validated; we want to be told that it’s okay, that we’re okay. You can have those moments, but you have to give them to yourself first. Then you can find your own Speed Racer.
(And get roasted in the comments for it.)
Mike Sholars is a freelance pop culture writer who believes that the best way to celebrate the things you love is to roast them relentlessly. He loves video games and anime. Follow him on Twitter @Sholarsenic.