“Pandering” Isn’t What You Think it Is

‘Pandering’ is a word that’s thrown around a lot. Like, a lot. Way more than it should be. This thought was spawned by an augment I saw on reddit over several popular food brands starting to produce more halal products and how that was “pandering“. But I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about video games because I use every opportunity to talk about video games.

The Oxford Dictionary holds the following definition for the word “pander”.

Verb. [To] gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire or taste or a person with such a desire or taste).

The word is most often pointed at politicians who say things or make promises outside of their actual beliefs in order to gain more voters. If they’re planning on going forward with those promises, they may lose their old followers or make them feel cheated. If they don’t plan on keeping those promises, well, they’re liars.

But businesses aren’t politicians. And despite what we want to believe of our favorite game developers, a business’s biggest priority is to make money. If they don’t make money, there’s no more business. That isn’t to say that developers aren’t still developing for the art or that they don’t want people to enjoy their games. Player enjoyment and sales tend to go hand in hand, in fact. And that’s why when studios and publishers finally start to listen to the requests of their fans, that’s a good thing.

Far too often we see game developers accused of “pandering” whenever they acknowledge what customers have asked for. The vitriol that gets levered at developers who made some creative change because one part of their fanbase requested it is amazing. A majority of the time these changes weren’t something that the complaining fans necessarily didn’t want, or had felt strongly about before, but whenever we catch whiff that a change was suggested by someone that wasn’t us we go mental. We throw out buzzwords like “freedom of speech” and “creative liberty” despite none of them actually having anything to do with the issue.

And I’m not going to lie; lately you mostly see this kind of reaction when (dun, dun, dun…) women are involved. A company responds to requests to have a playable female character and they’ve suddenly sold out, betraying their long term fans by “pandering” to those whiny complainers. Cover up a little stomach or boob? Oh no! There goes all of your creative integrity, developer! You’ve lost your original vision by having the audacity to listen to your (potential and current) consumers. Just what gives you the right? It doesn’t matter if you wanted to make a larger portion of potential customers happy or that you might believe that this change actually integrates perfectly with your creative vision and that you’re even thankful towards your fans for the suggestion. No, you’ve sold out. You’re now “pandering“.

Except that’s bullshit. Listening to consumers isn’t pandering. It’s not immoral or betrayal. It’s quite literally the opposite of betrayal. And I of course don’t see people throwing the “p word” around when a company implements changes that they themselves ask for. At the end of the day, it’s still the designer making the choice to implement these changes and it’s still their creative vision, not yours. The dev is still going about their business doing exactly what they were doing before: producing the game that they want to produce and that people will buy and enjoy. And with the internet at all of our fingertips now it’s never been easier for designers to understand what their audience wants. Responding to criticism or a suggestion is caving in, it’s not selling out and it’s certainly not pandering. It’s good business and, even better, good design.