Backseat Gaming: The Hanson Argument

Introduction with Motives

“No, no, don’t do it like that, do it like this.” “You’re wasting manna!” “You know, if you just equipped this badge, you could have done X+2 damage instead of X amount of damage.” If any of these statements sound familiar, you may have played with a backseat gamer.

Sometimes we don’t like being told what to do. If someone tells us we’re doing something wrong or gives unsolicited advice, we might respond in a variety of ways. We might give them the cold shoulder, thank them disingenuously, or ignore them and coldly move on with what we were doing. “Just let me do it my way!” we scream internally. Stuff like this happens in gaming, too. In this article I want to define backseat gaming and apply it to Arin Hanson’s argument against it.

To begin, I should clarify my motives for this piece. I’m not interested in beating dead horses, even if it’s funny. For Hanson’s acknowledged his saltiness and frustration with folks constantly critiquing his performance. I don’t want to sling mud on him for “not playing the game right.” Nonetheless, I’m interested in what backseat gaming might reveal about ourselves and how we communicate to one another; particularly, how it’s received. That being said, I’m merely citing Hanson because his concerns intrigue me on a philosophic level.

Arin Hanson Backseat

Backseat Gaming Defined

First, what is backseat gaming? As I suggested above, backseat gaming is when any non-player (that is, a person not playing the game) gives any player unsolicited advice or criticism on how to play a game. The name ‘backseat gaming’ derives from backseat drivers. As the name implies, backseat drivers try to tell the driver how to drive, though they’re not the ones driving. So, by analogy, backseat gaming is a non-player’s trying to steer the player in a certain direction.

Hanson’s Argument

With this definition in mind, I can move to Hanson’s argument. A few days ago, in a recent upload of their Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door play through, Hanson shared a complaint. His complaint ran something like this.

Each person’s experience as a player is distinct from someone else. If that’s true, then we can’t expect one’s criteria for “playing better” to be applicable to someone else. For everyone brings their own background and style to the game. Since we can’t expect a universalizable criteria for “playing better,” we should celebrate each other’s different style of gaming. In Hanson’s words, “There’s no right way to do anything. [. . .] It’s just different, it’s not better.” Moreover, Hanson seems to assume that backseat gaming somehow inhibits celebrating each other’s unique gaming styles. This is frustrating. Therefore, folks shouldn’t backseat game.

Backseat Gaming Conflict

Hanson’s Argument Assessed/Evaluated

If I’ve got Hanson right, I appreciate his complaint. Even if unsound, his argument raises some interesting points. For instance, Hanson’s for uniqueness. He’s right to say each person plays games differently. And sometimes different approaches should be celebrated. I agree!

But it doesn’t follow from backseat gaming’s being frustrating that folks shouldn’t do it. In fact, it might be that people should do it. Suppose two friends (one playing, one watching) fired up Ocarina of Time. The player struggles to defeat Ganon; in fact, he’s died six times now. Suppose further that the player hasn’t revised his strategy much. The watcher notices her friend struggling and, out of concern, suggests an alternative strategy. The player tries it out, and he’s victorious. They high five and flee the temple.

Here’s what I’m getting at. Other people can bring new, distinct perspectives and methods to their task, which can nuance our perspective in how we approach similar tasks. In light of this, we should distinguish being helpful from being annoying. Some folks are just annoying. Also, it seems like Hanson’s motivation for some of his premises is simply people being annoying. Their advice might be good, but how they communicated it sullied its quality. Hanson’s complaint targets those who relentlessly told him to “be better, and here’s how.” That’s being annoying; that’s Hanson’s concern.

Helping Others Backseat Gaming

Being helpful, however, requires interference. If you notice a friend struggling in a game and they’re not asking for advice, there’s nothing wrong with offering to help. Should they refuse help, be moral support. Encourage them. Should they hotly refuse help, there might be personal matters they’ve yet to attend to. Perhaps they don’t take teaching well. But this shouldn’t be our first resort. First, help.


To conclude, backseat gaming concerns unwelcome interference in one’s gaming. In response to this, Arin Hanson argued that one shouldn’t backseat game because it ultimately devalues one’s personal experience with the game. They don’t get to learn it for themselves, if there’s something to learn. While sympathetic with him, I’ve suggested Hanson’s argument is invalid. Furthermore, I distinguished being helpful from being annoying, suggesting that being helpful ought to be our primary concern. If that’s our primary concern, then one should welcome backseat gaming, even if there’s no right way to play a game.

Ryan Shields

Ryan Shields

A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it's Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I'm eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.

So what do you think?

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