An Overview of Flawed Video Game Reviews

 

Article by Bobby Miller | 1,543 words

According to Reuters, the video game industry worldwide is a $66 billion market when we look at sales across all platforms, include consoles, PCs and mobile devices. This huge market owes itself to the fact that video games have gone from being viewed as a pastime for children and niche enthusiasts to an activity that just about anyone can enjoy.  Despite the overwhelming popularity of video games, the professional reviews that critique them to help consumers pick out the best possible experiences still suffer from notable flaws.  Inflated scores, peer pressure and more hold back a number of reviews from being as useful as they could be.

Peer Pressure

The website Metacritic collects reviews from a huge number of professional video game websites and magazines. It then averages them together into one score to help buyers decide where their money should go.  The site also provides a full listing of the reviews, complete with brief excerpts from them and links to the complete articles when available.

Metacritic

While this aggregate website can be helpful for researching all the opinions out there surrounding a specific video game, it is arguably the cause of significant problems in video game criticism.  Notably, by listing all of a video game’s reviews together, the site makes it obvious when a few outlets provide notably different scores from everyone else.

If you give a game the lowest score recorded on its Metacritic page, prepare to face the fury of disgruntled fans.  They will accuse your review of being nothing more than “clickbait” to garner attention.  They’ll point out how you’re dragging down the average Metacritic score, preventing their beloved game from reaching the universal acclaim it so rightfully deserves.  They’ll flat-out say your opinion’s crazy because everybody else gave the game a higher score.  They’ll threaten to never visit your website again, to “unlike” you on Facebook, to stop following you on Twitter, to unsubscribe from your YouTube page and whatever else they can do to supposedly hurt your popularity.

Needless to say, review outlets want to make their fans happy, so they feel pressured to dole out good scores to any game with a rabid fanbase.  Tevis Thompson, who has written a number of essays analyzing video games and the state of the industry today, points out how the reviews on Metacritic that give wildly popular games a score of 8/10 are often quite telling.  Look at one, and you’ll usually find most of the review points out a boatload of problems in the game.  But the final paragraph makes some generic statements about the game’s ambition and how the good somehow outweighs the bad.  Why?  Because almost nobody wants to give massively hyped games such as Bioshock Infinite or Grand Theft Auto V a score below 8/10.

Not Using the Full Spectrum of Review Scores

This leads to another problem that Thompson has also addressed on his aptly-named website TevisThompson.com.  Although most reviews supposedly use a 1 to 10 scale, few outlets actually use all the possible scores.  As Thompson puts it, “Anything in the 7’s is average at best, and below that: no man’s land.”  Metacritic’s huge collection of video game reviews demonstrates that we as gamers have been conditioned to view a 7/10 score as “average.”  As the website notes, if you take all its game reviews and average them together, you’ll have a score of roughly 7.3/10.

This is problematic on a number of levels.  To begin with, when notable games receive almost nothing but scores in the 8 to 10 range, it becomes more difficult to decide which ones truly offer the best experiences.  The all-time classics receive only slightly higher scores than well-executed concepts.  If a 5/10 were actually an average, commonly used score, then we wouldn’t run into this problem.

However, most outlets reserve a 5/10 for boring games, with anything scoring below that being an entirely broken experience.  For example, Game Informer gave the game Wayward Manor a 5/10, claiming “you’ll enjoy turning this game off more than you enjoy any aspect of its gameplay.”  The score implies the game could be much worse, but the actual review suggests that it’s flawed in just about every way imaginable.

Game Informer’s certainly not the only outlet guilty of this, though.  Just about anywhere, the difference between a 7/10 and a 9/10 is astronomical, but the difference between a 2/10 and a 4/10 is negligible.  Everything with a 5 or below is garbage, making the specific number tacked on to a horrendous game’s review completely arbitrary.  Actually using the entire spectrum of scores would help distinguish the quality of various games more easily.

But again, nobody wants to be the one reviewer dragging down the Metacritic average or enraging rabid fans, so most outlets have settled for a system where all fun games are clumped together between 8 and 10.  To start dishing out 5’s to “okay” games would be seen as insanely strict.

Fear of Addressing Social Issues in Video Games

Finally, a number of reviewers are afraid to address how video games portray issues relevant to the real world.  You see, all media, including movies, novels, paintings and everything in between, makes some sort of statement about life—be it subtly or overtly.  For example, All Quiet on the Western Front seeks to destroy the idea that war is glorious.  Disney movies often portray worlds where, if you remain hopeful despite troubling times, you can persevere and ultimately succeed.

Some media, though, can portray the world through the lens of stereotypes, reinforcing negative views such as racism, sexism and more.  Video games are capable of doing this as well, but a number of reviewers are shy about factoring this into their scores.  Many gamers seem to be under the impression that such issues shouldn’t affect a critic’s rating.  If a game’s sexist or racist, that’s just the reviewer’s personal views, and they shouldn’t try to push any political agendas onto their readers—they should just rate the gameplay.

Such a view is bizarre considering that, for decades now, reviewers have been permitted to factor the quality of a game’s story into its score (assuming that the narrative plays a major role in the game).  A reviewer can denounce a story as predictable, dull or clichéd, or they can praise it as suspenseful, funny or unique.  But the moment they step into saying that a game’s story or characters are sexist or racist, things can get ugly.

For instance, Carolyn Petit of GameSpot.com stated in her review for the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto V that the game “has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.”  This is part of the reason why she rewarded the game with “only” a 9.0/10 as opposed to the Metacritic average of 9.7/10.  This review has garnered over 22,500 comments, most of which are spiteful or teasing.  “New-age feminists are meant to be laughed at,” says one comment that has earned numerous “likes.”

More recently, Arthur Gies of Polygon.com gave Bayonetta 2 a 7.5/10, with his primary complaint being the “blatant sexualization” of the main character, a strong contrast to the average score of 9.1/10 on Metacritic.  He openly says that the game is fantastic otherwise, which has made many people question his rating.

Of course, these outlier reviews are often accused of being “clickbait.”

If a reviewer wants to avoid the accusation of pushing their personal agendas in their reviews, then they must be careful with their wording.  Thompson points out how, on Penny-Arcade.com, the reviewer of Bioshock Infinite is afraid to openly say that he found the game racist.  So, he makes gentle claims such as, “Some are going to be disturbed by the amount of racial caricatures and casual racism throughout the game,” and then quickly transitions into praising the game’s music.

The problem here lies not so much with video game reviewers but the online gaming community as a whole.  It needs to learn to accept that opinions will be diverse, even when we’re talking about games that most people love.  It also needs to accept that reviewers have the right to critique all the elements of a video game.  If anything bothers the reviewer, whether it’s the game’s controls or the game’s portrayal of minorities, then pointing it out is legitimate.  After all, all reviews are inherently personal and subjective.  To pretend that the majority opinion is somehow the objective one is downright absurd.

These thoughts are important to keep in mind not only if you’re a video game reviewer yourself but also if you want to see the growing medium receive the proper attention it deserves.  Video games have matured into incredible, immersive experiences, yet the critiques analyzing them remain stuck in juvenile growing pains.  Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion if you believe a review is lackluster, and try to find outlets that provide in-depth critiques of games rather than quick overviews with some opinions mixed in.  And don’t be afraid to defend a reviewer’s right to express opinions that go against the grain.  By doing so, you’ll help nudge video game journalism in a more serious direction.

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