On November 18th, independent game news site TechRaptor published an editorial piece on game review scores. The article proposed that review scores should be retired because it is largely a detriment to gamers and games. It’s a rather fascinating piece to read, and uses relevant game examples like Minecraft, Mass Effect, and Planetside to convey its point, while also touching on a notable game industry scandal attributed to the pitfalls of game review scores. While review scores might be reductive of experience, I don’t think it’s necessary to retire them — rather, it is important for readers and reviewers alike to understand the implications of their use.
To be frank, I think review scores can’t dictate anything beside the reviewer’s taste or editorial board’s direction. However, it is neither a disservice to the reader or the game nor is it purely subjective. Some readers might be aware of the subjective quality of review scores while others might not. In regard to the former, readers who understand and readily agree with the reviewer’s taste or editorial board’s direction can benefit from glancing at review scores. To the latter, readers who reject the initial score can be lauded for their skepticism and might even serve to promote discussion — or community-wide backlash, such as in IGN’s recent review of Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
Instead of outright doing away with review scores, publications should consider what their targeted readership seeks in a review. Are they more interested in the conclusions that can be deduced from the subjective experience of a playthrough for personal discussion and criticism? Or are they more interested in how the playthrough responds to the reviewer’s taste because there is a shared trend of interest between the reader and the reviewer? The editorial direction a particular site takes will dictate the purpose and focus of game reviews and whether a score is necessary.
Let’s talk about the article’s core argument: the subjective experience and its incompatibility with fairness. The article explains that every game review experience differs because every reviewer is influenced by a number of experiential and intuitive factors that dictate judgment, and no two reviewers will ever judge a game in the same way. Based on their individual preferences, certain reviewers may be critical of certain aspects of the game while ignoring others. It is also important to understand that all elements of a game work in tandem to provide a gaming experience, and as such reviews and their representative scores should approximate the interplay of elements rather than focus on one element. This is a fault of the reviewer in question rather than a given of reviews — reviewers need to be more comprehensive in their approach by either having an intimate understanding of the game’s politics, or stating that they are reviewing this as an outsider.
The article does assume that a readership doesn’t take other information into account and that review scores are taken at face value. It doesn’t suppose the influence of in-game screenshots, demo playthroughs, teaser videos, developer interviews, or article mentions — any marketing that also helps the reader decide on a purchase. And if a game is reviewed across several publications, all with similar or contrasting approximations of review scores, this is not a disservice to the reader. Experiences in gameplay are subjective, but empirical data can still be extracted from subjective experiences, and it is possible to draw meaningful conclusion from this data. With the increasing price of triple-A games, readers do take consideration on their next purchase — although this point is moot when indie games are taken into question.
Sites like Metacritic can also benefit from review scores, but only if there is a tacit agreement in the methodology of review scoring. Even then, the meta-review score only accounts for available opinions — some of which are weighted based on quality or standards of the review site. Aggregating review scores on the Internet can serve to benefit a consumer who doesn’t necessarily follow game journalist sites but wants a comprehensive and diverse perspective on a game before purchase. But when certain sites’ reviews are given priority over others, the consumer should take note: why these sites and not others? Why do the opinions of one outshine another’s?
The greatest concern that drives this discussion is the potential for abuse: the article mentioned the infamous scandal behind Fallout: New Vegas, and the gaming community has seen far worse in its hey-day. Kane & Lynch fans will remember the termination of Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann from Gamespot without public disclosure for his verdict on Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. More recently TotalBiscuit uncovered a troubling find on Shadow of Mordor’s shady YouTube review dealings — we’ve since found that this was the work of a contracted PR firm. These and other instances of review tampering and outside influence do reinforce readers to be skeptical of game journalist sites, and it is in our best interest as journalists to ensure this kind of thinking — albeit not by receiving kickbacks or sitting high on our chairs of authority. These incidents remind gaming journalist sites to strive for a more comprehensive opinion written in earnest, not with personal incentive in mind.
At the end of the day it’s important to understand that while a review score is not objective, it may infer a general quality about the game. That in some cases, readers cannot be bothered to glance past the 6.7 score. That divesting this feature, however reductive it may seem, won’t increase page views or promote others to be as captivated as the core audience. I believe that a game review consisting only of numbered scores is untrustworthy — there is no elaboration, no written approach to how these scores were tallied. But in many cases, game reviews with scores are justified by great explanation. And yet these explanations are worth only as much as the time a reader will take to comb through it. Because our opinion is, at the end of the day, only our opinion, and it is not up to us to dictate what is fair and trustworthy — only what we enjoy. It is our privilege to tell readers what we enjoy, but it is ultimately the readers’ decision to take it or leave it.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think that review scores should be retired from game review sites? Let us know in the comments and check back for the next issue we’ll tackle by following us on Twitter @APGNation.
Addendum: Revised a statement mentioning the PR scandal of Shadow of Mordor. Thanks to Erthwjim!