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The purpose of a review is to evaluate a game by providing a critical statement that is indicative of the title’s merit or lack thereof. As much as some may try to provide an objective opinion, leaving personal feelings, interpretations and prejudices at the door, providing an unbiased opinion based merely on facts is nearly impossible. Even if it were done, it sure as hell would not be very interesting.

The preconceived opinions, attitudes or feelings that make up our prejudices influence how we think about what we perceive. It is because of this that two individuals can come to entirely different conclusions about the exact same experience. One person’s terrorist is another’s vision of a freedom fighter. Similarly, one person’s idea of a perfect game could leave another wanting.

Reviews not only contain bias in order to formulate a subjective opinion on a product, but also within the structure of a review itself. The majority of videogame reviews are rated on a scale of zero to ten. However, it seems the prejudices formulated by the academic background of reviewers and readers have influenced both the use and reception of this scale, giving rise to complications and creating grave inconsistencies in the process.

Our personal biases and life experiences certainly affect who we are and are a crucial part of formulating our opinions. The blending of the academic and critical mindset in ten point reviews does not make a lot of sense and is something that needs to change.

Academically, a student’s work is graded on a scale of failure to excellence, ranging from fifty to one hundred percent. While game reviews are typically scored on a scale of zero to ten where five is the average, years of academia have repercussions on reviewers and readers at an intrinsic level.

The academic rating scale suggests that anything graded in the southwards of seventy percent denotes a lack of quality. This way of thinking is something that is ingrained into children at a very young age, and is reinforced throughout their academic lives.

Due to differences amongst the systems, a score of seventy percent (or seven of ten) may denote an average score in an academic setting, whereas in a review it should signify a game of higher quality.

Unfortunately, the holdover from academics seems to affect how people perceive review scores. Psychologically, former students have a difficult time associating numbers below seven or eight, numbers linked with C and B grades, with quality or excellence.

This mindset leads to a variety of problems. When a game is reviewed with an academic mindset it becomes all too easy to ignore the lower half of the scoring scale. Doing so increases the range of failure, whilst compacting that of success.

While it may seem to go without saying, the average score a game can receive in a review on a scale of zero to ten is a five. So while that might seem odd considering how we associate five with failure, theoretically anything at or above a score of five should still be a decent game that is worth your time. Unfortunately, it seems all too typical for gamers to write off any title that receives a score below seven.

In a ten point scale, positive reviews theoretically would make up the upper half of the scale. This allows for reviews to rate games on an even distribution ranging from typical, average games to titles that are near perfection. Conversely, the lower half of this scale would range from titles that are merely mediocre to broken, awful games that are practically unplayable.

The more commonplace perception of review scores, the academic “anything above a C is acceptable” mindset, leaves only the upper quartile for the wide array of high quality experiences. Cramming everything that is “good” into such a small percentage is irrational when we have a larger scale to utilize than that of academics. Well received titles with similar scores have large differences in terms of quality, while poorly received titles of similar quality can have drastically different ratings. This issue has left the top quartile unbelievably crowded with virtually any and every game that is received in a positive light.

In occasions when reviewers utilize their full unbridled liberty of the ten point scale, particularly with anticipated or high profile releases, they catch a great deal of flak from their audiences. No-one really enjoys being criticized or harassed. Some individuals are actually so afraid of criticism that they will bend to the will of others in order to avoid it. After all, it is a lot easier to say something positive than it is to go against the grain and be critical.

Being critical not only means potentially disappointing an audience that has been looking forward to a game for months, perhaps years but also the title’s publisher and developer. Being brutally honest could risk straining that relationship. In the case of one Kane & Lynch reviewer it could even mean losing your job. Then there is always the rage of fanboys to worry about.

It is unfortunate that this cowardice exists in the first place, much less is supported by a system suffering from a battle between two schools of thought. Those that are afraid to give a game an honest score are camouflaged amongst a sea of individuals who review games as though they are grading papers.

It is understandable that thinking about two very similar things in incredibly different ways is difficult. Anyone that has tried to learn a foreign language can attest to that. However, if we as reviewers and readers begin to utilize the full ten point scale when thinking about games we are not only being more honest, but we are improving the quality of the system which we use to evaluate what we care about and further legitimizing it by differentiating games from other, previously established facets of our lives.

  1. avatar R.S. Hunter

    I agree completely. I read a review of a certain game (an older PS1 game) on IGN last night. The tone and text of the review was very negative, but then the reviewer gave the game a 7 which totally didn’t gel with the words in the review. Also according to their rating scale, a 7 is considered decent. It was just a strange experience. In the end I went more with the actual text in the review than just the number at the end.

    • avatar Neymar

      As the owner of many of Bob Dorr’s books, I have come to expect that anyhting he produces will be well-researched, well-presented, and very well-written. Hell Hawks! is right up there not only with Dorr’s other works but with the best in Be There combat writing. Here’s an example: The German pilot ran flat-out low threading the needle between a church steeple and tall brick smokestack. Narrow streets raced under the wings of Kraman’s P-47 as he engaged the throttle button triggering emergency water injection. His Pratt & Whitney surged as Kraman squeezed off short bursts at his quarry, the enemy banking abruptly left and right to throw off the American’s aim. Across the Rhine, farther into Germany, the pair raced east Dorr and co-author Thomas D. Jones (USAF Academy grad, ex-B-52 driver, veteran of four NASA space shuttle flights) also rightly recognize the guys who weren’t strapping into the 365th Fighter Group’s P-47s: The men with stripes on their arms didn’t pilot Jugs, but they made warfare in the Jug possible. We tend to forget that the aircraft of WW II, after all, were just 15 years removed from Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP of 1927 but were very complex machines. The authors salute the men with the stripes well. The results of close to 200 interviews of 365th FG veteans, other combat vets, family members, and more, plus four years of research, Hell Hawks! is loaded with the day-to-day details of fighting a tenaciously fierce enemy, demonstrating throughout the book that ground attack combat was a deadly way to earn your flight pay. The authors bring the personalities of the young pilots alive as well as provide a big picture of Allied strategy and the pace of war from D-Day to victory. This is an excellent book not only for military historians but for anyone who enjoys aviation writers at the top of their game. Splendid!

  2. I don’t know that it’s fair to call it “cowardice.” People who write about games full time are in a completely different position than we are. It doesn’t matter if we piss off Microsoft or Activision or Ubisoft, but someone who works professional in the video game media wants to make sure they get invited to those E3 conferences every year. It’s the nature of the business. I don’t think that’s cowardice, that’s knowing your limits. :)

    Eurogamer uses the English point scale such that 5 is the average, but I’ve noticed that their review scores don’t seem too much lower than everyone else’s. I feel that “8 is great” holds true no matter which system anyone is using.

    I think, in the end, that reviews aren’t about critical statements at all. They are buying guides. Criticism would be something totally different, and wouldn’t be concerned with a recommendation of purchase of passing. Sites like The Escapist handle the two separately. I personally feel that criticism -ought- to be part of a review, if not the basis for it, but not every gamer is terribly discerning, which is who the audience for that sort of exercise would be. :(

    • avatar Anonymous

      Is there a reason why we cannot edit comments on this article? The mistakes in my comment above are killing me. *grin*

    • avatar R.S. Hunter

      Basically it’s okay for indie sites to be more honest because they have less to lose? Reviewers should be nice to big developers so they can continue to get swag and invites? That sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse.

      If a review is a buyer’s guide then shouldn’t it be honest because people’s hard earned money is at stake? A review should contain an honest recommendation or warning about a product. It shouldn’t be sugar-coated just because the company that published the game is a big powerful company. The score at the end of the review should be in line with the text in the review.

      While in a formal sense, criticism and reviews are different not many people are discerning when it comes to their definitions. Somebody could write a feminist critique of the female characters in a JRPG and that would be criticism. But really in this context trying to differentiate between criticism and reviews is just splitting hairs.

    • The trouble I have here is the comment ‘reviews aren’t about critical statements at all. They are buying guides.’ I’m not saying you’re wrong…mostly cos I can’t. I would argue that this is a completely subjective statement.

      Readers will have different opinions on what they value in a review, as will a writer. If someone writes a review as a recommendation for buying the game, there’s no way to force the reader to garner that from a review, no matter how likely it will be. Readers will use them for whatever purpose they want…even though, admittedly, most gamers – writers or not – will view them as recommendations, and will be written that way. Still, I find for that reason that the purpose of a review can’t be so easily defined.

  3. What happens if Kotaku makes all the developers mad? They stop getting interviews, they stop getting invites to events like the Bioshock: Infinite reveal, they stop getting into big conferences…what do you think happens to their web rankings? The video game media is a business. They don’t actually exist to make you happy. For every one person who doesn’t like the coverage of a particular site there are 100 other people who don’t really care, and just like that site’s particular voice or that was the first site they spent time at and now they’re attached to it.

    These sites don’t need an excuse, not for me or for you, nor would any of them care to make one. They’re top of the heap, and staying there is what they care about. The only think you can do is stop reading their sites if you don’t like their reviews. There’s not going to be any reforming them.

    Indie sites are about passion for the writing and the subject matter, but saying we have less to lose isn’t entirely accurate. Less to protect might be more accurate, but there’s certainly as much to lose in terms of access which could be lost. Indie sites that get privileged with review code, for example, can’t wait two months to turn that code into a review. They have to turn it around relatively quickly or they won’t get code in the future. Again, that’s business. The PR people just care about coverage. That’s their job.

    Reviews should be honest. Whose honesty? Yours? Mine? You’re assuming that professional games journalists aren’t genuinely excited about the products they review. That’s kind of big assumption to make. You don’t know whether the reviews are sugar-coated, and that’s not what Kyle was talking about, anyway. His beef is with the score system settling in between 7 and 9 due to the way the audience interprets the scores, and he’s right. You can Google up a decent amount of discourse around this in games journalism.

    I don’t see how differentiating between reviews and criticism in this context is splitting hairs at all. If anything, knowing the difference when scoring is involved means everything in terms of the weight of the score. A pure review score is going to be a vastly different thing than a score based on legitimate criticism…and the audience can’t weigh those scores unless we know which is which.

    • avatar Alaba

      Thanks for sianhrg this info, Raj. How do you know the TripAdvisor ranking changes every Tuesday? I’ve asked TripAdvisor before but they don’t reveal this info it’s part of the secret algorithm.

  4. avatar Chase Cook

    It is sad that video game “journalism” operates in the exact opposite of traditional journalism. The media are the gatekeepers that provide information to the public and are designed to keep those in power in check.

    However, we justify that its OK for journalists to pander to the big guys because they need to get into their conferences. It’s terrible; hopefully, if video game journalism finds elusive credibility, that will no longer be the case.

  5. @ Jamie -

    That “reviews as buying guides” comment is straight out of the mouth of a few professional video game website and magazine Editors I know who work for some of the biggest publications out there. That’s speaking to what the PR firms and publishers want to see, and therefore what the economic reality of being a for-profit publication competing for readership demands. I don’t want to name names because I think it’s tacky, but that wasn’t just something I made up, for the record. It’s the reality any of us will have to deal with if and when we start writing a bunch of reviews professionally for the big name sites, according to the people who are running those sites. Hence why I don’t, personally, have any problem with it. It is what it is.

    @ Chase -

    I don’t know that this really does operate in the opposite vein of traditional journalism. For one, look at the American media during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. They could not have more completely abdicated all of their responsibilities as the Fourth Estate. No one dug into any of the “evidence” being presented to justify the invasion, no one dug into the holes in the arguments per trying to connect Saddam to 9/11…if the media had done its job, I don’t think the United States would ever have invaded Iraq.

    If the media had done its job, however, they would have been branded as unpatriotic turncoats who were attempting to undermine the government in a time of war. Americans…tend not to take that sort of charge lightly, even if it’s ridiculous. People aren’t that bright…and therefore the media shut up, played ball, and even did some cheerleading. The days of an independent media are long, long over. Media conglomerates are all for-profit entities who will do what they have to in order to maintain readers.

    The video game press, as an enthusiast media, at least makes the state of affairs pretty obvious and doesn’t attempt to hide behind journalistic ethics or objectivity. It bears more resemblance to specialist film or music magazines or websites which are just as much enthusiast publications.

    The fact is that the audience drives the numbers, and the audience by and large doesn’t care about good writing, or good journalism. They want to read about Modern Warfare 3. They want to read about sexy new technology. What justifies the existence of the video game press isn’t hard-hitting editorial or hard-nosed reporting, it’s the access they have which allows them to break previews, reviews, and news to the video game fans before anyone else can break that news.

    I try not to pimp my own writing elsewhere, but check out the series I wrote on Bitmob about the state of video game journalism. It’s an encapsulation of six months of coming at this industry extremely hard, doing a lot of digging, and making a ton of professional connections. I feel I have an extremely accurate pulse of how this industry works, and I have a professional background in communications and film so I already understood how the mainstream media and entertainment industries worked…and the video game press really isn’t any different. It’s just more overt in being what it is, if that makes sense.

    • I wasn’t implying that you were making something up, so I apologize if I came off that way. What I *am* saying is, no matter what the biggest editors or the biggest magazines say, they can’t MAKE readers read reviews for certain things, nor can they force writers (except writers on their own sites I guess) to write reviews with their specific purpose in mind.

      It may sound nitpicky, because it’s true that the vast majority of game reviews are written (and read) as a product guide, as if they’re buying a hybrid car or a toilet…but that doesn’t mean that a recommendation for purchase is definitively what reviews are.

  6. As far as this conversation is from the dichotomy between rating systems…

    If you pull punches, do not express your opinion, or score the game unfairly because there is a larger stake involved you are a coward. Telling people that Kane and Lynch is a decent game when you think it is awful isn’t knowing your limits, or even covering your ass. It’s sacrificing your journalistic integrity because you are afraid of Square Enix. No-one is going to lose their ticket to E3 because they wrote an honest review. You might piss off a few people along the way, but in the end people are going to thank you for it.

    As far as reviews vs. criticism goes. Yes, they are two separate things. However, terms such as “critical acclaim” exist and are widely used. If 99% of people think about the two being relatively synonymous, what is the point of waving the dictionary at people?

  7. avatar Anuradha

    on my post, I tlltoay agree with you!Reviews are very important for me and I agree that they tlltoay help me decide if I’ll buy a book or not…Great post!Thanks for stopping by my blog! =)

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