Who the Hell Do We Think We Are?
Hold on, party people. It’s about to get all sorts of meta up in herre. DJ RQ be flippin’ the wax, layin’ out da DL, givin’ you a press op-ed article on press opinions. Word.
So I’ll be honest with you. This is the big, bad, secret that the gaming press doesn’t want you to know. I’m probably putting my life in danger just writing about it. Know that if I end up sleepin’ with the Cheep-Cheeps tonight with concrete Kuribos on my feet, it’s because I said too much. Here it is:
The gaming press has no business telling you what you should buy.
You can see why this might ruffle some feathers. The very concept of this sentence undermines nearly the entire revenue structure of gaming press companies (and let’s no kid ourselves, all gaming press sites are COMPANIES that have to make money; the bigger the press site, the bigger the company). If a gaming press site can’t, in theory, tell you what you should buy, then it certainly can’t plaster itself with advertisements, much less the occasional “stuffed” review which we all know does happen. (By “stuffed”, I mean like a stuffed bra. It’s padded, so as to look more attractive. The difference between gaming press and boobs is that favoritism likely changes hands for the gaming press.)
It’s about to get real after the jump.
But let’s pare this back a bit. I’m not out to topple giants of industry here by debunking the validity of their ad revenue, despite the fact that many would say it creates a biased factory fueled by spent integrity, churning out biased products for the masses. Many others would say that this is the way of the world. That the only way we can maintain any sort of gaming press is through successful ad sales and the business-to-business relationships based around that pillar of economics. That padded reviews are a factual byproduct of the way the system has to be, a necessary evil. That the uncommon occurrence of such things are acceptable losses to the integrity of a system greater than its parts.
So now, where are we at? It’s man vs. The Man. Individual vs. corporation. Hippie vs. business aristocrat. Red vs. blue. Us vs. them. We all knows where this goes, don’t we? The eternal spiral of debate, circling the drain of hyperbole and rhetoric, spinning endlessly, never ceasing, never changing, never resolving.
In other words, nowhere.
So let me take another approach, good people. This is not about business, or integrity. This is about subjectivity.
Let me bring you an example. The screenshot on the right here is from Metacritic, which I believe can be safely labeled as a “go-to location” for information on any given game. Scientifically speaking, its premise is sound. By creating an average of all of the most reputable review scores in the gaming press, we see where we can expect a particular game to fall, qualitatively speaking. Each score is, of course, a weight of the value of a given game, assigned by a press outlet and accompanied by an article cheering or jeering its qualities. But there’s a major problem with this.
Our screenshot here is for Dynasty Warriors 7, released at the end of March. Note the wide disparity between Reviewer Scores and User Scores. People who have visited the page seem to favor the game, with a user score averaging 8.1. That’s a pretty favorable score! But reviewers have largely given the game mediocre reviews, averaging out to a 58. Now that’s a huge gap; a 23-point margin of error, as it were. What’s going on here?
Let’s take a look at another screenshot, this time for Transformers: Dark of the Moon. When we look at the critic reviews, sure, we see a large amount of mediocre reviews, as is evident in the long yellow bar on the left. But take a look at those gaming press review scores. One outlet gave the game a 40, obviously hating it, its mother, and everything it stood for as a person. Hell, there’s another review not shown in this screenshot, posted by 1UP, giving it a 33. But another press site gives it a 91! Let’s see, 91 minus 33, carry the two… That’s a 58 point difference! What in the name of Bowser’s left nut is happening?!
1. Opinions are Subjective
This is the first major malfunction of the Review Machine: the fact that we are all human, even game reviewers. Yes, even game reviewers! Every human being sees things differently, and in the end, though a reviewer may try to be as objective as possible, they can only do so while operating under a subjective amount of objectivity. That is to say, they can only be as objective as they think they need to be.
Once upon a time not so long ago, different sites would maintain different philosophies about how hard or easy on games they need to be, so that in effect the site has a “reputation” for how they approached games. One would have a better idea for how a game would land based on a combination of the score and the reputation of the site; if a game scored highly on a site that was known for being hard on every game it reviewed, you knew it had to be good. But in this day and age, where game companies depend on Metacritic numbers to determine their portfolio (because gamers are relying on Metacritic numbers to determine their purchases), most press sites are easing up, so as not to throw the curve and upset otherwise friendly relationships with the companies they depend on for game assets and feature articles.
Most of you are probably saying at this point, “DUH. We already knew all that, that’s obvious, Q. Come on!” Bear with me, because this brings me to my greater point:
2. Reviewers COMPETE Games Against One Another
A person who reviews games plays a lot of games. And I mean A LOT. Generally speaking, they must play a large portion of any game they are given to review, if not to completion, and in order to maintain viability not only as a writer bringing in income but as an expert in their field, they have to sample a lot of different games. This includes the shitty ones. For every God of Uncharted, there’s 20 Barbie Horse Shoots or Carnival Chicken Adventures out there. This creates a different mindset than your average gamer, even the ones of the “hardcore” variety.
Then there is the fact that press outlets often face outward pressures on their games. Let’s create a hypothetical situation here. Let’s say that someone is going to review Uncharted 5: Drake’s Colostomy Bag. Due to various circumstances (they love the game, pressure from bosses, pressure from Sony, pressure from GameStop, desire to keep job and continue feeding family), they give the game a 10. The very next month, Halo 6: Prelude to Fall of Reach of Time and Space. Despite being a clearly superior game in every way, Halo only receives a 9.5. This could happen for any number of reasons: it could be a different reviewer who tends to be stricter, there could be less pressure from various sources, they could have been having personal issues, like an impending divorce, which colors their outlook on life and art. Suddenly there is an outcry from the gaming community. They instantly question the press outlet, saying “Are you saying that this clearly inferior game was BETTER? It got a higher score!”
Both the reviewer mindset and the gaming public DEMAND that press sites COMPETE games against each other. The trouble here is that much of the gaming public does NOT do this unless bidden. Many gamers will maintain a “favorites list”, where they keep a mental record of their most beloved games, but on any given day, in any given hour, how often are they going to compare, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum against Heavy Rain? These are two completely disparate games, with almost nothing in common, but game reviewers must keep this in mind when quantifying a game’s score. This difference in approach creates a totally dissimilar set of values, and therefore, a dissimilar set of scores between reviewer and consumer.
The bottom line here is this:
No one has the right to tell you what you should or should not play.
Because they are not YOU. Not your friends, not your enemies, not the gaming press. Others can tell you about a game, and things like what other games it is similar to. They can even give it a score based on their opinions. But never… EVER… should they have the right to tell you whether or not you should play a game you want to play. You will, by definition, like things that they don’t, and vice versa. So live your own life. Form your own opinions. Screw them.