Evaluating Review Culture

A review of how we view reviews

We need to talk about reviews.

No other entertainment medium is as reliant on a numerical value as video games. Game reviews are the media that is most central to the culture of the industry. The emotional state of the hardcore community at times seems completely contingent on the review scores of the season’s top games. Our review-centric tendencies are ultimately damaging to the industry that we love, and it has to stop.

The game that called my attention to our poisonous review culture was The Division. Because of its community-centric gameplay loop, Ubisoft wanted reviewers to play the game in its natural environment. Without a formal review, players were forced to test their curiosity and form an opinion for themselves. From my observation, the game has performed very well with players and conversation has flourished in an organic way…that is until the official reviews came out.

While many were high on the game, IGN’s Vince Ingenito gave the game a 6.7, which the site defines as “okay”. If you didn’t know it, you’d have thought the world was ending. Once the official review was out, many players seemed to become more tepid on their enthusiasm. Others took to bashing the reviewer for his “wrong” opinion.

It is no surprise that reviews, especially IGN’s, caused such a stir. Games are reviewed according to a universal criteria that is apparent to anyone that interacts with them. Does the game control well? How are the mechanics? Does it look good? Is it fun? These are questions that anyone who plays a game could answer and understand.  This creates an atmosphere where normal players feel like their own assessment of a game is just as valid as that of the critic.

They aren’t wrong.

The problem is, unless your name is on the byline, a review isn’t your assessment of a game. No matter how many games you play, it is someone else’s thoughts and opinions that you are reading. That opinion has the backing of the site where you are reading it giving it credibility. You do not. We as a community are conditioned to treat a review from a major gaming site as Gospel truth. This needs to change.

I like to think that the gaming community is made up of bright, positive individuals open to constructive conversation. Online personas do their best to prove me wrong. Review discussions regularly devolve into petty affairs featuring grade-school name calling and accusations of global conspiracy.

So let me set the record straight.

First, it is impossible to have an incorrect opinion. Because it’s an opinion. It’s subjective. IGN’s ruling on The Division is the opinion of one man, and while the site does put its credibility behind it, it still remains one man’s opinion. Please treat it as such. You can disagree, but that doesn’t make the reviewer’s view incorrect.

Second, sites are not paid to influence reviews. A game that gets a good review earns it. Same goes for a bad review. In most cases, the reviewer is just as disappointed to be forced to give a bad score to an anticipated game as you are to read it. Bribery is unethical and often illegal, so it doesn’t happen.

Once you sort through these typical ignorant responses you realize the true problem with reviews; we don’t know how to value them. We either galvanize ourselves because of a single review or because of an overreaction to a score.

We are trained to think that only 9’s and 10’s are truly worth our time and that 7’s are bad. This phenomenon hurts both gamers and developers, as it puts designers under unhealthy pressure to create quality and it robs us of valuable gaming experiences.  What’s more, we see one low score and immediately throw away months of hype and anticipation without doing our due diligence. This is not how the industry moves forward.

While disappointment can largely be attributed to the hype-fostering press schedule, there is no way around reviews carrying the weight of our expectations…which means we need change how we look at reviews.

As gamers, we owe it to ourselves to read more than one review. This gives us a variety of opinions to weigh when mulling a potential purchase. It also allows for fewer surprises. I’d much rather go into a game with the full, critical picture than with only a partial one.

As for scoring, use a score to match a game with your interest level. 10’s are must plays no matter what your interest level is. For example, I had never played a Metal Gear game, but when IGN gave The Phantom Pain a 10, I just had to see what the fuss was about.

If you are at all interested in a game and it receives an 8 or 9, it can be safely purchased. A 9 might also sway me to play a game I wasn’t interested in, as they generally denote incredible quality. An 8 has some problems, but they don’t get in the way of what the game is trying to accomplish.

If a game receives between a 6.5 and a 7 it usually has appeal to fans of a certain series or genre, so if you’re a fan it might be worth your time. If it doesn’t, it is safe to pass. Games in this range might also have interesting ideas that would be cool to try out. Anything below that is safe to pass on, but people being interested in a game and passing because of an 8 is complete buffoonery.

I understand that reviews are important. I get it. Games are a huge investment of both time and money in a way that most other entertainment options are not. It makes sense that we want to know if the investment we are making is a good one, but our obsession with a review score is unhealthy for all parties. If we adjust our attitudes, reviews can be an even greater benefit to the industry.

I have decided to give our review culture a 2/5, which 8BitChimp says is “poor”. Hopefully, the sequel fixes the issues.

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