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The reviewer and me. The relationship between the critic and the user

Users of Gamespot seem to have different expectations when it comes to the tasks and responsibilities of reviewers. Some feel they should cater to the majority (whoever that majority might be) and leave their personal opinions at the door as much as possible. Others see reviewers as nothing more than paid users who judge a medium that doesn’t allow for a universally accepted quality assessment. What are we to expect from these critics? How should we define the game reviewer? This entry explores some of the issues that form the relationship between the user and the critic.

The first issue pertains to the grouping of the reviewer into a suitable profession context. Is a reviewer a critic or a journalist? Broadly speaking, a journalist is concerned with the collection and distribution of information, while a critic focuses on forming and presenting an opinion on or assessment of a creative work. A game reviewer judges the quality of a videogame. Therefore one would likely conclude that the game reviewer is a critic (regardless of the fact some reviewers call themselves journalists). However, problems arise when discussing and questioning the arguments brought forward by the reviewer. Journalism has a code of ethics, although disobeying that code doesn’t have direct consequences. Still, it’s a way for readers to assess the integrity and responsibility of a journalist. Critics don’t have a clear code of ethics. There appears to be no explicit set of ideals that explains how critics should act or construct their opinions. This means that the ideals of the reviewer might not coincide with the ideals of his/her readers.

The question is: should these ideals coincide? In the context of Gamespot I’d answer that question negatively. While satisfying and adhering to a specific audience can be important in building a solid base of (returning) readers and disregarding the wishes of readers might lead to general displeasure and less readers in the long run, in the end it’s up to the employer to determine how far a reviewer can go. Since Gamespot has many employees, the audience’s interest is spread and the general impact of one reviewer on reader numbers could well be negligible. Combine this with the reader’s apparent urge to keep reading (or at least clicking on) reviews by people they don’t like and it’ll take something extremely controversial (like multiple cases of plagiarism) to influence a reviewer’s conduct. While questioning a reviewer based on principles derived from the journalistic (or comparable) code of ethics may be justifiable and understandable there’s no immediate reason or obligation for the reviewer to adhere to these ethics.

This brings us to the second issue. As a critic, a reviewer can relatively freely choose how to construct and present his/her arguments. This freedom can be hard to bear for some readers, because they expect a certain level of professionalism that not only justifies the reviewer’s paycheck, but also ‘guarantees’ a trustworthy and useful advice on whether or not to buy a game. However, professionalism can be described in various ways. In the context of Gamespot it probably means consistently writing an eloquent and accessible review that displays knowledge of the game and that is handed in before or on the deadline. In the eyes of the reader professionalism might mean respecting the needs of readers, being an expert at the game in question (or the genre it represents) and, here it comes, being objective. I shall refrain from discussing the definition of ‘objective’ in this context, but it appears that some people see it as an equivalent of ‘balanced’ or ‘impartial’, while others argue that the quality of many game elements can in fact be objectively observed (measured, so to speak).

Regardless of the definition or interpretation of the term the necessity to be balanced/impartial/objective has become increasingly irrelevant. For every review there are countless alternatives. The internet has given us access to a myriad of sources which can inform us about the game in question. Forming an opinion about whether or not to buy a game has become a process of comparison and verification. There’s no reason to rely on a single reviewer or even on reviews. This could mean that reviewers have less incentive to appeal to the broadest audience, in turn addressing minorities and/or focusing on aspects they personally find important. As a result a wider variety of people could be drawn to videogames and a richer field of debate could develop. But it would also require greater effort from the reader to determine how valuable (aspects of) reviews are.

A third and, again, related issue is the issue of authority. Because the reviewer is in an exceptional position, there seems to be a tendency to expect exceptional skills and knowledge; something that justifies the privilege and paycheck. Reviewers, however, do not have exceptional skills or knowledge compared to their readers. They might have knowledge prior to the reader and they might have slightly more time to dedicate to games, but their experience and skills are pretty similar. As a matter of fact, reviewers run the constant risk of being outclassed by people with more experience and skills. Every individual has got plenty of resources to form a strong opinion; an opinion that will always be supported by a significant amount of people. We’re capable of always questioning authority. And therefore reviewers are pretty much users in a privileged position. The idea of the reviewer as an authority figure is questionable.

The tendency to question reviews might be related to the structure and development of the internet. As said before, there’s always something or someone on the internet to back up an opinion with, which leads to a growing confidence in one’s own opinion. At the same time the lines between trustworthy and questionable information are blurry, which might lead to a general suspicion towards the majority of internet sources. Media in general (and their audiences) also seem to have put the emphasis on clear, concise and catchy opinions, disqualifying balance and depth. The idea that there might be several equally viable truths is hard to uphold, even when it comes to judging the quality of creative works, like films, music and videogames. It seems easier to say ‘I know better’ than ‘I think differently’.

Reviewers operate in a context where the individual value of a review as the sole guide to buying a game seems to have diminished, where a clear code of ethics is absent, where any sense of obligation towards a specific audience always has to compete with commercial principles and where there’s no room to maintain any form of general authority. This context might clash with the ideals and desires of users and even those of reviewers. Of course there are many other factors to consider and it goes without saying that anything mentioned above is the mere interpretation of limited observations. Yet, the above text hopefully shows the complexity of the context in which users and reviewers interact and that the notions people might have of how everything should work are not as self-evident as they appear.

The Score on Scores - How Necessary Are They?

For quite some time I've wondered about the relevance of scores. Controversial reviews and Gamespot's implementation of a new scoring system have led to some heated discussions that show how much the 'correct' score is valued by a lot of people. But are they really that important? Why do people attach so much value to a number that arguably summarises the reviewer's appreciation of a particular game? It is time for an overview of the pros and cons of scores. I do not wish to imply that this overview is complete, but I hope it's extensive enough to be useful.

It appears that a lot of people see scores as an indication of the quality of a game. While this might seem an obvious statement, it can explain why people sometimes react so passionately when they disagree with a score. Numbers (and pretty much any scale used for scoring) imply an unambiguous and objective system of comparison and verifiability. Every 8 is an 8 and that 8 is always less than 9. Metacritic interprets scores this way by making an average score out of the accumulated scores of different reviews. Arguably, these scores are very important for video game sales. A study by Joe Cox and Daniel Kaimann indicates that reviews by critics have an influencing role when it comes to sales (they base this observation on review scores). They also refer to an article by Nick Wingfield that explains how bonuses for developers are tied to Metacritic scores. However, as Jason Schreier of Kotaku points out, the averaging of the scores is a questionable process, because a lot of websites have vastly different scoring policies and scales, which means that every 8 is in fact not the same. Yet all these scores are equalised in the average score of Metacritic.

A lot is riding on scores, which is probably why they’re still around. They are very easy to track, compare and put into statistics. And they can even be useful for gamers. If you read multiple reviews and you know the taste, attitude and way of thinking of certain reviewers, you can often quickly assess from a score whether you will like a game or not. Even comparing scores on a more basic level might give a quick indication of the quality of a game. More importantly, for people who read multiple reviews sites like Metacritic offer an overview of the different scores given and quick links to different perspectives. But relying solely on the numbers, as some people seem to be doing, is a dangerous practice. These scores tell you nothing about the content of a review or the quality of a game when it comes to your personal taste. Yet a significant number of people seem convinced that the score represents an objective assessment of the game's quality. Part of this idea probably lies in the conviction that reviewers should be capable of judging a game in a way that caters to all gamers. This seems like a very generalised and unrealistic claim, because video games (like movies, music and books) are, as Cox and Kaimann point out, experience goods. Their appreciation and quality relies on a personal experience, not on neutral observation. An experience of a movie or a video game cannot be generalised and will always be an individual experience. A reviewer can only give a suggestion of quality, they can never decide for you.

However, video games seem more problematic in this regard, because they contain elements that appear susceptible to 'objective' judgement, like graphical quality, framerate and system requirements. These elements are more important in appreciating video games than they are in appreciating films or books, in which the technical presentation is more standardised or less important. Because of the bigger importance of technical elements in judging the quality of a video game the line between observed quality and experienced quality seems to become more vague. For example, it is difficult to exactly determine how much the quality of the mechanics, controls or gameplay can be 'objectively' assessed. One could say that the fluency or effectiveness of the controls can be neutrally observed, but I think they're just as much a matter of taste and experience with previous games. This makes reviewing video games a tricky business, especially because scores imply a universal consensus on how games should be judged. They suggest that games are part of a system of criteria that are generally similar, which means some people might believe that a game's quality can largely be neutrally observed. This might explain why so many people analyse scores so extensively, since you couldn't really disagree with them if they were the result of neutral observation.

Abother reason why people rely on scores might be the possible association between scores and educational grades. Like a teacher or a professor the game critic might be seen as an authority or expert in a certain field, someone who should be capable of neutrally determining the quality of a certain product. Despite the obvious differences between game critics and teachers and their relationship with the product they judge, the score, as presented by the paid critic, becomes more than an opinion and might suggest that it can’t be challenged, that it’s something definitive. There’s merit in claiming that a critic should be an expert, since she or he is getting paid to judge games, but on the other hand I think the gap between dedicated gamers and paid critics really isn’t that large when it comes to time investment and experience. Maybe that’s why critics get more crap for giving a score that other people don’t agree with, since people demand something that shows the difference between a user and critic, something that justifies a salary. Yet, I believe paid reviewers are pretty much paid users with a tad more responsibility in dealing with a larger audience. But of course, reviewers aren’t solely paid for reviewing games; they also have to do less visible editorial tasks that justify payment.

The arguments mentioned above might explain why some people rely so heavily on scores and are so quick to dismiss and distrust scores and reviews that aren't in line with their experience (in addition, Daniel Flatt of The Paranoid Gamer suggests the focus on scores might also be an attitude issue, with the majority of vocal gamers purposefully looking for scores to criticise). Shouldn't the fact that so many people question the scores and come up with different and vastly varying numbers raise suspicion about the reliability of scores? Don't scores distract from discussing the actual arguments of the review (without relating them to how much they should affect the score)? Don't scores lead to a lot of additional trolling and hate?

In addition to the above questions, the aforementioned article by Schreier explains why (Metacritic) scores have a potential bad influence on pretty much all the segments of the game industry (developers, publishers, critics and gamers). Yet, his arguments regarding critics, having to deal with PR pressure (since good scores drive sales) and feeling guilty about providing less money for developers (since scores that aren't 80-100 mean no bonus for developers) could be overshadowed by the fact that gaming websites profit from the extra traffic and attention from game publishers that sites like Metacritic generate. And although the demand of high score games by publishers might lead to developers producing games that focus too much on what critics might like, sacrificing artistic expression or innovation, it might also lead to a higher general game quality, while leaving innovation to the indie scene (with the chance that some aspects might cross over to AAA titles). But this last assumption might be a bit naive, since video game popularity still seems to be growing and with more general popularity comes more mainstreaming and more risk management, in order to secure that the initial investments by publishers are met with profits in sales.

Making a video game appears to be a financially risky business, with large development costs and a small profit margin or no profit at all. But the articles claiming this (Polygon on AAA development, Forbes on video game sales, 1985fm on development costs, etc.) are dated and/or lack proper source references. However, when searching the internet there seems to be a general consensus about large development costs and the large amounts of games that need to be sold in order to convert those costs into profits. The need to ensure a sale success and the apparent influence of high scores on sales might, as Schreier points out, lead to publishers attempting to manipulate or tie bonuses to scores. This might make scores more powerful than they should be.

I'm not going to repeat all of Schreier's arguments (I suggest you read his article), but it appears that scores have more negative than positive effects. Yet, as mentioned above, scores are also important to many parties. Besides, they're taken for granted and are considered self-evident and logical. Jim Sterling from Destructoid claims that choice is an important reason why his site uses scores, even though he admits they are generally unimportant. According to Sterling there's a large number of users who rely (solely) on scores and why should you deny them this practice, especially when scores, trolls and rage can be so easily ignored? Scores are good for business, they're a recognisable tool, users demand them and they require no compromise (since they take nothing away from the actual review, they only add to it), says Sterling. He does not discuss the possible negative effects that Schreier mentions, however.

Sterling also touches on a more general and ongoing discussion about how much someone is allowed to limit your freedom or how important moral arguments are. A lot of the people who complain about scores, say it's because they lead to insults and trolling and because they distract from discussing the actual arguments in a review. But Sterling has a fair point in claiming that that's not enough to get rid of scores altogether, especially considering the impact that might have on traffic, visibility and userfriendliness. On the other hand, does the moral argument mean absolutely nothing? If dropping scores leads to a virtual environment in which reviews are primarily discussed based on their arguments, isn't that a valuable thing to strive for? Wouldn't it potentially lead to people actually thinking before they comment and being more critical of what they should purchase? It sounds a little too easy to claim that you've got to cater to people who use scores out of laziness (but do take the time to insult and question reviewers based on ignorance or a personal mistake), because you shouldn't mess with their freedom of choice or because it could potentially harm your website. Then again, I assume only a collective effort by gaming websites would be effective (otherwise the lazy people won't learn and will just go somewhere else) and by dropping scores you might also impair the people who actually read reviews, but use scores to assess which reviews to read.

The problem with both Sterling and Schreier is that they're potentially biased. They are defending their own policies and when you compare the two texts you see that both writers are leaving out arguments that could arguably refute their differing opinions. Also, most of the mentioned texts lack solid evidence. That observation is not meant to criticise the texts; they were never meant to be a research article. But it also doesn't make things any clearer, no matter how much editorials you read. I've tried to look for actual research on this subject, but I couldn't find any current studies (other than the one by Cox and Kaimann). So in the end it's difficult to determine whether dropping scores will actually make things better. It could be a very risky undertaking that could backfire because of the interests involved. And of course, another important question is: will it actually lead to better games? And is the current state of videogames really so bad that it needs to drastically change? And if so, will dropping scores really make a difference in that regard? I don’t know.

"You People Are Not Very **** Nice" - Analysing the GTA V Massacre

If you haven't been living under a rock for the last week the heated debate concerning the Grand Theft Auto V review must have caught your attention at least momentarily. Now that the dust seems to have settled it might be informative and insightful to present an overview of the discussion. And with overview I mean subjective analysis. I will try to remain reasonable, however, so that this entry can potentially be of some use (if anyone reads this, of course). I will ignore the hate and praise comments, because they don't really contribute to the discussion. Please bear in mind that, while I have read a lot of comments, I undoubtedly missed things and cannot discuss variations on certain opinions. Some aspects have most definitely been generalised. If I have gone too far in generalising parts of the discussion or have forgotten important arguments, please let me know.

The basis of the debate were Carolyn Petit's two points of criticism: the game is politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic and the characters' behaviour is sometimes inconsistent. This arguably lead to a deduction of one point from an otherwise perfect score. The former point, more specifically the claim that the misogyny in GTA V is a bad thing, took up the lion's share of the discussion. According to a lot of commenters the objections mentioned by Petit weren't sufficient enough to reduce the score to a nine, instead of a ten (recently Gamespot changed their score policy to integers only, so a 9.5 would have been out of the question). While these commenters claimed that the score itself wasn't the issue, only the reasons given, I think it indirectly very much was. If there hadn't been a score there would have been no option to judge the relative weight of the arguments against a numerical value system. People would have had to personally assess the importance of and attach their own value to the different arguments, without some kind of falsely objective reference system that people can (subconsciously) shape to their own preferences. A score adds a value to the presented arguments that is interpreted differently by every individual, but that suggests some kind of universal consensus about what are valid and relevant arguments.

Honestly, I think reviews should not have scores. From what I've learned of the game community so far, it seems that a lot of people depend on reviews to tell them if a game is worth playing, apparently disregarding their own very specific preferences regarding graphics, mechanics, game world, AI, controls, characters and story that a reviewer can't possibly take into account. Every single review is bombarded with comments of people who are completely baffled by how much the (score of the) review deviates from their experience of the game in question. And they always find people who support them, so the idea that the review is in fact wrong is being confirmed. I think that without a score people will independently add more or less value to certain arguments, making it easier to adjust a review to their preferences. In the case of Petit's review the objections she mentioned would have been brushed to the side more easily by a lot of people, especially since the amount of text spent on the bad points is very small compared to the praise the game gets.

Regardless of the influence a score might have on the appreciation or awarded credibility of a review some of the arguments against Petit's reasoning were valid. The most important one was that she seemed to single out only one moral dilemma (misogyny), thereby proving she had a personal agenda and violating her integrity. I speculate by suggesting that some people were a little bit more eager to criticise Petit because of her reputation in discussing gender related topics (a topic that a lot of people think should not be part of game criticism, but that's another discussion). This however cannot be proven in any way. Related to what I said earlier about scores, I think some people blew the level of integrity violation out of proportion, as if misogyny had been the core of her entire reasoning. To a lot of people it seemed to feel that way, since she deducted an entire point from the score, which again suggests that not having scores might be a better option when it comes to people's judgment of a review's value.

Yet, people have a right to question Petit's conduct in this case. If you state that the apparent satire surrounding misogyny in GTA V isn't executed that well, you'll have to give detailed examples of where and why this is the case. More importantly, you'll have to prove that it does work in the depictions of other moral issues, such as violence, racism, etc. Otherwise it makes little sense to single out misogyny, unless you have some personal point to prove, which is indeed questionable in the context of a review, as many commenters have pointed out. Petit gave a few examples of misogyny and said the following: "Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism." She might be right, but her reasoning is too general. In this particular case, you have to pick a scene and analyse it, if you want your argument to have merit. To be fair, I haven't seen any comments that prove the opposite of what she's saying. Noone actually looked at the examples and pointed out why this is satire or not. I'm not suggesting Petit's correct, but the claim that she doesn't understand satire can only be validated by addressing the scenes she mentioned and pointing out why it is satire.

A lot of people also claimed the review lost its objectivity as a result of Petit's personal agenda, but I think that's a very problematic statement. Objectivity is part of the dichotomy objectivity-subjectivity (which makes it hard to separate them from each other) and because subjectivity is so often used in the world of entertainment criticism there is a tendency to think that objectivity can also be applied to this discipline. I dont think it can, at least not in the way some commenters have done. I will use a definition of objectivity from wikipedia: "Generally, objectivity means the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject's individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings. A proposition is generally considered objectively true (to have objective truth) when its truth conditions are met and are "mind-independent"that is, existing freely or independently from a mind (from the thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. of a sentient subject)." When you look at this definition you have to realise that no review can conform to that description, so blaming a reviewer for not being objective has no meaning, because all reviews lack objectivity.

Wikipedia, however, also states: "A second, broader meaning of the term refers to the ability in any context to judge fairly, without bias or external influence." This is the form of objectivity often used in journalism. But this use of objectivity is untenable. I think objectivity was implemented into journalism to separate it from individual or popular opinion, to simulate a status that is comparable to philosophy or natural sciences. But it is based on the false notion that we can somehow come to an objective opinion, an objective judgment, an objective score. And this is a dangerous notion to hold on to, because people tend to think they're right very quickly and the idea of objectivity can motivate them to present their opinion as truth. When judging video games reviewers are influenced by their (lack of) experience with previous games, by their ideas about what a game should be, by their knowledgde about the audience who reads their reviews, even by their former education and the way they were raised. All these biases might not come to the surface as explicitly as they did in the GTA V review, but they contribute to determining a score and the arguments to back up that score. I'm only emphasising this point, because some people started using 'the lack of objectivity' as a means to reinforce their arguments, instead of presenting new ones.

A similar case can be made for the word professional. I'm afraid that strictly speaking the only thing that separates Gamespot's users professionally from its reviewers, is the fact that the latter are getting paid for what they do. Integrity is not part of being professional; being and staying employed is. Sometimes integrity plays a part in that, but it's not always a requirement. Whether or not someone is a professional is determined by the employer. Whatever additional meanings we attach to the word professional are ideological, not factual, and should therefore not be presented as an absolute fact. Again, I emphasise this because 'not being professional' was used to reinforce an argument. Don't get me wrong, the basis for the arguments about not being professional and lacking objectivity is valid (it lies in the personal agenda argument), but in my opinion they hold little meaning as a reinforcement.

That all reviews are subjective does not excuse them from criticism. Some people reacted by stating this review was just an opinion and that there was no reason to reply so passionately. But as many people rightly pointed out, this is not just an opinion. The paid reviewer enjoys a certain status, and with that status come certain expectations. Whether all of these expectations are justified is not the point; as a reviewer of a big gaming website you have certain responsibilities. And one of the things people seem to value is integrity. Unfortunately, integrity leaves a lot of room for interpretation and that's probably why almost every review results in some commenters questioning the reviewer's honesty and credibility (or even the entire website's integrity if they see a pattern).

I do think that as a reviewer you should take the general (dangerous word) conception of integrity (as constructed by the users) into account, even if you do not agree with that vision. And if you deviate from that expectation you should do it very explictly. Gender and sexism are apparently hot topics for a lot of gamers on this website and it's important to be very cautious when discussing them. A lot of people felt as if they were being accused of being misogynous or treated like children, which could point at the reviewer being unaware or indifferent about what a large part of their audience considers valuable and important. It could also mean that some people read too much into the review, but I think that's up for debate. The paid reviewers are the ones with a large platform and a large audience and because of that privilege they'll have to be more considerate and responsible. That doesn't mean sexism and gender shouldn't be discussed, but solely celebrating tolerance or criticising intolerance is not the way to deal with those issues. You have to start from the perspective(s) of your audience.

The text is already way too long, but I hope I got a reasonable argument across. As I suggested before there is a large group of users who think the discussion of these cultural and social issues have no place in video games. And I can understand that. Video games are often associated with escapism. We want to escape from the troubles of everyday life and spend some time in worriless bliss. Discussing cultural and social themes only anchors games more fiercely into everyday life, making escaping from it more difficult. But all I can say is, noone can stop the expansion of videogames into varied groups of people. And as these groups become more interested, they also become more vocal and begin to question the established boundaries and ideals. It is inevitable. But you've got every right to fight it.