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.