Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-05-09 19:01:23
The Decline of Video Game Journalism
I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels at least a little disillusioned with video game journalism. In particular, the process of reviewing video games has been imperfect for some time. Reflecting on it, the idea of giving specific scores to games is necessary, but it's also a flawed system, especially when reviewing games in particular categories. For example, some games absolutely require that you look at their graphics - a top-budget game like Assassin's Creed has to be polished to a fault, or players will cry foul. We wouldn't apply that same interest in visual fidelity, though, to a modern 8-bit platformer. For some games like VVVVVV, we don't even care that the graphics are bad - we concede that smaller development teams aren't generally going to be creating visually stunning games, and so we don't penalise them when their graphics are dated.
Already from the above example we can see that different games require different benchmarks for evaluation. You wouldn't think to criticise certain games for their graphics, while other games can be attacked for having a rough texture in a couple of locations. Similarly, you can't just judge a game on its gameplay, either - there is so much variety in gaming that doing so becomes far too problematic. How can you possibly compare a game like Flower with its ambient pacing and lack of any major objectives to a structured game like Starcraft II that requires huge levels of concentration and thought? The comparison isn't fair, because there is too much variety across the medium to come up with hard and fast rules of scoring.
But because review sites more often than not have to score games, these points of comparison have to be made that probably shouldn't be. For example, a website might give the small-scale indie game Gunman Clive a 9/10 score, while giving something like Dragon's Dogma a 7.5. I don't think that anyone would seriously argue that Gunman Clive is a 'better' game than Dragon's Dogma: the latter crushes the former in everything from its music and its visuals to its length and its online capabilities. Judging by typical categories of analysis, Dragon's Dogma is a superior game in every single way, and yet Gunman Clive gets awarded the higher score. This is because Gunman Clive is an excellent little indie game, and thus a different mentality is applied when judging it. It just so happens, though, that while the frame of mind behind judging the game changes, the method for scoring it doesn't generally follow suit.
Scoring games is especially difficult nowadays. I don't know if it's a purely modern phenomenon in the last seven or eight years, or if it has always been the case, but you tend to find nowadays that '5' is no longer the score for an 'average' game, despite it logically being so on a scale of 1-10. Far more often now, we see games that are thoroughly average receiving a score of 7/10, and, being the kind of guy who spends a lot of his time keeping up to date with reviews, I can say with confidence that I have noticed a trend across various media outlets in treating 7/10 as the benchmark for an average game. This creates a huge problem, because it results in an over-saturation of games receiving scores that are disproportionately high. If 7/10 is the score for an average game, then an above-average game gets an 8/10. Games that are good get a 9/10, and games that are really quite great receive a 9.5 or so. It is my opinion that very few games deserve a 9/10 - this sort of score should be reserved for something truly special, but, sadly, more and more games appear to be receiving a score of 8-or-above in modern reviews.
This could be because games are just naturally getting better, although I fear that this isn't quite the case. While games in general are improving with technology, our expectations of what a game should be are also increasing. Thus, a game that ten years ago might have been a 9/10 game might reasonably be a 5/10 game now, simply because it may have been overtaken by the competition. Thus, despite the gaming industry as a whole improving and maturing, there should still be plenty of games coming out that are considered average and should realistically be receiving scores around the 5 mark.
The reason why this doesn't happen very often is likely due to a number of factors. Sure, some publishers pay for positive reviews, but I imagine a lot of reviewers give out overly generous scores because of the potential backlash if they don't. I would never argue that Youtube is a bastion of intellectual conversation, but you only need to go to IGN or Gamespot video reviews to see where the inherent problem lies. If IGN or Gamespot give a game 9/10, they generally get a decent number of thumbs up on their videos. If they give a game even a decent score like 7/10, the thumbs down usually outweigh the thumbs up, with posts like 'this game deserves at least a 9/10' flooding the comment section.
At least a 9/10! It's ridiculous! These people aren't actually thinking about what they are saying. At least a 9/10 would imply that a game is almost flawless, which very few games are. The only reason people say things like that in the first place is because they have become accustomed to seeing so many games receiving high scores that they view 7/10 as a bad score. This is absolutely true for many people - if a game receives 7/10 they will consider it to be bad, and if those same people enjoyed the game, they will be sure to complain and tell the world that the game is deserving of a score closer to the 9/10 mark. Based on this misguided view, review sites perpetuate the problem (not that I blame them, necessarily, for doing so) by accommodating these people with increasingly high scores, which only exacerbates the problem.
It's sad, because the same ignorant people often equate low review scores with bad journalism, which isn't always the case at all. You can be a phenomenal journalist and give a game a bad score; you can write an excellent article while remaining incredibly critical. A review, after all, should be critical. It should come as no surprise that when reviews wind up on amalgamation sites like Metacritic, people generally scroll through the positive reviews looking for the negative ones (breezing by the green until they see a red) in order to see what isn't good about a game. People don't generally care about what is good - they just want to know what is going to put them off from spending their money.
This makes sense, but it also results in people not really caring about what is written. For every person who reads an extensive review, I speculate that there are ten others who just scroll down, check the score, and then move on. This isn't particularly surprising, as people usually just check reviews to see if a game is worth buying; if they see a bunch of positive scores they'll go ahead and do so, and it is only when they see a bunch of low scores that they might actually read into what the issues are with a game in order to see if they are concerning enough to stop them from picking it up. What this does mean, however, is that it doesn't really matter to a lot of people what you write in a review - you could be talking about a load of nonsense, and only a handful of people will actually call you out on it, as most people just flick directly to the score.
Ultimately, there is no real remedy for this problem, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't identity that there is an issue here. People need to learn that personal opinion isn't the same as objective fact. I absolutely love the video game Tales of Symphonia, but I wouldn't suggest that a review giving the game a 6/10 was wrong, if the reviewer raised credible complaints. Too often people play a game like Dead Island: Riptide, have a fun time despite the glaring issues, and then go and shout on message boards that scores of 5/10 are utterly wrong and that the game deserves an 8 or a 9 because they enjoyed it. Journalism should always strive to be as objective as possible, and video game journalism is no exception.
It would be expecting too much from the average person, however, to ask them to take an objective view toward video games and accept that just because a critical review may disagree with them, it doesn't mean that they have to assail the reviewer and complain that the score is too low. When you live in a world where 7/10, a score of 70% - which in almost anything else would be considered pretty decent - is considered 'bad' by the general gaming population, you know that there is a fundamental problem in how people are viewing video games. At the fulcrum of the issue is definitely that 7/10 benchmark - I really wish that more games would be scored appropriately (if we must use scores at all), with 5 being used as the average. I've enjoyed lots of games that I'd personally give a 6/10 to - after all, a 6 is above average, and plenty of things in life are completely serviceable while remaining unremarkable. And, if we used 5/10 as the score for an average game, it would allow us to truly judge which games deserve excessive praise and which are merely a decent passtime in the pursuit of entertainment.