Why the game review scores debate will never be ‘solved’ in the age of shifting media habits

Metacritic.com, Games, Feb 22, 2015 screenshot (1000x563)Numbers are numbers. When it comes to cultural critique they tell you very little without context.

For those that don’t know, debates about video game review scores – their editorial honesty as well as their ability to influence readers and, by extension, game sales – has raged for as long as games magazines have existed.

This month, popular game news and review site, Eurogamer, announced that it is dropping review scores entirely. This caused ripples of celebration and consternation. It also prompted other specialist and trade media websites to respond with discussions, comment pieces about the nature of game critique today and cases for/against keeping review scores. Meanwhile, some scoff at the very idea of written reviews, arguing that Let’s Play videos, Twitch.tv and YouTube vloggers are the future.

The trouble is different meanings are inherently attached to review scores. This means they will always be a help to some and of negligible value to others. (It becomes even more complicated when you try to aggregate scores.)

Reviews then and now
Before the internet was commonplace, most of us wouldn’t read more than a handful of publications. Game magazines relied on loyal readerships that stuck with them. As a result, regular readers of a particular magazine often grew to understand a magazine’s critical barometer. So even if a game was given a seven – the colloquial equivalent of ‘average’ in game critique, borne of a time when publications couldn’t be held to account – or heaven forbid a five or below, readers had their own knowledge of past reviews and the tastes of the magazine’s writer to attribute to any given score.

In the context of the above, the purpose of review scores is to serve the reader. “But that’s always their purpose,” I hear you cry. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Nowadays, everything is online. Readers have the capability to view many, many publications and get their game critique from myriad blogs and video sites. Review scores are championed as the time-saving scale for those “that don’t have time to read a full review”. But they are also picked apart for “not reflecting the written review”. Readers argue back and forth about scores, rather than the text itself. Publications are accused of doctoring reviews or making them intentionally favourable at the risk of losing advertising money. And critics are regularly attacked for being “in the pocket” of publishers or developers.

Alongside all this, there has been the rise of review aggregation websites, such as Metacritic and GameRankings. While not wholly responsible, it can’t be denied that such websites have added to the culture of boiling critique and opinions on artistic works down to mere digits. In game development, some publishers have been known to place bonuses and other contractual agreements on Metacritic averages. So you can see why game developers despise Metacritic and review scores in general.

Scoring systems with never be perfect because everyone’s agenda is different
The reason the debate about review scores will never be ‘solved’ is because there are too many recipients to serve. A system that is inherently ambiguous cannot hope to become a one-size-fits-all solution.

Is the modern review system for the regular reader who knows the publication’s/critic’s taste? Is it for the casual reader? Is it for both? Is it for the editorial team to keep a critical barometer to present as a resource? Is it for the publishers who are judging developers on their Metacritic average? Or is there no score at all? – in other words: “Stuff you, aggregators, and stuff you, trolls. Readers, read our bloody review! You can still trust us. Promise.”

The point I’m trying to make is review scores without context are nothing.

Edge #150 - Jun 2005, Zelda, angled, Jun 7, 2005, by Israel (1024x576)

More so than other media, game enthusiasts love to argue and debate review scores. When long-running and famously critical UK magazine, Edge, removed scores in a well-intentioned litmus test, readers complained that they wanted them back. Even with Eurogamer’s new simplified system of awards, little is likely to change when it comes to reader comments (Israel/Flickr)

Make no mistake, publishers should not be hinging performance-related bonuses or any other agreements on Metacritic scores. They might be dissatisfied with a dev’s efforts, but they should never take Metacritic, or any critic for that matter, as gospel.

For readers, this all comes down to time, choice and trust. Who is the authority delivering the review? And to what degree do you trust them? And how important are video games to you anyway? Do you spend lots of time playing them or are you a one-game-a-year person?

Changing media habits mean the role of the traditional critic is threatened
It’s an accepted fact that enthusiasts make up the vast majority of game websites’ readerships – not casual consumers. You could probably say the same thing about film, music and other specialist media sites. And those that consider themselves enthusiasts often know where to seek alternative critique or ways try new releases themselves if they are able to.

MCV editor Christopher Dring wrote a thoughtful opinion piece in defence of review scores. As he says, he doesn’t have a lot of time and Let’s Play videos aren’t his thing, so review scores, and Metacritic especially, offers a quick, critical consensus for him and game enthusiasts like him (you can argue that summary boxes or bullet points do the same job with added reasoning).

Kim Richards, Yogscast and Jeff Gerstmann (wearing his World Famous T-shirt), Giant Bomb, collage (1280x698)

In today’s world, a YouTube caster, such as Kim Richards (aka Yogscast Kim) (left), can be just as influential as an established game critic, such as Jeff Gerstmann (right)

But time and choice is precisely why some prefer to watch Let’s Play videos than read reviews. They enjoy seeing the gameplay visuals and trust the personalities delivering the content. Does that make traditional reviews meaningless? No. But it marks a major shift in the way readers (or consumers) can find out about games today.

This fact means that, for some, tradition video game critique – and review scores themselves – are going to have increasingly less weight. Regardless of keeping or binning scores, what editors should concern themselves with is providing critical and, above all, honest reviews (whether that’s balanced objectivity or consistent subjectivity, and not cowering to the desires of advertisers/proprietors) that serve their target readers. Being a critic is not about pleasing everyone. It’s about providing the best piece of critique you can, regardless of medium or personal taste, and showing the reader why something may or may not be for them.

Critique will always be qualified by the reader’s interest in that entertainment
My favourite critics – whether it’s Alexis Petridis writing with humour and tact about a new album, Danny Leigh disagreeing with Claudia Winkleman on the BBC’s Film show or Jeff Gerstmann dishing out his thoughts on why publisher x’s hot release ain’t so hot – do this all the time. Scores are secondary to the trust I have in critique delivered by them. Furthermore, entertainment critique of all kinds is filtered by my own level of interest in said entertainment (ie music > games > films). So the comments of media personalities (presenters, DJs, bloggers, et al) that I respect and creators themselves – as well as close friends – can hold just as much sway, if not more, than the verdicts of critics. And, of course, all of these factors can change over time as my entertainment interests and relationship with media change.

In the modern era, where readers can stream an album before they’ve read about it, see films analysed and spoiled on wikis long before press junkets, get game critique from vloggers and friends and where media consumption habits can switch almost overnight, critics need to be at the top of their craft. Score or no score, integrity is all they have and they should treat that with extreme care. Some will seek to adapt, some will seek to redefine, but in every case readers will be the ones who decide the voices and discourse to suit their needs.

Image: Metacritic (main); Israel/Flickr (body); Yogscast Kim/YouTube and Giant Bomb (body; collage)

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