What's in a Number?: A Closer Look At Review Scoring

What's in a Number?: A Closer Look At Review Scoring

Allow me to be selfish for a moment. I devote the majority of my time working with Cheat Code Central to writing about the video game industry, the business of games, and, of course, the games themselves. But today I'm going to let you in on a secret. There's something else related to video games that I think I know better than any other aspect of the industry, something that I don't get a chance to talk about all that much: myself.

Well, not just myself, but all of those journalists and other game writers who make up the media that covers the industry we all love so much. If there's one thing that tends to nag at our tireless souls day in and day out while we go about our jobs, it's this: We all seem to have a drinking problem.

But if there's another thing that eats at us, it's our often tumultuous relationship with some of our readers. More specifically, most of us hate clashing with you guys over review scores. So, I'm going to step out on a limb today, extend the olive branch to anyone out there who's ever gotten outraged over a particular video game review, and try to explain how I, a member of the gaming media, think about the reviewing and scoring process.

First, though, a disclaimer: I'm only speaking for myself here, not the gaming media at large. This is important, not just because I'd like to avoid being blacklisted by my editors, but because each and every video game reviewer is different from one another, and that is an extremely crucial thing to remember in trying to understand why certain reviewers review certain games in a certain way.

I'm a freelancer, for instance. I write for a variety gaming sites and magazines—though I'd affectionately call Cheat Code Central my "home," if I had to pick one—and I complete a variety of assignments for them. I approach games differently than other people. My background, history, and personal viewpoints differ from other people. I'm a human being, in other words.

Remember that stupid "we are all snowflakes" analogy you used to hear in elementary school? Well, as hokey as it sounds, that's a philosophy that kind of holds up in the game reviewing world. I'm Jeff Dunn, not Matt Walker, Josh Wirtanen, Shelby Reiches, or any of those other great writers you read every day here at CCC. So, what I write and think is probably going to be different from what they think, and I can guarantee you it's going to be different from what plenty of you readers think.

Alright. Now that we know that different reviewers naturally have different opinions, let's chat a little bit about the concept of "objectivity" in reviewing games. Many gamers will cry foul when a game they put so much hope and anticipation into gets a poor review score, saying that the review in question was "biased" against that particular product. "You just don't understand," they'll say. "You're putting too much of your own personal opinion into the review." Or something like that.

What's in a Number?: A Closer Look At Review Scoring

To me, any claim along those lines kind of misses the point of why we have human beings review games, and not automated machines. I could go on and on about dudes like David Hume, and about the philosophical concepts of subjectivity versus objectivity, but let's leave it to this: Anybody—literally anybody with the ability to read, write, and think—can write a "review" that just lists what happens in a given game. But it takes a professional reviewer, and, more importantly, a professional writer to give a proper analysis of those base facts.

A review, in the sense that we're using it here, cannot be a review without someone injecting their personal opinion into it, because the way we perceive and understand happenings is always going to be filtered through our own unique viewpoints. When it comes to video games, or any piece of art for that matter, what's "good" and what's "bad" are never going to be fully, wholly, 100 percent comprehended as definitively true. Thus, there's always going to be personality within a review, in some form or another.

If you're trying to give a proper judgment of a game, this is inescapable insofar that "judgments" can never be separated from the people making them. The quality of a video game is not some infallible fact. Many people can think Resident Evil 6 is trash, for instance, but all that really shows is the thoughts of many people, not "The Truth" of the matter at hand. At least, this is just how I see it. Get what I'm saying?

Now, I don't want to discount the idea of "bias" entirely. Media bias is something that exists—plenty of national news channels seem to display that pretty clearly. But what we do have to discount is how freely we throw around the word "bias" itself. When someone disagrees with you, that doesn't make them biased. That just makes them another person. It's not like any writer wants to dislike a game anyway—we're the ones who have to spend ten hours or so with the things. That is not fun, believe me.

Sure, someone who has never played a horror game probably shouldn't review the next Silent Hill, but, in my experience at least, that kind of stuff just doesn't happen as much as you may think. I myself had to write months of features, news posts, and previews before I could even be considered to write a review for any of the sites I freelance for. You're going to have to trust me a little bit here when I say that game sites and magazines take reviews very, very seriously. And a good part of that is because of the pressure you keen readers put on them. In many ways, that's a pretty good thing. So thanks for that.

Let's wrap our friendly discussion up with a quick word about review scores themselves. Here's another secret: I hate them, personally. For one, they discourage readers from actually, y'know, reading the reviews that I—or any other writer, for that matter—put hours into. I could go on a rant here, but suffice it to say that they're the kind of things that contribute to our mile-a-minute, "I want it now" culture that diminishes the quality of information and encourages the quantity of it.

What's in a Number?: A Closer Look At Review Scoring

But okay, I get it. You readers want snap judgments on things sometimes. There isn't infinite time in the day, and you're busy. Plus, you can always choose to come read the review when you're ready. That's totally fair. But, the next time you want to argue a certain game received a 3.5 instead of a 4.0, please try to read more than the little summary at the bottom of the page before you set your monitor on fire. Nobody's ever won a debate without putting the time in to fully understanding their opponent's point of view; the same thing applies here. I know I'll be much more likely to respond to someone who writes me a measured, thoughtful, and respectful response to one of my pieces instead of one who calls me a "biigg looozer buttface."

Finally, let's get to the ol' Metacritic argument. A common point against a reviewer who gives a game a "bad score" is that they should feel guilty for trashing something that so many people have spent years working on, especially when lowering their Metacritic score may result in the developers of X game losing pay bonuses for their poor reviews.

Let me say first that I think Metacritic is great. I know that's an exceedingly unpopular opinion amongst my fellow writers, but I think that bringing the critical community together for closer inspection in one place is something that's healthy for writers. Again, though, my problem isn't with Metacritic itself; it's with the pedestal on which readers, game companies, and other industry types place the site. It simply shouldn't have the clout it has today. Full stop.

In my opinion, any of those companies that measure the amount of pay their employees receive based on a game's Metacritic score are part of the problem. Never mind how bogus such treatment is to workers; it also does massive damage to the integrity of game reviewers and press members like me. Actions like that only further the misplaced belief that a "consensus" of opinions alone can be acceptably mistaken for fact. And if nothing else, this idea pressures, inadvertently or not, honest writers to change the way they feel in order to shoulder problems that external forces have created. Then, those same forces make those same writers lose sleep simply for being true to themselves. That's a travesty.

So there's my rant. Of course, there's much more to the nature and process of reviewing video games, and there are thousands of more talented and more experienced writers who can tell you more about it than I ever could right now. But, I hope I've at least cracked open the door to mutual understanding a little bit. Feel free to help me open that door all the way some time. But remember, this is all just my opinion. I think I'm going to go have a drink now.

Jeff Dunn
Contributing Writer
Date: October 25, 2012

*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*

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