All across the internet, I see people calling out videogame reviewers for not being objective enough, or showing bias towards a particular system or game type. Actually, to be more accurate, I see things like “OMG u r so bias,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Game reviews are a subject that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. The discussion of what reviews are and what they should be is one I can have for hours. I love to debate over whether scores should be applied, what the interaction with PR should be, and the rest of those tricky ethical issues.
I feel strongly about my views, which is why I’ve been hesitant to start writing, lest I sound like I’m speaking from a soapbox. However, this point has been bothering me particularly. It’s something I just can’t stand.
People on the internet, presumably fans of games and game reviews, are calling for reviewers to be objective, and to show no bias. They want the cold hard facts, not somebody’s opinion. It’s a clear demand, and it’s one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard.
Whether you believe videogames are art, entertainment or a mix of both, you’ll have an opinion as far as which games are good and which games are bad. There’s no way you can prove any of these opinions, except by offering up the opinions of other people. Things like fun and immersion can’t be quantified – they’re feelings, and as such vary from person to person.
A reviewer can only speak from his or her experiences. That’s all a review is really. It’s someone talking about his or her experience playing a game. Sure, the reviewer has probably played more games than most, but the review is an opinion and should be treated as such.
Still, if you go to almost any game review with a less than perfect score and a decent amount of comments, you’ll find something along these lines. Let’s take the GameSpy review of ‘Donkey Kong Country Returns’, for example.
Three comments down is a poster complaining: “Wow, 70% only cause YOU think the game is hard? That is what i call a biased review.” Let’s take a look at each of these parts.
The first line, “Wow, 70% only cause YOU think the game is hard?” is absolutely mind-boggling. Why would a game reviewer use any opinion other than his own? There seems to be an implication that one man’s opinion can’t stand on its own. There’s also a failure in reading comprehension, since the reviewer takes time to clarify that it’s not the difficulty of the game, but the nature of the difficulty he has a problem with.
I’m not sure if people think there’s an official board of reviewers that gets together and decides things, but there certainly isn’t. The reviewer – Ryan Scott – got the game, played the game, and then wrote about the game. The 835 words he wrote came out of his head and went onto that virtual page.
The second part of the post is what really irks me. “That is what I call a biased review.” This suggests that bias or subjectivism are somehow bad things. Reviews are meant to be subjective, and biased towards the reviewer’s preferences. As a reader, your job is to determine whether you identify with the reviewer or not.
This is one of the tamer reviews as far as these comments are concerned. It’s one I simply picked at random from Metacritic – a site that I hope to talk about more in the future. Consider the now-legendary ‘Twilight Princess’ review at GameSpot. A reviewer named Jeff Gerstmann gave ‘Twilight Princess’ an 8.8 out of 10. That’s a good score. In fact, an 8.8 out of 10 is an amazing score that puts the game up there as one of the best on its system. Once Gestmann’s review went up, all hell broke loose. Not because he scored the game too high, but because fans of the series who had never even played the game claimed that an 8.8 was too low. Calls of bias ran rampant that day.
Now, I’m not simply coming to the defense of reviewers because I also write about games. I read and listen to far more game reviews than I write, and I haven’t dealt with much in the way of frustrating comments on my reviews – Bonus View readers are far too intelligent for that sort of thing. I’m just annoyed with the way game reviews are being treated.
Videogames can’t be analyzed in the same way that a graphics card or a Blu-ray player or a projector can. There are few hard numbers, and they aren’t worth talking about. Polygon counts, frame rates and resolutions are there, but they don’t make or break a game. Hell, ‘Halo 3′ wasn’t even in high definition and no one seemed to care.
If you want to read a purely objective game review, you’re in luck. Jim Sterling over at Destructoid wrote one, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Here’s a tidbit:
If you buy Final Fantasy XIII and like it, then you like Final Fantasy XIII. If you buy Final Fantasy XIII and don’t like it, then you don’t like Final Fantasy XIII. It has things in it that some people might enjoy but other people who have different ideas of what is enjoyable may not actually enjoy it.
All this comes down to in the end is that videogames are entertainment, or art if you’re one of those people. Neither thing can be reviewed in an objective way and still be worth reading about. It’s just not possible.
Objective reviews are great for magazines like Consumer Reports, who use a testing process to gauge the worth of products. They promise unbiased reviews by experts. It’s what they do and it’s great if you’re looking for the best vacuum cleaner or the best toaster. But that’s my whole point in a nutshell, isn’t it?
A videogame is not a toaster.