Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Words and Metrics Don't Mix

Ever read a review where the author goes on and on about the stuff they hate in a particular game only to then give it a near perfect score. Alternatively, have you ever watched a video review in which it's nothing but praise yet the game still gets less than a perfect score? This is because of a fundamental problem with the way gaming review outlets operate.

If you live in San Francisco and pick up a free copy of their local news publication, SF Weekly, I highly recommend reading their movie reviews for one reason in particular. The editors refuse to have any kind of numerical rating system for the films they critique. This has the highly beneficial effect of forcing the reader to actually scan the words as printed and learn about films and the reviewers' opinions in detail.

Now, some of you might say "What's wrong with metrics? They're quick and easy. Consumer Reports uses numbers and it's a great review magazine!" Well, yes that's true but the reviews you find in that particular publication are different in nature. They are evaluating technical aspects of products not artistic ones. If reviewers of video games were to truly adopt this policy they would have to base their review scores on factors like stability, graphic/sound fidelity, control response and code optimization. Obviously, those are things reviewers usually consider, but I can't remember ever reading a review that exclusively limited itself to considering those rather objective points. Instead reviewers inevitably tend to stray into the realm of artistic critique.

The fact is video games have artistic merit (sorry Ebert) so I can see why reviewers would want to discuss more abstract factors such visual styles, music composition, moods, themes and overall impressions. The catch is these points are extremely subjective and can vary greatly from individual to individual. How then do reviewers expect to justify their review with abstract numbers like "7/10" and "3/5 stars"? It makes absolutely no sense if you think about it deeply. And here in lies the problem with video game reviews. They want to have the name of their magazine or website to appear on box covers and Metacritic so they feel the need to push out a score even if it (in itself) has no meaning, while at the same time tossing out unsupportable opinions in the hopes of getting quoted (with citations of course).

So, in the end it's all about grabbing as many pairs of eyes as possible consequences be damned. No wonder gaming journalism has a very hard time maintaining any integrity. After all you can have your cake and eat it too, but sooner or later pretty much everyone is going to end up thinking your a selfish, greedy pig.

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