Cerebral Gamer: Hail to the Critics

Game reviewing may be a flawed science, but it’s still a necessary one.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 11/13/2010 12:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

Cerebral Gamer

Best of Nintendojo 2010 Award Badge

In the the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss the advent of the internet and the way that it has eroded “informational advantage.”  Certain professions that used to have an advantage because of their privileged access to information no longer do, thanks to the fact that knowledge is so widely available online.  Consider the many areas where experts once held all the cards but where information can now be found on the other end of Google: medicine, education, home repair, the list is endless.

One could say that informational advantage has eroded in gaming, too, at least to an extent.  There was a time when the only way to find out about video games was to pony up for a magazine subscription to Electronic Gaming Monthly or Nintendo Power. No longer do we live month-to-month for new word on the industry; news, gossip, and leaks about games are in such abundance that we need aggregator sites to filter it all down.  Plus, for every big reveal by IGN or some other corporate site there is the astonishing leak by a NeoGAF contributor or a major story courtesy of humble sites like Nintendojo.

But what about “evaluative advantage” — the advantage the gaming media had when it came to reviews?  There was a time when the only way to find out if a game was any good was to wait for EGM or Nintendo Power to churn out a review… that, or buy it yourself, find out it was terrible, and then be stuck with it.  (Trade-ins and online auctions have taken some, if not all, of the bite out of that approach.)  Now opinions on a single game are available just about everywhere, and from a multitude of sources with a multitude of credentials, or lack thereof.  It would seem, then, that professional reviews are wholly unnecessary, now that there are legions of amateurs willing to perform the same service.

But is that really true?

Sources of Gaming Reviews

Broadly speaking, reviews of games fall into one of three categories:

  • The Professionals. These include the overworked folks at IGN and GameSpot as well as a few other corporate sites, like Kotaku.  They are paid to review games (many of them full-time) and they have the highest level of access to both the games and those that make them.
  • The Fansites. These include sites like Nintendojo and NintendoWorldReport, which are primarily fan driven.  These people work ex gratia but do have notable insider access to the industry, including review copies of games, E3 access, and the occasional all-expenses paid trip to California to rock out on Guitar Hero.
  • The Laymen.  These include fan reviews on corporate sites, user reviews on Amazon.com, and the trillions of other places people can go to shout out on games they have played.

Each of these sources has its strengths and liabilities.  Professionals certainly bring expertise with games to the table, and their access to the games ahead of time means that players can often use their reviews to make an informed decision in advance of launch day.  Professionals also have to walk the tightrope of keeping good relationships with developers and publishers, and that tightrope can sometimes create conflicts of interest, as was shown in the 2008 “Gerstmanngate” incident.  I’ve also found that professionals’ tastes tend to gravitate toward the more mainstream genres like shooters and action (no surprise, since that’s the market they primarily cater to), which means that they can sometimes be poor judges of niche genres.

Fansites, meanwhile, bring much of the access that corporate sites do, combined with a passion for gaming that comes with it not being your daily bread.  Corporate game reviewing is a grind that can engender a certain jaded cynicism, something fansites are largely spared from.  I also think fansite reviewers bring to the table a certain authenticity unencumbered by the pressures of a corporate advertising and marketing department.  On the other hand, fansites are run by, well, fans, and that means that we all bring a potential fan bias to the table — this isn’t NintendHateJo, after all.  We also have to be more creative with our time, since we all have educations, careers, and families to balance.

Laymen, too, have their advantages and pitfalls.  Lay writers come from all walks of life and can be some of the finest (or worst) writers out there.  Their reviews are often from the heart, unencumbered by corporate pressure, and they can bring out important details overlooked by more formal reviewers.  I also think laymen sometimes do a better job of understanding and evaluating niche titles in a fashion that fans of that niche would appreciate.  Lay writers also bring the baggage of their own investment: a writer who just dropped $50-60 on a game is going to be reluctant to trash the game too badly (psychologists call this confirmation bias) and may try to spin a silver lining around a bad investment.

The Relevance of Game Reviewers

With the above as context, I’d like to make two arguments.   One, I think that game reviews are still sorely needed.  Two, I think professional and fansite reviewers are still relevant and crucial, even now.

1.  Game reviewers are still needed.

Some Dojo staffers have long been critical of game reviews.  They argue that they are subjective, that the scores don’t mean anything, that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.  I understand where they are coming from, and I will admit that reviewing has limitations.  In truth, this is the case of any review in any category, whether it’s movies, appliances, or cars.

I also think that we still need game reviews, limitations and all.

Games, as we know, are different than most items.  If you buy a blender or a casserole dish and it is defective, you can get your money back for a full refund.  Games almost always “work” — they are typically free from manufacturers defects and play correctly on the system.  That doesn’t mean that the game is any good, of course; just that it works.  With games being largely unreturnable (and most retailers will only exchange a defective one) a player is taking a fairly serious risk when he or she drops all that money on a new game, much more so than the comparatively cheaper investments of movies or music.  As mentioned earlier, a gamer can try to cut those losses by listing them on eBay or handing off the title to the wily folks at GameStop, but that is almost always going to be a loss of money that could have been spent on a better game.

Those of us who don’t have money to burn benefit tremendously, then, from the perspectives of others when it comes to games, biased and limited though those perspectives be.  It helps us make informed decisions about our limited cash and maximize our gaming dollars.  To be sure, the ideal would be to be able to “try before buying” via GameFly or (if you’re lucky) the public library, but since that may not be viable for most people (and since GameFly costs money itself) it comes back to the reviewer to help the gamer make choices with the money.

2.  Professional and fansite reviewers are still relevant and crucial.

I certainly respect lay reviewers.  I’m one myself, contributing from time to time on places like Amazon.  The user reviews I crafted for gaming sites comprised the portfolio I turned into a Dojo writer.  That said, I’ve discovered firsthand that I am much more objective about a review when I haven’t paid for it.  Do you feel badly for panning a game that was given to you for free?  A bit, yes, but it is nothing compared to the self-guilt that comes from having to pan a game that I just spent my money on.  Of the two, I think I am at my best when the game in question is not of my own purchase.

I also think the timeliness of professional and fansite reviewers is also a big plus.  Because these groups often get games before they are released to the general public, it can give on-the-fence players a chance to weigh the reviews before risking a preorder or early adoption.  Otherwise, players have to wait for user reviews to matriculate, and those early user reviews are going to be obviously colored by players who may or may not have actually had a chance to finish the game before pronouncing judgment.

I have become a big fan, too, of the “consensus of the sages.”  I think that sites like GameRankings and Metacritic, with their collated scores, do a superb job of capturing critical consensus.  I won’t say that I always agree with their average scores, but they generally do a good job of reflecting the overall quality of a game, at least given the limitations of an inherently subjective enterprise.

Conclusions

With the proliferation of citizen journalism, the number of options for game news, editorials, and reviews has certainly exploded.  The market is decidedly different now than it was when Nintendojo launched in 1996.  This is especially hard-felt in corporate journalism, which has been shedding jobs by the thousands as print media has fallen into the abyss.  Based on these changing dynamics, one might wonder if the era of the authoritative game journalist was over.

The answer is, not necessarily.  Certainly the game evaluation space is more “democratized” than it was before — there are more choices to be found.  I still believe, though, that there remains a strong need for good professional and fansite gaming journalism for reasons outlined above.  (I also think that the gaming journalism industry, with its roots more firmly online, is better positioned to withstand some of the changes in journalism than traditional print sources.)  Most gamers, ultimately, will have their own ways of gathering information about games, whether its through pros, fans, word of mouth, or all of the above, but the fact remains that gaming journalism remains an important source of evaluative information, moreso than in many other industries.

One Response to “Cerebral Gamer: Hail to the Critics”

  • 276 points
    Nicolas Vestre says...

    I completely agree. Despite being subject to bias and other factors, it’s comforting to have positive reviews about a game before buying. I still make the final decision to purchase based on how I feel, but at the same time, if a game gets generally negative reviews, that will definitely affect whether I buy that game or not.

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