Last week, I talked about how we can interpret review scores and find out what they really mean. I also looked at how popular review sites tent to score games within a limited range, and how score aggregators like Metacritic influence gaming scores and universalize their meaning. In this second article I address the question of whether review scores are bad or good for the gaming community, the gaming industry, and the medium as a whole.
The question of whether video game reviews should include scores has been going on for some time. There are a lot of people out there who think that video game reviews should simply drop the score, and that our reliance on them has devalued both the community discussion and the medium in general. Games are too complicated to sum up with a single score, so why even bother?
My view is somewhat different. I think that review scores are more than a necessary evil. They serve to focus a review, to provide guidance to the community, and they foster discussion, even if that discussion can go off the rails at times. They also serve to highlight the best and worst of the medium, giving clear accolades where they’re due, and warning others of dangers ahead.
In this article, I’m taking a look at some of the most common criticisms levied at review scores and arguing that they fail to understand the actual value of review scores to consumers.
Review Scores Aren’t Meaningless
One of the central arguments against review scores is that they’re arbitrary, and can’t meaningfully reflect something with as many moving parts as a video game. After all, how can a single score reflect a game with terrific multiplayer but a terrible single player campaign? Or a great game marred by rare, but game-breaking bugs? What about a fantastically fun and brilliantly designed game that feels too short? Review scores are thus a quick gloss, a summary that doesn’t really summarize, and as a result, they should be treated as mostly useless.
But this argument misses the point. Of course a single review score can’t contain all of the information that a review can, but it does contain information, and given the consistency in scores shown in my previous article, they certainly don’t seem arbitrary. Indeed, it seems that the universalization of review scores has led to a common understanding of what they mean. It’s not impossible to give a review score to a game with some great aspects and some poor aspects, because reviewers do it all the time. One merely has to balance the pros and cons.
But why have them at all? My answer to this question is that the utility of review scores largely lies in being an indicator of consumer value. We know that a game that gets a “9/10” or equivalent is probably worth paying full price for if we’re not at all interested in that type of game. We know that an “8/10” probably means it’s definitely worthwhile, but don’t be afraid to skip it if you’re overloaded, or wait until it comes down in price.
Review scores guide purchasing behavior in ways that just text might not. Without having to commit to a review score, it’s easy to prattle on about what one liked and what one didn’t, what one thought of certain elements, and maybe wax poetic about themes and design. But many readers are simply going to want to know if it’s worth their money, and without the reviewer being constrained by the review score, the review just mind end up being non-committal and full of equivocations, giving no guidance on this point.
This may seem overly commercial for criticism of what is supposed to be an art. But while games certainly are an art form, every artistic medium has its differences, and review scores work better for some than others. Video games tend to have a lot of aspects that can be somewhat objectively evaluated. I use the term ‘objectively’ loosely here, because ultimately preferences are subjective, but with respect to a lot of video game elements, they’re fairly universal. For example, most of us probably prefer games without bugs to those with bugs. We have a pretty universal understanding of graphical prowess and sound design. Control responsiveness is likewise pretty universal. We also tend to prefer longer single-player games to shorter.
Compare video games, with say, literary fiction, where review scores are rarely employed. What is there to objectively measure? It’s not like even the worst professionally-published novels are riddled with typos and grammatical errors. There’s length, but I don’t think we can say we really prefer longer novels to shorter. The quality of writing is too subjective, as are every story element from plot to themes to characterization. What else is there? The cover art? The quality of binding?
Literary reviews are rarely there to tell you whether to buy a book. They might highlight some great books, or some overrated ones. But mostly, they’re there to engage in a conversation about a piece of literature. It makes sense in that industry, where you’re talking, after all, to readers of literature who might go in for that sort of thing. Needless to say, the gaming audience, by and large, isn’t that.
Review Scores Do Not Inhibit Criticism
The second argument is that video game review scores inhibit real games criticism and reduce what could be a thoughtful review to nothing more than a numeric metric. It destroys any nuance to the review and steamrolls over the observations, insights, and arguments the reviewer might have had. The argument goes that if we ever want to really have a conversation about games as a form of art, or at least an important cultural medium, we need to move past summing an entire game up with one number.
I’ve touched on this point already, but it’s worth making it in full here. We can talk all we want about reaching a higher level of games criticism, but the reality is that the readership for that kind of criticism is likely very small. Most gaming review site readers simply aren’t looking for that kind of criticism. It might have a home somewhere, but gaming review sites with an interest in financial success aren’t it.
As much as we critics might want to talk about video games in the same way as the New York Times Book Review, the audiences are very different. The writers of a book review for the latest Margaret Atwood novel can assume that their audience consists of people who are interested in literary thought and, more importantly, are sophisticated readers. Gamers, by contrast, can only be assumed to have a grade-school reading level. And they’re more likely to want to know how satisfying it is to cut a demon apart with a chainsaw in Doom than the existential implications of The Stanley Parable.
That point may sting. It may feel like I’m belittling the industry, and suggesting it can never have artistic merit. But that’s not it. It’s simply that the video game industry is a bigger tent, with a lot more people in it. It’s more like the movie industry than the book industry. And even Pulitzer Prize winning movie reviewers like Roger Ebert gave movies scores. He did it, presumably, because it was important to his audience.
We can have good video game criticism, and I believe we should, but the reality is that it will live or die on its own terms. We can’t simply take away something people want and use in the hopes that they’ll read more thoughtful criticism if they have nothing else to read.
Review Scores Do Not Hurt the Community
A final common argument is that review scores have negative effects on the gaming community. A big part of this is that review scores can lead to pointless flame wars, enraging some groups of gamers who will argue endlessly over the appropriate numeric value to assign to a game.
But this can’t be a valid criticism of review scores. Yes, gamers argue about review scores. They also argue endlessly and pointlessly about console power, Link’s gender, weapons in Call of Duty, and literally everything else about which one can choose a side. Removing review scores won’t change that. And at least when gamers debate review scores, they might actually talk about why they think a different score is merited, which can occasionally lead to some reflection and intelligent debate.
Most often it doesn’t, but it’s a small concern. Review scores aren’t going to be the thing to tear the community apart. We have lots of other debates that are serving that purpose just fine, and they’ll carry on review scores or no. In the scheme of things, it’s a tiny issue, and not one worth spending much time on.
Review Scores Actually Serve a Purpose
In the academic world, most publications require that every paper has something called an abstract. An abstract is essentially a summary, told in just a few paragraphs, that the reader is presented with before even seeing the rest of the article. It’s not just an introduction, nor is its purpose to intrigue the reader to read the rest of the article. It’s there to tell the reader as quickly as possible what’s in it, so they can decide whether or not they want to keep reading.
In the games journalism, of course we want people to read our writing. Every writer does. But there’s a lot of merit in the idea that sometimes you just want the summary of what you have to say. Review scores serve that purpose, in addition to focusing the reviewer on the task at hand.
This can be important, because readers of a gaming site might not know that they want to read a particular review. We tend to assume that when we write a review, the people reading it are going to be people who are already interested in the game and went out searching for reviews. But it just as well might be someone browsing news who saw that 9/10 or 10/10 and clicked to see what the fuss was about. I’ve found a lot of great games myself this way that I never otherwise would have tried. Sometimes, they’re games I’ve never heard of before.
In the same way, the review score can also be used as a sorting function. Someone might want to find the top-rated indie games, or the top-rated puzzle games, and review scores let them do so easily. Without them, sorting through a deep catalog of reviews can be nigh impossible.
Ultimately, review scores are about quickly and effectively informing the audience about the value proposition in a game. They’ll never be perfect, they can’t sum up everything, and they may be somewhat subjective. But these drawbacks are outweighed by their simple effectiveness and practicality. They say what they say with an efficiency that no full review can hope to, and they let us find both what we want to find, and what we didn’t even know we wanted.