To put your neck on the line or play it safe
I did something unwise recently – I checked Metacritic to see what scores had been given for a game I was reviewing. My first reaction was ‘oh…’ upon realising the score I’d given was much different to the others. Then something else happened, I doubted my rating for a moment. Had I missed something important during my playthrough that’d warrant the other scores given?
On reflection, I believed that I hadn’t. Still, I read through the other reviewer’s opinions. The score and reasoning provided was sound – as was mine – but the doubt was still there in the back of my mind, tickling those anxiety and self-doubt nerves that twitch too often behind the closed doors of a straight face. In a lucid interval, a light bulb lit above my head: other reviewers must have done this; other reviewers must have altered their scores afterwards.
Long before I became a part-time journalist (still feels out of character to call myself that), I’d discuss with friends about how we’d be much better reviewers, never bowing to those PR bastards, always keeping our honour and pride. The reality is much different, for many reasons.
Firstly, there is a sense of brand loyalty that we all have. Whether it’s a specific piece of hardware, development team or PR agent we’ve had a great working relationship with, there are those we feel strongly about. This can go both ways: we can over look flaws if we love a new title, or lambast it for ruining what we expected. Previously, on a related subject, I wrote: ’A title is released by a studio that you love. The game is good, and by the end of it you’re settled on a 7/10. Now, you know the last title of theirs didn’t succeed as well financially as it should. So do you become part of the reason that ruined the developer, or nudge the score up slightly?’
Add to this example that other reviewers have been giving the game an 8/10 and it’d be tempting to nudge your score up. No one would know, the review wouldn’t attract negative attention that you might have received for giving it a different score, even if you did originally believe it deserved it, and the developer gets good press. So why not – everyone’s a winner, right?
Hopefully, somewhere out there are the silent readers. The ones that look for honest opinions and believe well written and balanced reviews are still important. And it’d be no surprise for me to state that being faceless on the Internet does allow people to sprout all sorts of nonsense from their pie-holes. Every time a game is given a score too high or too low – against the reader’s preconceptions – the old ‘who paid you to say this?’ (only spelt worse) comes out in the comments section. Are we now viewing video game reviews for an honest opinion or to simply see who out there agrees with our opinion?
This adds another level of pressure on the reviewer. Score a product differently to the general consensus, one created by an average of other opinions, and you risk the integrity of your journalism and entire publication being brought into question. It’s an irony that a culture built from those that weren’t exactly socially gracious in the first place now vilifies those with a different opinion. It’s a worrying trend.
Truthfully, I don’t want average. I don’t want normality – I want varying opinions and ideas, where I can read reviews with the best and worst scores to make an informed decision. The power of an 80% average on Metacritic has been discussed before, and this looks to continue to become a more important factor in the publishing world.
Recently, the Redner Group (a PR company) was publically fired after posting a public threat that those who’d been too venomous in their reviews of Duke Nukem Forever would be blacklisted. Being blacklisted is not a new practice. We’ve unfortunately had it happen here at Thunderbolt. Not only are free copies of games important for volunteer run sites such as ours, but it often means you get them before the official release date so that your publication has an earlier article published, increasing traffic to the website. Losing access to press copies can have a bigger impact than you’d expect. So if you don’t want your name in the book, you’d be best to hide your negative review by scoring it within the current average.
In the example of this title, the scores were low and could be seen as the flip-side of marking a review up. A lot of the original reviews were around the 50% mark. Then a lower score was posted, following that another publication posted an even lower score, eventually cultivating into a rampaging snowball of hype and hysteria that came crashing down with a score of 0/10.
You could see each new critic picking up on negative points in earlier reviews and running further with them, all the way to the natural conclusion of giving the lowest score possible. Changing or editing a review you’re writing due to the opinions of others is to conform to social influence, a behaviour that’s natural to us as humans. Would this have happened without Metacritic or the Internet? Would the scores have been different if reviews were still exclusive to printed press and unseen prior to publication? Maybe it would have, but it was interesting to watch it happen.
And I think this did more harm to video game journalism in the long-term than it did to the game’s sales. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist, studied the power of conversation and found ’…talking with someone made people think more similarly…People who discussed a moral dilemma with someone else thought about that dilemma more similarly after the interaction, even if they disagreed about how the dilemma should be resolved.’
The moral of the tale is to be wary of checking what other critics have said before publishing your own review. The power of the majority shouldn’t be disregarded, and I can see how easily less arrogant and/or stubborn journalists could be whipped up into media hype and be worried about publishing a review that appears vastly different to common thought; possibly lowering or increasing their score by a point or two to make it ‘more in line’. A practice I am sure is already happening.