Take It From A Game Critic #2: Integrity And Critical Thinking Are Essential For Reviewers, But They’re Lacking Today
Welcome to the second part (read the first part here) of this honesty business. Today I’ll be talking about the integrity of game critics, and how it ties into the whole nasty business of “paid” off reviews, for a term most can associate with. This is a serious matter, and as such I want to discuss it as respectfully and sincerely as I can manage. I feel that it’s very important for gamers, especially casuals, to be aware of issues like these and, more importantly, know how to think about and deal with them.
Firstly, I’d like to be very clear that there is an apparent misconception among many people as to what paid reviews really are about. I feel it’s important to establish first that, much like the words “overrated” and “legendary”, far too often for comfort people cry out against reviews they don’t agree with, saying they’re paid off without any justified or valid reason to believe so. A lot of the time, it simply isn’t true that you’re dealing with a suspect review. Maybe you’re just confusing a reviewer who isn’t a good critic with someone who was bought over. It’s a pretty big error of thought. Anyone can be a games reviewer, as in write about games, but a critic is a developed skill. It’s something you have to learn and practice. Even though I’ve been one for four years, I’m a far cry from where I want to be. I have so much still to learn, and so much I want to learn. You always need to want to progress, in everything you do.
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Now, there are many who don’t care for this, and that’s absolutely fine. There are many who just want to kick back after a long day and play games to have fun. There are many who just want to write about games freely, and express their thoughts. That’s all great, and nothing and no one should stop you from doing this. But, if you want to be a games reviewer and more so be a good one, you’re finding yourself being entrusted with the responsibility of helping consumers make decisions with their money, and that should not, and never be, taken lightly. You have a job to do now. No more kid’s stuff.
Let me point out that it’s alright to not take games seriously, in the same way that you may not take series or movies seriously. But you can’t hate those that do. I take gaming and its progression damn seriously, it’s one of my biggest passions. It’s finally reaching the level where its scope, budgets and scale can be compared to movies, its narrative quality can be compared to real literature, its musical components can be taken seriously in the actual Grammy’s, and it’s at last becoming globally recognised as a real art form. Professional awards and accolades are more prominent, eSports continues to grow significantly, taking study courses in gaming is normal, gaming can reach absolutely any audience, and anyone who says games are for children or basement dwellers is ignorant enough to deserve execution. Now is not the time to hold back gaming. It’s not just a casual hobby only anymore. It’s a lot more, and it’s limitless. Gaming has only been around over two decades, not nearly as long as other art forms, but it can and will get there if you encourage progression and evolution.
Right, back to the topic before I end up giving a speech. Awkward. Despite what I said in the start, let me also be very clear and honest in saying that there is no denying that “paid” reviews are a reality. They do happen. But people not only have misconceptions about what they are, but also how they work. I want to explain to you what a paid review is, and in what forms it can appear. Please understand that paychecks don’t get thrown around in exchange for good reviews like it’s a trade business. There are a few ways and incentives that can result in one. Let’s take a look at some examples down below.
1) Often in the case of gaming magazines, due to the extreme difficulty print media faces on a daily basis, publishers can offer an exclusive, early review in exchange for a favourable score. This means people crowd around to buy the issue, which has a review of a select game before any major publication in the world and before the game is even out, and the result is that the magazine obviously generates lots of attention and people gear up to buy the game based on the review. Note that this isn’t exclusive to magazines, and it can happen with websites too, but it’s common in print media.
2) This is perhaps the one that is most familiar. A website is given substantial advertising for a game, which means some nice revenue is generated, and the higher ups want to see a positive review. I’m sure you remember the famous Kane & Lynch Gamespot fiasco, where the website gave the game a very average score, a six out of ten to be specific, and the reviewer Jeff Gerstmann was subsequently fired due to pressure and threats (to pull the mass advertising campaign) from Eidos.
3) There’s also just simply wanting to keep in publisher good books. If the reviews are nice, and the publishers are happy, the relationship stays healthy and both parties benefit. Only the consumers don’t. This is also a very dangerous one, because as I’ve plainly stated, everyone wins except those who matter most, the consumers, gamers and readers. Welcome to the world I guess.
For all three of these, whichever cynical or pragmatic way you want to spin it, I truly believe that it’s not an idealist way to think that we should exist for gamers’ benefit. They are our priority, and we should always put them first because we’re offering them a free service to help them learn, get equipped with important knowledge and become part of a community. Even if I’m alone in that, I stand by it.
Although, it’s one thing to know this, but how do you train your mind to be wary of what could be a paid review, or just a bad critic? How do you make yourself aware? Are reviewers really accepting kickbacks for positive reviews, or are the reviewers simply losing touch with what’s actually good and bad? Well, these are important questions indeed, but how you deal with them is in your hands. It takes caution, and it requires you to be thoughtful, rather than submissive, to what you read. No one likes someone who is skeptical of everything, surely that’s no way to live, but you shouldn’t bow down to each and everything either. The key is to engage with what you hear and read. Let’s use a practical example.
Gaming website EGM recently reviewed Aliens: Colonial Marines and gave it an exceptional score of nine out of ten. If you’ve read our review, or seen almost every other review on the internet, you’d know that it’s critically panned and mercilessly despised. The reason I’m using this example is because when I scrolled to the comments of the EGM review, accusations of the reviewer being paid off were flying around at the speed free drugs would pass hands. I’m not here to condemn the review or encourage the accusations, but I do want to use it as a harmless example to help you exercise caution.
Here are some notable points you should think over when browsing it:
- The review score of 9 out of 10 is an extreme outlier. If you look at Metacritic, the scores range from as low as 20 percent, to 68 percent at the highest, out of a total of 33 reviews. The game has a 49 percent rating. As such, you should be cautious about massive outliers for any game review.
- Most review publications contradict this single review, potentially creating a grey area as to what is certain, and what isn’t.
- The review is short, vague and avoids extensive detail and analysis. The score is then not fully justified, and in the absence of that score you’d most likely walk away from the review not knowing much about the game and its quality at all.
- Some bold statements have been made without much backing.
- The review content doesn’t clearly define the game to be of such a stellar rating.
Now, this is why I want you to be careful. If you think about these points, it may not necessarily be that a reviewer was “paid off” or the website was under pressure for a good review at all. The last three points above could just as easily mean that the reviewer in question just isn’t a very good critic, and that’s where you need to be careful about throwing accusations, even if it may seem obvious to you. I say this because without factual evidence, accusations are dangerous, and you should rather focus on your disagreement with the review itself. I know it can be frustrating and I hate it just as much as you when these things happen, but you’re doing yourself no favours if you start becoming cynical or too ready to accuse. You could just be dealing with a lenient reviewer, a positive personality or a bad critic.
How does all of this tie into integrity? Before that, there is another very important matter to discuss, and it’s one failing I find with reviewers and gamers collectively. Remember that just because Aliens is rated badly, it does not mean that you then can’t enjoy the game on some level. Many people have the misconception that because a game is fun, it is then worthy of a high score, but this isn’t true at all. Mediocre or even bad games can be fun, but quality is a thing that can, and must, be measured. For example, I had quite a bit of fun with the original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, being a fan and all, but its host of technical faults and shortcomings, buggy gameplay, shallow combat, lack of variety, short length and repetitiveness make it unlikely to be a game of top quality or deserving of high scores.
And that’s alright. No game, no matter its name, developer stature, fan base, history or coolness is automatically deserving of a high score or immune to criticism. Is Arsenal or Liverpool (I’m a huge fan of this one) football club immune to criticism because they used to be great, or because their names carry respect, weight and power? No. Play the game first, analyse it as objectively as you can by being impartial and leaving your feelings or personal love somewhere else, and then justify your opinion in detail. That’s how a critic should operate. A game is just a game, and all should be treated equally, whether triple A or indie. Rate it by merit. And I’m not standing here saying it’s easy. It’s damn difficult to be impartial. It took me over three years to learn how to separate myself from the situation and think impartially, critically and more objectively. Then again, three or four years ago I was fifteen and sixteen, and young and inexperienced. It shouldn’t take someone older and more experienced that long to develop the skills if they want to, but it’s a sure thing that it’s not easy. If you think it’s easy being a good critic, I’d like to see you step up and do it facing pressure, deadlines and opposition.
Having the courage of your convictions is difficult. I know of cases where people are reluctant to hand out a lower than expected score because they’re anxious of the negative feedback they’d get, whether its from fans or higher ups. But you know what? Integrity takes years, decades to build, but an instant to destroy. But it is one of the most valuable and powerful assets you can have when you’ve established, and likewise one of the most dangerous when you’ve ruined it. Going back to the EGM Aliens review, the mass fan unhappiness and accusations could lead to a great mistrust with that reviewer. And maybe it wasn’t because he lacked integrity, but simply because he wasn’t a good critic.
I’m sure you’re beginning to see the picture here. It’s essential for reviewers to have both integrity, and good critical thinking skills. They work together, and you could suffer having one without the other. Any reviewer can be honest with their experience, but if you lack critical ability, well you could be passed off as just a gamer writing about games rather than doing a reviewer’s real job. I’ve experienced it personally, after years of building. Even though many have disagreed with some of my controversial reviews, those who have come to know me also know that I don’t bullshit. I just say it like it is, so when I praise or criticise a game, people know I really mean it, whether they agree or not they at least have the comfort that I’m being honest and I do have some idea of what I’m talking about. And why is that?
Because there is a third element to being a game critic. Integrity, critical thinking and, of course, being able to justify your viewpoint and opinion. That last one is something I pride myself on. It is absolutely vital that if you give a game a high or low score, you can back it up substantially. People can still freely argue or disagree, but you’ll have done your job as a reviewer. That’s what’s at stake. Doing your job.
These three elements are lacking in today’s reviewers. There are many reasons for that. Critics being untrustworthy, the paranoia and concern surrounding suspicious reviews, the complete lack of trust towards certain publishers and gamers fighting among each other, those with higher standards and expectations and those more content and more wanting to defend what they like. Heads clashing. Do you realise you have the exact same goal of wanting a good game, yet you’re fighting among yourselves while the rest of the industry has no care or concern for you? Be part of communities you trust and enjoy being a part of. Aim to learn or to teach, not to add more to the problem.
This is what I think the way forward is. And it’s not even idealistic. Gamers, quit fighting. You all want the same thing, and that’s good games. Whether you think a game is bad or good, focus on that and stop attacking each other and game critics. Try to create channels where people can learn why their beloved game is getting flak just as easily as you can learn why people love the game you’re disappointed with or hating on. As for game critics and journalists? We have one responsibility. Ensuring that our readers and gamers can get good, honest information from experienced gamers. So grow a spine and get your priorities straight. Personally, my loyalty is not to any publisher, developer, game or group. It’s just to the people I write for, and the passion I have for gaming and writing. I really couldn’t care if someone gets upset over a review I write. As long as I’m being honest with myself and the community and readers and doing it to the very best of my ability, that’s all that matters.
I’m at the point now where I’ve spoken so long I forgot what my original point was. Kidding.