Why review scores are pointless. Or are they?

As far as I can remember every time I read a review in a gaming mag (which I continue to spend money on, by the way) or on a website it’s always been adorned by a number, a few stars, a letter etc. I’ve always refrained from looking at any of the aforementioned symbols before I got through the body of the review. Sometimes I would just ignore them completely, which, admittedly is kinda hard since they almost always are very prominent on the page. I guess, what I want to discuss here, is why the scores are such a prominent part of the game review (or the review of a movie or a CD for that matter), and why I think they shouldn’t be.

I think the answer to the first question is pretty simple – people want them to be. We have to face the fact that in the age of  Twitter, the average attention span has fallen drastically. When we limit our communication to 140 character blurbs of information that don’t take long to process, it’s no wonder that people don’t want to dig into a block of text. Of course this brings up a question of what reviews are supposed to be – criticism or consumer advice, but that’s a whole different topic. Anyway, out of sheer curiosity I pasted my review of Mirror’s Edge into Word to find out that the word count surpassed 1500 words which is, I thought long enough. To confirm that suspicion sought out a professional review of the game, and landed on Sterling McGarvy’s Gamespy piece, which also came in at around 1400 words. I was raised on 2, 3 or more, page long reviews so neither my nor mr McGarvy’s review seemed long to me. But I keep finding out that people can’t or don’t want to get through 1500 words. I can reasonably believe that some people just don’t have the time to sit down and read every review for every game that they’re interested in, which is I guess the reason podcasts came into such prominence, because they don’t require your full attention while delivering large amounts of information. But even though the average age of a gamer is steadily rising, it is a fact that a lot of gamers are college students or younger. Not to depreciate the amount of work they do, but it’s obvious that younger people do have more time on their hands. This would also lead me to conclude that most achievement whores and jrpg lovers fall into that age range. And if no one else – these people do have free time. So the only reason I came up with for them not reading reviews in full is plain old laziness.

I think that’s the the main culprit of the popularity of review scores. Laziness. Short attention span. People with either (or both), don’t want to read reviews, but they still want to find out the opinion of the reviewer. And that opinion is delivered in the shortened form of a score, and maybe some sort of +/- box. And that, in my opinion, isn’t healthy. It theoretically gives you  gives you all the information you need, but only theoretically. What it does deliver is a blurb of information that’s taken out of context, and might dissuade the reader from buying a game they might actually enjoy. Many times I found myself buying a game that the reviewer wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about, because I decided that some of the faults that they pointed out didn’t bother me. But that’s not the biggest problem. If the person at least goes to site and checks out the score and +/- box, that’s not the worst case scenario. No, the biggest problem is more meta.

The stuff of nightmares of videogame reviewers and PR people alike – metacritic. The underlying concept isn’t bad. Gathering all the reviews in one place and averaging out the scores may not be the most profound idea, but could work. But problems start there. First of all the basic functionality is broken because different website use different scales (f. ex. the grade scale at 1UP) which creates a problem when it comes to converting to use to metacritic points. Secondly, maybe the biggest problem lies within the editorial staff itself. Every site has, or is trying to establish a certain level of a unified editorial voice. Which results in a 7/10 on one website not carrying the same value as a 7/10 on another. That happens because some people use the full scale, while some don’t go, f.ex, lower that 6. What means is that one reviewer give could a solid, but not exceptional in any way game a 5 (perfectly average), while another, reaching the same consensus, gives the game a 7.  Add to that the scores that have to be translated from the different scales, and you get (not to use a harsher word) a big huge mess. The last problem that’s probably as big, is the popularity of the site. I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph that metacritic is the stuff of nightmares of PR people. Why so? Well, publishers put a lot of weight on metacritic. They also pay PR companies tons of cash. And PR people are supposed to sell the game as well as they can, but somehow along the way, “selling the game well” became equal to the game getting a good score. I don’t see a connection here, but by now, I came to the conclusion that I’m not able to understand everything in the world. And what do the publisher expectations of PR companies have to do with anything you ask? Well, let’s move back little to the two theoretical reviewers. They reviewed that same game. They had generally the same opinion about it. But one of them, used the scale in it’s entirety and gave it a 5, the other one didn’t and awarded the game a 7. And that happens more then once, mind you. So because of the theoretically better written reviews the metascore is lower. Publisher sees that, assumes PR failed, and maybe people lose jobs. Because people don’t read reviews.

To be clear – I don’t think review scores are inherently a bad concept. They serve as a kind of ultimate conlusion to a review. But the concept got so mangled since it’s creation, that they now do more bad then good. I know that I’m  not exploring new grounds here, and oversimplifying at times. I am aware that many magazines and websites tried to eliminate the scores and had to reinstate them because of the reader backlash. Because by now, we’ve settled into a comfortable spot in front of a screen showing a metacritic page, and we don’t want to change that. And thats’ why, no matter how much I and many other people bitch and moan, review scores aren’t going anywhere soon.


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