Originally posted at Shell Games Blog.
Praise is a nice thing. It makes you feel good about your achievements. It lets others know how well someone or something performs. It sends a rush through the praise-giver, as they support something they truly appreciate. However, in video games, praise is too often just handed out without much thought or substance.
Before the average player gets a chance to experience a game, there's already countless advanced reviews lauding its innovation, its style, its writing, and just about every other aspect.
When a game is deserving, or is at least passable enough to be considered a matter of opinion, then this is not a problem. The issue arises when reviews and ratings seem to be a bit too positive. Much like the movie that features out-of-context quotes in its advertising, game reviews can frequently fall victim to false hype and sometimes outright lies. This of course begs the question: When games are misrepresented by review systems, then what reason do any of us have to pay attention to them?
Now this could easily be an article about the opposite problem - all I would have to do is switch the focus from reviews to gamers themselves and we could talk endlessly about the complaining and negativity the gaming community dumps on developer and fellow gamer alike. However, I'm just not in the mood today to stare into the unforgiving abyss, so I'll just glance into the mildly frustrating ditch instead.
(Disclaimer: There is a questionable image near the end of this post. It's not technically explicit, but it's suggestive enough that I want people to be warned if they are not interested in encountering sexual imagery.)
While this phenomenon has always been fairly obvious, I really took notice of it when searching for games to play on my Android phone. I mean, take a look at these reviews.
All for a game that looks like this...
And describes itself thusly...
Now, Google Play reviews really aren't that big of a deal: they seldom say anything that works for or against a potential download, and some of them have a distinct smell of bribery about them. So maybe we just overlook them. But that's exactly my point.
These reviews are meaningless to us, thus making the aggregate score equally meaningless. But again, to a lot of people there's little risk in a downloadable app. However, what's sinister is where the indie developers and hacks both picked up this tactic - the mainstream gaming industry.
Let's play a little game. I'm going to look up some reviews of a notoriously bad game and then see if anything stands out. By the by, my source for all this information is Metacritic.
This is a review for Sonic The Hedgehog (2006), the horrendous "reboot" to the Sonic the Hedgehog series, hoping to combine the best of the old with the best of the new. Instead we got this.
Play Magazine seems pretty generous with their praise of Sonic the Hedgehog, amending only to add a mild complaint about load times. Either they didn't play the game, they were paid well to praise it, or it was opposite day for at least three months over at their headquarters. Lucky for us, Metacritic's whole point is to track reviews overall and make it easier to spot trends.
And just to send home the point that Play Magazine's viewpoints are suspect, let's look at the Sonic 2006 User Review stats.
I did a cursory look through these, and found that even though they have had quite a few very recent reviews, those were by and large ironic positive reviews of the "I LUV SANIC" variety. Now, this may seem irrelevant. I mean, it's only one or two reviewers going against the grain. Their bias is obvious! Well that is true, however a) their scores are still counted into averages and b) it took a game as bad as Sonic 2006 to get that result.
I wanted to finish this by talking a little about Steam reviews. Steam reviews are among the most useless bits of personal opinion shared online, and yet they play a big part in deciding what sells on Steam. We may not be scrolling through the swaths of opinions offered by Average Gamer TM, however their reviews form the little thumbs-up symbol that convinces us the game must have some merit.
Steam is filled with games that display that little thumbs-up so much, it seems that the only way to earn a thumbs down is to have a game that just doesn't work. The problem with Steam reviews isn't that they're done by amateurs, but rather that they suffer from what social scientists call self-reporting biases. You see, in order to review a game, you must own it.
Makes sense. However, in order to own it you often put down money to buy it. And people just don't like admitting they made a mistake and wasted money on something mediocre or worse. Additionally, if you are the type of person to buy a certain game, the likelihood of you thinking it's good due to its genre over its quality is also higher, as you're predisposed to liking said game. This is why games like Sakura Santa get "Very Positive" scores when it offers us stuff like this.
Gaming reviews and scores really need to be reliable. Though it's easy to say we can just ignore the sycophantic reactions, there are far too many aggregates between us and the raw review data to make these confirmations and far too many positive reviews with hidden agendas skewing that data.
This isn't to suggest that people should not have subjectively positive opinions about games, but rather that those things should be represented as such, not obfuscated by numerical scores. Until then we should all be a little more savvy in our game research, because unfortunately there's more money in fooling us than there is in earning our trust.