Game Reviews: Scores Don’t Matter

Games criticism needs more than just slapping on a score...

I’ve been writing game reviews for many years and one thing I’ve had very little time for is using review scores. For one thing, they’re annoying; stick a number out of ten, or percentage, or grade score, at the bottom of your work and I guarantee you the chances of people reading what you’ve written will drop substantially. Most will simply scroll down to the bottom, check the score, and they see if they agree with it.

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It’s even more frustrating when people (and you know who those people are), begin debating your choice of score without even bothering to read the case you’ve put forward in your review. They don’t have to agree with it, but it would be nice if they at least engaged with your points. Some will simply argue that this is the way things are on the internet; people have short attention spans and tend to be more aggressive than they would be in real life. I think, however, that the problem runs a little deeper.

Review scores, ultimately, narrow the debate about games.

They stifle criticism, both good and bad, and reduce the quality of a game to little more than an arbitrary number. They limit criticism by ensuring that most discussion is on the score that a game has been given rather than on its artistic merit. It limits the amount of language we use to discuss games, and, in short, inhibits the discussion of gaming as a whole.

I suspect a lot of this has to do with the early days of video gaming. Gaming has always been seen as “less” than films, books, theatre, and while we’ve come some way to changing this mainstream assumption, it’s still something that holds true. This has lead many game sites to market their reviews as product reviews, much like you’d rate a fridge or TV on its ability to do its job or its cost. In many cases the writing sounds less like articulate criticism and more like a sales pitch.  

You see this in game reviews. One place I wrote for (which will remain anonymous), had several categories which were used to calculate your final score and you had to fill them in or else they wouldn’t publish the review. There were the usual suspects; graphics, sound, lifespan and… technical competency. I mean, what do you rate for that? Is it how glitch-free it is, the length of the load times, or the quality of the A.I.? If I didn’t know what, specifically, I was judging the game on, how on earth were readers supposed to understand when they came to read the review? Note that “gameplay” wasn’t listed on the review criteria anywhere.

This shopping list approach to scoring games also infects a lot of the writing. The times I’ve read reviews that literally sound like a checklist; a paragraph on the graphics, a paragraph on the sound, the lifespan and so on. It’s not that these aren’t factors that go into a review, they definitely are, and I’m certainly not picking on specific writers or reviewers that have taken this approach, but I do think the fact that many game reviews are written in this way is down to how we’ve chosen to appraise games as a whole.

Which leads us on to another problem with reviews: objectivity versus subjectivity.

Check a forum, and you will always, without a doubt, have someone shouting bias. Someone’s biased because they only gave “Space Death Warrior 30X” a 7 out of 10 when it clearly deserved an 8.5. This isn’t “bias”, it’s simply disagreement.

Let’s solve this problem quickly. Game reviews are, by their very nature, subjective. If you read one of my reviews, you’re reading my understanding of what games are meant to be, and also my experience playing a particular game. Anyone that makes the claim that good game reviews are made from some kind of objective point of view are either mistaken or lying to you.

Also note that many who love slinging the word objectivity around will almost always be the ones that run to Metacritic or a handful of review scores to prove their point. It’s because it’s easy to throw some arbitrary numbers around as if they’re scientific fact than it is to have an opinion, that may well go against the grain, and be prepared to defend it. Shouting objectivity in this way is intellectual cowardice. 

That isn’t to say that we don’t use facts to support our opinions, or that every opinion is as valid as any other. The “oh, you have your opinion, I have mine, we can’t all like the same thing” is just another way that discussion is stifled when we come to discussing video games. For example, I might find a particular game bad and then I’ll use evidence, based on my experience of playing that game, to support my argument. This is a very basic concept, I know, but it’s surprising in the gaming community how little there is of this, and how subjectivity and objectivity are regularly invoked for completely the wrong reasons.

In the end, my criticism of reviews comes down to one simple thing.

I think games deserve more than being treated as if they’re little more than a fridge or a microwave. They have the capacity to move us, immerse us and engage us just as much as any other artistic medium, but unfortunately, the current criticism and language that we use to appraise them simply doesn’t do justice.

Amazon will now be displaying Metacritic scores on its website for video games, the giant review aggregate, along with major gaming sites–which holds even greater power in shaping the way people view games and how ordinary people inform themselves. This is not a good thing; games are worth more than an abstract number and a series of checkboxes.

We regularly talk about modern video games being “dumbed down,” but I’d argue that it’s the critical analysis of games, both as casual consumers and as critics, that is at much greater risk. As the people who play video games, we deserve better and should hold the entire medium, and its community, to a higher standard. 


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