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Anton Govorin's blog

3:12 PM on 05.01.2013

Fair and Mentally Imbalanced: Why Game Reviewers Lie All The Time

We all know game reviews are biased, but researches in psychology keep gaming us.

Immanuel Kant, a 18th-century philosopher, supposed that ability to make judgments is the most important aspect of our minds. But no one really understands what clicks in our brains when we express our opinions. The only thing we know for sure is that people are full of biases. In '70s now famous psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proposed that people use familiar mental shortcuts to simplify their judgments. Some argue that it is an evolutionary mechanism that helps us to save time, and while it explains why we always find those extra minutes to kill on facebook, it also means that all those game reviews out there are even more unreliable than we think. Cognitive science keeps convincing us that reviewers' brains are working against their owners.

Critics often produce long texts explaining why they rated a game or a movie the way they did. Well, we all like to emphasize how that particular T-shirt matches our inner sense of self, but Timothy Wilson, a Professor of Psychology from the University of Virginia, is sure that we rarely know the real driving forces behind our predilections. In fact, if we have to explain our preferences, we are likely to adopt an attitude that makes sense. Only a few years ago the term was coined for this cognitive bias - the introspection illusion.

Game reviewers fall into the introspection trap far more often than, say, music critics. Games provide unique opportunities for a clever design. They are filled with stuff that is easy to praise. Who will rate a song by a number of playing instruments? But a game usually gets a higher score in the presence of a multiplayer mode or a weapon upgrade system.

Let's travel back in time to understand why this is happening. Back in the 1990 Timothy Wilson decorated his cabinet with a dozen of posters that had pretty pictures printed on them. Some posters also had inspirational quotes placed at the bottom. You know, the kind that urge you to «choose your words wisely» and «organize your life». Whenever a person entered the room, the professor told him that he can take any poster for free. Sometimes Wilson also asked a person to explain his choice. A strange thing happened over and over again: people who had to justify their preference opted for the inspirational posters. Those who were not required to express their opinion chose the moral-free ones.

All those folks were called some time later. Those who chose inspirational posters were least satisfied with their choice. Those people chose prints they most easily justified liking, not the ones they really loved. Our game reviewer may hate playing with other people online or religiously assemble weapons on benches, but he can't help but mention that these elements add to a game's value.

What really sets games apart from other mediums is that they don't run themselves. You are not just staring at your TV, you are an active participant of events. As a result, you are not confined by a limited running time and an implacable plot progress. Sean Devlin from The Saboteur takes a smoke while you gaze into the depths of Paris, thinking of a comfortable way to reach that particular bar.

A good game reviewer is the one with a dedication, right? He should put an effort and spend a lot of time playing a game, so that he can make a really good, comprehensive review. This makes sense in theory, but in reality it complicates things even further. How many times have you admitted an «addiction» to a game with gritted teeth? Martin Shubik, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Institutional Economics at Yale University, knows that feeling. As it turns out, the longer we spend playing a game, the more we want to justify our own involvement. Nowadays this commitment bias is called the sunk cost fallacy, and this is exactly what game reviewers face.

The explanation has its roots in the distant 1971, when Shubik invented the dollar auction game that illustrates the commitment paradox, and then carried it out more times than he can remember. Typically, the professor says to the class that he will sell them a $20 bill. Bidding starts at one dollar and goes up in one dollar increments. The lucky winner pays the professor the highest bid and gets the $20 bill. The second-highest bidder also has to pay, but he can find himself penniless as he gets nothing in return.

Usually a few folks open the bidding, but quickly only two bidders remain. They discover themselves in a war of attrition. The bidding slows down when someone bids $20. But then it resumes, because neither party wants to «lose». The higher the bidding goes, and the more each unfortunate bidder has invested, the harder it is to stop. A favorable opinion becomes just another part of investment for a game reviewer.

Speaking of a game design again, achievements are a profound example of utilizing the commitment bias. You don't really want to start that level all over again, but you desire the last badge, so that you can make a casual remark when a friend sees your profile. «Mere trifle, that game was so good I unlocked those quite naturally».

To sum it up, we are all guilty of making things up. Game reviewers especially. This is rarely their fault, our minds are wired to do so. This is why we might want to take it easy when yet another ambiguous game review appears somewhere in the world.   read

4:28 PM on 04.18.2012

Gaming: Russian Style

Peculiarities of having fun in post-USSR setting.

Our home was blessed with it when I was about seven years old. My father brought a shiny new Intel 486 PC and a pile of 1.44 MB floppy disks to our flat. The next day a specialist came to us and I watched him installing a load of boring programs and a copy of Wolfenstein 3D. After some digging in settings he finally launched the game, killed a few Nazis and got killed himself. With a grin on his visage, he turned to me. Expansive smile slid off his face in a split second. I was shaking my fist and whispering: «What have you done?.. You got him killed! How am I going to play it now?» With the lapse of time I understood that it is okay, you can just load a game again. Dozens of hours were spent wandering the Castle Wolfenstein, splashing puddles in Lotus: The Ultimate Challenge and, more important, getting a nervous tick from Doom II: Hell on Earth. My father pressed navigation keys and I pressed Ctrl.

A lot of things changed since then.

But not the Russian legal field. It remains relatively unique - in the sense that it leaves plenty of room for piracy. Roughly speaking, a man is restricted only by his conscience on the internet. An average Russian can do anything he wants on the net and face no consequences. You can imagine that these conditions are a great sandbox for all kinds of reality twists.

To explain this, I want to take you on a trip to the glorious days of me being a middle school student. For us kids, games meant a lot. Especially computer ones. Everyone considered Dendy, Sega and Super Nintendo as past century's museum exhibits. PC games look so much better! There are so many things you can do on PC, even engineers use them! Economic situation is tough, but parents buy us PCs as tools for study, so we all have the same game platform! PCs are perfect!!

Perhaps it is this admiration of possibilities that computers provide that contributed to the fact that, at some point, «cracking» games turned from annoying necessity into some kind of obsessive collective hobby. New «cracks» and «patches» downloaded from doubtful sites were discussed on breaks more frequently than girls from parallel classes, and floppy disks were rewritten faster than homework. Installing, «cracking», tweaking and reinstalling of games became almost more common than gaming itself. Some grandfathers even bragged to teachers about their grandsons becoming great computer experts.

It is important to mention that almost no one had decent internet connection in 2000s Russia. Writing optical drives were a rarity, too. So the only way to obtain a copy of a game was to buy it somewhere. It was an adventure by itself. You never knew what you would get; everybody was playing roulette. I remember visiting about five dirty game stores held by suspicious-looking sellers before finding a clean and unscratched copy of Need for Speed: Underground. Later I discovered that there is no sound folder on the disc. Some of these "old-school" game stores survived to the present days. Now it is obvious that games sales never were their real purpose.

But, fortunately, illegal distributors are almost obsolete now. Some of them used peculiarities of Russian laws and legalized, though. Anyway, the game distribution companies of yore did not only copy original files to blank CD-Rs and added «Crack» folders, they also made «Full Rusian Translaton» versions of games. My acquaintance has an impressive collection of these «masterpieces» and, surprisingly, they are pretty useful now. Take Baldur's Gate, for example. Great game, but a little too familiar. Well, it is just uninteresting to play it anymore! But here is when a terrible translation comes in and makes almost any game fun again.

Now it is easy to download a disc image from the internet. But here is the thing - teenagers turn to adults. The older one gets, the less time and desire one has to keep looking for a way to «crack» a game. Furthermore, circle of friends changes, and discreditable discussions become possible only on forums, only with strangers. Of course, it is not very interesting to discuss such delicate matters with strangers. And there are no girls on such forums. Ultimately, interests come and go. That is when a value system shifts and people start to actually buy games.

But let's go back to school days once more. A huge part of our juvenile gaming culture were computer games magazines. Of course, we did not pay attention to a blatant lack of common sense and grammatical correctness in articles. The authors were god-like figures in our eyes, and gods do not write badly. When I open one of old issues now, I fell a strange mix of nostalgia and bewilderment. Articles were not built around emotions and feelings, they were a hodge-podge of infinite reasonings about polygons, shaders, music and gaming process. But let's be optimistic! These are the magazines of the past; when I open one of the new... Wait. I cannot do it anymore.

Printed computer games magazines are experiencing a natural decline in Russia. In the past year two biggest PC games magazines went on indefinite leave; few remaining multiplatform magazines hastily update their internet portals, finally abandon atavistic DVD appendixes, make controversial decisions about buying articles from foreign magazines, fill blank pages with AV-equipment reviews, clear more and more space for mobile games and declare that they will adhere the «games as art» concept. Considered all round, it is understandable. In conditions of technological progress advertising alone does not save even multiplatform magazines. I think it is about time we talk about the real roots of ubiquitous Russian piracy.

Yes, it is in human nature to share things. Yes, Russia is a copyright infringement heaven. But the main reason of ubiquitous Russian piracy is hidden in the communist past. No matter how modern a person is, vibes are in the air. It seems that the ideology penetrated the DNA of the nation. The value system of an ordinary citizen of Russia is as simple as this: sharing is not stealing, it is good and it is fair; speculation (or selling with profit) is stealing, it is bad and it is unfair. It is a clear logic. But this situation seems to change with the growing up of more open-minded youth and acknowledgement of hassle-free services like Steam.

Few gaming events that are held in Russia contribute to the change, too. As for large-scale game exhibitions, there is the only one. It is called «IgroMir», it takes place in Moscow since 2006 and it is more a three-ring circus than a normal event for normal people. There are no age restrictions for visiting, so schoolboys of every color are all over the place! And these guys are not well-brought-up little gentlemen, I can assure you. In general, the atmosphere resembles some kind of a casual children's party - with students arranging stands, mandatory bawdy jokes and questionable entertainments. Those who try to speak on more or less serious topics look completely out of place. Some people took a good look at this in the first few times and now try to avoid the exhibition altogether. Anyway, there are always new people who are interested in it.

Russian game developers are in minority on «IgroMir». It is safe to say that in this respect Russia is in a stasis state. But there is one significant remark to be made - social games development is thriving. There are quite a few strong mobile and social gaming companies in Russia. It does not change the fact that Russian social gamers rarely do microtransactions or purchase virtual items. However, it does not daunt developers - their games are not only distributed in Russia, their representation in global market is impressive and it increases day by day.

Russia surely is a country of oddities.   read

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