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.