As human beings with free will and all manner of things in that vein, we are constantly aware of the presence of opinions. These opinions apply to nearly everything in existence, from what foods taste good to what places are suitable for raising a family and even to what video games are worth your hard-earned money. As prevalent and important as these opinions are, however, they are also firmly divisive and a major source of conflict amongst people, even as we remind ourselves that everyone is theoretically entitled to their own opinion.
From the very beginning, before we have the capacity to stand resolute to our own opinions, we are strongly influenced by the opinions of our caretakers. If our parents instill the opinion that vegetables are good to eat and we are young and impressionable and not yet rebellious, we will share that opinion. Even at this point, playing in the sandbox with a child raised without vegetables, a conflict can arise. As years go on, the topic will change—strongest superhero, favorite cartoon, so on and so forth—but the same basic idea will remain the same. One child will try to convert the other to his way of seeing things; maybe it will be successful, maybe it will end in an angry draw. The seeds of forum flaming and fanboy posturing are deeply rooted in these early stages of social development.
But no, this isn’t an essay on the psychological development of human beings; at least, I don’t think it is. This is a thinking process born of two recent developments in the video game culture; first off, the inFAMOUS/[Prototype] dichotomy (apologies for further dead-horse beating, it ends here), and secondly an article originally posted in January on CrispyGamer.com (but an article I only found today) by editor Scott Jones about a “pressure” he felt to name Fallout 3 his 2008 Game of the Year even though he did not personally enjoy it (link: http://www.crispygamer.com/features/2009-01-06/critic-in-exile-is-it-ok-to-finally-admit-that-i-didnt-really-like-fallout-3-all-that-much.aspx
Reading through that article was particularly eye-opening to me, as it brings us right back to the nature of opinions. The way opinions tend to be used today is in a “convert or conquer” manner. That is, you either convince your “opposition” that your opinion is in some way “correct,” thus converting them, or you are frustrated by their non-acquiescence to the point that your tactics change to finding other manners of showing them how wrong their opinion is. This can be done in a myriad of ways, from finding other opinions/reviews that meld with someone’s own opinion to simply using the old “straw man argument” and picking apart minor or unrelated parts of the “opposing” opinion (such as poor grammar) and hammering the point home that way.
In my youth, as I think back on this topic now, more often than not my opinions about many things were heavily influenced by the reviews I got my hands on. In those days (long before I had regular access to the internet, when I got my review scores from print sources like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly), a game getting a negative review essentially blacklisted that title from what I was interested in. Even without playing the game personally, if a friend inquired I would tell them that the game was crap with little more than the written words of a paid reviewer as evidence. Games that I legitimately enjoyed on my own tended to be games that didn’t have any major issues with negative reviews, so my unwavering support of the print review never faced any ideological challenges. Of course, this did change as I grew older and matured in my social interactions, but for a while I was probably most gaming PR people’s worst nightmare, passing along my uninformed word of mouth.
When we operate in a community such as the game review community, there is the opportunity to have a “consensus of opinion,” something clearly shown by sites like Metacritic and other review score aggregators. I had never before thought of that particular plight of the reviewer, when an opinion that differs greatly from the overall consensus could potentially make them feel inadequate or make them worry about their credibility and accountability as somebody who has a platform to evaluate games and influence the opinions of other gamers. Because that is, in the end, essentially what a reviewer and their review do: they present an opinion of a game, but the presentation of that opinion can often lead to that “convert or conquer” attitude, even if unintentionally.
I would use the inFAMOUS/[Prototype] situation from Destructoid (and particularly Jim Sterling’s flame-baiting article on why one was better than the other) as an example, but I already stated here that I would avoid digging up that grave. Instead, I will use a recent movie example. According to Metacritic, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” currently has a review average of 35/100, generally negative reviews. The cited reviews range from 75/100 all the way down to 0/100. The user reviews (which do not get factored into the overall score, but are averaged separately) range from 10/10 to 0/10. On the whole, the critical reviews are well-crafted and provide intelligent reasoning for why the reviewer had their opinion (the exception, ironically, being Peter Travers’ 0/100 from Rolling Stone where he nominated the movie as an early contender for worst of the decade 2001-2010; more than a little hyperbolic and certainly intended to draw attention from fans on both ends of the spectrum to fuel the fire).
The user reviews, however, are an entirely different beast. Many of the 10/10 reviews will feature complaining about the opinions of the critics who contributed to the 35/100 Metacritic rating and rallying of the others who did enjoy the movie to make their voices heard. Many of the 0/10 reviews will ally themselves with the negative critical reviews and launch scathing personal attacks on anyone who could enjoy the movie.
This boils down to a startling, and even mildly frightening, result.
Opinion is becoming (or perhaps less naïvely, has always been) ruled by consensus.
Granted, consensus does work both ways. Some people like to have an opinion that is shared by the popular consensus because it gives that opinion validation. Some people intentionally like to take the unpopular opinion to avoid being part of a consensus, but in that desire they express the fact that they want just as badly not to belong, making their situation no different, just reversed.
Opinions are interesting things, particularly when it comes to application in the consumer world. The examples I’ve discussed here lie within the realm of movies and video games, both of which can be expensive hobbies to partake in. This is part of why the opinions of critics and reviewers have come to hold so much weight, why more often than not you can expect an American to know who Roger Ebert is and be familiar with the thumbs up/thumbs down approach to movie rating. Especially in this time of economic difficulty, consumers are looking for guides on how their money can best be spent when it comes to consumables like movies and video games. The person working the minimum wage job down the street wants to know if their movie money will be justified when the house lights come on and they leave the theater; they will want to know if $59.99 MSRP on the latest video game release is justified when they come to the endgame.
And this leads to another difficulty; every person has their own opinion on what they feel is worth spending their money on. Each person’s situation is different. And in the case of the majority of critical reviewers, money is not an object because they are provided free access to the products they are reviewing. Hell, I’m an employee at a local movie theater and one of my job perks is free passes to any movies I want to see, and I’m not even writing reviews to get the word out.
Opinions are difficult things. That’s why we have the phrase, “Opinions are like ___holes; everyone has one and they all stink.” And given human nature, there is little to no chance that differences in opinions will ever gain acceptance as one of the many things that shows how each person has a beautiful and unique set of personality traits that is just as valid as anybody else’s.
My only hope is that people in the world of critical review can make one honest pledge: to engage in the media they are tasked to review and give an account of their experience, as honestly as possible, with as little regard to popular opinion as possible. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is part of why I enjoy being a part of the Destructoid community: we have editors and reviewers who are not afraid to be frank in their assessments of titles, not afraid to share the more intimate details of their experiences. There have been reviews that I have personally disagreed with on more than one occasion, but I’ve never read a review that seemed uninformed or untrue to the nature of the person writing it.
I would hope that all of these review opinions could be respected by everyone who reads them, but I know that the scope of that request is too large, too cumbersome to have any place in reality. Many games that receive mass critical praise will have their detractors, and games that are critically panned will have their die-hard fans. I’m just looking out the window on this first sunny day in weeks for northern Maine and thinking how nice it would be for an opinion to be read, digested, and left at that; not used as the starting point for the next great flamewar. read