Objectivity: are we all fanboys?

[Editor’s note: Ali D takes a look at fanboyism in the videogame industry, both in the journalist side and readership side. Can anything ever be done to fix this issue? Read on to find out. — CTZ

I read this interesting article on tech journalism, by Farhad Manjoo and the ideas contained could easily be applied to games journalism:

“Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s influential tech columnist, reviewed Apple’s latest desktop computer, the iMac G5. He absolutely loved the thing; you can tell from his first paragraph, which would not have been out of place at a beatification: “I am writing these words on the most elegant desktop computer I’ve ever used, a computer that is not only uncommonly beautiful but fast and powerful, virus-free and surprisingly affordable.”

Now this seems like glowing praise from a fairly influential tech journo. At the bottom of the article he mentioned that the only thing wrong with the G5 was the lack of a memory card slot and the fact the machine could have done with more memory for the price. Reasonable points you would think but Mossberg received a number of e-mails complaining about his negative review. David Pogue, the NY Times tech critic, wrote a glowing review of the iPod Nano in 2005 and his only complaints were that there weren’t multiple colours to choose from (accurate at the time) and that the price per GB wasn’t as good as an iPod mini. This caused one fan to e-mail in and ask whether he was happy “licking Bill Gates balls”.

OK, so the article was particularly about Apple hardcore fans reactions to perceived bias, but let’s faces it, hardcore gamers are quick to judge and see bias where there is none. A column over at GameSetWatch written by Leigh Alexander attempts to work out whether objectivity in a games review is really what we need. More after the jump.

“In this Metacritic-driven era, then, where game companies must show high scores to their investors and where those scores determine their next moves, it’s love that makes the world go round. Fanboyism rules the videogame industry.

What’s the solution, then? To accept that reviewers will be inherently biased toward their cultural icons and attempt to assemble as diverse an opinion pool as possible? To demand more “outsiders” write major franchise reviews, even if they’re less knowledgeable about the context?”

As Leigh does in her column, let’s take Smash Brothers into consideration: a reviewer playing this game will have likely have played the previous games in the series and will actually mention this during his review. If not, critics will cry foul and deem his opinion to be unfounded and biased. So what do we want? Sychophantic reviews that tell us what we want to hear? Reviews that are fair and balanced, but always finish with the phrase “but if you enjoy this sort of thing you’ll love this game anyway” which makes the whole review meaningless.

To give you something of a personal viewpoint, my wife picked up Lost Odyssey for the 360 understanding it got good reviews and she fancied some RPG action after finishing Mass Effect. A week later, we traded it in. Why? Well for starters, JRPGs aren’t my type of game. I really don’t like turn-based combat. I found the opening part of the game rather aimless and dull. All in all, probably not a wise purchase. But I’m not going to blame Jim Sterling for his review. He’s obviously a fan of JRPGs and that showed in his review, but is that bias for a genre he obviously loves or is it simply a frame of reference? If I had reviewed the game, I would have given it a low score, but I’m not JRPG fan and that would have riled some people who would have (maybe rightly) of not knowing what I was on about. Reviewers need a frame of reference, but not at the extent of blindly accepting the “more of the same” mentality of some gamers who are eager to accept the next installment of their favourite franchise with slightly better graphics.

Maybe we have no choice in the matter; Manjoo’s article talks about a study done at Standford University that explored the press bias in a more important issue than fanboyism: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Students from pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups were shown identical press reports and asked whether they thought the articles were fair and even-handed. The pro-Israel group found the articles favoured a Palestinian viewpoint and vice-versa. Robert Vallone, one of the psychologists that carried out the study says:

“If I see the world as all black and you see the world as all white and some person comes along and says it’s partially black and partially white, we both are going to be unhappy,” Ross says. “You think there are more facts and better facts on your side than on the other side. The very act of giving them equal weight seems like bias. Like inappropriate evenhandedness.”

So maybe we’re blinded by our passion. It’s great when someone agrees with you and feels the same pleasure from a book, game, movie, album or piece of art that you enjoy. It hurts when someone slams something you love (and especially if you suspect they’ve no first hand experience of it). Maybe we just need to get it through our heads that opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one. What do you think?

Alasdair Duncan