Why video game reviews suck: part two

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If you haven’t read Part One, do that. It’s about how all video game scores are ridiculously inflated, and that this is a serious problem. Part Two (aka, this part) tries to get at why reviews are so inflated, and exactly why this is a bad thing.

If you have read Part One, then you’re cooler than the douchebags in the first paragraph.

Go ahead and hit the jump for part two.

But beware: it’s much, much longer.

So, why do game scores tend to be so overwhelmingly positive?

There’s obviously no way to know for sure — if there was, we would have figured it out by now and the ratings thing would no longer be a problem. But we can hypothesize, can’t we? We can hypothesize until our fingers fall off.


tammany hall

-A lack of journalistic integrity

The last time I said something like this, it didn’t turn out so well. But do keep in mind that bribes are occasionally an issue. This was most likely the story behind Gamespy’s Donkey Konga review, or the fact that Nintendo Power was pressured by corporate to switch from a 1-10 rating system to a 1-5 system simply because it was impossible for any game to get a perfect score.

And even when bribes aren’t an issue, the potential problem of a gaming news organization offending a major corporation is. If you write for a small, up-and-coming website, could you really afford to call the latest Microsoft game a piece of shit if there was the possibility that they might one day share privileged information with you? As Sean Fischer, editor-in-chief of Allrpg.com says:

“There have been times at websites to which I contribute where a game recieved a low score, and we were subsequently contacted by publisher with a statement of their surprise. The conflict here comes from the fact that no one wants to alienate their contacts. By currying favor with PR outlets you’re let in on more exclusive stories, more swag, plugs, and a plethora of perks. Maintaining journalistic integrity in such situations is difficult, especially when your community is small or when you personally rely on those contacts for a majority of your journalistic work. It’s a careful balancing act that journalists have always had to deal with.”  

-The “academic” system

As many of you wrote in the comments of Part One (capitalized to denote awesomeness), it appears that game reviewers subscribe much more heavily to the educational system of grading than a true 1-10 scale. In the worlds of school and video game reviewing, a 70% is average, an 80% is passing, and a 50% is failing. It’s very likely that reviewers collectively adopted this method of thinking, without any thought for why: in a school environment, the stakes are obviously higher and teachers should want to achieve the best out of students (or, if not the best, at least something approaching an above-average performance). There’s really no reason to adopt this school of thought to video game reviewing. But I’m getting ahead of myself — this will be discussed in much more detail near the end.

-Video game reviewers are not impervious to hype

To quote Sean Fischer again (the man knows what he’s talking about):

“Hype is not just something that affects those purchasing games, but the reviewer as well. Expectations can color a reviewer’s judgment by causing them to overlook flaws completely because they are so enamored with the aspects of the game that were hyped and executed well. The problem here is that overlooking those flaws in a review is being, in a way, deceitful to your audience. A good reviewer should take all flaws into account when composing the review, and at least make them known, rather than glossing over them in favor of the shiny aspects. This is, in the end, probably the largest problem out there when it comes to reviewing games, especially when coupled with the confrontation of Public Relations.”



-Interactivity alone makes games intrinsically better

Let’s say you are given two options. You can either watch a guy dive across tables and shoot hundreds of armed men in a whirlwind of bullets and gore, or you can do it for yourself. Which would you pick? Obviously, the interactive aspect of games makes them more appealing and entertaining than other art forms in certain respects, which would explain why they tend to be reviewed so much more favorably. If this is the case, however, it’s unfortunate: if one art form includes aspects of another, you judge it according to its own criteria, not the criteria of a completely separate medium. Nobody would ever say Casablanca is a horrible film because there weren’t enough interactive sections.

-Loving video games is unlike loving film or literature

Video games are a relatively new art form, with a much more close-knit community than other mediums of entertainment. We are all connected in the things we love, or don’t: we know the frustration of hearing that our princess is in another castle in the same way we know the triumph when you finally meet her. The interactive medium, by its very nature, frequently encourages human interaction. If, as a community, we all share this very specific, very indescribable love for video games, then it’s no wonder that the reviews tend to be higher than they oughta be.



-Reviewers are pussies

Sean Fischer also had something to say about this, but I need to still pretend that I have ideas of my own, at times. So I won’t be quoting him. But suffice it to say that many reviewers — and this also ties into the whole “hype” thing — are terrified at the prospect of negatively reviewing a game in a popular franchise. Even if it’s flawed to the point of mediocrity (a la MGS2, which I enjoyed but would not rate higher than a 6), reviewers will still heap praise on a game (A) to avoid community backlash or (B) out of fear that their opinion is in the vast minority, which will make them appear to either have awful taste or a lack of video game knowledge. A video game journalist’s reputation is on the line with every review he or she writes. It isn’t shocking that sometimes the reviewer will hold back on his or her opinions for fear of tarnishing that reputation.

-We’re all morons

Hey, it’s a possibility.

-Most video games are above average

Yeah, we’re hypothesizing, but it’s still very unlikely. If someone was to walk into an EB Games, close their eyes, and randomly choose a game from the shelf, they would most likely not get something good. You might think there’s a 50-50 chance you’d come up with God of War or at least something kind of cool like Red Dead Revolver, but all the more likely is that you’d end up holding a crappy bowling sim or a licensed platformer starring The Olsen Twins. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.

And besides, what about RottenTomatoes.com? They had to raise their “fresh” criteria from 60% to 70% for video games, simply because so many poor games are highly reviewed. 




Is the inflation of video game scores a bad thing?

Yes. As previously mentioned, video gaming is an extremely expensive hobby to keep up. If a game that only deserves a 6 really gets an 8, then the individual consumer is more likely to buy it and subsequently get disappointed by it. While many of us end up selling our games on eBay and recouping a large percentage of the money we lose, it’s still a hassle. While it is ultimately up to every individual person to decide whether or not to buy a game, it’s difficult to decide for yourself when very few organizations will give you a detailed, uncompromising critique of a game. 

Not to mention the widespread positive reviews of almost all video games make the medium seem that much less relevant in our society. If a community that loves something is not willing to dissect, pick, and criticize at every aspect of the games they love, then it essentially turns the entire art form into one global circle-jerk. If the community continues to sugar-coat its opinions toward most video games, it will fail to grow in any socially relevant way. You can watch a film student dissect his favorite movie, point out all its flaws, and still love it. You can listen to a lit student talk about how horrible Hamlet’s narrative structure is, while still adoring it as a piece of art. As of today, you probably can’t find a Halo fan who is willing to admit that the game he loves is deeply, horrendously flawed in many gameplay and story departments.




No more teachers, no more books

This relates back to the above theory concerning educational-style grading. While a 70% average makes sense for educational purposes, it doesn’t fit when applied to reviewing video games. Art should be judged harshly, not with kiddie gloves. As school boards across the United States are finding out, making good grades easier to achieve tends to promote mediocrity. One could make a case that we are seeing the same results in the video game industry. Half-baked movie tie-ins are given 7/10 (passing), undiscerning consumers buy the piece of crap, and more pieces of crap just like it get made. Harsher game reviews would probably mean greater punishments for those games that deserve it.

Not to mention that on a 0-100 educational grading scale, everything after 65% is summed up by one letter: F (or E, if you attend a more politically correct institution). This is because, in an educational environment, all that matters is understanding the material and scoring well on tests. If one student has an A and another has a D, we can point to specific, absolutely definable reasons as to why those students got those grades. (whether we’re talking about test scores or homework, or whatever). In the educational system, it doesn’t matter if the student gets a 30% versus a 40%, because, no matter what, the administration will arrive to the same conclusion — the student simply isn’t getting the material. The educational environment works on a simple pass/fail system, and if the student is failing, then that is all that matters. The why of it (laziness, learning disability, etc), while of interest to the student, the student’s parents, and the administration, have no part in judging how those grades come out. To the grading system itself, a sub-average student is a sub-average student is a sub-average student.

But video games do not simply “pass” or “fail.” With video games, you most definitely CAN enjoy a sub-average game for some of its aspects. We all have our “guilty pleasure” games — those games that aren’t technically very good, but that we enjoy certain aspects of nonetheless. Just because a game is sub-average doesn’t mean certain people won’t enjoy it, and therefore it matters that sub-average games are differentiated from other sub-average games through use of the 1-5 section of the scale. If Samurai Western gets rated a 2/10 because it’s repetitive and dull, I want to know why it still got two points. Is it because the combat is still fun, if only for a little while? If The Punisher gets a 4/10, what aspects of it are actually kind of interesting? Did the torture sequences alone warrant the two extra points that Samurai Western didn’t get? Were we to lump these two games together in an educational grading system (which, in the case of games, means 6-10) they’d probably both be graded within half a point of one another. Grading games in the educational systems lumps mediocre games in with one another without giving a thought toward their redeemable aspects.

Also, the educational grading system works in a school system because there is one clear, concrete goal: learn the material. It doesn’t matter how you do it, and only one easily definable thing is being graded: your performance in class.


Video games are far too complex, and can succeed or fail in far too many ways, to deserve the same kind of treatment. A game can have good gameplay but godawful graphics, or a great story but underwhelming gameplay. While these games may be below-average because of their flaws, that does not make the things they do well any less important, or worthy of attention. Placing them below 5 on a scale tells the gamer that the game has some serious flaws, but its specific placement within the 1-5 bracket can help tell the gamer exactly how bad those flaws are, and how good the other aspects of the game are.

The educational system also creates serious problems when one compares fantastic games to not-so-fantastic ones, as TheRob91 pointed out in Part One. Resident Evil 4 and Super Mario 64 get 9.57/10, while Kameo and Madden 07 get an 8.06/10. Is it really justified that some of the greatest games of all time are only one or two points away from games that are merely passable? The educational grading system is to blame for this, because it doesn’t discriminate between sub-average games at all, and only minutely shows the difference between above-average ones by restricting them to the 8-10 part of the scale.




On the other hand…

Perhaps looking at the 1-10 rating system in the way mentioned in Part One. Maybe to deem 10 “perfect” and 1 “shit” is wrong. Perhaps this view of video game criticism refuses to acknowledge the most important aspect of video gaming: fun.

Fun is something that cannot be measured, and, for the most part, can’t really be explained. About 80 percent of the reviews for Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War cite “satisfying” gameplay as the main reason the game succeeds. But what is “satisfying”? You can say it’s the feeling you get when you chainsaw an alien Locust, or the way you feel when you decapitate a zombie with a shotgun blast, but you’re not really explaining what the word means. You’re just using anecdotal examples to illustrate a point.

And fun can definitely make up for many of a game’s shortcomings, as Dan Hsu would admit. Why should a game that is completely adequate, totally un-innovative, but without flaws be graded higher than a truly fun game which fails in certain areas, but is absolutely phenomenal in others?  By the rationale of the 1-10 scale proposed at the beginning of this article, innovation and originality have no place in determining the overall rating in the game.

But, as any gamer can tell you, innovation and originality have a hell of a place in determining fun.

How do you measure fun? To try to grade it with any degree of accuracy, one would have to make a much stricter 1-10 scale (which would result in the vast majority of games falling in the 1-5 range), leaving the 9 and 10 spots for only the most perfect of the perfect – those games that simultaneously innovate while remaining absent of any flaws. Demanding criteria, to say the least. Personally, I’d be in favor of it (I’m picky like that), but it goes without saying that nearly every other gamer on the planet would not.

So, an overhaul of the system, while possible, would be unpopular.


What can we do?

Well, the 1-5 system has been used in film and book reviews since the dawn of time. As awa64 pointed out in the comments of Part One, its lack of specificity is a benefit: a 5/5 would have to mean something other than “perfect”, and a 1/5 would not mean “absolute crap.” It’d make things easier on reviewers, and would make drastically high or low review scores less deserving of insult.

But better yet, just get rid of scores altogether. Hundreds of gamers have suggested it. It’d cut down on fanboy BS (several people who sent me hate mail for my Zelda review only looked at the score, not the actual review), it would put a greater pressure on the reviewer to actually describe what the game feels like instead of just falling back on a randomly assigned numerical value, and it would get rid of the conundrum of measuring “fun”.

As mandlebaum123 suggested in the previous article (supported by many others), a rating system of “Buy/Rent/Don’t bother” would give a quick rating to those who need one, while forcing other readers to actually pay attention to the accompanying text review. It would also get rid of the intrinsic “comparison” problem of a number system: if Madden 2006 gets an 8.7 and Dead Rising gets an 8.0, does that make the Madden game better, despite the fact that they belong to different genres? If not, why not? How do you explain number ratings when they’re compared to other number ratings?

Numerical comparison also becomes a problem when you consider number scores over several generations. If Mario Bros for the NES gets a 9/10 when it was first released, and Gears of War gets a 9/10 now, does that mean that Gears and Mario contain exactly the same amount of fun? Numerical scores force us to remove ourselves from the review and contextualize them within their time period. Simply getting rid of the numbers and replacing them with something else (or not) would remove this need.


Of course, that’ll never happen. Not in a million years. People like to assign simple numerical values to things and create gross oversimplifications – especially when you consider how expensive a hobby video gaming is. Most gamers don’t have time to wade through paragraphs of text to discover whether a game is worth their time or not (which will no doubt be shown when this article is not half as popular as the much shorter one that preceded it), and, as such, review scores will most likely stay around for quite some time.

So if we can’t get rid of them, and we can’t instantly overhaul the system, then the only real solution is to slowly but surely change our grading trends. Ideally, reviewers could work within the existing system and just be harder on those games that do things wrong. If a game has a bad camera, or wonky controls, then take off two or three points instead of just one – camera and controls are essential in playing a game, for God’s sakes. If we were all just a little harder on the video games we love, our reviews could be more critical and balanced, and would counteract the massive score inflation we’ve seen recently. If we, as gamers, are more critical toward our video games, then the journalists who have to appeal to us will have to follow suit.

The whole problem would be a hell of a lot easier if we just switched to the aforementioned “Buy/Rent/Don’t bother” scale, but the majority of gaming news organizations (and probably, the majority of gamers) aren’t ready for it.

If you are, though, feel free to bother Summa and ask him to change Destructoid’s grading scale. If it becomes obvious that enough of you don’t want a 10 point rating system, then you’ll be able to change things. Obviously, you’ll only be changing Destructoid, but that’s still more than you’d get if you tried to petition a major game magazine.

So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Hit the comments. 

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Anthony Burch
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