What Review Scores Really Mean to Gamers

GTA_5_WALLPAPER

In the year and change I’ve been writing about games, I’ve never had to deal with an angry commenter.

Plenty of factors smoke-screen me from the internet’s most brutish trolls. I’m a white, straight, twenty-something male writing for a relatively unknown personal blog, for one. But still, I’ve never written a game review that didn’t include its share of critiques, even when discussing my most personal of sacred cows. I’ve called out misogyny and violence when I felt they hampered or muddled a mechanically enjoyable experience. The fear that this will be the time some unlucky Googler stumbles upon me talking smack about his favorite game plagues me every time I click the “Publish” button. I don’t even really know why; I stand by my opinions, and usually feel I do an adequete-to-darn-good job expressing them. But the outraged internet commenter is an unpredictable beast. He doesn’t care about logic, or crossing the aisle, or really much of anything you have to say once the first shot’s been fired. From that moment on, he exists purely to make you feel awful and upset about disagreeing with him. This reaction frightens me because I value my blog as a space to work out well-reasoned, multifaceted opinions. I can go embarrassingly nuclear in internet arguments with the right sort of cretins, and I’d hate for a wrong-headed, over-the-top insult on my part to betray the thoughtful and level-headed discourse I’ve had thus far with my commenters. (Fair warning to libertarians: just go ahead and skip my BioShock review, whenever I end up getting to it.)

Unlike me, Carolyn Petit does not have the advantage of writing for a small audience, or of critiquing games’ male-centric worldview from the inside. Nor is she writing for people specifically attuned to and educated in feminist and transsexual language and ideals. Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V is right there on Gamespot.com’s splash page, and I cannot imagine the worry and anxiety she faced as she waited for the gaming world to react. But Petit stuck to her convictions, and called out one of this generation’s biggest games — a great, ambitious, monster of a game, by her own admission — on not successfully subverting its latent misogyny. The price of this observation, this uneasiness about entering a virtual world not made with her in mind? A single docked point, lowering her review score from a 10 to a maligned, pathetic 9.

Now, let’s not get into the fact that, last I checked, a 9 out of 10 was still an “A” or “A-,” even within gaming’s absurdly curved score system. Or the fact that if I were to give Grand Theft Auto V: This Time You Can Run Over Hookers as THREE Dudes! the same score on this very site (not that I have, or ever will, give a game a numerical score on Playing the Canon), I’d probably at worst be called a troll, not stripped of my gender identity and threatened with physical and sexual violence. Gamers’ issues with women and transgendered individuals is its own can of disconcertingly phallic worms. (But not unrelated; we’ll get to that in a minute.) Gamers who comment on mainstream sites like IGN and Gamespot have had a fetishistic, obsessive relationship with review scores for years. Gamespot’s 8.8/10 review of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess caused enough backlash to turn the score into a legitimate meme.

I don’t think I’ve heard a single positive thing about Twilight Princess in the last two or three years. I’d guess that many of those who originally balked at it would find that 8.8 generous, now that the game’s sunk in.

To people who read criticism with even a passing engagement, these “controversies” can only look like a riot at a mental institution. Why does the mere admittance that a game is flawed send so many of these twerps into vitriol-spewing tailspins? Some of the blame lies with the video game industry itself. Metacritic scores greatly affect how publishers treat their developers, one of the few horrible truths about gaming culture that gamers actually seem willing to own up to. But Rockstar North and Nintendo EAD aren’t in any danger from this practice; in fact, the smaller developers overshadowed by these giants would kill for a 9/10 from Gamespot. Is it simply that we still view games as products and not art? A positive but imperfect score for a nightstand on Amazon or a restaurant on Yelp is more likely to turn me away than a three-out-of-four star review of a film. But the bizarre and overblown denial of buyer’s remorse this implies still does not explain the hand-wringing and bile that met Ms. Petit’s GTA V review.

The problem as I see it is that the rabble-rousers don’t care if the score reflects the contents of the review, or even the experience of the game itself. They want validation, but not of their game of choice as an artistic statement, nor their purchase of it as a wise consumer decision. They need review scores and aggregates to be no less than perfect so they can cite the universal acclaim as pseudo-objective proof that their hobby has value. A huge portion of people who bought GTA V on release probably plan to play it for at least fifty or sixty hours. That’s no small amount of time for a person to spend on a leisure activity, and critical acclaim is one of the few things these guys can hold up to prove obsessing over a violent, nihilistic virtual reality has value. They have no interest in critiques or less-than-perfect scores because reviews don’t exist as debates or discussions to them. Validation is more important than conversation or analysis, and a 10/10 score allows them to say that Grand Theft Auto V is smart, well-crafted, and worthwhile.

But refusing to engage with the tricky greys of imperfection and debate only leads to hivemind consensus. The mainstream gaming community’s refusal to accept any response to their darlings other than “10/10, Amazing” bleeds into its problems accepting someone like Carolyn Petit or Anita Sarkeesian. When one looks to consensus for validation, one also looks to establish a point-of-view where he is the norm. Gamers long ago established the sort of experience they needed reviews to validate: violent, adolescent power-fantasies starring white dudes. Now that these are the stories game critics acclaim and expect (and I should note that I’m as guilty of this as anyone), it’s set a precedent for any other voice to be greeted as a weird outlier. So now, we have white male gamers huddled around Grand Theft Auto and BioShock Infinite and countless other games someone outside their circle dared to question this year, like cavemen gathered around a fire batting away intruders with clubs. This is perfect. This is ours. 10/10, AMAZING.

I haven’t played GTA V. Trustworthy friends assure me it’s awesome. Yet if past entries in the franchise are any indication, I doubt it’s as smart or satirical in its depiction of women as it thinks it is. Like Seth Macfarlane or Robin Thicke, Rockstar has a bad habit of simply trotting out lazily racist or misogynistic jokes and equating a half-ironic smirk with “satire.” That doesn’t invalidate the game’s ambitions, just like those ambitions don’t invalidate Ms. Petit’s misgivings about the game’s attitude toward women. Consensus is a powerful security blanket; it lets you feel included and intelligent without ever having to engage with the opposition — or really, even your own opinions. But review scores and hyperbolic adjectives will never be as illuminating as an actual exchange of ideas, nor will they lead to as powerful and nuanced art.

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11 thoughts on “What Review Scores Really Mean to Gamers

  1. Excellent soapbox! I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. I enjoy reading game reviews and with the exception of a certain site (destructoid.com) I stay the far fuck away from the comment section. I wish that more gamers would take the time an actually read the reviews instead of skipping directly to the score. Understanding different views will only help one build their own opinion on the game, create dialog, and like you said move games away from being products and into the realm of art.
    And to play a nitpicker on a line in your text, I wouldn’t say “Rockstar has a bad habit of simply trotting out lazily racist or misogynistic jokes and equating a half-ironic smirk with “satire.”” But that the GTA team has that habit. Other games in Rockstars cannon, namely their more recent outings like Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire (both amazing, play ’em) dealt with these issues quite intelligently.

    • Joel Newman says:

      Thanks, my man! I haven’t played LA Noire, but I agree that Red Dead Redemption was usually fairly even-handed in how it dealt with its female characters. (The period setting and riffing on old Western films/stories — a lot of which, even the great ones, had some deep-seated women/race issues — definitely gave it some wiggle room and made the whole thing feel more sincere.) And that’s a distinction I didn’t think to make, which is why exchanges like this are important! (Also Red Dead is one of my favorite games from this generation.)

      • I think you’ll love LA Noire. Not a ton of action like a typical Rockstar game, but heavy on narrative. The way it deals with misogyny and racism (and many other problems during 1930 LA) is done quite controversial, yet tasteful. It also has this nonchalant tone to them that really makes their impact that much stronger (and take some time to really hit).
        I don’t know if you follow the indie game scene at all, but man, there are some amazing games that are tackling some really touchy and taboo subjects with such grace and wit. I see it’s starting to rub off a bit on the AAA developers (Rockstar being the leader on commenting on taboo subjects) and it really gives me hope for the future of gaming.
        And while it’s on my mind, look into a semi-AAA game called Spec-Ops: The Line. This is how a military shooter should be done. Simply synopsis, war is not glorious.
        And as for classic games, since I’m a huuuuuuge fan of point and click adventure games (and going by your blogs header, you seem to be aware of their existence too) as well as ones that are pretty taboo, I’d love to read your thoughts on a cult classic called I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (which is based on the Harlan Ellison short story of the same name). With a quick google search you should be able to find it easily (I think GoG.com just did a re-release of it, not 100% sure though).

        • Joel Newman says:

          Yeah LA Noire seems up my alley. Love the idea, love the setting, and the dude who voiced/mo-capped the lead is one of my favorite people in Mad Men. It’s so cheap now that I want to pick it up soon.

          I try to keep an eye on the indie scene, and I really want to start incorporating those games into my blog more. It’d be sorta hypocritical to complain about representation, then ignore one of the few places where people are starting to confront that problem. I’m gonna try to get to Gone Home in the next few weeks.

          Spec Ops and I Have No Mouth… are definitely gonna get playthroughs sooner or later! Was really excited to see I Have No Mouth on GOG, as the premise is one of my favorite sci-fi conceits. Now if they could just figure out the licensing for those Tim Schafer Lucasarts titles…

  2. I think GTA IV had memorable female characters, but in the six hours I’ve spent playing this game, I’ve encountered an aunt, old high school friend and a housewife. So maybe they’ve taken a step back and yes, they’re all portrayed poorly, but it “doesn’t invalidate the game’s ambitions” ultimately. I’m def not trying to be an apologist for Rockstar, but even through some kind of feminist theory, GTA V just comes up trite/obvious/boring. I dunno, my gaming experience so far hasn’t been tainted by this lame take on women because it’s so… dumb. I hope that makes sense, I don’t wanna sound like I’m forgiving the game for this, but when I’m planning a heist and recruiting specialists my chant isn’t “fuck bitches, get money,” you know?

    • Joel Newman says:

      Nah, I feel ya. The thing about open world games is it is possible to play them in a manner where any problem or hang-up eventually becomes tertiary, just through the sheer volume or different types of playstyles. So yeah, it makes total sense that the adolescent, trite portrayals of women in the game would stand out to some but not others, because the game’s ruleset allows you to make as much of an issue about it as you see fit. When I get the game, I doubt I’ll be particularly conscious of how I feel about the developers’ attempts at satire while I’m stealing a plane and planning elaborate missions with the three characters.

  3. mrryankgv says:

    Great post. I’ve long wondered why games get away with representations – of gender or race or whatever – that would be ripped to shreds in other media. And certainly, if gaming is to become as valid an art form as film or literature or whatever – and I think it has some considerable way to go yet, although there are some games which are getting there – then it needs to be discussed according to similar criteria and held to similar standards as those forms. More honest reviewing would be a start!

  4. Phil G says:

    I am a 29 year old, white, straight male. I love “GTA V.” I have been playing it obsessively.

    “GTA V” has a problem with women. Yes. It’s completely obvious right from Franklin’s crackhead lady acquaintance to everything about Michael’s daughter Tracey to the fact that your characters are allowed to grope and touch dancers at the strip clubs to fill their ‘like’ meters. To me, admitting this is making an honest statement. To the boy’s club, sausage fest Internet culture it’s called being a “white knight” or a “troll.”

    I use Metacritic’s aggregate scores and blurbs to determine whether games are worth putting down $ 59.99 (excluding state sales tax) and devoting hours of my time. I don’t do rentals; I do purchases. Games these days are simply too long to only own for five days, and I don’t have the kind of life where I can zone out on games for days and weeks on end. Whenever I browse Metacritic, I have a habit of reading the low or mixed scored reviews first; those tend to be the most honest.

    I am in complete agreement with you about fanboyism and its lust for high scores on their favorite games. I never considered the idea that high scores are used to justify investments, but it makes sense. I’ve always seen it as an angry and hostile defense of beloved territory Everything I have seen and heard about “Final Fantasy XIII” suggests it’s a linear garbage chute, but God forbid you go there. Talk about “GTA V” and its cartoon character women and we’re back to the whole “white knight” thing.

    I also agree that Rockstar’s scripts are often misguided and stupid. The only one I think they got right was “Bully,” and that was because the game was set in a school yard and from the POV of a 15-year-old boy. Nickelodeon teen sitcom is about right for that.

    And while I don’t agree with everything Ms. Sarkeesian says in her “Tropes vs. Women” videos, the rape/murder threats, the MRA backlash and the misogynistic manbaby club that formed around attacking her all made me ashamed to label myself “nerd.”

    • Joel Newman says:

      If memory serves, I liked Bully a lot for the reasons you mentioned. Been meaning to go back and play that again.

      The insane, often downright abusive sexism in gaming culture is something that obviously deserves a lot more space than I provided for it in this article. You raise a lot of good points that people much smarter than me have been scratching their heads over for awhile… why does the mere admittance of sexism drive so many MRA crybaby bros into putting their fingers in their ears and enforcing every negative stereotype these people are speaking out against. Agree with the individuals or not, but I hope commentators speaking out against the abuse they’ve suffered means we’ll all be looking back on this “debate” and shaking our heads in a couple years.

  5. I used to think that the ludicrously overblown reactions over certain game scores were to do with a certain idea that games can be objectively assessed, but then you don’t see reviews that give games a seemingly generous score getting blasted to anywhere near the same extent as those that deliver scores under “the norm”.

    These days I consider it as a sort of narcissistic cultural thing. It is really amazing just how “butthurt” some people get over a score that is the slightest bit critical. There’s a book waiting to be written on this stuff. Some of these fanboys identify with Rockstar so much GTA seems to them to be their own child, and when it is attacked they feel they themselves are being criticised, right there in the review. When the PR machine is at full hype output, the fans are going crazy, and the early reviews all sound amazing, it’s as if your child is earning their PhD. And there’ll be hell to pay if some smart alec professor thinks he can fail my child without a decent explanation (and no I haven’t read the damn thing!)!

    Metacritic and Gamerankings surely don’t help – they’ve turned reviews into a score attack game, where any game can be boiled down to its number and place on the scoreboard, relative to all other games. There’s a subset of gamers out there waiting for the game that will topple Ocarina of Time as the “best” of all time… my hopes are pinned on Acclaim’s dramatic revival and the release of Trickstyle on the new systems, obviously.

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