Why calls for objective videogame criticism are wrong

“I want more objective games criticism”. You often hear this phrase and other similar sentiments echoing around the internet. In its worst form, a cry for objectivity is a plea for games journalists and critics to mirror the thoughts, opinions and expectations of the person asking for objectivity. On the brighter end of the spectrum however, calls for objectivity are requests for game critics to put aside their own personal biases and try and account for tastes other than their own. In this post, I’m addressing the latter point – and I’m going to assume that, in certain instances, these objectivity-seekers have a valid point. They’re not exactly wrong – but they’re certainly inaccurate.

Videogames. Sometimes its hard to be objective.

Videogames. Sometimes it’s hard to be objective.

It all begins with an idea that I’ve copped from my university studies. A few years ago in a discussion about academic writing, I heard a definition of academic writing that stuck with me: “academic writing is not about trying to be objective; it’s about being inter-subjective“. Inter-subjective. I had to stew on that concept for a while, and even longer before I considered its relevance to videogame criticism and journalism. What does inter-subjectivity entail? Well, for starters, it scraps the idea of objectivity. That’s not to say that there aren’t objective facts out there, but it’s important to acknowledge the baggage we all hold that makes our experiences subjective. To write inter-subjectively is to be aware of other people and their perspectives, to not be self-absorbed.

And that is what people who ask for more objectivity in games criticism want, as far as I can tell. They don’t just want to be told that a game is bad because I didn’t like it; they want to know why I didn’t like it, they want me to put my opinion in some kind of context so that they can imagine themselves in relation to me. Hot Take, Gamecube edition: Odama is a better game than the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Since I’m talking to a readership though, it would be nice to provide more context for that statement; why do I feel that way? You see, I love a good challenge in my games, and I found Wind Waker to be a pushover whereas Odama was ball-crushingly hard. That small insight into my preferences has hopefully given readers of this article a better idea what kind of games I like and why, and every reader is now better able to see where we may agree or disagree on certain things.

That’s inter-subjectivity in a nutshell. My subjective position, talking to your subjective position, trying to find common ground that helps us understand one another. Objectivity, by comparison, is about facts. And, let’s be frank, facts devoid of subjectivity are mind-numbingly boring, as this video proves.

The goal is not to be objective in a review: it’s to be persuasive, and to present well-constructed arguments for others to agree or disagree with. And when you’re dealing with other people, in life as in criticism, it’s all about negotiation. There is no objective criticism – only criticism that is close to or distant from your own perspective. That’s why it’s pointless to ask for greater objectivity in videogame criticism unless you’re interested in opinion-less criticism, which is a contradiction if I ever heard one. What is valid and valuable however is to ask for more inter-subjectivity.

Critics have readers, and they ought to be aware of them: who are they? What kind of language do they use, what is their culture? Now, since we’ve somehow gotten round to talking about reviews (because whenever objectivity rears its ugly head in the context of videogames, it’s always about the damn reviews), it’s important to know that there is already a shared language and culture around reviews – it’s called review scores. And the problem with review scores, and sites like Metacritic that exist to obsess over them, is that they impose a veneer of objectivity on a subjective exercise. I don’t want to get into review scores too much here – anyone writing a review for a professional or semi-professional outfit should be well aware of the insane cult-like overreactions over scores. Absurd as the fuss over scores may be, it at least ought to provide an incentive to take a strongly inter-subjective approach to the review text itself.

metashitic logo

Let’s drop any pretence of being objective. Subjective opinions are never “definitive”, or “the final word”. Reviews in particular should never consider themselves the end of a conversation about a game – they’re the start. Being inter-subjective means being upfront about personal likes and dislikes, and communicating these in a way that readers can understand, even if they don’t share the same preferences. In a review, we should learn about the reviewer just as much as the game itself. I want to understand the way this one player related to the game: the baggage they brought, the journey they went through, the conclusions they reached.

Without the personal touch, you end up with… well. You get Evil as a Hobby’s hilarious fiction about the “unbiased journalist”. And no one wants that in real life… do they? Let’s hope not.

I mean, we all know game reviewers should exist in a vacuum.

The game reviewer is suited up for the authentic experience of writing in a vacuum.

P.S. I’ve always wanted to write a post with a clickbait-y title like this. You can expect many more going forward, since my draft folder is now crammed with gems: “5 Gaming Lifehacks You Shouldn’t Be Without”, “You Won’t Believe This Incredible Secret Your Game Developer Doesn’t Want You To Know”, “8 Reasons Why You Should Read This Article”, etc etc…

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10 comments

  1. Aether

    Yeah, trying to ask for complete objectivity in a review of any creative work is just ridiculous, as they’re just completely based in opinion. It is fair to ask that professional reviewers don’t bring any of their pre-existing baggage into a review, as asking someone to review something when their opinion was already decided before they even started it up is pretty bloody useless. Used to see that pretty often with reviewers going over games for the Wii or just Nintendo games in general when they’ve spend most of their career already blasting the console. Similarly, asking someone who can’t stand a particular genre or type of game to review it is a pretty poor move as well. Someone who has never enjoyed a sports game would be writing a pretty poor review for what a fan of the genre would be looking for. Those types of reviews tend to be near-useless at best or insulting at worst.

    You’re right, the really important part of a review is the component breakdown, the explanation of what worked and what doesn’t. That’s really where I find what I need to make my purchasing decision. Thing is, I tend to differ from a lot of reviewers. I haven’t really found a professional reviewers that matches my tastes in gaming. But I’m still able to pull the information I need from a well-written review, even if their opinion differs from my own. If a game is scored low because of its graphics or the time involved, I know I can discount those if the game has something better going on, because those don’t matter as much to me. At the same time, if a game scores highly, but it’s controls are poor, I know that’s likely a game I’ll never enjoy, as the controls are a deal breaker for me.

    In any case, I haven’t actually used a pro review to make a decision in quite a while. That’s the wonderful thing about how the internet is going, it’s a lot easier to connect with other regular players or directly see the game in action than it used to be. And given that professionals playing a game for a review have a lot different of a perspective than someone just playing it for fun, I’ve been finding the impressions of my peers to be a lot more useful and relevant to me anyways.

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you for such a detailed, well thought out comment! They’re always the best 🙂 I agree with you that baggage can be a negative, but I would much rather a reviewer be upfront about an irrational dislike of the Wii or Nintendo games that affects their perception of the game than try and hide their preferences behind the language of the rational, objective reviewer. With cases like that it can sometimes be a useful indicator to look at how much a review talks about the hardware manufacturer rather than the game itself – it can speak volumes about a reviewer’s investment in “console warz”. (I’m thinking about Wii games and the commonplace “dust off your Wii” idea, or something like Pikmin 3 for Wii U which shouldered a lot of Wii U doom and gloom on its release.)

      But you know, even though I will disregard it personally, there are others out there who are invested and interested in this stuff. Similarly, with genre and familiarity, I’m usually all for reviewers being familiar with the genre… except with those genres that I know nothing about. Then a beginner’s perspective is suddenly very relevant! As a fan it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the nitty gritty details which may not be useful or informative for someone new to a genre/series.

      I’m in the same camp of not relying on professional reviews much at all. They can inform my purchasing decisions sometimes, but since I exclusively buy older games I’m not fussy about how well something has done critically. Some reviews age better than others. One of my favourite examples is Odama, which I mentioned in the post. The press gave it mostly mediocre scores on release, criticising it for being too short, too hard, too expensive, having bad graphics… well, difficulty aside, ten years later when the game is dirt cheap those things are hardly relevant. In fact, some of those cons, like how short it is, become pros when money is no longer an object and time is a bigger consideration!

      • Aether

        That is true, the lack of experience of a reviewer may actually be a bonus when it matches your own. . Really, the best case scenario is that you find a reviewer that is just really, really close to your own tastes. Unfortunately, given how complex games can be, how many little features working in concert, and just how wide the world of video games are, that’s a bloody hard thing to fine. I’m not sure if that’d be a perfect world, either, though. Sometimes it’s fun to just try a game on a lark and find out you really like it for reasons nobody else cared about.

  2. Red Metal

    I think that video games have more objective traits than most mediums. For instance, in bad games such as Sonic 2006, you can point to the controls and make a strong case that because they’re unpolished, the experience is weighed down to a significant degree.

    Otherwise, yeah, it’s unrealistic to demand reviews that are purely objective. If you’re going to do that, you’re never going to come up with statements more insightful than, “Yup, this certainly is a video game.” That’s why I only have one number in my reviews; it’s an assessment of the work as a cohesive whole, combining objectivity with subjectivity in a way that I can express whether or not I could recommend it. As you say, it’s akin to writing a persuasive essay. Also, I’ve found when discussing certain games that it wouldn’t make sense for me to divide ratings into categories such as Graphics, Story, Gameplay and Music when one trait carries more weight than the others to a significant enough degree. Planescape: Torment, Mother 3, and Metroid: Other M are all games where the story had so much presence that they influenced my final score to a much greater degree than the actual gameplay.

    I’ve found that gamers who demand objectivity or unbiased opinions are more than a little duplicitous. They claim they want reviewers who aren’t paid off by corporations, yet they would fly off the handle if anyone dare bash a sacred cow (or the opposite: praise a game that isn’t allowed to be liked). Considering their propensity to bash new, original works for its own sake, it makes the rare instance they do put a game on a lofty pedestal more hypocritical than inspiring. It doesn’t help that we’ve both seen instances where a bunch of people will go to Metacritic (and other similar sites) and spam negative reviews of a game for the pettiest reasons. It’s much of the same problem the music community has; they think their industry is in a rut, and they seem to want to perpetuate the problem rather than do anything to solve it. It’s as though they enjoy being miserable. Crazy thought, huh?

    • veryverygaming

      Ha ha, that’s a fantastic assessment of internet whining right there! I tried to be charitable in my post as I do think – somewhere, maybe, buried in the neuroses of gamers – there is a postive takeaway about assessing games without the pretence of objectivity. And I agree that not all aspects of a game are weighted equally in every case (really, any case). What traits do games have that you’d say are objective? I have a few ideas about this: stuff like controls, the technical aspects of graphics, features, game length, and so on are objective, but how heavily we factor those into reviews are subjective interpretations. I’m thinking about doing a post about a related point soon actually… the way modern games are bloated with features in order to appeal to reviewers and inflate the Metacritic score.

  3. Libertarian Geek

    I agree, I think video game reviews should be more honestly presented as opinion based writing. I think the “experts” are falsely pretending that their opinions are more valid.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for the comment! There’s a way of doing it that doesn’t need to involve constant use of “in my opinion” or “I think” (although I’m self-conscious I do that sort of thing a lot!). Like I said, I think it’s just about flagging up personal preferences, experience, history, and so on when it’s relevant.

  4. moresleepneeded

    I found this article interesting. I find it interesting when reviewers explain why they feel they enjoy or hate a game, rather than stating they hate it. It is also difficult for a critic to claim to be objective when they will have personal preferences. For example, a critic, who does not enjoy science-fiction, will provide a biased review when discussing a science-fiction film, while a fan of science-fiction will be able to discuss the creativity of the designs and how well the filmmakers are able to visualise their ideas. I also agree the point system is strange. How can one game get a story of 7, while another game’s story gets a score of 8? Unless there are holes in the story, how can a reviewer quantify a story? Wouldn’t scores for graphics decrease over time? As graphic capabilities improve and once realistic visuals resemble low quality designs.

    • veryverygaming

      Yes, you raise some great points about how some reviews can “age” in a similar way to games. Given I spend all my time with old games, and occasionally look at reviews of games I’m interested in, the way critics discuss things like graphics is always interesting. Often those games with the pretty graphics and high production values for their time get undue amounts of attention and praise all round, even if other aspects of the game are relatively poor or lacking.

  5. hopefulhomies

    I don’t entirely agree that either pure objectivity or subjectivity is worthwhile in review. Objectivity provides information and education, whilst subjectivity is the framing of taste in comparison to the reviewers past experiences. In order to understand that subjectivity effectively, one must be able to relate to the author.

    All the said, our practice in user research attempts to apply scientific methods to subjectivity. There are means to get at more scientific ways of discussing opinions, even if they’re not perfect yet, they’re steps criticism could take towards “objectivity”.

    e-vaughn

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