On Scored Reviews

So, now I’ve gotten the angry political satire out of my system, for at least the time being anyway, I thought this week we’d go back to old staples and talk about the state of video gaming today. Always good to have a routine back up, eh hypothetical audience? Anyway, this month gaming press luminary Joystiq declared that it was to stop issuing scored reviews of new games in favour of adding a summary of key points to the end of each piece. The logic behind this was to both do away with the awful “8.8” thing that blights gamer culture, but also to do away with their role in Metacritic-style aggregators. The response was mixed, to say the least, but has rather conveniently brought back to the forefront an issue I feel affects not just gaming reviews, but any form of media review that exists at the moment.

If you ask me, the concept of scored reviews isn’t necessarily a bad thing in concept, and certainly has a few uses. When time and/or space is limited a quick summary can be very convenient for the reading public, and there are few things more concise than a few numbers. Scores are also much more useful to compare reviews, although this falls down a bit when you consider different sources have wildly different scoring systems, and even internally what a score means to each reviewer can be totally different. But my point remains, there is a potential space in this world for score, but the way they’ve evolved in recent years and transitioned into the realms of “serious business” that has totally put me off the idea.

Perhaps the worst part of what scores have become is what TVTropes refers to as the 8.8 phenomenon that is especially prevalent in the world of video games journalism. Some sources generally don’t use the whole range of scores available to them, sometimes out of pressure from publishers and advertisers, leading to ludicrous scores such as the titular “8.8/10” and ideas that 70% is somehow a bad score. In both cases, actually reading the review would alleviate some problems, but more often than not the screaming fanboys will see that “WarFighter 4: The ReWarFightening” only got an 8.9, ignore the reasoning why and leap straight into score-wars and raging as if 89% is the same as a total snub. Even a quick summary could help do away with these endless arguments. Then theres aggregators. Much like scores as a whole, aggregators are not a terrible concept, they theoretically provide a quick and easy way to compare different opinions on something. There is, like in most things, a downside. Allegedly in the games industries some publishers will withhold developers’ bonuses if a certain Metacritic score isn’t attained, which strikes me as a rather iffy way of doing business.

Both of those points are essentially the culture that’s grown up around the reviews, however my main issues is with the scores themselves. Part of me finds scores a tad disingenuous when put at the end of a lengthy, thought out review. As internet critic Yahtzee Crowshaw once said, you can’t represent a complex opinion as just numbers (possibly paraphrasing his exact words here), a viewpoint I fully agree with. You can’t general answer the question “Did you like this?” with “Fifteen” after all. Often full reviews end up being hundreds-to-low-thousands of words and will often go far beyond summaries and address points in great depth. This depth can often highlight flaws in an otherwise good game, or gems in an otherwise bad one, something that is entirely absent in the more sterile score system (and indeed the whole root cause of the “8.8 arguments” if you ask me). Plus there are certain things that can’t be adequately fitted into the “good vs. bad” points that scores thrive upon. Often some elements that are of concern to the reviewer but are of little relevance to the technical- and gameplay- quality can arise, usually demonstrated quite well whenever online complications rear their ugly head such as the last SimCity game that simply caved under the pressure of users actually using it after the review copies had been used. Scores are often very bad at presenting an opinion as anything more than a yes, no or maybe, which as fellow human beings you can probably prove to be false (At least I hope you’re all human, Hypothetical Audience, else this might get a little strange).

This all goes to, in my mind, prove the pointlessness of the system and why it needs to be replaced. It’s interesting that there are several different alternatives to scoring being used out there right now. The simplest would have to be just doing away with it all together, forcing readers to read the whole thing end to end. In theory, anyway, since usually reviewer style writings summarise in the final paragraph meaning you can easily get away with just first-and-last paragraphs. Nevertheless it does promote reading of a writers full work, and as a writer I can tell you how good it feels to know people actually genuinely read your work. Then comes the method that Joystiq are currently employing, by sticking a brief summary at the end of the review. In the case of Joystiq this takes the form of a list of good and bad points. This has some of the conciseness of the scoring system but adds the added bonus of actually elaborating upon complex opinions, albeit briefly. One problem I foresee in this is that it still lends to the kind of serious business arguments that blight scored reviews, but at least allows for greater clarity than simply “fifty percent.”

The final alternative to scoring is perhaps my most favourite, and one that can even exist alongside actual, serious score systems: The parody score. You see, I’m not the only who see’s the silliness in scored systems, and frequently out there in those internets you see people jokingly giving out scores at the end of otherwise serious reviews such as “3 Captain Falcons riding Sonic like a race car.” It can add a wonderfully surreal counterpoint to a piece or provide a confusing aide to those, as one video reviewer once put it, “not paying attention.” Perhaps my all time favourite example comes from an old issue of PCGamer (back when most of RockPaperShotgun wrote for them) where a terrible tycoon-esque game was awarded the score of XX% and the review was a multiple choice quiz to get your own score. The maximum was, I recall, 5% and the lowest was -1%. And this was in a nationally published magazine! It’s that kind of thing that actually makes score fun.

Reviews are an important part of how we look at media in a critical light, however when oversimplified to the point of a single number, they begin to lose meaning and move away from being an opinion written with intent to advise readers to something altogether meaningless. Sure, scores have their uses, but they’ve gradually been turned into something else as they turned into “SeriousBusiness.” Joystiq’s decision to abandon them all together is honestly only a good thing in my mind, and hopefully it’ll promote the idea that we can talk critically about games and media without having to tack a twee little number to the end of it so we can have games of “My Media Can Beat Up Your Media.” Can’t wait to see if they set a precedent for other large review sites to also abandon scores. Only time will tell, really.
Until next time, folks,
—Ndro
—43 out of a possible 276.5

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