Are game reviews pointless?

I think I have dedicated my life to writing things that nobody wants to read.

When I started reviewing games, it was for a love of games and a love of writing. I still have both. Then I started to take great pride in offering advice — both to consumers who wanted to spend their money wisely, and to developers/publishers who didn’t have an objective perspective on their own work. As long as my criticism can be constructive, I feel I’m doing the right thing.

But increasingly, the developers don’t want to read reviews that aren’t positive. This isn’t just cases of creators feeling that they’re misunderstood; this is because more and more often, their compensation and bonuses are tied to the average review score. Pointing out flaws in their games takes money out of their pocket. They don’t want to hear that the frame rate lagged or the tutorial was unclear. They want to hear that they did a good job, and as a result, that their daughter can get those braces after all.

Meanwhile, the consumer wants to know that the opinions they’ve already formed about a game — based on previews and screenshots and simple desires that every fan comes up with naturally — are right. They don’t want bad news, because they might lose face for supporting a game that their friends have already heard them endorse. The review has to prove that they were right. And when the review doesn’t do that, they don’t trust “the media” because “the media” has become tainted and corrupt. Well, that’s what they’ve heard anyway, and that means it’s true.

So we’ve got unrealistic expectations, unrelated baggage, and closed minds at work in both potential audiences. Were I the voice of the people, I could feel comfortable pushing back to creators who take personal offense and say, “Please understand that I represent the end user first and foremost.” Or if I felt like the creative community didn’t immediately dread my review, I could turn to the audience and say, “This feedback is part of the process of making new and better games.” But that’s not the case. I feel like developers hate reviews and readers hate reviews.

And because of those reactions are based on personal or career biases, I’m often labeled…biased. Whether the review gives a good score or a bad score, whether it’s clearly written or aspires to be creatively entertaining in its own right, I’m basically a hack who hasn’t played the full game, doesn’t understand the genre, isn’t qualified to pass judgment on anything or anybody, and is certainly on someone’s payroll anyway.

They can’t prove it, but nobody has to. And they won’t ask me directly, because I’d only lie. Isn’t that convenient?

Boo hoo, woe is me, welcome to the martyrdome. I know. But I have always taken my responisbilities seriously, and I do feel, more often than not, that my work is an annoyance to the very people I’m trying to help.

UPDATE 9/9: It would seem that a lot of people misinterpreted the latter half of this post, and it’s starting to get passed around. Subtlety is apparently dead; I should have put quotes around the “hack” stuff to suggest that this is not what I am saying, but what many other people say about me and reviewers like me. Folks, here it is without the sarcasm: I do understand the genres I review, I do play the games, I do feel that 15 years experience is enough to pass informed and responsible judgment, and I am not on any game publisher’s payroll. I’m saying that for some people, it’s easier to discredit a reviewer than give his or her dissenting opinion any credence. To them, “I’m just a hack,” etcetra. And they can’t prove anything they allege, but they don’t have to, because others want to believe the bad stuff, too.

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