Critique of game critique #287,892

More wringing of hands, navel-gazing, good ideas, and interesting (if sometimes uninformed) opinions at The Escapist this week, as the staff takes a critical look at “games journalism” (a term I still don’t like to use out of respect to real journalists). You will find the usual tale of corruption that seems to inevitably crop up; I understand (and have used) the fact that sometimes you can only obtain the truth through anonymous sources, but again, when you don’t name names, these things make my skin crawl and I always feel like someone’s giving me the stink-eye. I guess I take it too personally, but I can read these articles and go “Well, yeah, I agree that that’s horrible, but that’s not what I do,” but nobody else knows that but me. But hey, if nothing else, I bristle when I see evidence of those things happening in my industry, and I can only try to avoid those mistakes and present a decent, albeit invisible, example.

But I’m going to drill down a little bit, because an old wound has been opened by Russ Pitts’ article. In the same way that I am infuriated when I read a game review that starts with “I don’t like Game Boy games so…” or “I hate real-time strategy games, and…” I cannot give much credence to a Penny Arcade “review of a review” (written by someone who has never written a game review) that begins with “I don’t read game reviews,” as this one does. Full disclosure: I assigned that review when I was working on Radar; the reviewer Cameron and I are longtime friends and I’ve hired him a lot as a freelancer. I don’t always agree with his reviews, but I do trust them.

The game in question is Enchanted Arms, one of the first RPGs to come out for Xbox 360. Cam didn’t like it and his score was lower than the average. Mike from PA did like it and expressed his disagreement pretty savagely. Mike summarizes:

He didn’t like it for all the reasons I like it … had I seen that write up before I purchased Enchanted Arms I might have believed some of his bullshit and skipped over what I think is an extremely good game.

It’s clearly a matter of personal taste and preference. It’s just a disagreement, but instead of saying “Wow, I got much more out of the game than that person did,” Mike goes for the jugular (which he can do — it’s his opinion, it’s his blog, and he’s not speaking for anyone but himself). But the character assassination always seemed needlessly cruel for someone who claimed to not even read reviews on a regular basis. “Oh hai, I’m in yoru reviewz, cleanin’ mah clawz, kthxbai.” It’s a slap at the medium, when all he really wanted to do was slap the review itself.

Note: In reporting on this particular item, Russ Pitts really should have contacted either GamesRadar or Cameron to discuss their reaction or find out what impact, if any, Mike’s criticism had. Did that criticism change processes at Radar? Did Cameron take it to heart, shrug it off? The article is very concerned about what developers feel when a three-year project gets a bad review, but this one’s left very one-sided. Telling both sides of the story…hey, that’s journalism. Missed opportunity, I think.

But here’s the bigger problem: I fear that Mike, like many people who read and vehemently disagree with reviews, doesn’t fundamentally understand them. “Had I seen that write up before I purchased Enchanted Arms I might have believed some of his bullshit and skipped over what I think is an extremely good game” suggests that a) Mike trusts reviews (remember, he doesn’t read them) and b) he might think they’re marching orders. In case that hasn’t been articulated, here goes: they are not. In the Escapist article, Warren Spector shows that he gets it:

A review serves one purpose and one purpose only,” says Warren Spector, the legendary designer of System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex, “to give readers data they need to make a buy/no buy decision. End of story. To do that, the reviewer has to have a consistent editorial stance. It doesn’t matter if you agree with a reviewer on a particular game or movie or book or record as long as they’re consistent enough that you can determine from reading the review whether you would like the game, movie, book or record yourself. Reviewers and readers have to develop an ongoing relationship of sorts.

By his own admission, Mike hasn’t built up that relationship with any reviewer or outlet, let alone GamesRadar or Cameron as an individual writer…and he’s not reading the review for consumer purchasing “buy/no buy” advice. He’s reading the review for personal validation. He already bought the game; the review he read after buying it isn’t something he agrees with, so it’s wrong. If there’s one problem out there I don’t feel I can fix, it’s the audience misinterpreting the nature of the medium. Reviews are not telling you what to think; they’re giving you what you need to think for yourself. It’s why city buses don’t run the Indy 500, folks: They were built for an extremely different purpose.

The funny thing? Mike does understand this concept. “If you bite into an apple and expect it to taste like an orange you’re going to be disappointed,” he says in his review-of-a-review. But he doesn’t seem able (at least in the moment that he wrote the passionate blog entry, which is now being held up as important canon by The Escapist) to apply that lesson to his own consumpion of review content. I find it intensely frustrating.

I do recommend reading this issue of The Escapist. It’s coming from the right place, the dangers are real, and hey, it got me talking. I didn’t agree with everything I read in this issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

EDIT TO ADD: Wow, I wrote this before seeing today’s Penny Arcade comic. Who knew?

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