There’s been some hubbub lately over the popular topic of videogame review scores, thanks to a recent column by Simon Parkin. In his GameSetWatch thought-piece Mr Parkin makes some rather astute observations about the troubling numbers, but he also comes up with a rather contentious assertion.
The average reader (even if they don’t know it) is after a complete objective, scientific comparison between game x and game y with data and statistics and, finally, a numerical point on a linear scale by which they can compare, for example, Mass Effect with Rock Band and see which one is empirically better.
I’d argue for something quite different. I think that the median of readers actually wants a subjective opinion, even if he doesn’t know it. In fact, I get the feeling that Mr Parkin actually goes some way to saying that in his article when he addresses the subject of hype, which he thinks conditions readers’ expectations.
Scores then become a reference to a game’s preceding hype. An 8/10 for a game that was hugely hyped to hobbyist gamers is a punch in the stomach for excited fans (see the anguish exhibited in the MGS4 comments thread). Conversely, an 8/10 for a game nobody cares about is viewed a gross over-generosity.
What the hype topic does is raise the question of how much someone has been exposed to this or that marketing ecology, and to what degree they are susceptible to its influences. And anyway, haven’t we all kind of agreed that word of mouth is what really carries the most weight? It’s this that leads me to the idea that in fact all gamers want is a subjective description, even if that description is simply a number attached to the game. And let’s be clear about this, the number is a description, in some sense, because it’s trying to attribute some kind of quality to the game. (A “seven” kind of game.) I remember seeing one Zero to Ten score system given verbal equivalent. “0 = Unplayable, not a game. 5 = Okay, but boring or badly made, 10 = Amazing, brilliant in many ways,” that kind of thing. And I think that’s an honest way of looking at them. There’s a reason why most people look at that score at the end of a review before reading: it’s the gist of the review, the most general description we can give. (Perhaps attributing that 8/10 becomes more perceptual than anything else, like saying it’s a red-brown coloured game, when you thought it was more rust coloured.)
Readers want a description, starting with a number, because it allows them to better define their own thoughts on a game, whether or not they’re in-line with the conclusion of the review. If undecided it might nudge their feelings one way or the other. Or, if they’ve already made up their mind, it allows them to express their thoroughly ingrained opinion – strikingly illustrated by Oli Welsh’s Metal Gear Solid Review. Readers get to argue why the review is wrong, or why their description is more suitable. It’s not exactly dialogue, but the result is similar: we get to make up our minds about something, either by changing our description, or confirming that what we thought was right all along. And there’s not much that’s objective about that.