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Editorial: Some Subjective Thoughts On Objectivity

In Our Opinion

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A topic of conversation that is frequently revisited in discussion of gaming and games criticism is that of “objectivity”. It’s an important topic, and it seems worth exploring the subject a little, and in doing so we’ll try to outline RPS’s position on the matter.

First: Rock, Paper, Shotgun, has no desire or aim for objectivity.

If this sounds surprising, then please do read on. We want to explain why our our driving goal is not objectivity, but honesty. Here’s why.

Here’s the main issue with the argument that objectivity should be a goal for games criticism: Objectivity isn’t possible. It is, at best, an ideal – an unreachable target, toward which some attempt to strive, believing the closer one is to it, the better a job one is doing. However, this is a position RPS rejects, as we believe such a goal is antithetical to useful, accurate reporting on games. It’s our belief that any who claim to be objective are actually failing to understand the implications of that claim, and ultimately undermining themselves when it’s shown that they are not, actually, objective at all.

Objectivity in writing is, generally speaking, an attempt to detach oneself from a topic, to report simply the verifiable facts of a matter, without any personal input or editorial angle whatsoever. When it comes to reporting news – a part of what RPS does on a daily basis – this may immediately sound like a positive thing. However, upon any scrutiny, this logic falls very quickly apart.

We asked part-time philosopher and linguist Nicholas Mailer to expand on the philosophical myth of objectivity – you can read that here.

First of all, to report “the facts of a matter”, the reporter is burdened with looking through all the available information, and making decisions on what is considered to be a “fact”. Then, this (unavoidably subjectively) decided, it falls upon the author to decide which “facts” to report, how to present them, what weighting to give to apparently opposing information, and indeed in which order to present contradictory opinion from others. This all instantly remove any hope of “objectivity”, because a human reporter is required to parse the information before passing it on. Subjectivity reveals itself from every angle, no matter how stringently fought against. Personal bias goes right down into the individual’s use of language, which is why articles which claim to be objective are often so robotic and tedious to read.

Alongside the immediate difficulty of an objective reporting of news, comes perhaps the even more important (my subjection) realisation that so-called “objective reporting” often leads to something far more inaccurate.

Take, for example, the anti-vaccination movement, originating in wholly false claims that the MMR vaccine was causing autism. There is absolutely no good science behind the anti-vaxxers’ claims. However, in attempts to bring objectivity to reports, many news outlets covered the topic by attempting to give equal weight to both “sides” of the discussion. They presented the opinions and claims made by those who believed there were dangers, in equal measure to those who had science and evidence to demonstrate none of the claims were accurate. It gave the impression to the reader, through an ‘objective’ approach, that there were two equally weighted sides in the debate, when of course there was no such thing. The same goes for reporting on climate change, or even complaints made by a very few against a television programme watched by millions. An attempt to offer objective, balanced reporting leads to a deceptive, imbalanced understanding for the receiver of that news. Immediately, then, objectivity is compromised.

Let’s bring that home to gaming. A couple of years ago, Fox News reported that the game Bulletstorm was going to cause players to commit rapes. They based these claims on the words of a self-styled expert, and then backed this up with quotes from other experts in the field. Were RPS to have approached this story with an aim of being “objective”, we’d have reported what was being claimed, and perhaps presented the view of someone else who believed otherwise, giving equal weighting to each. Which would have been preposterous. On investigation of the claims, it quickly became apparent to us that not only was the assertion being made by this “expert” entirely unevidenced, but the other quoted experts had been wildly misquoted in an attempt to flesh out the story. We approached the topic entirely subjectively, with an aim to uncovering what was really going on here, exploring agendas, and challenging claims, and with a personal belief that Bulletstorm was unlikely to cause rapes. We wanted to find what we, subjectively, understood to be the nature of Bulletstorm’s influence on the people who played it. The ‘objective’ version of events would have seen our reporting the claims, giving them equal weight to a contradictory response.

All this, and we’ve not even mentioned the rather overwhelming fact that at RPS, we’re critics. A vast proportion of our job is to critically appraise gaming, and report our personal views.

RPS has a lot of running jokes, and titling our reviews “Wot I Think” may look like one of them. But we did it for a really good reason. Too many gaming sites at the time of our launching had become incredibly po-faced about their reviews. There was a spreading culture of reviews being “definitive”, and presenting not a person’s opinion of a game, but a “site’s expert analysis”. Recognising the entire concept as completely daft, and indeed believing such a thing utterly undesirable, we chose to ensure it was abundantly clear that our reviews of games were – of course – just the opinions of one person. One person who is, hopefully, well-equipped to create interesting, informed and entertaining words about that game, that offers useful information for someone considering buying it, while providing a clearly subjective view. That’s what reviews are! Film reviews, book reviews, car reviews, hot air balloon helium pump reviews… (Then the embarrassing arrogance of declaring “WHAT I THINK!” is played upon by the misspelling of “Wot”.)

(A corollary of this is that we welcome disagreement! Of course we do: it’s right there in the title. We make no claim to any review on RPS being the literal objective truth. In fact, we refute that such a thing is even possible. Please do assert that we are wrong, that’s the whole point.)

That’s reviews, but the same applies to previews. It’s true that traditionally, gaming magazines and websites have tended to keep previews less personal, more factual, for the simple reason that the game’s not finished yet, and making judgements on them can be simply unfair. However, at RPS we’ve believed it often to be more useful, and honest, to be clear when we’ve had genuine worries, or abject excitement, about what we’ve seen in a preview. Yes, we could more easily aim toward something considered more “objective” at this point, simply listing the facts as presented by the developer/publisher. But oh my goodness, what now? See – see where this notion of objectivity has so quickly taken us? Objectivity is now demanding that we parrot information given to us by the creator/publisher of the game, and not apply our own critical faculties – our own subjective expertise – to this. At this point, isn’t objectivity demanding that we simply become mouthpieces for the publishers? And isn’t that joint-first in the list of things that makes the suspicious so furious with the games press? Again, it would pull us away from the thing which is far more important: honesty.

Honesty: we’re open about our politics, our bias, our opinions. We aren’t trying to hide them. And whether or not you agree with them, that surely makes RPS more useful to you than if we were trying to sweep all that under the carpet? We certainly like to see people wear their heart on their sleeve.

Okay, that’s reviews and previews, and presumably we can skip over editorial as widely acceptable as subjective, but what about news? Surely, even accepting the earlier arguments that the simple presentation of news makes objectivity an impossibility, we should be striving for something as close to it as possible?

Well, we’re going to upset a good few by saying, no, we really don’t accept this is the case. Because once again, we value honesty far more highly than we do an attempt to scramble up the impossibly steep slope of objectivity.

There are an awful lot of gaming sites, and there are an awful lot of them reporting gaming news, as presented to them by PRs, publishers and developers. Because let’s be clear: the vast majority of what is presented as “news” in the world of gaming is, “This game has been announced,” or, “Here is a new trailer for this game.” Simply reporting this news may be desired by some, and there are an awful lot of places people can visit for such straight delivery of a publishers’ facts. Which is why we think RPS offers far, far more to our readers by doing something different: To report the announcement of a game, or the arrival of a new trailer, and then to give our subjective opinion of that news. Be it, “Oh boy, we’re so excited that this game exists, because the previous ones have been tippety-top!” or, “Wow, this game looks gross,” our opinion infects our coverage because it’s written by us, on our website. We know, absolutely, that our opinion can be rejected by those reading the news, and indeed we most frequently offer space below the post for people to voice their disagreement. “No, the previous games were terrible, and this one’s going to be worse!” “How can you say it looks gross, you sillies – it looks flipping amazing.”

Okay, the elephant in the room after all of this is obviously when it comes to something like our reporting on those topics that seem to cause the most trouble: sexism, misogyny, marginalisation of any perceived minority, and similar. Let’s discuss those from this perspective of objectivity vs subjectivity.

First of all, it’s absolutely crucial to bring in a wholly objective, verified fact. Morgan Ramsay, the man behind The Ramsay Interviews, has been keeping a text archive of major gaming sites over the last several years, containing every word they’ve published. He went through those words for each site over the year 2013, and found that 99.55% of the articles published across ten of the larger gaming sites (including RPS) made no mention of subjects regarding sexism or misogyny. So less than half a percent of gaming coverage even mentions these subjects, let alone is singularly about them. In fact, of the ten sites studied, RPS was the 7th least likely to mention the subjects, with less than one percent of our articles alluding to the topic. So, objectively, RPS dedicates the tiniest fraction of its content to a topic many are claiming obsesses us. We can, with this in mind, abandon the vast majority of the fears and claims being made about the topic taking over our coverage, or colouring our games journalism. If anything, it makes us wonder if we’re falling short on covering such a significant topic in modern gaming.

But what about the subjectivity that remains in those 0.93% of posts (fewer than one in every hundred articles we publish)? Our response can only be: well, yes. Yes, we are subjective about this matter. We believe it matters. We believe it’s important to so incredibly infrequently raise this topic, because it affects so many in our audience. It’s well worth noting that when we do cover such topics, the feedback we receive is overwhelmingly in favour of its appearing on our site, and that positive feedback is invariably spontaneous and individual, rather than organised and coordinated.

Outside that, well, our attitudes and opinions persist. And they do so differently from writer to writer. Again, that’s key to what we’re doing: RPS is personality driven. It was conceived that way – four strong personalities in the British gaming press got together, to create a site that would put personal writing at the forefront, in the way we most enjoyed reading from others. In the way classic 1980s and 1990s gaming magazines had – something we saw as missing from the contemporary press. Over the seven years, a lot of sites have followed, and personality-driven reporting is far more commonplace now than it was last decade. We can understand how those who do not enjoy this sort of writing might feel less represented by the gaming press at this point, and while we don’t empathise, we can sympathise. However, RPS will remain personality-driven, striving for honesty with subjectivity over objectivity, as has always been our goal.

Because that’s what we’re here for. That’s why we started the site, why we keep writing the site, and we’re pretty certain it’s a lot to do with why we’re such a popular site. (Despite the fondness for some to accuse us of “clickbait”, a good proportion of our traffic comes from regular, dedicated readers, rather than SEO-driven influxes of one-offs.) And that means we will fail to serve the desires of some, and we’re okay with that. We hope that people will see the merits of what we do, of our desire to be as honest as is possible, but we wholly accept that some simply do not want this. We hope those people will find a site that meets their needs.

To summarise: We believe objectivity to be antithetical to good games coverage, and instead focus on honesty, both factual and personal.

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Who am I?

John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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