Why Game Score Reviews Suck

(Source: Gary Alexander — WordsAboutGames.com)

As of writing this, Polygon decided to change it’s game reviews two days ago. As of September 4th Polygon will be officially phasing out numeric scores for video games on their site.

Why did this happen? Do numerics reviews really suck?

The short answer is… yes.

For the long answer, please continue reading.

Polygon has been occasionally playing around with the concept of scoreless reviews in the past. However, sites like Eurogamer and Kotaku have already done away with traditional scores so Polygon isn’t exactly treading new ground. However, another prominent face in games journalism is doing away with the industry standard for reviewing games. Why is this?

Well if you’ve been interested in this topic for a while you can find plenty of others describing the faults of numeric reviews (There will be a list of supplementary articles at the end of this one). In my case, I didn’t suddenly come across the idea that numeric reviews are trash. I still use them when looking at games. However, I’m not looking to big sites for my scores and if I have another kind of metric available, I’m liable to choose that over a whatever out of 10 or blah blah out of 5 stars. Here’s why.

Review scores are neither, helpful or useful

(Source: Frustrated With Social Media? Don’t Give Up! — derbycitymedia.com)

If we compare traditional review with, let’s say, Rotten Tomatoes scores we have games that are mediocre at 80% which sets a pretty high bar. Compare this to a certified fresh where movies are rated not just by critics but by consumers where you get a probability of how likely you are to enjoy it. This is much closer to what you want to know. Am I likely to enjoy this movie? This points to why I still look at scores… but not on big sites. Score from fellow consumers rank higher in my mind than critics and since they aren’t longer form reviews bundled with a score (usually) then a quick glance at the average gives me more than 1 or a few people’s opinions on a game. That isn’t to say that they are inaccurate or inconsistent. We see a logical result of exceptional games getting good scores and bad games getting terrible scores. However, if my goal is to simply play a new game and I’m not looking for the platformer of the decade (which would currently be Super Mario Odyssey but that’s not the point) then I need a clearer picture of whether I’m going to enjoy it or not. And even if I know better, the culture of reviews have trained me to know that an 8.0/10 is okay and a 7.9/10 is something I probably shouldn’t waste my time with. They are practically the same score but read very differently at a glance.

Discussions about scores are garbage

(Source: Chris Tobin — Getty Images)

It’s possible to have a constructive discussion about scores. It is, however, highly improbable. Much in the way that scored game reviews go over a checklist and literally grade a game with a rubric of points, every individual has their own internal rubric that is different than the reviewers’. And so… what usually happens is that everyone takes out their own internal rubric (consciously or unconsciously) and essentially admonish the reviewer for not using their grading scale. Numbers, more or less, are absolute figures. That absolute precedent and the virtual guarantee that there will be a difference in opinion will lead to a negative experience in the comment sections below.

This isn’t even touching on the fact that a lot of review readers aren’t really digesting the article for its content as the information that is deemed most important aren’t the words that led to the score. Just the score itself. This and the internet’s inborn gift for comment section garbage make number scores another source of kindling for the flame wars. To an extent, this isn’t all the fault of the scores. Half of this problem is the willingness to argue and the unwillingness to read reviews fully, carefully and with the understanding that the score is just one facet of a game review. However, you’ve been on the internet, I’ve been on the internet, and while we both know that individuals are capable of civil discussions no matter the circumstance, the bleaters in comment sections are frankly just too immature to handle an “inappropriate” score on a particular game.

More simply, scored reviews aren’t exactly a garbage design but it could be a lot better and it IS garbage at cultivating good conversation.

I’m buying a piece of art — Not a car (hammer, tool fridge, what have you)

(Source: Braid — A capture by me! (OvO) )

Cars, hammers, and fridges can definitely be considered art in certain contexts. However, as a consumer, outside of wanting a tool that isn’t ugly, we’re looking at price to performance in our appliances. This is, unfortunately how we’ve been looking at games as well. As tools for fun that have exact metrics that can be graded for quality assurance. This is a rather frustrating reality as these kinds of reviews are in part why we’re so picky about things that don’t actually make a lot of sense.

Games have these dizzying campaign lengths. (Well… dizzying for adults) That makes sense for legitimizing their price but doesn’t make sense for a market whose average age is 35 and growing. The independent games market has shown that you can have great profits on games that aren’t at the highest possible fidelity. And when it comes down to it, playing games is just extremely subjective. Giving a rigid score or even an average of rigid scores makes very little sense when a lot of games provide experiences that are fairly specific for every person. Even in linear stories, the moment to moment choice in how you complete tasks make your possible experience truly unique. In music, TV, movies, and art every person is going to see the same images, hear the same notes and contemplate the words spoken by actors on the screen. In a game, all of these could be different. This isn’t to say that people have the same experiences with other media, it’s just that traditional media is passive and even in being passive they require nuanced discussion with formal analysis. So when it comes to game reviews, this possibility for divergent experiences is multiplied exponentially, so it’s a shame that one of the most rigid forms of reviews has persisted for so long.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate that games journalists are working to reflect the cultural reality of video games. What we play, grind and level up in aren’t cold utilitarian tools for fun. They are deeply personal and subjectively valuable works of art and they deserve to be reviewed as such.

Author’s note — Here are some articles on scored reviews you probably want to check out!