The Myth of Objective Game Journalism

A common demand of both fans and professionals in video game circles is “objective” game reviews. Often without any further explanation of how that is possible or desirable, just a vague implication that bias should somehow be avoided.. This idea is approximately as old as the idea of making video game enthusiast journalism more ethical. In particular, this is a cause célèbre of GamerGate, the angry online mob devoted to harassing women and progressives in the game industry with the stated goal of promoting ethics in video game journalism. However, seeking this objectivity is a complete impossibility: so nonsensical that it can’t even be wrong.

Video games are art. This is no longer in dispute. They are creative works designed to provoke a reaction in the participant, even if that emotion is simply a simple joy of escapism and accomplishment. Video games are especially intricate works of art, like sculptures so incredibly complicated that a single viewer may not experience the whole of the work, even given infinite time to do so. Not only is the viewer’s emotional response personal, but what they are even able to perceive to interpret in the first place is an experience unique to that person.

As video games are art, video game criticism is art criticism. Reviews of art relate the experiences and opinions of the critic. As art is engaged emotionally and playing a video game is an experience unique to each person, that engagement is a one-off experience. Any attempt to describe that experience, no matter what the critic may intend, is deeply personal.

There are no objective metrics to describe this experience. With apologies to Terry Pratchett, there is no atom of emotion, or molecule of entertainment. While scores out of 10 or ratings out of five stars are popular in criticism of consumer art, they are arbitrary evaluations. Contrast this with the sort of benchmark testing Consumer Reports does on dishwashers, which are experiments measuring physical qualities under fixed conditions. I invite anyone who suggests that video games can be reviewed the same way Tom’s Hardware reviews video cards invent a tool that measures units of game quality. I won’t hold my breath waiting.

An objective video game review is impossible. What people want when they ask for objective game reviews is one or more of a set of contradictory, subjective goals in review video games. There is no shortage of guides on how best to meet these subjective goals in the name of objectivity, such as GamerGate mouthpiece Oliver Campbell’s “The Purpose of a Game Review and How to Write One with Minimal Subjectivity”.

Almost all of these ideas about “objective” game reviews presume that the experiences of the critic are somehow a shadow of the truth of the game and thus flawed, and that reader’s opinion is the true reality. All of these rest on some sort of Platonic ideal Reader, be it the frictionless spherical “mainstream gamer”, a hypothetical fan of the genre of game under review, or simply an idea of the particular publication’s target audience. This truth is impossible as soon as the critic has more than one reader. A review the audience agrees with is no more objective than one they find disagreeable. Even so, there are many self-identified hardcore gamers who describe any review they disagree with as “biased” for not lining up with their own unquestioned biases about what a video game should be.

This idea of what a video game should be doesn’t necessarily need to be an idea of their own personal tastes. It often takes the form of an appeal to consensus of an unspecified group, even if the speaker protests that the consensus does not match the speaker’s particular tastes. This can become so extreme that anyone who doesn’t match the consensus gets accusations corrupt or intentionally seeking to drum up controversy, as though a personal benefit is the only reason that someone might have a idiosyncratic opinion.

It’s impossible to match the consensus all of the time, particularly because video game reviews help shape that consensus. One cannot know ahead of time what other people will think. What’s more, appealing to that consensus is not inherently desirable. A growing number of readers don’t share the same experiences and outlook as the “mainstream gamer”. This is especially noticeable in progressive circles: many potential readers are interested in seeing the experiences of someone other than mostly white, middle-aged, more-or-less affluent straight men, both in games and in game criticism. Even if most potential readers did, there are many sites serving that mainstream gamer audience. Without an angle, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the long shadow IGN and Gamespot cast in serving that audience. Even then, there are contrarian voices seeking new audiences at those mainstream monoliths.

A major part of this consensus is that all video game reviews should be consumer reviews, aimed at helping the reader to know which games to purchase for maximum entertainment. It’s presumed that all games must strive to be entertaining; all other emotional experiences are somehow inferior. This entertainment can take many forms, but if a game is offputting or cryptic or depressing or educational, these are lesser experiences. Similarly, it’s a pressure to avoid relating a personal experience unrelated to the entertainment value of the game in question. If the critic sets out to describe how the game relates to their personal experience, it isn’t a “review”, it’s some more generic form of editorial, of less value than a consumer review.

There is no such thing as an objective review. The opinions of the reader — or the reader’s idea of some sort of generically objective opinion — are not objective fact. De gustibus non disputandem. All game criticism is based on the personal tastes and experiences of the critic in question, and cannot perfectly line up with the opinion of any single person other than the writer, let alone everyone who might possibly read the review. Even if it were somehow possible, to say that all reviews must be objective would ignore a wealth of valuable and entertaining writing, from the work of Cara Ellison to Tim Rogers.