As a video-game writer, perhaps one of the tasks that I find most difficult is assigning a score to the bottom of a review. Sometimes, I can play a game for a mere couple of hours before a potential score starts to form in my mind, and all that is left to do is fill in the blanks with supporting pros and cons. Other times, however, I can have experienced all there is to do with a particular game, have pages of notes, and sometimes even have the review itself written, and I still can’t decide on which score to award. Surely there must be an easier way?
Review scores come in many different shapes and sizes; the most common being stars, percentages, and marks out of 5, 10 or 100. The difficulty with all of these competing systems is attempting to find a middle-ground by which a universal judgement can be obtained. The website Metacritic has attempted to fill this void, but with their assessment criteria largely remaining a mystery, the extent of its success as an objective source has been questioned by more than a few sceptic observers. Despite this, metacritic averages have begun popping up on developers’ resumes, in evidence of their skills, and some publishers have begun demanding high metacritic averages, as well as high sales, as evidence of a title’s success.
But do scores even matter that much? If you’re after a quick snap judgement on whether a game is good or not, then sure, a quick glance at a solitary figure can give you an idea of a game’s merits, but the text of a review is where you’ll need to look if you want any form of understanding as to why (or why not) a game is worth purchasing. The text gives a writer the chance to explain themselves, to inform the reader why they believe the game is worth their hard-earned money, or why you should steer well clear. It’s also the text of a review that may give you an idea whether or not you actually agree with what the reviewer is saying, rather than just looking at the score and either dismissing or endorsing the game based purely on a 4.0 or a 9.5.
It’s this 4.0 or 9.5 that I find the real problem with scoring game reviews, however. Can you remember the last time you saw a 2 awarded, or a 3? Let me ask you another question. If a game scores a 7, is it good or bad? How about a 6.5? I’m as guilty of this as other people, but for some reason, when a game scores anywhere between a 5 and a 7, it’s automatically written off as a bad game, despite the score being (supposedly) above average. Furthermore, the area below a 5 seems to be some sort of void, where no game reviewer ventures, instead effectively reducing a 10 or 20 (if using .5s) level scoring system to half its intended range. It’s the same with a percentile scoring system, where anything below a 70% is seen as a failure. Game review scores are, for the large part, hideously skewed, leaving the majority of releases sitting somewhere between a score of 7 and 9, when if we used the whole range properly, an average score of anywhere between a 4.5 and a 9 would be much more realistic.
If we place this issue into a real-world setting, we can begin to see where the problem might originate. From an early age, we are awarded grades and marks for our work at school, and we are understandably pushed to get the highest marks possible. Therefore, when you score a 60 or 70 on a piece of work, it can be viewed as a failure, even though in reality it equates to a B or C grade, which is a pass. Can you remember how terrified you where to come home with a bad mark for an assignment, or even a bad report card at the end of a semester? This method of thinking has carried over into our adult lives, affecting our judgements on a day-to-day basis.
And it is day-to-day that we have to make these kinds of score-based snap judgements, often regarding things we don’t fully understand the workings of. GPAs, University marks, Film and Game Reviews, Politician’s approval ratings, and credit scores are all examples of numerical ratings we have to pretend that we understand in order to make judgements. With regards to video game review scores, some websites or publications have a brief guide as to what their different scores equate to, but you’re often still going on the personal opinion of the reviewer, which is next to impossible to judge the forming process of from a score alone.
Think about when you ask a friend or colleague for advice on a piece of entertainment, a restaurant, or a city they’ve recently visited. If they replied with, ‘oh, I’d give it a 5’, or ‘I reckon it was somewhere between an 8 and a 9’, would you be satisfied with that answer? No, you wouldn’t. You’d ask for more information as to why they felt that way, particularly if you were on the fence as to whether you were going to splash out or not. Now I understand that with text-based reviews you often can’t have that one-to-one dialogue with the writer, but the text is there for that very reason. Their explanation for the score that they have awarded is often evident in the writing, and even if the score and the text don’t quite match up, at least you have a better understanding of what they thought about the game. Yet people are still too willing to just look at only the score, and walk away satisfied with what they’ve learned.
When I began thinking about this piece I thought back to the games that I have reviewed in my time writing for this site, and I realised that I was as guilty as the next reviewer of ignoring almost half of the range of scores allowed to me. Once this had dawned on me, I pledged to attempt to judge games in a fairer manner, perhaps awarded harsher scores to some, but if this allowed me to better express my feelings on a game, then so be it. The problem that I realised with this line of thinking, however, was that the reader might still be operating on the skewed score system of before. Not that this changes my outlook, I still intend to review games on the ‘fairer’ scale, but it leads me to propose that not only do we need to re-educate reviewers on how to score games correctly, but we also need to educate the readers on how to read a review correctly as well.
What are your thoughts on review scores? Let us know in the comments.