Take It From A Game Critic #1: Are Reviews Just Opinions?
I’ve been in the industry for just four years. That’s not a long time, but the amount of hours, energy and passion I’ve given to it is incredible. And it’s always been worth it. But lately I feel there exists a sort of barrier between gamers and game critics. It’s understandable why the barrier exists. A lack of communication for one, and a lack of trust between the two for another. So as a game critic and journalist myself, I hope to make even a tiny difference. Gaming and writing are my passions, and few things make me happier than someone enjoying a game I recommended, or saving money on a game I advised against. In my time I’ve been insulted and flamed for negative reviews on “big” games, and I’ve also seen the other side by being taken seriously and perhaps even respected, and I believe that’s because I have integrity and honesty. I was raised with it, and it’s something I strive for at all times.
But I didn’t come here to deliver a Braveheart speech. I’m here to open a line of communication and start trying to answer some of the questions and issues you have towards game critics and journalists, with as much honesty as I can manage. Here I’ll be attempting to answer two I see come up extremely often. The first is the matter of game reviews being “just opinions”. I’m sure you’ve heard many people say this, and many trying to argue against it. The second matter is paid reviews and integrity, which I’ll be addressing in the second part of this. It’s become a bit of a paranoia, and often fights erupt because of it. Let’s see if we can discuss these issues like grown-ups, without any flame wars.
Are Reviews Just Opinions?
Short answer? No. I strongly don’t believe so. I know many people will disagree with me, and for many good reasons. Like the fact that you often don’t need any qualifications to write for a gaming website, and if there are requirements they’re not very demanding. Or the fact that a review is just someone’s personal experience with a game. Or the fact that a game critic’s viewpoint is no more important than any gamer’s. And you know, these are all valid points. Even great ones. So why do I disagree?
Because whether you like it or not, game critics are either leaders or simply credible and trusted sources. They are valuable. That doesn’t mean they all are trustworthy or worth listening to, but people read and rely on reviews for a reason. There is financial success and critical success for a reason. Yes, game critics may still be far off from being great at their job or reaching the levels of experience you can expect from a movie critic, but the reality is many, many gamers use them as a guideline on what purchasing decisions to make. Reviews can make a massive difference. I’ll tell you why.
Ever since I started writing for eGamer, my life as a gamer has changed. I may be a tiny fish in a huge ocean, but I have a burning passion to learn as much as I can about games and the industry. I play almost every game I can lay my hands on when I have the time. As a writer I’m constantly studying and learning about narrative and story-telling. As a gamer I’m always deeply interested in game mechanics, design and functionality. I never stop learning. I never stop studying. And I love it. I’m very fortunate to be able to enjoy my passions, both writing and gaming in the same place. But there’s a trade-off to being so serious about my passion and playing so many games, and that’s that my standards and expectations have been raised dramatically. I have long stopped being impressed easily or so eager to throw my money or praises at just anything. I sometimes get exasperated when a game I believe has appalling narrative or design gets praised like it’s God’s gift to gaming.
But it’s not just me that has changed. People have changed towards me too. Many of my friends, a few years ago, started coming to me for advice on what to buy, and what’s good. Many of my reviews over the years have encouraged people to buy a game or take interest in it, or outright stay away from it. And a single thought courses through my mind every time this happens. That thought is this:
Based on what I say, I could make someone pay lots of money on a game, or miss out on it entirely.
As obvious as that sounds, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you how many people forget, or don’t care for, that fact. When I think about it, I can’t not be committed to honesty in my writing and I can’t not be absolutely serious about what I write in my reviews. I have a responsibility as a critic, and as a person, to maintain my integrity. Because I can make someone spend lots of money on a game.
The other reason is because, and it may sound off, many readers ideally go to critics because they want to hear from someone who A) has more experience than them and B) is impartial and objective. Anyone can have an opinion, but on many levels a game’s quality can be measured in far more complex ways than “it was fun”. While one cannot be entirely objective, a degree of understanding of and experience with gaming can help determine what works and what doesn’t, what’s praise-worthy and what isn’t, and of course an important key is training yourself to be impartial. Like anything, it takes practice. Now A and B are not very common sadly, but they form part of what reviews should and can be about. You shouldn’t be shrugging it off and saying “oh they’re just opinions, who cares”, you should be encouraging, and in some cases even demanding, a better standard from critics. Complacency towards matters like these is very dangerous. It allows them to worsen when you’re not looking.
People often underestimate the impact they can have. The difference they can make. It breeds complacency towards these issues. I recently wrote a preview of Slender: The Arrival’s beta, and it got over 5500 views. When I think about how many people in that count went on to pre-order the game after reading what I wrote, even if it’s just one or two people, that matters a lot to me. What you do and what you say always matters. Are reviews just opinions? In many ways they’re just subjective viewpoints, sure, but gamers look to critics for guidance, and critics have a responsibility to offer that to the best of their ability. To be honest about it. And the fact that these reviews influence and effect people, and are used as representations of a game’s quality means they are more than just opinions. The fact that the critic should be impartial and have experience in and understanding of gaming means they are more than just opinions. The fact that it’s the critic’s job to do this, means it’s more than just an opinion. And the fact that gamers try to find critics they trust means it’s more than just opinion.
And for opinion-ception, this is just my opinion on the matter.