Gaming: The Illusion of Objectivity



By Zach Walton

I make it a habit to run out to Barnes and Noble every month to pick up the newest issue of EDGE magazine — the best gaming magazine in print right now.

I usually check out the other European import game magazines while I’m at it, and last time I picked up “GamesMaster.” I picked it up for one phrase (and the free wallet) on the front of the magazine: “unbiased reviews.” I asked myself: “Why would a magazine use that to sell their product?”

I think it’s a problem that magazines and other game criticism outlets have to constantly parade their “unbiased reviews” when it’s such a lie.

Are we, as game consumers, so disenfranchised with game critics that we have to be told that a review is unbiased? When did we start to expect objectivity in game criticism?

Of course, when it comes to any sort of criticism we do expect some form of objectivity. You may even think that it’s possible to be objective in your criticism. I like to think I can be, but I know that I cannot.

Let’s take a look at reviews in general. Games that one expects to get good scores usually gets good scores. Would you call that bias? We have to look at the reviewer in question, the hype surrounding the game and the possible buy out of the review. It does happen and it will continue to happen.

Bias isn’t a bad thing though. It can and will be used for evil purposes when it comes to outside influences on occasion.

“GamesMaster” could have meant that their reviews are not bought and paid for, which is an increasing belief among cynical gamers. I, personally, don’t believe that reviews are hardly ever bought and paid for, but there is the occasional suspicious activity.

EA was recently caught trying to influence review scores for “Battlefield 3” in Europe, and the only reviews run so far have been positive.

It’s common in this industry to let the media outlets that a publisher trusts run positive reviews before the more discriminating media outlets give the games less than positive scores.

I may have rambled a bit, but it all comes down to the idea that bias should be embraced. Bias can be a good thing when put in the right hands. Isn’t that the point of a review? To give opinion?

We, as game critics and consumers, need to realize our limits. You will never see me review a real-time strategy or traditional sports game. I have little interest in them, and my review would be unfair as it would come from someone who is already not going to like it.

Media outlets need to start assigning reviews to people who enjoy the genre in question to get positive bias.

There are some games that are meant to be sold to everyone, but a lot of games are going after a specific audience. Critics for those games need to be a part of that audience.

A big problem today is the Japanese role-playing game with critics who don’t necessarily like the genre, resulting in the critics reviewing the games and giving them low scores.

Then you get somebody who has a passion for the genre, who gives it a completely different score. Both voices are important, but the latter is more important for the game’s intended audience.

If the game in question can even wow a person, who is skeptical or downright hateful of the genre, then it is something special.

I had such an experience this past year with “Civilization V.” It made me appreciate turn-based strategy games. Do I like all turn-based strategy games now? No, and I wouldn’t allow myself to review them on a regular basis. “Civ V” was an exception to my play style, and I need to let that reflect in my review.

The only advice I can give is: gamers listen to fellow gamers first. Chances are your fellow gamers are more in tune with what you want out of the game than a critic is.

Game criticism is an important part of this industry, but sometimes it feels like they’re leaving the consumer behind. Listen to the positive bias and let that shape your buying decisions.