The Summer of 2014 set the stage for a rather ugly controversy that is known as “GamerGate”. Whilst it was going on, I was tempted to write a blog-post about it, but managed to restrain myself. That is probably a good thing, because I think that each and every person who vented an opinion about it, is now regretting doing so, regardless of the side they found themselves on.
GamerGate got some legitimacy from the claim of certain proponents that it was about ethics in game journalism. Unfortunately, the message that it was supposed to put a spotlight on, was quickly drowned in a mist of puerile behaviors, borderline blackmail, smearing campaigns, and painfully obvious manipulations on both sides of the controversy. The net effect is that GamerGate faded out because at some point everybody involved was just hoping that ignoring it would make it go away and leave nothing more than a bad aftertaste. Which in some sense is too bad, as the need to deal with unethical practices in game journalism is as topical as it ever was.
The problem with game journalists is that, in general, they are not held to the standards that newspaper journalists have to uphold. In particular, most game journalists heavily rely on game publishers for their income, and therefore are practically unable to give fair reviews of games. Every person who calls himself a gamer knows that it is pointless to check out game reviews if you want to know whether a game is good or not. If a professional game reviewer rates a triple-A game “8 out of 10”, you may expect that it is a pretty bad game, as actually good games get at least “9.5 out of 10”.
If you want to see for yourself how this works out, go to metacritic and check out the reviews for the PC version of Bioware’s new game Dragon Age: Inquisition. Average score of professional reviewers: 8.5. Average score of players: 5.8.
I think the players produce the correct score here. I consider myself a fan of the Dragon Age series, and enjoyed the previous games in the series very much. I think this new release is clichéd and dull. It is objectively unstable and hard to control. It has replaced the enjoyable tactics and fascinating party interaction of the previous games with endless fetch quests and tedious resource collection. I am not saying that it is a total failure. It can still be a fun experience, depending on what you look for in a game. But it is severely flawed. Which leads to the mixed reviews that the players gave it, with about equal amounts of love and hate.
So how is it possible that most professional game reviewers heap so much praise on the game? A cynical person (and yes, I am a cynical person) might suspect that the money that flows from the pockets of publisher Electronic Arts towards game reviewers has something to do with it. I am not saying that game reviewers regularly receive payoffs, but the sites they post their reviews on, and which pay their salaries, usually are heavily depended on advertising by game publishers. Moreover, the game publishers provide them with early access to new games, which they need to be able to provide reviews before games get released, which is when most people want to check them out. So they have a strong incentive to remain on the publishers’ friendly side.
A less cynical person might believe that it is simply the case that most game reviewers belong to the class of people who love this game. But even if a professional game reviewer loves the game, then it is still his job to tell the readers whether or not the game has the merits that the readers are looking for. These reviewers are not hobbyists who vent their own, personal opinions. Even if they adore the game, their review should still be along the lines of “I personally love Inquisition, despite its clunky controls and stability issues. Know that, if you liked the previous games in the series because of the quality of storytelling and deep quests, you are probably going to be disappointed with this new one. 7 out of 10.” Just heaping loads of praise on a game while ignoring the glaring issues that it has is plain unprofessional.
By the way, if you read some of the reviews, you might notice that many of them say how much better Inquisition is than the previous game in the series, Dragon Age II. While I personally liked Dragon Age II a lot, it is widely criticised by players, who, we find on metacritic, on average rate it 4.4. However, the professional reviews on metacritic average 8.2 for Dragon Age II. So, while at the time evidently they extolled the game (rating it almost as high as Inquisition now), today they look back on it as “a pretty bad game”. Which illustrates once more the point I make above.
The inescapable conclusion that must be drawn about reviewers that rated Inquisition “9 out of 10” or more is that they are unprofessional, either because they are unable to provide readers with trustworthy information, or because they engage in unethical behavior.
Considering the amount of money that is nowadays spent on games, game reviewers should be held to higher standards than many of them uphold. In my opinion, the steps to achieve such should come from the reviewers themselves. Because if you leave it to the public, the next GamerGate is around the corner. And nobody wants to experience that again.