Keeping score



Ever since I can remember being conscious of videogame reviewing as something to think about rather than something that simply existed, there has always been a general unease about scores and scoring. And possibly rightly so: often, a review can live and die on a score in the minds of some readers (need I mention a GameSpot review whose fame has now far outstripped the title whose ire it was directed?). As the author of Metacritic’s equal third lowest Brawl review, I know how those little numbers at the end of a review can dictate your readers’ response. Recently, I was also particularly amused by the first reader comment on our Gears of War 2 review:

8.5? So it’s a flop?

The author of that comment later confessed to be joking, but the sheer believability that such a statement could be made seriously is telling enough.

We all know the problems with scores, and how they are treated by readers, by reviewers, by the industry. That’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the response that journalists have taken to this.

More specifically, I want to talk about Edge Magazine. I’m going to go ahead and assume that most – if not all – who would stumble across this blog have picked up a copy of Edge in the past. If not, I don’t know what you are doing here; despite the fact that I’m free, I assure you, their writing really is much better.

Despite the fact that you’ll find many gamers willing to swear on a copy of Edge in court instead of a Bible, I think they are mistaken in their approach to scoring. In an Edge review, the score is a tiny little blip down the very end of a review, like an afterthought, a number pretending it isn’t really there.

This is what I’d like to call ‘provincialising’ the score, after Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty, in his project of Provincialising Europe, says that he wants to undo the situation where Europe serves as a “silent referent in historical knowledge … Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.” One of the problems that Chakrabarty runs into and engages with in his project is that to ignore Europe in writing histories of ‘Third World’ countries is to only turn them into highly visible other places. To completely erase Europe from theory is to ignore the 400 pound Gorrila in the room: the reader is constantly wondering when Europe will be brought into events, or wonders where it has gone.

It seems to me, then, that this idea can be interestingly applied to scoring videogames. Edge intentionally make their scores tiny in order to trump small minded, ‘typical’ readers who might be foolish enough to think that a score equals a review and leave it at that. In a sense, it forces the reader to look at the text first; or at least be very dedicated in their attempt to bypass the evil forces of sentence structure. I infer this; I have never read a rationale of the scoring system, so correct me if I’m mistaken here, but it does seem like a deliberate statement of sorts. In one way, at least, it’s effective. I know that in my weaker moments, I’ve searched an Edge review high and low before noticing the score, hidden away at the bottom.

But this is precisely the problem. In hiding the score away like this, Edge does just about the opposite of what it presumably intends to do. Placing the score as an afterthought makes it the 400 pound Gorilla in the room. It makes the score highly visible, as if the great critical videogame journalists of our period have felt obliged to descend to the masses and join in with the scoring, but are so repulsed by the distasteful nature of the number that they’ve hidden it away.

So what to do with the score? I don’t presume to tell Edge how to do journalism (as they’re obviously much more accomplished than me), and I don’t think there is any clear answer here at all. But it does seem to me that it’s about time that games journalists stopped being offended by the trappings of their jobs. If you are going to have a score in a review, embrace it. If you don’t like the way scores are treated, think of a better way to do it: maybe change the scale, maybe change the signifiers. But don’t ignore the reason you are giving a score in the first place.

A review score should be like an abstract, a quickfire way of gauging the reviewer’s opinion on the subject matter. We all know that it isn’t about consumer advice anymore, and that nine times out of ten, the reader has reached a decision long before the reviewer has even played the game. So if it’s still a review and not a piece of critical reflection, then the score should sum up the reviewer’s thoughts and frame the discussion. Scores in reviews of all types existed prior to the invention of the internet and metacritic. Maybe we should go back and look at their evolution and others uses before we do away with them altogether.



Filed under criticism, videogames

5 responses to “Keeping score

  1. Slightly off-topic: Many enthusiast game reviewers are trapped in somewhat obsolete methods of evaluation. Checking off technical features and total playtime made sense for the medium in its infancy, when games were targeted at the hobbyist. But as games diversify, fewer and fewer can be critiqued on those terms. Looking at the rapidly growing indie game scene, many games completely ignore these ideals.

    The problem is exacerbated by the scoring system you’ve mentioned where often times the score is broken into specific categories: graphics, sound, story, etc. Score Tetris a 0 for ‘story’ (a bucket it had no intention to fill) and each level is a pallet swap of the last… now that justifies a lower overall score? Mainstream movie reviews aren’t based on their length, mainstream car reviews aren’t based on their top speed, and I can only hope that as mainstream game reviews mature they also find more useful evaluation metrics (or at least unique and entertaining critical voices).

    Back on topic: I’ve been reading Edge for a long time and (though my memory is cloudy on this) I believe that for a long time it had its final scores more prominent. They made a decision to remove the numeric scores from their review to escape some of the reactionary problems that you’ve described. The readers objected that, while it was an interesting experiment, reading the critique’s thoughts and making their own judgment wasn’t sufficient for deciding whether to buy a game or not. Edge listened and brought back the numbers (in tiny form) as a compromise.

    As far as Metacritic goes, look at the reviewers aggregated for a movie review: 90% mainstream reviews. Now look at the reviewers for a game: 90% enthusiast reviews. The Metacritic average for games is weighted toward a minority of players. I’m sure this will overturn eventually. Until then I hope developers stay true to their vision and continue making great games without pandering to primitive scoring.

    …rant mode disengage. 🙂

  2. Well, first, thanks for dropping by, Jeep! I spent many hours transcribing your voice from the dev. commentary for my thesis, so seeing you here makes my day a little!

    Thanks for the background info on Edge. I was worried that someone would catch me out on that aspect, as I’ve only been reading the mag for a year or two now, but I felt I could still fairly critique what I’d seen.

    That’s also a very interesting point about the sources of Metacritic reviews. I hadn’t considered that before, but you’re absolutely right. It is an interesting situation where a majority of mainstream reviews simply aren’t included; here in Australia, for example, we have a TV show (‘Good Game’) where I imagine a huge amount of people get their reviews from, but I can’t imagine them ever being included in Metacritic simply because they’re probably too hard to keep track of; they aren’t a website where a score and a by-line can be scanned in less than 30-seconds.

    Thanks again for ranting!

  3. Rant away Mr. Barnett – it was one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

    I must confess to having never even read an actual copy of Edge magazine. Do they even do sub’s here in Australia?! I’ve certainly never seen it in my local newsagents…

  4. @Ben – yeah they do, in some larger newsagents. Borders has it usually. But they are often a month late getting it in, and pricey – it’s often in excess of $14. There was an attempt to have an Australian version of Edge years ago, but that failed miserably, so I am led to believe.

  5. @Daniel – No problem! I look forward to seeing your thesis.

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