The Folly of Consumer Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

Many argue game critics serve readers via “consumer reviews.” The argument goes that everyday people don’t have the time or money to play all the new games, so critics do this and then write reviews suggesting what people should buy.

Here are four reasons one should reject this model:

1. Although the consumer review supposedly only gives readers an idea of what to purchase, the term implies we will and should consume. Consumer reviews are published right as games are released, suggesting the time to make a decision is sooner rather than later. This model puts pressure on readers to pay up to $60 for a new game and thus falls in line with what the game companies want, not what people should be doing with their money. For example, if a consumer review essentially says “Buy the new Resident Evil,” it assumes you have the $60 to spare, which may not be the case. This “timely” advice is more sensitive to the needs of the game publisher than it is to those of the reader, as companies will make more money per game sold near game release dates. People typically don’t call reviews published months after a game “consumer reviews,” even though it should go without saying that a consumer is better off spending less rather than more.

2. No game critic or so-called expert is qualified to suggest how to spend your money. The perceived objective quality of a game has very little to do with whether we should purchase it under whatever economic conditions we face. Critics would only be qualified to give such advice if they know your spending and saving habits and have your various personal needs in the forefront of their minds (which they certainly don’t). It is simply not logical to assume a critic should be telling working-class people what to buy, especially in cases where the critic doesn’t even purchase the game in question. (Catherine Vice, a.k.a. Indie Gamer Chick, nobly sidesteps this criticism by purchasing all games she reviews, but she also admits she is more well off than the average person.)

3. The consumer-review model implies games are little more than commercial products. If the purpose of a review is to help you figure out whether you should buy a game for any number of arbitrary reasons, you are less likely to gain insight into what a game actually is. Philosophically, journalism is supposed to be concerned with the truth. As such, a review should strive for truth, even in its most subjective forms. When a writer is primarily concerned with people’s purchasing decisions, the writer aligns more with the interests of companies than with the pursuit of truth. Thus, it’s not coincidental that the overwhelming majority of high-profile games will get at least 7-out-of-10 review scores, on average. The writer’s alignment with company interests explains the absurdity of certain “consumer reviews” that seemingly pick apart games but still give out scores above a 5. Because a 5 out of 10 naturally suggests average or mediocre quality, consumer reviews have offered us, for years and years, the highly questionable notion that most high-profile games are above-average products. But what is the truth about these games?

4. The consumer-review model rejects the review as a form of artistic or personal expression. A review can’t be expressive in this sense if the writer is concerned about what people buy. The model not only fundamentally constrains creativity and honesty; it frowns upon such things.

For these reasons, Game Bias will never publish a consumer review.

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4 comments

  1. All of these are huge reasons as to why I have done my best to avoid, “Buy a ticket now” or, “Run to your theater and grab some popcorn” in my movie reviews. Those are useless calls to action on their own and ignore that there are still legal means of watching movies and getting that wonderful communal experience.

  2. While I think you raise some points, you clearly discredit the personality of a writer involved in the creation of a review.

    Because reviews don’t have to be consumer focused. They don’t have to buy into the system. They are there because consumers want to know what to buy, and your post entirely discredits the concept that this consumer base exists.

    You spend so much time attacking what you think is a “concept” but you only actually attack “writers.”

    It makes me more interested in what a review by you would strive for.

    Roger Ebert did not make consumer reviews. He made 500 word essays that are some of the greatest film criticism that exists (simple, easy to read, popular appeal).

    He elevated what you dismiss and that’s where the greatness comes from.

    So while you make good points, I do think you are thoroughly off-center with the appeal and you discount writers more than you discount the game companies, industry, or consumers, to your own detriment.

    1. Thank you for the comment. To clarify, I am not dismissing the review as a type of essay. I am dismissing the consumer review, which cannot exist without writers.

      If you are interested in what I think reviews should be, I invite you to read my reviews here at Game Bias and at Slant Magazine. I am more than comfortable with letting my work speak for itself.

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