criticism

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.

Criticism vs. Marketing: A Response to Colin Moriarty’s ‘Evil is Good’

by Jed Pressgrove

Months ago, I provided my definition of criticism: “[C]riticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial.” In a response to criticism of Far Cry 4 box art, IGN writer Colin Moriarty sounds like a commercial. We should examine the marketing implications of what Moriarty and other game critics have said about Far Cry 4.

First, none of us are innocent when it comes to giving Far Cry 4 attention and, thus, potential for more sales. The box art debate is exactly what Ubisoft wanted. With the Far Cry 4 box art, Ubisoft knowingly used the tact of an immature schoolboy to get people curious about the game. This consumer curiosity might take the form of “How will Far Cry 4 the game actually handle its themes?” or “I can’t wait to shoot some bad guys in Far Cry 4.” There’s nothing wrong with these curiosities, but I believe that Ubisoft used racially and religiously charged imagery — a clear play on post-9/11 anxieties — to get us talking. In this respect, Moriarty’s talking is no guiltier than any other critic’s talking.

The problem is that Moriarty takes word-of-mouth marketing to a more troubling level. I immediately disliked the “Evil is Good” headline because it sounds like a phrase from a dumb movie trailer. Unsurprisingly, the phrase ties into Moriarty’s assertion that a “potentially controversial bad guy” is something powerful that can challenge us. To support this conclusion, Moriarty makes several banal, obvious comments about the importance of bad guys in art. Once you get past all of this philosophical posturing, you get to what Moriarty’s article actually says: “Buy Far Cry 4.”

The evidence is especially clear in the third paragraph:

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was an exceptional game, one awash with a host of non-linear, explorative qualities, solid gunplay, and a surprisingly engaging story. It deserved every one of its 9 million sales, and I was so pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly (Far Cry 4 is slated to come out this November).

I’m sure Ubisoft executives love this passage, which doesn’t represent a critical reaction so much as evidence that Ubisoft has a loyal ally. While I can’t call the passage’s honesty into question, Moriarty gives Ubisoft exaggerated praise when he brings up the sales figure. The idea that a game “deserves” all of its sales shows a flagrantly uncritical mindset. It doesn’t consider that some bought Far Cry 3 and thought it was garbage. It doesn’t consider whether sales provide insight into game quality in the first place. Indeed, such considerations are unimportant when the critic becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for a game company.

Moriarty enthusiastically supports Ubisoft’s marketing purposes with the Far Cry 4 box art. From a sales perspective, the fact that the box art contains racially and religiously charged imagery is irrelevant. The most important point is that the image looks edgy and violent. Greg Magee’s line about the box art’s “gun porn all over the place” provides insight into Moriarty’s approach, which is revealed in the second paragraph of “Evil is Good”:

In the artwork — seen below — a person in a fine pink suit is leaning on the head of a subjugated man cradling an M67 grenade. An AK-47 rests to the left, an RPG-7 to the right, and some ammo is strewn about.

From a technical standpoint, Moriarty’s specificity about the weapons is impressive. It also raises a question: does it really matter what kind of grenade the darker-skinned guy is holding? Moriarty’s fixation on weapons plays into Ubisoft’s strategy of appealing to the classic shooter theme of power through weaponry. The racial and religious imagery is only icing on the cake and therefore easily dismissed by Moriarty as window dressing for a “good, believable antagonist.” Of course, given that he has yet to play Far Cry 4, Moriarty has no critical reason to suggest that the antagonist is “good” or “believable.” The effect of Moriarty’s article appears to be selling a game for Ubisoft under the guise of engaging in a critical discussion.

Moriarty also markets the edginess that Ubisoft was going for with the following proclamation:

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon. It’s an M-rated video game, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world. What if this blond man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, narcissistic racist? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s campaign? Isn’t that more compelling than some vanilla, sanitized antagonist with no noticeable personality flaws or nefarious motives? Racism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are treading down the same path the previous games did, making for an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable. Maybe Far Cry 4 will give you pause and make you question your own motives in the process. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old thing?

Notice that Moriarty begins by casting aside the nonexistent argument that Far Cry 4 is a children’s book or Nick Jr. cartoon — hey people, this game is “M-rated.” Such language reminds me of my childhood in the early 1990s when games like Mortal Kombat made me feel like I was playing something mature and original. Looking back, my feeling as a kid was legitimate: as a fighting game, Mortal Kombat had a unique approach to violence. In contrast, Moriarty’s words should be interpreted as marketing, not a legitimate feeling, because nothing he predicts about Far Cry 4 is a unique idea. Far Cry 4’s blonde man will not be the first violent, narcissistic racist in video games. He will not be the first game villain I’ve strongly disliked during a chase. He will not be the first villain with personality flaws or nefarious motives. And Moriarty knows this. He admits Far Cry 4 is “treading down the same path.” Then he turns around and gives us that now-classic slogan about questioning “your own motives.” If it weren’t clear that Moriarty is marketing Far Cry 4 rather than engaging in criticism, I would wonder whether Moriarty has played any of the numerous popular or underground games — everything from Fallout to Traitor — that encourage players to question their own motives.

On a broader level, Moriarty makes a mistake that game critics should try to avoid: suggesting conclusions about a game that nobody has played. Regardless of our reaction to the Far Cry 4 box art, we don’t know what the game will do. But there’s a deeper problem with Moriarty’s approach. In instructing people to be excited about Far Cry 4 rather than skeptical of its conniving marketing, Moriarty betrays the purpose of criticism and journalism. With the Far Cry 4 box art and the discussion it continues to inspire, Ubisoft doesn’t need any help from Moriarty.

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Game Criticism as Bellyaching

by Jed Pressgrove

What is criticism? Every video game critic and reader should answer this question and then be on the lookout for posers. At the risk of oversimplification, criticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial. But when criticism is based on personal thoughts that contradict what we can clearly observe, it fails. This kind of criticism, this bellyaching, might resonate with a lot of people, but it doesn’t illuminate anything — it merely clouds the truth.

Stephen Totilo demonstrates bellyaching in “The Disappointment of Video Game Guns.” Totilo is indeed honest about his personal disappointment with the use of guns in Watch Dogs, but his expression of disappointment is not criticism because it denies several realities. The trouble starts in the third paragraph: “For better or worse, shooting a gun in a game is still the purest—and easiest—way to feel that a video game is interactive. The people who make games know this. They’ve known this since before Space Invaders.”

Reality 1: Not all gamers feel shooting a gun is the “purest” and “easiest” way to interact in a video game.

Reality 2: Not everyone who makes games believes this.

Reality 3: Space Invaders and other early shooters don’t prove Totilo’s point (in fact, Space Invaders is about defending earth from aliens and getting a high score, not “shooting a gun”).

The article then describes how a gun in a game usually means the game will have a lot of shooting (indeed, many games are designed to be shooters or violent crime simulations). Totilo decries the “kill-or-be-killed hostility” that guns in games bring with them. At some point, one might imagine Totilo making a truly provocative statement, but later he concedes “I’ve already played and enjoyed that [‘a Grand Theft Auto of guns’].” Totilo’s complicity with gun violence is simple: he doesn’t have much of a conviction about guns or violence in the first place. He simply doesn’t want Watch Dogs to have more shooting than hacking, and he is criticizing a game that he hasn’t played for this potential imbalance. Remember, no one quite knows what Watch Dogs will be. It’s not a sequel in a long-running series like Grand Theft Auto that thrives on giving gamers what they’re used to. Watch Dogs is a new unreleased game, but Totilo is already disappointed in it.

To be fair, many of us (gamers and critics) have reactions similar to Totilo’s. We are all capable of irrational disappointment, especially if we’re already excited. But game writers have turned normal human reactions into a new low for criticism. Consider that it is not unusual for random unreleased games to be criticized for lacking female protagonists as other games are praised despite a lack of diversity. How is this criticism? It resembles exhaustion. More and more, game critics are expecting developers to create games specifically for them, with no room for negotiation. (Gamer entitlement? How about critic entitlement?)

One can see why some game developers hate the press — real criticism is about reactions, not demands. What makes this bellyaching very troubling is that many critics don’t bother providing hope to the reader. Above and below Totilo’s text is the same picture of a man pointing a gun, a tautological trap. The irony is that game critics are often pointing water pistols.