Review scores: they're not just arbitrary and meaningless, they're toxic to discussion, too.
Grand Theft Auto V reviews came out today, and with them came a whole host of poisonous Internet comments not about the content of those reviews, but about the numbers attached to them. Arguments raged hard: is this game worth a 10? A 9.5? Holy crap, did that reviewer really give it a 9?
I've already written extensively about how review scores are hurting the games industry, but this is another issue. Review scores, the numbers slapped onto the ends of video game critiques like spoiled mayonnaise on a perfectly good pastrami sandwich, are problematic because they lower the level of discourse. They make us all dumber. And if we all did away with them, we'd be forced to discuss games by their strengths and weaknesses, with the sort of nuance that review scores make impossible.
Inspired by today's reviews, let's look at some reasons I'd love to see all review scores go away.
1. They encourage people to draw comparisons between experiences that can't be compared.
Is Grand Theft Auto V, an open-world mayhem generator, better than Gone Home, a quiet, focused story about a girl and her family? There's no answer to that question. They're totally different types of games, and they should be judged as separate entities, critiqued and examined through totally different lenses.
Yet because of review scores, and because of score aggregators like Metacritic, gamers feel encouraged to stack them side by side, to judge that because one game has a better score. See this comment on GameSpot today:
Of course, any rational gamer can recognize that those two games can't be compared, but with review scores around, can you really blame people for drawing the connection? GameSpot gave Gone Home a 9.5 and GTA V a 9.0. That's a fact. One is a multi-hundred-million-dollar blockbuster with 38-minute-long credits while the other was made by four people in a house, but because game reviewers are quantifying quality, we're encouraged to compare the two. One is half a point higher than the other, therefore one is half a point better than the other. How else are readers supposed to interpret that?
2. They discourage nuance and criticism.
Review scores drive us to treat game criticism like an Olympic competition. Will my favorite new product score a 10? Will it get docked points for doing something wrong? Did the developers do enough to win the gold medal?
When we try to quantify experiences, there's no room for embracing the notion that we can love flawed games. We leave no room for nuance in criticism, because any attempt to look at a game's triumphs and failures is met by people wondering how those features affected the score.
Look at this Polygon comment:
Or maybe it's not a number but a video game, a fascinating blockbuster video game that is worth discussing and dissecting, and maybe we should play it and look at it and try to figure out whether it does make people uncomfortable, and whether that's a good thing, and what it has to say. When Polygon gives GTA V a 9.5/10, that number is and will always have baggage attached to it, and readers will forever want to talk about what it did to deserve losing half a point.
3. They discourage criticism that strays from the norm.
Today, the Escapist's Greg Tito made the cardinal error of giving Grand Theft Auto V a score that diverged from what people wanted it to be. Instead of offering up a perfect or near-perfect ten, Tito gave the game a shocking—wait for it!—3.5 out of 5. Three-point-five stars.
Naturally, commenters flipped out. How dare he diverge from the community's expectations?
Imagine how people might have reacted if that review critiqued the game without giving it a score? Would they perhaps talk about that criticism? Would they discuss the contents of that review instead of arguing over whether it really should have been closer to a 4/5?
4. They contribute to weird tribalism.
In the world of gaming, people like to attach themselves to companies and groups. We have a tendency to cling to games and developers like they're sports teams or wrestlers. We want to see them beat out the competition.
Review scores exacerbate this problem, and lead to reactions like this, via Destructoid:
And the Metacritic War continues.
Okay. So you might be thinking—these reactions are insane, yes, but that's the fault of crazy commenters who overreact to review scores, not the scores themselves.
I disagree. I think this problem starts at the roots, and I think that by distilling the essence of an experience—a subjective, personal experience that, because of the nature of video games, only we will ever have—into a number, we do a disservice to video games and to the people who play them. By saddling video games with scores or points or whatever we want to call them, and by attempting to quantify experiences, we do harm both to discussion and to the way we perceive and compare and analyze the games we play. We need to make review scores go away.