Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reviews Symposium, part one

Are reviews primarily a consumer guide, or should they serve another purpose? Do review scores deter intelligent discussion of video games? Is the presence or absence of a review score the only difference between a reviewer and a critic? What is the role of the reviewer when the Internet is democratizing published opinion? How should reviews and reviewers evolve in light of the emergence and growth of Flash games, small games, indie games and user-generated games?

These questions and more were on the mind of N'Gai Croal, John Davison and Shawn Elliott last summer when they decided to expand their conversation to a number of noted reviewers, writers, bloggers and journalists for a published email symposium on game reviews. (See below for the full list of participants.) The planned list of topics include Review Scores; Review Policy, Practice and Ethics; Reader Backlash; Reviews in the Age of Social media; Reviews in the Mainstream Media; Casual, Indie, and User-Generated Games; Reviews vs. Criticism; and Evolving the Review. Round 1's topic: Review Scores.


* Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra/Sexy Videogameland/Variety
* Harry Allen, Media Assassin
* Robert Ashley, freelancer
* Tom Chick, freelancer
* N'Gai Croal, Level Up/Newsweek
* John Davison, What They Play
* Shawn Elliott, 2K Boston
* Jeff Gerstmann, Giant Bomb
* Kieron Gillen, Rock, Paper, Shotgun
* Dan Hsu, Sore Thumbs Blog
* Francesca Reyes, Official Xbox Magazine
* Stephen Totilo, MTV News

The entire transcript of the first part of this discussion, which focuses on review scores, can be found on Shawn Elliott's blog here. It's an epic read...16,000 words worth of insight from the above list of folks. I think it's worth noting that while we discuss the topic at great length, it is not our intention to set the world to rights and instruct everyone how things should be done. We are by no means perfect, and certainly don't suppose to tell people how they should do their jobs. As a "symposium" the goal is simply to air the issues as each of us see them, discuss them, and above all else raise questions and thoughts that will get all of us thinking about the topic, and possibly even change each others' minds.

From a purely personal perspective, I have to say that it's a remarkable thing to be a part of. I have a tremendous amount of respect for absolutely everyone on the panel, and reading their thoughts has been a fascinating experience. One of the comments that really gave me pause to think about how we approach writing about games was from Harry Allen, who says, "Though I use different language, I know that when I started writing about hip-hop professionally, in the late '80s, I made it my objective to never talk about an album in terms of whether I liked it or not. Instead, I always saw it as my job to explain the artist's intent to the readers. I've never called myself a "music critic." I've always said that I am a Hip-Hop Activist."

On the subject of scores he says, "I think a reason similar to this is also why I always resisted, during that brief period of my life, when male friends would ask me to assign a number to a girl I've seen. In hip-hop / Black slang, a "dime" is a girl who's a 10...but what does that mean? According to what objective scale? And indeed, isn't that the core idea that disproves the fantasy: That without an actual 10 to which one can point—the theoretical perfect game—the numbers become meaningless? That is, on a foot-long ruler, "4" only means something because there's a "7," and a "9," but, most of all, because there's a "12." However, "12" only means something because there's a "13" and "25"; an agreed-upon metric, in other words."