Whether you participate in the industry or not, video games hit $23.5 billion of revenue in the year of 2015, a 5% increase from its previous year, and sales are expected to rise. Like any member of an industry that sells a product, especially one in the entertainment industry, video games are highly subject to reviews. The significance of that review holds a varying amount of weight depending on who did the reviewing, what that review said, and most importantly: the rating. Reviewing a game by sharing ones opinion on it is more than merited and should exist in abundance, but assigning a numerical value by which many will base their opinions on raises an ethical dilemma.
To understand just how influential ratings can be, a study was done in 2010 by the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) and The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The study involved the game Plants vs. Zombies, where 188 students were divided into three different groups. One group was told the game got a score of a 90, another was told 61, and a control group that was not told any ratings. After playing the game, the mean of the students who were told the game got a higher score rated it an 85, the lower score’s mean was a 71, and the control group’s mean was a 79. The results of this alone clearly demonstrate that when having knowledge of a rating, the number alone is enough to alter the judgment people have when rating the product themselves. Additionally, after playing the game the participants were offered either $10 in cash or a copy of the game as compensation. Those who rated it higher were twice as likely to accept the game as payment and 40% more likely to recommend it to a friend. So not only do higher ratings cause people to think more highly of the product, but it increases their desire for it and likelihood of talking about it.
So numbers affect a potential customer’s opinion on the game, but how many people actually read reviews? Ad-ology Media Influence on Consumer Choice surveyed 1105 adults, 38% of which stated online reviews “significantly influenced their purchase.” That was back in 2008, so it would be no surprise since the industry has grown since then that the number of people who read reviews has also increased.
The primary source of a number by which to judge video games by is Metacritic. Metacritic does movies and music as well, but there are already sites like RottenTomatoes that are more popular. The Metacritic number not only affects the consumers’ chances of purchasing, but it also affects wages inside a company. One example of which being the game studio Obsidian (under contract from bigger company Bethesda), achieved a score of 84 on their title Fallout: New Vegas in March 2012. Due to the score being below an 85 (one point mind you), the employees failed to earn a bonus. The “Metacritic 85 or bust” mentality has become so prevalent, that developer Irrational Games had a job listing in 2012 where the applicant had to have “Credit on at least one game with an 85+ average Metacritic review score.” That same company ended up restructuring and experienced multiple layoffs a mere two years later.
The fear of being the difference between someone getting a bonus or not has certainly made an impact on reviewers themselves. Reviewer Liana Kerzner said “I stopped giving out 7.5’s when I found out you needed an 8 to get your bonus. . . Even if the game deserves a 7.5, I’m gonna give it an 8.” This is a contributing factor to review inflation, which may benefit companies, it hurts consumers and leads them to lose trust with reviews.
Independent games are almost worse for reviewers for many reasons. An independent developer may have spent years pumping time and money into a game that might very well be bad. Those developers are at the mercy of reviewers arguably more so than AAA companies because review websites are their biggest avenue to achieve free publicity. These factors naturally influence reviewers to be kinder when reviewing independent games, especially when the developers personally reach out to those authors.
Aristotle’s golden mean philosophy directly pertains to this issue of giving games an 8 when they should be a 7.5. The argument is that the reviewer is achieving a middle ground between benefiting the game studios, and being fair to the consumers themselves. The issue with working under this philosophy is the reviewer is slowly chipping away at the trust of the consumers. By constantly nudging the number a little higher than it should be, consumers will grow to expect less from games with higher numbers, despite some of those games actually being worthy of that number. The only people that it truly benefits is the reviewer and the company, by making the company’s employees happy as well as improving the relationship between the reviewer and the company.
Applying either the ends-based (teleology) or rule-based (deontology) philosophy would better serve this situation. One could argue ends-based could result in the same place of the golden mean, but the true best result would be in the benefit of the consumer, not the companies and those who review the games. The industry is fueled by people actually buying the products. Sure fudging a review might not do much damage in the short-term and seem to only grant benefits, but in the long-term it’s damaging a consumer’s trust in reviews, which could lead to inactivity with the industry. Thus, rule-based would work because as long as the reviewer strictly adheres to the same ethical rules for reviewing as he or she does every time, there is no thought of making unethical “exceptions” for things like turning 7.5’s into 8’s.
When viewing my own ethics code, what two points strike me as the most relevant are “Is it for the right reasons?” and “Is it factually sound?” The answer to the first is seen in the good intentions of the reviewers wanting to help out the developers by giving their game a bit higher score than it truly deserves. That is a good reason with immediate positive effects, but like stated earlier, the long-term repercussions is the loss of faith readers have in the reviewer and thus reviews in general. Once a reviewer starts making an exception for one game it becomes easier and easier to keep doing so. Thus, despite it seeming like increasing the score by a tad as the right thing to do, it is more right to maintain integrity and be honest. As for the second question, that also dips into the reviewer wanting to give a game a higher score than it deserves, but this time over the issue that the reviewer is not informing the reader of his or her intentions. If an individual who has been working on a game for three years emails a reviewer some heartbreaking story about the difficulty they have had making the game, that reviewer is immediately going to be biased when writing the review, but readers are kept in the dark about this information. It may not be against the facts to not state the sob story, but it certainly is a fact that leads to a bias readers should be aware of to know the full story.
A core ethical principle reviewers are faced with is transparency vs. minimizing harm. When writing a review, it is obvious that it is the writer’s opinion about the game. Unfortunately, even though it is just an opinion, when a number is attached that opinion it feels more like a fact to someone who may just be skimming the article. If a number is necessary to the site the reviewer is working for, it is vital to explain every piece of why that number is as good or as bad as it is. One needs to be sure it is clear to the reader what prevents it from being perfect, what makes it good, but perhaps most importantly, who the game is for. If a game is good, that does not mean it is good for everyone. For a reviewer’s opinion to benefit everyone, the reviewer needs to be sure to paint the review in context to their opinion on the game and games of that sort, not in context to disillusioned facts they rate games through. In other words: the reviewer needs to let readers know what type of game it is, their experience with those types of games, and how this one compares. That also means if it is something entirely different that should be made clear to the reader. This transparency of opinion when it is used helps minimize harm to both readers and developers, so readers can more accurately get an idea of if the game is for them or not, and so developers can feel the review was fair in context to the writer’s opinion.
Will Harlan is an ex games reviewer for a site called CultureMass.com. Years after being a part of the industry Will says he “can’t help but feel disillusioned with the way a lot of websites review.” Like the reasons talked about before, Will is familiar with the corruption that plague review sites, for even when he was reviewing he was scared “to screw up [the] community’s reputation” by giving a game a low score, so he would settle with a “polite review score of a 7 or 8.” Today, he cannot help but see-through reviews as consisting of more advertisement than genuine opinion. Additionally, he finds something egotistical about reviewers writing as though their experience is the premier experience to guide your understanding of the game. Due to all this, he cannot help but stick to only buying games from what his friends recommend or those he has done extensive research on.
Mr. Harlan is an embodiment of that distrust readers can garner over game reviews, thanks to the biased nature of them. When a reviewer feels the need to help out the game he or she is reviewing, it creates the type of “advertisement” feeling Will experiences. Sadly, constant existence of that has pushed Will away to the point where he is buying less games than he used to.
The stakeholders in this issue of game reviews extends to anyone who cares for the success of video games in general. Whether or not one gamer reads reviews or not, many do, and many might not even purchase games if they did not have the guide of reviews. That guide’s dishonesty is becoming increasingly transparent to the public, which is why reviewers need to take their power and integrity more seriously. Developers in the now may be happier with reviewers giving them undeserved plusses, but it ends up being detrimental to the growth of games in general due to it causing readers to lose faith in reviews. Video games are showing no sign of declining in popularity, but they could be on the rise to even greater degrees if reviewers do their part.
All of the above goes over the notion of dealing with the number system, when in reality, a number is not even necessary to a review. Thankfully, there are some major gaming websites like Kotaku who do not include a number with their review, keeping it opinion focused, instead of the reviewers potentially treating their opinions as facts, or at least preventing readers from interpreting them as such. That would be the ultimate solution to the issue, but sadly the number has far too much significance for all review sites to feel comfortable doing away with it. Making that number easy and accessible to readers gives readers a reason to pop on the site for a few clicks, even when they do not feel like reading much. Kotaku does however provide a box at the bottom of reviews to give some sort of replacement to the number most readers expect. They used to even have a statement saying whether or not the writer would recommend the game but now they have chosen to even do away with that, further reinforcing the notion that the article is an opinion.
A suggested process to help better the ethical quality of game reviews would be to consider answering and somehow including the following:
- Did I actually enjoy the game?
- Am I familiar with and enjoy games of a similar genre?
- How did I find out about this game? Has that influenced my opinion?
- If I knew nothing about this game, or even games of this genre, what would I want to know?
- If I didn’t like this game, is there someone who might?
- If I liked this game, is there someone who might not?
- How might my experience of the game differ from others?
- Do I have my facts straight?
- Do any of my opinions come off as facts?
Since the number is almost too much of a financial opportunity for sites, the least reviewers can do is be more ethical in the process that leads to that assigned number. Doing so will only increase a sites reader base, thus increasing interest in reviews and therefore games in general. If reviewers want games to succeed to the best of their ability, they have to do their part by being ethically sound in their reviews.