There are two sorts of beauty; one is the result of instinct, the other of study. A combination of the two, with the resulting modifications, brings with it a very complicated richness, which the art critic ought to try to discover.
Life sure has a way of making up its own schedule, doesn’t it?
When I initially posited the idea of a new series on TWRM about games writing, reviewing, and critiquing, it had as its object the wedding of established art criticism methodologies, terminologies, and contexts with games and discovering where the two fields may overlap. I noticed that the world of game review writing was a place without much instruction, where you couldn’t learn how to critique a game as easily as you could learn how to do the same with any other visual art form.
Here’s how I stated it:
I’m the kind of individual who generally wants to make improvements to their craft, so I began listening to audio, watching some videos, and reading some articles about the nature and the ins and outs of art criticism. This to me seemed like an area that was widely different in the art world than it was in the gaming world. I found plenty of videos with concrete ways to render constructive criticism for artists, painters, and filmmakers. I consumed a host of helpful resources discussing ways to investigate and measure objective qualities in works of art. I saw that critics had built a history of critical studies and critical disciplines to apply when critiquing art.
Then I tried to find the same thing for video games. I couldn’t find anything.
That’s when it dawned on me… If video games are an art form… then why is there this absence of teaching games critique respectfully and if possible correctly such as there is for other art forms? Now of course, I couldn’t survey the entire internet and I’m certain there are many great resources out there for games criticism instruction, but I can at least report that that stuff is comparatively hard to find.
In the spirit of creating the kind of content I want to see in the world, I thought up this series…”
For those interested in the science of the critique, in learning if there’s any way to do it properly, to deepen the activity, this great emptiness simply wouldn’t do. Art is great. Games are fun. But why?
I originally hoped to have an entry in this series available monthly. As blunt, truth-telling history shows, I haven’t met that aspiration.
This is typically where I’d march headlong into a jaw about how busy I am, how I didn’t anticipate certain variables arising, how I felt increasingly inadequate to the task, and so on. If you don’t mind, I’ll just skip all that.
The first Anatomy of a Game Review post, “What People Look For”, was meant to establish a basis for the series and that foundation at least remains. Over 30 personalities shared their thoughts on game reviews and why they read them (or not). I intended to build upon that platform by addressing the various topics they raised, share some thoughts on the matter and see if there were any analogies to be discovered in the world of art criticism and history.
And that’s when Twitter gave me a kick in the pants. Front of the pants, back of the pants, it didn’t matter. The inspirational spark to continue the series came.
I’ve written about scoring systems and score inflation before, but I stumbled upon the below image (which I did not create) and I thought it was interesting in what it revealed about the perception of game reviews and their scoring scales. The image attempts to demonstrate that modern 10-point grading scales have skewed toward the high end, with a score of 8/10 being average, whereas the supposed scale from before the millennium seemed more reasonable with 5/10 in the middle.
Spoilers, I think that’s where it should be. A lot of others do as well. At TWRM, our scale (which I’ve just re-clarified today) is meant to reflect as much as possible 5/10 as average, not terrible, but pedestrian. I’d play games even below 5/10, below average, bordering terrible, if they had flawed and limited but fun experiences or things to teach me. My personal take on 10/10 is it means “perfection”, so there’s that too.
Anyway, I decided to ask for some thoughts on it. Pardon the French:
I wasn’t prepared for the exceptional response. I guess it’s possible after all for a diverse group of people to share their opinions and discuss their differing takes on a timidly controversial subject without arguing. Check mate, internet!
If you’re unable to follow every thread on Twitter, that’s ok. I’d like to summarize six of my favorite takeaways from the conversations and express their salience when it comes to the sphere of games critique and scoring:
#1. The importance of clear definitions for your own system
@16bitdadblog shared the breakdown of the scoring system he uses on his own site, which brings up the excellent point that people must be able to understand what you mean by your scoring system, if you use one. If you don’t use one, I assume you still want people to understand what you mean by your words, right?
If you plan to use any kind of scoring scale, it’s important to make its meaning transparent. 9.8-22p/ROTFL Emoji doesn’t mean much to me… but 9/10 or 9.8/10 or 90/100 does because we all have a fairly common idea that that’s just short of the upper limit of an evaluating scale.
Explaining what you mean with your scores helps prevent readers from unintentionally hijacking them, as well! For instance, I may say a game is a 6/10. To me that means above average, a positive term, but if someone is coming from a big publication and reading that, they may think I believe the game to be terrible. We have to define the terms we’re using, as it were, before we’re able to agree or disagree. In light of that, I revamped our Instruction Manual for clarity’s sake.
#2. The danger of painting the past sepia
More than a few people, @the3rdplayer, @RetroRevelation, and @avianther, shared their thoughts on the above chart’s depiction of the past. We got to see some magazine scans from a bygone era, which is a great bit of evidence to either establish or tear down the claims of the chart.
The point here is we should be aware that there’s a very real bias toward glorifying the past, the “good old days” when everything was right with the world. If there is a trend in modernity toward skewing the scale, then that’s something to talk about if you care enough, but comparisons to the past probably aren’t going to help the problem. At least the chart provides an example of an accurate scale.
On a larger scope, the danger of letting nostalgia overwhelm is a relevant one in games critique. Analyzing retro games is fun and enriching but keeping them within their historical context, limitations, authorial intentions, and discovering their flaws alongside their virtues is a challenge. Recognizing your biases is half that battle, though. Nobody is without bias.
#3. The importance of navigating the difference
Both @adventure_rules and @avianther mentioned the importance of being able to navigate the difference when the scale is skewed. Time is an important factor, as is finances, in considering which game to purchase. When reviews take the form of consumer reports, they are useful only so far as you understand the meaning of the person you’re taking the recommendation from. If you’re aware that the pool of opinion you’re drawing from has skewed the scale and the writer thinks of 7/10 as average, then that’s good on you. If you know that you’re only looking for games that rank above average or higher and you can parse out that meaning wherever you find it, even better.
Scoring systems and scales can present their own difficulties for the reader. As the reader you must be careful about understanding what each score means, just as the writer must be careful about saying what they mean.
#4. The freedom to choose
You don’t have to use any scoring system. Suhprise!
You don’t have to look down upon someone who doesn’t use a scoring system your way, or who doesn’t use a scoring system at all, or even people who choose to use a scoring system. It seems we’re naturally built to believe our way is the best because we want our opinions to be informed. That’s good and we can take pleasure and pride in ourselves, but not at the expense of others doing the same.
Everyone has the freedom to choose the scoring system (or lack of scoring system) which best fits their approach to writing reviews and critiques, their purpose in writing them. That’s outside of any consideration of the value or usefulness of scoring systems. As ever, we have to learn how to communicate through our differences, find what the other person is trying to say while making our own minds known. That’s civilization.
Just know that what you do choose ought to ideally fit with your express purpose in creating reviews. For instance, with our critiques at The Well-Red Mage, we have opted for a long-form and analytical style. To bolster that philosophy, we created the 8-bit Review segment which follows an initial body of text. The bulk of the article is there for those who have the time and inclination to read it, and the 8-bit Review portion is there for those looking for the numbers but having to grade 8 separate elements of each game
allows forces us to consider the game as a whole and as the result of its parts and their relationships with each other, to be able to express not just the difference between a good game and a bad game but between a good game with some specific flaws and a bad game with some redeeming qualities.
This is our approach but it’s not going to fit with the review philosophies of many other writers out there. Those looking to create shorter reviews will find better use in 3- or 5-point scales, for example. Video reviews may not use numbers as much as written ones for the sake of the listener’s memory. Reviews which emphasize the summary of a game’s story or solely the author’s opinion on the game as good or bad may have even less use for things like this.
Thank goodness we have the freedom to choose to be different.
#5. The possible problems
There were a lot of theories we discussed concerning just why the modern scale might be skewed at all, and I liked what @ABXY_Reviews suggested. Maybe it comes down to honesty. Are critics being honest with their takes on games? Is the risk of expressing an unpopular opinion too great? Is the temptation toward mob-think too irresistible? Surely it’s easier to hate on something or praise something based on what others are saying.
There’s no way to know who is being honest and who isn’t and to what capacity. All we can do is be as honest as possible in our own criticisms, demonstrated with decency, of course. Journalists have enough of a bad rap for being dishonest without us having to add to it. Conversely, “Brutal honesty” has found its own niche in those looking to click on videos of people being angry for the sake of being seeing being angry, but how is that different than the maligned pretentiousness that high-brow art critics are stereotypically known for?
Adopt the honest of a critic without adapting the attitude of one.
#6. Does it even matter?
Why have a points-based critique system at all? What’s the point of a 10-point system, or a five-star, three-star, 100-point, thumbs up/thumbs down, or smiley face system? Communication. All these are is exactly what the words we use are: modes of expression. Numbers in whatever scoring system you so choose are there (as was suggested) as placeholders, summaries, in-a-nutshell statements that crystallize your meaning.
Like the words which build your review, your 7/10 is set of symbols. Isn’t the purpose of writing to communicate your meaning? Inasmuch as clarity and communication matter, your score “matters”, not on cosmologically, not socially, not fundamentally beyond the significance of communicating meaning between minds. However much you value that is up to you but I consider it a miracle.
That doesn’t necessitate their use (see point #4 above…), not at all! It does however go toward explaining their potential utility, provided they have clear definitions. In a world where readers have less time than ever to offer to any piece of information in a sea of symbols, condensed information thrives. It’ll continue to do so as long as readers lamentably absorb information through headlines and snippets only, but that, as @wrytersview said, is a project that will require generations to fix.
“Does it really matter?” That’s sort of the big question, isn’t it? Here’s a final thought on that: I’ve bumped into a few people several times since we founded TWRM who suggested that questions with answers that don’t matter aren’t worth asking. “Are games art? Is the modern score system inflated? Who cares? What does it matter?” But I think that dismissing questions on the assumption that their answers don’t matter is shortsighted.
Is the only dumb question the one which has an answer that doesn’t matter?
How many questions are worth asking despite having answers that won’t change fundamentally change us, our world, or the universe, or even our perception of it? Rule out a lot of philosophy, the inquisitiveness of science, the natural curiousness of a child, the motivation to learn through asking questions, the value of research, and you’ll be closer than ever to establishing the thought police. In the meanwhile, when my wife asks if I love her, I’ll smile and respond “Yes.”
Let’s continue to ask questions. Let’s keep on being curious. Art gets better for it and so do we.
And who doesn’t want better art?
That’s the point.
-The Well-Red Mage
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