Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why I Don't Want to Write Game Reviews for a Living

I’ll say this comic fans—I give you a lot of crap on the Secret Identity podcast about being fanboys. Marvel vs. DC flame wars, continuity nerds, the whole shebang. However, there is an area where game fans take the whole fanboy thing to another level, and it actually hurts the entire hobby. I’m referring to game reviews, and the way that both fans and reviewers behave when it comes to reviews is the reason I’m not interested in reviewing games for a living.

Before I get ahead of myself, I want to provide some context for those who don’t know about my freelancing work. From 2008-2010, I did freelance game coverage for Comic Book Resources. Most of the work I did at CBR involved interviews with game developers and comic creators that were working on game-related projects. Of the 100-plus articles I have written for CBR, one of them is a review (“Batman: Arkham Asylum”). I’ve recently been looking for some other opportunities to do some freelance writing about games, but not in the review arena. So why don’t I want to get paid to write game reviews? Because for the most part, the entire concept of game reviews is completely broken right now, and gamers themselves are mostly to blame for that.

Here’s a little experiment for you to do that illustrates the problem. Go to any gaming site and read a review of any recent release. Then read the comments that are in response to the review. How many comments did it take you to get to the one that claims the reviewer is completely biased because of reason X, unqualified to review games because of reason Y, or paid off by company Z for giving the game the review they did? I would guess less than five. That’s pretty much par for the course on any game review.

Another issue is that many review readers focus only on the score a game is given, not the actual content of the review. Once a reader decides whether or not they agree with the score, it doesn’t matter whether or not the reviewer justified the score they gave. They are judged as either a genius or an idiot based on that number and how it compares to the number in a reader’s head. Many review readers also expect a certain “paint by numbers” style to a review. Every review has to talk about controls, graphics, story, etc. Omitting any of these things or straying from the formula is discouraged by review readers, which results in reviews from multiple outlets all reading like they were written by the same person. So, deeper discussion around things like narrative are discouraged, as many people just want the “paint by numbers” review and the score.

“So what?” you might say, “People respond to comic reviews the same way.” And here’s where gamers take the whole fanboy thing to another level. In many cases, once a reader disagrees with a review score, they make it a personal mission to discredit the reviewer and/or the organization the reviewer writes for. This often involves referencing previous articles the reviewer wrote, taking things out of context, and trying to prove some bias or lack of credentials. People take screenshots of a reviewer’s Xbox Live or PSN stats to show just how much of a game the reviewer completed before writing a review, and then use that information to discredit them. The list of nasty misinformation tactics goes on, but you get the point. The sad fact is that the same people a reviewer writes for are the ones trying to discredit him or her. It gets so bad that you find gaming sites and magazines having to respond to fan comments by trying to further justify why a game got the review and score that it did.

By now you might be thinking “Why the heck do sites even review games? Why not just focus on features, interviews, and other aspects of games?” Because unfortunately, it’s the reviews that get the most traffic on gaming websites, and the traffic drives the ad revenue that sites get. The deeper features and non review-related articles are generally read by many fewer people than the reviews. So a gaming site that wants to remain financially viable needs to write reviews. It’s a catch-22, and a lot of game reviewers would tell you they’d love to ditch reviews entirely and just focus on features, but they can’t.

There are other negative aspects of writing reviews as well, specifically around the public relations side of things. Many PR companies and people get paid according to how well a game reviews, so there is constant pressure on them to try and influence reviews to be as positive as possible. Advertising is a big issue as well, as much of a game site or magazine’s advertising comes from game publishers and developers. Maintaining a good relationship with those companies is important, and negative reviews can affect those relationships. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

My long-winded point is that I really enjoy writing about games, talking to developers and getting behind the scenes of how games are made. I choose to focus on those aspects of my hobby as opposed to reviews, because writing reviews for games today is a losing proposition. I am also very fortunate to have Secret Identity as a place where I can review games informally, as I don’t get paid for those reviews, and subsequently don’t have to worry about a lot of the issues I mentioned above. We also have a great community here that can respectfully discuss things we don’t agree on, which is rare on the internet these days.

So, while I truly hope that you’ll see my name out there in the future, talking about games and celebrating what’s great about them, I don’t think you’ll see me doing a lot of reviews. I’m just not interested in exploring reviews as a freelance writer until the current culture around them changes for the better.