ARTICLE: The Hype Matrix

Allegations of corruption and bias of video game reviewers and even entire websites have been around for nearly as long as reviews themselves. Be it due to post-purchase rationalisation or blatant fanboyism, the notion that lukewarm receptions of highly anticipated games are driven by grudges and money rather than valid complaints about the games themselves has always been attractive to many disappointed gamers. That these accusations are often unfounded or downright irrational is of lesser concern. More recently, this ‘corruption card’ has been played as a means of damage control for not only negative, but also positive reviews. Particularly high scores on games they do not like are enough reason for the more cynical gamers out there to accuse the responsible reviewer of being bribed by the publisher. In almost all cases, this is an infantile knee-jerk reaction to the seemingly inconceivable revelation that other systems may also have good games.

It is painfully naive to think that publishers are handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers.

Still, it does not take much empathy to understand this sentiment. When you are young and can afford only one system, it is tempting to try and justify your choice by trivialising the merits of other systems. Even more importantly, some of the doubts about the integrity of video game journalists are not completely unfounded. Taking into account the inflated review model, as well as numerous anecdotes of reviewers being pressured into giving out high scores, there are indications – some stronger than others – that there is something peculiar about video game journalism. More explicitly put, it would take a great deal of optimism to take a closer look at what is going on in the video game branch as a whole today, and conclude that all parties are in perfect balance with each other. But to think that this imbalance is the mere result of publishers handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers, is painfully naive. The truth about this problem is, sadly, even more grim, for we, the gamers, are as much a part of this process as are the publishers and journalists.

Anyone with a basic understanding of how our current economy works will grasp the concept of supply and demand. When a certain product or service is required by a substantial group of people, this demand is likely to be met by a company or institution. As such, it is not terribly far-fetched to conclude that, to a large extent, gamers get what they ask for. This not only applies to video games themselves, but also to video game coverage. When we, through clicks or comments, indicate that we want excessively positive, score-focused reviews, that is exactly what many of the major gaming outlets will supply us with. And both the current state of video game reviews and the behaviour of gamers suggest that this is exactly what most of us want.

Even with the most highly acclaimed titles, there will always be a handful of reviewers that are less enthusiastic and judge the game more harshly. What is always fascinating about these reviews, albeit in a slightly twisted sense, is that their writers are often subject to criticism (and mind that I use this term loosely here) from angry fans. Defiant opinions nearly always cause a backlash, with a portion of the gamers even ousting suspicions of a conspiracy, convinced as they are that the relatively mediocre reception is just there to generate hits from ticked off gamers who want to behold the heresy with their own eyes.

It is no surprise that people who do not walk in line are frowned upon.

Although the possibility that some reviewers defy the norm mainly to be edgy and different cannot be excluded entirely, it is rather bizarre to think that only reviewers willing to ride the hype train are entitled to voicing their opinion. But in a community that is dictated by rampant Metacritic fetishism and a focus on cold numbers over meaningful content, it is no surprise that individuals who do not walk in line are frowned upon. Consequently, it should come as even less of a shock that video game outlets respond to this sentiment by rating games on a 7-10 scale and supplying reviews that are largely void of thoughts that do more than just scratch the surface.

Dramatic as it may sound, there should be no doubt that video game reviews are currently in a deplorable state. This is the result of there being several misconceptions about what a review entails. Reviewing a game does not mean listing the main features and commenting on them briefly. Nor does it convey systematically throwing around overused superlatives supported by circular reasoning. Yet a large chunk of the professional reviews out there can be captured in either category – sometimes even both. When reviewers praise the enemy AI in an action game, they frequently limit the supporting argument to ‘they can flank you’. Even more often are graphics lauded for their technical qualities without any mention of how they contribute concretely to the overall experience. The music fits the action on the screen perfectly, we are told time and again. But the details of this claim are omitted almost as often.

In absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information.

Too many reviews are essentially just a culmination of clichés systematically implemented into flaccid, descriptive accounts of the games’ main features, resulting in articles more reminiscent of marketing blurbs than actual reviews. Let us not forget, though, that this is what we ask for ourselves. Every time we boast about a Metacritic average; every time we shoot down a review based on its score, we are tacitly endorsing a uniformity of opinions. If we wish to still pretend that reviews serve to inform us, such behaviour is utterly counter-productive. Because, contrary to popular belief, reviews are still subjective. They are – ideally – argumentatively grounded in technical information and correct observations, but still subjective. And in the subsequent absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information. This raises the question whether gamers turn to reviews to be informed, or to feel good about the game they just purchased.

Despite the strong tone, this article does not intend to insult or patronise gamers. Our behaviour is perfectly understandable when one considers how brilliant video game marketing is in the modern era. While many of us are still inclined to think of marketing as seeing an advert for a product on TV and going to the store to buy it, it embodies so much more. The way hype is built for a game, the way release dates turn into events of their own, and even our very perception of a certain game or series: they are all influenced by the manipulation of marketeers. Manipulation may seem like a scary term, but in this context, it means little more than effecting the way we feel about a certain game, usually by taking existing sentiments and making them stronger. Activision capitalises upon the image of Call of Duty as a social phenomenon, just like Namco Bandai spared no expense to promote Dark Souls’ notorious difficulty. And Mario games certainly did not turn into ‘fun for the whole family’ by themselves.

The flip-side of such ubiquitous marketing buzz is that it is very easy to be drawn into the hype to a point where you swear by the product long before you actually get your hands on it. Assassin’s Creed’s live-action trailers, for instance, are traditionally very successful at getting people excited for the next instalment, even though they have virtually nothing to do with the game itself. It is this sentimental involvement that explains why gamers tend to include titles in their ‘best games’ lists long before they are actually released: they are so convinced that the game they have been anticipating for so long will be good, that it is going to take nothing less than radical disappointment for this opinion to be revised at any point.

We must be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score.

As long as a long-awaited game receives positive reviews, everybody is happy. The reviewer is happy, because he has played a good game and now gets to tell people about it. The publisher is happy, because it knows better than anyone that bad scores can spell disaster for the performance of products that took years to finish. The gamers are happy, because for so long had they been anticipating this game and, if the score is anything to go by, it appears to have lived up to each and every of their expectations.

But then steps in a reviewer who criticises said game thoroughly, providing deep, analytical thoughts supported by excellent argumentation. The fans are furious, because the impertinent writer tried to burst their bubble by telling them the game may not be as good as they had hoped. And if it lowers the Metacritic average enough, what do they have left to boast about? The publisher is furious, because it was nice enough to supply the rogue reviewer with a free copy, only to be repaid with a score that is sure to scare off some potential buyers. Lastly, the reviewer is unhappy, because he now has to face the fury of the gaming community.

If we want to ensure the integrity and quality of video game journalism, we must, as gamers, be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score. It is true that the ‘reviewed’ (i.e. the industry) have an abnormal amount of control over the ‘reviewers’ (i.e. the media) in the video game branch. However, as gamers, we can certainly do our part by ensuring that some balance remains in this chaotic industry. This we do exactly by showing that we appreciate thoughtful, critical content, rather than patting ourselves on the backs in a microcosm void of worthwhile information. If we wish for video game journalism ever to be taken seriously, we need to start taking ourselves seriously and find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or we can pretend nothing is wrong and choose to forever live in the Hype Matrix.

“Equo ne credite”