Something I Dislike: Reviewing with Numbers

I do not know what the origin of the numbered review was, but it now exists in incredible prevalence. I am sure this topic has been written on before, but I believe in an age of lessening attention spans an article on the topic holds weight and significance. Therefore, I believe, as a man who now has a quiet disdain for numbered reviews, I should write on the topic.

So, why are numbered reviews so popular? The easy answer would be because it makes an entire opinion palatable simply by condensing that assessment into a single number. A normal consumer can click on your page, thus earning valuable page views for your site owned, most likely, by Google. It also allows for a baseline on which users can judge games. “Oh man, ‘Gears of War’ got a 9.5 on Gamespot, while COD got a 9.0. I guess I will buy ‘Gears of War’. This method, however, is incredibly flawed and speaks volume about our society for a number of reasons. Here are a few:

Games Are Different and Cannot Be Judged on a Single Scale: Games are entire experiences. They can span anywhere from 15 minutes to 100 hours or beyond. So how can someone compare ‘Super Hexagon’ to ‘Skyrim’? Would you even bother doing so? They are both revolutionary and incredible experiences, but they would be almost impossible to compare. They fill completely different roles in a gamer’s library. Because of this it amazes me that someone could possibly give both games a number grade based on the exact same scale. Any gamer would obviously have polar experiences with the two, but both games were graded at a 9. The judgment of a 9 likens both games to each other and suggests I will gain an equal experience from both. I can assure you, they will not.

Maybe I will buy a game that is an 8, but that 8 gives me no suggestion as to whether or not I will enjoy that game. ‘Tryst’ could be given a 9 and ‘Resonance’ could be given an 8, but that is a number that does not guarantee my experience will be great with ‘Tryst’. I hate strategy games, so that 9 could be a 5 for me. Likewise, that 9 could suggest ‘Tryst’ transcends the strategy genre and reaches an audience extending beyond those who enjoy the RTS genre. I do not know, because a 9 tells me neither of those things.

Meanwhile, ‘Resonance’ may be the perfect point-and-click for me and suggesting it is 1 worse than ‘Tryst’ is completely ill-fitting for me. I cannot look at any site’s scale and see a number that fairly compares two games.

It Lessens the Value of the Art: Numbers have never been used to judge art, and for good reason. Giving ‘Braid’ an 8 for example would suggest it is a good game, but that is the most I can ascertain from that number. Games now have artistic value, as well as entertainment values. It would be like saying Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, “OK Computer”, and “BLOPS 2” are all 10’s. We do not sit around a table and judge art by numbers, because art’s value is far too high to be condensed into a number. It has been a long time coming that video games can be seen similarly. They are emotionally-evoking works of art and in that transition games have become more prone to individual emotional experiences. Games must be played to be understood and judged personally. A number simply makes a game understandable and marketable; however, it does not truly describe the value of the subject.

Words Say What Numbers Cannot: The true value of a review comes from the in-depth analysis of a piece of work. Words can list the positives and negatives of an art work. Words can describe a writer’s experience with a game. Words can tell you why the writer was partial or impartial to the game’s offering and why. I could write a book on why ‘Dark Souls’ is one of the greatest games ever released and for me to do nothing but say it was a 10/10 would leave so many aspects of my experience and why I believe in the title so fervently unsaid.

You too may also believe that ‘Dark Souls’ is nearly perfect, but it could be for completely different reasons. The number 10 would say we both believed the game was incredible, but perhaps we believe it is perfect because it affected us differently and by reading people could realize why we both believed that game was perfect. In that same vein of thought, I could give the game a 10 and you would assume it is fitting for everyone; however, if you were to read the review perhaps you would not see my reasons for loving the game compelling or a reasonable fit for your gaming tastes.

We Only Do It Because People Hate Reading: This one is a generalization and does not fit all people. I am aware of that. For some people, however, it is very much true. You could easily ascertain my opinion of a game by reading my review, but by putting a number at the end I am essentially conceding that you do not need to read my review. I want you to read what I am writing and I believe most journalists do.

By putting a number at the end, I am essentially conceding to you that there is no reason for you to read my review and I am almost going to assume you will not. A number sits at the bottom of the page for those who simply want to scroll down and see a score. It is not there for the literate consumer who is honestly interested in reading opinions about a game.

As a response to those who say they need a number because they do not have time to read a review I would argue that the purpose of a conclusion is to summarize. My final opinion is clearly expressed in the conclusion, which should only take 10 seconds to read.

Games are not One-Tenth Better Than Others: Operating on a scale that utilizes tenth points is one of the most ridiculous aspects of game reviews. Tell me, what makes a game 1% better than another? Was one operating at 60 FPS and the other at 61 FPS? Was one quest simply the only quest better than a quest in another game? That one-tenth of a point is ridiculously non-sensical. The same came be said for half-points, which leads me to my final point.

There is Nothing Mathematical About Game Grading: When you received or receive a grade in class it usually is for a reason. The teacher gave you a 9/10 on your Math Homework because you got 9/10 problems correct. The same goes for baseball. A player is hitting .333 because he/she gets a hit every 1/3 at-bats. These systems are mathematical grading systems. They are factual and the grade is not debatable.

Yet, we insist on trying to use a mathematical grading system for something which is in no way mathematical. Percentages are given when a possible max score is established; however, games have no mathematical maximum score. The maximum score of a video game is a mythical imagined number, which have no true weight.

Conclusion: If mythical numbers were useful in expressing an opinion, would we not use them in debate? “In conclusion, I give President Obama a 9.5/10 as a political candidate” is an argument I have never heard, nor do I think would hold any weight in a debate; however, we seem to amply use them to finalize an opinion about a video game. This is because facts hold weight as well as valid expressable opinions, but mythical hastily conceived numbers do not.

We are simply making things easy and consumable for a consumer base not interested in reading or respecting our opinions. I do not want to give into that and hope that if people truly want or respect my opinion they will be willing to read my reviews. I know I am in the minority in my opinion, but hopefully people are willing to read and discuss this opinion, just as they should about the games devs slave over.

2 thoughts on “Something I Dislike: Reviewing with Numbers

  1. I agree! The number system was one of the things I agonized the most over when I started writing reviews. I kept thinking: is this number too high? Is this too low? Am I just choosing an arbitrary number? Does this actually somehow accurately reflect the quality of the game? (Answer: of course it doesn’t.)

    Reviews are subjective at heart, no matter how hard we try to stand back and ignore personal bias or preference. One gamer’s terrifying survival horror experience might put someone else to sleep; the quality of the game influences this, of course, but the gamer’s own personality and personal history also play their part. Numbers on the other hand are purely objective; 6 is always 6 and 1+1=2, last I checked. It’s pretty ridiculous to expect an objective phrase to properly describe a subjective experience, though as you said the temptation at least partially stems from readers’ hastiness (read: laziness). The problem is, the use of numbers has become so popular and universal that it’s going to be pretty difficult to change things now. But I for one would be celebrating right along with you if we managed to do away with the number system. Maybe forcing readers to actually read some would raise literacy rates just a tad, eh?

  2. Pingback: Switching to a Star-Based Rating System | Indie Games AAA

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