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I’ve essentially gotten out of the game review racket, although I’m going to be helping out our Gaming section from time to time. It had nothing to do with the industry, only the simple fact that handing over the reins to Games Editor Pete Haas and bringing back William Usher was the smart thing to do for the section. These are two guys who really know and love games. I’m of a similar ilk, but with far less of a vengeance. And the simple fact of the matter is that I was tired of listening to professional game reviewers talking nonstop about reviewing video games, rather than just doing the job.
There are endless discussions on gaming forums, op-ed articles posted on blogs and websites, and a general discourse about how to properly review a game. These people never shut up about appropriate etiquette and what makes a good review. Recently Stephen Totillo, of MTV Multiplayer, posted up a portion of his participation in Shawn Elliot’s Game Reviews Symposium where he compares game reviews to book, TV, and movie reviews. He makes the very valid point that game reviewers and gamers are completely different people.
I work full time in a restaurant with a bunch of gamers, and we’ll often spend our time outside of working playing World at War or Left 4 Dead. These are guys, like you, who have been playing for years. But when they talk with me about games and I mention that I’m currently playing Halo Wars for review (look for it later next week) they simply say, “Man, I wish I could get paid to play games.”
Honestly I don’t think they do. There’s no game I’ve played for review that I enjoyed the experience of playing through. Later on when I could play at my leisure I found certain games to become great fun. But the barreling through of a game, paying attention to nuances and gameplay mechanics, all of the things that are expected from a reviewer make the job less about playing a game than critiquing someone’s work. Which is exactly what being a game reviewer is all about.
I don’t give four stars to a game because I had a fun time plowing through a 12 hour storyline in one day; I do so because the game, in all of its nuances, is plain and simply good. What a game reviewer does is a job, but for some reason the very same persons in the trenches spends much of the time trying to make it more than the reality. Clever phrases and jokes do not make a reviewer any more special than an Entertainment Weekly movie reviewer who tells the reader how good they thought a film was. But for some reason the games review industry seems to think it does. Being clever does not make you a good critic; it just makes you entertaining to your five friends.
What we need to do is stop discussing video game reviews so damn much. Even more the jokes and snide comments need to be left on the editing desk in favor of honest critique. Game reviewers may not be gamers, but our readers are. These people look to reviews to understand where their dollar is going when buying a game. No matter the hype, the free schwag, or even free games sent forth to review sites we need to keep one thing in mind: Is what you’re playing good?
Familiarity with a particular genre is always a hot topic when game review etiquette comes up. Reviewers spend more time trying to explain – and sometimes even excuse – their unfamiliarity with a genre than they should. The proper amount of time and words exhausted in such an exercise is zero. Take Roger Ebert, a venerable critic who is held in high regard by critics no matter the medium; he may have particular personal interests, but his reviews all take on the merits of the film being critiqued. I’m sure I am just as guilty as the next game reviewer of trying to make excuses during a review simply because I bought into the hype of the power players in game reviews engaging in lengthy discourse about proper ways to review. If someone as respected and knowledgeable as Dan Hsu says something, then it must be so. (Note: I’m not calling Dan out specifically in this regard, I just happened to have read his blog recently and his name popped into my mind.)
The problem is that game reviewers want to be a part of the worldwide discourse on popular culture – in this case specifically video games – but they alienate themselves by catering to an extremely niche audience. Game reviewers talk to the people who have their Google Reader feed them from fifteen different gaming sites rather than the millions of people who would benefit from the review. The issue is not how to review a video game, which is a simple matter. If game reviews are to ever be taken seriously in the way movie, TV, and book reviews are then they’ll have to put away the self indulgent tripe and focus on the job at hand.
The hypocrisy of this article is not lost on me, but now that I have fed the machine myself I am going to shut up for good about game reviews.
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