Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Objective Review

People often define the quality of reviews based on how objective they are. But to what degree does this - and should it - apply to artistic media like videogames? 

For anything that can be bought and sold, there's bound to be reviewers. It makes perfect sense - very few of us have money to burn, and before you spend your money you'll want to know exactly what you're getting into. There's no debate on the value of reviews when it comes to a simple product of which the value is defined by, say, durability or weight.

On the other hand, something that is entirely artistic is hard to review. A painting can be criticized on its composition or use of colour, and maybe the authenticity of its content, but it's very easy to simply accept deviations from the norm as a unique style. When something is a work of art and only serves that purpose - to be self expression - you enter some pretty murky territory when it comes to critique. This is why reviews and detailed critiques of "pure" art aren't very common or popular.

But what if the reviewers are discussing artistic media, which falls somewhere in the middle? To be sure, you can still stick to the basic facts - how many episodes are there of this series? How long is the movie and which actors star in it? Does this game run at a specific resolution or framerate? Facts like these can influence a purchase, but they're usually not the most important factors.

With that in mind, many reviewers give their reviews a unique spin. They'll focus on something they or their audience might find important, and in doing so, offer a different perspective than a dull list of objective specifications might. This means there are many unique and interesting reviews that appeal to a variety of audiences. For this reason, a lot of critics and their audiences have voiced their frustration that people seem to put objectivity on a pedestal. But the question is, is objectivity really what people are after? Is that the whole story?

A critic such as John 'TotalBiscuit' Bain might express a personal dislike for platformers, for instance, but because he wears this bias on his sleeve and doesn't make it out to be an objective problem, people don't particularly mind it. Contrast this with say, a critic who detracts from a game's score for a similarly taste related reason. This would almost certainly result in irritated reactions from the audience. A similar problem arises when critics berate a game, or even dock its numerical score (which is an issue of itself) for social, political or religious reasons.

But does that mean that subjective elements, be they the critic's taste in game mechanics or religious views, cannot and should not be involved? Not at all. It is simply that the audience should be made aware of these biases and how they influenced the final review. A hypothetical Christian reviewer might believe one or some elements in GTA V to be amoral, for example. But if he or she were to state that in their review verbatim, they would be doing the game and their audience a disservice. It would be better to say that 'I find this to be amoral based on my religious beliefs,' for instance. Rather than pretend that your beliefs and perspectives are objective fact, be objective about your subjective lens. In that respect, what I think people are after isn't necessarily just objectivity; it's honesty.

To close off with an interesting example, 'Christ Centered Gamer' is a Christian game reviewer. It considers morality in its reviews, but gives it a separate score. I haven't seen another website combine their beliefs with a more generalized form of reviewing, and made with work with numerical scores, so my hat's off to them.

Objectivity, while important, isn't the only thing people want from their reviews of artistic media. In truth, what people want is a proper balance between the objective and subjective, and some good honest transparency about the latter.

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