Doing it wrong: Are game reviewers bad at video games?

By Mitch Krpata
Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 11:00 am
GameOverYouSuck.jpg
Do game reviewers suck at games? This shirt thinks so.
Anyone who regularly reviews games has heard it from a game's fans after slamming a popular title. "You're doing it wrong." "Maybe you suck at games." "Next time let your husband play the game." And so on. If you write a negative review, especially of a hot game, you will hear from the game's defenders that the fault lies not with the game, but within yourself.

It's not such an easy accusation to brush off. When I'm struggling with a game, I do feel like something is wrong with me. Some games seem so impenetrable or difficult that I wonder if I've lost the ability to play them. Sometimes I switch to easy mode halfway through, just to hurry up and get it all over with. And if I'm playing online, forget it -- chances are that I've lost before I've realized a match has begun. Yep, I suck at video games.

That's why I decided to ask some of my favorite game reviewers whether they struggle with the same crisis of confidence. Their answers were surprising.

You'd think that game reviewers ought to be pretty darn good at games, not only due to professional necessity but through sheer practice. We spend hours and hours playing games, whether we want to or not. How could someone not improve after all that time? Yet the critics I asked were all forthcoming about their skills, or lack thereof.

Sparky Clarkson, of the blog Discount Thoughts and GameCritics.com, was blunt: "I happily admit that I am incredibly terrible at shmups, have nothing like the reflexes needed to become a masterful multiplayer FPS player, etc. The prevalence of online leaderboards is of great assistance in calibrating this opinion. I'm not terrible at everything; my skills are probably about average, all games considered."

This was a common thread among the people I talked to. Most were humble, saying they were sufficiently skilled to beat most games, and not top-flight players of any game or genre. To a person, they said it was more important to understand a game's systems and clearly explain the experience to a reader than to reach a high level of proficiency.

"I can quickly take any new game in almost any genre, acquire a basic level of competence with it, and then figure out what systems are at work and why they do or don't create a satisfying experience for me. Ultimately, it's more important that a reviewer be good at analyzing and communicating experiences," said Rob Zacny, a freelance writer and the host of the Three Moves Ahead podcast.

It's like the difference between a sports journalist and an athlete. You wouldn't expect your local football columnist to be able to line up under center, nor would you expect your quarterback to be able to write something worth a damn about Sunday's game. In fact, if you want proof that elite-level skills are no guarantee of having any insight worth sharing, you don't need to look much further than just about any broadcast booth in sports.

Justin McElroy, managing editor of Joystiq, suggested that a middling talent level can be an asset for the reviewer who writes for a general audience. "I find I'm just good enough to finish pretty much every game on normal with occasional frustration. In fact, that makes for a pretty good metric: If it's more frustrating than that (or not possible) I know it's a difficult game. I believe in Koster's theory that fun in video games is really the sensation of learning." By this metric, then, the primary question a game reviewer needs to answer is how well the game teaches the player to play it. And isn't that the essence of good game design?

The only person I asked who was willing to claim to be good at games, Brad Gallaway of GameCritics.com, still tempered his statement. "I don't think I'm in the top tier of players and I don't put in enough time on any one thing to ever call myself 'the best,' but I'm adept in a wide variety of genres and can hold my own regardless of what I'm reviewing. Essentially, I take the jack of all trades approach - I'm pretty good at most, expert-level at none."

Gallaway gets at the root of the issue for most game reviewers. We are expected to be generalists, not specialists. We do need to understand how first-person shooter mechanics work in order to review them fairly, but it's the nature of our job that we'll never be able to devote the time to learning the maps and the strategies that make somebody an advanced Call of Duty player. We've already had to move on to the next game.

Furthermore, many of these critics suggested that average skills can be an asset for a reviewer who writes for a general audience. Said Clarkson, "A good reviewer needs to know what it's like to fail at each game, and a sense for when those barriers are too high, or even too low. So, I believe it's important for a game reviewer not to be too good at games."

But Gallaway cautioned that a reviewer still needs to be more games-literate than the average player. "It's a bit of a clumsy comparison, but how could someone review a movie if their vision is impaired, or how could someone review a book if they had a fourth-grade reading level?"

Among all the reviewers I talked to, it was clear that all placed the highest priority on writing clearly for their readers. They were willing to leave the preening and the chest-beating to others. Speaking as someone who will happily admit that he is terrible at games, I think this is the most important thing, and the thing that inflamed commenters just don't get: when it comes to writing about video games, the games aren't the hard part. The writing is.

Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is not very good at video games. Read more of his scribblings at his blog, Insult Swordfighting.
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