Do game ratings matter?

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Viewing the game industry as a whole, the game ratings system seems to be the standard for most of the biggest names in game reviews. However even as a lot of sites use them, there isn’t any real uniformity among them. Some sites use a 5 star rating system much like movie reviews, while others opt for a # out of 10 style to better separate the wheat from the chaff. And still others finding neither system quite accurate enough choose to add decimal points into the mix to essentially give you a 1-100 rating system. My question is, what is the difference between 8.4 and 8.7?

When making a game purchase I separate titles into two basic columns. There are the titles that I have pre-ordered as soon as it was announced that has my business based on developer or previous title alone. The second column are titles that peaked my curiosity and I take a wait and see approach. For these games I will likely wait until after their release to see what the general consensus is among friends and the internet. This is the column that most game reviews are focused on, and where game developers are hoping a favorable rating will lead to another sale.

Back in 2000 when Ken and I made our first ill-fated “Area-RPG” gaming site in basic HTML, the reviews we wrote were basically a paragraph or two of fluff followed by a number on a 1-5 scale that we propped up as the meat of the whole argument. After a couple of weeks I made the decision that we should move to a 1-10 scale as this would surely provide more accuracy for our readers. A couple of years later when we were both writing for Gamer’s Logik, we had a number decimal rating in use that allowed us to rate a game from 0.0 to 10.0. At the time I remember feeling assured that the numbers we were imparting were as accurate as possible. Thinking back about it now, we were pulling numbers out of our asses based on an opinion.

Some sites will actually break down each category such as graphics, gameplay, music, and story and hand out a score for each. Then they tally up all the scores mathematically to give an overall number that they feel the game deserves. Applying math to a review may make it seem more scientifically earned, but when the base numbers for each category are also just made up, so is the final rating.

Now as I stated above, reviews for the large part are for the titles I’m not sold on yet. Back when I was handing out ratings with everybody else, I was using those ratings to make that decision. Now here is the problem I ran into. Most of the time if you have a higher profile game, you won’t see scores for it below a 7.0. There are rare exceptions to the rule, but for the most part it holds true. As such even games I found to be terrible are rated in the top 30th percentile. You can find plenty of examples such as this one, or this one, or this one that I purchased and ultimately regretted. I’m kind of picking on IGN.com here, but they are hardly the only ones.

As such over the years I’ve stopped paying attention to the number that gets plaster all over and want to know just one thing. Is the game good enough to buy, should I rent it instead, or should I skip it all together? Some writers make it a point to touch on this in their reviews, and some have even stopped using the numbers all together. I don’t blame them, why put a number at the bottom so people can just scroll down and then not read what you spent all your time and effort writing. However these are the exceptions and not the norm currently.

An article published in 2005 attempted to answer the question of whether ratings actually mattered, and their conclusion was that they do not. I take most study findings with a grain of salt since it’s pretty easy for a researcher with a preconceived opinion to make the numbers support their bias. However in my own experience I have found they don’t matter to me. As we’ve established, reviews are purely opinion related which means the key to success is finding somebody who’s opinions closely match your own. Once you have that friend or that writer who matches your tastes, you tend to take their impressions above all else.

With that in mind I would like to see the industry move away from the numbers game that has basically become click bait, and move into a more Siskel and Ebert style thumbs up, thumbs down approach. It should be pretty easy for the Facebook generation to adapt I’d imagine. I’m not sure that the industry will ever actually move away from the numbers, but they do seem to be much less prevalent than in years past. In the end all I’m really looking for in a game review is for the writer to tell me if they think I should buy, rent, or pass.