With #GamerGate still going relatively strong, the cries for objectivity continue. I found myself saying the same thing over and over again towards the beginning of this whole mess. Objectivity was paramount, and it had been destroyed by these terrible journalists. However, I stepped back and came to the realization that objectivity only exists to a degree.
Bias is everywhere and it is unavoidable (something I’ve touched on in the past). In the most bland news post you can find there will more than likely be some small phrase or word that betrays the journalist’s objectivity. That is okay, because it is human. It is impossible for anyone to completely drop their bias when they approach literally any issue or topic. That could be an opinion, reporting news, or a review of a game.
The fact that I don’t enjoy the seemingly endless stream (there’s the biased phrase) of 2D platformers will definitely seep into a review of one no matter how hard I try. That feeling will also play into what kind of news I search/pay attention to. I’m probably not the person who will break any news on the next Super Meat Boy. And that’s okay.
And as we have all learned these past few weeks, personal information about a certain developer or person in the industry will create a bias no matter what. For example, taking gaming out of it for a moment, let’s imagine there is a big movie star out there that is objectively a great actor. Then someone breaks a story about that actor beating his wife in the past and other women. No matter if I thought he was the greatest actor in the world, I would think of him differently from that point onward.
That goes for positive news as well. With that same situation, what if I heard instead that the actor donates millions of dollars to various charities that I also happen to like? Well, I’ll probably like him a little bit more to be sure.
Those are extreme examples, but that only serves to highlight how nuanced a lot of news will actually affect you. The most inconsequential thing you may hear about a developer or publisher will affect you in some way. The best thing we can all do to for things like reviews or opinions is find a writer we like and seem to share similar tastes/opinions with. When a new game comes out you’re curious about, you can rely on that trusted writer more than any other to have a similar reaction to that game.
Objectivity in game reviews should be very important. For all the reasons above, and more that will be listed below, objectivity only exists to a degree, but some things should never be included. A reviewer’s personal opinion on the game’s message should never play a part. Just because someone doesn’t like that a game advocates for something like gay marriage doesn’t mean that the game is bad. The evaluation of the message should be an evaluation of the manner in which it was portrayed – not the message itself. In other words, was the message of a game effectively expressed? Not whether the reviewer agreed with the message.
Opinions should be left for opinion pieces like this one. The debate about whether or not a game should be supported based on its message should be left out of a review. That is not the purpose of a review. I’ve seen some say that this makes gaming only about mechanics, leaving discussion of expression to slowly die off. It certainly doesn’t because a review of a game should only be left to things that can at least attempt to be objective. Things like mechanics of gameplay, technical matters like audio and video, effectiveness of a story and its structure, cohesiveness of the art direction, and anything else down that line.
Of course, opinion will play a role however. Just like above, that opinion may seep into a review in one way or another – likely without the reviewers knowledge. To try and fight for 100% objectivity is to fight against human nature. For example, judging a game on its art direction is almost entirely subjective. I like the look of Transistor, but someone else might hate it. Truly objective reviews don’t exist.
Criticism based on expression can go both ways – towards and away from objectivity. Above I discussed how it can go away, as a reviewer should never evaluate a game on the basis of their agree/disagreement with the game’s overall message. However, if a game has a stated aim of depicting Renaissance Italy but only has women in roles of housewives and peasant workers then it should be questioned. There were plenty of powerful matriarchs of families and many influential artists of that time, and the question as to why they were not included should be brought up. That is not something that betrays objectivity, but moves towards it as it recognizes a discrepancy and criticizes the game for it. I just hope most people, readers and writers alike, will know the difference.
With all of that said I still have problems with many other ways that objectivity is wiped away, like journalists exchanging favors with developers/publishers, getting paid by developers/publishers, using their position to promote the game of a friend, and a host of other similar things.
The purpose of this was to draw a distinction around what we should all understand objectivity in game journalism to be.
I don’t say all of this to dissuade many from fighting for more objectivity in game journalism, as I have listed some areas myself that I think need some work and where we should all be vigilant. For now, the best anyone can likely do is find some writers they like and follow them.