There is this thing called confirmation bias, and it’s one of the reasons we have console wars.
The logic goes that when we are invested in an idea (or product), we tend to actively seek out evidence that supports this idea (or product) while ignoring any evidence that does support this idea (or product.)
In videogame terms, that means that when we’ve just spent £300 on a particular piece of videogame-playing hardware, we’re going to naturally seek opinions that make this purchasing decision seem like the best purchasing decision. And if we find opinions that say this might not be so, that there might be valid reasons for purchasing an entirely different piece of videogame-playing hardware, we track down whoever expressed this clearly misguided opinion on social media and we send them death threats.
Because of course we do.
Confirmation bias affects us all, more than we think it probably does, and we don’t even notice it. We’re human, and we like to right about things. After all, you’re a rational person, right? You wouldn’t drop £300 on a videogame console unless you knew it was the best one, right? So those other guys, they must just be wrong!
And if you’re thinking of making some sort of snarky remark about how wouldn’t drop any money on a videogame console because you have a PC and it’s way more awesome, then hey! Confirmation bias!
Kris Graft recently wrote a piece about the hive-mind mentality of videogame consumers and how this leads to ugly shitstorms of abuse every time anyone writes anything that’s out of line with the dominant opinion. Most recently that would involve giving Grand Theft Auto V anything other than a perfect review score.
Kris blames a lot of this on the AAA hype machine, the years-long lead-up to any big release that involves a barrage of marketing all carefully targeting to make you believe that this particular videogame will be the Best Videogame Ever.
And we buy into it. Most of us do, anyway. I know I still do; I may not be naive enough to take all those promo trailers at face value these days, but I still feel a little kick of excitement when I hear all the marketing fluff about how this next videogame is going to Change The Face Of Gaming.
Why do I? Because hell, I want to play the Best Videogame Ever. Don’t you? I don’t know what that would like, exactly, but I bet it would be awesome.
I want GTA V to be an amazing videogame because I like playing amazing videogames. So even on this level, before I’ve even decided for sure that I’m going to buy the damn thing, I have an investment in the promise of all that hype. I want the hype to be true, because that game they showed in those pre-release trailer looked great. I want to play that game.
Then the reviews come out. And importantly, they come out on Metacritic, sorted in a big list rated in order from the highest scores to the lowest, then combined into a big aggregate score that – in some skewed world where statistics like this actually mean something – represents the overall quality of the game.
We are heavily invested in this Metacritic score. We want GTA V to be the Best Videogame Ever. And maybe those trailers have made us believe that GTA V will be the best videogame ever. But now our belief, based on little more than the fact that we like Grand Theft Auto games and that we really liked those GTA V trailers, faces its first challenge; supposedly objective criticism.
This was my thought process as I scanned the list of GTA V reviews: I skimmed down the long list of perfect 10′s and felt a warm sensation. “Great,”I thought, “this weekend is going to kick ass.” I regarded the following slew of 9.x’s with pleased resignation – of course the game isn’t perfect, and of course not everyone is going to give it a 10. I’m not one of those guys after all, the kind that refuse to accept anything other than a perfect score. Those guys suck, and there is little hope for them in this world.
Then I reached Greg Tito’s review for The Escapist, sitting down there at the bottom. A 7. Huh. That’s not the sort of score the Best Videogame Ever would get. That’s the sort of score only a Pretty Good Videogame would get. ”Do I look like the sort of person who has time to play games that are only Pretty Good?” I thought.
So as I clicked onto the review to find out the reasons behind this score, my confirmation bias slammed firmly into place, and in a small way I already saw this review as a personal attack on my impending fun. I already knew GTA V was awesome, and all those other reviews had my back; this guy must be wrong.
Of course he isn’t wrong. There’s no such thing as ‘wrong’ criticism, because there’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ opinion, and that’s all criticism is, folks. An opinion. I’ve read Greg’s review; it’s a good review. His reasons for scoring the game the way he did are perfectly valid reasons. I may not be of the same opinion as Greg about those particular reasons, but that really doesn’t matter.
That’s what a review is. One person’s opinion. Take it or leave it.
Except we can’t any more, and it’s Metacritic’s fault. It’s that aggregate score. Reviews are no longer just someone’s opinion; they’re ammo in every game’s battle against all the other games, the battle to be the Best Videogame Ever.
If you’re invested in GTA V being the Best Videogame Ever, then it really shouldn’t matter if one guy somewhere doesn’t like it quite as much as you, especially when so many other people clearly think it’s wonderful. In fact, your confirmation bias should be subconsicously steering you away from these negative reviews.
But Metacritic makes it matter. Outlier reviews skew the aggregate, and now somehow GTA V is an objectively worse game because one person thought it was only Pretty Good.
Your confirmation bias hates this. Your fingers fly to your keyboard to pound out the most violent threats you can think of. Someone is spoiling everyone else’s fun, and they must be punished for it.
There are lots of ways Metacritic makes professional reviewing into an ugly business. My least favourite are those coloured bars, the ones that show you that this game is objectively this much better than this other one, which is such a reductive way to look at criticism of any medium that I don’t even know where to start.
This would only be fairly awful if the only thing at stake here were people’s hurt feelings, but now salaries and even job prospects are being based around Metacritic scores. Think about that. If you’re a videogame critic, someone whose job is to write your opinion of a thing on the internet (or if you’re very special then in a nice glossy magazine), you are now in some way directly responsible for someone else’s job prospects.
Isn’t that terrifying? I find that terrifying.
We like statistics partly because statistics suit our confirmation bias, backing it up with hard numbers. I look at GTA V‘s 98 Metascore and its big green bar towering over all those other games’ bars and I feel pleased because that’s the game I’m going to be playing this weekend.
With a single number and a chunk of green, Metacritic is telling me that I made the right decision. And damn, do I like to be right about stuff.
But once the smugness fades I can’t help thinking that something is terribly wrong here. Surely the point of criticism is not to make us feel pleased with ourselves, and nor is it about proving that one type of thing is objectively better than another type of the same thing. Nor should it be about uniting groups of people into militant bands determined to defend the popular opinion by any tweet necessary.
But I guess that’s not important. What’s really important here is whether or not GTA V is actually the Best Videogame Ever or not. Turns out it isn’t. Turns out that‘s actually Zelda. Too bad, folks. Here's holding out for GTA 6.
Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.