Understanding why we read reviews (of books, games, whatever)

booksAn interesting argument has surfaced in the game industry about why we bother to read reviews. Is it to judge a product based on a “mechanistic set of values,” or is it to understand what kind of deeper, emotional impact they can have on us — a focus on culture rather than consumerism?

This debate can be stretched to books, too — or movies or most any form of media, really. Why do we care about one person’s thoughts? Or are we more interested in the collective, the big picture that emerges after we’ve sorted through the individual bits of opinions?

(You can take a look at the Twitter conversation between the reviews editor of game site Polygon and one game designer to grasp the scope of this argument.)

For me, reviews of books or games, for example, come down to objective criticism. Most people seek them out for one reason: whether to buy or pass. Is it worth their time and investment? We only have so much pocket change to spare these days. A good assessment is important.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for subjectivity. Even if a book or game is technically sound (written or designed well), it could be absolutely boring. That’s why classics become classics — we study them, but nobody’s forced to like them. They can teach us about good technique, but that doesn’t equate to fun or strong emotional resonance.

Ni No KuniSome sites and blogs are dedicated solely to how a product makes people feel — how they react to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but two problems tend to arise from that approach: 1) tastes vary, and 2) some people like everything and are afraid to say one negative word. Don’t even get me started on the bias that exists. You like a creator or talk to him through social media, which makes you timid when it comes to evaluating his work fairly and honestly. This is not the way to “assess” anything. That’s public relations.

I think the real reason we read reviews is to learn a little of both sides: whether a work is good and what we can expect to gain from it. We can read all the books in the world, but what meaning do they have if we never emotionally or mentally benefit from the experience — if we can’t learn something about why we respond to them as we do, or why we fail to connect with them? Games are the same way. We need to have a pulse on the medium and how it’s changing beyond graphics resolutions and genre conventions. What’s going on inside developers’ heads? Are they even reaching us anymore? Yes or no, what does that say about our society at present?

A similar case can be made for books. When we discover what bores or impresses us, we can better understand how we need to move forward as human beings. These are works of imagination; they reflect on the times, our fears, and our values. They make statements about ourselves whether they intend to or not. Some are big; some are small. But they’re just as worthy of our attention, for the sake of personal and communal growth.

The Polygon reviews editor, Arthur Gies, who was arguing on Twitter for analysis of “direct mechanical engagement,” said that “most games don’t move the needle in an emotional way.” I disagree. Whether they’re strictly concerned with gameplay over commentary or not, what we take from them is what matters. If no one appreciated games like Journey or Fez, if no one found deeper messages embedded in their worlds or were inspired to discuss them and what they say about our own state of being, then they wouldn’t be “artistic” at all. But even mechanics-driven games like Dead Space 3 can provoke some intelligent thought even if they merely factor into our feelings on violence and gore. That’s moving the emotional needle because it’s driving us to conversation about new ideas and perspectives.

And without interest in what sparks a reaction, what reason do we have for art — for creating at all? Can something be “fun and mentally satisfying” while not offering “any sort of emotional engagement”? Isn’t that a contradiction?

6 thoughts on “Understanding why we read reviews (of books, games, whatever)

  1. mikereverb

    What a great discussion. Thanks so much for bringing attention to the Twitter conversation. I would have never known it had gone on.

    It’s tricky evaluating the emotional impact of videogames, especially when compared to music, movie, and books. Games provide another level of interactivity that those other mediums don’t, and unlike games, emotional engagement is paramount in movies.

    Literally, what else can a movie offer if not a manipulation of our emotions through story? It’s a big old narrative, so engaging viewers emotionally is a must, whether it’s through positive emotions like joy and awe to negative ones like fear and sadness. Documentary, short film, television show: take your pick. They all need to engage us emotionally or we probably won’t give it the time of day.

    Games, however, don’t even need a story in order to engage us. Since we interact with the game, not just observe it, if it’s fun to play, then that can be enough. Puzzle games, racing games, sports games, many shooters, platformers etc. are played not for their story or ability to manipulate our emotions but because they are enjoyable things to interact with. Who really cares about Mario’s plight to save Princess Peach in Super Mario Galaxy 2 or that Planetside 2 has three factions duking it out?

    In fact, even if the story of a game is good, meaning that it could tug at our emotions directly, we might not give it the time of day if the mechanics are crappy since it’s such an integral part of the experience.

    I just finished Dead Space 3, and I can tell you that though I’m a fan of the series, and I wanted to see Isaac’s journey through since the mythos of the game is so good, if mechanically it failed to engage me, I wouldn’t have finished it. I couldn’t! Luckily it was fun, and the story was interesting, so I stayed for the credits. Without the story to go along with it, I’m not sure if the violence and gore would be spoken about intelligently or would provoke some thought, or maybe I just don’t see it. Even Hotline Miami, an ultra violent game, has a semblance of narrative structure that gives some meaning to the violence.

    That’s a long rant. I guess what I’m saying is that I can see where Gies is coming from. Maybe the “most” part does have validity when looking at the entire gaming legacy. For every Mass Effect you have a dozen or so games that don’t engage you emotionally.

    1. Stephanie Carmichael

      Thanks for your comment! :)

      I agree — every genre/game has different demands, and mediums differ. What you’d expect out a movie isn’t the same as what you’d expect out of a game.

      You’re absolutely right, too, about story — but as you point out, Dead Space 3 has a story, which was interesting to you, and that’s something the person arguing with the Polygon editor might have been trying to point out. There is an emotional attachment there.

      But even for games without story, “fun” is an emotion. You react in a certain way. It makes you think a certain thing. I think that’s what the designer wanted more of, and the Polygon editor was arguing against its presence.

      Although, I do agree with the editor that not every game is huge on emotional impact — that it’s not necessarily the developer’s goal, and so there not always be a place for it in a review. But I try to keep both in mind when I review games, and I do think there’s value in that — in looking at more than mechanics. I think a lot of what the designer was saying on Twitter was that some of these sentences, that judge mechanics alone, are “hollow” — he gave an example of one. Without a place for emotional reactions, what meaning does “co-op” or “level structure” or “best action game” really have? There needs to be meaning behind that, and I agree that that sentence in particular was rather empty.

      You might not think about Dead Space 3’s violence by itself, but many writers will use its context as material for a bigger article on violence, where they look at games side by side and discover unique commentary from the comparison/contrast.

      If a game doesn’t engage you emotionally, maybe that’s something we need to consider more of in reviews, besides technical accomplishments/failures.

  2. mikereverb

    Yeah, I can definitely agree with you and the designer on the emotional response that you get even from the mechanics.

    Bennett was right to point out that line in the review. Saying a game has co-op and level structure does not, in itself, make a good game, much less one of the best actions game in years. Something about “fun,” which you correctly identify as an emotion, needs to be added in order to gain some kind of qualitative value.

    Perhaps Gries sees fun as a baseline emotion, a fundamental part of the experience that already needs to be there, one that’s expressed by covering the mechanics of the game. Maybe it’s just a false dichotomy. I dunno. He thought the game was fun, yet didn’t equate fun with an emotional response, like I initially didn’t in my last comment, even though I recognize that fun is an emotion.

    Overall, I do agree with you and Bennett: that sentence didn’t mean much, and should have been expanded upon. The argument between Bennett and Arthur went into something deeper that I hope to see developers and journalists discuss more. It’s philosophical discourse. Shit, even having these discussions is important for legitimizing games as an art! :P

    I’ve got to start following more gaming folk.

    1. Stephanie Carmichael

      Haha, I hope we see more of this discourse, too. To be honest, I understand where Gies is coming from — with wanting just to review the damn game and not make everything into a fluffy emotional wonder because I do think some sites get a little carried away with that. At the same time, I do think some effort to convey passion can go a long way. :) I like seeing both sides of it — the evaluation of the product and the value of the game as an experience. I don’t think 100 percent in one direction is the “right” way to go.

  3. jdh5153

    I actually don’t rely so much on game reviews anymore, but rather go to sources like GiantBomb and watch their ‘quick look’ videos, or watch YouTube videos to see the game in action which will help me get a better idea if the game’s right for me than another person’s opinion of the game.

    -avideogamelife.com

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