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Objectivity versus Subjectivity, Politics in Game Reviews: GamerGate Edition (Sort Of)
Editorial by 
September 06, 2014, 09:58
I honestly have no idea if "GamerGate", the latest manifestation of the drama involving well... people and things I won't get into here because enough has been said about whatever sins they may or may not have committed... is a huge thing in the greater video game world or not. It has blown up on pretty much every major gaming site and forum, and even mainstream, non-gaming sites like Forbes have gotten into the mix. Oh, and word is that actor Adam Baldwin of Full Metal Jacket / Firefly / etc. fame was the one who actually created the gamergate hashtag on Twitter... or something? I can't even follow everything at this point. But whether the majority of the millions of gamers out there know or care about GamerGate, I can't say.

I really don't have much interest in getting deep into my views on GamerGate here, so, I'll just cram them all together quickly:

A. I'm against Internet harassment of any kind, including the vicious type that started this whole thing moving.

B. It appears to me that the originators of GamerGate seem to have questionable motives at best.

C. Yet, it also appears to me that GamerGate has morphed into something better than what it started as, and many of its more recent followers seem to be decent people with decent motives who actually do have legitimate issues with game journalism that they would like addressed (and there are certainly legitimate issues to be had.)

D. And yet again, the (loose) GamerGate mission statement of fighting for "journalistic integrity" still seems very, very unevenly applied against those perceived to be "social justice warriors" (SJWs), a generally pejorative term that is used to insult the likes of Anita Sarkeesian and well... almost anyone who critiques video games from a social justice perspective.

So my view on GamerGate ends up thus; I'll consider it a legitimate movement once it stops looking like a witch hunt that only focuses attention on a certain type of corruption, IE SJW corruption. Because there are a lot of other places corruption lurks in the industry, and the primary one is still probably a question no one quite knows the full answer to but the Jeff Gerstmann firing started us asking... how much influence do AAA publishers and their advertising dollars have over coverage / review scores on the major game sites? Do... we still care about that?

There is, of course, the awesome kind of Corruption.

Oh, and let's add another for good measure:

E. Video game sites that started writing about the death of gamers, etc. were being pretty ridiculous. I vaguely understand what they were getting at (hint: it wasn't an attack on every single gamer ever) but man did they pick a terrible way of going at it. Trying to destroy the term "gamer" is silly. I'm a gamer. You're a gamer too, I presume, if you're here reading this. A lot of people are gamers.

That's actually kind of the point.

What I do want to talk about is something that I've been meaning to write about for awhile now, and is only loosely connected to GamerGate, which is the idea of objectivity versus subjectivity in reviews. One of the big talking points of many of the followers of GamerGate appears to be that, by bringing up "personal politics" when reviewing, certain reviewers are throwing away the pure objectivity that they should have when reviewing video games, and this equals journalistic corruption of a sort. These gamers don't care about your social views, they just want to know if a game is fun or not. On the surface, that even seems like a fair request. Why not just leave the politics out of game reviews?

I'll get back to that in a bit.

Those here on Negative World who have seen me discussing objectivity versus subjectivity know that I have a bit of an unconventional view, in that I don't see it as purely an either / or question. If you want to look at it from a sheer technical level, yes, every thought that a person has about a video game is subjective to their own experiences. If you don't believe me, think about it this way; how do you think you would feel about your favorite video game if, for instance, you were born blind? Would it be possible to enjoy it on the same level? If not, well... there is your subjectivity for you. However, I also think there are things that can be viewed as closer to objectivity. Or, if you don't like that term (as it is technically incorrect), then perhaps we can divide up subjectivity into hard and soft subjectivity? It doesn't matter, it's just semantics. My point is, I think some things can be viewed more objectively than others. Imagine an objectivity spectrum. When it comes to video game reviews, some of the things that fall more on the side of objectivity to me would be questions along the lines of; does the game crash? If so, how often? Are there game killing bugs? Etc. You might say that these questions are still technically subjective, but hopefully we can all agree that there is a difference between "This game is bad because it crashes every 5 minutes or so and even if you manage to get further into it, there is a game killing glitch that is impossible to avoid" versus "This game is bad because it has dogs in it and I was bit by a dog once so I hate dogs". (The dogs haters are now nodding their heads like "Yeah, I get your point, at least the first game is playable for 5 minutes...")

So that is my perspective, and although those are two pretty extreme examples there, I think most of the stuff that we talk about in game reviews can fall somewhere in between. Controls, for instance. While there are a lot of games where the quality of the controls is heavily debatable (Resident Evil and Kid Icarus: Uprising come to mind), there are some that get nearly unanimous hate (Superman "64") or unanimous love (um... Wii Sports Bowling?) and I don't think that is an accident. Another example is online gaming; you're not going to find many people who argue that lag is actually a good thing. Well, except lame people who exploit it. Most people despise lag though, and I don't think it is for arbitrary reasons.

Anyway. Let me talk a bit about one of my favorite reviews that I have written, my review of Little Inferno on the Wii U, a game that I scored much higher (9.1/10) than your average reviewer did. Here is a quote from my review:

In the end, I believe that despite some weaknesses, Little Inferno works, and it does so on two levels. On the first level, you have what is perhaps one of the most poignant commentaries that we have seen in video games, taking corporatism, consumerism, isolation, environmental concerns, and more and tying them all together in a brilliant (if understated) narrative. On the second level, it taps into the primal urge to BURN EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. Our ability to recognize and appreciate the subtext of the game while still enjoying the gratuitous nature of the gameplay may just add a third level to the mix, revealing the hypocrisy in us all.

Oh yeah, I guess you could do this kind of thing in Little Inferno as well.

I'm sure that some people just read the above quote and thought "wow, this dude is pretentious as hell!" But hey, what can I say? Little Inferno is one of those rare games that really spoke to me. I mean like... really spoke to me. So much so that I actually contacted Kyle Gray after writing the review (journalistic integrity erased?) to see if we were on the same page about what it all meant (short answer: we were.) I'm not going to go into my whole life story, nor am I going to spoil Little Inferno for the few out there who have not played it yet but still plan to, but I will say that one of its main themes reflected almost exactly upon where I was in my life when the game released in a way that I had never experienced in a video game before. And some of the other themes, like the anti-consumerism and pro-environmental themes, spoke to my "politics", if you want to call it that. Basically, Little Inferno spoke to me on a variety of levels. And I appreciated that immensely about the game.

So I wrote a super positive review of the game, and scored it higher than most reviewers did (although it did review fairly well in general.)

Did I let my subjectivity influence my review? You bet I did. I'm not sure that my experience could get much more subjective, it actually felt like Tomorrow Corporation were people close to me who knew exactly what I was struggling with in my life and decided to make a game about it just because they loved me so much and wanted me to understand that I wasn't alone.

So... did I do something wrong then in writing this subjective review? I won't tell you how to feel about that. I can tell you how I feel about it though. I feel like this may have been the best review that I ever wrote, precisely because I managed to reflect how I truly felt about a game that touched me in a way that most games do not. You can tell me that I should have left my personal feelings out and wrote a purely "objective" review. And I will tell you that this makes no sense to me, because my personal feelings and experiences are precisely why I loved the game so much. It's not possible to separate the two. And to be honest, I wouldn't want to anyway.

That's the extreme example, but I can assure you that every single review that I have written is influenced by the person that I am; my experiences, feelings and tastes, and this is subjectivity, and there is no way around this. Not for me, and not for anyone. If you think you're an exception, tell me about some games you love and how you objectively arrived at the one perfect conclusion regarding them. And then I will tell you about how much I disagree with you, and I will defend my view just as skillfully as you defend yours.

I actually want to backtrack for a moment, however, because in truth, I'm not even sure where people want to draw the line when they want games to be reviewed 100% "objectively". Or maybe more precise is to say that from what I have seen, everyone seems to have a different idea of where the line should be drawn. I know that a large portion of the GamerGate supporters want to see game reviews without the influence of politics. Many state that they just want to know how "entertaining" a game is. So let's use that as a baseline, "how entertaining is this game?" My question is... what are game reviewers allowed to consider to make this determination? I think we can all agree that whatever gameplay is present has to be under consideration. I already talked about controls. Visuals? Well, we're already heading into subjectivity territory there, because someone like me, for instance, doesn't really see that high end visuals (or the lack of) affect my overall enjoyment with most games. I do care about art style, but art style is very subjective. But I'll give you visuals. Sound? Oh man, now we're heading into subjectivity territory again, and I fall on the other side here... as a person who lives and breathes music (in addition to programming / writing for the site, I'm also a musician), a good soundtrack means a lot more to me than it does to most people. So I'll give you that as well, although others might not care as much.

This is pretty much how you do a soundtrack right.


And here... we... go.

Story is nothing if not one of the most subjective things that can be reviewed in regards to how "entertaining" a video game is, keeping in mind that entertaining video games existed way back when "story" was little more than Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man bumping into each other in what I guess was supposed to represent falling in love? I know people who have no interest in seeing stories in their games at all, preferring the fast paced qualities of arcade-like experiences. I know people who love games that are practically nothing but story, such as another game that I enjoyed immensely and reviewed well, 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors on the DS. A game that, minus the story, is not much of a game at all; it's essentially a playable graphic novel with some basic point & click and puzzle solving elements. How do I objectively determine whether this is "entertaining" or not? It depends solely on whether you get into a convoluted murder mystery that also involves... well, I won't spoil it. It was very interesting. To me anyway. Some people found it to be very silly. Such is life.

Informal poll... do you watch cutscenes start to finish, or skip past them as fast as possible, or some mix of the two? I know people in all camps. If you write your "objective" review taking the story into account, and someone skips past it... is it your fault or theirs that your objective review is no longer relevant to their experience? What if they sat through the cutscenes due to your review, and ended up disliking the game more? Hmm.

This isn't even getting into cultural differences in the appeal of stories. How much are you into stories about sea creatures playing sports? Apparently this is a whole genre in Japan? Actually... it looks pretty awesome to me. How was I never aware this existed before?! But I'm sure the Western appeal of this genre is, generally speaking, fairly limited. Hell, the Japanese appeal is probably limited too. But apparently some people love it. There is no accounting for tastes, yada yada.

My new favorite thing of all-time in the world.

And what if the story involves politics? Uh oh. Keep in mind the distinction here, this is not the complaint about a reviewer injecting their own politics into something (which I have yet to fully address), this is speaking about a game where the developers injected their politics in. How should the objective reviewer handle this? Ignore the politics? But what if the politics are at the root of the story? What if they're pretty good politics that most decent people should agree with, like "find a way to feed the starving children"? Are reviewers allowed to say good things about them? Or if they are pretty horrible politics that most decent people should condemn like "erase Canada off the map"? (Wait, maybe I should pick a better example there...) Can we consider the disgust we feel over those Canadian-hating bigots when writing the review?

Am I biased about this made up issue because my girlfriend is from Canada? Probably.

But I'd say yeah, that stuff is all essential to the experience and should be discussed. You may disagree.

Let's talk about reviewers and their own politics, which is really the big thing in question here. Should they keep them out or let them in?

I think a part of me rebels against using the term "politics" here. As an American, it brings to mind Republicans and Democrats and maybe Libertarians and a couple other smaller parties, none of which I relate to much at all. I'm actually relatively apolitical in this context. If someone asked me if a reviewer should bring their views on this political party or that into a review, I'd be hard pressed to support that. I can't imagine a situation where it would be relevant. I'm not saying there would never be one, it is just difficult to imagine.

However, usually what we are talking about when it comes to the term "politics" in regards to video game reviews are things like the reviewer's ideas on the representation of women and minorities, the... actually, that's pretty much the main one people talk about, although there are some others I have seen get discussed (the glorification of war, class issues, etc.) And to be frank, this stuff isn't mere "politics" to me, they are "human issues", and they are every bit as relevant as any other human story element that I'm supposed to care about in games. You can't tell me that it is ok for me to see the way that developers created a deep, loving relationship between Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead as a positive thing worth mentioning (as most reviewers of the game did, and few were criticized for doing), but when Kratos brutally pushes an innocent half naked woman around before ultimately jamming her body in a gear, crushing her to death, just to hold a door open for himself in God of War III, I have to keep my mouth shut at the utter level of fuckedupedness involved? Sorry, that makes no sense to me. Yes, these are "just games", none of these characters are real, and their suffering is imaginary. But let's not have a double standard here... the way the characters are represented, the way they relate to each other, etc. either matters, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, let's stop talking about it period; no more reviews about how The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, etc. create these excellent characters and relationships that pull us into their worlds. If it does, then let's stand back and let reviewers tell us how they truly feel. We don't get to say that these human issues can only be talked about as long as people are not saying negative things about games.

So, these people exist in the game. And that is all that I can say, otherwise... bias.

The irony here is that GamerGate wants to be about the breach of trust that arises when the video game media and developers get too close to each other. Yet many of them also want to limit the ways that reviewers can criticize the works of developers? I'm not saying these are mutually exclusive viewpoints, but they do seem to be in conflict with each other.

But again, I'm really not here to tell anyone what to think. My own conclusion, however, is thus. If we're only allowed to be objective in reviews (or soft subjective, since true objectivity is mostly out of the question), obviously we leave out the "politics". And more. Talking about visuals and audio are questionable, and we definitely have to leave out story, which the very existence of can be considered a plus or minus depending on the gamer, let alone the content. We can sort of talk about whether a game is buggy or not, and whether it controls ok. And maybe just repeat random, non-controversial facts about the game that someone could read off of the box, such as "the main character is named Fred." Except boxes are barely a thing anymore, so I dunno... the Wikipedia page.

Is that even a review?

Or we can acknowledge that different people will bring a different set of values and experiences to their reviews, and embrace the diversity that this creates when spread across a vast community like that of video games. If a reviewer expresses views that you do not like, you are perfectly in your right to argue against their opinions (most review sites have open comments sections, for members at least), or if you are getting sick of seeing them, ignore their opinions and find someone that you feel is more in line with your tastes. And don't try to tell me that the entire industry is overrun by social justice warriors who are unfairly reviewing every game with even semi-questionable representations of women and minorities in an industry that continues to score the Grand Theft Auto games higher than almost every other game on the market. If anything we should be talking about why "AAA" games with GREAT GRAPHIX always seem to get bonus points in reviews. But hey, maybe it just means those reviewers prioritize graphics, something that I don't really understand, but a lot of others seem to agree with. And that is probably a topic for another time.

Stay safe. Be good to each other. Etc.

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Posted: 09/06/14, 09:58  - Edit:  09/06/14, 10:14
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Great post. To me, the only truly important thing in a review is honesty. If a hardcore Christian feels uncomfortable playing some anti-religious game, and that tarnishes their experience, then they should say that in their review. There's no point in trying to imagine how you would feel about something if you weren't yourself.

Of course, that raises the question of why we need game critics who tell us what's good and what's bad in the first place... but I think it has more do with their job being to play into the review process (knowing how to be professional and handle download codes and not break embargo and all that) than it does with them having more knowledge than any other random game player. It stinks that those reviewers are on a pedestal, but to be honest it seems like 99% of games that come out (that actually get press coverage...) that don't totally suck tend to review well enough to garner attention, and with the internet nowadays and the power of word of mouth, that initial bit of attention might be all that the game needs to find its legs.

Posted by 
 on: 09/06/14, 20:29
This will be a lengthy post, so buckle down. I do have the abridged version at the bottom of the post if you don't have much time.

I don't think I need to explain to you how I feel about politics. I'm very invested in them. I do think that games have the capacity to influence people be it in a positive and negative way. I'm in no way saying that playing a violent videogame will turn you into a killer, but it does desensitize you to a lot of things like the aforementioned violence and attitudes toward women. We then have to look at who made those games and realize that quite often they themselves are men who harbor certain attitudes that permeated into their game. Then you have young people playing a game and it becomes a violent cycle. Just the other day, we were discussing how ridiculous the costumes in RE: Revelations were. The men are fully clothed, chiseled Adonis while the females are running around with a needlessly unzipped wetsuit and short shorts and leggins in Siberia. This is the subtle symbolism that goes into media that we don't pay attention to but it does affect the way we think at a subconscious level. This is of course present all over but I will keep it in the scope of video games for arguments sake.

I do think that as reviewers, people should point stuff like that out, but not necessarily mark down a game for it. Nevertheless, we have to be able to discern between a game that may exploit females and "minorities" (I guess when talking about the context of the US), and when it is shedding a light to social issues or actually doing a satire of many problems that pervade society today. Quite often, GTA is simply dismissed as a macho, hyper violent game when the gamer is roaming the streets. If we actually pay attention to the story, what the creators wanted to show us then it is actually much more than that.

Then there is of course the special case that is Bayonetta. I know I complained that Jill Valentine and another female were needlessly under-dressed in Resident Evil, and it may seem like I'm contradicting myself here, but I see no harm in a game like it. Sure, Bayonetta does strip whenever she summons demons during combos but given the context of her game being totally different than that of Resident Evil, I'm all for it. That is almost like people condemning nudists just because they are uncomfortable with being naked around other individuals.

On the other hand, I don't like political correctness or having the token "black guy" on movies, cartoons or anime. Take Japan, for example, there are hardly any "black" people in that country. What little they know about the "culture" was imported via movies and that I suppose helps reinforce certain stereotypes. That is also because most people either don't know, or don't wish to know about evolution, adaptability and the various social issues in the United States. I do not want to see Japan forced to include something just because people in the west may demand that you put some variety in there for that sake of it.

I will admit that growing up I watched a lot of anime but I never actually wondered how come I didn't see more people that had a skin tone similar to mine on television. Part of that is that I never considered myself "black", I know I belong to an ethnic group called garifuna which is predominantly African with some Native American mixed in. But also, I never really cared. I was just lost in the story regardless of what the people might look like. Nowadays it is different but for another reason. I actually notice how much media can impact people's lives and influence them.

Take the hair situation, for example. "Black" moms telling their daughters that they need to get perms is one real issue that should be addressed. Some people seem to think that highlighting the fact that there is no such thing as race must mean that we are all equal, when we aren't, and that is exatcly what makes this world beautiful. You would never know it, however, since most people are scared by someone that does not look like them. In the case of America, that is why entertainers in the past had to get perms in order to have more appeal. That is why female news anchors still have to get perms today. I digress, though. My point is that the differences most people think exists, don't. All that cranial nonsese was debunked a while ago, and so was the missing link. Some people still believe in the missing link though, in part because of mass media; but then again some people never believed in evolution in the first place.

If I go back to the hair example, I was going to say that we are different, just not in the way most people think, and the sooner we are able to learn that and acknowledge it the better. When I say acknowledge, I mean have our own, people with think, curly hair, actually become the scientists and biologists of the future that actually come out with products for people other than stringy hair (or pelo lasio, as it is known in Spanish). However, I also know that will not happen until we do a massive overhaul of our education system, which is usually the first thing to go thanks to our corrupt and/or incompetent government.

Since I'm on a roll, I will throw these concepts out there: it seems that we owe more allegiance to a 200+ year old piece of paper than we do our own people. There is something fundamentally wrong about a country that is so wealthy, yet has so many people living in poverty, with little prospect for the future thanks to things like lack of school funding and proper curriculums. The proper thing to do would be to provide quality education for everyone. Where would the money come from, you ask? It could probably from from about half of the 600Billion+ dollars the US spends on defense (more than all other nations combined) Perhaps that way they no longer monitor every US citizen.

Furthermore, the US government uses a good chunk of that money to fight needless wars to bully- er, "police" the world and "safeguard democracy." Set up puppet-states that aid the US and its interests in multiple key areas around the globe that is why the US turns a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and its beheadings and multiple anti-women laws. Why doesn't the US invade Saudi Arabia and bring democracy to them? Oh, that's right, the Arabian government is a US ally, and it also sells oil to the US. Meanwhile, they are setting up false flags in Ukraine, blaming the Russian government and trying to incite a war, which apparently is the one thing this country excels at (except for Vietnam, and maybe Korea before that) I'm not saying that Russia is entirely blameless, but neither are they the soulless despots that are invading Ukraine like the American propaganda machines, otherwise known as news channels and websites would have us believe. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming (before this gets too heavy)

As for subjectivity, I've already mentioned that it is simply the collective opinion of a given group. I'm sure that if the gaming community really wanted to, we could come up with certain guidelines for reviewing 'X' game genre.

Abridged version:

Politics are an inseparable part of society. There are many things wrong with society today, nevertheless, we should be able to discern between true injustices represented in the video-game world and our perceptions that something may be wrong when that is not necessarily the case. Inequalities in gaming is a fundamental issue in society that simply mirrors our current state. As such we should point them out but I do not advocate for, nor want, "token" characters in media for the sake of diversity. Instead I would actually want the US government, in this case, to provide the proper infrastructure and investment into the human capital already available in the form of kids with lackluster education with money they are wasting. That way, those kids can become the game developers of tomorrow.

Because they may be from different walks of life, the game will usually end up being more fleshed out as opposed to a game that may appear diverse, but really isn't, just like the good ol' US of A. Then again, this is the country that is spending it on other areas of government that are not needed, like an overblown, and inefficient defense budget that is mostly used to violate the rights of the citizens who pay this corrupt and inefficient government, as well as citizens of other nations around the globe.

Posted by 
 on: 09/07/14, 02:51  - Edit:  09/07/14, 03:03
Epic Post that probably warrants a big response, but frankly I think this stupid controversy has been over-discussed on Negative World so I'm just going to keep it simple with one point:

I like your "Hard Subjectivity" and "Soft Subjectivity" nomenclature, because it skirts the main semantic arguments that arise out of talking about objectivity in reviews. But here's the thing: There are two ways to talk about objectivity in reviews and you're talking about the less important one. If someone is whining about a lack of objectivity in a review and they actually mean reporting on glitches or whatever, they're probably actually just mad that someone's tearing down a game they like. These people can be ignored.

No, the objectivity that I think is important for games journalists to have is this: No tit-for-tat. No payoffs. No payola. No old boy's club. And, sure, when it's relevant - and who knows how often it actually is relevant - no trading sex for coverage. Literal tit-for-tat. Ha.

The big one, though is no trading hype for access. Like all trashy entertainment news outlets, this is the big one I saw infecting IGN back when I still bothered to go there.

This particular story seemed to me, at first, as an opportunity to talk about these issues in a general sense, but it quickly degraded into a simple movement to "get Zoe Quinn" for the Crime of Whatever. As much as I hate the perpetual sorry state of games journalism, I think what this morphed into was worse.

So I'm done talking about it.

Posted by 
 on: 09/07/14, 05:41
It might be the "less important" one in some ways, but it is actually kind of at the heart of all of this controversy. Because at the center of the Anita stuff, which started the whole train of stuff, is this idea that many have that "politics" should be kept out of journalism. And although Anita is not a journalist, a lot of people were (and are) very mad that the mainstream game media kept reporting on her, usually from a positive position. Many just want to go back to having journalists only talk about well... whatever they talked about before... without politics.

I don't think that makes much sense, but then again, as I said above, "politics" seems like an iffy word to me when we're really just talking about basic human issues.

Posted by 
 on: 09/07/14, 09:10
Thank you for writing this article I find myself agreeing with a lot of it.

Recently I read someone compare Anita Sarkeesian to Jack Thompson... which kind of illuminated something for me. I never in a million years would have made that connection, and I think it's a very inaccurate one, but I guess it makes sense with regard to why, and how vehemently, some people despise her. Personally I think it's sad, and that they have practically nothing in common; pointing out the ways that writing in video games is lacking is nothing like calling for the censorship or banning of various games. Even if she were somehow the second coming of Jack Thompson though, that's no reason at all for rape and death threats.

EDIT: And somehow it doesn't surprise me that Adam Baldwin started the gamergate hashtag, knowing some of his past behavior on Twitter.

Posted by 
 on: 09/07/14, 14:58  - Edit:  09/07/14, 15:02
@X-pert74 What else has he done?

Posted by 
 on: 09/07/14, 19:25
@sirmastersephiroth I don't have any sources off-hand, and I don't want to drag this comment thread off-topic, but I'll just say that he has some strong opinions, and has not been averse to getting into arguments over them via Twitter in the past.

Posted by 
 on: 09/08/14, 00:26

Posted by 
 on: 09/09/14, 19:38
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