A foolproof way to improve games journalism: ban the number 7

It has become meaningless.

What score do you give a game when you like it, and you think it's interesting and important, but you have to admit to yourself that it just isn't very good? It's a seven out of ten, isn't it? And that sucks.

I was at BAFTA event last night about games journalism, alongside Naomi Alderman, Kieron Gillen, Rob Fahey, Keza McDonald and Keith Stuart, and we kicked off by talking about Metacritic, the site which collects reviews - and delivers an average score based on them.

McDonald wrote a great piece asking whether Metacritic is "ruining the games industry" (albeit inadvertently). Games with higher Metacritic scores sell better, and sometimes a development team will only receive a bonus if they get over, say, 85. 

Here's the key paragraph:

A Metacritic average undermines the whole concept of what a review is supposed to be: an experienced critic’s informed and entertaining opinion. Instead it turns reviews into a crowd-sourced number, an average. You can’t average out opinions. If you adore the new Muse album and your Radiohead-loving friend hates it, that doesn’t make it an average album. And yet this is exactly how Metacritic scores are treated by publishers. It punishes divisive games – and honestly, most interesting things are at least a bit divisive.

You can easily apply this to some of the most interesting games of the last few years. Take LA Noire, which made huge strides forward in several really exciting ways (story, motion capture, aesthetics, music), but yet somehow contrived to be less than the sum of its parts. I wrote a short-ish review of it, noting exactly that, then breathed a sigh of pure relief that I didn't have to give it a rating out of ten. (The New Statesman doesn't do 'em, being all highbrow and that.) 

But look at Metacritic. LA Noire scores 83 (in a range from 92 to 60), and I honestly can't say what I think that means. Halo 3: ODST gets that score, too, and that game was a perfectly pleasant (but sliiiiiightly unoriginal) iteration of an established series. Heavy Rain is another example where the Metacritic score seems oddly meaningless: its average of 87 comes from a range that goes between GameCritic's 40 and BoomTown's 100, both of which I rather uncharitably suspect were trolling for hits on a popular game by awarding an outlier mark. (A similar thing sometimes happens when writers are filing to a newspaper: they know that only a 0-star or 5-star review will make the front page; they know that a real hatchet job will get the hits rolling in. It's hard to resist that kind of pressure.) 

The NS's film critic, Ryan Gilbey, is one of many who hates the five-star system on movie reviews - and who says that trying to choose between 92% and 93% would make him go nuts. Here's what he had to say about numerical ratings when I emailed him:

Scoring, whether you're awarding stars or the somehow-even-more-irritating and pompous grades (C+, A-, etc) which are becoming prevalent online, does such a disservice to the complexities and amorphousness of film - of any art form, in fact. Its sole function is as a consumer guide, a short-cut for readers too lazy to discern for themselves what a writer thinks about the subject in hand.

While allowing exemption for those writers who are forced by their paymasters to award ratings (we've all been there), it seems baffling to me that people who write their own blogs or put grades and ratings in their tweets are doing so out of choice - don't they realise it demeans them and the film? It makes it appear that they don't place any value on a film other than a commercial one. It also encourages the reader and writer to play into the whole star-rating pantomime - the reader inevitably relishes the 1-star review, and the writer performs accordingly, while the 3-star review is given only a cursory read. It's a way of pureeing the review in advance for the reader, warning him or her whether the water will be hot, cold or lukewarm.

I don't want to be read by anyone who needs their hand held through a review, or thinks films can be broken so easily into good, bad and ugly. Ratings are full of anomalies and shortcomings anyway. If Citizen Kane and Andrei Rublev and Some Like It Hot are 5-star movies, how can anything else even be worthy of 3 or 4 stars, let alone 5? Maybe we should invent a sixth star for the canon - and therein lies the insanity of Spinal Tap and the dial that goes up to 11.

The star rating system has commercial currency, no doubt - why else would distributors plaster their posters with quote-less stars ("***** - Daily Mail") which make every advertising hoarding resemble a clear summer night? But challenging it is down to the people who profess to care about the art form they're writing about.

Of course, there are many people willing to defend the score system as a service to the hard-pressed reader: if you only have limited time, then what greater shorthand can there be than a number? At one point in the Bafta debate, McDonald pointed out that IGN's readers really like scores - and Rob Fahey reminded her that it was more that the vocal ones do. (Only around 1 per cent of IGN readers are commenters, so it's impossible to guess the feelings of the community at large.) 

My hope, however, is that the mania for scores is just because we're so used to them - and, actually, we wouldn't really miss them if they went. In the short-term, one single step would make games reviews more interesting: BAN THE NUMBER SEVEN (or anything in the 70s, if you're reviewing out of 100).

Most of the panel agreed last night that 7 is shorthand for "this was interesting but had flaws", and therefore was even more meaningless than other arbitrary numbers. There's also some weird voodoo where, even if a score is nominally out of 10, people still regard 5 as a "bad" mark rather than the average. Seven is thus the new 5. 

Oh, and while we're at it, maybe ban 0 and 10 as well, tarty little attention-seekers that they are.

Once we've got used to that, maybe then we can start on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9.

Obviously, no one is calling for a ban on THIS Seven. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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