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.

Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror