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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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