Why are gamers obsessed with review scores?

BATTLEFIELD 3

Battlefield 3 is going live tomorrow and already the “Day 0 reviews” are hitting the net, and as is usual with these kind of things, the battlefield 3 fanbois are furious. Furious I tell you, that the game received only a…9 out of 10 on one review site which game Modern Warfare 2 a far better score back in the day.

Following that incident, there’s not only been quite a lot of flak thrown IGN’s way1 but also a flood of review scores are hitting the front pages, celebrating the high score or denouncing the dirty rotten reviewer who dares to rate it lower than expected. Valid low points of the game, such as the campaign being far too trite, small and linear are trivialized (“BF3 was never about single player, why are you surprised”) and every high review score is upvoted to prominence.

The whole phenomenon is interesting to me because of how similar it is to behaviour of fans of sports teams who agonize for their placement in the league, for how many games they’ve won or lost and take it as an  almost personal insult when someone badmouths their team. And yet, video gamers tend to snub their nose at sports fans for their obsession with their teams, as if their own behaviour is better.

On the average however it isn’t. Time and again, reviewers not only get lambasted by the fans of a particular game when they rate it low, but there have been more than a few cases of threats and wishes of physical violence against such reviewers for doing such an unthinkable thing.

But reviews are generally directed at people who are undecided about a particular game, so why are those who are already convinced of its superiority upset about a low score or obsessed with achieving as many high scores as possible?

At a base level, I think this is because of the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight combined with Choice Supportive Bias. That is, the people already convinced of the quality or superiority of a particular game, either because they are long time fans, or because they have already put a significant portion of their disposable income towards it, tend to start thinking themselves in that group. When someone puts down their choice2 then the first explanation put forth for this event, is that the people doing it are in the out-group or stupid: They are biased, they are sold out, they are unprofessional and so on.

Thus if IGN rates the Battlefield 3 worse than Modern Warfare 2, then the most logical explanation is that they are playing for the another team, at which point the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight comes into play.

But further than this, we see a much greater obsession with scoring in reviews than almost everything else. In no other product will you see such praise or anger towards review scores from large publications, than you will see in video game circles. Sure, Android and iPhones, MS Windows and GNU/Linux, Vim and Emacs, they all get their own share of fanboi wars, but from what I’ve seen there’s just not this amount of bitterness created by such conflicts and when it happens, it’s usually because of the choice supportive bias such expensive gadgets create.

Now to be accurate, not all games create such a rabid protectionism in their followers. Games like Red Orchestra 2 for example, which are similar enough, never had such an extreme reaction to bad reviews. So there’s obviously some factors that drive up the fanboysim.

One of the most important ones I believe is that focus on multiplayer that a game has. The more multiplayer focused a game is, the more people you want to have playing it, so that you have a robust community with a lot of choices for the players. A bad review can cause people who are on the fence pass the game and thus reduce the community size, which will can indirectly impact the multiplayer experience of those who really like the game (i.e. nobody wants to find only empty servers). A good review on the other hand can make more people join the fun, and thus the incentive to promote and praise such reviews.

Incidentally, I’ve also seen the exact opposite result against games the majority didn’t like. A recent example is Brink, which for various reasons disappointed a lot of those expecting it. Personally I found the game great but in those initial days of its release, I found it practically impossible to find a positive review of it upvoted in reddit. Such articles were almost immediately downvoted and thus buried from eyesight, by those who felt they got burnt from the game. Why did so many people felt the need to prevent others from discovering a game they didn’t like? I’m guessing they thought they were preventing others from getting burnt as well, but could it also be that allowing the promotion of such a multiplayer game would in a sense “steal audience” from all the other multiplayer games?

The second reason I feel promotes fanboyism is when there’s active competition. Both Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 come out within weeks of each other. They are the most widely anticipated releases of the year and they compete for practically the same audience. Realistic looking modern warfare multiplayer FPS experience. There has always been a simmering comparison between these two, much like back in the time, there was comparison between Starcraft and Total Annihilation, even though they had significantly different playstyle. But the fact that both were Sci-Fi RTS that came out around the same time, gave rise to the inenvitable comparison between the two.

Today, in the eyes of many, the underdog that has been the Battlefield series, attempts to finally dethrone the leading champion that is the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Many still enjoy both just as much, but the marketing force of EA certainly pushes the comparison in the eyes of the audience3. So even if many players are prepared to enjoy both franchises, not only do the companies behind those games prefer a direct competition, but many of their fanboys see it this way as well, and will lose no opportunity to put down the opposition.

Which, unsurprisingly, is what a bad review becomes. The opposition. Treason.

Finally a lot has to do with the intended audience as well. The sheer popularity of those games and their target audience of teenage boys and young adult males means that those more impressed by the marketing and word of mouth, will also tend to be fairly impulsive and immature (Just take a look here and see how many references to male masturbation you can find). This is likely to exaggerate asymmetric insight and choice selection bias, thus further stoking flames against those badmouthing their newest favourite game.

I will admit, I’ve also noticed that I’ve fallen victim to a lot of the above biases. I too catch myself upvoting positive aspects of the game and downvoting mentions of negative. I check myself to avoid it, but it’s notoriously difficult to control one’s subconscious impulses. It is precisely because I see how much this drive to belong and support “my team” is affecting my behaviour, that I decided to write this post and explore the reasons behind it.

Personally I think review scores are irrelevant and that most major publications are sold out anyway, so there’s little reason to trust their reviews, whether those are negative or positive towards the game. I have a different idea on what constitutes a useful review in a findamentally subjective experience such as a video game, but that’s a subject for another day.

  1. Disclaimer: I don’t have much love for IGN myself, for being a sold-out advertisement mouthpiece. This is an attitude I’ve had regardless of whether they are praising my favourite games or not. As a matter of fact, I would think that a 9/10 is very good, if I thought such numerical scales are a good way to rate games. []
  2. compared to their expectations that is, because giving a game a 9/10 instead of a 9.5/10 is not a big difference []
  3. See for example how they close some of their trailers with a quote of “Beyond the Call”, which is a direct jab at the Call of Duty series []