Reviews are everywhere. They provide entertainment, spark debate, and help consumers make informed purchases. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a video game without reading or watching some reviews first. Hell, before I buy anything, I like to see what people are saying about it. Based on the number of YouTubers, bloggers, and magazines that have built their brands mainly around reviews of various stuff, I imagine I’m not alone. I expect I am alone, however, when it comes to my feelings about review scores.
I wish that fewer outlets used them. Especially for media. I think they work great in a lot of respects, but they rarely provide value in reviews of media. I dream of becoming a big shot editor somewhere and tyrannically outlawing them from the publication. Although whenever I say that as an answer to “where do you see yourself in five years” in job interviews I don’t get a call back for some reason.
I’ve written numerous reviews for video games, music, and books, and I’m always thankful when an outlet doesn’t use scores. I find the score either clouds my view the whole time I’m writing or serves as a roadblock toward the end. Review scores are often a distraction for readers, and the same goes for the writer!
But being a distraction isn’t the problem. Headlines or featured media can be distractions too, but I would never argue against including them. The difference is that while those elements serve other useful functions, review scores almost never do.
Why do they work for non-media topics?
I say “almost” because review scores do serve a useful function when we aren’t talking about media. Or food. Basically, if you’re reviewing something highly subjective, I think you should stick to words.
I have a quick-and-dirty test for whether something is too subjective for a review score. Can you measure what that thing does against other similar things? Are those measurements going to be the main reason why people are reading this review? If yes to both, slap a score on.
For example, I could measure a movie against other films to tell you how its duration, number of actors, and the average length of its scenes compare, but no one is looking for that information. They want to know whether the story was gripping, whether the characters felt real, whether the whole ordeal was memorable. But if you took a frying pan and compared it with others to find out how hot it gets, how evenly it distributes heat, and how heavy it is, that would be useful information. People want to know those things before they buy and try to fry. You can quantify them and use those numbers to inform a score.
Review scores evoke a sense of objectivity that doesn’t fit the context of a media review. You and I may both consider ourselves fans and connoisseurs of video games, yet we likely disagree strongly on some of the most notable titles. The qualities I find endearing about it may annoy you. What you consider a 10 might be a 6 for me, and vice versa. A number or a letter does nothing to explain why that might be.
A lack of nuance
While scores don’t make sense to me, I still believe reviews of subjective things like food and media have value. A number can’t communicate a complex, subjective experience, but words absolutely can. Regardless of the score a video game gets, I can usually tell whether I would enjoy it when I read a well-written review. The same is true for music, food, and just about anything else I can think of.
A good reviewer takes note of their biases and mentions where they may have affected the experience. You probably do the same thing when someone asks for your opinion on a book or a movie. Maybe you say something like “I love Victorian writing, but you may not enjoy this book if you aren’t into that style” or “well, I’m usually not a big fan of romcoms, but I didn’t find this one so cringey”. You probably also communicate basic facts about how the story works. A good review does this too. It should provide readers or viewers with enough information that they can decide whether that piece of media is worth their time. That is, literally, the whole point of a review.
I have read reviews for games that got a 6 or a 7 – scores that for some reason are considered failing grades in the world of video games – and decided to play them. Why? Because the article was well-written so I could tell that the gripes the reviewer had were things I either didn’t care about or would tend to enjoy.
Review scores are an imperfect analog
Review scores reduce a complicated opinion that draws its reasons from topics about which people may disagree into a simple matter of good and bad. With something that can basically only be good or bad, like cookware, that’s not a problem. You can just tell me how good this ceramic pot is, and I’ll know whether I should buy it.
Media doesn’t serve a singular purpose like that. There are many reasons to read a book, for example. Do you want to learn something? Are you looking to be entertained for a while? Do you want to weigh difficult philosophical concepts? Not every book will meet your needs. A review score would tell you nothing. You need more context to make an informed decision. (Thankfully, book reviews rarely seem to come with scores.)
You’ll gain that context from the article itself, and you’ll also get a sense of whether that piece of media was any good. I fail to see how a review score would augment or improve that experience for the reader.
Also, who on Earth interacts with a piece of media and thinks to themself afterward, “now that was an 8.3/10”? Or, alternatively, “that sucked. 2.7/10”? Numbers are possibly the worst analog for goodness you could come up with. At least letter grades have one option for things that aren’t worth your time: F for Fail. If a game is so bad it fails, it matters to no one whether it’s a 2, 3, or a 4. It’s more relevant to spend time thinking about the top end of the spectrum. Someone could conceivably care about whether this is a masterpiece or merely okay.
Alternatives to review scores
Review scores do one thing well: they give you an excuse not to read the article. That sounds bad, but I mean that. Not everyone wants to read 12 1,000-word reviews to find some new music to listen to. If a reader has heard that a band is good and they call up a review of the new album, all they’ll need to see is that 8.5/10 before they go ahead and hit play on Spotify. Of course, when they do play the album and the music is experimental noise rock, they will probably stop trusting your website.
There are better ways to accommodate people who are looking for a fast answer about whether this media is worth their time. Ways that leave subjectivity and context intact.
My favourite method is a bullet-point summary of what the thing does well and what it gets wrong. It can be a pros and cons list, or it can just be a summary box that mentions a few key points. A lot of reviews already do this alongside a score, and that’s great! Give me a sense of what this thing is like so I can tell whether it appeals to me. Ideally your headline and deck should do that too, but look man, it’s the internet, we gotta slide jokes in there where possible.
Another method I like comes from old-school gaming magazines I remember reading as a kid. They had a system that used colours and words instead of numbers. The scores were something like “highly recommended,” “recommended for fans of the genre,” “rent it first” (it was the 90s), and “skip it” (or probably something edgier since, again, the 90s). You could use anything you want here to add context, though I would advise against sending readers to the nearest Blockbuster. I like pointing toward the genre, since that’s typically a large factor for prospective buyers.
Rant was okay but a little niche, 6/10
Of course, I strongly doubt we’re going to see a mass movement away from review scores. Sites like Metacritic give publications a reason to keep using them. Also, while I complained above about how review scores don’t serve readers well, it’s undeniably the case that readers expect them. Whether it’s Siskel and Ebert’s iconic thumbs-up system, stars, numbers, letters, or something else, people enjoy some sort of verdict to sum things up.
Again, a big part of that is because people are looking for a quick answer about whether something is worth their time and money. I just think we can do better, with minimal effort.
Until the day comes that I am that tyrannical editor-in-chief (ask me about my other plans), I suppose I’ll have to suck it up and deal with it.
All of that said, I have heard strong defences of review scores in the past. What’s your take on them? Let me know in the comments or on social media.