Review Misuse

Critical reviews are an endless source of discussion in popular culture. On the one hand, they offer a useful tool to sort through content and get a general idea of whether the product will appeal to you. On the other hand though, people often bristle at review scores and find themselves in a sharp divide between critical opinion and public perception. TotalBiscuit recently put out a pretty good video highlighting the disconnect between reviewers and the general public after the latest debacle regarding review scores of the Mad Max video game. In case you don’t feel like watching/listening to a 40 minute video, TotalBiscuit basically says that reviewers and the public have differing opinions on what constitutes value, that the public tends to value familiarity over innovation and that the public puts too much stock into review scores rather than the content of reviews themselves. While I liked the video, I think that TotalBiscuit waffled a little too much and didn’t really dig hard enough into the issues at hand for my tastes.

First off, I will agree 100% that people (particularly video gamers in my experience) put way too much emphasis into review scores. This is generally where the most ridiculous controversies spring from, such as the numerous occasions where reviewers have received death threats for giving games a glowing 9/10 review. This is due in part to some members of the gaming media’s really poorly skewed scoring system, which has messed with gamers’ expectations of what score a game should receive. I can’t be the only one who has noticed that many video game reviewers tend to score games very “softly”, giving almost every major release an 8 or a 9, with one or two huge releases typically getting 10s. For many gamers, this has created the expectation that games scoring lower than a 8 are unacceptable, even though the scale itself has been incredibly devalued and uninformative (and even then, they have a hard time accepting an 8 for a hyped, triple-A release).

In spite of its problems, I actually rather like the 10-point review scale (or its various gradients, such as the 100-point scale). As a bit of a stats geek, I like the idea of being able to quantify my feelings towards a piece of media through a simple system like this. This is the whole reason that I signed up for an IMDb account more than a decade ago and have been tracking every movie I’ve seen ever since. Obviously it’s still not perfect – “so bad they’re good” movies such as Troll 2 get a low rating for quality but I find them endlessly enjoyable. Other movies just may be super generic or very flawed, but I like them quite a bit anyway (such as Howling V).

That said, I don’t find websites like Metacritic to be very helpful*. Metacritic prioritizes review scores over the content of the reviews themselves, effectively making anything but that final score worthless. This also becomes problematic when different reviewers use differing review scales – since many game reviewers are “soft” these days, the few that actually do use the full spectrum of the 10-point scale can knock a game’s Metacritic score down and cause an uproar. This becomes even more distressing though, because publishers have been known to hand out bonuses to developers for hitting score-thresholds on Metacritic. How about this publishers: if you want the game to hit a score-threshold on Metacritic, then maybe give your developers more time to polish the game and don’t hold them to a hard-and-fast release deadline? Or worse, what are the odds that the desire for high review scores and sales stifles creativity by stifling innovation?

Another element that I thought that TotalBiscuit missed the mark on was the disconnect between critics and the public. He was acting like he thought critics were on a totally different wavelength from the rest of us. Personally, I think this stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of critics. In essence, a critic is someone who has studied, and consumes, a lot of media and therefore has an informed opinion on whether individual media is worth consuming, which they pass on to the public as a form of service. Having seen a wider variety of good and bad content than most consumers, a critic tends to be better able to judge the quality of a piece of art. That said, it must always be remembered that a critic is just a professional giver of opinions – even the best critic will find themselves at odds with other critics and/or the public at times and it isn’t unheard of for peoples’ opinions to change over time. The critic’s own preferences can also affect the review process – it’s pretty common for horror movies to get mixed to negative reviews, even if they’re well-regarded amongst fans of the genre.

The disconnect comes from a couple elements of the differences between critics and consumers. Many consumers will have a very limited scope of the media – they may only watch summer blockbusters, or only play first person shooters, or not have a lot of interest in the finer points of a genre outside of whether they enjoyed it or not. As a result, reviews might not even be that big a factor in their purchase, but rather a badge of pride that something they like is considered “good”. These will often be the consumers most vocally hostile towards critics as, from their perspective, critics are held in high regard but do not line up with their understanding of media. This is related to arguably my favourite post on this blog, Translating Ideology, where I explored the gulfs that form between people with different world views. It’s a strange dichotomy – they may personally dislike critics for disagreeing with their perspectives, but still hold their opinions as authoritative and somehow able to diminish their media. Consumers in this mindset need to keep into perspective that, in the end, critics are just putting out their opinions.

Perhaps this prods at a deeper area of resentment though – the old hatred of “snobby intellectuals” versus the uneducated “everyman” who knows what is actually good and what isn’t (this is what Conservapedia would refer to as “the best of the public”, and you know it has to be great if Conservapedia endorses it…). I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an element of this in complaints about snobby critics, where the consumer is literally too unlearned on the subject to understand the critic’s perspective. Bear in mind that this isn’t to say that the consumer is wrong to enjoy whatever media they want to, but it is worth understanding that the divergence between critics and consumers comes down to a wide variety of personal experiences, not simply because “critics like innovation, consumers like what’s familiar” as TotalBiscuit boils it down to.

Wrapping things up, I think that we need to keep a few things about reviews in mind in the future. First of all, don’t put all your faith in review scores, but be sure to read the full reviews to see if you agree with their analysis. Secondly, understand that a “low” review score can still be great – I really enjoyed Lollipop Chainsaw and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, both relatively low-scoring games which I feel deserved their lower score for technical/design reasons, but which were still well worth playing. I myself gave Alien Isolation a 6/10 on this blog, but enjoyed it for the most part and would recommend trying it. Lastly, keep in mind that the opinion of a critic is just that – an opinion. If you have different experiences than they do, then you may disagree and that’s totally fine. Don’t let it diminish your own feelings towards a piece of media.

*That said, I actually quite like Rotten Tomatoes’ system. Instead of just averaging the differing scales of a handful of critics, Rotten Tomatoes measures from the number of critics who “liked” and “disliked” the movie and then gives it a “fresh” rating if more than 60% of critics liked it. It’s a much better aggregate system in my opinion and tends to be my personal source for information on a movie’s reception.

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“Best of the Public”

If you’ve been on the Internet for a while, chances are you’ve heard of the batshit insanity which is Conservapedia, a wiki with an extremely abrasive, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist bias. Featuring such enlightening articles such as how all liberals are totally stupid, corrupt degenerates and a list of college majors that’ll turn you into a dirty liberal, the site is clearly totally unreliable to anyone with half a mind to think for themselves – and yes, I’m including plenty of conservatives in that estimation since the site alienates all but the most hard-line fundamentalists. However, Conservapedia does include one interesting little tidbit to be stumbled upon that I’ve been mulling over lately. The site’s founder, Andrew Schlafly, famously declared in an interview that “the best of the public is better than a group of experts”. Unlike most things espoused on Conservapedia, I think that the best of the public is a philosophical idea which actually deserves some examining to determine whether or not it actually holds any water, and to see why Conservapedia might want to promote such a doctrine.

The primary philosophical idea which Conservapedia tries to combat with the best of the public is that of “gatekeeping”. Gatekeepers refer to those who control the flow of knowledge, and can affect the social perceptions of individuals. This is also how experts are created because they are educated within the social system – as a result, their beliefs are often tempered towards the status quo. This also ties into credentials, since having good credentials signals that someone is an “expert” and therefore more powerful on the social hierarchy than someone who has no credentials. As a result, people will continue to support the status quo in order to avoid losing their authority. This is the basic idea that the editors of Conservapedia put forth to support their best of the public philosophy: since “experts” are compromised by the status quo, they cannot support the truth. The public is free from such conflicts of interest and therefore a non-expert can look on a subject without bias. However, since they are not credentialed experts, the best of the public are often shot down by experts for not having experience. In its most basic form, the best of the public actually seems to offer a decent argument for why the public can be better than the morally compromised experts. Continuing this Philosophy 101 line of thought, Conservapedia experts seem to feel that the best of the public are like those who were released from Plato’s cave, individuals who aren’t trapped in a monolithic structure and are able to see the truth that the experts are ignorant of.

However, the whole philosophy has some pretty enormous logical holes. First of all, how does one determine who the best of the public are? Does any random Joe Shmoe off the street qualify? The only way I can give the idea any sort of credence is if the “best of the public” has extensive knowledge of a subject in question, otherwise they’re just “the public”… of course, this dramatically lowers the number of people who can qualify, and overlaps significantly with “experts”. The examples on the best of the public page don’t really help clarify matters any – how the hell is the Virgin Mary an example of the “best of the public”??? Is anyone who did anything without getting credentialed for it first suddenly considered “the best”? Geez, I must be the best Tim Horton’s employee ever because I didn’t do my training videos to get credentialed!

Pfft, look at those “experts”. I’d take ’em all on in a Timbit war, blindfolded.

There’s also the problem that the best of the public just makes less sense than credentialing. Put simply, the expert opinion social structure has more sound reasoning behind it. Experts are considered as such for a reason – they (generally) know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve studied the topic for years and so should have a good idea of the arguments and counter-arguments within the community. Comparing an expert to a guy who read all about a topic on Wikipedia Conservapedia and then claiming that the uncredentialed guy has more authority on a subject than someone who dedicated their life to studying and experiencing it is just lunacy. Oh and of course, if the uncredentialed person in question is a liberal then they’re disqualified from being the best of the public by default regardless of their stance.

This really leads into the obvious problem with the best of the public – it’s espoused by Conservapedia and therefore has an extreme fundamentalist-conservative bias. Conservapedia’s editors will claim that the experts are biased and the best of the public aren’t, but their entire conception of who qualifies is based on their political leaning – disagree with Conservapedia, and you’re suddenly exempt from qualification. Conservapedia also seems to be at odds with itself in determining the best of the public and experts, because they still cite “reputable” sources on their pages and Andrew Schlafly’s own page is just a rundown of all the credentials he has. It’s pretty clear that the best of the public is just used by Conservapedia as an excuse to discredit ideologies that they disagree with (eg, evolution) and replace them with pro-fundamentalist ideologies (eg, creationism and/or intelligent design).

While the best of the public is probably not a very great way to go about reforming the social construction of knowledge, it does have some good insights. Experts might be given too much credit sometimes, as it’s very easy for them to throw out their credentials or experience and rub it in someone’s face, rather than addressing counter-arguments directly. Ideally, the best of the public can stand beside expert opinion and shape knowledge together… but they’ll have to put politics aside first if they want the idea to have any sort of chance of working.

For the love of God, please put the politics away before someone gets hurt.

For further reading on the issues with the best of the public, check out the RationalWiki’s article on the subject. Just a note of discretion, RationalWiki is basically just the anti-Conservapedia-wiki so it’s not like its unbiased, but the points they make are certainly quite valid and helped shape my own ideas on the subject.

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Opinion: Connecticut Shootings

Obviously everyone’s heard about the shootings in Connecticut by now. Words can’t really do justice to the crime that was committed or the lives that have been devastated by one psychopath’s actions. Offering my condolences is just a drop amongst tens of millions doing the same though, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m anything special for doing so.

Moments after this shooting happened, I think pretty much everyone knew that this shooting would be the catalyst for gun control debates. Hell, pretty much every public shooting for years has instantly renewed gun control debates (which, of course, went nowhere as we have seen). As a Canadian, the end result of this debate doesn’t really affect me, but every time I see this sort of crap in the news it makes me smack my head at American politics.

Simply put: why the hell do Americans need guns so badly!? Yes, “guns don’t kill people” and all that bullshit, but access to guns makes it a hell of a lot easier. I’m all for people being allowed to have guns, but there needs to be a freaking limit: no automatics, no handguns, no weapons in public, etc. I think these are pretty damn reasonable in a civilized society. And for those who say “if everyone had a gun we’d all be safe!!!”… you’re a tool. If there’s a shooter and someone else pulls out a gun to shoot them, then no one’s going to differentiate between the “savior” and the “shooter”, and there’s a good chance you’re going to cause collateral damage. Bottom line: less access to guns = less public shootings.

Also, it’s totally low-hanging fruit, but I’d like to address Conservapedia’s response to the shootings. In their news ticker, they wrote that:

“Liberal claptrap for gun control begins within hours of today’s tragic murders, which would not have happened if laws banning guns for self defense in public school were repealed.”

Well no shit Sherlock. For one thing, you’re disparaging them for politicizing an event by politicizing it in your favour (bias by Conservapedia? NEVER). For another, guns in schools are a terrible idea. Period. Maybe for teachers, but even then I somehow doubt that the tragic murders “would not have happened” if they had weapons. There’s also escalation to take into account – if they go on a school shooting and know there will be guns to worry about, I get the feeling they’ll start packing body armour (another relatively easy thing to get ahold of in the States)… I’m surprised they didn’t bitch about how Connecticut is a “liberal” state…

Also posted on Conservapedia’s front page:

“Will authorities admit whether this young mass murderer was addicted to violent video games?

Earlier this week, the Oregon shooting by video game player mimicked Grand Theft Auto game

That game features ‘mall rampages’ whereby a player shoots randomly inside a mall.”

Again, politicizing the event (but God forbid that the liberals do the same!), but in a rather hypocritical way. They will defend their guns to the death, but it’s video games that need to have laws set against them. Not to mention that video games haven’t been linked to actual acts of violence (they may cause aggression in some, but that does not constitute violence itself… in any case, the studies have been inconclusive). Video games are so common in society now that it’s pretty unlikely that someone who went on a school shooting would not play them. That said, I think some parents should stop being morons and keep inappropriate games out of their kids’ hands until their old enough, but I don’t think they’re going to turn into psychopaths if they don’t… if they’re psychotic, then they would be whether they played Call of DutyGrand Theft Auto, etc or not. Blaming video games is really old now. Start blaming… I dunno… Smart Phones, they’re the new media now. Radio waves are frying our childrens’ brains! Burn Steve Jobs’ corpse for witchcraft!

In conclusion, the Connecticut shootings are a huge tragedy, but I can’t honestly say anything consoling about them. I hope it doesn’t happen again? Haha, yeah right, with the current gun laws and the number of weapons spread across the country, it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” the next shooting occurs. Even if you’re a gun nut, you have to admit this. America, if you want this sort of thing to ever stop, or at least slow down, then you have to cut back on your gun fetish. Make some small concessions and in the long-term you’ll all be a lot safer.

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