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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Deliberate Inequality

So I was recently reading this article on Polygon about unequal racial representations in gaming, and it got my mind jogging. Oftentimes, when someone calls out a system or representation for being racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever, people less versed in the subject are quick to come out and ask what the big deal is, that the person is looking too far into things, claim that it’s a part of the “creative vision” or that SJWs are trying to censor art (that they agree with, of course), etc. In any case, I believe that some of these responses stem from a misunderstanding of some of the basics of social justice analysis.

I think that many people believe that racism et al are only actually worthy of being pointed out if examples of them were done deliberately with malicious intent. For example, my father complains about how the media seems to always be complaining about racism in regards to police activity or their representation in Hollywood, and yet would quite likely stand up for someone if somebody was slinging racial slurs at them in public and discriminating against them in an obvious manner. People like him probably find these “smaller issue” social justice concerns to be extremely frivilous, get burnt out from hearing them all the time and definitely do not consider themselves racist. Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest or education on the subject, they are missing the underlying, unconscious issues in society which are contributing to the lingering of racism/sexism/etc. This often means that people concerned with social equality need to be concerned not so much with the less-common and clearly unacceptable examples of deliberate racism, but moreso with the unintentional examples.

Honestly, I find that deliberate examples of inequality are potentially less offensive than the unintentional, ingrained ones where people don’t even realize that they’re being potentially offensive. To link back to the start of the article, think about how big budget video games and movies rarely feature a hero who is a white, a male and a power fantasy of some sort. Think of how Assassin’s Creed: Unity ditched the option to play as a female assassin, claiming that they didn’t have the development time or budget to do it (which was promptly revealed to be a bullshit excuse, they just didn’t prioritize the female audience). Another good example is in Warhammer 40,000. Every couple months, someone comes onto the Dakka Dakka forums and asks where all the non-whites are in 40k. The simple answer is that there ARE other races in the Warhammer universe, and there are a handful of examples of them in 40k art, but it has literally not even occurred to the painters to paint any of their soldiers non-white. Honestly, I fell into the same trap with my 40k armies. When I was growing up, it never even occurred to me to paint any of my Space Wolves anything other than white. When I started an Imperial Guard army years later, I still didn’t think to paint them anything other than white for quite some time, until one of those Dakka Dakka topics pointed out the issue. We all have our own blind spots where we don’t even realize that we’re missing out on a chance at equality, or at least to make a conscious artistic decision one way or the other.

This is why the Bechdel test is so crazy – women rarely speak to one another about something other than a man because of the way that the screenplay is written. When 2 women speak, they have to advance the plot in some way by the very nature of the narrative. However, the fact that most movies fail the Bechdel test really shows how marginalized women are in movies, and that they aren’t generally the ones who the movie really cares for. It shows that women are not prioritized in the scripts, nor are they generally the focus, and generally serve as little more than plot convenience, especially when they speak to one another (because rarely do they bother to have 2 real women characters with any agency). My friend and I were watching the 1998 Godzilla, which isn’t an overtly sexist film by any means. However, we were commenting on it the whole time, when halfway through I was suddenly struck by the realization that the film had bombed the Bechdel test. There were only a couple scenes in the whole movie which featured two women talking to one another, and they spent all of them talking about a guy as the focal point to set up the love story subplot. It really illustrates where the film’s real focus is, and the fact that it’s so common is distressing (and let’s not even mention the 2014 Godzilla, which doesn’t even feature a single scene with more than one woman in it with a speaking role… this is a frighteningly common reality in movies).

What about deliberate examples of inequality though? The Witcher 3 is getting taken to task for apparent sexism in the game (although I’ll admit, Feminist Frequency does not have the best track record of picking good, clear examples). I haven’t played The Witcher 3 unfortunately, so I can’t comment, but one complaint that sounds valid is that the game features a lot of gendered insults when you play as a female character (or when they’re around at least… again, haven’t played it). Moral judgments about it aside, can we at least agree that having such marked differences in the insults directed at male and female characters is sexist? How odd would it be if enemies taunted your male game hero by saying they were weak, had a small dick, couldn’t pleasure their partner, or threatened to sexually assault them if they fail? Unfortunately, this is a strangely common trope for women in video games: quite a long time ago I wrote about Lollipop Chainsaw, a game I actually rather enjoyed, but lamented how the enemies will frequently call the protagonist a “bitch”, “slut” and threaten to violently sexually assault her. This also apparently happens all the time when you play as Catwoman in Batman: Arkham City – there’s a 6 minute video on Youtube of nothing but the instances where enemies hurl gendered insults at her, which is kind of insane. On the more positive end of the scale, I recently replayed the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 and, despite the island being inhabited by violent, insane, foul-mouthed sailors, I didn’t find the game any less “realistic” for not having them sling gendered insults at Lara all the time. Rather, they simply act as if she was any other badass running around kicking their asses, and shout out her actions (“she’s flanking us!”) rather than taunts.

While gendered insults are undeniably sexist just by definition (male characters get generic taunts, female characters are taunted based on their gender), that isn’t to say that this is something that needs to be eliminated necessarily. I’m wondering if the point that Sarkseesan is trying to make (and the one she tries to make whenever she picks a really questionable example) is simply pointing this out to bring awareness to this potential issue in gaming, rather than saying “This is bad and needs to be eliminated from gaming RIGHT NOW.” If anything, it is more likely stopping devs from taking this sort of thing for granted and trying to get them to be more deliberate when they utilize gendered insults and female characters – is being beaten down and shamed for their gender key to the experience that the devs want to give the player when playing as a female character?

One common mistake that inexperienced writers make is when they try to make their story “mature”, they tend to overcompensate and just saturate it in misery, rape and constant violence. This causes the plot to be completely forgotten or overshadowed, and the acts themselves to feel meaningless. The fix, of course, is for the writer to be more deliberate with the use of mature themes, so that they have the impact that they SHOULD have. Rape, sexism and the like can be used in fiction effectively, but artists should be very deliberate when doing so and do it with the expectation of some potential backlash.

Like, in Season 6 can we finally get to a storyline other than “Who is going to try to rape Sansa this year?”

For example, I hardly want to call myself a great writer, but this deliberate inequality is something I have tried to take into account with my own sci-fi novel I have been working on. It takes place around a thousand years after humanity undergoes a biological revolution and colonizes the galaxy. Racism and sexism aren’t totally dead, but they are significantly diminished because the fearful have turned their attention towards bio-engineered organisms. As a result, women and men (of various races) hold equally prominent positions within the civilian and military structures without people having to comment on it. Homo/trans-phobia is also considered a non-issue in the universe of the story. One major character is bisexual and hated by basically everyone, but no one even thinks to belittle him for his “queerness”. When deliberate inequality is brought up, it is done to show characterization, not just because I decreed that this story featuring six foot spiders and space magic has to be “realistic”. This is not pressuring me to conform to diversity, this is making my story far more interesting and opening up more avenues for creativity than if I stuck to my own narrow “vision”.

People seem to assume that criticism is an attempt at censorship (a misunderstanding which helped kickstart the whole GamerGate movement…). They claim that criticizing media for just fitting with the status quo and featuring “realistic” examples of sexism/racism/etc is an attack on the creative rights of the artist. However, I think that criticism should be seen more as an attempt at artistic improvement. By pointing out examples of inequality, critics are effectively saying “this art would be improved if the female characters weren’t such a flat plot device, consider making them more interesting in the future, because it will enrich the narrative”, or “I would enjoy this more if they weren’t calling the female protagonist a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ all the time, this is grating for me because I hear these sorts of insults get hurled at my sex all the time”. The artist is free to accept or dismiss that criticism however they wish, but if they dismiss it then they shouldn’t expect not to be criticized for it.

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Feminism in Media

In modern North American society, feminists have about as bad a rep as a man goosestepping down the street with a Swastika on his shoulder. That’s not to say that everyone necessarily thinks that women should get back into the kitchen and collectively make us a sandwich. Rather, it would seem to me that both men and women are sick of feminists shoving their agenda down the public’s throat. I’m sure there’s a good deal of failed communication which is at the root of this problem (this is a huge generalization but from my observations, feminists don’t bother to explain their views to the uninitiated and get really angry when anyone goes against them). There’s also the issue that many people think that feminism is beating a dead horse – after all, aren’t women equal to men in society now more or less? I’m not exactly versed in women’s studies so I’ll leave that particular question to someone else to handle.

In any case, despite the stigma which is attached to feminists, I do have to say that I have really noticed considerable sexism and misogyny recently in the media I have been viewing. Three 2013 releases have gotten me thinking about the state of feminism in film today: World War Z, Gangster Squad and (to a much lesser extent) Machete Kills. World War Z is what really kick-started this entire article for me. If you saw the movie, then you probably know what I’m talking about – the entire first half hour of the film features Brad Pitt protecting his useless wife and equally useless daughters who seem to be doing their damnedest to get them all killed. I can guarantee that no one walked out of that film thinking “wow, I really liked Gerry’s wife and kids, they were great characters!” Now I’m not saying that the women should have suddenly picked up machine guns and blown away the zombies while making an obtuse point that women are as good as then men (a la 80s action films). Rather, it would have been nice if they had done… I dunno, anything. Sure, Karen can try to keep her children safe, but she can do that by trying to fight off the zombies sometimes. Or maybe she can not call her husband in the middle of an important life-threatening mission (and subsequently getting a lot of people killed). Oh and when Karen and the kids are holed up on the aircraft carrier, maybe they could try to help out? Hell, read up on the original ending of the film – it was supposed to be even more misogynistic than it ended up being.

Clearly the writers only threw the female characters into World War Z to be plot devices. In a movie like World War Z which feels like it was written and directed by committee, it’s clear that the studio didn’t give a damn about how the women were portrayed in the film or that casual misogyny would affect their bottom-line. In fact, I’m surprised by how well it did and was received in spite of this glaring issue. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa”, where Achebe decries Joseph Conrad for reducing Africans and the continent of Africa in Heart of Darkness to nothing more than a plot device. While I don’t entirely agree with Achebe on his criticisms, he does make a good point, that reducing people and places to plot devices strips their history and identity away, making them little more than a reflection of the male protagonist.

If World War Z kicked off this article, then Gangster Squad sealed the deal that I was going to have to write about it. I was actually very surprised by how Gangster Squad handled women, although considering that it was a rip-off of The Untouchables I probably shouldn’t have been. I’m not really referring to Emma Stone’s character either, the generic femme fatale love interest (and plot device to add some tension for good measure). Instead, I’m referring to basically the only other female character in the film, O’Mara’s wife, Connie. Like World War Z, the women in the film are reduced to plot devices who the male characters don’t seem to actually be all that invested in. The film tries to be uber-macho, with the protagonist O’Mara dealing with organized crime the only way he knows how – by shooting it in the face. Of course, Connie whines to him that he shouldn’t be risking himself because she can’t live without him. Obviously, the point this puts forth is that violence is a man’s realm and passivity is for women… and according to the film and it’s hilariously hamfisted finale, violence is the only thing that gets results. Of course, the whole movie’s a complete fabrication, although you might have figured that out when you saw some of the over the top action in play. Regardless though, it seems that the whole “action gets results” message the film tries to get across is total bunk, making the entire film even stupider in retrospect. That said, I will acknowledge that Connie does get one surprisingly interesting scene where she actually helps O’Mara pick out his “gangster squad”.

Which brings me to Machete Kills. I actually don’t have a huge beef against it in regards to sexism or feminism or anything like that – it’s a tongue-in-cheek exploitation film and therefore it gets a lot more leeway than a mega-blockbuster like World War Z or “historical” film like Gangster Squad. However, it did remind me of a Cracked article in which the authour stated that women rarely get shot in the head on-screen in American cinema. To sum it up, the article states that “the reason that we so rarely see women getting their brains splattered? Masculine violation of, and domination over, a woman occurs on her body and not her head”. Machete Kills actually seems to subvert this idea, since in the opening minutes a female character is shot graphically in the head, on-screen. However, near the ending a pair of women fight and the more physically domineering of the pair shoots the other in the head, but this is left off-screen. The implications there are interesting, since that character’s actions seem to make her androgynous (not that she’s really overtly feminine anyway). I don’t really have any real profound conclusions to give in regards to that, but it’s certainly an interesting observation that’s worth keeping in mind and mulling over.

Before I close, I’d like to mention another example in a video game I played recently, called Lollipop Chainsaw. Again, it’s a tongue-in-cheek exploitation venture so it gets more leeway, not to mention that video games in general have a pretty big sexism issue. However, while I found the game to be quite fun, there was one annoying aspect which I found very grating and more sexist/misogynist than any of the objectification in the game. This aspect was that the enemy dialogue almost always consisted of gendered insults – seriously, nearly every time an enemy yells at you they call the heroine a “slut” or “whore” and, on one particularly colourful occasion, a zombie declares he’s going to “fist his ass with her face”. Ahem. Maybe if it had happened once it would have been shockingly funny, but when the game barrages you with that sort of dialogue over and over it just becomes annoying (at best).

Anyway, hopefully this little write-up has shown that as much as we love to hate them, feminists do have a purpose in society. Equality is still a work in progress, and media still has a way to go before it is truly adequate. Besides, equality doesn’t have to equal hamfisted morals, it can be an epic and subtle action romp like Dredd (seriously, buy the damn movie already!!!).

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