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Playing the Meta-Metacritic

May 7, 2011

Disclaimer: About halfway through writing this post I realized that “Joseph Bernstein” was likely the same “Joseph Bernstein” that made his way, for a short time, to the games staff over at PopMatters while I was editor. I feel as though I should note that in the little bit of time that Joseph spent as a writer on the PopMatters Multimedia staff, he was courteous and prompt, and he delivered quality reviews. While I may not agree with all of his written evisceration of GamesRadar (and by extension, the entire mass market games journalism racket), he never wronged me or the site I represented in any way.

"...no metaphor too strained..."

As an idealist, sometimes you have to sit back and remind yourself that it takes a tremendous number of wood planks to build a bridge, and if you spend too much of your time hacking the rot out of one of those planks when you’re halfway across that bridge, the whole thing may well fall down.

I have been reading Joseph Bernstein’s Kill Screen undressing of GamesRadar and its journalistic practices with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance. Sour grapes as journalism has never really appealed to me, though Bernstein’s conversational tone and humor throughout the pieces is actually pretty appealing even if all it amounts to is complaining. The fourth and final piece is the step too far, however — it is the essay that causes the reader to wonder just how much of Bernstein’s work is truly reflective of the ridiculousness of the industry, and how much of it is simply the ego of a writer who sees himself as the dying voice of integrity amidst an otherwise complacent and broken system.

The first three parts of the series featured a lot of people doing their job — granted, the way those jobs get done contribute to the somewhat broken nature of the PR-press relationship. It comes down to the dance between PR people who are out to sell their product, and the games press, who depend on those same PR people for information and pre-release product while simultaneously striving to offer something like “objective” critique when a game is released. This is not a phenomenon unique to the gaming industry (sponsored junkets and pre-release screenings are necessary evils when it comes to covering film, for example), but the fact that gaming is still struggling for something like widespread legitimacy as an art form makes the problems feel more pointed. But really, people are doing their jobs, and it’s up to the consumer to figure out which news and review sources can be trusted, and which ones are in the pockets of PR.

The fourth and final entry in the series, however, is called “I Am the Metacritic”, and as the title implies, it involves game reviews. Tasked to write a game review, the intrepid intern is told that if he feels as though he must score a game in a way that deviates too much from whatever the current Metacritic score is, he will have to do the additional work of providing a formal justification for that score to his editor.

Now, this in itself does seem silly. Theoretically, the review itself would be justification for the score, would it not? To offer a separate justification seems redundant at best, as Bernstein points out.

His solution to the inconvenience, however, is to give scores of 6 out of 10 to games that he finds utterly wretched, simply so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of justifying those scores to his editor.

NOOOOO! NO NO NO! NO!

Story time:

When I, as gaming editor at PopMatters, requested a product for the sake of a review, the PR person in charge of sending out that product often asked that I send a link their way once the review was posted. This is a simple request and an understandable one, but it was a request that always made me nervous, given my natural predilection for avoiding conflict at all costs.

Providing a link was, of course, never a problem when the review was positive. I just hated sending the negative ones, because generally, I had a pretty good relationship with the PR folks. The ones who sent us review copies knew what we did, they knew I didn’t promise anything other than the fact that a few hundred words would be written and published about their game, and that was fine. Sending a link to a negative review, however, opens up an awkward line of communication. The best case is that they don’t send a response, and I go on interacting with them as if I’d never sent it.

In a couple of instances, reps stopped sending us review copies after I sent those links. I have no proof that the lack of material was related to the lousy reviews, but I do have my suspicions. PopMatters is not the first destination people think of when they think of video game coverage, and quite frankly, most of these publishers don’t need us. The PR relationships were tenuous, and changed at a whim, and so losing contact with publishers for months at a time was not uncommon whether it was related to a review or not.

One time, however, PR for a major publisher took a special interest in one of the reviews published on PopMatters. Word of mouth on the game was very good, but for whatever reason, our writer didn’t care for it. We posted the low score, and I reluctantly passed along the link.

And for the first and only time, the recipient of that link took issue.

The resulting back-and-forth brought in discussion of our score in relation to the Metacritic score, criticism of the minutae of the review, and the insinuation that maybe our days of getting review material from that publisher were at an end (note: they weren’t. Despite the immediate reaction, our relationship with that publisher remained fine). PopMatters did not change a word of the review or the score, and I’m a little bit proud of that, honestly.

Here’s my point: I was inconvenienced that day. It was about 20 minutes worth of e-mails, and 20 minutes worth of stressing over exactly how to word them. Not the way I wanted to spend two thirds of an hour, but very little trouble. At most, that’s all the trouble justifying a 2 or a 3 would have been for Bernstein.

"AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, JOSEPH?!"

His reasoning for not wanting to go through the trouble is that he didn’t want to be the person who argued for the sake of giving a low score to a “minor” video game. To his credit, he admits that “Pride is a sin…but it’s my favorite one.” Pride for him is to only fight the battles that he deems worthy of fighting, battles that are apparently related to the relative popularity of whatever he might be covering. I guess, after 1000 words of trying to figure it out, that’s my problem here — I think they all should be worth fighting. Without honesty, a review is worthless. Integrity when it comes to minor games leads to trust when it comes to major ones. While that “6” may not have had much of an impact, maybe a “2” would have had an impact. It can characterize you as either fearless or reckless; either way, the words you assign your name to mean a little more.

If you don’t think those battles are worth fighting, you’re part of the problem.

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