The Best Review Money Can Buy

Jane at GameGirlAdvance writes an apologia for game review puffery, as a result of Gamespy getting busted perverting the central message of one of their writer’s reviews. The executive summary of her article is “editing game reviews is so very hard!”

Huh? No, it isn’t. Why are some authors and editors so intent on pretending that it is? Anyone who tells you that this is a difficult, thorny problem is telling you a bunch of apologist, industry-shill claptrap. They are part of the problem.

The idea that shilling for the industry is somehow only unethical if you make a change in a review because Nintendo calls you up and demands it is ludicrous. Part of being a professional reviewer is having credibility. Credibility means that the reader has reasonable confidence that you’re not so overwhelmed by the “selfless generosity” of the content producers that your reviews self-redact. Gamespy (and Gamespot, and many other sites who rely on press releases for regular content) self-redact because they know full well which side their bread is buttered on.

Regardless of whether or not Nintendo picks up the phone.

There’s not a single game writer at the major sites with as much credibility as the lowliest newspaper movie reviewer (I, in my infinite sagacious wisdom, of course, have that credibility, but I don’t really kid myself that I have a significant audience. And I pay for most of my games, specifically to avoid this issue.) Who, exactly, should we blame for this state of affairs, if not the people who choose to publish stories without regard to their credibility? When Roger Ebert says a movie is great, no one – no one – thinks for even a second that he’s saying it because he liked the shrimp cocktail at the reception after the premiere. Where’s the mainstream published game reviewer with that sort of credibility?

Not writing for Gamespy.

The other aspect of this is that of editing the writer’s work. There is, as Jane points out, absolutely nothing wrong with “editing.” The problem is that there is a bright line between copyediting and completely changing the meaning of a piece. To pretend that not crossing this line is challenging or difficult is disingenuous and, dare I say it, dishonest. Anyone skilled enough to be editing a magazine (even an online one) knows full well the difference between editing for readability on the one hand and changing the adjective “terrible” to the adjective “awesome” on the other. One of those is the rightful province of an editor, and the other is a violation of standard journalistic practices, and requires taking an extra 5 minutes to pick up the phone and get the author’s approval. Even if you, as the editor, have screwed up and not allotted enough time for a proper editing cycle.

Jane’s questions about how to fix the problem are insulting. “Oh, how can we ever solve this terrible situation? Reviewing games is so very difficult. Surely, I can’t imagine any way to untie this Gordian knot without a revolution.”

Here on Tea Leaves, we don’t rate games in terms of stars, or little mushrooms, or indeed on any sort of a scale. As psu eloquently said to me this morning “The whole idea of ranking games is stupid. We don’t rank shoes.”

All that’s needed to write (and edit) great reviews is a commitment to clear writing, a desire to be something other than an industry shill, and the strength of character to keep your published words consistent with that desire. One easy (though not comprehensive) measure that I like to use is noticing what percentage of a site’s reviews are devoted to undercovered games (such as excellent shareware, freeware, or those published by indie game studios) as compared to those that are devoted to the same old high-marketing- budget garbage. That’s the package you need to write great and credible reviews.

Some of us have that package. Greg Costikyan has it. Gamers With Jobs has it. Curmudgeon Gamer has it. Gamespy doesn’t. Gamespot doesn’t.

Well, how about it, Jane? Do you have it?