Where are the expert game reviewers?

Hello folks, long time no see. Today I want to talk to you about game critics and their lack of knowledge and expertise. I’d like to do this in relation to the numerous reviews for Xbox One’s Forza Motorsport 5 that have appeared online this week.

Before I continue, some caveats. I have not yet played FM5 and I do not know whether it is a good or bad game. The issues I want to discuss are separate from the game’s ultimate quality. Turn 10’s track record and the footage I have seen it seems the core gameplay is as good as ever but the game has been widely marked down despite this due to lack of content and DLC whoring. That seems fair, Microsoft and Turn 10 are taking cynical route to monetising the game. But, that’s not what I want to talk about here.

What do I want to talk about? Know-nothing game critics that’s what. We can’t all be experts in every genre but I do remember a time when you’d expect a reviewer to be grounded in the core genres of gaming. By that I meant experience and knowledge of shooters, platform games, adventures, RPG, racing games and the like.

However this week has shown that level of expertise even among the highest profile members of the business has all but disappeared. Over the last few days I’ve watched many video streams of game reviewers playing Forza Motorsport 5. In many cases these videos feature that site’s “expert” who was writing the review and his dude-bro team members who were trying the game for the first time and needed the expert’s advice.

Oh lord, that expert would be nothing of the kind. How wrong can you get the pronunciation of well known car brands and models? Watch a mainstream game site stream to find out. Want to hear historic and famous race circuit names said by people who have never heard of them, tune into the most popular video review sites. Some expert eh?

Watch the videos to hear them talk of playing with at least half the game assists switched on including the racing line. Hear the derisory laughter as one of the team asks “have you tried it in full sim mode” as though he’d asked the expert if he blew goats. Who would play a racing sim in sim mode they laugh, only some kind of pathetic geek. I get it, you might not be skilled enough to play in sim mode. Honestly that really is fine. But guys, how about at least trying it for the sake of the review, eh? Gaming, once a ghetto, has gone mainstream and is building its own ghettos now for those who don’t conform to a narrow vision.

And oh God the lack of knowledge of the franchise thus far, of basic facts to do with the game they are playing and some of the most basic game mechanics common to the franchise. Has it come to this that one of the most popular genres in gaming is now too outside the mainstream for any of these sites to have someone who knows anything about them? Is this it now, shooters or nothing? I watched a video review of Forza 5 (which gave it 5/5 by the way) where the reviewer was gushing with surprise and delight about the main game mechanic as though it was new. That game mechanic has been with us nearly two decades thanks to Gran Turismo. To him though, it was brand new. Ten years ago if I’d walked into a job interview and displayed this lack of knowledge I’d never have got some of the jobs I was lucky enough to have. I wouldn’t have been hired as a staff reviewer – never mind making it as an editor.

During my career as an editor I tried to match games with reviewers who had knowledge and experience of the genre. Readers don’t want to know how crap a writer is at platform games, or how much she hates playing them. Readers want to know how good that platform game is, how it stacks up against the competition, how it subverts, evolves or reinvigorates the genre. When I was a site editor there was no way I’d have given Forza 5 to some of these “experts” at major game sites. Yet seemingly, judging by the even lesser knowledge of their dude-bro colleagues, they really are the experts in their office. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Gametrailers’ Kyle Bosman joked in his latest video column of how the ability to stream games will bypass the mainstream game reviewers rendering them useless. I can see that happening but not merely because there’s something better about watching the game being played. The problem is there’s a crisis in games criticism – the lack of expertise. Get the guys on the subject of Battlefield or Call of Duty and you’ll be fine, they play these a lot with their friends. But wander from the core shooter genre and you’re in trouble. That is why games reviews on mainstream sites will be bypassed – because they are light, inexpert, fluff.

I think what has shocked me most about the poor criticism and lack of reader service we’ve seen this week is that games criticism has become so narrow. Gran Turismo sells ten million copies but that’s still not enough for this to be an important genre anymore. Games like this are now looked down on, even among supposed hardcore gamers who work at big gaming sites? Really? So gaming is just Call of Duty and third person action games, anything else is just weird? Racing games are geeky and on the outside? There was a time when I was dismayed but understood this happening to flight sims, even casual flight sims like EA’s Jane’s series, but now we’re cutting driving games out of the mainstream. Where are we going with this guys?

I’ve hired many games writers over the last decade and there’s no way most of the Forza reviewers would have cut it on a site I edited. I read the reviews and wondered where the knowledge is, the depth, the real understanding of the genre. I’ve read tens of Forza 5 reviews this week, watched numerous video reviews, and I have yet to see one I’d have been happy to publish. From the ones scoring the game 10/10 to the scores much lower – the level of knowledge conveyed to the reader has been uniformly poor.

What’s the alternative, specialist sites? Not always. Then you enter the realms of the people who think their gaming experience is a real life experience, where their racing seat setup allows them to speak with the authority of a seasoned racing driver. In this world anything that deviates from being 100 percent realistic makes a game utter shit, where one bolt out of place on a car model renders it useless to them. No these guys aren’t the place to go for good games criticism either. Realism doesn’t necessarily equal good.

There’s an odd contradiction in gaming right now in that many gamers wish the genre to be taken seriously as an artform. At the same time though these same gamers say reviews are pointless. I strongly disagree. When we look at true artforms – fine art, music, literature, cinema etc. what sets them apart from everyday consumerist pastimes is the level and quality of written criticism. Good quality appraisal and criticism in art is exciting and important. I would argue that those art forms wouldn’t be as great without the high quality criticism that lives alongside them. Cinema is vital and thrilling not just for the images on the screen but in the intellectual depth the art form can be discussed, dissected and argued about by experts that know their subject and how to engage with the reader.

Are games art? They could be. But right now the top reviewers at big sites only seem to want and understand the Transformers 2 of gaming. They do not have the knowledge or vocabulary to discuss anything more nuanced. And this is a problem. A problem not just for consumers, but also a problem for the medium itself. Games cannot be art without experts to discuss them as such. When even the games that aspire to say something important, to make an artistic statement that goes beyond the medium of gaming, have to copy the gameplay of Call of Duty (BioShock Infinite) then we need critics capable of debating the issue. We will not get better art without better criticism.

If all you want is FIFA and Call of Duty then fine, have it your way. They are great games. But I have played and loved games for over thirty years, I have been paid to communicate that love for over a decade. For me games are as interesting, thrilling and involving as any book, movie, painting, poem or song. And yet, and yet, it feels like it is slipping away. Our geeky ghetto with its intelligence and nuance began a slow death when PlayStation became hugely popular. But I can’t blame the games makers. I blame the critics. The criticism of art should be an art itself, but today it is merely a commodity.

Right now the mainstream game sites barely demonstrate enough expertise to review the popcorn in the lobby, they are going to have to try harder before their views of the movie are worth listening to.