Could Review Scores Manipulate Your Opinion Of Games?
You're pretty stoked for that new game you've been waiting for, aren't you? You've read every preview and news piece. You've tracked down every scrap of information you can. Everybody online is talking about how awesome the game is going to be. Those who've played it go on about how awesome it is. The more you hear, the more excited you become. When you finally play it, it's like pure nirvana (or maybe it's a torturous hellscape. I'm not here to judge).
I've got bad news for you - your opinion isn't entirely your own.
That's a pretty divisive statement right there, isn't it? I suppose I owe you an explanation. See, you're probably quite convinced that you've formulated your own opinion of a particular game you've played. You might be right...but only if you've not bothered to read any reviews about the product. A few days ago at GDC 2013, Boris Schneider-Johne took the stage to discuss how the games reviewing system is broken...and he did it using pyschology.
According to Schneider-Johne, when players read a low-scored or high-scored review, they often tend to be implicitly influenced by that score's number (and the negative or positive connotations associated with it) when later asked for their opinion of the game. In other words...reviews (and consequently, reviewers) have a great deal of influence and power over whether or not many people play or enjoy a particular title. Unfortunately, he continued, this inherent power has led to a system which is undeniably broken.
"Those in charge of review writing are largely self-appointed and not especially gifted," he explained. "As a result, this leads to an unfair system broken by design and psychology. Within such a system, developers who depend on reviews and popular opinion need to 'game the system. This system rewards developers who rely on word of mouth, a fantastic first fifteen minutes, and a meta-story that makes the experience more easily sharable."
I'm sensing that there might be a touch of bitterness in Schneider-Johne's keynote...but that's neither here nor there.
Schneider-Johnes labeled the phenomenon of association as "priming," though according to Polygon user The Fabulous J, this is an entirely inaccurate classification.
"Priming," he explains, "is a concept that describes the speeding or slowing of reaction times to stimuli when presented with a particular kind. The classical example is when you see the word 'tiger,' you will more quickly react to a word like 'stripes' than you will one like 'keyboard.' And these effects are really quite specific to a certain time range, as well: only about 3 seconds before priming effects basically go away and you can't tell a statistically significant difference between primed and unprimed responses...Reading a review and taking a number takes more than 3 seconds unless you're a computer. Note that I have really simplified the concept here."
The psychological theory more closely related to the impact of reviews on one's enjoyment of a game, he continues, is known as "implicit association." To put it in layman's terms, people have developed representations of how high (or low) quality a gaming experience is. These semantic representations - the review scores - influence both the impression of the review and the game itself.
Of course, he continues, this isn't necessarily an accurate stance, either.
"Case studies are not scientific evidence," he explains. "You can just as easily find cases of the opposite of what is described here. Never even mind that his claim probably only affects those that take number scores seriously over the written word. If I were a betting man, then I'd say the effect of this score association varies in strength with how reductive a reader is."
So...can reviews manipulate and condition you to enjoy or despise a particular game? Certainly - but no more or less than any other source of information. Of course, now that you're aware of the impact review scores can have on your opinion, you might be a little more cautious about taking them at face value...right?