Can You Trust The Game Reviews You Read?

Before you fork out $60 or more for the latest Xbox or PC title, you want to make sure that you’re not wasting your money on a loser. Perhaps the gameplay is cheap and derivative, or the game may be packed with spurious QTEs – whatever the reason, you want to know before you part with your hard-earned cash. That’s why it’s so infuriating when you read the reviews – which are outstanding – and later buy the game and realize that it doesn’t match the hype.

The question is why these reviews are so out in left field. It seems like the reviewer was looking at an entirely different piece of software. Of course, opinions can differ, but there is no way that a sparkling review of a complete dud can be accurate – can it?

Probably not. Fake reviews seem to be more and more common in the gaming community, and it’s just taking money out of your pocket. A company may have invested millions and millions of dollars in their latest release, but that doesn’t mean that they have any right to mislead gamers – in fact, it’s illegal. It’s called astroturfing, and no principled company would go down this route. 

To see just how prevalent this practice is, look at EA Sports. They employ social media marketing firm Ayzenberg to “grow and manage” a social community for Battlefield 3 and other EA titles. According to Ayzenberg’s company web site, “Today, as part of a successful program, we initiate an average of 15,000 points of conversation daily across several titles. This continual interaction drives real brand engagement, and that in turn leads to increased sharing, referral and ultimately sales.” Furthermore, the company goes on to say that, “The program currently leverages Ayzenberg’s 50+ plus social media staff, a team of community operatives (agents with the hands on keyboards), and social strategists, and analytics and statistical experts.” This may not be astroturfing from a strictly legal perspective – but how much can you trust what “50+ plus social media staff” are saying when their salaries are paid by EA? It would be interesting to know how many of these “agents” identify themselves as working for the game developer.

These dubious practices are not just limited to gaming software. They are used across an incredible range of products, including the hardware that we run our games on. Nobody is suggesting that Microsoft is using astroturfing to promote Xbox One, but you have to wonder whether or not your smartphone is everything that it is cracked up to be. This year, Samsung was caught posting fake reviews online for its products, and also using fake identities to create negative reviews of their competitor, HTC. Apparently, Samsung is perfectly happy to mislead this market of millions – responding to their conviction in court, they just said that they were “disappointed.”

Another thing that is highly worrying is the emergence of pay-per-review sites. This is particularly prevalent in the mobile space. Sites like Best 10 Apps are blatant about the fact that they are selling everything from basic reviews all the way through to link building services for developers – while others such as TapScape offer a more subtle “expedited review” service. Nowhere on the review do they tell visitors that they are being paid to write reviews, which is downright misleading. It may even be that their reviews are fair and accurate, but here is the thing – being paid by a developer to write a game review is an enormous conflict of interest. There is absolutely no way that you can trust someone who is in the pocket of the developer – they know where their next paycheck is coming from.

The same basic problem applies to review embargoes – when a games reviewer is prevented from publishing until a particular date, even if they have already played the game extensively. This practice is open to all sorts of abuse – for example, a developer who is about to release a poorly designed game will often embargo all reviews until the official release date. The goal, of course, is to sucker as many people in as possible before the bad news hits the streets. Sometimes, developers will also embargo every site except for one – giving this site an exclusive. While an exclusive review can sometimes be right on, put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer – how comfortable would you be writing a negative review when a developer has just put you in the lead compared to every other site out there? Again, it’s a massive conflict of interest.

Of course, embargoes can serve a useful purpose. They prevent reviewers from writing rushed and inaccurate pieces in an effort to be first. They also help publishers plan out their marketing campaigns – for instance, having an online launch event at the same time that the first reviews hit the headlines. Used in the right way, they benefit both games developers and gamers. However, they also set up an inherent conflict that is not in the interest of the gaming community – they are open to too much abuse, and fly in the face of journalistic principles. After all, this is some marketing person using their clout to keep reviewers in line – not a charitable attempt to level the playing field.

So, how do you actually get the true lowdown on a game? It’s probably better to rely on reviews by real users – and particularly ones who have a track record of posting good information – rather than taking the word of a single review site. Also, when you look at sites such as Metacritic, look for some consensus among the reviews – not just the average. If reviews are polarized, the game could be one you either love or hate. Or it could be that the deadly hand of the astroturfer has been at work.


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