Variant: Free Games and Positive Reviews
Recently there has been some controversy about the seeming imbalance in game reviews. The vast majority of reviews for most games are very positive. This trend has sparked several discussions about the role of reviewers and the importance of criticism in reviews.
The good folks over at the Superfly Circus decided that free review copies sent by publishers were a pernicious influence in reviews and took the stand that they would no longer accept such. In response, the GamerChris blog dissented and argued that review copies did not influence reviews, even if review copies of poor games were ultimately not given any review at all. The back and forth in the comments is a great read as the two ideas clash.
First, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with the Circus’s new stance rejecting review copies. I can appreciate the desire to purge any undue influence from the review process in order to be more unbiased. It’s certainly a different take than other reviewers who openly admit that the reviews are done in order to get free games.
However, I think the prevalence of positive reviews is absolutely not due to the existence of free review copies. Instead, it’s because the vast majority of folks who go to the trouble of writing a review (whether a single article on BGG or a dedicated blog) do so because they genuinely love playing games, much more than the average individual. And, as a result, any game will tend to be viewed in a positive light and thereby receive a positive score. I think this is especially true for gamers who have a wide range of experience because they can envision many different environments where the game might be situationally more enjoyable.
And, I can’t speak for other reviewers, but review copies have absolutely not influenced my reviews. I can point to several less than stellar reviews that were received as a review copy. Among others: Gold Mine, Cargo Noir, War of Honor, Application Crunch, TactDecks, and perhaps worst of all, The Enigma of Leonardo. Receipt as a review copy did not provide them with glowing reviews.
In fact, I am more likely to give a negative review to something that I received from a publisher. When I’m making a purchase with my own hard earned cash, I do a lot of research into the game I intend to buy. Often, I have a try-before-buy policy or a wait-and-see-if-the-hype-dies-down cooling off period. After careful consideration, I’m pleased to say that the overwhelming majority of my acquisitions have produced positive results – and would therefore warrant positive reviews.
When I get a review copy, it is often of a game that I would never ordinarily seek out. Some great examples are items like Dawn of the Zeds, Enigma of Leonardo, or Sentinels of the Multiverse (at least, I wouldn’t have gotten into it right away). When I play a game that I didn’t investigate, it can really go either way. Sometimes I have a great experience, like with Dawn of the Zeds. Sometimes I’m less enthusiastic, as with Enigma. And every so often, I get the chance to play something that I named my Game of the Year and continues to be one of my absolute favorites even after over two dozen plays.
However, I always review a game that I receive, whether positive or negative. I let every publisher know up front that they get no guarantee on a positive review, only a guarantee that a review will go up in a timely manner (generally within a few weeks) and will be my honest thoughts. I feel that it would be dishonest to take a review copy and then not write it up if I didn’t like it. In that case, I’m getting something (a game) for nothing. And, I’m appeasing a publisher at the expense of warning my readers not to buy the game. It feels wrong and I won’t do it.
The TL;DR version: Game reviews are positive because they are written by enthusiastic people who want to spread the joy of gaming. Negative reviews are rarer because reviewers tend to enjoy games in general. Whether they influence anyone else, review copies do not influence me. And, just to make sure its all on the up and up, every review of a comped game comes with a disclaimer at the bottom just so my reader can take that into consideration.