Your Bias Is Showing

In a word, the recent uproar over Killzone 2, its numerous early reviews and the reaction of the clinically insane has been silly. I have watched Adam Sessler’s acerbic and foul-mouthed rebuttal, have read the inane commentary posted on PSXtreme and read a measure too great of posts from the dramatically uninformed and deeply paranoid. I wash my hands of it, and have no interest in using this space to dive into the unholy scatological mire that has been stirred.

I do, however, want to take this opportunity to open debate on the topic of bias.

It is a word with many meanings, but most commonly it is used as a pejorative designed to discredit dissenting opinion. It is the ammunition packed full in the clips of angry readers, and often shot indiscriminately in the wake of controversy. It is rarely used accurately or correctly, and usually comes with very little evidence in support.

It is also entirely accurate to accuse every writer of bias, though what that actually means may be far more benign than common commentary suggests.

I have a bias; an inclination or partiality. Show me a gamer or writer who doesn’t, who has no preference about the kind of game or the platform they play on, and I’ll show you someone whose opinion I care nothing about. Bias informs. Bias gives context. Bias humanizes.

Bias is a good thing.

This kind of outlandish statement may make me the Gordon Gecko of games writing, but my impression is that the most passionate people want everyone else to talk about games as if they were emotionless robots. What may seem even stranger is that I would not describe bias as the problem with these vocal and imperturbable brand advocates.

My bias is toward the PC. That inclination informs the way I think about other games, and gives me a perspective that, say, a passionate console gamer might not have. I think about all gaming in some relation to my bias, sometimes overtly and sometimes in very subtle ways. I can’t, for example, play a console shooter without being intensely conscious of the control scheme and the sometimes sluggish feel to turning and movement with a thumb stick. Detached from previous experiences though I might wish to be, my muscles are too deeply trained, my concept of the genre too firm.

I suppose some would say that I am, therefore, a poor fit for having an opinion on a console shooter. I’m sure there are some who would rail endlessly against my unmitigated lack of credibility, because I can’t look at Gears of War without thinking about Quake or Counter-Strike. And, that’s exactly the kind of fanatical zealotry that makes me want to tear tufts of hair straight from my head.

The problem is the synonymous nature of bias and prejudice. There is a fine line between the two, and I could probably spend a couple of paragraphs distilling the definitions of the two words in what would be, I think, an incredible exercise of the epically boring. Sparing you the etymological study, I will say that I see the key difference as bias describing inclination and preference where prejudice brings preconceived, usually negative barriers. In concrete game terms, it is the difference between these two approaches –

Bias – I have a fundamental problem with the controls of Gears of War 2 because I like the way shooters play with a mouse and keyboard.

Prejudice – Console shooters suck.

I have a PC-centric bias; however I have played numerous console shooters that were able to elevate themselves above that bias. I don’t believe I would have been able to appreciate those games the same way if I had a prejudice.

I realize this whole argument may seem tantamount to saying that insane console fanatics are screaming bias when what they actually mean is prejudice, but the underlying point that I want to drive home is that we need to stop feeling like any preconceived notion that informs a game opinion is an automatic negative. Bias is an inescapable phenomenon. Bias gives weight and history to our opinions.

Bias is good.

Comments

I have a bias; an inclination or partiality. Show me a gamer or writer who doesn’t, who has no preference about the kind of game or the platform they play on, and I’ll show you someone whose opinion I care nothing about. Bias informs. Bias gives context. Bias humanizes.

Thank-you

Is it even possible to say whether a game is fun without bias? And if a review doesn't talk about the emotive response engendered by a game, is there really any point in reading it? Personally, I have no interest in reading a review without bias. The trick is to find a reviewer whose bias roughly matches your own, so it's possible to trust the reviewer's opinion about a game. If I simply want data about a game I'll read the back of the box--the point of reviews is to find out whether all those features combine to form a game that I will actually want to play.

larrymadill wrote:
This is the internet. The title of this article really should be "YOU AM BIAS!"

All your Bias are belong to us?

However, I have to call you on a fallacy here: if an editor is working to find a balanced review of Gears of War 2 and rules out one reviewer because that reviewer has said that he prefers to play shooters on the PC, it is wrong to assume that an editor's only alternative would be to assign the review to "a fan of Xbox 360 shooters with aliens who loved Gears 1." If you were wanting to publish evaluative or semi-evaluative reviews of games, the editor's job would be to find reviewers who were least biased in favor of or against a game.

I contend that it's not the job of an editor to evaluate the relative biases of a reviewer. So, let's say I'm bringing on a reviewer at GWJ. I am not thinking about what games that person likes or dislikes, but his ability to craft a compelling argument based on his experience. I don't try to go down the deep rabbit hole of pigeon holing writers into who is equipped to review what game. More specifically, if I have someone on staff that I feel is unable to recognize and work through/around biases to discuss certain classes of games, then I probably won't keep them around.

Again the distinction between a prejudice and bias is important here. I would never review a 2d Platformer, for example. Hate the things. I have a strong prejudice against them. I absolutely should not be critiquing those. However, I don't feel the same way about bias. Do you see the distinction I'm making here?

I'm actually not sure we disagree much here.

I have a bias against console shooters, but I am additionally prejudiced towards any Halo game.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
I don't want to get into a rabbit-hole discussion about whether or not games are art, or what "art" even is, but critical reviews address the artistic aspect of video gaming—is this game fun? is this game innovative? how well does this game tell its story or implement its mechanics

*GWJRabbit sheds a single tear*

Any amount of underlying bias is not that important in a review as long as the reader is aware of it (through past exposure) and can filter it out. We all certainly do this in other domains, like music, film and book reviews. I don't see the big deal about doing it for game reviews.

Dysplastic wrote:

It's a dilemma that's plagued review editors for quite some time - do you get a "fan of the genre" to do the review, or an outsider who may have some reservations (or biases) about aspects of the game ahead of time?
My personal opinion is that the former presents a more useful review, but that there is an audience to be served by both. This is why I liked the EGM 3 man reviews.

That being said, so long as a reviewer presents his biases honestly to the reader, readers have no reason to complain. There is no shortage of game reviews out there, and if you stumble across one you dont like because of it's "biases", then just accept it and move on.

I agree. The key here is to either A) Know your reviewer's bias through study or B) Concentrate on reviewers who will be open about their bias, like Elysium (another item to his burgeoning credit!)

I have to say though, reading Elysium's original post, does anyone else get a mental picture of him speaking this post while walking along, slowly dribbling black powder from an old-fashioned keg, ultimately climbing a heap of dynamite, upon which he sits down, casually lighting his cigar...

Elysium wrote:
If I were an editor at a publication looking to print an evaluative review of a game, I would try to assign someone to write it who had as few biases against the game as possible;

A ha! But, then you are coaxing content. In fact, some might read that as being "in the tank" for the game. You're eliminating barriers to critical analysis that way, and more feeding a machine that tips in favor of a game. Don't get me wrong, game publishers would love your plan, and they'd certainly have a leg to stand on by saying "who better to review Gears 2 than a fan of Xbox 360 shooters with aliens who loved Gears 1?!" See, you've just set up the opposite extreme, where if that reviewer hates Gears 2 then I know there's something there, but what if, instead, he merely likes it, or even loves it. Do you actually have a better review? More information to work with?

I would be hesitant to give someone with an avowed bias against console shooters

Right. A prejudice.

Now we see the difficult to implement subtlety of the argument I'm making.

All you can do, when assigning games, is to fit the writer to the genre. And, as an editor -- know your staff. Even if Writer A prefers shooters on the PC over shooters on the console--you as the editor know that Writer A is damn good at what he/she does then it shouldn't matter. The writer should be good enough to know if a game is worth playing or not and more importantly -- why or why not. I love sports games on the PC (well, used to) but I'm fully capable of seeing the greatness of Sony's The Show even if I think it would be a better game on my computer.

I also love everything Warhammer. Should I be excluded from reviewing Warhammer games because of my undying love for that game world?

What you don't do is assign games outside the wheelhouse. If Writer A hates flight sims, then keep that writer away from them. It would be like asking Tom Chick to review Madden.

That's disaster waiting to happen.

--bill

Elysium wrote:
However, I have to call you on a fallacy here: if an editor is working to find a balanced review of Gears of War 2 and rules out one reviewer because that reviewer has said that he prefers to play shooters on the PC, it is wrong to assume that an editor's only alternative would be to assign the review to "a fan of Xbox 360 shooters with aliens who loved Gears 1." If you were wanting to publish evaluative or semi-evaluative reviews of games, the editor's job would be to find reviewers who were least biased in favor of or against a game.

I contend that it's not the job of an editor to evaluate the relative biases of a reviewer. So, let's say I'm bringing on a reviewer at GWJ. I am not thinking about what games that person likes or dislikes, but his ability to craft a compelling argument based on his experience. I don't try to go down the deep rabbit hole of pigeon holing writers into who is equipped to review what game. More specifically, if I have someone on staff that I feel is unable to recognize and work through/around biases to discuss certain classes of games, then I probably won't keep them around.

Again the distinction between a prejudice and bias is important here. I would never review a 2d Platformer, for example. Hate the things. I have a strong prejudice against them. I absolutely should not be critiquing those. However, I don't feel the same way about bias. Do you see the distinction I'm making here?

I'm actually not sure we disagree much here.

I don't think we disagree much, either.

I understand your distinction between a prejudice and a bias, and I think it's an important one to make. However, it's important to understand that this is a spectrum. You hate 2D platformers, and I just think they're annoying, but we're both on the bias/prejudiced end of the spectrum. If we were writers on staff at a Consumer Reports-like publication, neither of us should be assigned to review Mega Man 9 although if push came to shove, I should be given it before you.

The larger point that I'm trying to make is that a lot of the upset we see in forums regarding video game reviews has to do with the differing expectations of the readers. Readers who are looking primarily for purchasing advice are more likely to be upset by bias, openly admitted or otherwise, while readers looking primarily for an account of the gameplay experience, after which they will make their own purchasing decision, are less likely to be upset by bias. Too many publications attempt to please both types of reader, offering both buying advice and critical assessments of the games themselves. Some outlets, like Gamers With Jobs, are more interested in conveying the experience of playing the game than in telling people what should be bought or rented, and so readers know what to expect when reading anything on the site. Similarly, while some movie reviewers will say whether or not a movie is worth renting or seeing in the theatre, most will describe the movie, their impressions of it, and their reactions to it without telling you how you should spend your money. You won't see Roger Ebert publishing a mid-summer buying guide.

My takeaway from your article is that you would like to see more reviewers being upfront about their biases and how those biases might or might not have affected their impressions of a particular game. I don't know that that kind of transparency would always be welcome (and so eliminate fuss like has been kicked up around Killzone 2) when writing a review that aims to both tell people what you thought of a game and whether or not they'd be wasting their money on it.

Even if Writer A prefers shooters on the PC over shooters on the console--you as the editor know that Writer A is damn good at what he/she does then it shouldn't matter. The writer should be good enough to know if a game is worth playing or not and more importantly -- why or why not. I love sports games on the PC (well, used to) but I'm fully capable of seeing the greatness of Sony's The Show even if I think it would be a better game on my computer.

I also love everything Warhammer. Should I be excluded from reviewing Warhammer games because of my undying love for that game world?

What you don't do is assign games outside the wheelhouse. If Writer A hates flight sims, then keep that writer away from them. It would be like asking Tom Chick to review Madden.

That's what I'm saying. As an editor you should expect your staff competent enough rise above their biases (positive or negative) while being honest about the prejudices they harbor. Your bias in favor or Warhammer will inform your opinion, but your ability as a writer will also allow you to transcend that. My point is that all those people who claim you have a bias are a) right and b) missing the point.

Gamers are a sensitive lot.

Dysplastic wrote:
can't there be some element of truth to this point? Not that your opinion lacks credibility, but that your opinion might not be as useful to the average console shooter fan?

It is only true for those it concerns. I used to play games almost exclusively on PC, especially shooters. Then I bought an XBOX, and a PS2, and a 360, and a PS3. It took me a while at first but I'm so used to using a controller to play my games now that I use my 360 controller on my PC to play games whenever possible.

I even found myself using XPADDER to map my controller to play my PC version of Stranglehold (which didn't have controller support).

The only games I will use mouse + keyboard to play are multiplayer only titles like Unreal Tourney, L4D and Team Fortress 2.

Most of the time I will buy my console games for single player first and foremost.

Elysium wrote:
my muscles are too deeply trained

hehehe

I agree that at least some amount of bias is impossible to avoid in most reviews. What I don't get is why people can't accept another person’s opinion (with their bias) is just that, an opinion. I read reviews all the time but I take them with a grain of salt, just because website-x reviews a game as 7 out of 10 doesn't mean it really is a 7 out of 10 game. That is the opinion of a few individuals. I am reminded of the whole "Deadspace Incident" of this past fall on the Conference Call - I'm listening wondering why everybody is writing in to complain(whether their complaints were justified or not) about the opinion of 3 or 4 guys.

I would think many of us have a niche game that wasn't very popular but it just strikes a chord within us and rings true to us. Why are people so surprised that the opposite can be true, the game may be fairly popular but for some individual the game doesn’t hit the right chords for them?

I am not saying we shouldn't comment on reviews or podcasts, give your opinion. "I loved the game because..." maybe the reviewer didn't approach it from that direction. What we don't need is to tell people they are wrong, because they just gave their opinion (with their bias), that is not a wrong or right thing.

The problem is that people are often incapable of deciphering what is opinion and what is fact. If I make a statement like "Killzone 2 does not do anything new," that's my opinion. However, someone on a message board somewhere will read that statement and think I am stating a fact. I could correct the problem by writing, "I feel that Killzone 2 does not do anything new," but that sounds wishy washy, and breaks the fundamental rules of Strunk and White.

People treat scores the same way. When they see a 7 out of 10, they see that not as an opinion, but as the reviewer stating, unequivocally, that the final verdict on the game is a 7 out of 10. Better reading comprehension would solve a lot of these problems.

It's not the writer's responsibility to ensure that her readers are literate. There isn't any deliberate misdirection going on, either.

There are some movie reviewers that match my biases so well, I will watch films they liked even if it was not on my radar. And there are some movie reviewers who are so opposed to my biases that I might as well not bother watching anything that they like. That's not a failure on the reviewer's part. That's just life.

AnjinM wrote:
There are some movie reviewers that match my biases so well, I will watch films they liked even if it was not on my radar. And there are some movie reviewers who are so opposed to my biases that I might as well not bother watching anything that they like. That's not a failure on the reviewer's part. That's just life.

No, that is THE POINT of professional criticism.

I've said this many times before, and I've skimmed over some of this (sorry if I'm repeating things already said), but the purpose of professional criticism is for readers to FORM A RELATIONSHIP with the reviewer. By reading someone's reviews over a long period of time, you should learn their biases quite easily. As you said, some movie reviewers dislike big budget action films, but love quirky indy comedies, while others are just the opposite. If you know the biases of a given reviewer, then you can evaluate everything they say through that filter-- If you love mindless blockbusters, but this critic hates them, you can probably read their negative review as a POSITIVE for you to go see it. In that situation, you don't NEED to agree with someone to be able to "use" their review.

The problem with games "journalism" and criticism is that very rarely do you ever have enough time to build a relationship with a reviewer before someone else has stepped in to take their place. Without a relationship-- without understanding a given reviewer's biases-- reviews are essentially useless. Who CARES if Joe Blow gives this game a "7" if I don't know what kinds of things he likes, dislikes, or is using as a basis for comparison? Sure, an unknown reviewer could spell out their biases in the review, and go into a detailed analysis of why they liked or disliked a game, but how often does that happen?

As for Elysium's contention that because he dislikes platformers he should never review one, I say "poppycock." Do you not think there are OTHER readers out there who share your dislike for platformers? IF that is the case, wouldn't you actually LIKING a platforming game be huge news, and get people to take notice? "Wow, the anti-platformer guy liked this... it must be something special!" Doesn't that type of review have value? Sure, it's generally a good idea to have an "RPG" guy review an RPG, and a "FPS" guy to review the latest shooter, but those reviews only appeal to readers who share those same "pro" biases. As I said, there is still value in having those who generally dislike RPGs review one, since many other readers might find themselves in the same position.

So, to sum:

Every reviewer is biased.

It is your job as a reader to learn those biases and find reviewers that match your own.

I believe that we should anoint Sir Elysium the official word clarifier for the GWJ site.
Actually considering the amount of people who visit the site and are actually literate maybe there should be a catch all for general definitions as they are expected to be used on the site. People could reference that official catch all as the gospel.

Example: I'm sorry Rabbit but according to Elysium 3:187 "Salad Tossing" means "To lick, and pleasure the anus " and not "To mix chopped up marijuana with chopped up hash bricks"..

Obviously that sort of clarification is absolutely necessary for a wide variety or reasons.

It'd be a good way to level set terms and ideas. For instance I know of a whole debate that occurred a few months back on what "spawn Camping" is.
Everyone has a pre-conceived notion of what it means - yet when brought to light you find there are variations that are valid and that any debate or discussion of the topic deserves to take those variations into account.

Of course that also means someone would actually care as well.

Bear wrote:
I contend that it's humanly impossible to review anything without introducing some form of "bias". All of our opinions are based on a collection of life long experiences. Obviously some of those experiences are good and some are not so good. Any form of "review" or "evaluation" has to have some form of benchmark associated with it otherwise it's just an observation.

The key to me isn't bias but rather how objectively something was reviewed. That said, just because someone else loves or hates something doesn't usually have much effect on whether or not I like it.


100% backed Up.
I think in the realm of doing reviews it is important to understand what belief structures/system (toltec terminology) you have in common with the reviewer. I you have a somewhat common ground - then you probably have a somewhat similar bias and the review will be more relevant to you.
Or you can go the other way of some websites (which was mentioned in a semi-recent pod cast) where bylines are not even shown so you are unable to build a relationship with a specific writer and what their 'bias' is in comparison to yours.
I think of that as less of a review and more of a factual spewing.

Also I contend that it is the onus of the reader of a review to be able to discern the difference of commonality between yourself and someone doing a review ( well pointed out earlier in this thread). An example would be that although I find "rabbit" an underrated-bit-o-clever on the podcasts - his love of things such as WoW would be taken into account when ever I hear what he says regarding the user interface of games. But in his thoughts on story depth and I take more seriously from listening over time.
So I take the ownership of culling out how much weight I give the person - but also on specific topics related to that person. How could any reviewer possible take into account every permutation of differences that there are in the world between them and everyone else. It would be Warren Peas by the time they are done. And then it would be on their deathbed only 50% finished with the 1st review the every attempted.

And yes I picked on rabbit a couple times here -mostly because I think he is a fellow masshole and our skins grown a little tougher then the rest of you!

I think what it comes down to is: when people counter-argue your points by saying 'you have a bias,' they do not actually mean 'you have a bias and that's bad.' What they in fact mean is: 'you have a bias that is wrong, because it is not the same as my bias.' This is basically 'you're stupid because your opinion is different than mine' line of argumentation.

When it comes to bias, it is not good or bad. Correct or incorrect. Valid or invalid. It just is. It brings context and meaning to subjects at hand. It colours and flavours whatever 'facts' are being discussed. As such, it is a very useful thing to know.

Perhaps professional reviewers should have 'tags' associated with them that explain their bias in some structured and formalized manner.

Wow - sorry I know I just updated my post right above this one - but then I read this one and just realized how so many people hear are clearly saying the same thing - kudos to you all for being similar to me.
I feel we share a similar bias

MoonDragon wrote:
I think what it comes down to is: when people counter-argue your points by saying 'you have a bias,' they do not actually mean 'you have a bias and that's bad.' What they in fact mean is: 'you have a bias that is wrong, because it is not the same as my bias.' This is basically 'you're stupid because your opinion is different than mine' line of argumentation.

When it comes to bias, it is not good or bad. Correct or incorrect. Valid or invalid. It just is. It brings context and meaning to subjects at hand. It colours and flavours whatever 'facts' are being discussed. As such, it is a very useful thing to know.

Perhaps professional reviewers should have 'tags' associated with them that explain their bias in some structured and formalized manner.

I think this is accurate. People have a natural tendency to think other people are like them in the sense that how others perceive the world mirrors their own experience. People want unbiased or objective reviews because they believe their personal opinion is objective and unbiased, so why can't the writer match that. I think people also have a tendency to gravitate toward information and opinion that confirms their own personal opinions and have an aversion to their perception being challenged.

So when the opinion of a reviewer does not mirror their own their natural reaction is to attack the reviewer as opposed to exam their own perspective.

So I think that in addition to understanding that the reviewer has a bias (which seems so blatant its a shame it has to be brought up), the reader needs to understand their own personal bias and how the two interconnect.

A problem with admitting bias is that the general public immediately see that as a bad thing. I'll agree that disclosing bias makes it easier to deal with, but imagine if a reviewer has reviewed Killzone 2 and said that he had a bias to the 360 controller for FPS's, in the eyes of the public, the rest of the article is useless.

AP Erebus wrote:
A problem with admitting bias is that the general public immediately see that as a bad thing. I'll agree that disclosing bias makes it easier to deal with, but imagine if a reviewer has reviewed Killzone 2 and said that he had a bias to the 360 controller for FPS's, in the eyes of the public, the rest of the article is useless.

No, it isn't-- it's perfectly useful to OTHER people who might also prefer the 360 controller.

Screw the public. The public is stupid.

This is why reviewers should discuss actual experiences, rather than glibly passing judgement on games. "The graphics are worth seven points," says nothing. "I hated that the world was all grays and browns - it's depressing, and I couldn't tell the difference between enemies and background." Another example: "The game is too hard," vs. "I tried twenty times to kill the end boss of Level 6, who blocks every attack, regenerates health, and is only vulnerable to light tickling. So I gave up."

My favorite part of the Conference Call has always been "Games You Can Play Right Now," because everyone's opinions are so malleable. "I hated this part." "You're crazy, I loved that part." "Yeah, you would." That's some good bias.

Elysium should of said he is less bias then other reviewrs.

[size=6]It hurt to write that.[/size]

I don't think it's the reader's job at all to form a relationship with the critic. I think it's the critic's job to reveal bias by putting opinions in context. If more critics would do that, more reviews would be useful to more readers.

Elysium wrote:
And, that’s exactly the kind of fanatical zealotry that makes me want to tear tufts of hair straight from my head.

MIND THE BEARD!

Elysium wrote:
The problem is the synonymous nature of bias and prejudice...[T]he key difference [is] bias describing inclination and preference where prejudice brings preconceived, usually negative barriers.

Bullseye. Bias is ex post facto, prejudice, a priori.

Elysium wrote:
Bias is an inescapable phenomenon. Bias gives weight and history to our opinions.

Here you've outrun your supply lines. For purposes of critical thought, sure, bias is a win-win. It gives us a strong voice and elicits strong reactions from those reading our opinions. But words like "inescapable phenomenon" drive us into the realm of gonzo, and there you've lost me. There is and should be a difference between reviewing and reporting, for instance.

The planets have aligned! Shawn Elliott's reviews symposium just went up (very) recently and much of what is discussed echoes the discussion here. The topis is review policy and Shawn opens up with the question: "Is it important for a writer to have a history of fandom with the genre of the game he or she is reviewing." It's long but very much worth reading.

BadKen wrote:
Elysium should of said he is less bias then other reviewrs.

[size=7]It hurt to write that.[/size]


It probably hurt because it's supposed to be "should have" or "should've". The phrase "should of" is an affront to God.

Apparently I'm turning into Wordsmythe. Which is also unholy.