Average things are kind of awesome. Every morning I wake up and I take a shower. Nine times out of ten, it’s not an epic shower. I don’t scrub down to a chorus of angels heralding the glory that is my clean frame. Honestly, I don’t even turn on some “Dies Irae” by Mozart when I rub-a-dub-dub in the tub. Nope, it’s just good old me and some soap. It’s an average shower. And you know what? That’s great.
It’s funny to think how the term “average” has come to mean “bad” in our everyday world. Just look at advertising. Why settle for that “ok” burger when you can have this burger over here? You know, the one that cleans your apartment while satisfying that idle craving? Yeah, that’s the one you want, not that nasty icon of mediocrity sold by those guys. Those guys are probably terrorists, anyway, right?[pullquote align=”right”]…a game with a 5 rating is going to accomplish its goal unremarkably. But it’s going to accomplish that goal, and that isn’t a failure.[/pullquote]
On some level maybe we all hate the average because it’s so common. I mean, you look around you and you can find average things anywhere you go. They are unremarkable. They sit there, basking in the light of their insufficiency, daring to use up the space that would otherwise go to something more worthy. They lack panache or profundity. They lack “grip,” leaving our minds indentured to a quest for the novel and the exceptional. Commonality is background, and nobody pays attention to the background. That’s why it’s in the background, not at the forefront.
Why am I ranting about what it means to be average and why we hate it? Because I think people need to step back and question what average means. More importantly, I think we need to question what average means to the games we critique and choose to buy.
The other day I was scrolling through Steam and I was looking at the metascores of a few games that I’ve been interested in recently. It got me to thinking about how I rate games and I came to a shocking conclusion: I considered the rating 5 to be a bad rating. As I sat there ponderously, a chorus of angels rose up behind me, their airy voices in joyous union. After I recovered from having a divine experience, I realized that I would not notice a game that had a rating of five or lower. I would pass it by, presuming that a five is beneath my attention.
My point is this: a less than exceptional rating is not indicative of an inferior game. What it more often indicates is that a game actually succeeds at being a game. Say I rate a game and I give it a 5 scoring. When I rate games, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, considering their form, function, and overarching purpose. This means that a game with a 5 rating is going to accomplish its goal unremarkably. But it’s going to accomplish that goal, and that isn’t a failure.
Now here’s where things get sticky. Or hairy. Or sticky and hairy. We come to an impasse: if games that are average aren’t failures, but they’re not great, are they worth our time and money? After all, just because a game doesn’t fail doesn’t mean it succeeds, either. Isn’t a 5 rating a 0 rating when standing next to a 10 rating?
Things just got crazy with that last question. Now we have to wonder if our rating system makes any sense at all in the light of day. And here’s what I think the solution is: we need to recognize that games, like any art, are never really a static good or a static bad. They are progressions toward something, like rivers working to find the ocean. Bukowski didn’t start out as an epic writer; he slowly built his way into being one. His initial works, though, while amateur, still have value. More importantly, they have the potential to be valuable to someone. A rating may be static, but at best it’s just a still frame of a largely mobile experience, catching only one facet of an otherwise complex gem.
Reading reviews is difficult, too. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at a review and, before even reading, scrolled down to the bottom to see the score. Yet such an act colors my opinion before delving into the article. It’s like reading a novel’s title. It doesn’t change your interpretation, but it gives that interpretation direction and borders. It frames opinion before getting any evidence to form that opinion.
Perhaps the best we can do is to be cognizant of the nature of games and how we look at them. And perhaps we should give more thought to those lower rated games. After all, someone’s 5 is another man’s 10. Next time you see a 5, stop and check it out. You may be surprised.