The rating system is a strange, foreign land to me. Every time I’m asked to put a label on a game, a number to size it up and put the opinion to rest, I find myself vacillating terribly. Is it good enough to be a seven? Can I make it an eight? Have I considered all the relevant review points? These questions and more plague me as I try to see where exactly a game stands on my scoring scale.
I’m not normally the kind of person who wavers on any kind of decision like this. I’m opinionated, so much so that my opinions have opinions of my opinions. Like John Cleese as the Pope from Monty Python once said, “I may not know art, but I know what I like!” So when I say that I have a harder time settling on a final score than Regis Feldman at a Bingo game in a nursing home, you can believe me. Yet it’s not that I’m incapable of forming my opinions; the difficulty lies in the system I’m using to reflect my opinion.
I’ve mentioned before that games are progressions and that ratings, at best, can only ever represent one facet of an ever evolving gem. I also believe that every game has a purpose that gives shape to both a form and a function. In this way, every game is unique and has goals specific to itself and nothing else. A Real-Time Strategy game isn’t going to be good at the same things at which a Roleplaying Game excels. So if the way we rate games fails to capture the progressive nature of gaming and every game has a purpose unique to itself that defies evaluation by an objective system, why the hell do we even bother?
We bother because we’re trying to plug into a collective gamer consciousness, one that objectively grasps a general idea of what gaming is and what it should be and evaluates games based on that understanding. Yet perfect objectivity is an impossible goal; like the horizon, it’s an imaginary line that recedes the closer we get to it. Not only is perfect objectivity impossible, but collective objectivity is, too. It’s impossible because it doesn’t’ exist. There is no common idea of what a good game is or what it should be. At best, we have fragments of opinion that form a tattered coat of many colors, one that we flagrantly show off to our friends as being the best coat but, as is more likely the case, it’s just a rag-tag hand-me-down.
So, again, why bother with this whole mess if it’s failing so miserably? The answer to this lies in how we rate games, not why we rate games.
Any rating system is ultimately going to be insufficient as a tool for measuring the quality of a game. That statement deserves a lot of unpacking, though, so let’s get started. I’m not saying that a rating system is insufficient as a tool for rating a game against specific criteria. To the contrary, a numbered system for rating a game is perfect for saying how well a game matches up against a list of do’s and do not’s. Because numbers always add up, and you can ascribe a numeric value to a specific characteristic. What a rating system fails at capturing is the quality of a game, and that’s because the true quality of a game is stuck somewhere in the muck and mire known as the “objective gamer consciousness” I was talking about earlier. It’s an intellectually impenetrable idea, like the “Black Box” in psychology, because the value of a game is intrinsically subjective. The very idea of value is subjective, and the myriad of religions prevalent in the world is testament to that fact. So the problem is that we’re tying a largely objective measuring tool to a substance we want to measure that is largely subjective. It’s like measuring a glass of water with a ruler: it doesn’t work.
Why should we bother with rating at all? I’m not so certain that we should. Games are art and that makes rating them a deeply personal matter, one that really can’t be summed up in any given curriculum. And without that curriculum, one man’s 8 becomes another man’s 10, making things all together more confusing. We could solve this by hammering out a specific list of things to look for, but do you really want to make art that mechanical? Part of what makes compositional art beautiful is the fullness of its being; dissect that, and there is nothing left but pieces that have no meaning without the whole.