Video Game Review HQ is something of an anomaly: it's a site run by volunteers that is attempting to give gaming critics some recognition for well-written reviews. In doing so, it also seeks to raise the standard of reviewing in general, and also to improve the perception of games journalism in the mainstream media.
Based on the east coast of the United States, it is maintained by an anonymous group of current and former journalists and critics, whose combined experience in the industry totals 77 years (with no single volunteer having fewer than seven years on his or her resume).
Intrigued, we spoke to site founder "Ben" about his mission, and had a nice if somewhat insider-y chat about the state of game critiquing in general.
Q: Why did you start Video Game Review HQ?
Ben: We started to realise that gaming has advanced a long way, but we didn’t have in the side of journalism and critics we didn’t have much. If you ask a hardcore gamer “Can you name 10 critics or even five?”, very likely we found they can’t. They can name sources – Gamespot, IGN – but they can’t really name people. Whereas if you talk to an avid movie or music lover they can usually rattle off some critics pretty quickly.
On top of that, in those industries those critics get some recognition – there are awards given out for their work, and they’re published in a lot of the elite publications around the world, whereas game critics and journalists are seen as second-class citizens. We noticed this because we all have a publishing background outside gaming. We’ve done stuff for newspapers, worked for other sites in other industries.
You are never quite so looked down upon as you are in the gaming industry – you really get no respect at all. If you bump into a colleague you used to work at a newspaper and they ask what you’re doing now, there’s a big difference between telling them you’re covering movies and telling them you’re covering videogames. We see them as similar, but people in the mainstream press see them as very different. I think we just wanted to add a sense of legitimacy.
So instead of having a bunch of reviews and saying this is the average [like Metacritic], we like to pick one out and hopefully as people show up more they’ll start to see some critics pop up and so will look at their work more often. So maybe people start associating faces and names with reviews rather than just websites. That is really the goal.
I would not mind VGRHQ being a governing body sort of like the Oscars are for movies and saying “These are the rewards for people that work so hard”, but that’s obviously a pipe dream that’s way off down the road.
Q: How does your site work?
Ben: We just look around, find some reviews, and read ‘em. It’s done on an individual basis – we don’t have time to get together to talk about it, so we trust each other to select quality ones. It really is that simple. We also put up op-eds and editorials that are ours. The only things we don’t look at are mobile and smartphone, but DLC and expansions are all fair game. We wanted to make it simple. We have other jobs, so we wanted to make it something that’s easy to do. We do a lot more reading than we do writing, let’s put it that way.
Q: Why don’t you think gaming gets any respect in wider circles?
Ben: I think it’s a combination of reasons. Certainly it’s a younger industry by 50 years than movies, but the other thing is we still haven’t shaken off a lot of the stigmas. I think a lot of mainstream press still sees gamers as geeky teens in their parents’ basements – we haven’t moved past that unfortunately. People that play games know that’s not true, and there are such a wide variety of people who play, but I think the stigmas are still attached.
It’s akin to saying you cover the comic book industry. There’s a very big gap. The more you see people approaching gaming [coverage] from a professional standpoint, coming out of journalism school – that’s a big help, because let’s face it, the people who started journalism in this industry really were just bloggers and they grew up. But now it’s becoming an academic thing, it’s becoming more legitimate.
Q: Why have you opted to remain anonymous?
Ben: The way the community works is if you start passing judgement, it looks like critics critiquing other critics, and that’s not what we want. We want to put the spotlight on other people – it’s not about us, and we don’t want it to become about us. It’s about us just being gamers and finding reviews that we really, really like and rewarding writers for their efforts. This is about the people that work really hard and are still in the industry, because a lot of us aren’t anymore. We wished that something like this would have been around when we started. So that’s who we are really – a group of anonymous, experienced veteran journalists who sort of wanna remain in the shadows.
Q: Why do you think people hate videogame critics?
Ben: If you write a great review, it’s almost like no-one notices. If you write a review that is widely viewed as being bad or wrong – like for example if you gave Grand Theft Auto V a 4/10 – that’s the one that’s going to get the attention, that’s the one people will leap all over. I don’t know why we’re suddenly obsessed with more of the negative. If you look at the hottest headlines of the day – that’s what I do for work, find the trending topics – you’re much more likely to get responses out of a negative headline than you are a positive one.
I don’t know why that is – this industry is supposed to be about fun, this is an entertainment, this is a hobby – but people really like that conflict. And whenever they see a critic wildly against the populace, they leap all over it. In fact, I know of – I won’t name names of websites – but I know of websites that in order to get some attention and much-needed traffic, they will tell their staff to issue a review that is way different than any of the other sites out there because it will get them attention. And they’ll get that traffic.
Q: Speaking of dishonesty, every now and then members of the media are accused of taking money in exchange for higher review scores. Do you know of any particular instances of bribery or corruption in the industry?
Ben: I can say that in all my time and in all the time of everyone on staff, that has never happened. There has never been a publisher that has ever offered us any money, and we’re talking at least a dozen websites. There was that dust-up over at Gamespot with Jeff Gerstmann – when that all fell out and it was somewhat proven that because they had run ads, Gerstmann was supposedly asked to rewrite a lukewarm review or lose the ad funding. I don’t know what the deal is there. It wouldn’t surprise me.
But I would say that’s very, very uncommon. The most we’re going to get are those little promotion items that are mostly useless. People honestly think that critics are upping their review scores because they got a pair of themed fuzzy dice in the mail? They’re crazy.
So that idea is a common one, but no. I’ve never heard of money being involved. Most I’ve heard is that sites were blacklisted from getting review copies if scores were low. However, at the same time, I will add that the reviews in question were just bad. They were poorly written. It wasn’t just that the game got a 4/10 or whatever – [the reviews] just weren’t well done. If I was a publisher, I don’t think I’d want to be sending my products to them either, because they don’t seem professional to me.
A lot of hate gets thrown at publishers and critics, when in fact there is no collusion or conspiracy between the two. That idea I wouldn’t say is entirely myth, but based on my work since ’99 and everyone with VGRHQ, none of us have come across that – we’ve never been offered a bribe. The mere idea is actually kind of laughable.
Q: What do you think are the major problems with game reviews these days, broadly speaking?
Ben: Above all else, solid writing. A lot of the top-tier publications do employ people who are very good writers. Unfortunately, I think if you really look at the majority of middle-range to high sites…they’re not very good. We don’t have a Leo Tolstoy among us, it’s true, but we do consider ourselves accomplished writers.
We’ve written various forms and we know what passes for good writing in print and online publications and the bottom line is: I don’t think the majority of our critics today would be hired by major publications and newspapers, because they’re just not very good writers, they’re not strong enough. So we really appreciate people who are very good writers, and I think we need to see more of that before they start to get the appropriate honours.
I think the other thing is opinion versus fact. A lot of people will say that a review is 100 percent opinion, which none of us believe for even half a second. There’s obviously opinion and subjectivity, but you can qualitatively analyse graphics and things like acting and sound, and certain things are better than others. The graphics of a game like Destiny are gonna look amazing and are obviously better than those in a downloadable game whose studio had limited resources.
So I think people writing from the standpoint that everything is opinion and that everything they’re saying is just their own belief and that it doesn’t matter if what you think might be different…I don’t buy into that, I think you need tap into your own expertise. I can write a review of a music album, however I would not recommend that over a Rolling Stone review, because that reviewer has more expertise in the industry than I do. It doesn’t make their opinion more valid, but it makes their knowledge more valid – they’re experts in that field.
Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to become a game critic?
Ben: When it comes to critics and game reviewing, bottom line is it’s not as easy as it sounds, it’s not a tenth as glamourous as people think it is, and yeah that recognition a lot of people don’t think it’s a very big deal – they think that if you need recognition you’re somehow fragile. Bottom line is, people go to work every day get vindication, and validation in everything they do. They get it from their bosses, they get it from their co-workers.
When you’re working on your own as a lot of critics do, and you’re reviewing on your own, and all you get for it is probably a lot of flak from gamers, that starts to wear on you after a while. It’s a big reason why a lot of us have gotten out of the industry – because we’re not getting anything out of it. We put a lot into it, and we’re just not getting much out of it, either financially or in terms of recognition. I don’t think the gaming community really gets that.
Check out Video Game Review HQ here.