The big ignore
November 14, 2008
Let's say you're interested in finding a good E-rated game (evaluated by the ESRB as appropriate for "Everyone"). Let's say you have kids who want to play video games just like like dear-old-Dad or Mom, but they're not exactly ready for Gears of War 2. Or maybe you're planning a holiday family get-together, and you don't want Uncle Bob getting a load of GTA IV and going Hillary/Lieberman on you. What to do?
Well, you may decide to rely on game reviews to help you sort the wheat from the chaff. If so, you're likely to refer to sites like GameRankings or Metacritic to quickly search through reviews. If you're especially motivated, you might turn up What They Play, a website devoted to helping parents evaluate games their kids want to play.
These are fine resources, but they will only lead you to a small fraction of the games you may wish to consider. Metacritic doesn't offer a search function that includes ESRB ratings; What They Play aims at parents, but its ad-bloated site provides little more than feature-list snapshots of games, focusing most of its coverage on helping parents make informed choices about age-appropriate content.
That leaves you with GameRankings, a helpful and easy to use review aggregator. So, you run a search on E-rated games released in the last 30 days, and you receive a grand total of two titles: Wii Music and Little Big Planet. How can this be? Nearly 50 games were released in the last 30 days for the Wii alone.
A closer look at GameRankings' default search settings reveals the answer: you are seeing only games that have received at least 20 reviews. Cutting this number in half boosts the results a bit, but you soon discover the real problem. E-rated games receive very little coverage in the print and online games media. They are, in fact, routinely ignored. Only by reducing the search criteria to 0 reviews does GameRankings deliver its bounty: 163 E-rated titles across all platforms released in the last 30 days.
Why do these games receive so little coverage? Because they're dreadful, obviously. Because they have titles like Yummy Yummy Cooking Jam, Princess Debut, and National Geographic Panda. We ignore these games because they're shovel-ware; because they're games for kids (or, worse, games for girls). We ignore them because they're bad games. Period.
But are we sure about this? How do we know? If we never really take a close look at any of these games, how can we be certain every single one is a bad game? The Fallouts, Fables, and Far Crys of the gaming world receive hundreds of reviews from a variety of sources big and small. These are eagerly anticipated, high-profile games, so perhaps they require such wide-ranging scrutiny. But the coverage disparity between these games and others that receive virtually no attention whatsoever seems hard to justify.
Would you believe me if I told you that SpongeBob SquarePants featuring Nicktoons: Globs of Doom is actually a pretty solid game? Would my wife be playing Princess Debut if Leigh Alexander hadn't gone out of her way to shine a light on it? Both of these games were almost completely ignored by the games press.
Okay, I get it. Games sites and mags must cater to their readers, and who really cares about another SpongeBob game? I wonder, however, if we ought to scrutinize our assumptions about which games deserve coverage. Do we pay attention to games that carry with them a certain amount of hype, regardless of their quality? Certainly. Do we dismiss games, especially kids games, assuming they are unworthy of our attention, regardless of their quality? Certainly.
Years ago, in my business, we routinely assigned our least capable actors to roles in children's theater. The best actors got the plum roles on the mainstage. But in recent years, we've moved away from those practices. Today, we better understand the importance of offering kids the very best we can do. They are no different from the rest of us. They respond positively to quality, and they quickly grow bored and restless with mediocrity. They are our future patrons. If we expect them to value the arts, then we must offer them something of value.
We might consider a similar approach to video games. If we want our kids - heck, if we want all of us - to enjoy quality games, we must pay attention to and promote those games that deliver quality.
I realize that far too many E-rated games are shoddy, cynical efforts to squeeze money out of the least knowledgeable segment of the game-buying public. If gamers like you and me want developers to create high-quality games for kids and families, we must begin to insist that these games deliver experiences no less compelling than the ones we expect from our T-rated and M-rated games. And when developers deliver these games, we must be sure to give them the attention they deserve.