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Why Do Video Game Fanboys Get So Worked Up Over Review Scores?

When IGN scored Uncharted 4 8.8, and not the perfect 10 that super fans anticipated, the site's comments section went to shit. But why is that?

by Colm Ahern
12 May 2016, 3:24pm

A screenshot from 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End'

On the evening of Saturday May the 7th, the scenes at Leicester City's King Power stadium were breath-taking. With time to spare, the club, strongly tipped for relegation at the beginning of the season, had done the unthinkable in the world of football and been crowned champions of the English Premier League. After a redundant 90 minutes against Roberto Martinez's Everton – who crumbled before the greatness of Riyad Mahrez, N'Golo Kanté, Jamie Vardy and all of manager Claudio Ranieri's fearless warriors – captain Wes Morgan raised the famous trophy aloft, tears were shed, drinks were spilled and the East Midlands city began a party for the ages. This fairy tale story makes all those years of hurt, or mediocrity at best, worthwhile for the fans who've supported their football club through thick and thin.

The drama of sport is rarely rivalled. Fans get lost in moments like Jordan Spieth wasting a five-shot advantage at this year's Masters in Augusta, or Nate Diaz submitting Conor McGregor at UFC 196 in March. However, not everyone is enamoured when athletes are the actors and their stage is a pitch, a course or an octagon. Some enjoy carefully crafted stories involving aliens, superheroes or even treasure hunters. Some of these people call themselves gamers.

The newly released Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is, with a title like that, perceived by many to be the culmination of an almost ten-year tale involving a wise-cracking, gun-toting adventurer that began on the PlayStation 3 in 2007. Millions across the world have watched on as Nathan Drake and journalist Elena Fisher's relationship blossomed across Sony's foremost first-party action series. It's understandable why those that have offed countless pirates and mercenaries with bullets from their PKMs feel so attached to the chiselled jaw of Nate. That loyalty can breed a rancid mob, though, as IGN's (then) review-in-progress of Drake's PS4 debut showed when it was published on May the 5th.

IGN didn't want to slap a final score on Uncharted 4 until the game was out and multiplayer had been tested. This was clearly advertised; the "in-progress" mark was not the final figure. But still, people unleashed a depressing torrent of abuse at the game's reviewer, Lucy O'Brien. The reason: the "in-progress" score was 8.8 (out of 10), right beneath the couldn't-be-any-clearer caveat of, "If we had to score it now". Pitchforks were sharpened and torches lit as a certain sect of the PlayStation crown jewel's fan base took to social media and the article's comment section to voice their displeasure with the game receiving 1.2 points lower than the absolute peak of IGN's scale.

The fanboy/fangirl isn't a new concept, nor is it one exclusive to video games – see the most rabid supporters of all things Star Wars or Apple, for example. Given multiple, similar options, someone makes a choice and grows to feel an emotional attachment to their pick – just like rival sports teams within the same city. If another person doesn't see that choice as the superior selection, they can take that as a slight against their own character – so a Manchester City fan won't share the joy of a Manchester United fan when the latter team wins a trophy. This rivalry, and the corresponding sense of support one feels for their chosen "side", can vary from person to person, from game to sport to celebrity. And while it's easy to simply view the ugliest kind of video game fanaticism as little more than the histrionics of children, this is frequently not the case.

Case in point: a large portion of the extreme negativity thrown IGN's way came from fully functional adults – adults with jobs, kids, spouses, lives. You'd hope they were well-adjusted individuals, able to see that a score ain't nothing but a number, and it shouldn't affect their own enjoyment of the entertainment to come. Yet, when Uncharted 4 received a not-even-final numerical grade slightly lower than what they were expecting, for an entry that they were at the time yet to even play, they were outraged.

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And that's something that's always baffled me: why would you be so invested in a product – forgetting the Actual Other Humans of your average sports team – that you feel you have to defend it from naysayers at every turn, even those who aren't shitting on it? For the most vocal of gaming fanboys, reasoning is generally thrown out in favour of impassioned posts about, "why the PlayStation is way better than M$," or how "the Battlefield 1 trailer is so much cooler than the CoD one LOL". As an onlooker, it's easy to fall into the trap of giggling from your social media throne as you tweet something doused in snark that garners likes into the double figures. But maybe these serial supporters, these comment-section ambassadors for how wrong everyone else, simply can't help it.

Jack W. Brehm, who studied psychology at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study in 1955 that delves into what we now know in modern parlance as "fanboyism". "Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives" looks at how the brain can almost trick us into thinking that our choice is the correct one, because we're invested in some way. Brehm had 225 sophomore students rate a number of household gadgets, ranging in value from $15 to $30, on their desirability. They did so on an 8-point scale, with 1.0 meaning the product was not very desirable and 8 being extremely so. They were fairly standard appliances: a coffee maker, toaster, desk lamp and the like. After spending anywhere between five and 20 minutes inspecting each item, subjects were given the option to take home one of the appliances.

But rather than being given carte blanche, the students had to choose between two – one that they'd rated very highly, and one that was 0.5-1.5 lower on their scale. After their choice had been made, each participant looked over some mock reports on the devices they'd just rated and were asked some meaningless questions before rating the items once again. The results read as you'd imagine: before being given a choice to take home one of them, the two devices' average was separated by 0.96 on Brehm's scale, but by 1.89 after it. The gap widened because a choice had been made, and it was being stuck to. Continuing his experiment, Brehm gifted some of the subjects an item rather than letting them choose personally, and found that when the decision was out of their control they were more likely to look at both gadgets subjectively, and not be so attached to either of the options.

Another screenshot from (the dreamy looking) 'Uncharted 4'

Once the Uncharted 4 reviews started to hit, I spoke to a few people who had taken to message boards and social media to voice their displeasure, asking them why a score slightly lower than 9 had got them so upset. For the most part, those that I approached either had time to gather their thoughts after their snide remarks, or backed down once they were challenged on it. This included one Reddit user who wrote: "I wasn't necessarily unhappy with the [IGN] 8.8 score, just surprised by it." One Arsenal FC fan on video game article aggregation website N4G said he understood the mentality of fanboys, going on to say: "Some of the people on [N4G] are quite passionate about there (sic) chosen gaming platform, but it's the same for anything really, I've had many heated sessions with Spurs fans."

Then there was the disgruntled fan I spoke to on Twitter who was very upset with IGN's rating of A Thief's End. When I asked if movie or TV reviews upset him quite so much, or if he had any interest in sport, it all became quite clear. "I hardly watch TV at all. Movie reviews don't bother me. Sports... I get embarrassed for the team if it is a bad loss but not really otherwise. Games reviews bother me the most because reviewers are so hyperbolic and fickle." He continued: "Film is a 1.5 to 3 hour experience. Games... can be days or months. They are a much bigger investment in terms of time. You feel more connected to the characters, locations etc. The character's motivations become yours... [Uncharted 4: A Thief's End] is the final chapter and you would hope for a bit of good will."

That statement: "You would hope for a bit of good will." Brehm's findings from over 60 years ago still ring true, today – if someone is emotionally invested to some degree, they'll champion their pick, regardless of flaws or other factors at play. They'll see the good in something before they've even really studied it. I doubt there was a massive rise in Uncharted fans in A&E once they saw that A Thief's End was sitting on 94 at Metacritic, but you could definitely sense the joy across forums from the Zoran Lazarević apologists. They'd envisioned Chloe Frazer giving the silverware one last smooch before letting Victor Sullivan have his time with the hypothetical prize; and the very idea that this wasn't a "perfect" send-off for these characters, according to one review daring to score slightly lower than the average, utterly dumbfounded them.

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It must be noted that there were some unforgivably vile comments posted in response to IGN's review, as well, mostly surrounding the fact that Naughty Dog's latest was reviewed by – shock, horror – a woman. O'Brien was accused of "using her platform to push feminist remarks and views" by one person I spoke to. Some saw her higher scoring of Rise of the Tomb Raider as a sign of a feminist agenda, rather than her simply liking one game a little more than the other one. There's no doubt that some of the backlash to her review boiled down exclusively to her gender, but thankfully most criticism went past the name of the author and focused instead on that temporary rating. That interim mark that burned a hole in the minds of so many, because they'd spent their formative years with the Nolan North-voiced Nathan, a man who, need I remind anyone, isn't real.

On May the 11th, a day after Uncharted 4's release, IGN slapped a permanent 9.0 at the end of its review. The hubbub seemed to settle, and the world moved on. But if you are one of those people who got in a tizzy because your next favourite game, one that you hadn't even put into your console yet, received a score you deemed to be "too low", maybe you need to rethink things. Passion is wonderful and, in the world of sport for example, we'd be lost without it. But consider, for a moment before you submit your next angry post or tweet, if yours might be a mite misguided.

@colm_ahern

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