Editor’s note: Experiences and expectations shape people, and those experiences and expectations play a role in how they evaluate things, be it making career plans or reviewing games. Thomas uses Bionic Commando to show how bias — not malicious bias, but honest human bias — played a role in coverage from two outlets. -Jason


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Bias is one of the most misunderstood and maligned words ever used. It’s sad, really, when we remind ourselves having a biased view is natural.

We want our game critics to be professionals, ethical, and lack a biased viewpoint. To demand the last trait is unfair. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of bias in this sense is “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.”

And according to this generation’s default source of information, Wikipedia: “Bias is a term used to describe a tendency or preference toward a particular perspective, ideology, or result, especially when the tendency interferes with the ability to be impartial, unprejudiced, or objective…. The term ‘biased’ is often used as a pejorative, because bias is inherently unjust, lacking merit.”

Ouch. No one wants their source of information to be “unjust, lacking merit”; it makes people feel they’re being treated like an idiot. A biased view should not be automatically paired with a malicious agenda.

 

But it’s normal for the game press to have bias — more specifically, cognitive bias. The common definition of bias doesn’t include the normalcy of human beings having it. Game critics who state their preference is refreshing to hear. It gives context, an understanding of how they construct their thoughts. Self-aware game critics have more accurate evaluations because they’re able to distinguish fact from fabrications in their mind. I’m wary of press members claiming to be devoid of bias. It makes them look delusional.

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Science Daily defines cognitive bias as “a wide range of effects identified in cognitive science and social psychology including very basic statistical, social attribution, and memory errors that are common to all human beings.” As examples, I use 1UP’s and IGN’s previews and reviews of Bionic Commando to observe cognitive bias in the gaming press, because 1UP and IGN received the same demo from Capcom and released their preview coverage on the same date, October 19, 2007.

Then, I compare them to their respective reviews to see if the preconceptions of the demonstration had an effect on reviews. Andrew Hayward, a freelancer, wrote the preview for 1UP, and Jeff Haynes, an IGN employee, wrote the IGN preview. David Ellis for 1UP and Jeff Haynes for IGN, both employees for their respective outlets, wrote the reviews.

Analyzing 1UP’s preview, Hayward focuses his attention on the difficulty of releasing a game filled with nostalgia. The tone’s cautious. He sums up his preview with: “Judd knows that he’s still fighting an uphill battle; at first, it was convincing his superiors that there was a worthwhile reason to come back to Bionic Commando, and now it’s convincing gamers that his worldly team won’t ruin the good name of the NES original.”

In 1UP’s review, Ellis’s opening paragraph ends with: “But after playing through this Bionic Commando, it’s clear the team missed out on the fundamental reasons the original was so successful — instead of creating a fitting follow-up, GRIN crafted a competent but uninspired third-person shooter.”

It’s important to note that the reviewer and previewer was not the same person. Ellis does not have the mental note of writing the preview for 1UP. In his review, Bionic Commando failed to meet his expectations set by the NES game, not the preview coverage. This doesn’t cloud his judgment nor make his criticism invalid. It creates an open atmosphere; he believes the contemporary game lacks the charm the NES game had, thus the lack of enthusiasm in his review.

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In contrast to 1UP’s coverage, IGN’s preview and review were written by the same person. Haynes‘s preview opens with excitement for a new Bionic Commando. “A cult classic in the States, fans have been continually begging Capcom to re-invent the series for years. At the recent Capcom Gamer’s Day, their wish was finally granted as the Bionic Commando series was announced to be coming to the PS3, 360, and PC.”

Later, the preview switches focus to a bullet-point list of features in the demonstration.

Moving on to the review, Haynes’s diction indicates that he’s glad that’s Capcom released a new Bionic Commando; he also lists features in the final product, a feeling similar to his preview. In the closing comments, he says that gamers can overlook the linearity because it’s a new Bionic Commando. “If you can look past the replayability issues that crop up due to the linear play, you’ll find an enjoyable adventure that easily re-establishes the franchise for Capcom.”

Both critics are biased, and that’s OK. Their reviews are not unfair, unreasonable, or unjust. It’s made clear where they’re coming from and what they’re basing their opinions on. Ellis’s criticisms are from his standards set by the NES game. Haynes was excited about a new Bionic Commando game. Everyone has bias; it is part of human nature. But there’s bias with a malicious agenda, and it’s important to be able to distinguish the difference.

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