Are Negative Game Reviews the New Clickbait?

Using player outrage as a stepladder to the top.

8 months ago by Morgan Shaver

Across the board, an increasing number of media consumers have begun rallying against “fake news” and lazy, sensationalistic journalism. It’s not that our news is becoming less credible, but rather we’re becoming more observant when it comes to stories about nothing twisted in such a way as to pull viewers in. Or “clickbait” if you want to keep things short.

The rise of clickbait can partially be attributed to the collective shift in how we consume information as a society. Where one form of media grows, another inevitably dies. For instance, the gradual decline in physical newspaper sales in exchange for those read online. Twenty years ago, rolls of newspaper would plop down on doorstep after doorstep. Whereas today… well, let’s just say paper boys have gone extinct.

The same can be said for news on the radio. Growing up, I remember hearing sports stats, weather, traffic, and current events faithfully relayed on the morning radio programs my mother listened to as she drove me to school. Furthermore, I still have the CD recordings of my father’s time working as a radio disc jockey. In them, there’s an abundance of Howard Stern news comedy.

As I got older, though, these informational chunks started to crumble away piece by piece. First in radio, then in print media, and now I’m seeing it once more in the digital realm. The cornerstone of media in a nutshell can be summed up with the phrase, “If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Lately, I feel like the news is less of a report and more of a battleground where two opposing sides converge to stake their claim and garner the most attention. For a good reference of this media dark side, I highly recommend watching the Jake Gyllenhaal film, Nightcrawler. It also reminds me of the Tool song Vicarious, but that’s another topic for another day.

This mentality extends to all sub-genres of journalism including here in the video game realm. Perhaps more so than in the past, as video games have been rapidly rising in popularity, and are currently the most viewed category on YouTube. We now live in a world of Let’s Plays, game news, game reviews, game previews, and guides, among others.

Furthermore, with the rise of the internet and streaming (YouTube, Twitch), literally anyone can become a game journalist. With millions (if not billions) of gamers consuming various forms of media each day, it’s not hard to understand why members of the industry have been fighting tooth and nail to carve out a spot of visibility. The more visibility you have, the more successful you are, and the more money you make.

So how do you stand apart from the crowd? In terms of game reviews, one tactic that caught my attention recently are overtly negative opinions. 

Nothing can rile up a loyal fanbase more than a journalist verbally tearing apart everything someone holds close to their heart. It’s a strong point of contention, one that gets people to pass an article around as they leave dissenting comments. When we love something, we want to defend it, and it is this very aspect of human nature that causes the media to dig in and search for exploits.

If they can garner twice as many views by posting a negative opinion of a game, even if they don’t believe the game is actually “bad,” they may be more inclined to follow this tactic. Let me be clear, I’m not saying all game journalists are like this, far from it.

I actively read dozens upon dozens of articles a day from various different online outlets because of how much I love gaming. I enjoy reading reviews, even negative ones so long as they’re fair and make logical sense.

If a writer makes valid critiques, I’m more inclined to trust their opinion and thus avoid a potentially bad game. I may disagree with a piece, but I can respect the point of view it’s coming from. Unfortunately, there are those who use shadier tactics. In some ways, you could consider their style more “insult comedy” in a way.

But when do you cross the line from insult comedy to unabashed insult tactics? With game preference being an extremely subjective subject, how do you identify personal opinion versus deliberate clickbait?

The short answer is you can’t, at least not without opening the review and reading through it, which is why it’s such a clever clickbait tactic. Clickbait relies on the title and summary of a piece to grab a reader’s attention. For example, if you were to write a piece entitled, “Why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a Steaming Pile of Garbage,” you can bet fans of the game will click on the article in hordes, claws at the ready.

You won’t get the same reaction if you post a review praising Breath of the Wild and calling it a masterpiece. In the end, critic consensus gave the game a near-perfect score, meaning your review may be brilliant but it’s nevertheless predictable. Writing up a standard review on a game already praised top to bottom just isn’t worthwhile from a visibility standpoint, as your piece will likely float to the bottom of the extremely full barrel.

In a case like this, I can definitely see how negative reviews can transform into clickbait. I feel this is becoming a growing trend now that most of our media is digital. We have instant access to so much, and with the money coming from ads and views, there’s untold incentive in doing something different. When something goes viral, it’s usually because of just how off-center it is.

We like stuff that comes from way out in left field, stuff that can spice up the mundane. However, quality journalism is far from mundane. And deep down I truly hope that we’ll eventually be able to stamp out pandering and clickbait as our presence as digital media consumers grow. We already have a term for it and ways to spot it from afar, now all that’s left is the ability to choose where we place our views.