Community-based reviews are something of a strange breed. Unlike standalone reviews put forward by a single person on a review or blog site, community reviews tend to be shorter, anonymous, and ultimately more important for their yes-or-no contribution to a game’s overall ranking than they are as actual reviews. To try and promote more thoughtful reviews, many sites like Amazon and Steam include a “Was this review useful? Yes / No” option to every review. The posts that receive the most “Yes” votes slowly migrate to the top of the list to make them more visible. Essentially, what these sites are doing is crowdsourcing not just the reviewing process, but also crowdsourcing the moderation of these reviews. For large sites like these, this makes perfect sense. There’s simply too many people trying to get their two cents in for everything they say to be assessed for quality.
But back in mid-January, Valve subtly changed the system by adding a third button on the Steam review pages, one listed after “Yes” and “No” which simply reads “Funny.” It does pretty much what it says on the can; if you think the review was funny, you can click it to bump the funny count up by one. But why? The purpose of a game review is to give the potential player an idea of what the game is like. Why does humor suddenly have to be part of the equation?
This seems to be playing into a trend I’ve been noticing more and more on Steam lately, in which particular brands of humor start distinguishing themselves on specific games’ store pages. Much like a meme, each one starts (presumably) with just one person, and then one by one virtually everyone in the community picks up on it and starts doing it themselves. When faced with it yourself, you have two choices: adapt to it and perpetuate the trend or ignore it, and as a result not only will you be ignored right back, but you’ll suddenly find everyone else is speaking a language that makes no sense to you. It’s a weird sort of phenomenon, and the introduction of the “Funny” button seems to be a quiet endorsement of the trend by Valve themselves.
There are occasional cases when this style works—to a degree. If the game being reviewed is an intentionally humorous one, these styled reviews can give you a sense of what the game’s mood is, even if it tells you nothing about actual gameplay. The Steam page for Goat Simulator is a perfect example of this; for an intentionally silly game where you play as a goat and score points for dragging people around by your tongue, reviews that jump into the spirit of the game actually give you a fairly good sense of what it’s like, even if they tell you nothing concrete. But what about games that aren’t intentionally humorous? How is one supposed to review an intense drama or a horror game with silly quips without coming across as mocking the game or its genre?
The second aspect of this “Funny” button that bothers me is the fact that there’s no “Not Funny” button to go with it. The top listed Steam review for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim holds, at the time of writing, a 94% helpfulness ranking out of 3,294 people who bothered to click in a response. But it also has a ranking of 65 people who found it funny. The only portion of the brief review that appears to be intended as a joke are the opening lines, which read, “If I had to choose between this game, and my girlfriend. I’d pick this game. EDIT: I’m single now.”
You could argue that the eloquent silence of only 65 out of 3,294 people finding this funny is censure enough, but I disagree. This isn’t a joke; it’s a tired, sexist cliché. How am I supposed to respond to this review? Do I consider this offensive enough to flag it for abuse, or is this just another daily microaggression in a sexist gaming world? I could press the “No” button to mark the review as unhelpful. But technically, it is helpful; the rest of the review actually does its job, highlighting some of Skyrim’s best elements in a clear, concise manner. What I really want is a “Not Funny” button. I want a way to tell this man, and the gaming community in general, that his information is appreciated but his misogyny is not. And doing that should be just one click away. It shouldn’t be any harder than marking a review as not useful.
I appreciate Valve’s effort to inject a little more humor into our lives. God knows we could all use it most days. But I’m not quite sure what actual relevance comedy has to the quality and content of reviews. And frankly, I think rewarding reviewers for it encourages weaker reviews in which people are more concerned with attracting attention and getting cheap laughs than with actually fulfilling the point of the review, which is reviewing the game. Sorry, Valve. But I’m not really laughing this time.