Analysis, IRL

No Laughing Matter: The Problem With Steam’s “Funny” Review Button

Goat Simulator

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?

Steam

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?

A few typical reviews from the 'Goat Simulator' store page on Steam.
A few typical reviews from the ‘Goat Simulator’ store page on Steam.

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.

Classy AND well-punctuated! What a winning combination!
Classy AND well-punctuated! What a winning combination!

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.

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6 thoughts on “No Laughing Matter: The Problem With Steam’s “Funny” Review Button”

  1. I love Femhype; long time lurker, first time commenter. I guess I’m not seeing the problem here, let alone any misogyny; Skyrim is very addictive and thus likely to impact relationships. Playing Skyrim til the wee hours has impacted my relationship and I don’t doubt that it’s the cause of breakups for some people. I see it as the poster poking fun at himself that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

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    1. How do we even know that the poster is male? Because they said they had a girlfriend? I’m a lesbian and I’ve casually joked with my girlfriend that I’m leaving her for Josephine (from Dragon Age: Inquisition) to which she replies that’s fine, as long as she can have Cassandra. And she once spent ten hours straight playing Minecraft, at the end of which I had to basically put myself in her lap to pull her away from the game. We’re both gamers, we understand how it works.

      Games are fun. Huge games can get addictive very quickly, and you don’t always realize how much of a time investment you’re putting into them. Relationships require time and effort, and attention to your partner. There is no sexism in either of these statements.

      Also if you want a serious review, go to GameInformer or Polygon or Kotaku or one of the dozens of other review sites. Steam reviews might have been relevant once upon a time, but now it’s like listening to someone complain that they can’t find decent book reviews on Twitter.

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  2. I don’t see that joke as a sexist micro aggression, necessarily. Personally, I’ve considered some video games more important than some of the people I’ve dated. I mean, okay… that sounded unfortunate. But, like, I understand that each individual human life is incredibly important and much more important than some game. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily mattered so much to me. Uhm. Okay. Still sounds bad.

    *whistles innocently*

    Basically, if a girl had made that remark at the expense of an ex-boyfriend, would you take issue with it?

    I also think the ”funny” button is useful because otherwise there would be upvotes on reviews that aren’t particularly useful. But yeah, a not funny button could work. Or a ”I took moderate offense but not enough to report” button. Or a ”disapproving glance” button.

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  3. Pingback: No Laughing Matter

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