Reviews from professional video game journalists play a minuscule role in consumer purchasing decisions, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s Essential Facts 2015 report, released this week.
Just 3 per cent of consumers consider reviews from websites or magazines the most important factor in their decision-making. An “interesting story/premise” was the most important factor for 22 per cent of those surveyed, price for 15 per cent, word of mouth for 11 per cent and quality of graphics for 7 per cent.
The ESA’s findings (PDF) are likely to reignite discussion about the purpose of seemingly arbitrary scoring from sites such as Polygon and meandering, abstract game reviews from sites such as Kotaku, both of which have long been criticised for being overly politicised and for focusing on irrelevant detail at the expense of conveying information about frame rates, gameplay and other factors gamers say they care about.
The findings will also prompt soul-searching from the editors of many games websites. One of the primary purposes of such sites is to review new titles, but aside from stirring up controversy with provocative, politically-charged reviews, these sites appear to be having little effect on the game-buying public.
Industry observers have known about the declining power of reviewers for years, but the 3 per cent figure is likely to come as a shock because it is so remarkably low and because statistics on reviewer influence have not been published in this much detail before.
The 3 per cent statistic suggests that the authority and reputation of game journalists is at an all-time low. It also begs the question whether video game reviews have, as some allege, become little more than a branch of opinion-writing and whether writers have more or less abdicated their responsibility to convey to gamers whether or not new games are worth buying.
Reviewing new titles has been seen as an important credibility marker with publishers, but that will likely change as publishers realise how little their customers care for the opinions of mainstream video games journalists. In tough economic times for game journalism, there can be little financial case for magazines and news websites to continue to offer reviews so few readers regard with respect without radical overhaul of their principles and practises.
The declining value of reviews is probably why some forward-thinking publishers have shifted focus to working with YouTube stars. Websites such as The Escapist have started to hire rising YouTube personalities like Trisha Hershberger in place of ponderous reviewers.
While there are no clear statistics on how many sales are driven by this new generation of YouTube stars, such as Totalbiscuit and boogie2988, their followings can be huge and can make all the difference to a mid-tier game whose developers are unable to deploy traditional, expensive marketing.
The ESA’s Essential Facts report represents a comprehensive summary of the American game-playing public. It reports that 155 million Americans play games, with an average of two gamers in each game-playing household.
Video gamers who play more than they did three years ago say they spend less time doing other things: 39 per cent watch less TV, 40 per cent go to the movies less often and 47 per cent watch fewer movies at home.
The report appears to give the lie to critics of video games who say that games encourage anti-social behaviour: frequent gamers who play with others spend an average of five hours a week playing with others in-person.
91 per cent of parents have control over what their children play, with 91 per cent of parents present when games are rented or purchased by their children.
In contrast to the often negative coverage of video games in the media, and despite the fact that the most popular video games by genre are “action” and “shooter” games, 63 per cent of parents say that video games represent “a positive part of their child’s life.” Over half of them regularly play games with their children.
In 2014, the total consumer spend on video games in the United States was $22.41 billion, in an industry estimated by accountants PwC to have been worth $87 billion worldwide.
Editor’s Note: a previous version of this article implied that 97 per cent of gamers did not consider reviews at all in their decision-making process. This is not so. In fact, 97 per cent of gamers do not consider reviews the most important factor in their purchasing decisions; only 3 per cent say it is the most significant data point for them. We regret the error.