The most important new name in video game criticism could be yours with the help of Kmart.
This month the US retailer kicked off an interesting experiment: Instead of looking to professional video game reviewers to help guide their customers to the best game to purchase, they're leaving the opinions up to a potentially massive pool of everyday gamers.
Starting last week Kmart started combing through the reviews of games written on their store's website by visitors, looking for descriptive snippets to print on small cards and display under the game in question on the shelves of their more than 1300 stores.
"As Kmart continues to look for new and interesting ways to bridge our online and in-store experiences, providing on-shelf consumer reviews enables us to extend our service to highlight peer gaming insights while customers look to make purchases in-store," said Eddie Combs, CMO of Sears Holding Electronics.
Combs says the reviews, which have to be posted on Kmart.com by a registered user, will be selected based on several factors including how helpful they are, how well-written and if they would make sense to a non-gaming audience.
Kmart will post reviews for a mix of recently released titles and games that tend to remain popular over time, like Madden, Combs said.
The system has the potential to topple a long-held view that the opinion of a relative few professional critics is more important than the opinion of the typical gamer.
By placing the review directly under a game at the point where someone makes their decision, these peer reviewers become powerful opinion makers. But that doesn't mean they completely remove the need for professional reviewers.
"Professional reviews have their place in the meta-sphere without a doubt," said Andy McNamara, editor-in-chief of Game Informer magazine. "I still consider them to be a major driving force in gaming. Information is the most powerful tool a consumer can have, and they should get as much information as possible. This is why I believe that all reviews – both user and professional – help move video gaming forward. As the right games reach the right tastes and the sub-par games fall to the wayside, we make the video game industry a sleeker, more-skilled creative machine. I think people who play bad games consistently find other hobbies, so reviews play a key role in insuring that good games get in the hands of gamers."
And while the power of placement can give in-store peer reviews more punch, that won't last if Kmart isn't careful about how they select which excerpts to run.
"If the retailers are honest with their consumers, and post reviews that reflect their tastes, then I think the information is a powerful tool," McNamara said. "If every posted review is a 100-percent or A+, then i think it would defeat the purpose."
While Kmart won't be running scores, they are aware of the issue of only running positive comments. That doesn't mean, however, that you're going to see a reason not to buy a game on their store shelves. Instead, the retailer seems to be trying to find some middle ground.
To cut down on the potential abuse of their system, Kmart says they will try to avoid using reviews that say whether the game is actually good or bad, instead they will try to find snippets that talk about gameplay, graphics and story.
"We will post reviews that delve into the game experience, and aren't simply 'This game is good/This game is bad' posts," Combs said.
Kmart updated their posted policy on peer reviews to include this last point after I asked the retailer about potential abuse of the system. The policy shift, though, creates new problems. Steering clear of all negative reviews would be a disservice to everyone, but stripping away any true opinion for the reviews seems just as damaging.
While the notion of democratising game criticism is tantalising, I think consumers should be wary of placing their trust in a constantly changing flow of voices free of accountability.
The regularity of reviewers and the ability to judge their opinions over time against your own tastes is what makes a review meaningful. Stripping that away, boiling down a myriad of opinions about a game to a single paragraph transforms the end result from a bit of criticism into a bit of marketing.
Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.