Homefront: painting by numbers.

This week I was going to write something about what I like to see in videogames, but that will have to wait a few days because THQ’s Danny Bilson has seen fit to grace the Internet with an absolute pearl of a quote during an interview with IGN regarding the success of the resoundingly mediocre FPS Homefront. Speaking about the wildly ranging review scores the game received, Bilson confidently stated that the game was “not a ‘71’” because “you can’t apply math to art.”

The pairing of the numbers seven and one Bilson referred to of course came courtesy of everyone’s favourite review aggregation website Metacritic, which gathers the seedling scores of the world’s most prominent videogame publications and sows them across its vast fields of bandwidth before reaping a thick crop of profit.

My immediate response to Bilson’s intriguing verbal spillage was that he clearly doesn’t understand the calculation of mean averages. So to help Mr Bilson in his predicament, below is a short and simple guide on the weird and wonderful world of the mean taken from www.mathsisfun.com, slightly adapted to aid the specifics of this illustration:

How to Find the Mean

The mean is just the average of the numbers.

It is easy to calculate: add up all the numbers, then divide by how many numbers there are.

In other words it is the sum divided by the count.

Example: What is the Mean of these numbers?

71, 73, 69

  • Add the numbers: 69 + 71 + 73 = 213
  • Divide by how many numbers (there are 3 numbers): 213 / 3 = 71

The Mean is 71

Hopefully this clarification will assist Mr Bilson in comprehending the average score his games receive in the future.

Yet there is more to Mr Bilson’s statement than a misunderstanding of basic mathematics. He apparently believes that a work of art cannot be rated via the medium of a numerical score on a scale of 1 to 100. Leaving aside the argument concerning whether a Call of Duty clone that involves killing a large number of faceless North Korean soldiers in an extremely prescribed and predictable manner and manages the nigh-impossible task of being shorter than a Call of Duty game counts as a work of art or not, I would say I am in absolute agreement with Mr Bilson.

Well, I say absolute agreement. I don’t agree that it is impossible to apply mathematics to an artefact, because just about every critic in existence does so and therefore you quite clearly can. On the other hand, this is not to say that critics and reviewers should do this. Certainly we shouldn’t take such scores too seriously. Aggregation and averages might seem like a reliable way of assessing a creative work, but an average of numerical scores based on a variety of different scales (some 1 to 5, others 1 to 100), with each score based on the highly subjective opinion of individual critics suddenly doesn’t seem like such a rock-solid foundation for judgement.

Ideally, journalism (of all kinds) would do away with such scales and scores altogether. A score of 71, averaged out or not, tells the individual just short of nothing about whether a game is for them. Unfortunately, this is even less likely to happen than Michael Jackson doing another comeback tour. Moreover, it isn’t what people like Mr Bilson actually want. This becomes evident later in the same interview when further discussing review scores.

Bilson states. “Do I read them all to see what we can do better next time and have every review be 100? Of course, our goal is always that.” Note how Bilson refers to the ideal numerical score of a review and not the ideal textual content. He doesn’t discuss what problems the game had, what is was missing, what it did well, or what needs to be addressed to make any forthcoming sequel better. Instead he points his finger at the arbitrary number reluctantly picked out at the end like the poor kid left over when picking teams for a game of playground football.

Bilson doesn’t really believe you can’t apply maths to art. He only believes that you can’t apply maths to bad art (if such a thing exists). In Bilson’s world the validity of a score decreases as you drop further down the scale. And in a way, maybe he is right. Art is something that has high cultural value attributed to it, and while 71 a good score away from the insane rating methods of games journalism, you probably wouldn’t look at Picasso’s Guernica and say “I’d give it seven out of ten.”

So maybe you can’t apply mathematics to aesthetics after all, but that’s absolutely fine because Homefront isn’t art. It is virtual Mills and Boone – a very short, emotionally arousing yet intellectually vacuous piece of entertainment that you will probably forget about almost as soon as you have finished it.

There isn’t anything wrong with this. The games industry’s generally unpretentious ambitions is one of its most refreshing qualities. Yet complaining about the review scores your game received by claiming that your Call of Duty clone is a revolutianary artistic masterpiece, and consequently  those scores are irrelevant, when what you’re really after is a higher score, is cynical, contradictory and downright hypocritical.  Perhaps if developers stopped worrying about the numbers attributed to their creations and started actually paying attention to what reviewers and gamers say with letters and speech, those entirely arbitrary figures they love so much might start to rise.

Oh, and on a final note, Homefront is rated 70 on Metacritic, not 71.

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One Response to “Homefront: painting by numbers.”

  1. Drew says:

    “We don’t expect to beat those guys; our mission is to be in the conversation.”

    Congratulations Danny. If that was your brief, you fucking aced it.

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