A Review of a Review

Polygon editor Arthur Gies did something unusual when reviewing Bayonetta 2 for Nintendo’s Wii U console. Rather than just reviewing the intrinsic elements of the game such as graphics, storytelling and gameplay, Arthur opted to also judge the game against what he clearly sees as a social issue—the sexualization and objectification of women. Many readers familiar with the game have balked at what they perceive as a low score, claiming Polygon had unfairly punished Bayonetta due to Arthur Gies’s discomfort with sexualization and objectification of the game’s main character. I agree with these criticisms to the extent that I believe Polygon would have given a Bayonetta 2 a higher score if Arthur Gies didn’t have issues with the game’s sexualization and the objectification of women.

Before discussing the merits of Arthur’s review, I think it’s important to address the role of scoring because I strongly doubt the review would be nearly as controversial if a score wasn’t associated. While scoring is a fun and convenient way to clearly distill recommendations for the convenience of readers, they also come with some significant downsides. First off, scores inspire comparison. Reviewers and their publications often try to explain the nuances of their scoring methodologies. Polygon’s scores are based on functionality on the low end and recommend-ability on the high end, which is to say so long as the game isn’t broken, higher scored games are just more recommendable. I think this is smart because at the end of the day, a review is just a recommendation generalized for the masses. That said, readers will reasonably use scores to compare similar games and ultimately determine which one to buy. Who would buy a game with just a 7.0 when a similar game receives a 9.5? Second, scores add a level of pseudo science to what are truly subjective pieces about pop-culture. Pseudo scientific scoring begets pseudo scientific responses and before you know it, people are attacking the reviewer and each other as if someone claimed that the world was flat. Finally, I can’t help but think that our perception of scores are emotionally colored by academic grades. Any attempt to recalibrate scores, no matter how sensible, will inevitably be met with a tidal wave of resistance fueled by generations of school age anxiety and stress.

With that in mind, Polygon gave Bayonetta 2 a score of 7.5 out of 10. 

The fact that Polygon measures 7.5 somewhere between good and great doesn’t matter. Readers see “7.5” and feel that Polygon empirically concluded that Bayonetta 2 is not as good of a game as, say,  Angry Birds Star Wars which they scored a solid 8.8. They also see “7.5” and feel “that’s a ‘C’” and everyone knows getting a “C” in school falls somewhere between average and mediocre. 

Without this score, I suspect that many unhappy with Bayonetta 2’s treatment would have been perfectly comfortable, if not in full agreement, with Gies’s words. I am also sure even more readers expected Polygon to overlook the glaring social issue and score only on its merits as a video game. And why not? For the most part that is exactly what video game publishers do. Just take a look at Bayonetta’s score among other video game publications where it’s averaging a 9.1. Polygon itself managed to give Grand Theft Auto 5 a score 9.5 despite gems in its review such as:

While most of Grand Theft Auto 5 feels like an evolution of the blockbuster video game, its treatment of women is a relic from the current generation, which is too often fixated on bald men and big breasts.

I can understand why readers might feel that Polygon unfairly singled out Bayonetta 2. That said, I don’t think Arthur’s review or the resulting score is bad or wrong, particularly given how Polygon defines a 7 score.

Sevens are good games that may even have some great parts, but they also have some big “buts.” They often don’t do much with their concepts, or they have interesting concepts but don’t do much with their mechanics. They can be recommended with several caveats.

Maybe there is some selective enforcement going on here, but the caveats in Arthur’s review are clear as day. Hell, it’s right there in his summary:

When Platinum Games is on, it’s really, really on, and Bayonetta 2 is in almost any respect that counts a better game than the first, whose mechanics were already exemplary. But every time I’d feel on a roll, enjoying my time with Bayonetta 2 immensely, I’d be broken out of it by another cheap shot of T&A.

Some commenters have suggested that maybe someone sensitive to women’s issues shouldn’t have reviewed Bayonetta 2 as if to suggest Arthur was writing from some fringe moralist perspective, but that isn’t the case. He is bothered by and addressing an issue that affects roughly 50% of the population. Others of compare Arthur’s review to a pacifist reviewing first person shooters where violence is often an inherent part of gameplay. This argument might actually hold water if Bayonetta 2 were strictly a porn game, but the sexualization and objectification of the game’s protagonist is almost entirely gratuitous. 

Then there is the argument that a little playful fan service in some video game doesn’t do any harm. Framing the issue in isolation misses the point entirely. The sexualization and objectification in Bayonetta 2 is just one of many examples in pop culture that normalizes a common belief that women are things for men to look at, desire and attain (thus the term ‘objectification’.) This affects women daily in every possible level. Professionally, women still struggle for equal pay and opportunity. Mental and health issues caused by attempting or failing to achieve some ever present and increasingly impossible standard of beauty (thanks Photoshop) found in pop culture are common. Sexually, women are both encouraged to be sex objects, but are regularly shamed upon acting on their own sexuality. Finally and most obviously, social acceptance of objectification helps assholes and criminals justify their acts of harassment, assault and rape (thus promoting rape culture.)

All of this doesn’t mean I think sexy characters and sexuality in pop culture are bad and should be avoided at all cost. Quite the contrary, I think sexualization in media can be healthy, particularly when it goes in all directions. Just ask a lady friend why the CW’s Arrow is so popular among women. But the fact is media is still largely controlled by men, which has ultimately contributed to an unhealthy treatment of sexuality in pop culture. It’s true that the character designer in Bayonetta 2 is a woman, which is great, but how much say does she realistically have when the director, producer, and writer are all men working in a male dominated industry? 

In full disclosure, I haven’t played Bayonetta 2. I might because every indication, from the reviews to friends, say the games really fun. That said, if i ever do play the game, I suspect my enjoyment and recommendation will be caveated much like Arthur’s review.

Final note: The one criticism I have with Polygon and Arthur Gies is that despite his obvious distaste for objectified women, Bioshock Infinite still managed to score a 10. Elizabeth is literally a damsel locked away in a tower who is later used as an item. I am pretty sure objectification still counts even it doesn’t involve sexualization.