The secrets of 'review-bombing': why do people write zero-star reviews?

In an age when everyone’s a blogger or social media influencer, it’s easy for traditional criticism to get drowned out. It’s at the epicentre of this din of competing opinions that Metacritic – a review aggregator owned by CBS that parses disparate media scores into round(ish) numbers – has flourished. Every game, album and movie that is released gets added to site’s gargantuan database, and review scores from tens or hundreds of publications are crunched into an easily digestible average.

But on the right side of each product’s page is a separate score, a bane of developers, directors and record companies everywhere: the user reviews section. It’s a public forum where anyone who registers an account can jump into the discussion, leave their own score and heap praise on a release – or, perhaps more often, pour scorn on one.

At the extreme, this latter practice is known as “review-bombing”: efforts, often co-ordinated, to tank the aggregate scores of a Call of Duty game, say, or an all-female Ghostbusters film by leaving furious, zero-star reviews. The latest target of this tactic was Captain Marvel, forcing Rotten Tomatoes to remove thousands of user reviews before the film had been released. It’s like a sedentary protest march, and the result can be a PR nightmare.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in the 2016 Ghostbusters remake.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in the 2016 Ghostbusters remake. Photograph: Hopper Stone/AP

The professional reviewers’ average might be somewhere in the low 50s. But it’s not uncommon, once the fury of the internet has been unleashed, to see user scores averaged from thousands of mostly-zero-star reviews, tainting a product’s reputation for ever. It’s the same effect created by negative reviews of businesses on Yelp or TripAdvisor, but scaled up to draft in thousands of angry voices – many of whom may not even have seen the movie or played the game in question, but have been swept up in a tsunami of negative sentiment.

But while maliciously tanking the score of a local B&B or a self-published novel might affect the fortunes of a small business, what possible effect can review bombers have on entertainment juggernauts? What motivates people to vent their spleens in furious reviews that might never be read? And why are these people so angry over what is, after all, just a piece of entertainment?

Michael is a Metacritic user: a 25-year-old Canadian student, gamer, and former oil and gas worker who caught my eye with a blindingly acidic review of last year’s disappointing postapocalyptic video game, Fallout 76.

“Let’s be honest,” he begins. “If this didn’t have the Fallout title on it, nobody would pay $60 for it. It’s only because it’s related to Fallout and [developer/publisher] Bethesda that some people even play it. Those of you who do are supporting terrible games, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are making the video game industry what it is today.”

Michael’s Metacritic user review history is largely negative. It’s hundreds of reviewers such as Michael who are responsible for the disparity between Fallout 76’s “official” Metacritic average and its user score. It took 43 professional critics to hobble Fallout 76 with a tepid 5.2. Michael and 5,037 other users halved that number with a barrage of zeroes.

Metacritic’s current summary of reviews and user scores for Fallout 76.

Metacritic’s current summary of reviews and user scores for Fallout 76. Photograph: Metacritic

It’s easy to write off review bombers as entitled and bratty, and a 0/10 score comes across as so petulant it is hard to take seriously. But the way Michael describes it, the zero-star review isn’t “score” at all; it’s more of a category unto itself. Ten is great. One is abysmal. But zero is, in Michael’s view, a direct line to the creators and distributors of the game that says: “This is unacceptable.”

“I don’t usually leave reviews unless I really don’t like a product,” Michael tells me over Skype. “I don’t leave good reviews, unless [something] really left an impact on me. If you asked all the other people who left a zero-star review, they’d probably say the same thing. They’re trying to get their voices heard. They’re trying to tell these corporations that this is not OK. It’s one thing to say, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t talk about it’… But by doing that you’re really telling these corporations they can make lower and lower quality products and that’s fine.”

Fallout 76 isn’t the only video game that took a critical beating last Christmas, but because previous games in the series were so acclaimed, its dressing-down was the most pronounced. Michael attributes this particularly vicious knee-jerk to his and other players’ dissatisfaction with the way video games have been changing, under pressure to make more money to offset the rising cost of making them. “Years ago when a developer and a publisher put out a video game, they had a lot of soul. There seemed to be a lot of new ideas,” he says. “The video game industry [was] about entertainment. But it seems like nowadays, games are more of a business idea than anything else … [Developers] don’t even finish the game before releasing it, and then they make promises that they’re going to finish it, make it better and do whatever they can to [appease] their customers.”

So does it ever work? Is leaving negative user reviews always the futile exercise it appears? There’s not much that can be done when, say, a badly received movie attracts ire from keyboard warriors. But games can be patched and updated after they come out, with the result that negative backlash does sometimes result in change. When Batman: Arkham Knight launched on PC in a glitchy state in 2015, the game was pulled from distribution, patched, then sheepishly rereleased several months later in markedly sturdier shape. But unless the thousands of users who initially trashed it can be coaxed into changing their reviews, Arkham Knight is hobbled with a 2.9 score for the rest of time.

Where Twitter, forums, subreddits and other online community gatherings might be more easily ignored, a red warning sign on a game’s Metacritic page is apparently enough to make some entertainment corporations blink. It may not be the purpose Metacritic had envisaged for its user review section, but Michael is right when he says the power of the zero sends a strong public message.

A scene from the video game Batman: Arkham Knight.

A scene from the video game Batman: Arkham Knight. Photograph: AP

“A game like Fallout 76 doesn’t really deserve a zero-star review,” he says. “But how else are you going to get your voice out? Metacritic and [PC games storefront] Steam are two perfect platforms. They don’t censor people – people are allowed to say whatever they want.

“The [other] reason that I’m more likely to leave a zero than a 10 is the fact that I don’t want to see people waste their money,” he says. “Leaving a zero-star review tells people, even if you like this series, or if you like this style of game, don’t buy it – your money is better spent on something else.”

It’s hard not to feel there’s something unsporting in openly gaming a review aggregator’s system to manufacture a disastrous score. But the reality may be that online review aggregators are the only places where dissatisfied fans feel impossible to ignore, where the aggrieved can fight back against marketing that can saturate the media with less-than-honest trailers, screenshots and interviews.

There may not be anything especially gallant about thousands of people angrily trashing other people’s work, but a chain of red zeroes are warnings that something about it – whether a genuine quality problem, a social justice grievance, or another controversy – has left a die-hard contingent of fans badly wanting.


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