Steam tries to foil 'review bombing' for PC games

The online game service is adding a histogram of reviews over time, so buyers can spot a flush of negative reviews.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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Steam, the online PC game storefront and platform, is attempting to minimize the effect of so-called "review bombing" by making more information about reviews available to gamers. 

Review bombing is what happens when a group of people flood a website with user reviews at the same time -- almost always negative or 1-star reviews -- attempting to radically alter the public perception of a product. It happens to movies,  video games  and even books. Amazon, for example, recently deleted hundreds of fake reviews for  Hillary Clinton 's new book.

The change follows a surge of negative reviews for the critically acclaimed game Firewatch, after that game's creators denounced controversial YouTube personality PewDiePie, who was caught using a racial slur in a game broadcast. 

The game's Steam page was flooded with negative reviews, dropping from "very positive" to "mixed."

In a company blog post, Steam says it first considered removing review scores entirely, or "freezing" them when it detects unusual activity that might be caused by review bombing:

Another idea was a temporary lock on reviewing, similar to how stock markets prevent trading on specific stocks when abnormal behavior is detected. Based on the theory that review bombs are temporary distortions, we could prevent reviews for short periods of time whenever we detect massive distortions in submissions.

But the company ultimately decided to add additional data to the reviews page for games in the form of a histogram.

Starting today, each game page now contains a histogram of the positive to negative ratio of reviews over the entire lifetime of the game, and by clicking on any part of the histogram you're able to read a sample of the reviews from that time period. As a potential purchaser, it's easy to spot temporary distortions in the reviews, to investigate why that distortion occurred, and decide for yourself whether it's something you care about.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

The example above is from Firewatch , and shows a clear influx of both negative and positive reviews right around the time of the PewDiePie incident.

The company says it will continue to "keep a close eye on the community conversation around reviews."