Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Discussion About Board Game Criticism
The amount of discussion on the state of board game criticism has exploded a bit in the last couple of weeks, so for those who have might of missed individual parts of it, I am going to highlight individual articles and post my responses, if any, to each of them.
First off, Tamburlain questioned,
That game design is a form of art is a given. But from a culturally normative perspective, not all art, including popular art, is considered worthy of the same kind of attention. There are reasons why there aren't journals devoted to the appreciation of butter sculpture, and even better reasons why there aren't salons for the appreciation of those who appreciate it.
Before I read a 3,000 word essay on The Transformative Hermaneutics of Auction Mechanisms: A Critical Comparison of 'Zombie Zits!' and 'The Merchants of Nostalgia III', I want to know what kind of insight I can expect in return for my time and attention that I couldn't get from a less formal enquiry.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm writing this as a person who has enjoyed your game reviews but is puzzled by your latest blog posts calling for a more academic approach to criticism. Without knowing more about the specific subjects you feel are worth exploring that presumably aren't being explored (here on BGG, in gaming podcasts like Ludology, etc.) and without knowing the methods you propose for exploring them, then it's difficult to tell if what you are calling for is greater depth or just greater bathos.
Sure, there are not journals devoted to those topics you have noted, but I think that there is a basis for intellectual and cultural analysis of board games then there are for butter sculpture or things along those lines.
What I am generally pushing for is simply for those people who are interested in discussing board games topics in greater depth to do so, and for those whom want to see this sort of discussion to occur to support those who are writing about those topics through attention of the style I described in my article. I do not really even care that much what the particular subjects are about, though broader topics are of course more useful than the more specialized ones that you particular example provides. I am honestly not even sure that an academic approach is quite what I want. I think academic support would be a helpful intellectual tool to have in the goal of producing effective board game content, but ultimately what I would like is something a bit more in-between. Matt Thrower stated in the comment section of his wonderful article over at Fortress Ameritrash that,
...I think there’s a third way in between consumer reviews and academia. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s the sort of writing you see in book and film reviews in quality newspapers. It informs the consumer, but also gives them a great deal to chew over. However it’s possible that this styles relies on a basic knowledge of academic criticism amongst the target audience, and those fundamentals have yet to be established when it comes to gaming.
This is essentially what I want to but extended not only to reviews but also articles in general. Luckily, I think there is more room for this sort of discussion and these sorts of articles in general both on and off BGG, and I think some recent articles by Nate Straight and Martin G., not to mention a large number of articles by Matt Thrower, have been excellent examples of this. If we had more authors writing to this level of quality and approachability I would be a pretty happy man.
Speaking of Matt Thrower, he has written a second excellent article on board game criticism and journalism. I agree largely with what he has to say, and want to encourage everyone to go read it, but I did find one point to quibble with and that is his statement that,
The final barrier is the extraordinarily wide polarisation of taste in the board game community. In other areas of criticism there is a general agreement over what is genuinely great, and what is not. If you picked a critic’s list of top ten video games for your platform of choice, for example, the chances are you’d enjoy the majority of them whatever your particular tastes in games. Likewise if you sat through some recommendations of a film or literary critic. But in board gaming, one man’s meat is genuinely another’s poison. The standard geek lack of empathy exacerbates this problem, a seeming inability to see what constitutes “fun” in a board game varies very widely depending on the player and the resultant preaching that playing one type of game or another is somehow wrong, and that this point can somehow be proved beyond doubt with a scientific analysis of the mechanics.
I think Matt is overstating the amount of agreement that is found in other areas of criticism. While I can’t speak too heavily about video game or literary criticism, both film and music criticism seem to have some pretty sharp divides in what the is particularly “best” the best music or movies of a particular year, and individual critics lists reflect this. Sometimes there is general agreement about a particular piece, but just as often there are some pretty sharp divisions about whether something like the “Tree of Life” is a great work of art or merely pretentious crap, not to mention the divides between “rockists” and “popists”, not to mention fans of the gigantic number of musical genres, among those who critically examine music.
I do not want to overstate my case here, and I suspect that there probably is a bit more of an agreement about what makes a great piece of art in film and musical criticism then there is in board game criticism, but the divisions are real in film and music criticism. I also think that the polarization goes back in part to the relative maturity of the different fields of criticism and the greater access to intellectual tools that film and musical critics have. As the field of board game criticism matures, I suspect that even with the divisions we will see some works applauded as being great even among those who sharply disagree on games otherwise, as we saw this last year with Mage Knight Board Game.
Mark Taylor wrote a pair of articles on his blog Painted Wooden Cubes.
The first article discusses the importance in not focusing too much on the number of plays as a barometer of the quality of review, a point which I think is a good one, though I do think he exaggerates a little bit in his discussion of what the potential impact of this would be. We are not going to see a halt in first impression or shallow reviews, simply because they are valued. Even if we end up persuading some people that more in-depth or nuanced reviews are more effective and better, the vast majority of people will still appreciate these sorts of responses. In fact I still value these sorts of reviews simply because even if I prefer content that is produced from someone whom has a more experienced view of the game, an effective early review can still serve as a great conversation starter. Of course many early reviews are not effective, but that as much a problem with the reviewers than the reviews themselves, as Mark ably points out.
His overall points seems to be that rather than criticizing speedier reviews, those who are interested in it should focus on supporting and celebrating those that are producing deeper works. He says,
Building on, referencing and commending one another’s work would be a start – it would let credit for insight find the correct recipient, while allowing commentators to push one another further, rather than continually restarting from first principles. Of course, this depends on those commentators knowing one another in the first place: a problem I am working on means to address.
I think this is absolutely correct, and is something I hope to do with my future work. I also look forward to whatever tool it is he is working towards creating that will help address the problem he sees.
His second article follows along with the first and focuses on how it is important for commentators who want better discussion to work on raising the level of their work rather than chastising those who do not follow. He also brings up the idea of producing something along the lines of the Cahiers du Cinema for board games and suggests that he wants to establish something along those lines for board games and asks for help establishing something along those lines. So if this is something that interests you, please contact him!
Nate Straight, whom I consider perhaps the best blogger on BGG right now, wrote a rather long article on the subject of criticism and board games and how criticism has changed with the advent of the internet and where he would like to see criticism go from here. I do not have any particular comment on the content of his article, as he posted it this morning and I am still digesting it, but I found this quote to be particularly good,
... in order to improve the state of board game criticism, we need critics who are willingly to look beyond a game's rules and mechanisms, into the styles and dynamics at play in the game. How does it feel to play the game? What other games [not what other mechanisms] is it like? How does the game present historical, sociological, political, or economic truths or theories? What species or types of decisions do you make in the game? How does the game make expected value ambiguous enough so as to present real choice? What is the relationship of the game to the state of the hobby and to the designer's other output? How does the game seek to interact with and improve the player? These are really interesting questions that would provide true substance to a review.
Martin G and Oliver Kiley have both made posts that have focused on a number of excellent topics, but also focus a bit on trying to slow down and more deeply explore particular board games, focusing on a “Cult of the Slow” rather than a “Cult of the New”
There are a number of people who are making a visible and concentrated effort to play fewer games more times. The whole idea aligns well with the "Slow Movement" (emerging from the Slow Foods Movement), in that it would encourage everyone to slow down on their consumption of new games in favor of deeper exploration and more plays of already known games. This is a little different from the this slow games concept of being more deliberate and less hurried when playing big strategic games. Others, such as Qwertymartin have taken it upon themselves to only play old games in as part of the NaNoNeGaMo event in June, or to play a few games 100 times or more. Ultimately, the "slow games" movement is about cherishing and getting the most of what we have, rather than adding more fuel to the hotness.
I do not see anything wrong with both consuming both new games and exploring existing games in more detail at the same time. In fact for those of us who find that the last few years have been particularly favorable to their game tastes, I think it is very worthwhile to explore these new works coming out in great detail. While you could perhaps wait until enough detail comes out to identify if a particular board game is going to fit your tastes that does not quite work for me. I guess I am part of the Cult of the New since I greatly enjoy diving into and being part of the conversation about these new releases, but that does not stop me from exploring games in great detail. It just happens that most of my in-depth exploration is of games that were released fairly recently. Four of my five most played games in the last six months are all 2011 releases (Mage Knight – 34 plays; Ora et Labora – 26 plays; Kingdom Builder – 24 plays; Sentinels of the Multiverse – 20 plays; and Race for the Galaxy – 16 plays) and if you look back at my Essen to Essen plays in 2010/2011 you will probably find that I played games released in that time period a lot. I absolutely think it is good to explore games in great detail, but I do not think there is any particular reason you have to only explore older games in great detail. There are perfectly good games being released today that are worth exploring.
A Slight Slow Down In Writing
I will probably be writing a little bit less in the next couple of weeks because we have a new arrival at my house. This weekend my partner decided to adopt a stray 1 year old kitten. He has been a delight so far, but in order to keep him a delight we need to spend a bit of time playing with him to keep him active, and making sure he is both comfortable with the apartment and realizes the sort of behavior we expect of him.