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The Current Limitations of Critical Infrastructure in the Board Game Community

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
In most mediums when an interesting new work is released, it generates a wave of discussion as its effects ripple through the critical world. The work is dissected for its relative value, and, if it is particularly noteworthy, what it meaningfully says about the current state of that medium. Newspapers, journals, blogs, and academic papers are all fundamental parts of this discourse, whether the work is a book, movie, or video game. However, board games do not have this same sort of critical infrastructure and this absence, and particularly the features of the board game hobby that have contributed to this absence, have helped shape the current state of board game critical discussion. While I do not have a definitive answer to this question, I believe that it can be narrowed down to three primary factors: the relative youth of modern board gaming, the size of the board game market, and the dominance of BoardGameGeek (BGG) in board game discussion.

The first factor is the relative newness of modern board game culture. The historical lines that have resulted in our three primary styles of games are well-documented elsewhere but their effects on game criticism has not been. The most important thing to note is that in the 60s and 70s a divergence occurred in board game styles resulted in very different sorts of games being developed in America, where the focus was largely on big games with science fiction and fantasy theme featuring asymmetric starting positions or conflict simulation, where in Germany the focus was on shorter games with symmetric starting positions and small, efficient rules. These lines converged with the release of Settlers of Catan, a game that proved to be a big hit first in Germany then in the United States. While the mechanical impacts of Settlers of Catan on other games were minimal, its presence increased awareness in the US of an entirely different hobby board game paradigm than the one that had dominated the market. At first this resulted in an increased presence of German board games in the American market, but as time went on cross-pollination began to occur and the different styles of games began to influence each other and merge in interesting ways creating an explosion of available games that both made high level critical analysis more viable as well as more necessary.

Holding this back has been, as Matt Thrower explained in his excellent article on the function of criticism in games, “...criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.” There has been some increase in the amount of high level critical analysis applied to board games, but the development of infrastructure necessary to facilitate this higher level of critical analysis has been slow. It is easy to assign blame for this to the relative youth of modern board gaming as a subject worthy of critical study compared to other mediums, but video games, which have had an even shorter period of existence and have suffered from the perception noted by Matt, currently have a more effective critical infrastructure then board games do. So the youth of modern board gaming is only a partial contributing factor to board gaming’s current lack of critical infrastructure. So what does video game culture have that board game culture has lacked? Sufficient demand for critical analysis.

Video games are a massive industry, in a way that board game publishers can only imagine and envy. While hobby board games have been making headway into more mainstream sellers, such as Barnes & Noble and Target, these are tentative steps towards cultural expansion, as opposed to the cultural domination video games have achieved. Of course, market size does not in itself ensure any sort of critical infrastructure, but video games’ profitability and cultural saturation do enable people to make money spending their time thinking (and writing) about video games. Some universities have PhD and Masters degree candidates performing research work related to video games; major media web sites and magazines run articles that discuss video games; and video game culture comes with a large enough audience to financially support individuals who build dedicated websites or blogs based around the critical discussion of video games. However, while there are individuals who make money on the academic or critical study of board games, the number of people who are able to do so is extremely small, and as far as I know, there is no one who makes enough money to do it full time.

While you do not need to make money in order to produce effective criticism, board games have a unique feature that makes it so being able to devote your attention to them full time is much more valuable than it is for books, movies, or video games: the need for other people to be involved in the experience. Exploring a board game generally requires you to have one or more other people to participate in the game experience with you, while other mediums can generally be explored as a solitary experience. While this need for other people to experience a board game does not reduce the quality of board game criticism, it does reduce the rate at which it can be produced. It is not simply a matter of finding a suitable amount of time to yourself, but also to coordinate your schedule with others so that you can spend time with them playing the game a sufficient number of times to truly understand it. For amateur board game critics this can be difficult, and requires a particularly understanding group, and creates a difficulty that critics in other fields do not have to worry about. Of course this means, that a professional board game critic would either need to be one in a larger group, or be in a gaming environment where they could guarantee that they could quickly and effectively play and critique newer games. The cost of paying for a full group of full-time games critics and the unreliability of needing to rely on people who are not paid to focus just on playing and analyzing games is such that the emergence of a true class of professional board games, like you see for other fields, is unlikely even if the board game market increases in size such that it even warrants them.

Books, film, and video games benefit from a rather wide variety of source of critical information, in which there are numerous bigger players and a thriving ecosystem of smaller ones that create a relatively healthy marketplace of ideas. In contrast, board games have a single hulking titan that dominates board game discussion. This web site, BoardGameGeek (BGG), distorts how hobby board game analysis develops, not out of any malice, but simply because of how it organizes the communication tools it provides. BGG combines elements of a social media site with a database, and its particular combination results in a great deal of focus being applied to areas that I feel discourage real critical discourse until recently. This would not matter much if BGG was simply one site among many equals, but its great scope and popularity give it a level of influence that is unparalleled in the hobby board game world, and thus drives the structure of most board-game-related discussion on the web.

BGG was started in January 2000 by Scott Alden and Derk Solko, just as eurogames were beginning to pick up momentum in the United States, in an attempt to create the definitive site on board games. They largely succeeded, in a way that has had both positive and negative effects on the development of critical discussion of board games. BGG’s initial influence was entirely positive; before it came into existence; most board game discussion took place on virtual bulletin boards, private mailing lists, or on other small web sites. BGG provided a consolidated web location that first served as a database for board game information, particularly for the German-style board games that were still fairly new to the United States, and then slowly added functionality such as forums that enhanced the means that individuals had to communicate their opinions on board games to each other. The site’s structure, which created discussion communities focused on individual games, was extremely helpful in the early days of critical discourse on board games. However, as time went on, this structure limited the attention given to content that discussed multiple games, or content with a scope broader than discussion of specific games, simply because of the sort of discussion BGG was designed to encourage.

If BGG was not the centerpiece of so much of the hobby’s board game discussion, its structure would have less impact on the critical community, as secondary web sites would provide alternative means of communicating critical content that was not game-specific. However, because of BGG’s dominance, it is difficult for these sorts of sites to get entirely outside of BGG’s orbit, and much of the content that ends up on other sites ends up on BGG as well, reducing game enthusiasts’ need to explore any site other than BGG. Only the Opinionated Gamers, Fortress Ameritrash, and a few scattered blogs have been able to avoid this particular fate; in each of those cases, there are specific reasons why the creators choose not to share their content on BGG, much of it related to a particular dissatisfaction towards BGG culture or its particularly central place in the world of board games.

The youth of the board game hobby, the size of the board game market, and the limited number of channels for effectively bringing attention to content are all major contributing factors to why critical analysis is in such a poor state in the board game hobby today. If the limiting factor in the production of effective critical analysis proves to be the size of the audience for hobby board games, and the accompanying financial resources that can be expanded to develop critical infrastructure, then efforts towards a professional critical community may end up being ultimately irrelevant. We are unlikely to see the cultural infusion of hobby board games required to see regular articles appear in academic journals or magazines in the near future and it is equally unlikely that BGG will lose its hegemonic influence over board game discussion. This does not mean that those who wish to see a greater level of analysis and discussion in the board game community our powerless. There are ways that individuals who are interested in a greater depth of critical discussion can work to help facilitate its expansion and on the whole I think there is a great deal of potential for positive movement in that direction both by producing new technical and intellectual tools, as well as by taking greater advantage of existing ones.

One of these existing tools is the BGG blog feature. BGG’s central position means that feature upgrades can have a positive impact on critical discussion, and two related changes since the beginning of 2011 have improved the quality of discussion in the larger board gaming community. In late 2010, BoardGameNews (BGN), one of the major secondary sites outside BGG, was partially folded into BGG. The majority of the news content, as well as pieces of journalism by W. Eric Martin, were included in BGG, while much of the editorial content and reviews were spun off to form the Opinionated Gamers. This was a positive development, both because BGN’s prominence on BGG drew more attention to journalistic and general-purpose articles, and because BGG implemented new blogging tools for the BGN feed which were later extended to the rest of the BGG users. The blogs, which allow authors to attract the attention of those who are subscribed to games in BGG’s database, have served to effectively introduce new voices to BGG and also to provide older voices with a new method to effectively convey their ideas.

The key to ensure that effective amateur critics continue to produce content is to ensure that they are aware that their content is valuable. For amateur content producers, one of the most valuable commodities is attention, and by making sure that people who produce content you value have your attention you ensure that that they will be motivated to continue to produce it. How you do this will, of course, depend on the particular medium that they are using to produce their content, but providing feedback, more abstract indications of appreciation such “thumbs up” on BGG, and using social media tools to bring the article to the attention of others who might enjoy it.

Despite our current lack of critical infrastructure, I think there is a strong potential for the development of effective critical analysis of board games. I believe that there is enough latent desire for effective board game critical analysis that now it is simply a matter of ensuring that those who wish to consume the content are able to find those that are producing it and that there continue to be new, effective intellectual and technical tools that help to enable the success of this content. I plan to do what I can to ensure that this happens, as I want to see quality board game criticism succeed. Do you?
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