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"Everyone's a Critic!"--On Approaching Metacritical Mass

Nate Straight

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A lot of gaming's better critics and bloggers [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here] have for some reason suddenly become interested in the state of board game criticism and marketing, so I guess if I'm supposed to maintain any legitimacy as a blogger I ought to jump on that bandwagon myself and bewail the dearth of deeply meaningful discussion of board games.

These blogs and other discussions have been an interesting sort of metacriticism [criticism of criticism], but before I can take my part in that discussion, I want to do a bit of metametacriticism and give my critical opinion on the idea of criticizing [board game] criticism in the first place. To begin, I'll have you look over a few wonderful webcomics from Randall Munroe's amazing xkcd.

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It's become quite popular to be a critic of criticism, and we [like Munroe] tend to like to poke fun at it, mostly because there is just so damned much of it floating around anymore. With the advent of for-consumer-by-consumer reviews linked directly to product listings on e-tailer websites, as well as of websites dedicated to nothing but such reviews [AngiesList, et al], and with the heightened sense of individual importance that social networking and the blogosphere has created, criticism in general has moved away from being something done by professionals for the benefit of the ignorant masses toward something done en masse and often for the benefit of the good or service provider rather than for other customers. As reviewers, we're often just pimping our favorite things, and businesses covet critics as much as customers.

Critical voices pronouncing judgments from on high simply aren't as important as they used to be. The first stop for many consumers seeking critical opinions used to be professional critics [Roger Ebert, George Bernard Shaw, Gael Greene, et al] or at least panels of expert opinion in the form of a certified travel guide or the like prepared by dispassionate professionals [Michelin guides, et al]. Now, the more common stop is some aggregate rating score and a slew of off-the-cuff remarks from Joe Consumer. It doesn't matter who an Amazon reviewer is or what qualifies them to review a product, if they have a strong enough opinion and can express it forcefully enough they will have an impact on consumer perception of the product. It doesn't even matter if the opinion is well-grounded, for the most part, as long as it is loud.

In the age of instant-feedback hype-generators like Twitter and Facebook, and of nameless numbers like Urbanspoon or Zagat ratings that purport to express "consumer opinion", is it really a surprise that board game criticism is following the path it is? BoardGameGeek's typical review content and user-driven rating structure is not unique in the world of criticism, not by a long shot. It is exactly the kind of thing that people have grown to expect and even to value. If anything, board game criticism is a little bit ahead of the curve in regards to individualized, subject expert content. Tom Vasel isn't exactly my ideal reviewer, but it seems to me that a lot of hobbies simply don't have a Tom Vasel as a one-stop critical source. We don't really have depth of content on a structural level in our critical dialogue, but we're closer than most.

The Internet and consumer-driven criticism grew organically and exponentially because it filled a felt need among consumers for critical voices that were "like them", speaking from a position of shared experience rather than one of authority. This shift is just part of a broader trend away from the unadulterated cynicism of post-modernism toward a new emphasis on "authenticity". The fevered pitch of slogans like "question authority" has finally given way to an answer, and that answer is to rely on authentic experience. "What have real people actually experienced in regard to _______?" is the question that drives criticism today. To rail against that kind of uber-subjectivity is self-defeating. What we need isn't more authority, but a better way to be authentic. In this brave new world, we need to question a critic's authenticity before [instead of?] their legitimacy.

I found some interesting reading in my pursuit of good writing on metacriticism in the "metamodern" age; it's not at all relevant to criticism, but I really liked Joyce's posts on legitimacy and authenticity here, here, here, here, and here. So much for today's etymology lesson; now back to criticism! Things like Amazon's "Was this review helpful?" meta-review system and BGG's own thumb + GeekGold system attempt to provide the needed check on authenticity. People use thumbs here in lots of ways, but it seems to me that the most common use is not to express agreement with the content of an article [to legitimize it] but to say to others "This is good stuff well said, the real deal" [to authenticate it]. Many people [myself oft included] react violently to "review copies", because we feel they compromise the authenticity of a reviewer. This never would have been an issue in times past.

You see, it's not enough anymore simply to have a legitimately well-reasoned opinion of something. "Even the demons believe... and tremble!" Asking simply for better informed, better reasoned, better written opinions of games is asking the entire critical mindset of a generation to be turned back [not one, but two generations, in fact]. Rather, we need to ask for more resonantly personal opinion without fear that we might get some "wrong answers" in the process. Staunch objectivists and absolutists [myself included here, too] probably don't like this, but this has to be the approach we take. To make even the wrong answers valuable, we need to have a larger view of a reviewer as a person in order to provide context to their subjective opinions. My scattered Bible references, diatribes on tradition, and familial showing-off are not wholly irrelevant to this blog, in other words.

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It's a commonly stated indictment against modern political environments that we care too much about what celebrities think about politics. After all, Sean Penn can act and Justin Bieber and Lady GaGa can... make song-like noises... but what do either of them know about politics? [The answer is "as little as anyone else", by the way.] Why should we care what a singer thinks about war? Or an actor about marriage? This is too big a question, but it has a corollary in the realm of criticism in that criticism is also becoming "interdisciplinary". You, as Jane Doe Amazon Reviewer, review books you like, films you like, music you like, food you like, grooming products you like, baby toys you like, etc, and this all seems perfectly natural. Yet we wouldn't ask Roger Ebert for his opinion on Mass Effect 3, would we? Yet when a self-avowed board-game critic reviews it [in a very personal context], the result is great.

Now, that's not a very large jump... Jason is still just reviewing "gaming" in general. But, because of his authenticity and style, I'd be apt to listen to his opinion on film, music, literature, art, etc, and I'd be more apt to place stock in his opinion on these than in a randomly chosen Amazon reviewer or possibly even a well-regarded literary critic. That doesn't mean I'd think his opinion was more legitimate ["correct"] or was more likely to align with my taste; it's just that the added context [both personal and interdisciplinary] would provide added value. The holy grail of criticism would be a polymath who was able to apply their wide-ranging expertise with authenticity and panache. This doesn't necessarily mean that such a reviewer would have to cover a wide range of board games; it means that when they cover a board game, they should do so from a wide range of perspectives and integrating a wide range of knowledge.

The insularity that is currently endemic to board game criticism leads to reviewers like Tom Vasel or "Ender Wiggins" with enormously broad output, relatively little depth, but most importantly almost zero interdisciplinary perspective [maybe this third dimension should be dubbed "width"?]. All these folks do is talk about board games, and the only context they are able to place games in is that of this particular hobby. They're able to do it relatively successfully, making legitimate cases for how a game is likely to be received in the hobby and where it stands in relation to other games, but their criticism has a certain lack of solidity. Fields like economics, politics, sociology, genetics, and statistics all have relevant linkages to games and game structures; really good board game criticism comes from a place that leverages these contexts in the way that really good film or literary criticism does. Mature criticism always has a broad, deep, and wide perspective.

What we currently have in board game criticism is the equivalent of literary critics who focus exclusively on grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, with maybe a very brief excursion on occasion into etymology. Literature isn't about how a book "works"; it's about what a book means. We don't have any concept in board game criticism of what a game "means", and I don't think it's because it's an impossible or unwarranted question to ask. I think it's because we're still at the tail end of developing our gaming "alphabet", as it were. If you don't know how to create complex sentences, there's no point in talking about creating complex narrative. You have to walk before you can run, let alone compete in a decathlon or do gymnastics. We're close, though, to mechanical saturation; we have a gaming syntax to work with now. What we're seeing isn't game designers developing new forms [analogous to novels, historical fiction, documentaries, etc], but developing new styles.

What we need in board game criticism isn't just a more informed reviewer, but a more perfect union of content and context, form and style. In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice... 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.

I don't think answering these questions is beyond the realm of possibility for any reviewer currently active. This is doable, but we need a new mindset of what a game review looks like, hopefully by looking to critical reviews in other fields. More particularly, I think we also need to embrace the post-postmodern "e unum pluribus" [yes] social communication structure, and make board game criticism a dialectic pursuit that begins with highly individualized subjective perspectives and moves outward to a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional statement of "our" opinion on a game. On BGG, we need even stronger methods for judging and rewarding authenticity. Thumbs on rating comments, for instance, is a tool that has been oft requested and would be extremely useful. We also need more dedicated discussion groups like the 18XX / Winsome mailing lists, the GameChat Leagues, and the Opinionated Gamers. The blog and guild systems need serious beefing up.

Board Game Designer: Reiner Knizia

Among the things being discussed lately in my GameChat League is Herr Doctor himself, for reasons not the least of which being that our "meatball madness" version of Geek Madness looks like it's going to come down to an all-Knizia finale: Ra vs. Tigris & Euphrates. A couple members of the GCL have gone a little batty in the Geeklist department, with lists about Knizia here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

What's the big deal about Knizia? The big deal is that not only is he the most prolific game designer in our hobby, he's also among the most recognizable. He has a very particular style, and that means something. More than just about anyone else, except for maybe Martin Wallace, you can tell when you're playing a Knizia design. We've been discussing what exactly that style is, and that, to me, is good board game criticism.
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