What Should Board Games Journalism Look Like?

posted in: Commentary | 2

I’m ⅔ of the way done with this article and I’m realizing that this is less a structured argument and more a collection of loosely related thoughts. Restructuring it as a more coherent argument would probably require tearing it down and rebuilding it anew, and I’m entirely sure how much better that would make it, so I’m leaving it as is. Apologies for the clutter.

I’ve been thinking of how I should frame this article for weeks now, because while I am fascinated by the topic, I don’t really have that much official experience or knowledge about it. I’ve written before about what kinds of characteristics I like to see in game reviews, but I hadn’t given much thought to board games journalism as a whole or how different styles might be categorized. That is, until the always informative Michael Heron from Meeple Like Us started talking on twitter about this thing called New Games Journalism.

This categorization began nearly 15 years ago with this blog post which argued for a different kind of writing in the video game world–one centered around the subjective experience of playing a game rather than the objective qualities of the game. The author posited a kind of travel journalism, where the travelling was within a video game space rather than a geographical one.

That’s a horrible oversimplification, though Gillen wasn’t particularly precise in the first place. It was a blog post, not an academic journal. The kind of articles I’ve seen as representative of NGJ tend to be first person nostalgic accounts that reference games in some way. That’s also an oversimplification, though it relays some of my frustration with the style. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, so I have a hard time relating to these stories. That’s a selfish criticism, but I hope it helps you understand my initial skepticism. I’ve had some time to think it over since that first encounter and Michael has posted his thoughts in detail, so let’s look at this one point at a time.

On Nostalgia

I think that the topic of nostalgia in heady pieces of games writing is so frequent simply because games are naturally nostalgia generators. Even the most abstract games are contained narrative experiences. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Choices have consequences. There’s intrigue generated through some kind of competition or challenge. Looking back on that experience undoubtedly would trigger at least some feeling of nostalgia. Add to that the fact that games are often key parts of our formative years results in a lot of the pieces I’m critical about. Not to say I’m not guilty of this to some degree. I’ve written an article that checks all of the offending boxes, though at the time it was the article I had the ability to write. Looking back I don’t think it’s very good at all.

Nostalgia has its place, but I think it’s often the safe way out with NGJ writing. It’s too easy to make that writing entirely about the author at the expense of the reader. I’m all for writing as therapy, but that doesn’t mean all of it has to be published. Excellent writing should try to say something about the world outside of the writer, even if it’s framed from the perspective of the writer.

What “Traditional” Board Game Journalism Has Going For It

The vast majority of board game journalism so far I’d put in the category of informative. It’s either marketing by or sponsored by a company, in the form of presenting the game’s components and telling people how it’s played, or it’s a review dominated by displaying the game as it is with some opinion from the reviewer thrown in. I’ve criticized these kinds of reviews before, though when I honestly look at it, I do get some benefit from them. They function as an encyclopedia of sorts–providing basic information about a massive number of games away from the influence of publishers. I treat reviewers like the folks at The Dice Tower as first-level filters. If they’re telling me it’s a dud, unless I have reason to think their opinion was soured by something I don’t care as much about (like complexity), I can probably safely look past it. With thousands of games being released each year, a filter like this helps me focus my attention.

Marketing from publishers gets the games on my radar in the first place. We all like to hate on marketing, myself included, but it’s not categorically bad. Marketing serves a useful function in a market to inform people of what’s out there. Obviously there are perverse applications, but in the board game space I think it’s kind of neat how a lot of marketing is outsourced to independent “content creators”, though I think the distinction between marketing and review should be much more transparent and clear.

The “traditional” approach provides a baseline layer of information about games, not unlike actual encyclopedic resources like BGG. For me they serve an identical purpose and they serve an important role in the board game ecosystem, as it were.

What NGJ Has Going For It

New Games Journalism understands and embraces the subjectivity of the game experience. No matter what’s happening with the physical/digital objects of the game, the experience is playing out in your mind. That experience will be different, sometimes radically so, depending on your background and who you are as a person. While any kind of review implicitly acknowledges this whenever the reviewer expresses their opinion, NGJ is specifically and (perhaps) entirely about the subjective.

Because of that it can use writing as a means of empathy, which is one of the great uses of language. Empathy is, critically, part of what makes us human, and to empathize best you have to understand how other people experience the world. Games and play are so significant to 21st century life that we ought to be thinking about how they affect us as diverse individuals.

Potential Pitfalls With NGJ

Despite the subjective approach having so many obvious benefits, I can see a number of problems with it in practice.

1. Too selfish. It’s very easy to jump from “subjective games experiences are worth writing about” to “all subjective games experiences are worth writing about”, which implies that “MY subjective games experience is worth writing about”. Once you get there the floodgates open to all kinds of masturbatory, self-important drivel. In the internet age where everyone can quickly and easily write whatever they want and shout it to the masses, that can become not only troublesome to the community, but also incredibly annoying. I’ll outline what I think are good and proper ways of doing NGJ later, but I think we can all agree that there’s the potential for a lot of very bad writing.

2. Authenticity claims. This is similar but distinct from the first point. As a culture (at least in the U.S.) we seem to have embraced a pseudo-existentialist idea of authenticity–that is, that we ought to be wholly and authentically ourselves as a primary goal. We hear it in a soft form all the time–”be yourself”, “you do you”, “your voice deserves to be heard”, etc. In its soft and squishy form it might have some light value, but I don’t buy the existential claim at all. Authenticity of the self is not a primary goal, as we ought to seek to improve ourselves. I’m a moral realist and I suspect most people reading this, explicitly or implicitly, are realists also, or at least supportive of normative (i.e. “ought”) moral claims. NGJ can easily slip into a claim of authenticity and demand respect for its expression of a supposedly authentic self/experience, thereby furthering the argument for authenticity as a desirable end. I know this is esoteric, but it concerns me quite a bit.

3. Elitism. I don’t think Gillen would ever claim that NGJ should be the only, or even the primary form of writing about games. He wrote of it as an addition to the scene that would provide a new and interesting way to talk about games. However, because this is easily seen as a more sophisticated kind of writing, I fear that culturally the people who do it might see themselves as superior to people who do more traditional journalism. I’m not even bought into the idea of NGJ and I still struggle with this quite a bit.

None of these points are objections to NGJ as it is, but they’re points that we need to be aware of and cautious of. This is where the form can go wrong (and where it has gone wrong in places in the video game world, from what I see from some of the links in the above Meeple Like Us article). I think there’s a ton of possibility here, if it’s carefully done.

What Would Good NGJ Look Like?

I have to add a caveat here that I am not very well read in video games journalism, which is where NGJ started and has mostly been performed. I haven’t seen that many examples of the form, so I’m speaking theoretically here. To be both effective and beneficial the work needs to be about more than sharing a singular perspective for its own sake. It should say something about the author, yes, but it shouldn’t be only about the author. It needs to have greater purpose–to help us understand ourselves as people and the world we live in.

I think the travel journalism analogy is perfect because it’s so easy to see the difference between good and bad travel journalism. The worst kind of nonsense writing is so navel-gazing and dismissive of any kind of shared humanity. You probably know what I’m talking about–the stories of people who go out and explore a culture outside of their own, but frame everything in terms of how odd they, personally, find it in a pithy, meaningless way. The best travel journalism outlines how the author’s experience transformed them in a nuanced and deep way, not just how they reacted to it. The absolute best speak to not only the author’s personal experience, but to their own culture, the culture they’re experiencing, how those interact, what that means for both parties, and the implications for us as people.

My Approach

I wouldn’t classify myself as a NGJ person, mostly because I’m still very interested in writing reviews with a “should you play or not” focus, and that’s simply outside of the category. But I love the idea of more bold, personal writing about board games. So much in the board game world, my writing included, is relatively stale. The modern board gaming community is still new. Let’s push ourselves and be risky! Let’s try to communicate difficult ideas and go out of our comfort zones! I’ll do my best to do the same.

But my primary interest is in taking the subjective experience that I get when playing games and connecting that to the objective mechanisms of the game. Deep down I’m a formalist, and I want to explore precisely why certain aspects of games cause us as people to react and think different ways. I want to talk about my own experience with a game insofar as it is representative of how many people will experience it because of the way the game is designed. This is why I find things like Geoff Engelstein’s talk at GDC a while ago so interesting. I want to see how games as designs interact with human psychology.

Incidentally, this approach results in the kinds of game reviews I think are best. Knowing that an individual person likes or doesn’t like a particular game gives you some information about how you might like or not like a game, but not much. Reading about precisely what a game does to create different experiences, decision points, and reactions is much more helpful as a buying guide.

A side benefit of this approach is that you also gain more of an understanding of how game design works, which might help you understand precisely what about games you appreciate most. Usually game recommendation advice is along genre lines (e.g. “if you like worker placement games, you’ll love Agricola!), and that’s imprecise at best. We just did a podcast comparing two games in the same sub-genre where that kind of advice wouldn’t have helped us. Only a more in-depth look at the specific mechanisms and design philosophies reveals why we liked one over the other. This is the kind of analysis that leads to truly excellent reviews.

What Should Games Journalism Look Like?

Stepping back a bit, I want to look at the community as a whole. What kind of writing and journalism is best in the board game community? Obviously one style of writing and analysis by itself isn’t going to be sufficient for a great community. I approached this article anticipating a more radical screed in the conclusion, but as I’ve written and thought about the topic, I’ve realized that we really do have a wonderfully wide range of interesting writers and thinkers in the board game community. Everything is here, I just think the ratios are off.

I see six very broad categories of writing about board games:

  1. Informative. I already spoke about this, but in this category I’d include marketing and promotional content, resources like BGG, and reviews that focus on the rules of the game and a cursory opinion.
  2. Theoretical. Talk about game design, psychology, and game theory. Looking at the mechanisms and aesthetics of a game from a more technical standpoint.
  3. Strategic. How to improve at games. Think of all of the MtG articles out there helping people get a competitive edge. Any game with a competitive scene will attract this kind of writing.
  4. Meta. Where this article fits. Talking about how we talk about board games. Talking about the communities that spring up around the games themselves.
  5. Experiential. Here’s where NGJ primarily goes. How do you experience games and how have they shaped your life?
  6. Didactic. Writing that uses games to illustrate deeper truths. Given that games are models of the kinds of decisions we face in real life, abstracted, we can use them to help us understand bigger ideas.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. The very best NGJ will have bits of categories 4, 5, and 6. The very best reviews will fit in both 1 and 2. But I think they’re relatively useful categorizations for my point, which is this: right now most of the proliferated board game discussion out there falls into category 1, and I think an ideal mix would spread a good bit of that to the other categories.

The reason that category 1 is the most common is because it’s the easiest. That’s to be expected, and I don’t think that can be overcome. But if you personally are interested in more thoughtful, more interesting, and more diverse discussions about the hobby you love, take a step back and consider how much of what you read, hear, and see falls into each category. If you’re someone like me who is trying to make their voice heard within this community, think about which category you’re contributing to. Compare that with which categories you think are most useful and helpful. If we want to see the state of board game “journalism” change, it starts with us.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Kai Saarto

    Wow! I’ve have been thinking about the very same issue for some time and have been wanting to write about it. I think Shut Up & Sit Down is close to NGJ for board games since those guys have worked long in video game journalism.

    Personally, I tend to skip the middle parts of most written reviews (where reviewer explains how the game works). After the forewords I’ll often skip to the end to see how they liked the game.

    When writing reviews, I’ll usually still follow the exact same route of writing I hate. That is probably because 1) I feel I need to explain the rules (tradition), 2) it’s an easy way to write, 3) reviews are often written after only a handful of plays and are therefore just first impressions.

    I hope your article will be a good start for discussion on how to improve the way we write reviews and do board game journalism. Industry is growing and bloggers and journalist need to keep up with this. We have a lot of room the for different styles of writing. I suggest you as a readers of this excellent blog post check out the movement called Slow Journalism if you’re not familiar with it.

    • Marc Davis

      Glad you enjoyed it! I agree that SUSD does things right, and their reviews are some of the most interesting in the hobby.

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