Back in highschool my friends determined that my future career path was going to be a critic. It didn’t so much matter what I’d be criticizing, so long as I was criticizing it. Turns out they were fairly prescient. I’ve always taken that role, as it’s felt natural to me. I love looking at something and finding the ways in which it could go wrong. I’m not much of a “dreamer” who tries to come up with new ideas–in fact, when I look to create something I usually find some other example and see if I can improve on the concept.
All of that to say that the arguments I’m going to make in this article are deeply tied to who I am. Perhaps this paints me as biased in favor of the thesis, but I like to think that I’m biased because the arguments are right. So if you’re not a natural-born critic like me, I ask that you hear me out. What am I saying? Negativity and criticism, well-applied, is a positive force. In the world of board gaming, we need more of it.
The Community Problem
The problem, as it is, is that the board gaming community can simply be too dang nice. I realize that it’s not really a problem. In fact, it’s one of the best parts of the board gaming community. But I think that critical thought and a welcoming, friendly community can coexist. The issue is that terrible people in the age of the internet have, through their actions, caused others to conflate criticism with hostility and trollish behavior.
In response, we get people like Rahdo and the Man vs. Meeple folks who make it part of their MO to not get particularly negative about any game. This is fine to have in small quantities, and I’m not criticizing them in particular, but I don’t personally get much value over what they have to offer (I’d rather find and read the rulebook to get an impression of the game). They show how games play, and they do it well. From a critical and analytical point of view, however, they’re not trying to do much.
The Reactionary Issue
Shut Up and Sit Down and The Dice Tower don’t hesitate to criticize a game they don’t like, though it’s not hard to see how much of a hassle that’s been for them. One only has to go to any internet discussion of one of their negative reviews to see ad hominem attacks and flippant disregard for their arguments. It’s a viper pit in the wilds of the internet, and not pleasant. I mean, I’m nobody, relatively speaking, in the world of board game reviewing, and I’ve even had a designer snarkily come at me for something I said in a review.
So the good people in the industry try to ignore the filth and keep their sights focused on celebrating board games. For those who also dare to criticize games, that’s hard to do, because they draw in the incomprehensible masses.
The Self-Selection Problem
Meeple Like Us wrote about this topic at-length the other day, but I want to highlight a couple of reasons why there’s more positive coverage of board games right now. With really one exception (The Dice Tower), board game reviewers can’t adequately review even a small fraction of the notable games released any given year. There are about 5000 new games released every year, and if even 10% of them are interesting in any way, that’s still over one per day. I and most other reviewers will be able to get to around 1% of them with good connections to obtain review copies. Given that, what are we going to seek out, but the games we’re prone to like? There’s a self-selection bias here that’s unavoidable, and you can see it in my scores. According to BGG my average game rating is 6.58 right now, and that’s including a number of old “classics” like The Game of Life from my childhood that I rated (poorly).
The fact is that games reviewers are going to tend to cover games they’re predisposed to like. And that’s fine. All of us within the community do a lot of self-selection when we reject and don’t seek out those hypothetical “90%” of games each year that fall by the wayside.
The other issue is that giving a game a bad review usually isn’t fun. I’ve found myself playing some games from relatively new designers and publishers, and I get scared each time I start to play because I really don’t want the game to disappoint. I don’t enjoy writing those reviews, because I can see the face behind it. It’s their baby–their creation. I don’t want to crap all over it, even if my commitment to my readers necessitates that I do. I imagine most other reviewers feel the same way. So we try to seek out games we’re probably going to like.
Being Unrelentingly Positive Sounds Like A Sweet Deal
And it is, honestly. Adapting a habit of positivity begets more positivity and happiness, generally. It’s good for you. You get to stay away from controversy and celebrate the games you like. In fact, I’d go so far to say that we probably need people who play the role of cheerleaders for the hobby to make a great community. We need the Rahdos who spread infectious enthusiasm far and wide, just like we need movies like Ocean’s 11, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Baby Driver to remind us that cinema can simply be pure fun. But we also need the people to tear down the established order and challenge our default assumptions. That’s where critics come in.
Criticism Should Come From Love
What does good criticism look like? I think of it primarily as an attitude, and that attitude is definitely not one of snobbery. Snobbery is a selfish pursuit where one builds themselves up at the expense of others. Snobbery doesn’t want to share their supposedly superior tastes with others, which is kind of the opposite of how board games are supposed to work.
A good critic wants to seek out excellence, certainly, but they do that because they love what they’re criticizing. I love board games, and I love finding the games that truly excel at what they want to do. I want all games to be that awesome. While I know that isn’t possible, I also know that celebrating good, but not great games constantly isn’t the way to push game design forward.
So what does good criticism look like? It looks positive, actually, by celebrating the unique, innovative, and exemplary qualities of games while also pushing aside the derivative, bland, and boring aspects. It seeks to raise the standard of games as a whole, even if that comes at the expense of unnecessary kindness towards mediocrity. But it does so with humility and grace, not snobbishness and pride.
Criticism Should Be Optimistic
Criticism without optimism is masturbatory. A good critic does what he or she does precisely because they believe that the product can improve. Like I said before, I want all games to be as good as my top 10, and I honestly think that there can be so many more that achieve that level of excellence. If I have any influence in the board game community, I hope it’s to be a motivation for designers to make even better games and for consumers to support only the best. Only through an optimistic frame of mind is that a sane goal.
Criticism Supports The Consumer
The Thoughtful Gamer is a crowdfunded enterprise. To that end, I want to help out my readers and listeners by being the best, most insightful critic that I can be. I don’t personally get any benefit from people who only talk about the games they like, and I suspect that there are a lot of other people like me.
Being negative about mediocre and bad games helps in a couple of different ways. First, it warns people to stay away from those particular games. Or, at the very least, it gives people a heads up of what kind of troublesome aspects in the game ruined the experience for me. I don’t expect (nor do I want) everyone who reads my reviews to agree with me on every point. But I do hope that they get an understanding of what my experience with the game was like. I hope they find the arguments I make in my reviews expand their understanding of how to evaluate a game and how to appreciate them.
Additionally, negative reviews frame the positive reviews. In the video game world, there’s a string of long standing jokes/gripes about particular outlets that only seem to give scores between 7.5 and 10. For the reasons I outlined above, my scores will tend to average above a 5 (mediocre), but I do want to review some poor games if only to show people what kinds of things I don’t enjoy in a game. My Splendor review got a lot of flak on reddit, but I think it was one of my better reviews because I tried very hard to explain why and how a game in that style and genre can be better. That will, hopefully, help put my other, more positive reviews in perspective.
Criticism Challenges Creators
Good criticism also affects game creators, either directly through personally reading or watching the review, or indirectly through sales. In some sense the critic is the natural enemy of the creator. But it’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship, even if it results in some hostility. Critics can shake up the established norms and point out deficiencies that might have slipped past those making the game. Look at Shut Up and Sit Down, who actually surprised the creators of the game Istanbul when they pointed out how few women were represented in the art of that game. As I understand it, there was no intention on the part of the publisher to do that, but without SUSD’s critical eye, they might have never realized that problem.
In the movie world, which has a much longer critical history, critics have long pushed, successfully, for innovation and excellence. The auteurs of the French New Wave were critics first and filmmakers after. People like Kathleen Murphy and Richard T Jameson, recently, have brought to light the trend of “intensified continuity” in filmmaking, which has created a lot of critical dialog and, I believe, resulted in some excellent filmmaking directly reacting to their arguments (John Wick comes to mind).
Right now there’s not a lot of particularly critical work out there with board games. I think there’s too much “only positive” coverage, or people who work primarily as advertisers. That’s not surprising, though, as there’s not much money in what I do, while advertisers can get some decent pocket cash.
But I absolutely believe in criticism and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I suppose the final point is that criticism is a discussion. I love to see responses to my articles and I love to talk with other people online about them. I love to talk to designers and dig into the details of their approach to game design.
Above all I want to see games get even better than they already are, and I think a healthy amount of criticism and negativity is necessary for that.