I have a keen interest in how we analyze board games, not just because that’s what I do, but because the state of criticism in the internet age is so dire. I’m not just talking about board games here, but pretty much anything that could be called pop culture. I think a lot of people think that the best kind of movie criticism, for example, is that which points out the most continuity errors. I’ve heard people talk about books like the quality of a novel is an equation summing the characters, plot, and worldbuilding. I’ve written before about what I consider to be tepid ways to analyze games, stripping the analysis down to something flat and lifeless.
Underlying much of this is a desire to have the definitive, final take on any given product. Or, at the very least, a presupposition (conscious or not) that criticism is about trying to find the definitive take. I reject this way of thinking. Furthermore, I believe that if you step outside of that framework, you equip yourself to learn and know more about the media you interact with and the world at large.
What’s the point of a critic, anyways? They evaluate the quality of a thing, of course, but in board gaming a good majority of the games people are going to be evaluating will meet basic standards of quality. That is, they’ll function as games that are playable and have something going on. The clear chaff often languishes on Amazon or half-funded crowdfunding pages. For every review copy I’m offered that I’m actually interested in, I ignore 5-10 dumb looking party games that I never hear about ever again.
So except for the very few people who can look at a big chunk of everything that comes out, most of what board game critics will be evaluating is beyond basic functionality. Thus it doesn’t make a lot of sense to analyze games in the manner of a technical review. We’re not looking at battery life or shock durability or slicing power, but something more effusive and subjective.
We also shouldn’t look to be the absolute, definitive, final word on a game. That’s vanity. I can imagine rare cases where one could make an argument that a game should not exist on an objective, moral level. Those situations are rare. But at the same time, a critic should, of course, attempt to be true and justify their arguments one way or another. Being true and being the final word are not the same, though. I can imagine two contradictory evaluations of the same work that both justify their arguments well. Sure there might be some finer points in conflict, but by and large both evaluations could provide fascinating, useful, illuminating insights.
“Illumination” is the answer I’ll submit to this question of what the job of the critic is. Illumination of what the subject is and/or illumination of some other truths in context with that subject. This attempt at illumination can be a floodlight, trying to expose the whole of the thing for all to see. It can also be focused, a beam of light intensely analyzing only part, so that we can see it in more detail. It can also use the thing analyzed as a reflective surface, exposing something outside of it, affected by its patterns and colors.
In short, I believe two things about criticism:
1. It’s not the end of the conversation, but a beginning.
2. There are multiple valid approaches to criticism that can result in multiple, well-supported conclusions
This article was inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation”, which, from what I can tell, is one of the most well-respected essays on the subject of criticism. In this 1966 essay she argues against the destruction of art through interpretation:
“The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.[…] It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)”Sontag, “Against Interpretation and Other Essays” pg. 6-7
I find this argument compelling. I remember back in college an art professor gave a little talk defending art as a method of truth-telling. I was confused by this, asking him how Beethoven’s symphonies could express truth when they don’t say anything. I couldn’t understand the idea of truth expressed outside of a syllogism. Over a decade later and I understand him better. To compose sounds into something moving, whole, and beautiful, is to use language to express something about reality; something about who we are as thinking and feeling beings, living in an existence outside of us. Sounds like truth to me.
So if we take a book, movie, game, or whatever, and say that it’s not what it is, but that it’s actually a Freudian examination of the subconscious (or whatever other analytical framework we want), we are destroying the work in order to build our argument. Importantly, Sontag does not criticize interpretation wholesale. She argues that a critical landscape solely focused on interpretation is damaging.
I think interpretation can be illuminating, but we have to understand precisely what we’re doing. We’re using someone else’s work as inspiration for an argument. We should not say that the work is “actually” what we argue, but that it helps illustrate whatever framework we’re using. Or, perhaps that by looking at the work through this framework we can understand more about both. (Back to “criticism is conversation”, no?)
Note that I’m not arguing for a completely subjectivist understanding, where all analyses are equally true (or not-true) because truth is entirely subjective. I’m a realist through and through. I’m saying that art doesn’t have to express one truth. If it did it probably wouldn’t be art, but a simple statement. Art is multifaceted and messy. Why shouldn’t our understanding of it be the same?
So how should we analyze board games? There’s great freedom to illuminate games from a number of different angles. Once we free ourselves from the burden of trying to find The One True Opinion we’re better equipped to find truths. Here are some ideas, incomplete, overlapping, and not necessarily of the same kind; the result of a quick solo brainstorm:
Like I said above, I don’t think Sontag’s idea of interpretation is necessarily harmful, as long as we avoid too-bold claims of uncovering what a game is “really about”. We can use games to illustrate other ideas and concepts. We can “excavate” and build the foundation for some fascinating arguments.
In the concluding statement of “Against Interpretation”, Sontag says, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Earlier in the essay she talks about how we should move more towards analyzing form rather than content. Honestly, I don’t think we’re that bad at this in the board game space, where, if there is analysis of a game, it’s often about the mechanisms and what they do for the experience of playing the game. Moving from mere description to illumination is slippery to my mind (what distinguishes one from the other?), but it’s in a large part what I attempt to do with my own reviews.
Because board games rely so much on the interaction of people playing it, I believe there is a lot of fruitful ground examining the way games affect us on a psychological level. I love what Geoff Englestein has done with his work on loss aversion, for example.
Thought it (heavily?) overlaps with what I’m calling the “descriptive” category, I’ll separate the experiential category by its similarities with autobiography. That is, there is a form of writing about games, somewhat related to “New Games Journalism” (and “New Journalism” before that), that can say as much about the author as it does the game. Insofar as it is about the author, using the game as a way to get to writing about the author, it’s worth classifying as something different.
We’ve seen this form of analysis, focused on the effect board games have on us as people in a community, in primarily two areas: colonialism and sales structure. A number of astute critiques of eurogames’ neglect or ignorance to the horrors of colonialism have been levied over the past few years. Similarly, criticisms of “booster pack”-style games or marketing that preys on FOMO have been around as long as I’ve been interested in modern board games.
I believe Godard said that, “the way to critique a film is with another film”. I don’t think it’s any different with games. Spirit Island inserted itself smack-dab in the middle of the colonialism critique. There’s a long tradition, as I understand it, in Wargames of using new designs to rectify perceived flaws in the historical interpretation of other designs. Splotter games challenge the idea of “no one’s out of the game until the end” as a eurogame ethos.
All of these different approaches, and more I’m sure I haven’t mentioned or thought of, can illuminate. They can, with good argumentation and a humble mindset, become part of the great critical conversation.