I know a good number of you are probably upset, or at least skeptical, right now because of how I’ve titled this article. But, if you give me a bit of your time and hear me out, I think I have a good case for why you should eliminate the phrase “not for me” from your vocabulary when reviewing games.
First of all, I think we can all agree that words mean things, and sometimes we can discover that there is a better way of communicating our thoughts and ideas than the way we were communicating before. When someone wraps up a game review by suggesting that the game is “not for me, but someone else might like it”, it communicates something different than, “I do not like this” or, “the game fails” or, “the game fails for XYZ reasons”. To some degree all four of those communicate distaste, but I do not believe they are the same thing.
Reviews That Say Something
Now that the foundation is set, I want to talk about three things that I believe superior reviews do. I think these should be pretty obvious when stated. I’m not trying to dictate a particular style, but simply state what a review is.
First, a good review should not only give information that you can’t find in a better way elsewhere. If your review is almost entirely reading through the rules, what are you contributing that the rulebook itself or a service (like Watch it Played) that is explicitly about helping people understand the rules doesn’t already do? If your review is primarily about facts of the game–genre, player count, play length, etc–aren’t you just presenting the information contained on Board Game Geek or the publisher’s info page in a less convenient manner? A good review advances arguments and it shares a perspective. It’s a conversation with the reader about your experience of playing the game. That information isn’t elsewhere because it’s your argument and your perspective.
Second, a good review should not only state your opinion of the game, but explain and justify that opinion. The best reviews allow the reader to tap into the mind of the author and understand their perspective. The best reviews cause us to look at the game being reviewed in a fresh way. They help us to wrestle and engage with the way we evaluate that particular game and games as a whole. They might help us connect the game to broader themes and ideas.
Finally, a good review is open to debate. I’ve written a number of times that criticism is the start of a conversation, not the end of it. If you think that your game reviews are the final word on the subject and nothing more should be written about that game, you’re exhibiting a truly extraordinary amount of arrogance. I don’t think anyone is actually that arrogant. However, I think viewers and readers often think (perhaps subconsciously) that’s what reviewers believe. It’s a strange disconnect.
Where “not for me” Falls Short
The “not for me” sentiment, different from, “I do not enjoy this” or, “this is bad”, because of the implicit or explicit “but it might be for you” attached to the end, is passive. It strips away meaning. If you only want to provide the information that you do not like the game, then just link to your BGG profile with your game scores. If your intent is to say that the game did not appeal to you but it might appeal to others, then…what are you actually saying? All games appeal to some people and not others; it’s a truism. You’re not providing any information that isn’t already known or better elsewhere.
“Not for me” also implies that there is nothing to say about the game other than the fact that something about it didn’t appeal to you. It’s a way to dodge actual evaluation. It’s that joke: “I think, therefore I am, IMHO”. It’s related to another commonly used game review phrase: “if you like X, you’ll like this game”. It assumes that games are merely a collection of parts, and if a game contains parts that you’re predisposed to enjoy, you’ll like it. Certainly that’s true to some extent, but, again, the information about what mechanical parts are in the game is more easily accessed through places like BGG. The job of the reviewer is to communicate the whole experience, which is more than the sum of its parts. To paraphrase Ebert, “it’s not what the game is, but how it’s about it”.
Finally, “not for me” shuts down debate because it summarizes the review as something relevant to only the author. It’s only relevant to the reader if they share the same tastes as the author. I think this sells the form of criticism far short of what it could be. Games criticism should be able to change your way of thinking about the game. It should be able to alter your perspective about game design, psychology, economics, philosophy, history, or any number of other areas. It should be interesting and valuable in its own right, not merely a bit of information about the product. The marketers have that covered.
I do understand why “not for me” is popular, and that’s because it’s used as a bulwark against an internet culture that’s obsessed with the idea that if someone doesn’t like something, they’re saying that no one should like that thing. So we hedge against it, saying “this is only my opinion! Don’t attack me!”, but in doing so we cede the fallacious assumption that reviews are personal attacks on people who disagree. Instead of giving up, let’s fight this frankly annoying trend. Don’t succumb to passivity. Try to make your reviews informative, well-reasoned, and actually commit to something. Start your critical conversation on a solid foundation. IMHO.