You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
One of the points I made in the last editorial was that, generally speaking, people that run board game blogs and sites are somewhat loathe to publish negative reviews. That’s not a universal trait and in many respects it depends on just how prolific an outlet’s output can be. The Dice Tower for example publish many negative reviews simply because they put out so much content on a daily basis that they don’t have to make many compromises in their coverage. They simply have an availability of resources, both people and review copies, that ensures they don’t have to be discriminating in terms of what they cover. Their output is extraordinary – overwhelming, even – and that pretty much mandates they’ll end up hitting some games hard just because the net is cast very wide.
Few other outlets have that luxury because of either the limitations of time or the production quality of the output. Shut Up and Sit Down for example publish a video review a week (if we’re lucky) and it’s a tightly scripted affair with performances, jokes, multiple scenes from multiple angles, continuity and so on. All of that takes a lot more time than the ‘talking head’ style review that is so popular elsewhere – two videos may be of equal length, but the writing and editing and filming processes that surround them is what determines how long they actually took to make. Much of the effort in media production is invisible.
There’s a similar thing with written content – a 500-word review that is mainly rules explanation takes much less time than a 2,000-word review that attempts to offer some more nuanced criticism. A review that makes use of stock images takes less time than one that uses bespoke photography. That quality of that photography too will influence the production time of an article. For Meeple Like Us, I tend to just point my phone at a game and take pictures in the hope that at least one of them is in focus. Other blogs, such as What’s Eric Playing, give a phenomenal amount of attention to the composition and quality of the art to accompany the text. The sophistication of the ideas at the heart of the text matters too – the Thoughtful Gamer for example has content obviously derived from considerable time spent in contemplation.
As a content producer, the key theme here is ‘time’ – you need to think of time as a budget that you are spending on producing your outputs. Within that budget you’ve got three factors you need to balance – the quality of the work you intend to do, the number of individual units of content you intend to produce, and how informed your opinion is going to be when you offer your view. As the old project management triangle says, ‘pick any two’. Nobody has unlimited time, and you’re going to have to balance these three things to arrive at an offering with which you feel comfortable. You can’t have them all, certainly not within a hobbyist space. ‘Picking three’ is something that comes only with substantive financial backing and many hands to make light work. You need your own calibrated ‘iron triangle’
So, do you maximise the quality of the work you do and the number of games you cover? Well, your view on any of them isn’t going to be particularly textured since you won’t have time to play them often enough to say much of focused merit. Maybe you’ll maximise the work you do and the depth of your opinion – in that case don’t expect to cover many games. Maybe you want to go for the number of games and the research you conduct on each – you’re going to have to sacrifice your production quality to achieve that.
The way many outlets get around this problem is to make available a ‘blended’ offering – written site, videos and podcasts. In this way it’s possible to have different weights and emphases to suit your time and inclinations. Video content can be the highest tier for the worthiest content, written reviews the next, and then podcasts for mostly ‘off the cuff’ remarks for quickfire discussion of first impressions. Or really you can order that in whatever way you like. You can choose to budget your time with multiple sub-projects in an attempt to ‘have it all’. But remember, your time is limited. Your time is so limited.
The problem here is capacity, but capacity in itself is a production of demand. If there were only a couple of hundred games being released a year, a sufficiently dedicated person with time to spare could probably offer full coverage of all of them. In the last year though over 5,000 games were added to the BoardGameGeek database, and the pace of addition is only increasing. There are approximately 95,000 games in the BGG library now and only a small fraction of those can be discounted as ‘no longer relevant’.
Something has got to give, and there is a way to make the project management triangle a little more forgiving. It’s to apply it to only a subset of the games. You don’t change the angles but you make it smaller and apply it to a focused fraction of the gaming landscape. You put a filter in place and say ‘anything that passes through this is something about which I need to concern myself’. You create a restricted scope for your coverage.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that tabletop games retain relevance in a way that video games don’t. Games from twenty or thirty years ago are still played today, and sometimes even now have design lessons to teach. Sometimes they get a fresh new edition, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they fade away into obscurity. Sometimes they burst back into prominence as a new generation of gamers discovers them anew. Your scope can be a solution to this problem. ‘I’m going to focus only on new releases’. Boom, right away your problem becomes not covering 95,000 games but covering 5,000 games a year. Still an impossible task, but lessimpossible than the one before and made more tractable in the same way. You tighten the scope farther. ‘Only new party games’. That might bring you down to a mere five hundred or so. That’s actually possible if you don’t want to do anything else with your life. But keep tightening that scope, because not all of those games are going to matter. Many of them will never make it to the shops after all. Tighten it down to new party games where they’ve received at least ten votes on BGG. That metric doesn’t mean much in and of itself but it’s a filter that brings the total of games you’d need to discuss to under 200. You keep refining, keep adjusting, keep restricting the scope until you can fit your iron triangle over the time you have available. It’s not easy, and things are still going to get missed because scoping is not a tool with fine-grained outcomes. It does though give you an important mission statement from which to operate. Given the scope you’ve given yourself, is this a site you think needs to exist? And if it is, are you willing to give the amount of time you’ve identified to the effort?
And this raises a key question – what is a valid constraint within a scoping exercise? The answer is ‘anything you like’, really. It’s your time, it’s your outlet, you can do whatever the hell you like with it. Some scoping elements though have implications that extend outside the exercise in and of itself.
One of the common things I’ve heard raised in defence of paid reviews is that the fee acts as a filter – a way of ensuring an outlet doesn’t become swamped by the number of requests coming in. In essence it serves as a kind of test of credibility – that you need to be at least ‘this serious’ about your project to merit attention. That’s a scoping exercise in the manner I’ve discussed above, and in and of itself that’s not a problem. It genuinely is a powerful way of coupling demand to capacity. In that respect, the corrosive impact it has on the ethics of the relationship is neither here nor there. They are two independent factors – a thing can be unethical and also very, very useful. Indeed, I’d say that’s almost always the case. Few people actively choose the unethical path if it brings them no benefit. It’s a filter, but it’s a filter with exactly the same issues I discussed in the last editorial. Your mission statement includes, explicitly, a statement that you are filtering based on the availability of financial compensation.
Don’t worry – I’m not writing this post to rehash that topic, just to contextualise the discussion a little.
One of the common filters that serves to make this kind of task manageable is to focus attention where it is least effortful to direct – essentially to focus on where we find the most fun in the task. We’re all skewed towards being exertion averse – it’s embedded pretty deeply into our cognitive architecture. We’re designed to conserve our efforts so that they can be spent wisely and frugally when necessary. We are constantly being pulled towards a kind of mental resting state, and resisting that pull requires us to invest energy into the task. It’s why it’s difficult to focus our minds on study or self-improvement, but much easier to lie on the couch watching episodes of Stranger Things. It’s why reading a book like War and Peace is a more daunting task than reading the latest reality star biography. We trend towards those tasks that are familiar, are comfortable, are less effortful, or are inherently enjoyable.
Within the context of game media, what this tends to mean is that negative reviews are simply more effortful to create. A negative review heavily implies it was informed by a gaming experience you did not enjoy. If you did not enjoy it, how likely are you to go back to that game to try it often enough to meet the standards you set in your iron triangle? I mean, look at your game shelves – how many games there have you not reviewed yet? Why would you go back to one you didn’t like when you could go down the less psychologically effortful path of picking a game you think you’ll enjoy? And if you’ve played the game often enough to have a suitably informed view, can you really justify the effort that goes into documenting it? After all, isn’t the lack of coverage a review in and of itself?
Here we’re doing an ongoing exercise of cost and benefit analysis – not in the crude economic terms of simplified financial models but instead in terms of a more emergent and subjective balancing of ‘what do I actually get out of this?’. Sometimes the benefits are expected to be explicit – ‘X views, Y comments, Z attention’. Most often in this space the benefits are implicit. ‘I will gain enjoyment and satisfaction from making progress on this project’. Sometimes the benefits are in the perceived avoidance of a cost. ‘I won’t have to explain to people any more why I’m not covering this game’. The cost though is a sustained exercise of focusing effortful attention on a task you are almost certainly not going to enjoy. It’s not a lot of fun for most people to write a negative review unless you absolutely hate a game and everyone involved with it. There are plenty of people, assholes, that enjoy tearing down the hard work of other people. Do it often enough and loudly enough and you might even be able to make a living with it. Most people though aren’t sociopathic in that regard – they shy away from actively trying to upset people.
And that’s not a bad self-preservation strategy – after all, you’re going to upset a lot of people with a negative review. You’ll upset the fans of the game that take it as a personal slight that you didn’t enjoy it. You’ll upset those people that are seeking personal validation from reviews rather than your honest views. You run the risk of upsetting other reviewers that see your review as an implied slight on their own positive coverage. You may upset a designer that sees the review, or the publisher that has a financial interest in the positive vibe associated with the game. It’s not always the case that you’ll actually do any of this – many of the people involved in this have thick skins and understand that negative reviews are about the intersection of a reviewer and a game, not a reviewer and the person reading. It’s still a risk you take though, and a negative review often involves more mopping up afterwards than a positive review. Not always of course – sometimes the publishing of a negative review comes with an outpouring of validation as all the other people that felt the same rally to the cause.
But there’s another risk… what if you’re wrong?
We haven’t particularly shied away from negative reviews on Meeple Like Us but our scope makes that less of a noble stand against the oncoming crush of mediocrity and more a quirk of selection bias. Our focus is predominantly on the BGG Top 500 and as you might expect very few games in there are unquestionably bad. There are games we don’t like, sure – but there’s almost always something positive that can be said about a game that falls within our scope. Consider our review of Catan as an example of that. Paradoxically, this makes it much more difficult to be negative and much more risky when we are. Star Fluxx got a kicking, but that’s a safe target both in terms of where it is on the BGG rankings and because Fluxx is a polarizing game at best. We didn’t like One Zero One but it’s somewhat obscure. However, we also kicked Love Letter fairly hard in its ludics and that took a lot of… well, confidence I guess, to do. EVERYONE loves Love Letter it seems and it’s hard to be the person that says ‘Actually, hang on’. Similarly with Hanabi – you need to have a fairly strong stomach to press publish on a review that shits all over a critical darling. What if you just missed something? What if you’re not educated enough, or informed enough, or smart enough to get it? What if everyone is going to know what a fraud you are because you didn’t see what they all understand so easily?
It’s a lot easier to be strident in your views when they align with the majority opinion, and as such it’s psychologically effortful to even prepare yourself for the task of making it live. Everything about writing a negative review takes more out of a reviewer than a positive review. It’s amazing really that any get published at all.
Incidentally, the designer of One Zero One very politely thanked me for having played it. If you ever want to twist the knife into a reviewer that was harsh about your game it’s hard to do better than that. I don’t know if that was his intention but seriously, sometimes you just have to admire the artistry. A tantrum I would have just ignored. His response was super classy and still haunts me when I’m caught in the grip of some sleepless night.
So, with all this in mind is it okay for the scope of your site to be ‘I only cover games I enjoy?’
And yes – of course it is. You don’t have to let an Internet asshole like me dictate the way you should contribute your efforts to the community. By and large, there are very few genuinely bad games out there – at least, in terms of the ones that make it to the attention of a review site. If a reputable publisher has had a hand in the process at some point you can have some confidence that a box in front of you is not a waste of time. The production costs and logistical issues of shipping a board game mean that you simply don’t get the problem of asset flipped shovel-ware that blocks out the light on Steam. Sure, there are more Cards Against Humanity variants out there than you could shake a barbed-wire tipped baseball bat at – but they still need someone with money to actually fund the production and shipping.
Unusually in an editorial like this I’m not looking to criticise or suggest a better path forward. I’m fine with the scope of the hobbyist space in the review ecosystem being focused on the positive rather than the negative. There’s a lot to celebrate here, and you can spend all your time enthusing about the great games out there without violating your personal mission statement in the slightest. Remember, while the scope reduces the ‘candidate’ list of games you need to cover it’s still going to have to filter through your own iron triangle and one of those things is ‘How many of the games, within your scope, are you going to be able to talk about?’.
Occasionally though I do see this being used as a reason to distrust board-game coverage – that an unbroken cycle of positive reviews is somehow coming at the cost of critical thinking. There’s a fair point to make that for a reader a negative review is as important in ‘taste calibration’ as a positive review. That’s reasonable, and I think also as a critic it’s valuable to do occasional negative reviews to make sure you can articulate the why of your opinion even when it’s difficult. It’s often easy to say why you like a game, even if it’s in broad and fluffy generalisations. I learn a lot about my own opinions when trying to drill down into a defensible explanation of why a game didn’t work for me. When you can press ‘publish’ on a post that you know will attract a disproportionate amount of criticism, it’s usually because you’re secure that you’ve articulated your case in the best way you can.
Both of those things are ‘optional’ benefits – a site might be improved with occasional negative coverage but it’s not actually harmed by its absence. There are few scoping exercises that will bring the demand in line with capacity that will precisely match one with the other. You’re always going to be exercising a degree of editorial decision making in what gets the coverage within the remit of your site, and if two candidates for attention are equally valid it’s fair to use whatever tie-breakers you feel are appropriate. ‘How much I want to write about this’ is as good as any other until such time as someone is actually paying you directly for the work you’re doing. That, as we’ve talked about before, comes with its own risks. Otherwise, the floor is yours and it’s up to you to decide how best to make use of it.