Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rant - We Are Not Important

I know I just recently did an article about gamer types, and then turned around Monday and asked people to help me find my wife's wedding dress. I really should review a game here. But something just occurred to me, and I want to talk about it, so lucky you.

Game reviewers are not important. We think we are, but we're wrong.

We provide a service, and it's really not that much of a service, all things considered. We're the functional equivalent of your buddy who already owns everything. We tell you 'hey, that was fun,' or 'that game was stupid' or 'playing games designed for children is going to impede our ability to get laid,' but we don't tell you anything you couldn't find out for yourself if you just sat down and played the game. We're about as useful as the corner dry-cleaner, except that the cleaner can press your pants and all we can do is pontificate.

We are not book critics or movie critics. Book and film critics can discuss the various interpretations of themes and dialog. They can discuss hidden symbolism. They can analyze the artistry found in the books and films they review, and draw comparisons to how those things affect us in real life. They can analyze the human condition as presented in the films they watch and the books they read, and then relate those findings to broader themes.

You can't do that in board games. Board games are an industry created by nerds who wanted to play board games. As an artistic medium, board games are slightly less viable than cooking desserts, and slightly more artistic than bowling. Even video games have the capacity to contain more artistic depth than board games. Board games are all about the rules, and rules are inherently not artistic.

You could, of course, argue that the narrative a game relates might have some depth. I would challenge you on that point, though. The story and the theme could be presented in a novel, a film, or even a video game, and be an order of magnitude more effective. Without the rules, there's no game. You can't say the same thing about the story, especially because the story could change when players take a different course of action, and often, there's no story in games in the first place.

If we want discussions of games to be a critical medium, we need better games. I don't know if it's even possible to create a game where the theme is moving and powerful. I have trouble conceiving of a game that asks big questions and begs us to answer them. I am not sure how you would make a game that forces us to examine ourselves and the world around us. But I do know that if you want game reviewers to be game critics, we need to be talking about games where fun is less important than the powerful message, and frankly, I don't want to play those games. Unless I miss my guess, neither do you.

Game reviewers who talk about the artistry of a game, and try to discuss the finer points as if they were connoisseurs of fine wine, seem rather self-absorbed in a best case, and horribly deluded in a worst case. There is an artistry to creating a boxed product that will cause a group of players to interact on the same level in a competitive and entertaining environment, but readers, for the most part, don't care. You want to know if the game is fun. You don't want to know if the game will help you understand the horrors of modern war. You're not hoping that the game will present a symbolic tale of the classic hero's journey. You just want to know if, when you play it, you will have a good time.

Really, we're just a selling tool. Reviewers set ourselves up as a sort of information dispensary, trying to get publishers to give us products so that we can tell you how much we like them. We are a marketing expense, a debit in the advertising budget. We work for free games because it gets us free games, and we don't mind trading a couple hours of writing time if it means we get a 60-dollar game we didn't pay for. We're walking, talking Superbowl commercials, and better yet, we do it for peanuts.

But then, there's no reason we have to be important. We write because we like it, and you read what we write because you like it. If you stop liking it, you'll stop reading it, but we're self-absorbed enough that we'll write anyway. We'll pretend that there's some deeper meaning to the discussion, that our analysis is somehow improving the overall caliber of the human existence, and that's fine because we like writing it and you like reading it.

I honestly don't feel any reason that we need to be important. I play games to have fun, and I write about them because that's also fun. If I can give you a reason to want to read what I write, that's great, but it doesn't make me important (unless you were just about to jump out a window and one of my dick jokes made you laugh so hard you changed your mind).

I read lots of stuff by people who are doing their damnedest to be game critics instead of game reviewers, and they're having fun and people are having fun reading their unimportant nonsense, and I say more power to 'em. I think a lot of reviewers would be a lot happier if they quit pretending that we were a big deal, but then, lots of those people probably wish I would take myself a little more seriously.

Well, bad news - I'm not important. I'm a game nerd who enjoys bathroom humor. When that changes and I start to think I'm going to change the world by talking extensively about plastic goblins, I'll give it up and start painting gravestones as a symbolic outrage against the eternal nature of death.

And then I'll tell you if it was fun.


Unknown said...

I wouldn't say you're not important. You've probably saved me a fair amount of money. I don't have the ambition to do what you do, and you're on the short list of reviewers I consistently follow.

But as far as not being able to "discuss the various interpretations of themes and dialogue", or the finer points of board games and gaming: why not? It would probably take a stretch of effort and a bigger stretch of time, but maybe a monthly article comparing why certain games strike you better than others or why certain mechanics work in some games but not others would be a good chunk of interesting writing.

Are Phil Eklund's games really as thematically interesting as we think they are, or do we just tell ourselves that because we tried so damn hard to understand the manual?

If War of the Ring was set in an alternate universe where Eskimos were trying to bring the yellow snow to Hudson Bay, would anyone play it?

There are probably lots of ideas out there that if written down, and read by the right people, could actually contribute to future game design.

And I'd read them.

MIK said...

I've always been happy having Drake's Flames pegged as that "functional equivalent of your buddy who already owns everything" and it's yet to let me down.

Anonymous said...

I feel there is artistry in the crafting of the rules for a boardgame.

Crank Crank Revolution said...

Not to get all After-School special on you, but board game reviewers *are* important, in much the way you've already described. No, it's not EMT-important or Doctor-Saved-My-Live important, but there's enough social value in any hobby to make it worthwhile, and your job is to make it easier to engage in such hobbies.

Jason said...

Sure, gaming doesn't have the same cultural impact as movies and books do, but I don't think anyone (even reviewers) ever thought they would. And in a certain perspective, reviewers are important in the hobby for two reasons:

1) Saves the publishers a lot of money because giving out some free games is a lot more cost effective than a massive advertising budget, and so they can use saved money on their products...hopefully.

2) Helps the consumer research through the nauseating number of games flooding the market today on Noahic proportions and so hopefully she/he spends her/his money wisely.

Plus, specific to you, you always make me laugh...and I'm not even generally the sophomoric humor type.

Anonymous said...

good work Matt. It's time we all came out of the closet and realised that boardgaming isn't anything like as meritorious as music, literature or film, and we're a tiny, tiny fraction of nerds who no one else is interested in. The 176 people who want to write a PhD on the (insert 15 long words that really just mean you collect shit, and turn it into other shit) aspect of (insert any boring game here) are only keeping themselves entertained and really are not doing a damn thing to influence anyone or anything.

Just be yourself, be honest, and do what you want to do. But don't get illiusions of grandeur

Top tip:
scan reviewers blogs and articles for excessive use of the word "I" and "my" as in "my blog", "my article, "my discussion" and excessive circular referencing of the same small group of people. Easy filter material

Steven Davis said...

Matt -


First of all, you are an excellent game reviewer. Your picks and pans of games have been a great tool since I stumbled onto your site.

Second, games are as much art as anything else. You often capture this very well. Rules, like music for musicians, shape the interactions of the players. They really matter and when done well, sing like a song.

The only reason we don't judge the embodiment of games as art is the way we choose to produce them - as cheaply as possible. Handmade chess sets are works of art (or high criaft)... we just don't shoot for that kind of quality very often by the nature of the business today. That is OUR choice, not inherent in the medium.

As to critics... they pretty much are on an ego trip full of public "self pleasuring" in pretty much any creative endeavor.

Relax, have a beer, find that dress, and keep writing. You do matter.


Steerpike said...

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

Brian: You're all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

I'm not.

Steerpike said...

"We write because we like it, and you read what we write because you like it. If you stop liking it, you'll stop reading it, but we're self-absorbed enough that we'll write anyway."

I'm self absorbed enough to keep churning out a blog which no one reads. And no one gives me any free games.
How sad is that ?

Scrabble Online Against Computer said...

Very humble point of view (and correct in my opinion). I commend you for it. Although I appreciate what game reviewers do, and I do think they provide a valuable service.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I need to chime in here as you are selling yourself short. I stumbled across your site on accident while at a friends house and have guarded the bookmark ever since. Without your recommendation, I never would have picked up Dominion, and as such would have missed out on hour and hours of memorable time with my wife playing Dominion (and Seaside which she asked for last christmas). Monopoly Deal has now found its way not in to only my house, but my nieces' house and my parent's as well. All based on your recommendation (and with yor house rule suggestions).

Don't sell yourself short or doubt your impact. When my wife wants to try a new game, she asks if Drake has any good two person game recommendations. You do a valuble service and I would be at loss of where else to trust should this font of knowledge disappear.

Matt Drake said...

OK, from the top.

Wade, I do agree that we could talk about what works in games. I might even consider doing that myself, if I feel particularly inspired (and if I ever manage to write an actual game review at my game review blog). But talking about mechanics is a little like a book reviewer discussing how the writer remembered to use commas. We're still talking about the game, not its hidden meaning.

Even when we get all pretentious and act like we know something other people don't know, we're still just talking about how we roll dice. It's an entertaining discussion, and maybe one with some merit to people who want to make games, but it is not one with depth or application outside the hobby. An equivalent debate would be model train hobbyists getting really wrapped up analyzing the benefits of various kinds of fake water.

Mik, glad to help. That's all I ever set out to be - that helpful dude who knows what games are cool. Oh, that, and I try to be funny. I know I fail pretty regularly, but it's a journey, not a destination.

I also think there's some artistry in creating a game. It's just not very deep artistry, and while it maybe be worth discussion, debate, argument, or review, I don't see how it's ever going to be up to the task of being critique.

Steve, if I'm helping you have fun, then my job is here is done. Well, not actually done. I still have a bunch of games I need to write about. And then I'm just going to get more. But you know what I mean.

Thank you, Jason - 'cultural impact' is exactly what I was driving at. I agree that reviewers serve a purpose to the industry. I just don't think we're important to the rest of the world. We try to help other nerds figure out what's worth their gaming budgets. We can't discuss anything with meaning, because ultimately, games are fun, and that's pretty much the end of it. Anything else, and we're just talking out of our asses.

Anonymous, believe me, if I get any delusions, they'll be delusions of adequacy. Maybe delusions of relevancy. Grandeur is right out. Though I'm pretty sure I talk about myself a lot, so hopefully you'll keep reading anyway.

Steven, thank you. Glad I could help. And yes, there is an art to games, though some games are thoroughly artless. Mostly because Reiner Knizia made them.

Steerpike, that made me laugh loud enough that other people asked me to repeat the joke, which they would not get unless they were huge Monty Python nerds, so I didn't bother.

Scrabble, I do not think that is your real name.

And last guy, these are the kinds of stories that keep me doing this. When I know that some person out there has found hours of enjoyment (or saved 60 bucks) because I bothered to write up a review, it does make it seem worthwhile.

Thanks, everybody, both for your comments, and for reading my stupid jokes in the first place.

Zawadi said...

Importance is a very subjective term.
A board game review (and reviews in general) is a medium of entertainment. This blog is a good example of how board game reviews can be a fun read regardless of how the game is.
And stuff that is fun is always important!
And the reviews are useful at the same time :)

Ray Smith said...

Just like movies, theater, sports, etc., games are just forms of entertainment. And reviews are just an extension of that pastime.

What Matt does, he does very well and is very entertaining, and even informative, along those contexts.

But is it important? Nah. Unless you are one that actually does cry over spilled milk, or has a near death experience when your team loses.

Get over it. Sheesh.

Regardless, Matt, you are one of the greatest at what you do. So, thanks. Something about "reigning in hell" springs to mind here.

Parduz said...

I'm not agreeing with you on this.
To me, game reviewer ARE important. It took a bit of time (and some game bought and played) to know which one is the one that have game tastes similar to yours, but once you have found *your* reviewer you'll have a trusty insight on the game you may want.
As example, i know that i like "blood dripping" game like you, and that i don't like "dice rolling" as much as you (i hate Formula D(รจ)).

I agree with Wade that a "comparison article" (perhaps comparing a (old) classic against 3-4 new games of the same genre) will help to understand better.

So, reviewers are important almost like games are important.... which is subjective for everyone as for baseball, soccer, movies, indie rock groups or fashion meetings.

Moonglow said...

I'm sure you've read this, but thought it seemed worth linking the conversations. Nate wasn't so much presenting on whether reviewers are important or not, but the thread does cover a lot of similar points about whether board game reviews can become more about critique than just hey its cool.

He also starts with a list of other threads that also get a bit metacritiquey.

Wind Lane said...

I think Steve really hit the nail on the head. Board games are sheet music. There's not artistry in sheet music. There's artistry used in creating it, but it doesn't really do anything to just create it.

The real artistry comes in the playing. A good game allows for the string quartet you've put together to really shine. For others, they're going to need something other than Wagner and might go for a nice Lennon/McCartney number.

I think games are the same way - the creators don't make brilliant art unless someone plays it. Instead of music, you get fun.

That's artistry, but the art of enjoyment has never been one that has allowed itself to be scrutinized.

And your reviews, Matt? They're perfect. They entertain even when it's not a game I want - even if you liked it. To me that means you've transcended the reviewer moniker a bit and become entertainment in your own right.

Like Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation, I'm going to keep coming back to see what you say next even if I never buy another thing you talk about ever again.

Wiz-War said...

I was going to throw Drakkenstrike out of a window because he is a pretentious turd swaddler who takes himself far too seriously, and then I and read your blog entry and decided that Drakkenstrike turning into a huge fucking crybaby and taking his game then going home was for the betterment of the entire gaming community since we don't have to hear him use the word "Tableaux" in every other sentence during his pontifications.

Holy run-on sentence, Batman.

But seriously, there are those who make games an enjoyable part of leisure activities by reading what they say and there are those who think their shit don't stink and should get kicked in the head by a retarded mule.

One is a buddy and the other is... a doo-doo head cootie queen.

Andouilette said...

Well, check the latest Drakkenstrike video. Someone should have read this article.... He seems an even bigger fool now!