Talking About Games: Positivity, Negativity
Where the first four parts of Talking About Games focused on the words employed by board game reviewers and players, we now zoom into the stratosphere with the haste of an eagle diving at a plump squirrel. That’s right, I’m talking big picture. For the next few months, we’ll be talking about criticism more broadly — what it is, what it’s good for, and the biggie, why it is. Important, I mean. Critical, if wordplay is your jam.
Today, our topic is positivity and negativity. And it came about because of two happenings that made me ask why I bother writing about board games in the first place.
Both happenings landed within a week of each other. First, my inbox caught some hate mail. Nothing new about that. But what set this one apart was its bizzareness. It accused me of not playing a certain game more than once, of harming the livelihood of the game’s designers, and then attempted to bribe me into writing a retraction. A short time later, somebody started a thread on BGG asking whether reviewers had a responsibility to address comments claiming they’d played the game incorrectly. This wasn’t written to me directly, but I have good reason to suspect its author had me in mind. When I pin this string to the corkboard in my basement, I’m not being completely crazy. I was only playing String Railways. Honest.
Today’s piece isn’t about those events. The email was obviously trolling, worth little more than a contemptuous laugh, while the thread was entitlement incarnate, both ignorant of the work reviewers invest into their craft and blissfully unaware that engaging with strangers on the internet isn’t always wise. For the record, no, I will not write a positive review for money. Also, I will gladly attempt to rectify mistakes, but only when the rule in question was actually wrong and significant enough to have modified my impression of the game. In both cases, the message is the same: someone feels like they’re owed something when they aren’t.
However, these events got me thinking: I’ve never received a nasty email or a forum rant over a positive review. Yet when I really consider the issue, it’s the positive review that does more tangible damage.
Yes, you know I’m going to explain that bomb.
To express what I mean, let’s do a mental exercise. Imagine two games with corresponding reviews. The first is a game you love, but somebody has panned it. The second is a game that came highly recommended, but it turns out the thing is a stinker.
In my case, the game I enjoy (picked at random by glancing over my shoulder at the Forever Shelf) is Millennium Blades. The game I dislike (selected by looking at my sell immediately stack) is Vault of Dragons. In both cases, my imagined strawman review is the exact opposite of my own opinion. Strawboy McStawverson writes that Millennium Blades is the anime pornography version of Egyptian Rat Screw, while Vault of Dragons is “super compelling with its clever decisions.” Hissss.
Because this is the internet, my gut reaction to both is somewhat similar. I have a keyboard. I have an opinion. Why not smash them together in the hope that I’ll persuade McStrawverson that he’s wrong about everything? Where my reactions differ is that I’m far less likely to bother telling him off for his positive review. I might roll my eyes. Maybe I’d type, “Nah, this one didn’t click for me.” The negative review, on the other hand, has earned itself both barrels. The author isn’t merely wrong; he’s a mutant from an alien world who intends to deceive me, and I plan to let him know that I know about it.
But… why is that?
Time and money are valuable. Even mental bandwidth is precious. Learning a game requires at least two of those three resources. Often all three. If a negative review prompts me to ignore a game, what have I lost? Only hypotheticals. Maybe I would have loved the game. Maybe it would have been a great fit for my group. More likely, we would have played it twice and moved onto the next shiny thing. But even in the best worst-case scenario, chances are that I play it later, love its pants off, and buy the game on the aftermarket. Maybe it costs a tiny bit more. Maybe I make an unfavorable trade for it. Really, that’s bad luck. Most of the time I can probably get it cheaper.
Then there’s the positive review to consider. What does it do? Well, it says I’m missing out. It shows me shiny pictures that capture my interest. It hypes up the game, sometimes even to unreasonable levels. If it’s persuasive, I spend time and bandwidth and possibly money on it. When it’s a letdown, I don’t feel the need to scream at the person who claimed it was the best game of the year, even though they’ve actively helped expend my time, money, and attention.
In other words, it’s natural to get upset over a negative review. But it’s the negative review that’s more likely to do me a service.
Criticism is many things. Plenty of so-called critics thumb their noses at being considered a buyer’s guide — and to be clear, criticism shouldn’t merely be that — but there’s really no escaping that aspect. Which is why, when speaking to an audience of people who play games, a positive review is more likely to be damaging. On an immediate level, it often functions as marketing, which subtracts from people’s time, money, and attention. On a longer timescale, it also impacts the broader culture. If bad games are endlessly praised, where’s the incentive for games to get better?
Keep in mind, this sword cuts both ways. I’m not saying negativity is inherently more honest than positivity. Good games should be praised. A critic should feel free to be effusive about something they love. But as it stands, that’s really not an issue in this hobby. If anything, breathless delight is the default. I’ve never once hesitated because I wondered if a review might be too positive. After all, this is the criteria for writing a positive review:
- Enjoy a game and write about it.
The criteria for a negative review, on the other hand, looks more like this:
- Play a game (which you don’t enjoy) a whole bunch so you don’t come off as an ignoramus.
- Accept that you’ll still be accused of not playing the game enough.
- Consider couching your critiques to ease the hardness of the blow.
- Try to come up with something positive to say, just so the fanboys won’t hunt you down at a convention.
- Waffle over your biases both conscious and unconscious.
- Come to terms with maybe burning a bridge with a publisher or designer.
- Have multiple people who’ve played the game take a look at your draft so you can be sure you didn’t miss some incredibly minor rule that will be used to discredit your broader points.
- Be ready to defend your statements long after you’ve forgotten the specific details.
- Linger over the publish button, its rectangularity encompassing the seething hatred of the entire internet, about to descend upon you like a mob of breakers.
It’s common to see questions about critical integrity in this hobby. The specter of paid reviews looms large for a few reasons, including instances when marketing fails to disclose itself or spends an improper amount of time editorializing.
The hard reality, though, is that most reviews are positive because positive reviews are far easier to make. There’s hardly any emotional burden. You’re spending time on a game you enjoyed and will likely play multiple times. You’re saying nice things, which feels good deep in your tummy. Yes, there will always be internet trolls, but not nearly as many as when you critique something. And what’s that gurgle? Ah, it’s that gut reaction again, warning you against hurting those friendly designers who poured their whole selves into the game you didn’t like. Readers and viewers are more abstract. They didn’t create the physical artifact that’s been hogging up your kitchen table for the past week.
Okay, so what’s my point? Today’s your lucky day, because I have two for the price of one!
First, we really need a clearer perspective about why we see so many positive reviews. Despite the presence of bad actors, there isn’t some big conspiracy. Maybe one or two small conspiracies. But not a single big one. Instead, most reviews are positive because we’re a hobbyist industry with hobbyist reviewers who write about the things they’re enthusiastic about.
But second, if we want a more robust critical apparatus, one that will give us better recommendations, hone our tastes, show us what games are capable of accomplishing, and help us navigate the x-thousand releases that clog up our bandwidth every year, it helps to understand the ways that our hobby often stands in direct opposition to those types of reviews. The problem can be as small as only reaching out with sticks and never with carrots. It can be as large as foaming at the mouth on a forum or penning a nasty email.
And I’m not necessarily talking about myself here! I’m stubborn enough that I don’t invest too much concern in somebody’s invective. But in speaking with fellow critics, these are the worries and complaints I keep hearing. Over and over again. Often enough that it’s seriously disheartening. Are there any solutions? Possibly. I have a few ideas, some of which we might discuss in the coming months. Until then, hopefully you can offer some of your own.
The next part, in which we discuss the difference between a review and critique, is already on Patreon for supporters! It will become available here in the coming weeks.