Talking About Games: What Is Critique?

Wee Aquinas has his own critique of this article: "Too wordy." SHUT UP LITTLE DOCTOR.

In my field we spend a lot of time talking about the ambiguity of categories. One of the big examples is a relatively “new” period called Late Antiquity. The argument goes like this: in many imaginations, including those of many historians, there was Antiquity, with its Roman Empire and thickly-forested Europe and distant dynasties that we don’t talk about very often in the West; and then, after an ill-defined collapse, we eventually arrive in the Medieval Age, with its castles and plagues and religious wars.

The problem is that this model was too simple. Which, well, that’s part of any model’s goal: to simplify something complex into discrete parts so we can talk about it. Hence, a paradox. If your model is too granular, it’s impossible to conceptualize within a reasonable span of time. If it’s too simple, you overlook all the stuff that happened in the cracks. Like, y’know, what the collapse of the Roman Empire actually looked like. Or what all those distant dynasties were doing in the meantime. Categories enable us to learn, but they can also inhibit our learning.

Here’s another story about categories. Once, at a convention, I was invited to dinner with some fellow board game folk. We got to talking about our varying experiences in the hobby. Some were podcasters, others crafted visual media, and some were actual game designers or developers — another distinction that’s not entirely defined. When asked, I mentioned that I was a reviewer. The person beside me leaned forward and said, “Yes, but really, Dan is closer to a critic.”

A critic, you say? What’s that? Never mind. It sounds important.

Love this guy.

As I said, categories are a mixed blessing and a necessary curse. If you don’t believe me, what was the difference between Ameritrash and Eurogames again? That wasn’t the last time somebody called me a critic. Even though we don’t always recognize how ideas can infect us, I’d like to think I approached the compliment the right way. My goals, at least, seemed to snap into focus. Honesty seemed like a good distinction. Clarity. A sincere effort at talking about games as more than rules, but rather as artifacts of culture and conversation.

Good enough.

It wasn’t until two years later that I realized I didn’t even know what a critic does, exactly. Do critics, like, not give ratings? That’s good. I don’t like ratings anyway. But was I also supposed to not deliver quality judgements at all? Uh oh. Look, saying how I feel about games is pretty much why I got into this gig. If that isn’t integral to being a critic, then I’m hopping back aboard the train to Reviewer Town.

Over the past few years, it’s a question I’ve returned to on many occasions. What’s the difference between reviewing and critiquing? Does it even exist? Well, thanks to some soul-searching and a very scientific survey of people’s opinions, I have a few thoughts to offer. Yes, some of these cannot be reconciled. That’s deliberate. Such things happen when you crowdsource a philosophical discussion about categories. That’s why I’ve gone ahead and ranked these in descending order of cynicism.

Love these guys.

1. Reviews are about confirming your purchasing habits; Critiques are about anything else

Ever clicked on a positive review of a game you already like? There you go. Thesis proven.

However, I think this also points to something we’ll see repeated a few times. Although the differences between reviews and criticism aren’t readily apparent, there’s a sense that criticism is somehow the more of the two. It’s responsible. It’s perceptive. It will tell you the things you don’t want to hear, like a cinematic doomed father figure whose words will echo in the protagonist’s ears many minutes later. At the very least, this should be the goal of aspiring critics. Be honest with your audience. Even when they don’t want to hear it.

2. Reviews are marketing; Critiques contain criticism

In one sense this is the same as the point above, but it expresses one of the ways that critiques are perceived as being more useful than a mere review. Our hobby’s critical apparatus currently operates at the grace of publishers — by which I mean review copies. Those review copies are generally earmarked on the books alongside banner ads and preview budgets. Make no mistake, review copies are marketing.

Bias is a sticky thing at the best of times, and in a hobby as insular as ours — which can also read as “incestuous” — it’s useful to recognize and, if you’re hoping to write reviews, to become the type of person who won’t guarantee positive coverage simply because you were handed a copy of a game. Even very good games can be evaluated in ways that tug at their seams. While a reviewer may become ebullient about every detail, it behooves a critic to recognize that there are only so many “best games of the year.”

3. There is no difference between a Review and a Critique

At least no essential difference, apart from semantics. I gather that these responses are generally aware that we can pull different answers from varying fields. Literary criticism is a thing. Critical theory is a thing. Various critical approaches exist. However, this response is a useful reaction to a particular type of answer, those that fall back upon a woo-factor, in which critiques are just reviews with more depth or introspection or salsa or whatever. Those are all good things! Especially salsa. But I don’t believe any of them are the crucial delineation. It’s more useful to recognize that there’s a broad overlap on that circle diagram.

Then again, most of these responses at least depict a yearning for improvement. Now that I give it some extra thought, it’s possible that this is the real most cynical answer, since it’s the only one that doesn’t establish an ideal to strive toward.

4. Reviews are subjective; Critiques are objective / technical / expert opinions / wanky

Other than the “wanky” part (and fair enough), here’s an example of that ideal. Notionally, reviews express a person’s personal experiences, whereas critiques offer… more. How tidy! What qualifies as “more” is harder to pin down. I’m happy to discard “objectivity,” since the unsettled duel between it and subjectivity pretty much proves subjectivity’s entire beef. But expertise? Sure. It’s nice when a critic knows what they’re talking about.

Love this guy.

5. Reviews are about audience recommendations; Critiques are about the author’s subjective experiences

Whiplash! Yes, this is pretty much the exact opposite of the previous entry. A minority of respondents also felt that reviews were the smaller subset of critiques rather than the other way around. So it goes. Which is bigger, a society or a culture? Shout that in a humanities department and watch the historians and literature people tear into each other like rabid velociraptors.

Here, however, this expresses my view fairly succinctly. Even when a critic is striving to talk expertly, or yearning to express how their subject meets certain “objective” standards, there’s always an element of the deeply personal that should not be discarded. The act of sharing your opinion is subjective in its own right. It declares a need to persuade, that you have something to say. We can talk all day about whether anything artistic can be objective in the first place; critiques cannot be by their very existence. They can be impartial, or well-realized, or checked against their own counterarguments, or even-handed. Objective? Never.

So don’t try. If anything, masking subjectivity only compounds its limitations. Now you’re reading a subjective experience masquerading as an objective experience. Oof!

6. Reviews tell you what a thing is; Critiques ask why it is

Some of these criteria are tautological nightmares. Rather than defining a critique, we reach territory where we’re saying, “Oh, that element is one of critique even though it appears in a review.” The thing remains the thing regardless of how we choose to describe it. In other words, if it seems “good,” it’s critique; if it seems “weak,” it’s review.

That’s why I’m inclined to dig out the elements that seem most useful. Explaining the whys behind your opinions is always a positive practice. A game was fun? Yet even very bad games can be fun when played with friends. In fact, let’s ditch the word “fun” entirely. Instead, tell me why it was fun. Tell me what impeded that fun. Tell me how it felt, and why it felt that way.

7. Reviews are descriptive; Critiques are interrogative or comparative

This strikes at something I mentioned a moment ago, where a critique in an academic setting will likely be viewed through a particular lens — sexuality, colonialism, self-image, intersectionality, the ramifications of exculpatory nescience, and so forth. This need not always be true, but a strong stance is something I would love to see more critics adopt. As a principle, it’s useful to remember that games are not just playthings; they’re artifacts with perspectives, and by interacting with them you’re engaging with that perspective.

Love this guy.

8. Reviews are what you read before you buy something; Critiques are what you read after you buy something

Okay, this one came from me. Let me explain what I’m stabbing at.

Reviews are useful, and anyone who says otherwise is depriving themselves of a valuable resource. Do you see every film? Do you play every game? Watch every prestige television series? Of course not. You make decisions all the time. There are plenty of ways to make those decisions. Maybe advertising entices you. Maybe you trust friends. Maybe you just play whatever somebody puts on the table. Or maybe you read reviews, and ideally find the things that will appeal to you the best. There are a lot of these things for a reason.

But that isn’t the end of our experience with any of those artistic artifacts, is it? I mean, sometimes it is. I didn’t read anything about the last Marvel movie after I saw it, because I don’t really care about people’s thoughts on Marvel movies.  But other artifacts, whether films or books or games, I immediately seek out other people’s perspectives upon completing my own. These perspectives are often pitched like a review. They walk and talk like a review, and sometimes assign a score, and sometimes tell you to experience or avoid whatever they’re talking about. In actuality, however, they are doing what critiques do best. They’re diagnosing. They’re doing surgery. They’re peeling back layers, and examining tissue, and talking about contexts and biases and meanings. Even though I’ve already interacted with the artifact in question, I’m learning another person’s perspective — a deeply subjective, personal perspective — informed by experiences I haven’t had and ideas I haven’t thought.

Categories can both enable and restrict. Maybe that’s why I’m so reluctant to settle upon a single definition. To me, critique is many things. Examination. Perspective. A process of uncovering. It’s what I seek to create when I sit down to write about a game, or when I look for other people who have already done the same. And next time, we’ll be looking at some of the steps that help foster a useful critique.

The next part, in which we discuss my personal criteria of good criticism, is already available on Patreon! It will become available here in the coming weeks.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on January 24, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Wow.

    What a superbly well conceived article.

    Beautifully written, lovely use of lexicon.

    I had to read it three times in order for it all to sink in and each one was more impressive than the last.

    Deeply grateful for all your writings, and deeply envious of your ability to do so.

    Bravo Dan, bravo!

  2. Another great write-up, Dan. I recently got a hail of abuse on a BGG forum for daring to stray outside the confines of a basic review: I queried the wisdom of the designer’s choice to ‘rework’ previous mechanisms, and got told in no uncertain terms that I should stick to stating an opinion and not ‘try to create soundbites’… Ho hum. At the very least, I’m not a fan of ratings per se, so am heading in the right direction! And I don’t get much in the way of ‘freebies’, which at least suggests that I have a voice of my own, rather than gerrypandering to companies used to a bit more sycophancy… Lol

  3. Very nice. My favorite scene from The Critic:

    “A peanut is neither a pea nor a nut.”

    (Two minutes later)

    “Oh wait, it is a nut”.

    There’s one other dimension that the responses may not have adequately captured in establishing the differences but that is nevertheless important, I think: it is the role of the critic/reviewer, himself; his (or their, if you prefer) authorial voice, life experiences, tastes. Criticism doesn’t live in a vacuum, and if you read an Ebert review in isolation you’d say “hmm, that’s a good piece of writing, kind of opinionated, a bit of jargon in there, ok” but taken collectively you see the patterns in his writing and it gives meaning to the overall corpus. And good game reviews/criticism work that way I think, the best tell you not just how the game plays but what it means; but to understand that it helps if you’ve built up an understanding of what that writer thinks, and so subjectivity is probably the most important quality.

    The worst thing about BGG reviews is the need for fans of every single game to show up and say “well, you didn’t state clearly that this is all just your opinion. Other people’s opinions may differ”. In other words, good criticism isn’t written for people like that, people who just want to hear an object that they like praised or an object they dislike censured.

    • That’s a good point; over time, a critic’s body of work definitely helps establish their tastes and the direction of their criticism. Some of that is the need to be willing to engage with critics over a period of time. I know of a handful of people who are angry with me over a single review. How unfortunate. If you had to agree completely with a person in order to consider them a worthwhile voice, you’d never be capable of listening to anybody.

  4. Hi Dan

    Usually I like you’re writing. You have a very creative use of language and metaphor, but I have to be critical of this piece 100%.

    Reviews ARE and SHOULD BE the same as whatever you want to call a critique. Whomever said to you that you are more of a “critic” doesn’t understand the purpose of criticism or what the common parlance word “review” means.

    The purpose of any written “review” should be to give the writers impression of the game. If they want to stick to facts about the game, that’s their choice. But for a writer/reviewer/critic to go into criticizing or praising a game is also completely valid.

    There is no difference.

    After reading this article, I still don’t know what your categorization is based on.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tahsin. As you can probably already guess, I disagree. Criticism and critique aren’t the same thing; neither are criticism and negativity. As for categorization, my argument is based on the literary and cultural approach, which has its roots in critical theory.

      • I get what you are saying, but I would guess that 99% of readers of reviews are not interested in critique from a critical theory perspective. I think people read reviews to validate their own beliefs, biases, opinions or purchases OR they read reviews to get a better sense of whether or not they will like a game.

        Unless a writer specifically front-loads an article with the intent of the analysis, if they call something a “review”, they should be expect readers will take it as the more popular style of giving an opinion on the enjoyment of a game.

  5. Dan, I want to thank you for writing this piece. As you already know, I’m an English teacher, less on the grammar side than the theoretical side. In my classes, we evaluate literary works in ways that many of my students have never considered. Though not everyone has the same response, every semester there are a few who have their eyes opened to entirely new ways of thinking about not only literature, but also the world around them.

    One of the reasons why I keep returning to Space-Biff! is because you do that for board games. Like many people, I began in this hobby for the sake of having fun. That’s still my reason for playing most games, but through your reviews I’ve discovered new depths to what began as a frivolous hobby.

    What you do is absolutely critique. Your pieces are also reviews, because those distinctions often overlap. But I hope you know that many people appreciate your work because you’re willing to put in the extra effort to straddle that line. While your articles tell me about a game’s value on my table, they also tell me about their cultural value. You tell me how they’ll feel, but also, sometimes, how I should feel about those feelings. In a hobby where 99% of reviews are exactly as described above, your work is necessary because it refuses to be the same as everything else.

  6. Kudos for taking such a serious approach to you writing about board games. I’m however not sure whether your purpose is to create a dialogue or solely making a public declaration. Or it could be that you use board games as a platform to educate? What’s your main purpose?

    Besides the entertaining language I especially appreciates when you evaluate whether a designer seems to have fulfilled his or hers central idea, or whether a game’s mechanics creates or simulates what was intended. Though the category doesn’t matter to me personally, this seems to be closer to the concept of critique than review.

    I myself is struggling with categories since I’ve come to realize that I’m a reluctant war-gamer who despise war. Soon I’ll take some time to solo play “Stalingrad ’42” by Mark Simonitch, but even then it’s not war itself that interests me. Some decided for me that I’m playing war games, hence I must be a war-gamer.

    • “What’s it for?” is a good question! Personally, I would love to see our hobby’s critical apparatus grow up a little bit. As with all things, complaining about it without making any effort of my own would be hypocrisy, so I’m always trying to do better with my craft. This is my way of talking about how our review scene might develop and do better over the coming years.

      • A time ago I listened to some comments made by a representative of Academy Games, stating that the pace and production is too high at the moment, hurting the industry. Probably it does as well hurt the surrounding, as you call it, “critical apparatus”.

        In view of the depth of thoughts I’m impressed by your pace. You seem to keep a decent balance though, getting enough time to figure things. Some popular reviewers has reached a kind of mass production level of reviews, trying to keep up with the flow of new games.

        To my knowledge there aren’t that many doing the kind of critique you do outside of the war-game arena. Fun fact is that Root gets included in war-game discussions besides heavy WWII, Vietnam-war and such games. You cover however a larger palette of games, which makes your work very valuable.

  7. Something that I feel is very important to consider is the impact an informed critique has on a creator, and the value that the critique brings to said creator. To first establish context: The goal of any designer (whether he/she wants to admit it nor not) is to establish an intimate relationship with the consumer. This relationship can be either enriching or purely visceral (or both); but, regardless, it’s a relationship—a connection and a conversation between the creator and the consumer. That being said, one of the trickiest things for a designer is measuring the success of his/her output with regards to achieving this goal.

    For the sake of this argument, I’m considering a “review” to be no more than an opinion (and, given the fact that 90%+ of reviews out there on the internet are absolutely no more than opinions, I think it’s a fair baseline definition). A review is in no way enriching to a designer, and therefore holds little to no value for him/her. “GameDoodLord liked my game.” So what? How does that help me grow as a designer? What makes GameDoodLord’s opinion matter, in a galaxy of opinions by countless other people with a keyboard/webcam and free time to tell others? “Good”, “bad”, numbers, stars—none of them help further the craft of design. How could they?

    On the other hand, an informed critique is one of the most salient and significant tools a designer can leverage for goal assessment. Such a critique gives a creator insight into the connection he/she made with the consumer (or even whether or not any connection was made). “Did I make a connection?” “Did I connect as I had intended to?” “Have I provided the consumer with answers to interesting questions?” “Have I provided the user with adequate tools for exploring all sides of a tricky argument?” A well-articulated critique results in yes/no answers to these important questions, leading a designer in the direction of self-improvement—these answers serve as lamp posts on a journey that is otherwise stymied by an opaque miasma of uncertainty.

    Games being one of the (if not the very) most interactive mediums available today (and by “interactive”, I mean interaction between the creator and consumer), I truly hope that more responsible people help carry the torch by spending the time, thought, and effort necessary to share something that matters. This craft is one of the most challenging to master (which is to be expected, since it’s a science with less than twenty years of study behind it), and evolution/revolution requires cooperation between creator and articulate consumer.

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