Talking About Games: Subjecting Subjectivity
You’ve heard the refrain before. “Stay objective.” “Keep politics out of it.” “I just want to hear how the game works.”
Fine, you caught me! Nothing gets past you. Those are three refrains, not one. Except… aren’t they the same thing? All three complaints ultimately come down to a single expectation, that game reviews should conform to some sort of master code, a Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to gather all forms of criticism, bring them together, and in the darkness bind them. Objectivity all over again.
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t we been here before? True, a few installments back I talked about objectivity and subjectivity. But that was principally about defining those two terms and examining how they sometimes bleed into each other thanks to some complicated linguistic history. Today, I want to travel in a different direction by talking about some of the advantages of subjectivity. Namely, why is it better for everyone when our game critiques are as subjective as possible?
I. Subjective Critique Makes for Better Recommendations
I’ve argued in the past that critiques shouldn’t be principally commercial. There are two reasons for this, one philosophical and the other more corporeal. In the intangible sense, critique is more a function of curating culture than curating what winds up on somebody’s shelf. Good critique not only hones what we purchase, but also clarifies everything it comes into contact with. It helps creators delineate between their triumphs and their stumbles. It shows aspirants what’s already been done and what remains to be accomplished. It calls attention to the slender margins between what works and what doesn’t. It gives us a voice where before our thoughts were halfway formed. And then there’s the other reason, which is more grounded: no game critic has any idea how much your dollar is worth to you. Unless you’ve also hired them as your personal accountant, they should probably refrain from telling you how to spend it. That decision belongs solely to you.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that many people engage with reviews as buyer’s guides. When somebody complains that one of my write-ups didn’t help them decide whether to purchase a game, I understand where they’re coming from. Life would be breezy if our chances of picking up a dud were zero. Never mind that our complainant is offloading their personal responsibility onto somebody else’s shoulders. Advice duly rendered, any prospective dud will be perceived as the critic’s fault, a tangible harm inflicted on our hapless consumer. It’s a one-way street and I don’t recommend anybody walk into traffic.
The thing is, though, the expectation of subjectivity is helpful in this regard. When a review strives to present “just the facts, ma’am,” failure is inevitable. Even if a reviewer decides to only present a game’s rules without comment — setting aside how bland and uninteresting that would be — deciding how to order those rules still represents an editorial call. As anyone who’s taken a journalism class can tell you, the percentage of people who read to the end of an article is tiny. We tend to prioritize important information by placing it near the front, whether thesis statements, ledes, or the tone and conflict of fictional works. And yes, that means even game designers are editorializing when they format how their game’s rules will be presented! The simple truth is that it’s impossible to avoid expressing any priorities whatsoever. And that’s before we dive into topics like unconscious bias or cultural expectations.
Which is why it’s so useful when a critic expresses their priorities as clearly as possible. This doesn’t mean every review requires signposted statements like “I enjoy weird games with limited commercial appeal” or “I am not intimidated by difficult or even repugnant arguments.” Nothing so bland. Rather, by describing what a game accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) with an eye toward the critic’s own reactions, as opposed to the theoretical reactions of an imagined “broad” audience, the critic teaches us both about the game and about their own tastes.
That last part is key. Every truly useful review is not only telling us about the artifact in question, but also about the critic. Don’t mistake this for autobiography; it’s permission to follow tangents, explore snake’s hands, and get personal. It’s a chance to fully explain why the game didn’t work for that person, at that time, with their values and priorities. This makes for better purchasing advice for anything that isn’t limited to sheer utility. Since board games aren’t clothes dryers or furnace repair companies, they demand that radical degree of subjectivity.
II. Subjective Critique Helps Us Gauge Relative Tolerances
“Would you play 18xx with Hitler?”
Uh, absolutely I would. Just imagine the article such a meeting would produce!
Because playing “gotcha!” is fun, every so often someone asks whether I would play a particular hypothetical game, usually by proposing an abhorrent setting. Would I play a train game that featured indigenous removal? Yes. A WWII game that considered the Holocaust? Sure. A set collection game about nude eighteen-year-olds? No.
What’s the difference? I discussed the distinction between portrayal and endorsement in our last installment of Talking About Games, and I could probably spin some argument about how objectifying people barely over the border of the age of consent tacitly endorses some fairly troubling behavior. But the real reason I would avoid such a game is more personal: it’s beyond my comfort level. I know my own tolerances. My background is in historiography, and I’m willing to explore different models of history, even when those models clash with my education or beliefs. Someone else might find those same models too tangled or too frustrating to deal with. For example, I recently published a review of Imperial Struggle. From my perspective, the game models colonialism according to a period mindset, and does so without sacrificing either playability or accuracy. Yet another critic has used the term “whitewashing” to describe it. Who’s right? There’s room for discussion and disagreement, and opinion isn’t so sacred that it shouldn’t be disputed, but it’s possible for us to both be right for the same reason that one person might appreciate a game about subject matter I would find icky.
Emerson wrote that we boil at different degrees. This only captures part of the problem. In truth, the same person can boil at a dozen different temperatures. And sometimes those boiling points fluctuate over time. For most of my life, scenes of imperiled children in movies or books didn’t faze me any more than seeing an adult dangled over the pit. It was only after I became a father that I lost all stomach for such scenes. Something similar has gripped my local culture in light of recent events. Where police procedurals were formerly the default entertainment, the entrapments and interrogations of leading men and women have taken on a darker tone. It goes without saying that such a perspective has likely been the default for many people of color.
When it comes to games criticism, it’s useful to keep this in mind. My goal with any historical game is to evaluate its merits, including an investigation of its claims. Others might not have that same level of comfort. Or worse, they may have suffered because of poor representation or the generational scars of that history. While I have the privilege of regarding those questions from a distance, some are affected more directly. The same goes for issues such as nudity. I’m only a class-C prude, and I don’t mind some cheesecake now and then. But such images often strike me as pandering, manipulative, and disrespectful — and my opinion is muted compared to those of certain colleagues, many of them women, who feel more directly sexualized when they see a barbarian warrior clad in bikini chainmail and flexing her vertebrae like string cheese.
But that’s me! One of the values of subjective criticism is that it lets us assess such issues directly. I don’t have to pretend something didn’t bother me, or even pretend that it did. By embracing criticism as an act of expression, with the critic’s experiences grounded first and foremost, we can begin to talk about the reasons behind their comfort or discomfort rather than assuming everybody will always be on the same page about every topic.
III. Objectivity Is Dorky
Here is my baldest complaint with the Objectivity Crowd:
What a bunch of clammy rags. What joyless buckets of kitchen-floor mop water. What unbuttered, unjammed, un-Nutella’d toast. What right-angled thought-monitoring bureaucrats. What quislings, trembling with anxiety now that their true nature has been spied out.
In all of human experience there has not been a great voice that was not amplified by opinion. Opinions brash, political, mild, caring, furious, moderate, whatever. If a critic has something to say, let them say it, and say it with the voice they know best. This isn’t to say we cannot disagree. Nor is this to say we shouldn’t discuss the opinions produced by those voices. Oh, no. Disagreement is the spice. Discussion is communion between sentiences. But without subjectivity, without voices loudly proclaiming what they believe and how they believe it, there cannot be disagreement or discussion, only the processing of technical data, as though board game reviews should have all the pulse of a five-language toaster manual.
What a drab vision, this goal of objectivity. Give me instead someone furious at Catan! A defender of Monopoly! Let us have schools of thought, and iconoclasts who spurn them, and moderating influences thought of very little by either side but held in high regard by everyone too confused by the speech of the radicals.
Or if the Wild West of board game criticism sounds a little too unkempt, let’s instead welcome broader formats and more distinctive voices, rather than insisting everybody fill out the same form letters. The hobby is broad enough. It’s time to embrace the possibilities.
In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’ll be talking about moral criticism. But no need to wait — supporters can already find it on Patreon.