Just yesterday, the gaming website Superfly Circus announced that they would no longer be accepting review copies of games. Their intention was to be a “CHAMPION OF THE CONSUMER” by eschewing all potential dependence or influence by game publishers. The article then went on to illuminate a culture of “anti-dissent” in the boardgame hobby and finally ended with a direct attack on the character of most popular reviewers. I’m going to speak pretty directly about many of the points that they made, but I’m not going to rewrite all that they said, so to really understand my counter-arguments, you probably need to read the original article.
Now, first of all, I appreciate the decision that they made and affirm their right to make it, “on principle”, as a stand against becoming in any way beholden or influenced by the publishers. However, I think that many of the assumptions and connections that they claim led to this decision are less than accurate.
The first thing they bring up is the consolidation of BoardGameGeek and Board Game News, therefore leaving “no substantial outside, neutral source of boardgame information on the scale and scope that Board Game Geek encompasses.” BGG is then “so powerful and so intertwined with the publishers that they serve and that serve them, that they are no longer what can be considered a neutral, free, information outlet.”
Now, first of all, I could probably argue the validity of that whole conclusion, but instead, let me focus on the most obvious issue with the ‘BGG is a corporate puppet’ argument. The nature of BGG is that the vast majority of reviews and content on BGG is not actually produced ‘by’ BGG (as in, paid employees). By and large, the opinions shared there are by unpaid and mostly uncompensated users, who have no real reason to be influenced by money flowing into the site. Therefore, it’s a little silly to question the neutrality of all the content at BGG just because the website has advertising or other deals with game publishers.
Note, however, that I’m not saying there’s not a problem with reviews at BGG (or pretty much anywhere else on the internet, for that matter), but I am saying that the assumption that it’s mostly related to being influenced by review copies and all is very wrong.
From there, the article went into the describing a “culture of anti-dissent” in the boardgame hobby. He started with some “evidence” regarding reviews, about which I’ll try to offer another perspective:
- There is a wide imbalance of positive and negative reviews, even on middling-rated and lower-rated games” – There are more positive reviews for games because people don’t want to invest even more time in writing a review about a game they don’t like and have already wasted enough time just playing. If you really hated a game, I could see you being willing to spend the time to trash it, but if it’s just sort of “meh” or not that great, it’s a lot easier to just ignore it and move on.
- Most reviews that are positive are overwhelmingly positive” – Again, unpaid, amateur reviewers are much more likely to invest their free time in a game they’re really passionate about. And if so, wouldn’t you expect such a person to be overwhelmingly positive? In fact, having a “professional” reviewer whose job is to review games regardless of their opinion about them would probably help this sort of problem!
- Negative reviews are almost universally met with disdain and ridicule” – Negative reviews are met with disdain and ridicule for one main reason: most of them are really poorly written. Again, the average amateur reviewer probably didn’t invest the time to play a game they didn’t like more than once or twice. So when they essentially write, “This game sucks!” based on incomplete or potentially incorrect play of the game, those who love the game are quick to come out and defend it, often vigorously. However, when a negative review is well-written and thoughtful, I tend to find that the community has a very positive reception. My most-thumbed review at BGG, for instance, is a negative review of Power Grid, and actually, it has more thumbs than any other review (positive or negative) for Power Grid at BGG!
- Positive reviews are given more acclaim and search position based upon “thumbs” at BGG, which is a popularity gauge, not a gauge of the value of the content” – Thumbs for reviews are more a function of the popularity of the game itself and the timeliness of the review rather than a function of the quality of the review. Yeah, I’ll agree that it sucks, but then again, how can you really argue with the desires of the people reading the reviews? People want to read about the games they’re interested in at the moment, so reviewers that meet those needs get the most “rewards” (thumbs and maybe GeekGold tips), right or wrong.
- Negative reviews are “tipped” less with “GeekGold” on BGG” – This is just irrelevant. Again, many negative reviews just aren’t that good, but even if they are and they still don’t get their “due” in terms of thumbs or tips, how does this relate in any way to receiving review copies? Thumbs and tips are awarded by other users on BGG, not by administrators or paid employees, so what’s the point here?
Is there a culture of “anti-dissent” in the boardgame hobby? Maybe so. But just maybe it’s more a product of the exuberence and positivity of those passionate enough about boardgames to be willing to talk and write about them, rather than some dark conspiracy on the part of the game publishers. Why is it so terrible or enexpected that people who are excited about boardgames would generally be positive about the games they play?
I, for instance, play quite a few games. And while I certainly have some games that I like better than others, most games I encounter are at least “pretty good” in some way or another. It’s almost hard to write truly negative reviews because, in general, most games aren’t really that bad. In fact, most of the negativity I hear is more along the lines of “it doesn’t do anything new” or “meh” rather than really pointing any flaws with the game itself. And frankly, those sorts of comments tend to be more about the reviewer and their experience with the hobby in general.
Now, getting back to the real point, is it possible that receiving a review copy of a game might influence to give it a more positive review than if you bought it yourself? Yeah, I suppose so. But sometimes, having paid your own money for something actually makes you more willing to find the good in it, to “justify” your purchase, so buying games might make you partial as well. And maybe you really liked the last 3 games that designer made, so as a “fan”, you’re more likely to go easy on him even if his current game is less than spectacular. Or who knows, maybe you get a reputation as a colorful “negative” reviewer, and even though you enjoyed playing a game, you pan it because that’s what your readers expect and because it’s easier to write bad jokes about bad games.
My point, of course, is that lots of things can and do influence our opinions. I love games, and I’m really passionate about boardgames in particular these days. So I tend to be pretty positive about most games I discuss. Am I lying or in any way being deceptive or manipulative? Of course not. Is it “wrong” for me to be positive? That’s just stupid. Could I “go easy” on a mediocre game from time to time? Sure, but it’s probably a lot more about not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, particularly when it’s a new designer/publisher and they’re so passionate just to get their game out there, rather than because I’m afraid they won’t send me another review copy at some point in the future.
I like getting review copies of games. I don’t get all that many, but each time I do, it’s one more game that I’ll be able to see and experience that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to encounter. Because, like most of us, this isn’t my job, I don’t have unlimited resources, and I already spend way too much money on buying games. But what I promise, what I assume that most reviewers and bloggers and podcasters sincerely intend anyway, is that I’ll still be honest with my opinions. I’ll let y’all know when a game was given to me, just in case you think it matters, and I’ll do my best to justify my opinion with real experience from playing the game, rather than from any outside forces.
Beyond that, I just don’t see the benefit of questioning the motives of others, other than to breed negativity and cause strife in this hobby that I love so much. And why in the world would I, or anyone else for that matter, want to do that?