I got to thinking one day…
I’ve continued to read more about the “critical game analysis” movement over the last few weeks, and while I’m not really going to get back into further discussion about game reviews and all right now, one related topic has occurred to me that I want to discuss a little bit.
From the beginning, one of the driving forces behind the whole movement was comparing the boardgame community to that surrounding other popular media. With books, movies, music, and even TV to some extent, you have well-established systems of critique and analysis. Many of the critics are professionals, whether that means that they are hired by some sort of media outlet (newspapers, TV stations, website, or whatever) or are in academia. And really, what occurred to me is whether or not it’s even fair to compare boardgames and boardgame criticism to that found in other media that, in many ways, is so dissimilar.
First of all, one difference between “us” and “them” that stands out to me is how old the communities in question really are. I mean, obviously, boardgames have been around forever (certainly before movies and TV, but possibly even before writing and/or fiction). But this thing that we do, playing “modern” boardgames (which are in many ways very distinct from traditional or classic games), is really only about 17 or so years old. So the sheer history and weight and tradition of criticism in, say, the literary medium would make it very hard for us to compare in any parallel way, since we’re decades and maybe even centuries behind.
The next thing is that these other media also involve far more people, resources, and money than modern boardgaming does. I mean, the very idea of having professional critics whose job is just to play and review boardgames is almost unheard of in our hobby. And while there are a few examples of academics whose main emphasis is on boardgames, even they are not necessarily focused on “boardgame criticism” as are many in the literary and even film worlds. I’ve definitely brought this up before, especially in defense of the “amateur” game reviewer who has to choose carefully how to spend their time, but in a very real way, it’s going to be much harder for a community of hobbyist critics to develop any sort of analytical tradition that could even compare to, let alone rival, that established and maintained by a huge group of professional and academic critics. (And interestingly enough, the film world actually has some dichotomy between the academic and “popular” critics that sort of mirrors the things I’ve heard lately in our hobby.)
Active vs. Passive Media
But the main difference that I noticed, and what I want to spend the most energy discussing now, comes more from the nature of the media itself rather than from any other factor. In my limited research on this topic, I found some discussion of a delineation between “active” and “passive” media. Most often, this is in reference to comparing videogames to other types of media, but sometimes it’s also applied between books (which supposedly engage you more actively) and, say, TV. But it seems to me that this description and differentiation applies even more accurately to a comparison between boardgames and pretty much everything else.
In more or less all other media (even including many videogames, considering their mostly linear format) the underlying idea is that one “author” creates something that is then received/consumed by other individuals. The author has a great deal of control over how the medium is received, the message that is delivered, and ultimately, the experience that is created. And in most cases, the “consumer” interacts with the medium more or less alone (even if they sort of “share” their experience with others by sitting near them or talking about it after the fact). And perhaps the biggest point of contrast to me is that the consumer of passive media has no real option to make a choice about the content of the media or to experience anything different than from what the author has pre-loaded into the work.
The nature of criticism for these “passive” types of media, therefore, tends to focus mostly on the substance of the message delivered by the work, rather than on the “mechanics” of the delivery method. Now certainly, story structure, diction, tone, and other structural elements of how the work was delivered do come into play. But by and large, the bulk of literary and film criticism is much more about discussing the work’s message, its relevance to the society in which it was made, its relation to previous works, what experience in the author’s life led to it, and other such socio-political issues.
But boardgames are very different. With rare exception, games are meant to be shared, interactive experiences. And one hallmark of modern boardgames is player agency, where the participants are given choices that have a real impact on the outcome of the game. So while a game designer may have a general intent for how a game should develop, the specifics of any one particular play are greatly dependent on the choices of the players involved in it.
Therefore, the most important element of boardgame criticism must be to focus on the mechanical aspects of the game. While the core element of a work in pretty much any other medium is the message that is being conveyed, the core of a boardgame is the system of mechanics constructed by the designer. And even if there is a theme, tone, or message that the designer wants to invoke or portray in some manner, it still comes down to how well the mechanics of the game actually get that message across.
So Freaking What?
So again, since it’s pretty subtle, let me restate my point in a slightly different way. In more “passive” media, conveying a message is pretty straightforward, so the main focus of criticism falls to evaluating the message itself. But in a more complex, “active” medium like boardgames, criticism and analysis must focus more on the mechanical aspects of how the game works and, ultimately, how well the designer and the game creates whatever experience they intended to give.
Now that I’ve sort of gotten that out of my head in what I hope is at least a semi-coherent way, what does it mean for our hobby and critical analysis of it?
The first thing that jumps to my mind is the fallacy of Objectivity in boardgame analysis. Since it’s inherently an interactive medium designed to involve the players and provide them with real choices, discussion of a game divorced from the subjective experience of actually playing the game is at least limited and probably something closer to irrelevant.
And the reality of this whole idea is that, honestly,
all media depend to some extent upon the subjective experience of the reader/viewer/listener. It’s more of a spectrum, where TV and film are probably the most “pre-packaged” in terms of interactivity, while boardgames are at the other end being greatly dependent on the actions of the players. But even when watching a movie, factors like your mood, the atmosphere of the crowd and theater, your previous knowledge and expectations of the film, and simply your likes and dislikes (among several other things) are going to be very hard to account for in analyzing the actual objective message and quality of the work. Boardgames, then, being several degrees of magnitude more interactive, are so much more dependent on the synergy of game and player, and are therefore even more difficult to assess objectively.
Just think about many of the metrics used to discuss boardgames, and how difficult it would be to objectively define any of them. Let’s take “rules complexity”, for instance. What exactly does that mean, and how would you measure it? Should you use the number of pages or word count in the rulebook? Maybe the number of mechanics involved in game play? How many exceptions there are to the core rules? It’s such a fuzzy thing, and most gamers would probably define it more along the lines of, “I know it when I see it,” rather than in any objectively measurable, quantitative way.
And it’s the same with game weight, depth, accessibility, replayability, strength of theme, narrative arc, and (of course) “fun factor”. Sure, there may be some markers that point to a certain direction, but for the most part, you can’t truly understand a boardgame apart from actually playing it.
The Whole vs. the Sum of Its Parts
But is there any room for objective analysis in talking about boardgames? Sure. I’d say with at least some certainty that there would be value in breaking down a game into its component mechanics and analyzing them. If a game included worker placement, for instance, it might be a good idea to look at the mechanic, its history, the “pedigree” of games from which it comes, and then how it’s implemented in this particular game (hopefully identifying either unique tweaks or shared elements from other games). And in some ways, this would mirror the kinds of analysis you might find in other media.
However, I find it thoroughly inadequate to stop at this level of analysis. It makes me cringe when I hear people say things like “it’s just another worker placement game” without either looking for what details set it apart from others, or, more importantly, what greater experience this particular game offers above and beyond the existence its core mechanic.
Because, as I see it, a boardgame is a crap-ton more than just the sum of its component mechanics. Games create systems and environments in which players make decisions. The complexity of interaction between player and game and player usually reveals emergent properties that would be almost impossible to predict from just reading the rules or discussing the component mechanics. It’s pure gestalt, and therefore, boardgame analysis must begin and end by looking at the totality of the game, which is ultimately defined by how players experience it.
But I’ve been writing this article for something like 2 weeks now in the rare, spare moments I’ve been able to find, so maybe it’s time for me to stop before I get even more repetitive than I already have been. But I’d love to know what some of y’all think. Does this whole thing make any sense? Do you see what I’m talking about, or am I just trying to split hairs and argue irrelevant points? Please let me know!