April 10, 2012

The Rise of the Cult of the Slow and Critical?

There has been a lot of conversation recently about the prevalence (or rather deficit) of more critical and "academic" discussions of boardgames across a number of avenues. Sources: (On Gamer's Games, 1), (On Gamer's Games, 2), (QWERTYUIOP, 1), (QWERTYUIOP, 2), (The Jaded Gamer, 1), (Opinioned Gamers Discussion)

To paraphrase some of the salient questions raised in these posts the ensuing discussions:
- If games are supposed to be fun, why are we taking them so seriously?
- What is valuable about a review?
- Who reads strategy guides anyways?
- Should we play 50 new (to me) games or 1 game 50 times? i.e. What's with the Cult of the New?
- How can we discuss games seriously when we don’t even have consistent terminology?
- Is BGG the right place to have critical/serious conversations?
- What’s next?

Of course opinions on the questions above vary dramatically among BGG users. In following many of these conversations, I’ve come to realize that I’m in a minority of BGG users in that that I look for deeper or more critical discussions of the boardgaming hobby and of specific games. I’m also in the camp of wanting to play fewer different games many times rather than inundating myself with every new game I can get my hands on. But while I’m in a minority, that minority isn’t insignificant. There are many who share the same perspective I do.

To help frame the issues, I want to step back and answer the questions above from a big picture standpoint, as I’ve come to understand it.

If games are supposed to be fun, why are we taking them so seriously?

Everyone is free to enjoy games and the boardgaming hobby in whatever manner they choose, and indeed people enjoy the games/hobby in many different ways. This encompasses the people and environments where they play games, what types of games are played, what the player’s attitudes are, what the level of competitiveness is, etc. It runs the whole gamut.

For some people, taking games seriously and discussing them seriously is fun and rewarding. I enjoy thinking about games and playing them, but I also like taking about them at a deeper level than other people do. That’s all fine.

It is important for everyone to remember that others can enjoy the hobby however they wish. Camp Serious isn’t trying to force people, or reviewers, or anyone else to take games more seriously and be more critical. We are simply interested in having and fostering those discussions among interested parties. Everyone else is free to ignore or participate in the conversations. As an aside, I find it paradoxical (and hypocritical) when people who clearly don’t care to discuss games critically spend their time reading and then replying to critical discussions.

Moving on...

What is valuable about a review?

Clearly there are many different styles of reviews of boardgames here on BGG. They range from short bulleted lists of "here’s what I like or don’t like" about Game X, to detailed rules overviews, to reviews that discuss decision depth, strategic potential, and other more critical lines of assessment. There are reviews written about games after zero plays and reviews written after 100’s of plays.

I think there is a place for any and all types of reviews, as different types provide different values to different people. Some people don’t want to hear about game strategy in a review but others do. Some people don’t want to read a highly subjective review, but other people do. And so on...

What the boardgame "academics" are wondering, is why there aren’t more critical or deeper reviews of games, given the preponderance of reviews on BGG tending to focus more on "likes/dislikes" and "rules explanations." I don’t believe this inquest is meant to lambast the labors of reviewers in anyway, it’s just asking why there aren’t "more" of the critical reviews happening. Jesse’s BGG-busting post, A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011, covered that topic well in my opinion.

Who reads strategy guides anyways?

It’s clear that many people do not want to read strategy guides/articles, preferring to discover them on their own. Other people enjoy reading about strategy. There are certainly pro’s and con’s, depending on your gaming situation, to either perspective. This is not surprising.

What I find interesting is that if we assume the majority of BGG users are going to play a game only a few times before moving on to the next, how much opportunity do they give themselves to exploring the strategic depth of each game? Personally, I’ve been amazed at games that I’ve played 10, 20, and 50 times, and continue to discover little nuances of strategy or tactics that can be explored. For me, that’s really rewarding. But I can certainly understand that others don’t share the feeling, and that’s okay too.

Should we play 50 new (to us) games or 1 game 50 times?

This is an interesting discussion that has popped up in a number of places, and is I feel central to the whole question of critical analysis of games. In the big picture (hypothetically), there are die hard "cult-of-the-new" fanatics that would play any game once and then move to the next. At the other end of the continuum, are players who dedicate themselves to a single game for a lifetime (hypothetically).

You can guess where I’m going, but either perspective is of course acceptable. "Cult-of-the-new" advocates often cite the excitement and joy they have in learning a new game system and discovering the strategies. Others are less excited by the "newness" of learning a new game but instead find more joy out of deeply exploring a game and the nuances afforded by many repeat plays. Both groups excitements are valid.

What does appear to be happening though is that the "cult of the new" is a slippery slope. Unless individual gamers have relatively stable gaming partners with a shared desire to play fewer different games more times, and as more and more games are released into the market, it’s more likely that gamers will come together with one or more (or all) of the players being new to the game on the table.

For those who prefer to play fewer games repeatedly, it takes a concentrated effort to arrange for that kind of play, and to find gaming partners at an equivalent skill level (if that’s a consideration). And again, this question largely hinges on what your gaming partners are and how you come to agreement about what get’s played.

There are a number of people who are making a visible and concentrated effort to play fewer games more times. The whole idea aligns well with the "Slow Movement" (emerging from the Slow Foods Movement), in that it would encourage everyone to slow down on their consumption of new games in favor of deeper exploration and more plays of already known games. This is a little different from the this slow games concept of being more deliberate and less hurried when playing big strategic games. Others, such as Qwertymartin have taken it upon themselves to only play old games in as part of the NaNoNeGaMo event in June, or to play a few games 100 times or more. Ultimately, the "slow games" movement is about cherishing and getting the most of what we have, rather than adding more fuel to the hotness.

How can we discuss games seriously when we don’t even have consistent terminology?

In my explorations and research, there isn’t a very standardized set of terminology for describing games and their characteristics. For those who are interested in a critical discussion of games, having a defined lexicon is important, so that when someone says X the person receiving the message understands they mean X.

Of course, there are splitters and lumpers when it comes to developing a taxonomy or classification systems, but that gets worked out then when the taxonomy is developed. And it’s worth repeating that no language or taxonomy should be fixed in time, but rather should be recognized as something continually evolving through ongoing conversation.

From my standpoint, I think that strong boardgame terminology is vital for critical discussion. However, I also recognize that other people feel it’s a waste of time and a never ending battle. The concern is that creating a more "accurate" set of terminology is only successful if it is used as correctly as possible by its users. So while people can ignore the conversations for terminology development, it is ultimately beneficial to everyone to have a reliable source for clear definitions when debates ensue.

Is BGG the right place to have critical/serious conversations?

Here’s my short answer:

The fact that some people want to have critical discussions on BGG means that it can be a right place to have critical discussions.

There are going to be majorities and minorities in any community. I feel that BGG has the tools, size of community, and interested people already on hand to support critical/serious discussions (we are having one right now aren’t we?). Can it also happen elsewhere? Sure, and it probably should happen elsewhere as well, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t happen on BGG too.

Others have commented that BGG historically had relatively more critical discussions in the early days. I can’t comment from experience, but BGG has grown tremendously in recent years, and it would be my guess that a growing proportion of users are less interested in critical discussion, drowning out threads of those that do. I’m not too bothered by this if it’s the case, provided those that want to have critical conversations can chisel out a spot to have them (i.e. through blogs, Gaming Articles forum, a new Guild, etc.), which I think BGG is perfectly capable of accommodating.

What’s Next? ... A Roadmap Forward

Jesse Dean has been hinting at the needed "infrastructure" to support more critical discussions. I’m not entirely sure what he (and others) have in mind, but I think it’s worth first identifying what types of critical discussions we want to have before assembling the necessary infrastructure. Here’s my take on what critical discussions we are looking for:

- Reviews that are more critical and provide a deeper discussion, preferably written after many plays. In particular, I would like to see more reviews that strive to objectively characterize the decision depth, the kinds of decisions that are made, the factors involved, etc.
- Articles with deeper discussion of game strategies
- Development of a "science of boardgames," including clear terminology and classification systems, discussions of game theory, etc.
- Ability for trend analysis across the boardgaming hobby, i.e. What are people playing? What types of games are being developed?

Having identified those, the question then becomes what’s the appropriate infrastructure to utilize or development to accomplish these things?

Assuming we want to stay on BGG, I have a few ideas that I think are worth discussing.

(1) I think the biggest thing holding back the critical discussions is a lack of awareness and a centralized location for having those discussions. Sure, we could make a dedicated webpage to centralize everything, but I think opportunities exist within BGG too. One idea; create a microbadge and guild for users interested in participating in critical discussions. If nothing else, this will help us identify others with similar interests and have a place to discuss ideas and plan activities.

(2) Create a dedicated blog on BGG for posting "peer-reviewed" game reviews, strategy articles, or other articles of interest. Of course the "peer-reviewed" guidelines would need to be developed, but the general idea is that anyone could submit an article for consideration on the blog, and the blog staff would review it for its appropriateness, thoroughness, or whatever other requirements are envisioned before posting it. People could post these articles wherever else on BGG or the internet too.

In many ways, I imaging this blog could start to take the place of the The Games Journal, which had many interesting and compelling articles but is no longer putting out issues. The editors could of course solicit articles from specific people they want to hear from.

The advantage of having such a blog on BGG is that it likely will get a high level of visibility. If we are interested in raising awareness of these critical discussions, this can be a good thing.

(3) Interested individuals should help with developing classifications and taxonomies for boardgames. I kicked off such an effort in my blog post Towards a Science of Boardgames (Part I). The immediate follow-up to that has been re-scoping the Game Genome Project Guild (Game Genome Project 2.0 - PRIMARY THREAD) to examine a number of avenues of classification and taxonomy. We have a lot of work to build on, such as Selwyth’s Alternative Classification Scheme for boardgames.

I’ll reiterate that I think this is a really important issue, so that when I’m talking about worker placement or area majority, or non-conflict games, or whatever other descriptors are being used, everyone has a clear understanding of what we are talking about. This effort is still largely in its infancy (and moving slowly) but I think the outlook can be good with sustained effort.

(4) Work with the BGG development team to implement stronger classification + taxonomy tools following from #2. For example, reworking the mechanics and categories tags to align with the Game Genome Project’s. In addition, build some additional tools into the BGG database to allow more high level access to game data for trend analysis, statistic inquiry, or whatever pursuits might be of interest to the community. In particular, being able to query play data over time in more efficient ways would be tremendously useful.

And the immediate next step? Come up with a ridiculous name to call ourselves. And I’m only half-joking about calling ourselves the Cult of the Slow and Critical. CotSaC has a nice ring to it eh?

This post was originally published on the Big Game Theory! blog on BoardGameGeek, here.

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