July 12, 2013

Critically Effective

Samo’s thread, The thrill of (game) bashing., has generated some interesting discussion about the nature of boardgame criticism, an endlessly fascinating topic (to some of us anyway). I wanted to follow up with a few related thoughts of my own, aimed at established and aspiring boardgame critics – but also more generally to everyone, even outside of the context of boardgames.

The subject at hand is two-fold; first how to be an effective (or “constructive”) critic, and second (to a lesser extent) how to “take criticism.”

Professionally, I’m in the architectural/landscape design profession, working both in private practice as well as teaching graduate-level design and planning courses. In my view, the entire field of design (related to but different than purely artistic fields like fine art) is predicated on criticism; or in the verbiage we use “critique.” Criticism provides the mechanism to advance a specific design project and make it successful – as well as advancing the entire design field. It works a little like this:

(1) New project for a building/landscape/sewer system/etc. lands in the office and the design phase begins.

(2) First and foremost is developing and understanding the project goals (or objectives, etc.). What is it we intend to accomplish in the project? What needs are we addressing? What users are we serving? Being clear and transparent with goals is vital.

(3) Designers (which can be many people) go through all manner of design concepts / iterations / modeling / etc. to develop an early plan.

(4) Early design are subjected to the criticism (critique) of various experts or senior designers. The key is that the critique is a dialogue between the design team, the reviewer, and the communicated goals of the project. I’m going to pause here for a moment…

I wrote a post a while ago talking about the importance of trying to understand “intent” in a creative or design work. Understanding the intent is one very important input on how you shape and frame a critique or criticism – and in particular being able to recognize and filter out your own personal biases such that you can comment on both the designs success AND your own personal response in a clear and unambiguous manner.

So, the intent of “design projects” – be it a building or a boardgame – can be considered in light of the design goals. How many housing units do I need to accommodate? How many players do I need to accommodate? What kind of user experience or mood do I want to create as people walk through the space? What kind of tough choices do I want as people play through the game? What are my aesthetic goals? What kinds of emotions do I want to solicit?

In many design projects, these intended goals are often stated clearly and upfront. It’s what enables, for example, high profile design competitions to be judged. The goals are stated and understood, and the critics can look at the work/design and evaluate whether or not it met the intended goals. Certainly this process can be highly subjective and is influenced by all manner of other biases – but the goal<->design relationship is what allows the reviewer to provide effective criticism. I.E., the “you had a goal to make a smooth progression between the building interior and the exterior spaces – but your elevations differ too much and the need for stairs/ramps creates a disjointed experience.” The same type of criticism can be leveled at a boardgame design.

People, in regards to boardgames when I bring up this point, often reply that “you can’t know what the designer’s goal or intention is!” I would argue that a good critic/reviewer would do their homework and try to find out – or at least make plausible assumptions about the intended goals and state what those assumptions are in their review. In most cases, I feel you can take a look at the box and the game description and draw useful assumptions about the intent. In the era of BGG, there is even more information floating around about games (designer/publisher comments, videos, etc.) to get an even more accurate understanding.

Alternatively, a reviewer can choose to just state their own goals/preferences, or the “lens” through which they evaluate all the games they come across. Maybe I’m really interested in “conflict dynamics” in boardgames, and that’s something I always scrutinize a game for. But stating that personal lens is important for other people reading your review to read/hear, otherwise your comments may seem out of context. Likewise, your lens could be “the game must be fun!!” Well – be clear what you mean by fun, because maybe my kind of fun is different than yours.

Back to the design process…

(6) Receiving criticism/critique can be as challenging as it is to give poignant criticism in the first place. As a designer I need to do my own layer of interpretation on the criticism that’s coming my way. For every point, I think – what was the critic’s motive in saying this, did the critic understand my goals/intent correctly? Is the critic the target audience for design? Either way – what are the implications of that?

You need to receive criticism with both ears open, and not get defensive or take it personally. But ultimately it’s up to the designer(s) to wade through the feedback and determine what is or isn’t relevant for advancing the project. If the critic misinterpreted your goals and thought you were delivering Y when really the intent was X – maybe their criticism isn’t as helpful but it DOES underscore the need to be more clear in your intended goals.

Anyway, I’m not trying to claim that being a more effective critic is easy. And I’m not asserting that everyone always needs to be more critical at all moments in time. And I’m not saying you can’t get off course and have fun in the bushes. But if you are endeavoring to write/video/podcast reviews of boardgames – do try to think about both your own “lens” of preference as well as the works intended goals. When you evaluate something in light of that – your opinions and conclusions are that much better grounded and made relatable to your audience. Without it – you aren’t being critically effective.

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