Game criticism – No place for subjectivity

Pet peeves are so annoying. Of the countless different things, situations and behaviours to respond to, our brains pick this one detail to get annoyed at. It’s especially frustrating, because to most other people this very thing elicits little more than a shrug. Still, it’s something that sticks with us, the peeved, for a while.

Since I am a firm believer in the causal nature of human behaviour – which is a fancy of way of saying that I think people do things for actual reasons – I wanted to sit down and articulate where my current pet peeve comes from. I’m not even sure that pet peeve is the right word for it. But what else should I call a turn of phrase or idea that continually pops up in conversations about games and game reviews, that invariably gets an exasperated sigh from me. This oh-so-annoying idea is subjectivity. Not as a general concept, of course. But as an argument brought up and used in the context of board games. Or to be even more precise, in the context of board game criticism and reviews.

your opinion
Oh… that review is ‘subjective’, is it?

So what’s my beef with subjectivity? Why do I end up taking people less seriously when they bring it up in a discussion? Why does the mere mention of it always feel like the conversation has tragically regressed? Like bringing up men’s rights, when talking about harassment, Or the dangers of socialism, when discussing public health care. Or more tax breaks, when talking about unemployment. I’m not equating these arguments, but pointing out that my instinctive reaction to them is very similar. I roll my eyes and expect arguments to become increasingly devoid of substance for the rest of the conversation.

Yet for the most part it keeps getting trotted out because people are persuaded to see it at the center of all criticism. This persuasion usually comes by way of semantics. Which is to say, by relying on a vague and somewhat fuzzy understanding of subjectivity (“it’s the opposite of objectivity, right? Like being biased?”), you get to apply it into the specific discipline of criticism and you’re done. Case closed. All criticism is subjective. Cue credits.

Semantically, that argument isn’t wrong as such. You can make it work without bending over backwards. At least there are no obvious contradictions jumping out at you. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean, that it fits. Even then, making that argument isn’t that dissimilar to putting universal health care on the same level as socialism or communism. Yes, those two types of government do exert power over an individual’s life and to some extent decision-making. Yes, if the government provides you with the means to seek medical help when needed, you can’t quite rely on patients paying more to get a different treatment. But both socialism and communism aren’t actually defined by their approach to health care. They are not defined by whether the government or the state provides you with a social safety net. They are defined by how political power is distributed and wielded. Those concepts are an order of magnitude more abstract than what they’re being applied to. Subjectivity and criticism overlap only in a very crude and superficial way of thinking. Criticism is mere subjectivity in the same way that telling your kids they’re grounded for their irresponsible behaviour is fascism.

Invoking subjectivity and complex questions of epistemology when talking about board game criticism seems weirdly dissonant. But even so, that’s not why this bugs me so much. I’m not that much of a pedant. (I will grant though, that others may have a different view of me.) I don’t dislike people using the words, because their definitions don’t quite fit in this context.

I have another reason why I react so negatively to the mention of subjectivity in game criticism. The best way I know to explain it, is to describe it as related to pragmatics, the linguistic discipline that deals (among other things) with the meaning of what people say, as opposed to the meaning of the individual words they use (i.e. semantics). Or put differently, the question isn’t how to define subjectivity, but what people actually say when they bring it up in this context. What’s the purpose of talking about subjectivity at all, when talking about game criticism?

I’ve watched and participated in a lot of those kinds of conversations, and as far as I can tell, the only reason anyone brings up subjectivity at all, is to delegitimize criticism and/or the person voicing it. It’s a way to basically say that no argument put forth can prove anything, because they are all only valid and applicable within a narrow and specific frame of reference: the individual saying them. A statement is only true to the person who says it, and has no further applicability. It’s a roundabout way of telling somebody to shut up.

By saying that reviews are by definition subjective opinions, it’s implied that they are a collection of statements that are only true to the person making them. In other words, they are effectively navel-gazing. Why listen to them at all? Why treat them as if they had any relevance? Let alone value?

terrible graffitti
The difference between this and Wuthering Heights is obviously subjective

Personally, I think that’s unfair, unjustified and just generally damaging to the hobby. To suggest that regardless of content, form or style a review offers no value outside of being self-expression just doesn’t sit well with me. A scripted 20 minute video, written, shot and edited over multiple days is put on the same level as the rambling retelling of somebody’s favorite moments playing the game. An instagram picture with a few words expressing enthusiasm is the same as a 2,000 words essay on a game’s form and function. Maybe it took a little longer to put together, but at the end of the day… they‘re fundamentally the same. Their subjective nature means that they provide the same value to their respective audiences. I find it hard to not wholeheartedly reject this argument because none of it rings true to me. Worse yet, I find its dismissiveness borders on the actively malicious.

That’s why I always find it terribly sad, when reviewers cave in and agree that all criticism is just subjective opinion. It’s not that this isn’t a legitimate position to take, but that it’s a concession to the language and arguments of people who seek to remove value from a reviewer’s efforts. Of course all criticism is based on personal experience. But analyzing that experience, articulating how it came to be and evaluating it, is what makes it a qualified, and not just a subjective, opinion. This makes it criticism. That’s what good reviews should be built on. Brushing this work off as mere subjective opinion does a disservice to everyone who is passionately engaged in this hobby.

So who would want to delegitimize criticism this way? For the most part, it seems to me that gamers (and in particular fans of specific games) feel defensive about their favourite games possibly be called “bad”. That they would somehow be shamed for liking the “wrong” game. The biggest irony of course being, that no two people seem to agree what those wrong games to like would be? Is it Talisman? Is it Cards Against Humanity? Maybe it’s Fluxx? Or Munchkin? Clearly it must be Risk! Or… maybe.. there are no wrong games to like. Maybe liking a game that is bad, isn’t that big a deal. Maybe not everything we buy or enjoy is due to its impeccable quality. Your favourite shirt probably isn’t made of the best possible materials. Your favourite TV show may very well have some badly written episodes or hokey acting. Your favourite food may not be the healthiest thing you can put in your mouth. Nobody is under any obligation to love and embrace the best of everything. I’m sure I could come up with a diet that is the best for my current lifestyle, but there is no way I am going to give up all the things I love to eat, just because they’re bad for me. Criticism is not about shaming or stigmatizing people or the things that they find enjoyment in. There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. You don’t get a failing grade on your essay question because the teacher was out to get you. You failed because your work was not up to par. It happens. Not all evaluation of quality is purely subjective.

The other group that I occasionally see trotting out the subjectivity claim is game designers. Which isn’t that surprising, when you think about it. A designer puts a lot of work and effort into a game. They make difficult decisions as they work on the game. They have to find a compromise between what they want to do and what can be done with the means available to them. They hone and improve to make the best possible game under the circumstances until it gets shipped out and is completely out of their hands. And then some internet rando shows up and starts trashing it. They take things completely out of context, read the rules wrong or misinterpret them. They expect the game to give them an experience it was absolutely not intended for. They yammer on about that one time when one player completely wrecked the game because nobody else at the table played the game as they should have… and so on. And, of course, they blame the game. Because clearly, if they had fun with other games and had no fun with this game, it must be the game’s fault. So while this person, you’ve never met or spoken to, starts smearing your hard work (and by implication your name and brand as a designer), you’re supposed to just sit there and nod politely. The best, easiest and most obvious way to not let any of that negativity get to you, is to file it under “subjective opinion” and move on. It’s subjective. It’s only true for them. Wouldn’t it be a boring world, if we agreed on everything all the time? Vive la différence! I can see where they are coming from, of coures. Even if it is basically the Kevin Smith defense of saying that “this [game] is not for critics”. But I can’t agree with any of it. Mostly, because it’s… well… wrong. Game critics are gamers like anyone else. They are not unique, special or in any way standing above or apart from games. After all, anyone can be a game critic. It’s just that not everyone is. Because it takes quite a bit of work to actually develop the ability to give a qualified opinion on something. And it takes a whole lot of passion to do all that work for free. (Or a good deal of privilege, but that’s a different topic entirely.)

Critics, gamers and game designers in one pic (Also, go see Into The Spider-Verse! It’s good!)

I strongly dislike arguments suggesting that critics and gamers are somehow two separate groups occupying the same hobby. That the former have esoteric, ivory tower gaming predilections that have little to no overlap with the salt-of-the-earth tastes of the average gamer. It’s an attempt to brandish claims to authenticity in order to delegitimize critics. Their criticism is deemed irrelevant or misguided and is therefore of no value. To be clear, what’s harmful about this stance is not that people disagree with a piece of criticism or reject a review. Not every criticism put out is fair or made in good faith. And a critic can also just be wrong about something. But by arguing that there is a divide between those two groups, it subtly stigmatizes critical engagement as something that pushes you to the undesired margins of the hobby. It’s a particularly nasty strand of elitism, really.

But let’s talk about negative reviews for a moment, and how those are actually often quite problematic themselves. Because unfortunately, there is a tendency among reviewers and gamers to celebrate or even fetishize negative reviews. The bigger the trashing of a game the more people will be drawn to the review. It means more clicks, more eyes on your content and in some weird inversion of facts a reputation for “telling it like it is”. When the truth is that there is nothing more disreputable a reviewer can do, than put out a badly made, negative review.

A review that is more about publicly slating a game, than articulating and plainly laying out its weak points, is harmful. A review that is preoccupied with finding “funny and witty” ways of calling a game awful, is antagonism not criticism. Despite how much effort is often put into making a review entertaining, its primary purpose is insightful analysis and not a chuckle, laugh and a guffaw. A review that consists of nothing but a sight gag is a complete waste of time. Worse than that it’s an arrogant dismissal of the work people put into making the game. It’s self-aggrandizing in the most unearned way and a lazy attempt to score cheap laughs with your audience at the expense of somebody else. It is far more damaging to the reviewer and their credibility to publish a fair and reasoned argument than it is to the designer’s ability to make a good game. A bad game eventually disappears, but a bad review will always be only a few clicks away to show how biased and self-serving a reviewer can be.

trashing a game
Pictured here: reviewer after making a big stink over a bad game

So as awful as it may feel for a designer to have their work publicly mocked, I think a reviewer harms their standing much more with such a review. I’ve stopped paying attention to more than one reviewer after such a puerile act of grandstanding. Those reviews reveal so much about how the reviewer sees themselves, their audience and games in general… and it’s never good. Most of all it’s ample ammunition for anyone who wants to show that reviews are nothing but unthinking subjective opinion with delusions of critical thought attached to them.

That said, why should criticism be more than just entertainingly displayed subjectivity? What’s the purpose of critically assessing a game, and not merely communicating your personal experience and call that a review? I think criticism is vital. But criticism is not just the individual review, or a channel that cleverly presents different games. It’s not a regular podcast of people talking about the games they’ve played and what they thought about them. Criticism encompasses an entire discourse of gamers critically looking at games. It’s not just the act of  talking about it, it’s also reflecting and evaluating the experience we have playing games. It’s a conversation of countless voices that develops within and around the hobby. And all of it creates the momentum that pushes a craft towards becoming an art form, and eventually culture. Make no mistake, this isn’t the sole work of critics. It’s also not the result of a large number of gamers suddenly choosing to look at games in a certain way because they felt like it.

Criticism is a way of talking and thinking about games. Criticism is how something that was once only a matter of functionality and practicality like architecture grew to become art. Criticism is how an essential and almost primal act of expressing joy like dancing has become art. So unless you have a deep-seated conviction to become a gatekeeper for art, and keep games as far away from it as humanly possible, there is no place for arguments about subjectivity in game criticism. It’s an irrelevant observation, a comment meant to derail discussion and nothing more than rhetorical obstruction.

Game criticism simply has no place for subjectivity.

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