There are many traits by which you could differentiate a game critic from a typical board game enthusiast. Whether it‘s their ability to articulate how a game feels to play, or the analytical skill to name the reasons for their particular game experience. Sometimes it is just the talent to convey the emotional dimension of a game to their audience. However, the one thing that seems to be on the mind of most people is this: critics get review copies for free. A good enough reason to pay closer attention to what review copies actually mean for criticism.
I’ve heard people argue that critics become beholden to a publisher once they accept a review copy. That there would be a conflict of interest, if a positive review meant they might receive more games in the future at a significant discount or even for free. Therefore it is imperative for the critic to be transparent and unambiguously communicate if they have received a review copy for free. The audience has to be warned of a potential reviewer bias.
At first glance, this seems entirely plausible. Just like the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains; that alpha males always fight their way to the top of the wolf pack, or that there are exactly two sexes. All this seems plausible, but it is still nonsense.
The potential for a review-skewing bias shouldn’t be attributed to the reviewer’s assumed for more free games, but is far more likely to be affected by a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Among other things, it makes a person more likely to perceive an object they own as being more valuable and of a higher quality than one they do not. In practice, this means that if you buy a game yourself, you are more likely to overlook its flaws and emphasize its strengths.
So if you were actually invested in reviewers being more transparent about potential causes for bias, you would have to do this for games they bought themselves. The more interesting question is why transparency is so important in a critique in the first place.
The answer can be found in the relationship between the critic and the audience. Transparency is necessary when the critic wants to affect the behavior of the audience. Specifically: when they are trying to influence what their audience should or should not buy. The modern Internet age has even found a term for these types of critics: influencers. Transparency is a must the moment a critic acts as an influencer. There is nothing wrong with this. It simply describes a way in which criticism is presented.
The effectiveness of a critique depends on its credibility. It can, for example, be a result of how similar the critic’s taste is to that of their audience. I’ve heard people say they I should look for a critic who is closest to my own gaming tastes. However, a critique can also gain credibility because it offers analytical and argumentative substance. Do you feel tempted to buy a game because you relate to the critic’s gaming preferences, or do the arguments presented make you curious about the game? The dividing line between the two approaches is never quite clean, and it’s not uncommon for a reviewer to go one way or the other at times. That’s because influencers and reviewers are not opposing positions. Rather, they are two separate fields of work which can overlap, but do not have to.
However, this distinction is not a matter of quality, but of function. A review can serve as buying advice, or as a deeper, substantive examination of the game itself. An audience looking for purchasing advice in a review feels reassured by transparency and warned against possible manipulation by the reviewer. Just as we tend to have some reservations when talking to a salesperson in a game store, since they have a vested interest in selling us a game. Similarly we try to estimate whether the critic tries to sell us a game, if they have been given a review copy. The requirement to always note review copies also expresses how we understand our own relationship to the reviewer. Namely, as part of the influencer’s community whose views are respected because we relate to that person in one way or another.
So when you make review copies a topic of contention, it’s only superficially about journalistic integrity. At its core, it’s about the self-image of the reviewer, their work, and the people who consume that work.
Featured image by Tangi Bertin (https://unsplash.com/@tangib)