In part one of this now two-part series of articles, I wrote down my thoughts on whether review copies lead to bias. Regardless of how you might feel, at some point somebody will inevitably ask what review copies are for, exactly. In theory, game criticism could exist without them. Unless a review copy directly boosts sales, there’s no reason for publishers to hand them out. At least according to people who consider themselves particularly SMORT.
Review copies, however, allow for criticism to include more than just the perspective of a potential buyer. It can help broaden our understanding of games and lead to a deeper appreciation of the medium, but also a wider reach.
After all, if you buy a game you’re inevitably a consumer. From a publisher’s point of view, your opinion and assessment of the product is simply a more potent type of word of mouth. It’s a publicized consumer recommendation to attract new consumers.
However, if a reviewer receives a game at no cost to themselves, their verdict is either proof of the game’s quality or an indication of how successful the game will be within a particular market segment. Instead of functioning as an advertising tool, criticism can serve as a form of market research. If the reviews are positive, you can promote the game expecting increased, if not even long-term, sales. (Something that came up in a German-language podcast, I participate in here).
A capable salesperson in a game store will advise customers in a way that encourages them to return to this store in the future. As a critic, you can choose to follow the same path, even if this isn’t what being a critic is about. An effective marketing initiative will make potential customers curious about a product and consider buying it. A critic can also do that, but students that hand out flyers at least get paid for doing practically the same job. There’s no reason why a critic should pass on that money. Even if this also doesn’t get at what critics actually do.
The most defining feature of a critic’s work is to voice how a game is and can be talked about. A critique is always a reflection of contemporary gaming culture. It’s an expression of what games can do, what they stand for, and what we consider worthwhile about them.
Those who wonder if we really need review copies to do that, might be too comfortable never expanding their horizons. It is not impossible to imagine that criticism could fulfill its function even without review copies.
After all, there are enough gamers out there, who are observant and talented enough to write good reviews. And there are of course enough gamers out there, who have the means to play new games several times and in different groups in a short time. There are even those who have (or are willing to expend) the financial resources to buy all the relevant and promising game releases each year.
However, the overlap of these three distinct groups is fairly small. It is also very likely to be white, male, and part of the upper middle class. This is not meant as an indictment, but mere observation. It should be no surprise that such a homogeneous group will illuminate only few select facets of the medium. We need different perspectives.
Review copies can help soften one of those barriers, keeping out new perspectives. They enable gamers to step up as critics without paying the high price of admission. It lets them switch from consumer to critic. Board games can only establish themselves as cultural media if we talk about them as such. For this we need a critical debate that includes as many different and varied voices as possible.
Photo by BP Miller on Unsplash