Should criticism unlock games?

As the end of the year is slowly looming on the horizon, I thought I’d spend some time worrying about the future and speculating wildly. Right now, I wonder what form board game criticism might take in the years to come.

I am not too concerned about its historical legacy as consumer advocacy. There is no doubt that board game criticism has its origin in answering the question whether a game is „worth“ buying or not. In most cases a critic’s value judgement of whether a game is fun, is made under the assumption that saying so would encourage people to buy the game. In other words, board game critics still consider themselves responsible for whether their audience will feel good about a potential game purchase.

This often results in critics presenting the game in detail (particularly rules and components), and sprinkling it with some personal opinion. This is not ideal. But that is a form of board game criticism, that is most easily understood by many players, because it can be so readily applied to their roles as consumers.

But my concerns have more to do with a burgeoning format, that is also consumer-oriented but in a different way. At first it seems a more valuable and deeper form of criticism. It’s a format that dives into the game’s theme and fleshes out the connections between rules and theme, but also expands on it with additional content.

The aim is not turn these games into some educational tool or highlight their educational value. Even though this is often attribued to games, particularly those with a historical setting. But it’s been my impression that the actual potential for games to teach their themes, is rather small. Games can serve to illustrate certain ideas – if their mechanisms manage to outline a context for them. But it does need sufficient knowledge on the side of players to pick up on those connections and to contextualise them correctly.

Traditionally, it was simply assumed that players already had that knowledge. It was only when you brought this knowledge to the table, that a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the game could unfold.

This was most evident in games, that dealt with sufficiently documented topics (be it through non-fiction texts or novels). Once you sat down to play, your own limitations became almost painfully obvious. You were denied all subtleties, allusions and even larger contexts, because you knew too little about the subject the game referred to.

I think that many people’s interest in a game’s topic has had to do with this feeling. The idea that you can’t fully grasp the game until you have read up on its subject. Or to put it another way, the game presents an opportunity to apply specialized knowledge, which in turn will deepen and enrich the experience. Wanting to acquire this knowledge then, is as obvious as it is natural.

A game’s thematic depth is to a large extent fed by the imagination of its players, and by extension what they know about the theme. The more we know about a game’s theme (or related subjects), the more our imagination has to work with as we play. And the more thematic we perceive the game to be.

In classical, i.e. non-interactive, media, criticism fulfilled the role of a companion piece to our engagement with a text. Interpretations could be outlined. Alternative readings could be presented or the work could be placed (in writing, image and/or sound) in a specific cultural context. This would in turn emphasise one reading over another.

But games aren’t a medium like that. A game is not a medium defined by the content it transports or conveys. Instead it offers concepts, ideas and interactions to players, who are free to configure, interpret and fill them with meaning.

Game criticism can try to continue to be a companion piece to play. It can see itself as online content that expands and opens up the game’s theme for its audience. It can name historical references and processes. It can explain the peculiarities of the culture (real or fictional) the game draws from. It could be an aid to prepare players’ imagination to create a rich and immersive game experience.

Some critics already produce work in a similar vein in which they present their personal knowledge or research on the topic. Channels like Space-Biff or No Pun Included sometimes (unintentionally so) fill out the thematic negative space in the games, so that players don’t have to do it themselves. It’s a little like assembling people’s LEGO sets for them.

Following this approach to its conclusion, we end up with criticism as a form of game instructional for all those aspects of the game that aren’t rules. But by doing so, criticism expands the game’s content and steers the thematic effect it has on players.

For me, this would detract from what makes games special. Because it’s that personal engagement with the game, that makes it an interactive medium. This isn’t about games being less fun this way. But about what we actually need to do in order to play the game. Or in this case wouldn’t need to anymore.

When we play, we do more than simply interpret the game, its rules and theme. We apply our own framework of meaning to it. One that can go from “this is all just a game and what we say and do with it is inconsequential” to “we participate in a cultural activity in which we create fiction and treat it as real.” Or the countless other ways we can look at a game and engage with it.

This framework of meaning, as mentioned earlier, feeds on the knowledge players bring to the table. This knowledge can also include critiques that draw out thematic references and connections or have applied their own frames of meaning. I feel that in these cases criticism spoils the experience. It’s like adding a chapter to a novel or more scenes to a movie to highlight a statement of your choosing.

But maybe that’s exactly what some players are looking for. Games for which content creators provide explanatory texts and videos that take them by the hand. Because dealing with cultural artifacts or even art itself always runs the risk of you completely missing the mark. Or even worse: making a fool of yourself.

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