An occasional topic of conversation with which I engage on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms relates to the norms of journalism in game related spaces – specifically, what I’ve come to think of as the New Boardgame Journalism. All apologies to Kieron Gillen for that, because I undoubtedly massacre his points with my uninformed take on it.
A few months ago, Justin Davis – an editorial manager for IGN – asked around for writing samples to seed some IGN features on modern tabletop games. He got plenty of them, at least judging by his followup tweets. He wasn’t hugely impressed. ‘Too much focus on rules’, he said of most of them. ‘Not enough opinion’. ‘Every paragraph needs to be evaluative’. His advice was, I think, spot on. I just don’t think it was advice that would result in a lot of fans in the area of tabletop coverage.
For those more familiar with the media conventions of video game spaces, the expectations of tabletop gamers are… well, they’re sometimes kind of weird. And old-fashioned. Regressive. And a little bit disheartening.
‘Just tell me the rules, I’ll work out for myself if the game is fun’, claim a legion of ‘nerdier than thou’ gaming savants. I sometimes can’t answer that question after playing a game.
‘I don’t want a review, I want a playthrough’, say an army of ludic voyeurs apparently able to distil cool detached observation at a distance into meaningful appreciation of how a game feels to play.
‘I don’t care that you had fun with your friends, how good is the card stock?’
‘TELL ME ABOUT THE INSERT’
‘This review is too subjective.’
And so on, and so on. In short, it’s exactly like video game coverage used to be in the days of the ZX Spectrum. ‘The graphics are good’, ‘the sound is nice’, ‘the controls are intuitive’, and a whole pile of other largely nuance-free judgements on the nuts and bolts of how a game is presented. This is, I think it’s fair to say, what the largest proportion of board-gamers want from their board-game media. Just the facts, ma’am.
It’s not that this is a bad way of discussing games although I would certainly make a case for that. It’s that I think it’s a completely inappropriate way of discussing games. It’s too shallow, too easy, and doesn’t actually capture what makes games important as their own cultural units. It’s like being an art critic and talking about the frame rather than the framing. It’s like talking about the paint and not the painting. There’s a role for these things to be some part of the discussion. In the end though I’d hope we can agree to talk about that alone would miss out on why art matters.
Kieron Gillen is often credited with being the originator of the ‘New Games Journalism’ – a school of thought that aimed to crystalise a philosophy of what it means to cover games in media. He was really just someone that came along and made an attempt to formalise some of the better practices that had grown up over the decades that turned a hobbyist press into a professional industry. His ‘manifesto’ on this is well worth reading even if a mere year later he started to push back against how it had been interpreted. In his first article he elegantly captures something that, at least for me, encapsulates the job of anyone writing about games.
Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that inspiring? Isn’t that the most romantic way you could possibly describe what it means to tell people about games?
I have been to magical places, reader, and let me tell you the things I have seen. Ooo, it sends shivers up and down my spine. It is undoubtedly one of the most formative things I ever read about games media. It’s clear from the writers and videographers I admire most that they too were influenced, perhaps not even consciously, by this same proposition.
Now, I’m not going here to try and argue as to the merits of otherwise of the New Games Journalism as a formal method. For one thing, I’m not a journalist and I don’t have the necessary background to comment. I know that the manifesto ended up being an enabling document for essentially permitting a form of pretentious literary onanism to permeate through game criticism. I know it explicitly empowered opaque symbolism to take the place of clear expression. I know the idea was used, abused and misused from day one. I know it also received a fair bit of criticism for seemingly advocating for the role of the writer over the game.
I know all of this, but it doesn’t change the value in the central point of the whole philosophy.
I’m not a journalist so I don’t like to use the term ‘game journalism’ to cover what I do. I think of myself as a game academic. I think of this blog as a series of research annotations, not a contribution to the ‘media landscape’. But still. ‘We are travel journalists to imaginary places’. I think we do a disservice to visit these wonderful lands and come back only with reports on traffic and the quality of the B&B we visited. That might be part of it, maybe even an important part. Mainly though it should be our job to explain to people what it means to visit. That is always going to be informed by personal experience.
I’m not going to argue here that the writer is more important than the game, but I will say that I believe in good game coverage the writer is inextricably linked to the review. A good review should be an intensely personal testimony – it shouldn’t be possible to replicate it by copying and pasting from a game’s manual. If your review reads as indistinguishable from a Wikipedia page, I would argue that something has gone wrong along the way. I have read and watched many, many reviews of many, many games. The only ones I remember are the ones where the writer seemed to be speaking from the perspective of personal experience. Game reviews simply can’t be objective, so we need to be better about how we talk about the subjective. We shouldn’t see this as a weakness of the medium, we should see it as its most valuable property.
A disclaimer here since this post is about to enter into some tricky territory – I’m not claiming here that what I write for Meeple Like Us is an exemplar of how people should approach game reviews. Believe it or not, I’m really not that arrogant. I appreciate many people find my wording obtuse and the writing long-winded. I’m fine with that – I’m writing for an audience I assume to be made up of largely people like myself. People that like to read and have no concerns for long-form and often meandering content. If that’s not you, that’s absolutely fine (but well done for making it this far). Not everything has to be written for every person. I write the reviews I would like to read. Buzzfeed style listicles or a few perfunctory passages of rules explanation leave me cold, but that doesn’t mean the Internet should bend itself towards my whims. Especially when it seems like you’d end up actively acting against what is most appreciated by the audience for which you are writing.
What I think Meeple Like Us does show however is an evolution of an approach to games reviews that perhaps exemplifies some of the features that I believe should be a general expectation. Recently I’ve been redoing some of the oldest photographs on the blog – the ones I took when nobody was reading and I had no expectation anyone would read. As part of that I’ve also been reading over some old reviews and… wow, they’re kind of rough. There’s way too much about rules, way too much about the mechanisms of play, and not nearly enough about the feeling of play. It gets better, by the benchmarks I apply to the work I do. It’s still not good enough and probably never will be.
You can see though the work moving towards something – a more reflective, introspective consideration of games that is only incidentally related to their mechanics in their bureaucratic form. More and more, I like to write about how games feel to play and how mechanisms work together to create those feelings. Within tabletop games we’ll never escape the need to talk about rules and components, but we can escape the trap of only talking about rules and components.
I’m not at all claiming that all board game media is doing that. The exceptions to that statement are as varied as the games themselves. Shut Up and Sit Down are basically the Monty Python of board games and everything they do is immersed in subjective and personal experience. Rab Florence of Cardboard Children used to write reviews that were more like introspective essays. Paul Dean of Shut Up and Sit Down wrote a tremendously meaningful review of Stardew Valley that, while not about a board game, is a perfect example of the New Games Journalism and why it often produces work of genuine, lasting meaning. The common thread here is not that they are masturbatory exercises in self-indulgence, but they put the experience and the perception of experience at the core of the work. Where rules and components come into the discussion it’s in relation to how it impacts on this central feature. ‘The paper money is poor’, is an old, desiccated way of approaching a review. ‘The paper money is terrible because it makes you feel like you’re paying for everything with food coupons’. That’s the same key point but related to the experience. I think the latter is better in every meaningful sense. Importantly though this isn’t a philosophy that needs to be applied to any individual sentence but to the intent of the piece as a whole. It should inform the key takeaway you want people to have of what you write.
I think it’s important in trying to cast the New Games Journalism for a tabletop audience not to think of it as a formal school. It was never really intended for that. Instead, it has its greatest value as a lens. It makes sure that the focus of the work is on what matters in games – an experience that is subjective and personal. It means not talking about the games, but talking about the gamers. Even in this, moderation is important. This isn’t a philosophy that works for purists. Purism in this leads to work that is indulgent, non-representative, obscure, and unhelpful. We are travel journalists to imaginary places, and our job is to tell people whether it’s worth visiting. We can’t do that by focusing purely on ourselves. We have to try and marry our own experience to that which is generalisable. As a perspective though – as the dominant perspective that informs out work, it puts the experience at the centre of the evaluation.
Within tabletop games, we have an additional wrinkle – video games can be presented holistically as a single chunk of experiential content. We have no role in shaping that for the most part – we are on rails, and while those rails may go many places we cannot ever explore that which has not been laid down for us. That’s a useful feature if you want to tell people of what you’ve seen because, if things go to plan, they could very well see the same things.
That’s not so true in tabletop games because we are the interpreters and facilitators of the experience and the social context of that is impossible to replicate. We’re the ones that take the rules and convert them into mechanisms. We’re the compilers of fun – we take the instructions and execute them for the benefit of all. As such, a New Games Journalism as applied to tabletop experiences has to also be cognizant of the fact that games are formal systems applied by often fallible people. Those formal systems though are only really understandable in terms of how they create and facilitate experiences. We execute and track game state. We commune with these systems and it’s absolutely right that we talk about how these systems work. It’s just… we always have to remember why it matters. It matters because the people playing matter. The mechanisms in isolation mean nothing. Where they come together with an group of people, that transmutes into playability and that’s something much more interesting.
Where the player intersects with the aesthetics of the game we start to see something else important emerging – a sense of immersion and of appreciation. In a video game immersion is a property more properly viewed as part of the experience, but it’s difficult to have interactive verisimilitude in a tabletop game because the systems tends to be a much more abstract proposition. There are relatively few games, although they do exist, where the mechanisms are likely to contribute to the visceral feeling of immersion. Immersion tends within this space to mostly, even if not fully, be confined to the intersection between aesthetics and the player appreciation of these aesthetics.
On a Venn diagram them, we might think of it looking a bit like this:
This isn’t intended to be exhaustive or exclusionary – there are outcrops and overlaps and not everything is neatly confined to these intersections. If we were to think of a New Boardgame Journalism though then we can see where the heart of the work has to exist – it has to exist in the intersections with the player. The player alone – no. Too obviously self-indulgent. Too obviously pretentious. Elevates the singular over the universal and the personal over the public. It’s hugely important though to make sure the player is part of what we write if we are going to do our jobs. Playability and immersion are important parts of the overall package, but it’s talking about experience that truly gives us the sweet spot where we start to tell people the real stories about the imaginary worlds that we have visited.
The best reviews leave us feeling meaningfully changed even if we never ourselves plan to go any farther. A good rules explanation is educational – it tells us how we play a game. A good review is more powerful. It tells us why we should, or shouldn’t, play a game. A reviewer’s job isn’t to make you spend money – it’s to save you money. More importantly, a reviewer’s job is also to save you time. A good review as such should save you the time of visiting places you don’t want to go so you have more time to spend in the places you do. A friend of mine used to tell me fascinating stories of wars and espionage in Eve Online. I knew I didn’t want to spend any time playing the game but I was very interested in the stories he had to tell. I love the story of Boatmurdered but I know Dwarf Fortress is not for me. There’s a lot of this in video game writing and video game reporting – personal testimonies that expose the value but don’t get me booking my tickets for the trip. There’s not nearly as much of it in boardgame coverage and I think that’s a massive shame.
The best work I have seen in this arena isn’t actually about the games – it’s about what the games facilitated in the wider context of the writer’s life. They all sum up to the same basic observation – ‘games matter, because the people with whom we game matter’. They capture the intangible and make a spirited attempt to convert into meaning. The best reviews, again in my opinion, can be appreciated without reference to the specific because they turn the comparative workaday observations about ‘this game’ and give them a resonance of authenticity that is universal. When you read a good review you should come away thinking ‘Nobody else could have written that’. A good review will have personality because personality is in large part a sum of our life experiences.
Again, I stress once more – I’m not saying that this is something that I accomplish with my reviews. Instead I’m saying that this is aspirational – this is the philosophy I am trying to bring out in the work I do. I fail more often than I succeed, but this is what I am trying to accomplish. I also stress that I don’t think this is a philosophy that works if you’re planning to follow it as a purist, and I would hate if this were the only way people spoke about games. I think though it should be an important part of the default of how we speak about games. Note here that I’m talking mainly about reviews as something distinct from formal critiques. Critique is often missing from reviews in any case but the New Game Journalism doesn’t represent a strong platform for more academic discussion of gaming properties. Instead they are ideally viewed as vignettes of real, emotional meaning. The New Boardgame Journalism couldn’t ever be all there is, but I’m always very glad when it’s a big chunk of what’s there.
Finally, if anyone reading this is feeling attacked or wondering if this is an elaborate long-form subtweet – probably not! The simple fact is that like everyone I read and watch the content I enjoy, and the fact that I would prefer media coverage to work in this way doesn’t mean that I think anyone else is wrong for doing anything else. My opinion in this is just that – my opinion. It’s important to write for your audience. I don’t necessarily have to be part of that and you’re not doing anything wrong by not conforming to my weirdly specific preferences.