Reviewer Isolationism and the Hobbyist Landscape

Reviewer Isolationism in the Hobbyist Media Landscape

If you’ve been following anything about video game journalism over the past few months you’ve undoubtedly encountered the farcical story of Filip Miucin. If not, here’s the brief recap: He was an IGN Editor who was found to have plagiarised pretty much the entirety of the structure, tone and critical content of his recent review for (the excellent) Dead Cells. He was caught and in response he put up a (monetized) braggadocious ‘apology’ video that managed to make everything worse. He challenged people to find evidence that he’d plagiarised anything else and hoo boy, did people take him up on that. Anyway, his career is now in ashes and you know, that’s fair enough.

This isn’t really a blog entry about him, although maybe I’ll write something up about plagiarism at some point because as a career educator I have views on it. Views I have occasionally even worked up into papers, if you’re interested. (editor’s note – I did.)

No, this is the context that we need to appreciate a tweet from Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker in the wake of the event. I like John Walker a lot, and I recommend you give him a follow on Twitter if you’re interested in video games. He’s consistently one of the sharpest (and most contentious) voices in the industry. I’ve had a soft spot for his often caustic take on things ever since he lent his own platform for Rab Florence to speak out on what became known as the Eurogamer Incident. Anyway, here’s the two key tweets:

I think he’s right on the money with regards to the effect ‘researching’ other viewpoints has on coverage. It causes it to converge, often aggressively, to a kind of amplified crowd-sourced consensus of opinion. If a game is great, it becomes incredible by virtue of repetition of shared wisdom. If a game is bad, it becomes irredeemable – an offense against the hobby. The first mover advantage in game media means that a few influential voices early on can basically set the Overton Window around which the critical landscape will cohere. You’ll always have outliers and mavericks of course, but you can see the suggestion of this across the entire review ecosystem. Not just games, but books, movies and everything else besides.

That could very well be a mark of the relative maturity of the relevant industry. It could be reflective of the fact there is a reliability of execution upon which you can rely for certain kinds of entertainment goods. Or it could be that the money involved means that few people want to stick their heads out over the parapet to say something that goes against the grain. Few people lose their jobs by saying something uncontroversial. It’s not unknown for publishers to deny access to review material to outlets they can’t trust to provide positive feedback.

Lego chess set

The IGN incident has unfortunately become something of a blessing for those elements of the ‘gamer community’ that aligned themselves to the ‘public facing’ mission of Gamergate back in the day. For them it’s a profoundly visible sign of the rot at the heart of ‘game journalism’. For me though, I think it’s the opposite – I was heartened by how aggressively the entire media landscape turned against Miucin and how comprehensively IGN purged him from their site. That for me was symptomatic not of a broken system but rather of a system actually working how it should. A bad actor was identified. A bad actor was eliminated. It’s a success story, not a failure.

Still, those tweets…

There’s a lot to unpack in there.

It’s an interesting, albeit purist, viewpoint. Broadly I agree with it. Over the past year or so I have gradually stopped consuming board game media. That’s largely in an unexpressed acknowledgement of a fear that they might be biasing my own reviews. However, really there’s a deeper definitional issue that makes it difficult to be too enthusiastic in support for the argument.

  • ‘Reviews’ come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are possible to avoid
  • Reviews should contain some measure of critique, and critique is often strengthened by comparative research.

I’ve said in many posts that we are too free and easy with the word ‘review’. That’s the thing that has allowed people to rebrand paid reviews as ‘previews’ because we don’t have a strong link between the thing and the way we describe the thing. I’ve written elsewhere about what I would argue a review to be so I won’t rehash that discussion. Suffice to say though – not every review looks like a formal package of structured criticism. They don’t all come neatly labelled as they make their way to our attention.

Social media buzz can be a review. Did you know Root is amazing? That’s what I’ve heard, although I haven’t looked at a single review of the game. It’s the asymmetrical factions. The tense war-game mechanisms. The juxtaposition between theme and intensity of play. I know all of that, just because I haven’t been able to avoid the discussions. On one hand, I have siloed myself in an underground bunker – I have actively avoided seeing any review and have clicked away whenever I have stumbled upon one by accident. My views have still been textured though because reviews come from everywhere and arrive in many different forms. You don’t need to go out of your way to read a review of a Game of Thrones episode to have key elements laid bare by some random jackass.

It’s not that it’s impossible to avoid informal reviews, it’s just that I think the cost is too high to reasonably bear for someone that doesn’t do this for a living. It involves disconnecting from the hobbyist community in its entirety. No Reddit, no twitter, no Facebook. It involves isolation in its fullest sense and that’s massively detrimental. You lose the grounding of the community you’re supposed to be serving. If you’ve been assigned games in a professional capacity that need to be reviewed in a particular time-frame you probably can engineer the circumstances under which you avoid too many of these – for the short term.

But importantly, sometimes critique is a conversation. It’s comparative. Its comparative with regards to texts within a media landscape but a valuable part is also comparative with regards to competing critiques. You can think of 80% of formal criticism as being aimed at cross-referencing insights between cultural products. The other 20% is made up of bitchy subtweets from one critic to another. That’s sometimes so subtle and so interwoven into the criticism that you don’t even see it.

I think reviews run the risk of being shallower when they are entirely self-contained. One of the things I occasionally do when writing a review that goes against the common consensus is to read around to see what it is that I’m missing. When I can’t find anything that would be suggestive of a flaw in my thinking, I then address that bifurcation of opinion. My review of The Mind for example was part about the game. It was also part about a mesh of incentives, biases and competing complications. Those might account for why my view was wildly at odds with the wider reviewer landscape.

There’s a kind of ‘standard deviation of disagreement’ that I think is healthy between reviewers – it’s okay if I think a game is good when everyone else thinks its great. It’s okay if I think a game is mediocre when other people think it’s actively bad. I think a review needs to be self-reflective when it falls outside that standard deviation. It has to dig deeper, and it can only do that as part of a conversation with the wider body of review literature. You need to know where your review lands in comparison to others to do that.

Shelves of games from Romania

Walker says ‘my job is to report my experience and opinions of a game. And the moment I moderate or compromise these by reading the experience and opinions of others, I’m a hack’

It’s a strong statement, and I agree with it up to a point. I don’t agree that reading the experiences of others is the same thing as moderating or compromising your own. If you change what you were planning to say, then sure – that’s pretty hacky unless, you explicitly want to compare and contrast a divergence of viewpoints without changing your own sense of the thing You can add and refine your views without changing them in their core substance.

That’s a difficult tightrope to walk though, so, where is the line we need to follow? Here’s mine:

  1. I no longer read or watch reviews of games, unless I have already completed my own review.
  2. I use the unavoidable ‘informal buzz’ of ad-hoc social media review content as a perspective on how a game is being received.
  3. Where my review diverges with this informal buzz as I have understood it, I will read other reviews after I have written the substantive part of my own. You’ll find the times I’ve done this acknowledged in the text.
  4. I will adopt my findings of this reading into my own review in an attempt to deepen the context. It won’t change my opinions, but it will change my opinion about my opinion.

That works for me, and I think it’s about realistic a strategy as I can adopt without this being a full-time job. Is this though a reasonable standard for a hobbyist media landscape?

That’s something I’m not so sure about.

You know I bang on about review good practice and the ethics of this kind of thing a lot on this blog – that’s because one of my many research interests is in applied ethics. I’m fascinated by how people deal with ethical challenges and how they meet or subvert expectations. I don’t ascribe much of a moral aspect to this, and I think that’s often misunderstood when I write about the topic. People think I’m adopting a holier-than-thou perspective because of what they assume is my own sense of moral superiority. It’s not like that. Ethics and its application are just a kind of logic puzzle I’m trying to solve. How do we act ethically when the realpolitik of life gets in the way? I try to act in accordance with the ethical principles I outline in these blog posts but I occasionally fall short. That doesn’t make me bad. It doesn’t make anyone bad. It makes us human. Iin attempting to find a balance between the pragmatics of life and the purity of philosophy we can often learn a lot about ourselves and our hobbies.

There are problems with this review silo approach I’ve outlined. This is a largely (although not entirely) non-remunerated hobbyist landscape. There’s rarely anyone paying wages for the review content that is written. and few people who are earning enough to pay themselves anything. Our patreon for example covers only site expenses, although that does include some costs that aren’t strictly speaking necessary. Convention travel expenses for example. It doesn’t cover any one of us being paid for the work we do. A personal reward has to come from elsewhere, and it’s usually an intrinsic one – of feeding into and drawing from a community. Most reviewers think of themselves as offering a community good, and in order for that to be true it has to be reflective of the community. Engagement with that community is part of what it means to work in a hobbyist landscape.

That’s not inherently incompatible with the idea of ‘reviewer silos’, but that idea falls to pieces when you think of it in relation to board gaming. Review copies aren’t as omni-present as outsiders seem to think. For those that simply want to give back to a community, do you know what they do?

They review games they already own.

Do you know why they bought them?

Yeah.

Large board game set

Review material for board game sites is almost always, at least initially, drawn from an owned collection that was purchased likely on the basis of reviews from others in the community. That’s certainly how we started out, and I think 95% of board game reviewers will have a similar superhero origin story. Most of us don’t have dozens of brand new embargoed review copies available months ahead of publication. Most of the games we review will be comparatively old because here’s another problem – board games hold their relevance for a long time. In the past few months we have published reviews on games from 2018, 2015, 2013, 2010 and 2004. Of those, none were review copies – they’d all been bought for us to play, many of them because of existing ‘buzz’ or reviews that we’d seen.

Hobbyist media outlets usually aren’t rationing attention between dozens of review copies of the hottest new games. Some of the bigger ones might be, but the majority of us don’t have access to the contacts and audiences that would make that possible. It’s a lot easier to get a review copy for a game that has passed its initial hype phase than it is to get one for some new hotness. Review copies for smaller outlets are also sometimes based on availability – you get the games that publishers can spare because there is a logistical limitation. Review copies aren’t simply an electronic key for us. They’re physical properties that need to be posted out, and their supplies diminish. Nobody can just generate a new batch of copies when they’re all gone – they need to do a whole print run.

Coverage too tends to be at least partially convenience based – we need to get people together, and since nobody is getting paid for their time you have to work with the enthusiasms you have available. Some of the games I bought earliest upon entering the hobby still haven’t been reviewed because the stars have never aligned often enough for me to develop my views.

So how long do you avoid consuming reviews?

And importantly – for what games? How do you keep anyone from influencing you? Do you stop people at the table from saying why they like it? Do you pick games from a lottery rather than on the basis of group enthusiasm? All of those factors are potentially distorting and it’s an unavoidable complication for small outlets.

I think people reading a review that you write need to be able have trust in several things.

  1. They need to trust that your viewpoint is untainted by any undisclosed financial or personal complications.
  2. They need to trust that your viewpoint is sufficiently informed by expertise to be accurately reflective
  3. They need to trust that your viewpoint is clear, honest and authentically yours.

The first of these at least is easy to ensure. You solve that with disclosure and let people decide for themselves what impact the disclosure had on the review. Disclosure is never a bad thing and never a costly thing, which is why I always quirk an eyebrow when people kick so hard against it.

The second and third of these, well – they exist on a continuum and if you tug at one end you’ll end up dislodging the position of the other. Pure isolationism leads to reviews that lack a good chunk of what gives critique its value – conversations with other critics conducted in a way designed to enhance and enrich the audience understanding of the text. I’ve said in the past that all critiques are reviews but not all reviews are critiques. I think there’s a danger in isolationism that can undermine what the best reviews can do. Equally I think there’s a risk in intentional research that can indeed compromise the authenticity of your viewpoints.

The time to do that research is after the review work is done but before the final context is put around it. That way you know if your review content changes it is indeed a conscious act of diluting your own unique voice towards the homogeneity of peer pressure. If your review stays the same, all you do is further contextualise it and that doesn’t compromise anything of your own authenticity. Instead it layers in nuance.

It’s unreasonable to expect that I and others in this particular media landscape can avoid ‘spoilers’ with regards to reviews. It’s not though an unreasonable goal for which to strive. And increasingly that’s what I’m trying to do for our coverage. I’d be very interested in hearing your views.

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