I guess things need to change

September 21, 2014

Statler&Waldorf I've been struggling a while with writing reviews. I love writing them. I love being critical and dissecting what does and doesn't work in games. It definitely helps me in my own creative endeavors to figure out why something is awesome and why something just doesn't feel quite right. So if I were just a reviewer, that would be the end of it. I would write reviews all day every day telling people which games I thought were terrible and which games should be enshrined in the temple of superlative game design. But I'm not just a reviewer anymore. I'm a game designer and game publisher and that entails cultivating relationships in the board game community. So now when I decide a game isn't so great, I have to think, "Well, if I write a review about this, am I going to be burning bridges?" And burning bridges is never a good thing for a publisher to be doing. Not only that, but will other people think I am just bashing the competition for some petty reason? If I write a good review, is it just because I want to cosy up to the publisher? All sorts of troubling issues of journalistic integrity have been cropping up around me since I started working on my own games, and it hasn't been sitting well with me. So let's talk about journalistic integrity. I think I can speak with some authority on the subject. I have a degree on my wall that says so (okay, well, it's in a drawer somewhere). Here are my thoughts: Reviewers are needed. Every creative field needs 3rd party opinions to help people decide what creative work is and isn't for them. Reviewers need to be impartial. Impartiality is absolutely key. Readers/viewers need to be able to take what a reviewer says at face value. They need to trust what the reviewer is saying. So what makes a reviewer biased? I guess it all comes down to the acceptance or expectation of favor (or the threat of disfavor). Obviously if someone pays you to do a review, then that review is biased. One would assume that you would feel bad if you took that money and then gave a bad review. Maybe you wouldn't, but the bias is there.
  • What if you just got the game for free for doing your review? That is okay, since you need the game to do your job. It's expected, so it's not favor.
  • What if it is made clear that you won't be getting any other games from a specific company if you do a bad review? That is a very real threat of disfavor, as it would fundamentally affect your job in the future.
  • What if you are reviewing a game made by a friend? Giving a friend a bad review could possibly damage that friendship, which is essentially a loss of favor, so that is most definitely a bias as well. More than that, if the friendship is public, people will suspect that perhaps the good review was done for favor. The perception is just as important as the reality in these situations because, again, it all comes down to trust.
For me, I feel the biases, both perceived and real, have become too great to continue writing reviews. And more than that, I feel that it is no longer my place to write reviews. There needs to be a divide between creation and evaluation and that's really all there is to it. Which is sad, because I think the board game community could do with more critical evaluation. It seems like most reviewers in the community have a policy of only doing positive reviews. If they don't like a game, they simply don't review it. That's fine, I suppose. The community is so small and insular, I think it is just easier to stay positive. That way you don't have to walk around conventions wondering who you've offended. Positivity certainly has a very important place in the community, but I truly think constructive negativity does as well. That is how people learn and make better games, which is really what it's all about.

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