Whenever an old game from 30-40 years ago gets reprinted, there will always be a chorus of people who just don’t get it. Maybe their tastes just don’t jive with those of the 1980s, or maybe they just get tired of hearing people gush that their favorite game is back in print. Either way, the complaints will eventually migrate from griping about luck and game length, to complaining about the game’s fans. What moron would like a game like this? Why did we wait so long to get this game back in print? Why are people so excited? They are clearly blinded by (cue dramatic sting) NOSTALGIA. And sometimes, it cuts the other way. If a reprint contains a couple dramatic changes, fans of the old game will complain about the new changes. Fans of the new version will again say that the old guard is complaining just because of nostalgia. Call the former “Talisman Syndrome” and the latter “DungeonQuest Syndrome.”
That accusation rankles me for a variety of reasons. I don’t much like the implied insult that people aren’t capable of seeing past their own memories to make an informed opinion. But what really mystifies me is this: why is it a bad thing to like or dislike a game based on nostalgia? Heaven knows there are games that I like now almost totally based on my memories of enjoying the game in the past. If I discovered Ticket to Ride today, I would probably not give it a second look. But I discovered it when I got into the hobby, and I still retain a fondness for it even after my own tastes have moved on. Sometimes fond memories will cover up a multitude of shortcomings, and a game will still be great fun. If someone is having fun playing a game, no argument about mechanics or whatever will overcome that fact.
The argument against nostalgia points to a larger attitude that we see all the time in the board gaming world: we aren’t comfortable admitting that it is in emotional pursuit. Sure, lots of people will point out how much they like a game because it makes them think. And we like to pretend that our thoughts on games are the final word in the hobby. We like to believe that our pastime is one where logic and objectivity rules the day, and anything that violates that is incomprehensible.
But everywhere you look, you see that gaming is an emotional pursuit. If someone likes the thinky cerebral part of a game, it’s because it thrills them at a certain level. It’s the same principal as when someone gets a charge from roleplaying and rolling a natural 20. Both are perfectly good reasons to like a game, but both are emotional responses. We don’t play a game because it's great, it’s great because we play it. The quality of a game is not wrapped up in some Platonic ideal that exists outside of ourselves. The greatness of a game is subjective.
And sometimes, there just isn’t a reason for why we like a game. Several months ago, I played my first game of Caylus with a couple friends. I was prepared to be bored to tears, pulled down by endless rounds of cube-pushing. Turns out, I liked Caylus. I found myself engaged for the entire game, and the strategic decisions were compelling. It was abstract to a fault, but I didn’t mind. I was swept up in the mechanics. A second game confirmed my suspicion: I enjoyed myself quite well. It seems strange for someone who usually seeks drama and narrative to enjoy such a game, but there it was. I would have to play a couple more times to figure out my opinion, but for the time being I’m willing to chalk it up to simply being one of those things.
This seems like an obvious point, right? We already make all entertainment choices based on emotion, or at least logic based on emotional knowledge. We like whatever movies we like, watch stupid TV shows, and root for terrible sports teams. We like to call them “guilty pleasures,” as is we’re ashamed that our own tastes don’t follow a direct progression. But we at least accept it as a fact of life in the media we consume and enjoy.
And yet, as gamers, we’re uncomfortable with this part of ourselves. We have a hard time accepting that other people will like a game simply because they liked it when they were children. We don’t want to admit that our favorite games might not be the best for everyone, so we argue over which one is objectively better. Some people even like to complain that a reviewer didn’t approach a game “objectively,” even if that completely flies in the face of what a meaningful review is.
It’s this refusal to acknowledge our feelings that holds the hobby back. A new gamer who loves Monopoly might love to learn Puerto Rico, but he may never try if someone informs him that he’s been wrong about one of his favorite games all these years. And if we worship at the altar of mechanics, we discredit the other part of games that make them fun. A good auction can make a game enjoyable, but so can narrative, setting, components, interaction, or some mysterious x-factor that we don’t quite understand. A game’s greatness is not the product of a formula. If it were, we’d all have the same favorites.
Don’t misunderstand me; I am not advocating some squishy let’s-all-hold-hands viewpoint. One problem with the current field of game criticism is that we are too gentle. Phrases like “not for me” or “not my cup of tea” are far too prevalent in game writing. That’s not just shoddy criticism, it’s shoddy writing. And I have never cared for the classic forum defense of “that’s just your opinion.” Well of course it is. The point of discussion about art is not to convince other people, although that certainly happens. The point is to understand why we feel the way we do, and to learn how to understand other people. That some people are incapable of doing that without acting like children is a fact of the internet, but that doesn’t mean it has to make up the bulk of the dialog. This is particularly true in gaming, which I suspect is probably one of the most over-educated hobbies out there.
But maybe we’d get a little closer if we could admit that we aren’t always using our heads when it comes to games. Instead, our heads arrive at a place where they understand our heart. That’s the first step not only to civilized discourse about games, but also to a vibrant varied community that embraces all styles of games.
Check out more circular logic at The Rumpus Room, if you feel like yelling at your screen.