I know I just recently did an article about gamer types, and then turned around Monday and asked people to help me find my wife's wedding dress. I really should review a game here. But something just occurred to me, and I want to talk about it, so lucky you.
Game reviewers are not important. We think we are, but we're wrong.
We provide a service, and it's really not that much of a service, all things considered. We're the functional equivalent of your buddy who already owns everything. We tell you 'hey, that was fun,' or 'that game was stupid' or 'playing games designed for children is going to impede our ability to get laid,' but we don't tell you anything you couldn't find out for yourself if you just sat down and played the game. We're about as useful as the corner dry-cleaner, except that the cleaner can press your pants and all we can do is pontificate.
We are not book critics or movie critics. Book and film critics can discuss the various interpretations of themes and dialog. They can discuss hidden symbolism. They can analyze the artistry found in the books and films they review, and draw comparisons to how those things affect us in real life. They can analyze the human condition as presented in the films they watch and the books they read, and then relate those findings to broader themes.
You can't do that in board games. Board games are an industry created by nerds who wanted to play board games. As an artistic medium, board games are slightly less viable than cooking desserts, and slightly more artistic than bowling. Even video games have the capacity to contain more artistic depth than board games. Board games are all about the rules, and rules are inherently not artistic.
You could, of course, argue that the narrative a game relates might have some depth. I would challenge you on that point, though. The story and the theme could be presented in a novel, a film, or even a video game, and be an order of magnitude more effective. Without the rules, there's no game. You can't say the same thing about the story, especially because the story could change when players take a different course of action, and often, there's no story in games in the first place.
If we want discussions of games to be a critical medium, we need better games. I don't know if it's even possible to create a game where the theme is moving and powerful. I have trouble conceiving of a game that asks big questions and begs us to answer them. I am not sure how you would make a game that forces us to examine ourselves and the world around us. But I do know that if you want game reviewers to be game critics, we need to be talking about games where fun is less important than the powerful message, and frankly, I don't want to play those games. Unless I miss my guess, neither do you.
Game reviewers who talk about the artistry of a game, and try to discuss the finer points as if they were connoisseurs of fine wine, seem rather self-absorbed in a best case, and horribly deluded in a worst case. There is an artistry to creating a boxed product that will cause a group of players to interact on the same level in a competitive and entertaining environment, but readers, for the most part, don't care. You want to know if the game is fun. You don't want to know if the game will help you understand the horrors of modern war. You're not hoping that the game will present a symbolic tale of the classic hero's journey. You just want to know if, when you play it, you will have a good time.
Really, we're just a selling tool. Reviewers set ourselves up as a sort of information dispensary, trying to get publishers to give us products so that we can tell you how much we like them. We are a marketing expense, a debit in the advertising budget. We work for free games because it gets us free games, and we don't mind trading a couple hours of writing time if it means we get a 60-dollar game we didn't pay for. We're walking, talking Superbowl commercials, and better yet, we do it for peanuts.
But then, there's no reason we have to be important. We write because we like it, and you read what we write because you like it. If you stop liking it, you'll stop reading it, but we're self-absorbed enough that we'll write anyway. We'll pretend that there's some deeper meaning to the discussion, that our analysis is somehow improving the overall caliber of the human existence, and that's fine because we like writing it and you like reading it.
I honestly don't feel any reason that we need to be important. I play games to have fun, and I write about them because that's also fun. If I can give you a reason to want to read what I write, that's great, but it doesn't make me important (unless you were just about to jump out a window and one of my dick jokes made you laugh so hard you changed your mind).
I read lots of stuff by people who are doing their damnedest to be game critics instead of game reviewers, and they're having fun and people are having fun reading their unimportant nonsense, and I say more power to 'em. I think a lot of reviewers would be a lot happier if they quit pretending that we were a big deal, but then, lots of those people probably wish I would take myself a little more seriously.
Well, bad news - I'm not important. I'm a game nerd who enjoys bathroom humor. When that changes and I start to think I'm going to change the world by talking extensively about plastic goblins, I'll give it up and start painting gravestones as a symbolic outrage against the eternal nature of death.
And then I'll tell you if it was fun.
Matt Drake is a game reviewer and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated game reviews.