Credibility And The Relationship Between Publisher and Commentator
In my article A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011, I talked about how the incentives of board game reviewing discouraged individual commentators from exploring games in depth, explaining in part why A Few Acres of Snow was not identified as broken until much later, as fans of the game began to explore the game in more detail. However, the desire to get reviews out early is not the only factor that can compromise the quality of a commentator’s work. Both relationships and material considerations may impact a commentator’s ability to provide authentic content, but I think relationships have a much more interesting and pervasive effect, and one that directly leads to a lot of the material benefits that commentators can receive.
One thing that separates the board gaming community from other entertainment communities is its small size. Publishers frequently have only a dozen people, at most, working for them full time, and there is very little social separation from the top echelons of the industry to the bottom. It is very easy for the community at large to meet some of the more prominent names in the board game industry; a lot of the time, it is simply a matter of attending one of the conventions they also attend. Commentators in particular have an easy time of it, as they usually have had digital contact with designers and publishers in the past, and thus a basis for interaction. It is only natural, and really, unavoidable, that with this level of interaction, commentators and industry people will forge friendships based on mutual respect and shared interest in games. Unfortunately, these friendships can also introduce biases into the commentator’s work.
Designers and publishers are in the business of selling their board games, so it is only natural that, in addition to sending copies of a game to the most popular reviewers, who have the widest influence, they will also send them to commentators with whom they are friends (or, at least, with whom they have a history of positive interactions). If these friends are also popular commentators, all the better. Because each review copy is part of a publisher’s advertising budget, they figure that someone who is already favorably inclined towards them will be more likely to write a positive review, or at least less likely to produce something damaging. This also helps out the commentator, as they do not have to purchase the game, and it helps them to build their audience, as people tend to be most hungry for news about games immediately prior to or following release. Early copies allow commentators to time their review in such a way to maximize this impact.
Even when a close relationship does not bias a commentator towards producing positive commentary for a game, producing negative content can still induce guilt. Writing a poor review of a friend’s game is tough enough, but having to write something negative about a game that a casual acquaintance (or total stranger) sent you for free can also be tough. Because of the relatively small size of the hobby, most game designers are enthusiastic amateurs, and producing a negative review for their game can feel like kicking a small puppy. There is also a strong audience bias toward positive reviews of games, particularly on BoardGameGeek, that tends to reward positive reviews unless the negative review is presented particularly effectively.
I am not immune to the effects of these pressures. When I produced my first “Gamer’s Games of Essen” geeklist in 2010, Vital Lacerda, the designer of one of the games I discussed, messaged me and offered to send me an early copy of the Vinhos rulebook. I looked it over and offered some suggestions, and we have since become involved in various discussions, about gaming and otherwise. While not as many people read my reviews in 2010 as do now, it made sense for Vital to send me a review copy, as I was obviously favorably inclined towards him and seemed excited about the game. Luckily, I ended up liking Vinhos, but if I had ended up disliking it, I would have been in quite a quandry. Do I not write about the game? Do I try to hold back some of my negative opinions? I think the answer to each of those questions is no, but I do not really know, and will likely not know until I am put in a situation where I am forced to answer. I can definitely say, though, that I hope Vital continues to produce games I like, because I would feel bad writing a negative review of one of his games.
None of this changes the responsibilities commentators have to their audience and the board gaming public. However, it is very easy for commentators to get put into a position where there they have to decide between being a jackass to someone they know personally or lying to a generally faceless audience. Odds fall more heavily on the side of the people they know personally when these people are also providing them with material favors that could potentially help them grow their audience. However, these materials also add to the risk that a commentator may damage their credibility to the point where they are useful to neither their audience nor the publishers.
For those who provide analysis, both of gaming trends and games themselves, it is important that they provide authentic opinions, informed by the quality of the product rather than their opinion of the person making the product. If they fail to do this, they lose their value to their audience, as they become proxy marketers rather than fellow consumers. Arguably, they also become less useful for publishers, providing them with less–than-honest feedback and failing to encourage them to do better.
This is why it is important for analytic commentators to maintain a separation between their opinions of a game and the people involved in making said game. Even if it feels like you are hurting a friend or kicking a puppy when you write (or speak) negatively about a game to your audience, it is still important to be honest in order to maintain your credibility for your audience and to provide effective feedback for the people involved in producing the game. Nobody is served well by you praising a game that you do not believe in.