Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Whole Lot of Nothing

I've always been ambivalent about rating games. My first instinct was that it was impossible, pointless, and probably not healthy. Why should I assign a number to something as fluid and mysterious as the fun of a game? It would be like bar-coding butterflies, or keeping a tally of how many chews I got out of a piece of gum. After all, the one necessary ingredient of any game is enthusiasm, and enthusiasm feeds on itself; to nail such a thing down would be to stunt its growth and my own. If I played a game, thought it was okay, and assigned it the number 'six', how could I ever get caught up in the fun of playing it again knowing that somewhere in the distance there were supposed to be seven, eights, nines and tens? Conversely, could an assignation of a 'nine' keep me from letting go of something when it was time to move on? Would I owe a debt of loyalty to a cardboard box?

In time, though, I saw that the ratings do have their uses. They are a helpful way to define one's thoughts about gaming, and a very easy way to convey that information to others. I could write a whole essay on the balance between control and chaos or work expended versus points gained, or I could just tell you that Euphrat & Tigris is an eight and Taj Mahal is a nine, and from that you could probably peg what sort of gamer I am and would know whether you would ever want to sit at the same table with me.

So for a while it was something that I enjoyed working at, as it was a way of defining an aesthetic which seemed so clear and yet was not so easy to put into words.

The catch is that there are sucky things in the world, or stuff that I just don't happen to like, and so, regardless of the positivity in the original intention, once I started assigning numbers to games, some stuff had to wind up in the bottom half of the scale. What could I do? If I don't like something, what else can I say except that I don't like it?

Certainly I could just shut up and say nothing, but there was trap set in all of this, which is that little bit of vanity in me which would like people to take my opinions seriously. I mean, anyone can say "I like this and this and this," but the follow-up question that no one wants to hear is "fine, but who gives a rat's ass?" If one wants to be discerning, one needs to know both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, and if one wants to be perceived as discerning, one needs to illustrate that knowledge. After all, if I only tell you which ten games I like, you'll never know whether I like those games because they're good or if I like them because I like everything I play and those are the ten games that I've happened to play.

So, as I said, in addition to the earnest and well-intentioned recommendations of games that I liked, I also gave bad ratings to games that I didn't like. Why not? It all makes sense, in an abstract, mule-headed sort of way.

And yet...I often felt a twinge of guilt when the subject of negativity came up in the various online fora devoted to our hobby. One comment that particularly struck me was something which my blogmate Yehuda said last month: "I think this is a great lesson in life, and one of the hardest. You must always ask yourself before you say anything negative: Why am I speaking? What am I trying to accomplish?" I immediately agreed with this thought, and in fact I felt that I could have written the same words myself, but in hearing this idea from someone else, I was suddenly struck by the question of whether had I ever really taken the advice to heart.

Was what I was doing really serving any purpose? I'm not so sure.

In reading other people's opinions online, one thing has made itself aggressively clear to me: there is no hobby game so inimical to my tastes that there isn't someone out there who loves it to death. Now, inasmuch as the hobby ought to be about having fun, and inasmuch as you believe what I said above about the one necessary ingredient to any game being enthusiasm, am I doing more harm than good by publicly knocking games for no reason? Sure, if someone asked me a direct question about whether I liked something, I would say so if I didn't, because presumably the person only asked me because they knew my tastes, knew that they jibed with their own, and were interested in hearing what I had to say; however, to just leave a judgment of "three out of ten" hanging out in cyberspace might turn someone away from something they could have really enjoyed.

The counter-argument, I suppose, would be that negative comments help steer people away from mediocre or bad stuff, but I've come to the realization that that is not my function in life. If you're a person who feels that he or she can't afford to take a chance on buying a game that he might not like, my advice to you is to not buy anything and to enjoy the games that you already have.

So, the upshot of this whole long, boring thing is that I ditched most of my low ratings on BGG, and toned down the comments that were left behind so that they were more expressive of a point of view rather than a judgment. In short, I think I would rather base the way I use the ratings on a recommendation model rather than on a critical one; the message can be "this is what I like" instead of "this is what I think." Maybe on seeing the absence of that pleasing bell curve some people will doubt whether I am a critical thinker, and so may not take what I say very seriously, but, well, so what?

I must admit, though, that I did keep a couple of lowish ratings for games that I actually own. For some reason I feel like if I shelled out for a game and it's still cluttering up my shelf I have the right to thumb my nose at it a little. I might change my mind about that later, though; maybe I'll make 'six' the cutoff point, or 'seven', or 'eight', or maybe I'll just wipe it all out entirely.

I'll finish this little bit of nothing by saying that all this isn't intended to be a put-down of critics, even ones who are habitually negative. A good critic can be a very useful person; a good critic will let the reader know his frame of reference, his standards, and the logic behind his statements. If you disagree with a good critic, you at least know why and can apply your knowledge of your two different frames of reference to what that person says and get predictable results. An excellent example of a good critic is, of course, Chris Farrell, whose experience, insight and writing skills make for some great reading, if you happen to share his aesthetic. Most importantly, he has a good set of priorities, I think: he just wants something that's interesting, replayable and fun. Me too!

Unfortunately, the mistake I made is in thinking that just because a good critic is a useful thing to have, everyone ought to play the critic. I don't think that's true, or at least I don't think it's true for me. As much as I'd like to, I don't have the time or mental space to do justice to that role. I still want to continue to write critically about games, but only about those for which I can claim to have some enthusiasm; probably my writing is most worthwhile when I'm getting people excited about playing games and not the reverse. That I can make time for.


Anonymous said...

I think it's fine to give a game you don't like a bad rating on BGG, or even to post a bad review. In some ways BGG is like a big survey, and it's expected and encouraged that your answers are as honest and complete as can be, in order to make the survey accurate. What bugs me is when people go out of their way to post a negative review in places it doesn't really belong, like as a reply to someone else's favorable review or session report, or even just a passing reference in some forum (e.g. whenever someone mentions Fluxx). It's one thing to dislike a game, but it's another to actively bash it and try to dissuade others from liking it, which I totally don't see the point of.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I pretty much agree with what Doug said.

If everyone just rated all of their 6+s, I think it might actually ruin the ratings at BGG. Right now, a game with 2 10's and 2 1's would be rated a 5.5, while a game with 4 8's would be rated an 8.0. I'd wager that the 8.0 is generally a much superior game to the 5.5, which appeals to a very narrow demographic, and I'd hate to see that lesser game rated a 10.0 because no one was willing to give a 5-.

I also make a point of reading both the top and bottom ratings when I'm considering buying a game, as I find peoples likes and dislikes alike very useful.

But to each their own.

Joe Gola said...

Certainly people can do what they want. I'm not suggesting that anyone follow my example, and I wasn't trying to be judgmental of anyone else, only myself.

I do understand that the negative ratings, if commented, can be very useful to people who are game-shopping, but there are plenty of folks who are willing to provide those, so no harm is done if I opt out (though I did actually keep the comments; I thought I would let the reader be the judge as to what "number" they translated to).

As far as owing something to the accuracy of the agglomeration of opinions of relative merit between people who have not sampled the same set of games is a pretty unscientific survey, to put it mildly. The data pollution caused by even ten people leaving out the low range of their ratings is comparable to the ecological impact of me taking a whiz in the Gowanus Canal.

Shannon Appelcline said...

The data pollution caused by even ten people leaving out the low range of their ratings is comparable to the ecological impact of me taking a whiz in the Gowanus Canal.

Oh, definitely. I was just making an "if this goes on comment".

If the lack of negativity makes your life better, more power to you.

Anonymous said...

I find it strange that people give any value at all to composite ratings. Rating systems are subjective; if they were objective, someone would by now have written a mathematical formula to calculate the rating and saved the rest of us a bunch of trouble (but then you just know game designers would eventually try to game the system, creating games designed solely on their ability to score well). My beef with composite ratings is that they give every rater an equal voice, including the guy that likes everything, the other guy that hates everything, and the third guy who thinks there is no such thing as a '10' board game. If I think an ‘8’ is one thing and you think it’s something else, what is our ‘8’ supposed to mean? And given that 95%+ of all ratings are made by people who you will never meet or play games with on a regular basis, why should their numerical opinions even matter at all? I’d weigh a rating given by someone I regularly play with a million times over that of the masses simply because of the fact that I play with them regularly. For the rest, you can basically narrow down these ratings into three broad categories: those games a lot of people generally like, those games a lot people think suck and the other 99% of games in existence. I pity those who would stoop to buying a game merely because of a composite rating; they might as well buy a game because the box is of a certain size, or worse, because it has a 'Mensa' sticker on it.

So why bother rating games at all then? I personally find ratings useful, but only on a narrow, individual basis. I like to look at an individual's ratings when I am first getting to know a player. Their ratings give me two valuable pieces of information: that they've played the game they rated (which I admit could be a big assumption) and that they prefer certain games over others. That they rated a game an '8' doesn't mean anything in itself. It's that they rated one game an '8' and another game something other than an '8' that matters. The more games they've rated, the easier it is for me to try and ascertain their tastes in games. It helps me find games from my collection that they haven't played but they are likely to enjoy. And if introducing games to players that they might actually enjoy isn't a service to our hobby, then what is?

I have to admit, this idea of self-censoring because it might put someone off seems to me to be a touch unethical. I would go as far as to say that if you are going to put your opinion out into the ether, you have to duty to yourself and your audience to warn them of the negative as well as to point out the positive. To do any less is, well, dishonest. Are you willing to take on the burden of knowing there are people out there who are going to make the mistake of buying a bad game simply because you didn't tell them not to? What about the responsibility for the person out there who buys a game based on your positive recommendation, not knowing that you're holding back your punches?

It’s easy to forget that opinions, in the grand scheme of things, not worth very much (mine included). Most humans have the capacity for critical judgment; to suggest that negative advice somehow has the power to bend the will of others seems condescending. It has been my experience that people tend to take only the advice they agree with, and that in fact, people seek advice only to confirm what they already believe in their hearts to be true. So in theory, panning a game would have as little of an affect as pushing a game. People who don’t buy your arguments are still going to end up buying the game, and those who do probably won’t. If anything, you may have informed them of the existence of a game that may otherwise not have hit their radar, which I think does a service to our hobby, regardless of the opinion.

Joe, I think you're doing yourself a great disservice by leaving out your low ratings. What can people possibly learn from your remaining ratings? That you like everything (which IMO would defeat the purpose of rating altogether)? Or that a '4' for you is like a '1' for other people? Please put your low ratings back. Who knows, someday you may end up playing games at my table, and I’d hate it if ended up playing a game you didn't like. And feel free to take my advice with salt at a dosage of your choosing, at least until I’ve perfected my mind control device.

Joe Gola said...

Thanks for the detailed post, Kevin! Something I can sink my teeth into.

Regarding ratings being information for potential face-to-face opponents, that's a sword that cuts two ways. I like to meet new people, and I would be quite happy to play non-preferred stuff if it meant an opportunity to connect with more gamers. However, I could easily see a situation where a local guy looked at my ratings and said "well, I'm not even gonna bother to contact this Joe Gola, since he doesn't like the stuff that I'm into."

As far as my responsibility to the game-buyer, I feel that the possibility of my turning someone away from something that they might have enjoyed is a heavier burden than my failing to warn them about something they might dislike. After all, some of the games that I dislike are pretty damn popular, even among people who share my tastes. Think what my friend Mary Weisbeck would have missed out on if I had talked her out of trying Torres (though actually that would have been impossible under the circumstances since she introduced the game to me).

I agree that advice doesn't necessarily have the power to alter someone's will, but I do believe that even a little negativity has the power to drain people's enthusiasm. That's not to say that I would praise a game I didn't like, though.

As far as what people can learn from my remaining ratings, people are going to see those ratings one of two ways: they can see them individually looking at a game page, or they can see them all at once through my profile page. In the former case the ratings send the same message regardless of whether the low ratings exist or not. In the latter case, they'll either have faith that I'm a crtical thinker or they won't. It's nice if they do, since I do take the ratings seriously, but it's okay if they don't. That's really the whole point: I used to be more willing to be vocal about my dislikes because I felt it helped to lend me credibility, but I feel like that was essentially a selfish goal and one that was not worth having (selfish for me, I mean! I'm not knocking anyone else).

Anonymous said...

Maybe if the numerical system were restated, it would be easier for some to use the lower numbers. Instead of using it as a judgement on the game's quality, make it a judgement on how well the game experience meets the rater's desires. So a 4 wouldn't mean "Not so good, it doesn't get me, but I could be talked into it on occasion," but instead would mean "It doesn't get me, but I could be talked into it on occasion." Then there is no sense of saying the game is bad, only that it's not what you want in a game. For example, I think Paths of Glory is an 8, but I certainly have friends that would rate it a 2 or 3. Not because it's a bad game, but because it is very much not what they are looking for in a game.
That's how I use the ratings, anyway. So if someone agrees with my taste in games, in general, they may avoid my 2-4's and they may seek out my 8-10's. Not because my 8-10's are better games (except to me), but bacause they have a better chance of being enjoyed by someone that shares my tastes.

huzonfirst said...

Joe, I think you're thinking way too much about this subject. The only thing you, or any other gamer, owes this hobby is the *truth*. And that's the truth, warts and all. Tell me what you honestly think about a game (and tell me why you feel that way) and let me do the rest.

Tom Vasel likes too many games for my tastes. Chris Farrell doesn't like enough. But I'm still able to get useful information from their reviews because I know how they think. If I don't know that you dislike certain things in games, it will be harder for me to interpret what you *do* say. And besides, I'd much rather get the 100% uncensored Joe Gola than some portion of your gaming life that you think I'd LIKE to see.

As far as the comments over composite ratings some folks have made, I share many of these concerns. However, I also know that these aberrations tend to even out with an aggregate. That's why we have more confidence in a game's rating if a lot of people have rated it. More to the point, it's a necessity. Even minor games now have over 500 comments at the Geek. Unless you've got a lot more spare time than I do, this mass of information makes it very hard to tell much of anything about a game unless you combine the ratings. This rating isn't the end all and be all; it's a data point, like any other, but it's certainly useful and tends to be an accurate indicator of how the gaming world views a design.

Anonymous said...

I use the ratings for myself personally. They help me know to which games I want to be devoting my time.

As a rule of thumb, I don't pass final (personal) judgment on a game until I've played it 2 or 3 times. So even something that at first earns a 6 will see 1 or 2 more plays. But the ratings as I finally assign them help me to peruse my collection of games and choose which ones I'll take to gaming events or bring to the table on game nights with friends.

Life is short. I'd rather spend my time playing the stuff that I know is great, even if that's only a matter of my own opinion, rather than playing games that do nothing for me.

I enjoyed your post.