Monday, March 29, 2010

Everyone's a critic.

You've heard this old adage time and time again - what does it mean exactly? Another version you might have heard is a little more biting:

"Opinions are like assholes... everybody's got one, and they all stink!"

When writing in your own voice, on a Blog or in an essay for example where you are the narrator, it's not only reasonable to have an opinion, but good form to assert your opinion. I learned in school that there's no need to preface every comment with "I think..." or "In my opinion..." because I'm the one talking; of COURSE the words coming out of my mouth are my opinion! Timidly stating "your mileage might vary" or "that's just my opinion" makes for a weak sounding argument - those things are supposed to go without saying.

That said, it's easy for a critic to spew whatever assertions they want, no matter how unfounded, to their audience with little or no consideration to the repercussions. Is this OK? Well, it's a free country - who am I to say what your opinion should be? But it could be argued that a formal critic - the guy who reviews movies for the local paper for example, who has thousands of readers who faithfully take his word for gospel - that guy might have more responsibility or moral obligation to temper his reviews.

I watched a movie the other night called Heckler. From IMDB:
HECKLER is a comedic feature documentary exploring the increasingly critical world we live in. After starring in a film that was critically bashed, Jamie Kennedy takes on hecklers and critics and ask some interesting questions of people such as George Lucas, Bill Maher, Mike Ditka, Rob Zombie, Howie Mandel and many more. This fast moving, hilarious documentary pulls no punches as you see an uncensored look at just how nasty and mean the fight is between those in the spotlight and those in the dark.

To be perfectly fair, the critically bashed film starring Jamie Kennedy - Son of the Mask - was pretty terrible. I say this because I was a fan of The Mask, the original movie to which this one was a knock-off/sequel, and this movie really shared nothing with the original. Also, it's possible the target audience for the movie was not the same as the target audience for the original Jim Carey movie, and that's just begging for failure right there. Here's a review comment pasted directly from IMDB:
"This is without a doubt the worst movie I have ever seen. I say this without hyperbole, and believe me, I've seen a lot of bad movies. It's embarrassing and annoying that millions of dollars went into this film and that hundreds (thousands?) of craftspeople spent so much time working on what the writers and producers MUST have known would be a colossal failure.

When a 90 minute film feels this long, drawn out, boring, and incomprehensible, you know that something went wrong somewhere. Also, Jamie Kennedy (whose work I've enjoyed elsewhere) is simply terrible in this role; he was obviously never given a screen test, because no producer in their right mind would consider him entertaining in any way, especially in the guise of The Mask. Simply awful.

Personally, I can't wait to see the reviews by the major film critics, because I know they're do a better job than me at tearing this train wreck to shreds.

The producers of this film should be embarrassed, and more importantly, NEVER be allowed to make theatrical films again. "

As entertaining as that review is to read (indeed, it's more succinct, better written, and provided a much higher laugh/minute ratio than the movie did), it's really very brutal. And this is nothing compared to some of the stuff Jamie Kennedy read in the documentary! So what's the big deal? Why should I care what other people say about other people, and how they feel about it? As you can see I've peppered this blog post with plenty of my own opinions as well. Here's why I care...

As has been mentioned, everyone's a critic. I'm no exception. I have my opinions about movies I've seen and books I've read just like everybody else does. However, Gene Siskel I aint. When I post in my blog:

"I was initially (and still am a little) disappointed in the process Jones took finding Aketor. While he did do some figuring and a (very little) research, he followed a clue to Peru, and another to the tomb of the conquistador explorer, sort of followed a clue to find the city of gold, and all the while had a back and forth fight with a ceaseless opponent. However, it seemed like this movie rushed that process compared to Raiders and Last Crusade, and the back and forth with the Russians seemed a lot less epic. In Raiders Indy and Marion were captured, escaped, captured again, rescued, etc. In the Last Crusade there was a constant struggle between Jones and the Nazis in which they key to the movie - information about the grail- was being passed back and forth. In KotCS, the entirety of the conflict was a game of keep away."


"Yesterday I went and saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with my parents. It was almost 3 hours long, and while it wasn't boring or bad perse, I don't feel like it really had much of a point. The most descriptive thing I can say about the movie was that I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Forrest Gump."

It's not going to have a big effect on the overall viewership of the Indiana Jones or Benjamin Button movies, and will not have any effect whatsoever on Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt. In addition, as I'm not an actor or a director myself, my opinions are clearly from the perspective of the audience - all I can speak to is what I would have liked to see. I can in no way really say "I could have done better."

On the other hand, I do have something of a voice in the board game community. This wasn't always the case, and I'm not certain how big this voice really is or how much weight it carries... but it's certainly more substantial than my voice in Hollywood. So when I read a 3 year old post from BGG in which I said "I proposed some revisions based mostly on some ideas from Kinizia's new Genesis (which isn't amazing by the way) to try and get more player decisions going on," I cringe a little bit. Reiner Knizia is a very prolific, very well respected game designer. Who am I, with no support whatsoever, to wave off one of his games as lousy - especially when saying that I'd basically copied part of it?!?

This has not been an isolated incident. I have posted negative reviews or comments on many games, even SdJ winners such as Zooloretto and Keltis. Even positive reviews of games such as Warrior Knights contain some form of criticism (that particular thread blew up into a perfectly good example). The other day I tried to think of a game I really enjoy for which I haven't got some type of criticism, and it was tough. Most of the games I really love have something about them that could probably be better - and the kicker is that the thing which could be better isn't necessarily the same from one player to the next!

While I was just a gamer who liked to post on BGG it was more OK, I thought, for me to take up positions against games or game mechanics I didn't like, calling them bad, lame, dumb, or flawed. I'm sure the internet is riddled with posts in which I say fairly brashly that such and such a game could really have used more development. Even if true, one could ask what gives me the right to say such things? After all, what do I know about developing board games? Had I gone through the trouble and effort of getting a game published?

Well, now I have, and that brings the entire situation into a whole new light. I have gone through the effort, not just of designing games, but through the process of publication. To an extent, I do know what I'm talking about. However, these credentials also come with a healthy dose of perspective. Now that I have created something that is up for public consumption (and criticism), I can get a glimpse of what Jamie Kennedy was talking about. Here are some things people have said about my board game Terra Prime:
  • "Unplayed and I have no interest in trying. The theme is a minus in my book, the gameplay does not excite me from what I've read about it, and it'll take a good 30+ minutes to use an exacto knife and punch all the pieces that were adequately perforated."
  • "Absolutely awful. Long. Seemed like a bunch of trekking back and forth. Nit-picky rules regarding Planet placement. Seemed like work rather than fun. Worst game played in 3 years. "
  • "A bit harsh and not that fun. And the production values are a little embarassing. "

These are all valid criticisms, and frankly, looking through all the comments on BGG, it could be a lot worse. In my case, many hard feelings came from the crappy production from china (thank you manufacturer! Why couldn't our games have come out as nice as others you produced?) - which isn't really the game's fault, and our customers have been very understanding of that. The point is though, how would I feel if someone like me played Terra Prime and said "economic strategies seem too weak, rewards are not well balanced" (oh wait, they did!)? I would probably get defensive and say

"The "economic strategies" (by which I can only assume you mean making deliveries) aren't supposed to beat out exploring and colonizing, because the game is about exploring and colonizing!"

or "I spent a lot of time and effort making sure the rewards were as balanced as possible, and I'm actually pretty proud of how well balanced the game has proven to be!"

or simply "I've played 83+ games (since I started counting), you've played maybe 2. I simply don't think you are correct."

But it doesn't matter really, as those are just some ratings comments. What would matter more is if these comments came straight from the horses mouth - if Tom Vasel did a video review of Terra Prime enumerating how awful the game balance was or how annoying it was to do 3 quick actions then have to wait for everyone else to go before doing just 3 more little actions (both complaints I've read online), that could be a death knell for me and my first publishing outing because a lot of people listen to him. On the other hand, that video review could just as easily extol the virtues of the game balance and the small downtime as turns are snappy and move around the table quickly (both praises I've read online).

The point is that critics have a lot of power to sway people's opinions. Some critics do a good job informing the public about the subject they are reviewing, giving factual information which consumers would find useful. Other critics, as Jamie Kennedy's documentary points out, aren't concerned with any kind of obligation to report any sort of facts, but rather they assert their opinion "because they said so," and hey - a humorous, negative criticism gets more laughs and more attention than either a supportive review or a constructive negative one!

The moral of the story is this: I do not want to be the type of critic who will make an assertion, waving my hands and assuming my word is gospel because I'm the one who said it. This is more true now that I apparently have some semblance of public voice on BGG. I'll stand by my assertions, but I'll have reasoning behind each one, and I'll freely admit when I make a mistake or am proven wrong. One thing I could improve on perhaps is not looking for something to "fix" in every game I play (or movie I watch, or book I read). Nothing is perfect, and even the best games will have something "wrong" with them... I have a tendency to go seeking that out and bringing it to the fore. Perhaps I could do that more judiciously.

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