An Open Letter to Boardgamegeek

An Open Letter to Boardgamegeek Hot

MattDPMattDP   July 11, 2011  
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A long, long time ago I can still remember how … no, wait. Wrong era. A long time ago one Scott Alden asked me why it was that I had become suddenly unwilling to post my material on boardgamegeek any more. It was a fair question and I promised an answer but back then I just couldn’t find the time or, indeed, the right words to answer that question. Since media plurality is a big issue in the UK right now, it’s something that popped back into my head. In the wake of  boardgamenews, a site I used to write for, has announcing that it’s going to become part of boardgamegeek I think perhaps that I can find the right words and I think perhaps that also that I can no longer afford not to find the time to write about this issue.

There are two reasons why I find myself unwilling to submit content to boardgamegeek any more. One of them is the commercialisation of the site. On a personal level I don’t really feel happy that my efforts with the pen and the keyboard should contribute toward lining someone else’s pockets but from a hobby-wide point of view I think it’s valid to be concerned about the ongoing integrity of the material that’s published to BGG now that the overarching concern for that site has become commercial. I think we can already see the impact that it’s having, most notably in the crackdown on users who are also designers and publishers trying to promote their games through the site. This is possibly understandable when it comes to professionals and big names but it’s hard to see how it’s in the interests of the community as a whole to slap down a blanket ban on promotional activities which also includes independents, self-designed games and small publishers. There is also the increasingly active moderation of posts that are deemed potentially inappropriate, and I found it incredible that BGG were effectively charging stores to have a space on their “approved” retailer list for this years’ Secret Santa. None of this alone is particularly worrying stuff, but it’s the attitude that it represents that should be of concern - the fact that it could be the thin end of a wedge.

Now I don’t want people thinking this is a sour grapes issue. In truth, if I were in Aldie and Derk’s shoes and I spent - literally - years working hard to maintain, build, improve and promote a site through thick and thin and often, in those early years, putting in a lot of effort for zero personal gain then I’d probably feel entitled to making some money out of the venture now that it’s hit the big time. And rightly so: there’s nothing inherently wrong with commercialising a site after all. No, what’s worrying about the situation is the commercialisation of the site alongside the second problem that I have with BGG, and that is it’s ubiquity. Like it or not BGG is treated by the vast majority of people in the gaming hobby as the be-all and end-all for gaming information and commentary. It tops most search engine rankings when it comes to hobby games and has some minor penetration into the wider world of people playing board games as can be seen by actions like the yearly guide to game gift-giving aimed at the general public. Most, if not all other gaming sites on the internet - including this one - started as spin-offs from BGG and still operate at least partially in its orbit, with users and commentators on those sites continually talking about and referring back to BGG. Even when that doesn’t happen, the shared culture that gamers have which is inherited from BGG is staggering: the default use of a ten-point scale to rate games, the idolisation (or demonisation) of Pureto Rico and Agricola as “top” games, the use (which I’m as guilty of as the next man) of the tools on BGG to track plays and collections that you can then feed into discussions you’re participating in, the list goes on.

Basically, it’s a monopoly. There’s competition, sure, but BGG is so big and so powerful and so central that its competitors can’t “compete” in any meaningful sense.  And out in the real world, everyone thinks that monopolies are bad, and we have laws and commissions to try and stop them forming in the first place, and limiting their power when they do.  Of course this isn’t the real world - it’s a daft, backwater, minority hobby that most people have no interest in and its monopoly of gaming discussion can’t be compared to the very real, very harmful effects that real monopolies can have on people all over the globe. So why bother waisting column inches on it? Well, firstly because I care about gaming and the standard of the journalism that goes along with it. And second because I still find it jaw dropping that the majority of gamers on the net not only ignore this great honking issue, but positively celebrate it as a good thing. Amongst a large section of the gaming community, as others have observed, BGG has become a hobby in its own right.

I kind of have some sympathy of this position. Back in the day when I used to do a lot of website development, during the browser wars, I used to thank my lucky stars that virtually everyone owned a Windows PC and used Internet Explorer, so that I got to pretty much ignore the task of making things look pretty in other browsers, so long as they were readable. When everyone is working on the same platform, it does make life a lot easier in some respects. But we’ve already discussed the downside to monopolies and you can see it at work in the staggering lack of innovation that Microsoft has been able to get away with until relatively recently.  And besides, software is not the same as a community. Software is not inherently biased, whereas news and community sites can be and BGG most certainly is although it’s been getting better of late. Communities can become over-large, to the point where you can no longer easily keep track of what your friends and the people you respect are doing, and worthwhile content by the few is too easily washed away by a tide of rubbish. That’s what seems to have happened at BGG.  And that, now, is the public face of gaming that the public who stumble into the gaming hobby sees: a stream of poor quality nonsense, punctuated by gems, which is heavily tilted in favour of not only a particular genre but a particular sub-style of game which is probably as far from the usual public understanding of what constitutes a game as you can get.

I like BGG. I have no ill-will toward it whatsoever. Without it I’d never have met any of the fine people I share a platform with here, and this site would not exist. I spend time there and I’m glad to see it’s still improving and hoping it manages to overcome some of these issues and improves further. What this article is all about is a plea for plurality. If I want to go read about video games I can, and do, go to Gameshark and IGN and Gamespot and I could choose to go to a huge raft of other sites to get my fix of news and reviews. That choice means I can get different perspectives and different opinions much more easily, and it means I can avoid bias in favour of balance, make sure I don’t fall foul of commercial tilt and work round the editorial and moderation policies to choose a site where I can say what I want to say without fear of being censored. The board game hobby is tiny in comparison and can only realistically support a handful of popular sites but it’s certainly big enough to support more than one, and thereby avoid those same pitfalls. The reason I don’t want to put my content on BGG any more is because there’s already more than enough content on BGG. If I want to see my wish come true, and other sites get to the point where they become viable alternatives to promote plurality of opinion then I need to do my bit to share the love, and ensure they have some exclusive content. And that’s what I’m doing. Thankfully there are alternative sites stepping into the breech left by BGN to take up the baton: new boy boardgameinfo is one that I’ve pinned my colours to, the associated gamers project is trying to make sure a huge diversity of opinion can be accessed through one place and if you don’t like those, and think this site is always going to stay niche, then there will surely be more in the future. If you agree with me, then step up to the plate and get writing - or at least get visiting - for as many different outlets as you feel are worth supporting. Ultimately, it’s down to us to get the quality of writing that we think we deserve.

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