In my first few years in London, back in the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as reviews editor on my student rag. I’d spend Monday and Tuesday mornings in small screening rooms around Wardour Street watching that Friday’s film releases and my evenings in theatres, on the press nights. Over that two year period, I saw an incredible amount of films and plays. My knowledge of both forms of drama increased exponentially and my skill as a reviewer increased in direct proportion. I became painfully aware that often I was sharing the screening with people who had been doing the job for decades, and whose depth of understanding was much greater than mine.
That depth of experience is the first thing that will earn you respect as a reviewer and grant you the right to have your opinion considered seriously. If you’re just bashing out a review of the second game you’ve bought this year, frankly your opinion doesn’t count for much. It has a worth value of one: yourself.
Beyond that, the quality of the review itself makes a huge difference to the degree of respect it should be awarded. What makes a good review? Well, for one thing, the ability to write well. Language is all about taking the ideas in your head and placing them in another person’s head. Good writers are particularly skilled in doing that, crafting words that not only communicate the information, but do it in a way that makes it interesting and even entertaining. The review must also communicate the content of the product in a way that gives the reader a clear indication of what to expect from it. Finally, it must state an opinion as the the quality of the product, giving clear reasons for that opinion. I emphasise that last clause because a really well-written review can make you want to buy a product even if the reviewer hated it, as long as she has clearly communicated her reasons for disliking it. It may well be that the very things she disliked are the sort of qualities you like in a product.
The truth is that most internet reviews fail on all three bases. They are rarely more than adequately written, usually focus on only the aspects of the product that the reviewer cares about and express an opinion without a clear exposition of the reasons for it.
What’s more, most internet reviewers lack any depth of experience in the gaming field. They buy an play a narrow subset of the available games, and so their reviews pretty much come down to “is this the sort of thing I like or not?” That’s not a review: that’s a personal opinion. Again, it’s only valid for a value of one.
Woe betide anyone who dares question an internet reviewer’s opinion, though. The screeching howler moneys gather around their wounded brother, driving off the creator who dared question their precious opinion. The pack stands together, defending their right to have their opinion respected without earning the right to have it respected. “It’s my opinion,” the howl. “It’s can’t be wrong.” Sure, it’s not wrong. Ignorant, maybe. Wildly inaccurate, ill-informed and biased, perhaps, but not wrong. It’s their opinion, you see, so it’s right. The internet is clearly not a place for humility or even debate.
OK, I’m exaggerating a little. There are some thoughtful reviewers out there and some good debate to be had.
So, why don’t creators working in the RPG field just ignore these internet reviews? Why pay attention to the cage full of screeching howler monkeys? Simple: there’s no alternative. The roleplaying industry lacks any serious attempt to review RPGs well. The only major example I can think of is Ken Hite’s Out Of The Box. Ken’s reviews are always well written, but he only covers a small cross-section of the market and has some very marked preferences in the way he reviews. Beyond that? RPGNet suffers from the screeching howler monkey syndrome to excess. I’m struggling to think of any other serious source of game criticism beyond that.
This is the sole reason why internet reviews matter. People seek guidance on what they should buy, because there’s incredible choice out there and only so much disposable income in our pockets. In the absence of a core of good, respected, regular reviewers, they have to turn to the screeching howler monkeys of the internet, screaming their low value opinions into the digital world in the hope of drawing attention to themselves as much as to the product.
Some years ago, a fictitious woman called Lea Crowe (the name was actually an assumed identity for a man), called for a body of criticism in the literary sense for RPGs, a development of a vocabulary for understanding and dissection RPGs to understand what makes them worthy or not. The need now is even more pressing: a single source of good, edited, commissioned reviews run by skilled people and provided by a team of experienced gamers and writers. Until that develops, the screeching howler monkeys will reign supreme. Good products are going to be unfairly devalued in the eyes of the consumers and bad ones promoted simply because they happen to be a screeching howler monkey’s gaming fetish. This situation is bad for the industry, bad for the creators and, most of all, bad for the consumers. Not everything is better with a monkey.