Consumerism, Criticism, And The Bernays Effect On The Board Game Industry

Roleplaying and board games reviews, podcasts, videos and interviews

By Peter Ruth II

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing about the lack of what people are calling “true criticism” in the board game industry, of late. What the hand-wringers are wringing wildly about is the idea that there aren’t enough truly in-depth reviews on games, or games that speak from a level of experience; from the perspective of someone who has either mastered the game or has a trained enough eye to be able to spot the flaws in the gem that is a boardgame without actually having played it to death. I, personally, believe that games do not have this level of scrutiny because, for the most part, consumers don’t want to be told anything about a game at that level, but in fact, what they really want is to be told whether a game can be played more than a few times, and is novel enough on some level to hold the attention. But I now believe that without it, we are simply lemmings, following the latest hot blogger or an old standard right off the cliffs of consumerist oblivion.

Propogandist-Philosopher-Thinker[1]I had said that most people at major sites like BoardGameGeek are bottom feeders, and that was misconstrued as a criticism of their character. It was wholly misinterpreted as some sort of a condemnation of the site’s inhabitants as lesser creatures, which was most certainly not the intent. What I meant is that most of the people on the site are driven solely to consume, and even the chaff that falls to the bottom is good enough because the goal is consumption, not quality. Now, I’m not looking to write a treatise on quality, and how it’s subjective, because we all know that the “different strokes for different folks” argument can go on ad infinitum, with no side giving quarter. What I am saying is that the whole board game industry has become one giant smorgasbord of hype, propaganda, and greasy haired pitchmen selling the wide-eyed consumer every single game, irrespective of merit, based on the simple tactics of immersion advertising and the age old tactics of “creating demand” by “engineering consent” in the market.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” ~ Edward Bernays

There was once a man named Ed Bernays, who is the true father of modern Public Relations and social engineering. His techniques were unprecedented, and immediately recognized as an incredible methodology to shape public opinion without the public actually realizing they were being manipulated. Some of his techniques were used in advertising, such as his “Torches of Freedom” campaign that manipulated women into equating smoking cigarettes with standing up for equal rights. But, unfortunately, politicians took notice, and one man took his examples so well that he effectively manipulated a society into war and genocide. Dr. Paul Joeseph Goebbels was, in fact, the man, and the techniques developed back in the 1930s are still in use in politics today by people who wish to manipulate public opinion for their own ends. Now I am not alluding that there is a parallel in the scope of convincing Germans to look the other way while people were being sent to the ovens and what is happening in the board game world other than the same techniques are being used.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” ~ George Orwell

If you look at the lexicon used by game reviewers, has it not occurred to you that amazingly nebulous and imprecise words such as “elegant”, “innovative”, “derivative”, “immersive”, “compelling”, and the single worst offender, “interesting”, are continually used. But why is that? Is it that these are the only words that are descriptive enough to use in board game reviews? No, it’s because it’s that people have been conditioned to use the same words repeatedly. In 2001, there were a reported 290,000 words in the English language and a total of almost 700,000 word derivatives, yet the entire board game community can only come up with what amounts to about a dozen adjectives to repeatedly use in their reporting? How is it that such a small handful of meaningless words has developed into what is now, essentially, the primary lexicon with which games are described?

My thoughts on the matter are that when a well known reviewer uses a word, that word slowly burrows into the minds of the group-think that it’s a word with power, a word that means something. And to sound more academic or well-rounded, the next guy down the line will start using it. And 10 years later, you can look up virtually any board game review, at random, and will find at least one of these rather imprecise, nebulous words therein. And thus, the continual rattle of meaningless words being used in something written to influence people’s behaviour, in this case a buying decision, becomes the norm. And these words have come to invoke a conditioned response in the reader, which is the insidious part, since when a person sees a word such as “elegant”, which by itself has little meaning, they immediately believe that if they like it, they, too, are smart enough to understand such an elegant product, thus making them elegant as well. Wouldn’t you like to be smart and elegant? Of course you would, if you were smart, or elegant. Aren’t you smart and elegant enough to understand that?

limited_time_only[1]“It is possible to argue that the really influential book is not that which converts ten millions of casual readers, but rather that which converts the very few who, at any given moment, succeed in seizing power.” ~ Aldous Huxley

The latest method in the saddling of humanity with unproven, untested, and otherwise unknown products is the latest Billy Mays of board games, Kickstarter. Gaining  notoriety around a year ago, and originally thought to be a crowdfunding site that allowed outsiders to afford to self-publish products that could compete with the large publishing houses, the publishing houses have taken advantage of the system and now use it as a multi-purpose tool to produce games. Kickstarter campaigns went from a person with an idea pleading for help with developing a product of their passion to a way to gauge demand, pre-sell product, and get more margin from their initial sales push than going through distribution without pissing off their distributors.

The key technique that is used to shape opinion on a Kickstarter game is threefold. First, the pitchman convinces you that the product is a good idea, and is different and exciting. This is really shown well by Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games in their campaign for “Kings of Air and Steam”. Everything about the video is integral in the pitch and the attempt to convince you that you have to have the game, and without you, they can’t make it the way it “deserves” to be made. The words used and the use of the music to set a sombre tone indicates that it’s a serious matter, and it’s crucial that you help them fund the game, because you wouldn’t want a sub-par game. But what evidence is there that the game is good, different, or better than the other 100 games you already have?

At an initial buy price of $45.00 USD, is it really a value? The Kickstarter page even adds a note that at $45.00, the game is under-priced by 15%, which is an obvious attempt to use a sales technique called “instilling urgency”, which means that if you don’t act now, you’ll have to pay more later. Note that virtually every Kickstarted game ends up in the hands of distributors, and they almost always are cheaper to buy later then paying a premium to buy in as an early adopter.  In some cases, people actually got Kickstarter-purchased games AFTER those who bought through distribution! So where’s the value?

But regarding Air and Steam, it’s a wooden cube game that is wholly derivative of other games, has nothing really novel other than the fact that it has a new theme on old mechanics, but is essentially the same as many other wooden cube games. Puerto Rico, Tikal, El Grande, and many others all have similar components, the same mechanics, were priced around the same amount upon release, are selling into the same core market, and none of them required Kickstarter to produce. So, why is it that established publishers use Kickstarter? It’s to mitigate the risk to their own pocketbooks in case the game doesn’t sell well.

The fact is that publishers want to pass the risk onto the consumer, and by selling you a game that doesn’t yet exist and hasn’t come under public scrutiny, they don’t have to worry about producing a boring or subpar game and not having it sell because in most cases, the pre-sales cover the entire cost of the first edition print run, and since much of that goes direct to consumers, the publishers make far more money per unit sold than they would had they gone the traditional “publisher to distribution to retail” sales channel. For  consumers, it’s a terrible deal, but for publishers, it’s brilliant.

This is not to pick on TMG or Kings of Air and Steam, because all of the Kickstarters are the same. They plea to the consumer that they require large sums of their cash in order to produce a game that they promise will be spectacular, and they use age-old sales tactics to convince you that you “must act now” or will foolishly piss money away later, when in reality, pissing away money on something that doesn’t exist on the promise of a person you’ve never met is the definition of a “confidence game” in the real world. And every good confidence man has a shill, who benefits in some way from aiding and abetting the confidence man.

Preview[1]The best con men, though, are the ones who can create a shill out of an honest person without the honest person ever knowing they’ve been used. This is what the internet hype machine lives on; people who attempt to be impartial being wooed into giving positive reviews. Let me ask you this if you doubt me: How many negative previews have you ever seen for a Kickstarted game? Me, I’ve never seen one, and I go looking. I suspect its because if you’re sent a preview copy, you’re already predisposed toward liking it as you’ve asked for it. And if you weren’t, why would you be sent a copy in advance? So, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; there is very, very little hope of getting an impartial game preview of a product that doesn’t exist because of these factors.

When you then look to BGG and the internet, you can easily find a legion of reviews, articles about the game, and interviews which all feed into the hype machine that is screaming to you that you have to buy the game. The publishers are willing to take the small risk with spending advert money and marketing time selling the idea to people and raising public awareness, and the avenue which is most widely used these days is through the unregulated and under scrutinized blogosphere.  Bloggers have, largely, not undergone ethics or journalism classes, so you’re trusting in the reviewer’s good faith alone by taking their word for it.

But, these days, anyone with fingers or a video camera is entering the arena to start doing reviews, and those are the soft targets that are best utilized by the publishers, because they will be the most pliable to the end of selling games by horse trading. Further, the reviewers can always chalk any dissent up to “a matter of taste” or “its an opinion piece, and that’s my opinion, ” which universally garners them credibility for being so resolute and standing by their opinion even when they’re being screamed down by the entire world. It’s as if they think that if they simply repeat themselves enough, the people will eventually believe it.

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” ~ Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels

What’s worse is that Kickstarter itself has an agenda. This was proven out by the brilliant article by Samantha Murphy who had damning evidence that Kickstarter intentionally hides its failures from public scrutiny ( even in the face of the fact that people could learn what not to do in future campaigns by studying what failed in the past. All of this ties into the propagandist of the game industry, that Kickstarter is a great place to buy into an idea of a game, because there aren’t any Kickstarter failures, so therefore they must all be successful products.

ICUP[1]I spoke, recently, with a up and coming blogger about this, a guy who I feel is smarter than most, about how publishers try to lean on bloggers: “I have actually gotten into some rows with SOME GUY about obligations to the consumer vs. the publisher because back … when I was writing my perspective on what games were worth buying vs. not buying based on rulebook reads and I trashed a few that he had issue with. He talked about how much it would suck for that poor first-time publisher if my article ended up tanking the sales of the game, and my response was essentially, “My obligation as a reviewer is to the people who are buying these games, not the the publisher.” He did not like that very much, but I got a better understanding of the basis for that dislike after I discovered that most of the games he argued with me about were games SO AND SO was importing.”

This is typical, as publishers tend to pal around at conventions and give extra access to those who review their products and give positive reviews. Fantasy Flight, for instance, publicly trashed and excommunicated both Matt Drake and Michael Barnes for bad-mouthing the company’s products, and in one case, the company’s lack of editorial oversight on production. Now, unless a blogger has independent wealth or a large capital base, he’s not going to be able to buy new games all the time. And any person in the board game world knows that it’s virtually impossible to break through the glass ceiling into the upper echelons of reviewers where Matt Drake, Matt Thrower, Michael Barnes, Shannon Appelcline, and Dale Yu reside unless you’re writing reviews of current or upcoming games, because the cult of the new demands a constant feed of information or they will abandon your site. In our world, depth is secondary to expediency, and the goal of reading a review is more to reinforce the reader’s subconscious desire to be right about a game that they want to buy, not to explore the game from the perspective of critical analysis and explore not if they should buy or not, but why they should buy it.

“It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale.” ~ Jacques Ellul

In reality, the hype apparatus that has developed over the past 15 years, driven by information technology and the proliferation of easy to use interfaces on home computers has had the unfortunate effect of creating an illogical mind-set when making buying decisions. The constant stream of programming from television, radio, and the internet has convinced people that the only decision they have is to buy a product, because if they don’t, it will be a stain upon their character; a mark of Cain, so to speak. The board game hobby is populated with many who are introverts to begin with, and the whole culture has started to turn into a battle for supremacy in the land of the nerds. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, right?

MC Frontalot is a prime example of how the culture is changing, as the Nerdcore rap scene embraces its nerdiness and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. Nerdcore Hip Hop not a predictor or shaper of culture, it’s a response to the changing culture. Nerds want to fit in, even if that means only fitting in with other nerds. And in every society, be it nerds, jocks, or whatever, there’s always the Alpha, the apex predator. Since the hobby of board gaming is, at its core, a highly competitive hobby, it stands to reason that someone will always wish to emerge as that Alpha, and if that means being the one to bring the latest game to Tuesday Game Night, then that’s precisely what you’ll do, and the publishers understand this all too well.

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” ~ Noam Chomsky

Now, due to this phenomenon, which is partially driven by the consumerist Western culture, one way to leap to the forefront of the herd is to have the latest, greatest shiny, precious thing. I proudly coined the term SHINYPRECIOUS to describe the latest product that is at the current eye of the advertising maelstrom. Thus, it is, in board gaming, a mark of distinction to have had the courage to go out and back a Kickstart project, or to be the first to buy a game. The evidence is everywhere, because there are countless internet threads where people are chomping at the bit to proclaim not only what they’re backing, but for how much.

All of this reinforces, in my mind, the idea that the decision to buy a game or not has been taken away from the consumer, provided they have the means. And most astonishingly, for such a smart and resourceful group as board game aficionados are, the only questions that they are asking of their media, the blogosphere, and their advertisers is “if I should or should not” buy a game, which only serves to prove them right or wrong when they go out to look at a game that’s in the hype zone. That is simply the wrong question to be asking. The question that all board gamers should be asking themselves, more than any other, when making a buying decision is WHYNot if, or if not, but WHY.

collect_them_all_[1]Too often people will buy a game based on a single review from a person who gives almost exclusively positive reviews, and they do it primarily without thinking. They do not ask why, because they’re not interested in the basic questions that someone buying a car would ask, instead they generally scroll to the bottom, read a couple of “pro’s and con’s” lines, maybe a summary, and then pat themselves on the back if the review coincides with their intention to buy the game. Also, unsurprisingly, if you look at any given game in the Board Game Geek database, virtually all entries overwhelmingly positive reviews and very few, if any, truly negative reviews.

The reviews that are negative, however, generally are met with a violent backlash of dissent that customarily dissolves into name calling and personal insults. This is because people in our hobby generally cannot stand to be wrong, even in the face of facts, or if the subject is opinion-based and there is no real right or wrong to be found. Yet people have this inherent need to be heard, and even worse, a need to be right, and this fuels a death spiral of shilling, vast inaccuracies, and the quashing of dissent.

At the end of the day, the whole reviewing and rating system is set up as a carrot-first system, where positive reviews are rewarded by free items, larger GeekGold awards, power, influence, celebrity, and negative reviews are generally rewarded with smaller GeekGold rewards, less influence, and being attacked by proponents of the game as well as the publisher. One of the most critical reviews I ever wrote ended up with a pissing match between the publisher and the designer to determine who could passive-aggressively mock me the best. So, the impetus is to only write positive reviews to reinforce the idea that all games are fun for someone, so by extension, all games must have some good qualities and, finally, all games must be good, if you’re enlightened, elegant, or smart enough to appreciate their elegant, innovative, and interesting designs.

Thus, there is a never-ending parroting of the same overused words, the same praise for mediocre products, the same lack of any real semblance of scrutiny on games for fear of being ostracized, cut out of the loop, banned from internet sites, or the worst possible consequence for a critic, to be made irrelevant. As long as the persistent cornucopia of praise is heaped on mediocrity, the masses will be led to believe that mediocrity is the new “great”, and something truly novel, such as deck building, becomes “stellar” and spawns hundreds of mediocre clones, endlessly, until the new “thing” emerges from the ashes of the truly average. Until we, as consumers, stop to ask the important questions of “WHY” and stop believing that your worth or credibility is based solely upon how many Kickstarter projects you’ve  backed, or how many games on the “Hotness” you own.

So, while we may not want to actually read real criticism, I am forced to submit that we need it now more than ever, as the hype apparatus has been developed to devour any shred of willpower or self control that we might have. The pitchmen have honed their marketing skills, used psychological tricks, have manipulated the willing press, and have developed intricate networks for the sole purpose of selling you mediocre products under the guise of the “next big thing” for years, and the only thing to stop them is the single precious gift that God granted man, the ability to reason. To see through the hype and not ask “if or if not”, but why.

Until we, as readers and consumers, stop simply begging to be agreed with so we can feel empowered and righteous in our judgement and start requiring the media to scrutinize the products they peddle by proxy, we will always be slaves to the hype machine. They are simply better at selling than we are at buying, and it’s been so since the world at large developed the science of psychology to the point that it could be used to manipulate people into being controlled into mindless consumers. When a game like Earth Reborn is on the Tanga deathwatch along side Hotel Samoa, the gaming world is in a state of crisis.

At the end of the day, the overarching question isn’t whether George Orwell or Aldous Huxley was right about our subjugation, because it’s clear that both of them were influenced by the same man, Ed Bernays, who ultimately proved that free men can be made willing slaves, provided the right marketing is in place. The fact that CCG games have ever been allowed to exist, and thrive, proves that people have ceded the power of choice to publishers, and will spend money foolishly if you can convince them that they absolutely have to have a whole set, otherwise they’re robbing themselves of the full experience. They never demand that the publisher sell complete sets, never ask if the game is even good enough to buy more than a few packs in the first place. Just that they must collect the entire set. Not because you require a Gonk power droid or a useless promo that adds absolutely nothing to the game, simply because it exists.

It’s not whether Orwell’s bludgeons or Huxley’s distractions would be the ultimate tool to manipulate us, rather it’s that neither are required since we have been utterly convinced not only to buy a never-ending supply of mediocrity, at a premium price, BUT THAT DOING SO WAS OUR IDEA.


One Response

  1. To be honest, the Hype Cycle is even worse in Video Games, where 2-3x the development budget can be blown on the PR in order to make back enough profit. Crazy!

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