January 31st, 2011

critical thought vs being critical

Sometimes game designers and rules wonks can be less than fun to play games with.  This is not to say they can’t also be awesome, but the critical way of looking at games can be problematic.</p>

Case in point, I played Empire Builder with my mom recently.  She has loved that game for years. I played it with her back when, I was in college the first time.   I enjoyed it back then as well.  Recently though, we played and I had long ago forgotten most of the rules.   Sitting down and playing, I began criticizing the game design.  I got locked out of action for several turns, as did someone else at the table.  I began talking about how that was bad design at the table, and I think that is where I began to go wrong.  Being critical is often an unpleasant experience for the people around you.  Mom did not have as much fun, despite winning.  I didn’t really enjoy myself that much either, because I was focusing on what was wrong.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I have tried to run games for people and had the fun in running the game drain away because some of the players kept focusing about how bad the game was.  They would joke about it at the table.  Normally in conversation, I would likely agree with them, but it killed my enthusiasm for the game.  Everyone involved did not have as much fun as we could have had.  I don’t think the player was wrong about his criticisms.  I don’t even mind him bring them to me, but that should have started a different conversation.  It should have been “I don’t feel like playing this game and this is why”.

So, am I saying being a rules wonk is a bad thing? No.  Being able to analyze, understand and critique a subject does often increase your enjoyment of that thing.  I love comics.  More importantly, I made a point of learning about the art and storytelling in comics, so now I can enjoy them even more. I can pick up on subtle nuances and influences. It makes the reading experience much more rich.  It is the same with games.  If you know more about the games, you will appreciate the nice new mechanic,  and the simple ways of conveying story.  You gain something with the analysis, but you can loose the ability to simply play and enjoy game.  There are too many examples I can think of, where someone would decry the horrible game design in games they got hours of enjoyment out of.  First and second edition D&D were games that many of us started on.  They were brilliant.  By modern standards in game design, the thinking in them is out of date, but damn it we had fun playing them.

What I am saying, is don’t let your critical mind get in the way of enjoying the experience or ruin it for someone else.  I have done a podcast critiquing games.  It was my job to find problems in computer games at the last company i worked for.  This may predispose me to find fault in games, but I shouldn’t be so vocal about those critiques when I am at the table.  It will not help anyone there have fun, not even me.  I would suggest to other game rules gear heads, would be designers, and critics to look out for it in themselves.  We all love to talk rules. There is nothing wrong with sharing your thoughts on a game, but save it for the right venue.  If you can’t relax and enjoy the game despite it’s flaws, then don’t play.   Explain it to the group and say, this is not their fault, but the game is not for you.  Maybe they pick another game to play, or you don’t get in on that game.  Either way, clear it up before you get to the game table. Don’t be vitriolic or rant about it.  You may not like the game, but others might.  It is not your job to convince your friends how wrong they are.

As an added note on larps, you are often asked for feedback on the larp events.  There are some people, who treat this as an opportunity to tear down every minor annoyance they had in a game.  There are some people who are completely insensitive and become vitriolic in their feedback.   What are these people thinking?  Maybe they tell themselves “we were just being honest.”?     “Just being honest” is often code for “I am profoundly unhappy person who wants all attention focused on me and when it isn’t i will be an asshole till you give me what I want.” What it does do is wear down the COMPLETELY VOLUNTEER STAFF.   You are killing their fun.  Their desire to keep running the game is diminished.   It is okay to express concerns.  They want to know when people are not having fun, but don’t let yourself treat them like strangers.  Just because the feedback is not face to face, does not mean you should suddenly forget these people are often your friends, or in the least are putting in a lot of effort without any tangible reward, so you can have fun.

Live by the axiom, “Don’t be a dick.”</p>

Whatever the venue though, being critical and thinking critically are two different things. Don’t get them confused.  Be considerate of the people you play with and how your input effects the mood of those around you.

Originally published at McCoy's Geeky Emporium of Thought. You can comment here or there.