A matter of skill

If you’re a video gamer, or if you’re at least marginally interested in video games, you’ve probably already stumbled upon the flash fire that has been a certain gruelling video displaying the inability of a certain game reviewer to cope with a tutorial and opening levels of a certain video game – and the reactions of gamers all over the globe.

If you’ve been oblivious (or lucky) enough to have been spared the whole thing, or if you’re simply a board gamer, and usually not a purveyor of all that electronic nonsense, you can see the video that started the madness below. It’s 26 minutes, but just the first few will probably tell you all you need to know.

I know we’re talking about a video game on a blog about board games, but just stay with me for a moment, and we’ll return into a more familiar territory before long. There is a method to this madness.

The game played is called Cuphead, and it’s an indie sidescroller which has been in design for quite some time. The man playing the game is Dan Takahashi, a tech journalist and game critic who I (and most of the internet) had not heard of before the above video went live, but who is nonetheless an industry veteran (just not a very well-known one) with well over two decades of writing experience under his belt.

If you want to research the details of the flame war that followed posting the video, you’ll find an abundance of deprecation and profanity all around the internet, all centred around a certain idea: a game journalist should be able to play games competently, or – according to many – really, really proficiently. And if he can’t… Well, here’s where the aforementioned deprecation and profanity comes in.

While I’m not here to discuss how video game culture has for a few years now been fetishizing the mythical “skill” involved with being a true gamer, I do want to point out that it is a phenomenon that might (as many others) seep into tabletop gaming. In fact, some facets have been with the tabletop hobby for years, albeait not very well visible at a distance.

When it comes to how board gamers react to reviewers, there are already some similarities between our hobby and video gaming. Just like their video game counterparts, board game reviewers have faced accusations of being disingenuous, too cosy with publishers, and too superficial when it comes to testing games they aim to critique. However, having the merits of their trade questioned on the basis of their inability to properly play a game is still uncommon, to say the least.

If you know where this comes from, you probably know everything about skill.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager tabletop gamers will probably never lash against a lack of skill as hard as video gamers just have. The pick and play nature of video games is still very different from board games, which (in most cases) are not expected to teach you the game while you’re playing for the first time. A new board game requires a certain level of effort, even before you sit down and play, so there is no equivalent of taking a video game controller into one’s hand, and simply starting off to a massive fail. Not yet, anyway.

While the whole Cuphead debacle is quite the hot mess, it prompts me to face a few niggling questions. As gamers, we tend to follow reviewers whose tastes align with ours, and even if a certain level of skill is implied, it’s rarely questioned. I’m yet to see a reviewer chastised for their lack of skill. Should I expect this day to finally come?

Just like video gamers, board gamers have fallen in love with the Let’s Play format, which was spectacularly ported into the realm unplugged by Rahdo (and is now growing with strong additions like the dynamic duo of Tom and Glass Marty from the Slickerdips channel). Just like video gamers, board gamers have fallen in love with “indie” publishers making a living on Kickstarter. Just like video gamers, we fall more and more in love with the quick, light, smart gaming experiences (as evidenced by this year’s BGG’s Essen Spiel preview list).

I’m not asking if we will follow suit when it comes to some of the more controversial video game world phenomena. I am asking if – having the unique ability to peer into our tumultuous future – we actually should.

Now, you have probably guessed my bias by now, but I am still curious what others think. So, should a certain degree of skill be added to the integrity, clarity and passion we have come to expect from game reviewers, or is being bad at gaming but a minor drawback?

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