The critic has to educate the public. The artist has to educate the critic.
This year, for the first time, I participated in the annual Game Chef design contest. I enjoyed the process very much, largely because the theme – “A different audience” – led me on a very unexpected design path that has resulted in what I believe is one of my most important pieces of writing in recent history. There will be more about that product in another post. Right now I want to discuss the last step I have just completed as an entrant: the peer reviews.
Because there are only a few organizers and a fairly large number of entries (106 in the English-language section), the finalists are determined partially by peer vote. Each contestant is given four other games to read and review, and by that math your game is therefore given to four other contestants. We write a short evaluation of each game that is sent to the designer, and then we pick one of those four to nominate as the best of that group. I’m not entirely sure about the details of how those nominations then translate to finalists, but certainly if none of the four people reviewing your game nominate you, you’re probably not advancing.
I understand the practical necessity of this kind of peer review system, but some aspects of it do make me feel odd.
First of all, how does this process affect my written reviews? In submitting my reviews, I saw that there was an option to include or not include my email address to offer my fellow designers the ability to follow up. Obviously not including my address would imply some small amount of anonymity, but it would indeed be very small. We all see the list, so we can track exactly who is reviewing our games, and I am experiencing this weird psych-out of trying to determine how different people might react to my project. I am sure I am not alone in this.
And because of that, I was perhaps a little more conciliatory in my reviews than I might have been. The awareness that I was also being reviewed – in one case by one of the designers I was myself reviewing (which could potentially be a problem, but I don’t know how you avoid it) – made me self-conscious about how I phrased things. Was I too harsh? Not harsh enough? I think I was fairly honest but helpful, but I also second-guessed myself more than usual. This was slightly alleviated by the knowledge that all the reviews will appear simultaneously after they are collected, but it still happened.
The process of selecting one of the four games is also one that feels…odd to me. In my own experience, I had a difficult time choosing between two of the four, partially because there was no way to directly compare the two. Other folks have presented their own rubrics for trying to break down the elements of design. (As a teacher, this is something I can basically do anyway without having to write it out.) But even with a more mathematical approach, there are still judgment calls and the need to prioritize some elements over others.
The larger issue, though, is that I would like to see both of those games become finalists. However the nature of distribution is such that either of them could end up lucky – matched with games that are not as strong – or unlucky – matched with games that are just slightly preferred each time. Ultimately I would be more comfortable with ordered rankings rather than the all-or-nothing nomination. Even that would still risk distribution problems, but it would make it more likely to allow for games that keep coming in second to be considered for advancement.
Of course, the worst part of this remains the wondering (anticipating?) what will become of my own submission. From early on I had abandoned the idea of writing to win, because I felt that what I was developing was important enough to continue regardless of how well it fit the parameters of the contest or the tastes of my peer reviewers. Still, I would like to do well, if at least to know that my work was appreciated. And the fact that my subject matter is so personal may make me more sensitive.
Ultimately, the artist has to develop a certain amount of emotional armor when it comes to critique, particularly when the piece leaves you otherwise very exposed. But I am finding that the act of both being a critic and anticipating criticism makes that harder than usual.
I wish good luck to all my fellow Game Chef participants. And whatever happens, let us be…gentle with each other.