You're welcome in this hobby

Acquisitions & Consumption – You’re Welcome in this Hobby

Imagine this.

You’re a new gamer getting into the hobby for the first time. You don’t really know where to start but you know a few things. You know about Boardgamegeek. You know about Reddit. You know that people talk about boardgames on Twitter and other social media platforms. You’re not entirely sure what’s out there yet, but you know that this is something for you. Something was awakened in you. You can feel it. You can taste it. Maybe someone whipped out The Resistance at a party and you can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe someone got you hooked into a sprawling session of Game of Thrones where you had no idea what was happening but fell in love with the backstabbing anyway. Maybe you encountered Codenames, or wondered what happens after you got tired of Cards Against Humanity. It doesn’t matter – you’re here now. Welcome!

But you’re not sure of yourself. You haven’t played enough to have strong opinions, and you don’t have enough experience to engage in meaningful discussion with people about what you like and dislike. So you browse around – you click into all these marvellous sounding boxes to explore what people have to say about them. You find someone in a discussion thread that seems to like the games that you like, and so you delve a bit deeper into their profiles. You find they’ve posted a picture of their collection, and you think ‘Hey, that’s a good starting point’, and then you find…

Zoinks! Somehow, by mere chance and happenstance, you seem to have found some kind of zany hoarder – someone that clearly has more money than sense since there’s no way at all they could ever play that many games often enough to justify buying them. So you back away, a little chastened. You resume your clicking and you find someone else that looks like they might be something of a kindred spirit. They too have a photo of their collection.

Well, you know – that’s weird that you picked two millionaires in a row but it’s a big world and the law of large numbers guarantees weird co-incidences on a regular basis. The third person you click…

What in the world is going on? Do these people even know how much a game costs? How is this even possible?

You keep clicking. You keep finding these massive, imposing collections. You go deeper still. You find the BGG microbadges, and discover that there’s a badge for people that register collections over a certain size. You find in BGG that almost 60,000 people have registered collections of at least one hundred games. Almost 20,000 have collections of at least two hundred and fifty. Nearly seven thousand have five hundred games. And those people? They’ve achieved only the third badge in a six badge series.

BGG microbadge

You don’t need no steenking badges

Now remember – you’re new to this. You don’t know what it means to be a gamer in this space. You’ve got to go by the social cues the community provides. You get your first taste of ‘normal’ by looking to how other people behave – it’s a psychological principle known as social proofing.

Let’s assume you’re not an idle billionaire, lounging around like a lord of leisure. Let’s assume you’re a regular, average person with a job, responsibilities, and less time to spend on recreation than you’d like. Let’s say that you can’t just idly sink hundreds of pounds at a time into games that you won’t get to the table more than a couple of times in a year, if that. Let’s imagine that even if you could find the money, you’d find it too difficult to line up willing conspirators in a plot to regularly assassinate your free time. Let’s imagine.

I think here you could realistically come away with the impression that this is a hobby that, perhaps, might not be for you after all. After all – if this is the baseline, at what point do you have enough credibility to even consider yourself a participant in this hobby? I mean, if you’re not interested in the wider community of this it doesn’t matter at all. But if you want to be a part of a bustling and energetic online movement – well, what’s the cost of entry? It seems like it’s probably very high if you want to feel like you’re secure enough in justifying your participation.

This is the inaccessibility of conspicuous acquisition and it’s a problem in board-gaming. It’s such a core and consistent part of the hobby that even the meta-context of humour and shared jargon is built in large part around it. COMC and WSIG are short-hands for ‘Check out my Collection’ and ‘What Should I Get?’. The first is these handles the conspicuous part – it’s for people to show off, often not without justification, how lovely their gaming setups are. They want to show off their games, but they also want to show off their gaming environments. Many of these people have dropped thousands of pounds on dedicating gaming furniture and it’s not surprising they might like to give other people the chance to admire, and yes perhaps even covet, what they have.

WSIG handles the acquisition part – even the query itself is immersed in a kind of urge to engage in consumerist behaviour. Not, ‘Should I Get This Game I’m Thinking About’, but ‘What Should I Get?’. While the question often does render down into ‘Should I get X or Y’, that’s not what it says on the surface and it’s not what it says to those encountering the jargon for the first time. On the surface it says ‘I have the opportunity to acquire, so acquire I will’. It’s not about need, it’s about desire. It’s not about playing. It’s about having.

Acquisition is a common theme in the jokes we tell. In the advice we give. In the baseline assumption we have of what participation in board-gaming involves. It’s led to some low-grade, simmering hostility in how we portray our relationships to others in our lives. ‘I bought ten games this month, now I need to hide them from my wife!’, or ‘My wife won’t let me buy any more games!’, or ‘My wife tells me that it’s her or the games, so now I can use her wardrobe space for Gloomhaven’.

‘My Wife’, for it is almost always a wife that is the antagonist in these stories, is the unreasonable party standing between us and ever greater acquisitions. ‘My Wife’ is the bespoke villain in the fairy-tale of our own reasonableness. ‘My Wife’ is the comedy punchline for being prohibited from adding to a collection that already dwarfs our ability to meaningfully appreciate it. We are pure lovers of a hobby, and we are beset on all sides by those that would keep us from diving deeper.

And this often instinctive drive to acquire is fine, really – it is. There’s nothing wrong with there being a collection aspect associated with a hobby. It’s just important to realise that the perception the online community presents to you is not the actual median experience. Online is dominated by those that are the most stalwart and most pious of the crusaders in the hobby’s service. There is always going to be more of everything expressed in this demographic. The fact that it’s also the single most visible demographic though means that it’s easy for people to be scared off.

Here’s my collection as it was in my first few months of buying board games:

My first shelfie

A more innocent time

I had been aware of hobbyist gaming for a while, and I’d been keeping track of how it was developing. I’d been a regular viewer of Tabletop and then an idle devotee of Shut Up and Sit Down. I’d just never really jumped into the participatory phase until a comparatively late stage. A few years later, this is my collection:

A stupidly large collection

What on Earth happened?

Well, that’s most of it. There’s also a few bookshelves of a little unit that contains some of my smaller box games.

Too many games

That’s way too many…

And a chunk of other games in a set of built-in shelves:

A third set of shelves

Oh, good grief

Oh, and my X-Wing miniatures, and the games I have at work for ‘research purposes’, and, and, and…

That this is considered a relatively modest collection by many gaming standards is alarming – it’s a sign of how deeply the philosophy of acquisition is rooted in the hobby. This is not modest. This is a collection that grows faster than I have the ability to play games. I’m in the intensely privileged position of being able to afford a collection like this without financial hardships. Its mere existence though has a distorting effect on everyone around me that sees it. This is a collection that acts as a kind of implicit gatekeeping – ‘you must be at least this dedicated to be taken seriously in this hobby’. By any real, objective standards my collection is preposterous, and it’s becoming more preposterous by the month. I make excuses, and some of those excuses are more true than false.

‘It’s for research purposes’

True, but as of today I have examined fewer than half of these for the accessibility work I’m doing and I have enough evidence to support the papers I’m writing on the topic. Truthfully, I could have played forty fewer games and still been able to write 95% of the paper in exactly the same way. ‘It’s for research purposes’ is not a lie, but it’s not exactly the entire truth.

‘I’m a reviewer, so I’ll get to them as time goes by’

Also true, and there is real financial sense to be had from buying games when they’re cheap as opposed to when I actually want to play them. Many of these games were purchased because they were deeply discounted. But a cheap game I don’t play is just money I spent on nothing more than the occupant of a shelf. Some games have already become irrelevant as review candidates because new editions have been released or the titles are being phased out of production. Unless someone wants to send me the new edition of Robo Rally, as an example, there’s no point in my reviewing it because my copy is now unavailable to anyone else. I won’t buy the new one, because I already have the old one. ‘Just in Time’ reviewing is a much better approach there, but that means I buy them when I need them as opposed to when they’re cheap. I’m saving money this way! It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. I don’t need to have this many games in my ‘to review’ pile.

‘When you’re the main game source in your gaming groups, it’s important to have a range of titles that can support different playstyles’

That’s true, but that would only be relevant if I played games often enough with the same people for a small collection to lose its value. Most of the people with whom I play are not obsessive enough to be seeking a new experience just because this is the third time they’ve played the same game. Most people aren’t constantly looking for new highs like an addict that has become increasingly desensitised to their usual doses.

And so on, and so on, and so on. There’s always a reason. There’s always an excuse. There’s always a man. There’s always a lighthouse.

Some dice on some cards

Some dice, for no reason

Some of this post undoubtedly has the taste of confession about it – that’s not my intention. I’m comfortable with my acquisition. I like having games as things as much as play experiences. It’s a coin toss as to which of my shelves I spend most time idly fondling – my games or my books. I have gone through the same process with literature and as time has gone by acquisition has decreased and reading has gone considerably up. I will get to each of them, in time. So too it will be with the games. Probably. I’ll have a lot of time on my hands when the bombs drop, and with Trump in charge they might drop any second now.

This post isn’t ‘I have a problem’ – that’s not my point. But even so I mean, come on – 250 games. Get a grip of yourself, Michael. What on Earth are you doing with your life?

This is ‘I’m causing a problem’. I’m part of the group forever forcing upwards the perceived entry point to the hobby. I’m not doing it maliciously and I’m not even doing it intentionally. The fact remains, my collection creates a distorting impression on everyone that sees it. For those new to the hobby it looks ridiculously large. It looks like it’s saying ‘This isn’t a hobby you can afford’. For those that have larger collections, it looks embarrassingly small. Regardless of from what perspective you look at it, it’s not the right size.

Huge, conspicuous collections are about more than simply showing off. They create comparators for credibility whether we want them to or not. They create barriers that people must overcome in order to feel like they matter in a hobbyist space. They create benchmarks against which people will measure themselves, and usually find themselves wanting. They have a chilling effect on discussion and debate – they make people question whether their opinions are actually worth expressing. After all if you don’t have a collection to match what could you possibly offer to a discussion? Huge collections imply that you have a presence in this hobby only as long as you can keep up with the acquisition that drives the rest of us. You can’t have anything new to say if you can tell, just from our shelfies, that we’ve been at this longer and more diligently than you have.

The price of board games too acts as a multiplier on this. I’m not saying that board games are too expensive – although I obviously do think reviewers have a duty to report on value. However, having two hundred and fifty books is different from having two hundred and fifty games because of the sheer cost of any individual unit. Each game is an additional data point that suggests to people that perhaps, just perhaps, the stakes of even buying into this hobby at the lowest pots are likely to be too high. Kickstarters, with their model of ever more aggressively sumptuous stretch goals, compound this by adding a fear of missing out that everyone must bear. ‘Sure, you can get the base box – but real gamers are going to get the one with all the nice extras. If you don’t get them now, you’ll never get them’. Owning these games then becomes a mark of prestige – a sign of being ‘geekier than thou’. What, you don’t have ten Kickstarters you’re waiting on being fulfilled? You can’t afford to back 7th Continent? Well, you’ll never get it then and we’ll all know that you’re not really one of us. You didn’t know enough to be part of the vanguard. You’re an outsider. If you were there, you’d know.

So let me say this here – nobody gets to put a minimum level of involvement on you. Do you play games? You can think of yourself as a gamer. Nobody else awards that identity – it’s yours to claim whenever you want it. Do you only play games at a friend’s house? You’re still in the club. Do you only play Monopoly and Cluedo? Well… look, I’m not going to lie I think you can do better, but my opinion is worth as much as a fart in a hurricane. Is your game collection a small pile of three lowest-common-denominator party games? I hope you’re enjoying them!

There is no point at which you have met the entry requirements to the hobby – the door is wide open and you are welcome here. Those people acting as gatekeepers, formally or otherwise? Just pay them no mind.

This is an inaccessibility through perception, and I want to do what I can do make sure that perception isn’t distorted by our own community focus on ever increasing collections of every decreasing relevance. The key to the door to this hobby is not in the size of your collection.

What happens though once you give yourself permission to come through this door? I mean, it’s one thing for me to say ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely’ when you can see from the outside that it’s full of cheerful turds bobbing around in the undulating waves.

Monsters from Meeple City

Here be dragons

I phrased this above as an issue of conspicuous acquisition. There’s a cousin of that – conspicuous consumption. If one side of the coin is getting lots and lots of games, the other is playing lots and lots of games. Acquisition is mostly an implicit accessibility barrier – few people will come out and say ‘You need to own a lot to be taken seriously’. Few people, mind – there will always be some that confuse ownership of games with membership of an identity. Consumption though – well, people demand that all the damn time. That’s an explicit accessibility barrier – one where the community works to keep people feeling like they don’t belong. The good news is you don’t need to treat that barrier any more seriously than the other.

In any geek sphere, credibility is a constant element of the conversation and credibility is a function of how you fit in to the dominant mores of the larger community. Do you have an opinion on Dominion? Keep it to yourself unless you’ve played five hundred games with at least five expansions. Do you think Netrunner is a bummer? Shut up, you don’t even have acrylic tokens. Bro, do you even sleeve? Do you think Great Western Trail is a Great Western Fail? You’re obviously too stupid to understand it – your opinion is wrong because you didn’t play all these other games that show its brilliance. Do you like Catan? That’s adorable – casuals say the cutest things.

Consider the way that many parts of Reddit responded to the Shut Up and Sit Down exploration of the BGG Top 100. Instead of treating this feature as an honest insight into their frame of reference it became for many a reason to lambast their credentials as reviewers. One representative example:

Well if anything this whole list has deepened my puzzlement at the status and reverence SUSD enjoy. They haven’t played a shocking amount of games, including Puerto Rico. They bash games for just being around for a long time like Twilight Struggle. They don’t understand others at all like Rebellion or Robinson Crusoe. I just don’t know what this is all about.

The ability of Shut Up and Sit Down to comment on the games they enjoy is, at least for this person, directly linked to how many games they have played. It’s related to consumption. It’s true there’s a certain level of experience required in order to meaningfully critique work in a formal, academic sense. What SU&SD do though is talk about the experience of play – there’s no barrier to entry as far as expressing enjoyment is concerned. Bear that in mind if people imply that you’re not serious enough to be taken seriously – Shut Up and Sit Down can make or break games with a recommendation. Even they’re not serious enough for some of the joyless dementors that stalk the online board-gaming community.

That’s it, that’s the only thing you need to know – enjoyment has no barrier to entry. Do you like Catan? Play the hell out of Catan! Play it until you’ve got all the wood you can get your hands on. Do you like playing Cards Against Humanity of an evening? Don’t let anyone look down on you for finding fun in enjoying the company of your friends. God help you, even if you’re still playing Monopoly – you get to enjoy this hobby on your own terms. As with owning games, there’s no point at which you magically develop credibility as a result of playing games. Lots of people have played lots of games and never attained any deeper insight as a result. Some people have played only one game and as such can fully appreciate every inch of its depth and contours. You get to have an opinion on a game whenever you like. More than that you get to express it whenever you like. A wider range of experiences can texture that opinion but in the end you are a unique data point and your viewpoint is valid regardless.

A certain segment of the community is responsible for creating this barrier – an inaccessibility of credibility. It creates it through a cultural expectation of expertise. It creates it through pigeon-holes and categorisations. And it creates it through setting unreasonable standards of experience. Are you a party gamer? A heavy gamer? A casual gamer? Are you a fan or Eurogames or Ameritrash? What’s the average weight of the games you play? How are you getting on with your x10 challenge? I hope you’re logging your plays and tracking your H-Index. There’s a vocal part of the community that makes a distinction between play and playing at play. If you don’t measure up, you’re in the latter category. It’s fine to track any of this for your own purposes – again, you get to choose what it means to be a part of the hobby. The problem is that sometimes you find it thrust into your face as a benchmark other people use to assess your merit.

Ignore all of that. You’re a gamer, of whatever flavour you like. You’re everything, and nothing, and all points in between. You don’t have to ascribe to labels that other people give you, and you don’t have to listen to anyone that puts caveats and restrictions on your ability to have and express a viewpoint on what you find fun.

The size of your collection doesn’t matter. The number of games you’ve played doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re enjoying yourself and the people around you. This is your hobby, if you want it to be. You don’t need anyone’s permission for that.