What Do Gamers Owe Designers?

Please forgive a brief diversion. It’s relevant, I swear!

In addition to my job as Gamer-At-Large here at the CR, I’m an avid reader. If I’m not gaming or asleep, I’m likely buried in a book. Reading can be lonely though, particularly when the people around you haven’t read what you have, and so I follow a handful of excellent book blogs to supplement.

Of course, every section of the internet is occasionally (or often) embroiled in drama, but there’s been an interesting controversy churning in the bookosphere lately, and I think it’s relevant to the gaming world as well.  It concerns the entitlements of an author – specifically, what readers owe to the authors whose work they enjoy.

If you aren’t familiar with what’s been happening, the literary world is undergoing the same kind of evolution as we’ve seen in the music industry. With the increase in self-publishing, many authors are going it alone. They don’t have huge publishers to help them out, and they don’t have the money for expensive ad campaigns. So it’s become a common – if not necessarily accepted – practice for authors to ask fans to review/like/retweet/etc. their new books. In recent weeks, though, a few of these requests have become, well, demands.

And then this appeared. (For those who don’t want to click through, it’s a list of “20 Easy Ways Readers Can Help Promote a Book”.) You don’t have to read the whole thing, and I bet that you can totally tell where I’m going with this. Suffice it to say, many of the suggestions aren’t exactly “easy”, and some of them are just ridiculous. I love my books, but I’m not posing “creatively” with them. That sounds like a waste of time, at best, and something that could potentially get me arrested, at worst. Not to mention the papercuts…

The reaction from the reading community was less than kind. The overwhelming argument was that readers’ only job is to read books that they acquire legally. As in:

1. Don’t steal

2. Don’t stop reading

Anything beyond that is extra, and it’s not at all required.


Yes, But This is a Gaming Site

Ok, that’s the end of the background. So, let’s bring this back to gaming. (I told you that I would). I understand that a controversy like this hasn’t been found in our community, at least not recently or on any large-scale. (BoardGameGeek forum drama doesn’t count.) But it still made me wonder:  what do we, as gamers, owe to our independent game designers?

I specify “gamers” here, too, because my obligations as a blogger are different from my obligations as a gamer.

As a blogger, I see a lot of games and I’m expected to talk about them. This expectation comes not only from the designer but from the readers. It would be a super boring gaming site if we didn’t feel any obligation to talk about games.

Also, my interest in speaking about independent games here isn’t entirely selfless – I benefit from the increased traffic and exposure just as the designer benefits from getting the word out on their product.

This is, of course, operating under the assumption that the game is good. At least that’s generally where I try to start, though the feeling doesn’t always last.

As gamers, then, what do we owe to our designers?

More or less, our obligations are the same things that readers owe to authors. We need to play games, and we need to not steal them. Simple, right?

Well, yeah. Obviously. We are, first and foremost, gamers. We enjoy games for fun, for escapism, for social interaction. We do this for a number of reasons, but none of us partake to promote games.

Still, the comparison isn’t quite so simple, and examining the principal differences between the reading and gaming communities is an important step in determining exactly what we owe, and to whom.


Games are Social

Let’s start here. Unlike the act of reading books, games are social by nature. We play them with our friends, so there’s no need to tell them about everything we’ve found. They were there – they discovered it with us. Sure, we can (and often do) take to the internet to spread the word far and wide, but games are a relatively niche hobby. You’re not going to loan your brother-in-law your copy of Twilight Imperium just because he said that he likes Star Wars. In fact, you generally don’t loan games much. If you do, it’s typically to another gamer, and you most definitely expect your copy back. Your game isn’t going to jump from house to house, picking up new fans across the country like a book could.

It follows, then, that designers can’t expect every person who plays and enjoys the game to buy it. With the exception of some gateway games, I don’t buy games that my friends have. There’s just no need since we all play together, and you can really only play one copy at a time, unless you’re playing Super Arkham (which isn’t real, but should be). LCGs and CCGs notwithstanding, the gamers I know seem to shop as groups rather than as individuals, because that’s how they play.


Games are Expensive

Games are also a much bigger investment than books. If you buy a book that you hate, you’ll be out $15. A game? Closer to $60. That still might not empty your bank account, but no one wants to spend that amount of money on something that they’re not going to enjoy. This is where word-of-mouth and reviews become very important. As gamers, we depend on our network of other gamers to tell us what’s worth our money. It’s the reason why sites like BoardGameGeek let you rate games, and why those ratings are so useful in determining whether to buy Game A or Game B. The stakes are comparatively higher here, and so we like more information before we make a decision.

There’s also a much smaller secondary market for games than there is for books. When was the last time you saw a Used Game Store?


Of course, you can trade and sell and pick up old copies of Matlock: The Board Game at a yard sale or on eBay, but that’s not how most gamers acquire their games – particularly not new ones. Games are pricey, and there’s generally no good way to acquire them on the cheap. Thus, designers are less likely than authors to lose out on revenue due to secondary market play.


Who Owes What to Whom?

I stand by my statement that gamers don’t owe developers anything other than playing (legally acquired) games, but I think there’s more to it than that. Reading is a generally solitary pursuit, and the relationship is one between the author and the reader. Gaming, on the other hand, is social. Relationships form between the game owner and the designer, yes, but also between the game owner and the other players. Maybe, then, the question isn’t really “What do gamers owe to independent game designers”, but “What do gamers owe to each other?”

Our community is strong. We aren’t without our own foibles, but, generally, we’re welcoming, friendly, and helpful. Despite the cliches, most of us even have decent social skills! So maybe we don’t owe it to a designer to tweet or rate or whatever regarding his or her latest game, but maybe we do owe other fans. We owe it to each other to share our experiences, good and bad, so that other gamers can make more informed decisions and get more enjoyment out of our hobby. It’s really a form of vicarious learning, and I think it’s proven effective thus far.


Erin Ryan is a regular contributor to the site.  Feel free to share your thoughts over on our forums!

Photo Credits: Worker Meeples by Bitboxer.