What Would Google Do?
What Would Google Do? assumes the reader is somehow engaged in some sort of business, and encourages him or her to apply the model. But what I thought of as I read was actually board games, my hobby.
Not to be all hipster about it, but in case someone is reading and doesn’t know: Board gaming as a hobby is not about five games that were designed before 1950, and are owned by Hasbro, and either involve random movement around a track or are Scrabble. We have games now that are, you know, fun. They emphasize creative mechanisms and interesting decisions. Many of my favorites involve building up economic engines, but I also like games about logistics, games about card drafting, and, well, a variety of things. Then there’s another school of games that are about immersive themes and fun social experiences (these are not really my thing, but I enjoy them once in a while). Furthermore, there are a lot more of them than people outside the hobby might assume; as of this writing, BoardGameGeek lists over 52,000 and more come out every Essen (November), Nuremburg (February/March), Origins (June) and GenCon (August). There are long games and short games, silly fillers and “heavy” strategy games, games for children and games for adults, Euros and Ameritrash, cardboard and plastic and whatever you want.
There’s one obvious connection to the book here: this is a niche in what Jarvis calls “the mass of niches.” That much is clear from the fact that I just spent a paragraph trying to explain what I am talking about. There is also at least one obvious way in which it doesn’t fit: Jarvis writes “atoms are a drag” and it’s awfully difficult to separate board games from their atoms. Sure, there are online implementations of board games, and implementations for use with iDevices or video game consoles have been popular recently, but most gamers seem to regard them as supplemental at best because they want real-time, face to face social interaction. Instead, we gather in a room, sometimes even at a convention far away from wherever it is we live, in order to play games with other people.
But it’s also true that gamers congregate online. I’ve already mentioned BoardGameGeek, but it deserves a more thorough treatment.
Each game has a page which provides information about it; we’ll use Navegador, one of my current favorites and very likely the best game of 2010. Some basic bibliographic information (designer, publisher, publication date, number of players) is available there, but it goes beyond that. Not only is it possible to see how many players the game supports in theory, but there is also a poll to help people figure out what the best number of players is. Other features, such as language dependence, can also be voted on. The game record also aggregates other information; there’s a space for video reviews and links to site-hosted blogs and other BGG content that concerns that particular game. There’s also information about how a game has been rated by the site’s users and a ranking system based on that, in order to make it easier to identify the best games. Of course, there is also a set of forums for each game. Designers of games often frequent these forums to clarify rules questions or respond to comments.
Users can also contribute images of games. Some are straightforward and just communicate what the game looks like. Others feature creative photography, interesting game situation, or customized pieces. This can extend far beyond the painting of miniatures. If you look at the images for Agricola, you’ll see both farmers and resource tokens sculpted from FIMO; there are also sheets of printable stickers for the less ambitious. Many gamers like to show off their customized games. Others just hope to be helpful and create player aids, rules translations and the like, and post them on BGG.
That’s what you see when you approach the site from the perspective of the games. Sometimes, it’s just as interesting to look at user profiles. People who create accounts can rate and comment on games, and this information is available to all. It’s also possible to record sessions of each game played, and who else was playing. There’s a lot more information that it can record, not only about games but also about yourself. For instance, there are so-called microbadges that fit right under your avatar, describing the various things with which you may wish to be associated. Some popular microbadges are those declaring fandom of a particular game, endorsement of a philosophy, how many children the bearer has, and so on. Some are just silly jokes—I personally sport one that says “ambiguity will get you somewhere.” So there is also a lot of potential for personalization. Anyone can design microbadges, although there is a moderation process.
Simplicity is recommended as a virtue in the book. BGG does not go in for this sort of thing; it’s a site for geeks who already care about the hobby. But when it comes to being a platform, providing personalization, giving users control, inviting a community to use it, and being smart with data (all attributes of what Jarvis calls “Googliness”), it’s excellent.
But what about the games themselves? There’s more user input than one might think. There are game design forums on BoardGameGeek, designer-specific conventions and games financed through Kickstarter. Game publishers, however, constitute an intermediary that doesn’t seem to be as doomed as he claims intermediaries are in general. This is not to say that they are rolling in dough, far from it, but they’re an essential part of the chain. It’s expensive to produce and distribute a board game, after all. There are print and play games, but very few gamers pay attention to them, since they represent a greater risk in terms of quality, and they don’t look as nice, at least not until everyone has one of those 3D printers that keep showing up on BoingBoing. Still, it does feel as if anyone has a chance to become a game designer. The community is small and the publishers accessible.
So—is BGG the Google of board games? As Google is defined in the book, I think it is.
This model works very well for a community of this sort—a small community organized around a fun social activity that includes a commercial/consumer aspect and is largely composed of people who are highly wired and not very poor. I’m not sure it works as well for other kinds of communities—those with a more serious purpose, or those that involve no consumer aspect, or those whose members are on the wrong side of the digital divide. But board games are a good example of a time when it can work well.