Sunday, 12 February 2012

Sunday Sermon: looking at things critically

We all have the capacity to think critically

Recently a fair few companies and individuals have actually asked me to look at some specific things critically, and tell them what I think. You might think that it'd be easy for me, what with all the reviews I do. I'd certainly think most people who know me well enough would confirm that critical thought is one of my 'strong suits'. However, with the things I've been asked to cast my critical and beady eyes over recently, the people doing the 'asking' weren't asking for a review as such. Thing is there are many different types of critical thought, despite what certain academics and business management guru's might have you believe. When the critical thought requires you to actually solve a problem, or asses a system it's very different to simply giving my reasoned opinion. While I'm not claiming my reviews are anywhere near as profound in their deliberations as many scholarly thinkers, I do take my time and seriously consider my deliberations. While not everyone will agree with my reviews, and indeed many will disagree with them vehemently, I believe I articulate my views well. I state my case and give responses to the products that end up on my reviewing desk. I think I'm good at it too.

I'll be honest here though and say it's not always as rational as all that. I've had the odd product I've just liked, or disliked from the outset. My gut response has been instant. 100% emotional. This really frustrates me. I feel the need to find out why I believe what I believe, and think the way I do. Maybe this is just me attempting to hide my emotional response to a product behind a badly disguised veil of faux rational thought. If it is though I take my subterfuge seriously, very seriously. If I've had an emotional response to a product then you can rest assured that I'll take even longer than normal to commit my thoughts to print. I've never denied though that I've had emotional responses to products, whether they've been released yet or not. Over the last few months though I've had people send me rules before games are released, or supplements yet to be announced. Or even 3D concepts of gaming scenery and other paraphernalia, and simply ask me 'so what do you think?'... that is never an easy question to answer when it's somebodies hard work you're critiquing. Somebodies business, they're livelihood. Plus they're after something a little bit more in-depth than 'yeah it's alright' or 'I think it's crap'. They're actually after qualified opinions, and reasons behind the opinions. Hell, in some cases they're after actual solutions to perceived problems and detailed responses.

But I am a great believer in being honest with people, even to the point of offending them if necessary. But, I do so while always trying to be constructive. I also believe that critical thought is something we all posses to varying degrees, whether you think you do or not. There are some basic similarities though between reviewing a product and play testing a game, or helping during the design phase. So what are the similarities between the various forms of critical thinking? Well I believe all critical thought is about examining assumptions, evaluating evidence or intrinsic values. I think it's important that critical thought has a purpose or a value to it as well, a goal if you will. Because without a target or a reason for the critical thought it becomes aimless and meandering. Your critique should therefore always be aiming at these goals, seeking to accomplish a level of understanding and ultimately to test your own conclusions to ensure their robustness. When I look at the set of skills required of a good critical thinker I actually see many of the things that make the best gamers I know so very good at what they do.

So I have often pondered this question in my head, am I a good critical thinker because I play games? Or am I a good gamer because I'm a critical thinker? Sadly there isn't a twin Frontline Gamer acting as a controlled experiment who was locked away from all gaming activity to see how he would develop. I'd pity the poor sod if there was. So I'll never truly know, but I do think that war gaming in particular does enhance our critical thought skills. As gamers we're all trained to think critically, to asses systems. To make snap judgements about decisions on the board via observation of it, and the 'evidence' such critical observation might bring. Think about it, we try and accomplish actions or goals via manipulation and understanding of the mechanics of any given system. We use different methods, techniques or strategies for formulating our judgements on how to proceed. Ultimately any game we play is a problem that has to be or can be solved. Obviously there's a lot of contextual analysis that goes on when any of us play the various games we do too. I think gaming in all it's varieties actually teaches us all some pretty good critical thought skills.

Look that's me under playtesting

So I know I'm not in any way unique, or I shouldn't be. So to be specifically asked to employ my critical thought by others is an honour. The first time somebody asked me to critique something in this way was well over a decade ago now. Like now, back then I was surprised anybody actually valued my opinion enough to ask. I'm always glad people do though. Why? Because I like problem solving and systems analysis. In short I'm a very sad individual. I'm a nerd and I don't pretend otherwise. Play testing board games and war games is also a lot of fun. Don't get me wrong, at the Alpha and Beta stages there are normally more than the odd 'kink' in the system to sort out and it's not always fun to play a half finished product. But there is reward in it. You get to advise people on where to go next and what to do. You also see the evolution of a product, be that a game or a HDF building. You see it grow and change. Hopefully for the better if you've taken your time and done your task properly. The biggest buzz though is actually from seeing cool stuff way before it's released. It's a privilege and an honour that people trust you with their 'baby' so to speak, or more pointedly commercially sensitive information.

Just in case you're wandering I'm still taking it easy

Anyone who knows me well will also know that this last bit, or the situation it puts me in is a bit of a personal conundrum for me. Insofar that I love to talk about hobby things... a lot! My Blog is testament to this, yet I'm insanely loyal and honourable. So having lots of cool hobby related goodies dangled in front of me and then to be asked not to talk about them is complete and utter torture for me. Some of my friends haven't seen some of the things I have because I take the phrase 'in strictest confidence' very seriously. Honestly, it's like purgatory for me. Or maybe a certain circle of hell that Dante forgot to mention in his Divine Comedy, a circle reserved specifically for me it seems! So how am I getting around all of this? How am I managing to keep my sanity, while keeping my trap shut? Well I guess my will to see more new cool things in the future definitely outweighs my desire to blab about the stuff I have seen so far. Because if I open my big trap now I know people will stop trusting me with all this stuff, and that would make me a very sad panda indeed. But hey, on the plus side I have found a use for my Blog, I'm using it as a way of writing loads of articles about the stuff I'm seeing. It's turning into a pressure release valve now. I won't publish them yet but being able to vent and pour my thoughts into these articles is helping, I guess that's a bit like some people use a diary. Sort of. All I can say though is that you guys are in for some treats over the coming months. Peace out!


  1. Hey, Frontline!
    Sorry I'm a bit late, but I've been banging away at my FoW 3rd edition 'review thingy.'
    It will go up today (Monday) at the House, I believe.

    I want you to know this, and I'll say it here for everybody to see-
    You and your blog inspire ME to be a better blogger.
    Folks like yourself, Lauby and Dethy, the lovely Loquacious and the master of smug beards and wacky headgear that is Von all slightly embarrass me with your dearth of talent, and push me to be better.

    The entire time I wrote my FoW review, I was trying to be impartial, to judge the book on it's own merits, and not succumb to rampant fanboi-ism...which would be easy, because I love the darn game so much.
    Critical thinking is FAR easier said then done, for sure.

    The funny thing about being a 'critic' in regards to our hobby is...I never seem to get 'jaded.'
    Each new release from the companies I love or hate sees me devolve into gushy girly squeals of joy, or frothing at the mouth in impotent nerd rage.
    You would think I would grow inured to an endless parade of cool stuffs, and develop a thick skin to repel the lameness and fail that sometimes occurs, but no...
    I'm still a kid, somewhere inside, and these are my toys.

    Keep up the good work, my friend.

    1. I think that's meant to be a compliment, but...

      "Folks like yourself, Lauby and Dethy, the lovely Loquacious and the master of smug beards and wacky headgear that is Von all slightly embarrass me with your dearth of talent"

      Dearth of Talent!!! You swine!!! :P

      I hope you meant wealth of talent otherwise you and me Sir pistols at Dawn. And I'm sure there will be a few others who will be lining up after me to take pot shots at you, you cad and bounder!

      On a more serious note though, I swear to God I'm going to pistol whip your ass if you meant 'dearth of talent'. I jest of course, we don't have that many pistols in the UK so I'll have to use the flat of my broadsword to beat you upside your head!!!

    2. Sigh for the lack of an 'edit' feature on yer rotten blog....
      Of course I meant wealth.
      Maybe if you would put up timely coffee posts, and I had caffeine in me these mistakes wouldn't happen, so I blame you.

      On another note, I'd find a gun of some sort if I were you, and leave the sword at home.
      You DO KNOW where I live, right?
      We're more heavily armed then our police around my way, pal.
      And we don't bother with the legalities like they do in places like Texas....

    3. I'll take your pistols and raise you a bloody elephant gun Sir!!! Now where are my fighting trousers? :P