Posted by: markfender | June 25, 2014

Subcultural Reviewing

Learning about a thing never seems to work out well for me.

Review-with-Forrest-MacNeil-andy-dalyWhen you discover a new subculture, the first thing to do is to see what they’re up to on the internet. Maybe hang out on their forums to see where their conversations drift to. And, if all of that is interesting and you want to know more, you dive into whatever they’re selling. Except there’s a problem there – they tend to not be that discerning.

Or, at least, it seems that way from the outside. Having been immersed in certain activities long enough, I can spot the buzz words that provide an insider’s perspective on what a reviewer is actually saying about a product. But I can’t necessarily pick up on that from a subculture I’m not a part of.

For instance, let’s say I’m interested in anime (all of a sudden like). There’s a billion sources for anime on the internet, including billions of reviews of all the animes. But I have no idea what’s good. And reading some review of newly released anime, every review reads like it’s the greatest thing ever. Reading the odd random anime blog, you’d get the idea that the particular reviewer loves everything about anime with absolutely no distinctions. It’s made in Japan – it’s great. End of story.

The same thing happens with lots of different genres. I have occasionally gone looking for a new science fiction book to read because I’m in the mood for science fiction, only to discover a few review blogs who love everything that is put in front of their face to read. That’s…that’s not possible. You can’t love every science fiction book, can you?

As an outsider coming to something new, it can be impossible to find a discerning reviewer who can steer you towards things you might actually like. I often find that I have to read certain reviewers a lot before you can start to understand their biases and then form your own opinion. I know that Alan Sepinwall is probably going to like the television show he’s watching, but I can read between the lines and I know what appeals to him from reading lots of other reviews so I can see whether that thing that he obviously loves is a thing I would like. Most people don’t have a voice inside a subculture that they can point to and do the same with. From outside, it looks like everyone involved loves everything within their subculture without question. Which makes sense, of course. If you didn’t like science fiction, you wouldn’t spend all your free time reading it. But it’s frustrating to try to find good examples of media within a subculture and not be able to find any because there appears to be no measure for quality.

I’m not claiming my particular subcultures are any better. There are certain words (words like ‘simulationist,’ ‘immersion,’ and ‘murder hobo’) that an outsider is not going to understand about roleplaying games – even if they go look up those words they’re not going to understand the deep-seated feelings these words encompass for people within the hobby. They didn’t see the five year long argument about GNS. They didn’t participate in the 40,000 page long forum thread about simulationism. They’re just going to breeze over that stuff and not necessarily understand what the review is really saying.

Ultimately, what I would like from a new subculture is not a list of “The 10 Best [whatevers] Ever.” Instead, I would like to hear about the best reviewers within your subculture. Point me to people who understand the genre, take issues with aspects of it, and can articulate their points well. I can read a bunch of their stuff and then form my own opinion, sampling as needed and managing my expectations based on what I thought vs. what they thought. That would be far more useful to introducing new people to your subculture.

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