Isn’t the love of learning part of the very nature of the board gamer? After all, unlike literature, music, movie or even video game enthusiasts, board gamers must first learn any new game before playing it.
Well, I am not satisfied by just playing the games I like — I want to learn everything I can about them. Because the more I learn about them, the more I enjoy playing them. And I like a lot of games. That’s a lot of learning.
But that’s hardly an issue nowadays, right? After all, the Internet brings all the world’s knowledge to our fingertips. Even more, we’ve got BoardgameGeek. Problem solved — next!
It’s a Big Internet
I have a confession to make — I regularly shop at Costco. There’s a list of utility items that I simply refuse to buy at a premium elsewhere. The experience is crude: concrete floors, sheet metal walls, products still in their shipping packaging. And the crowds, of course. But none of that matters to me as I can find what I’m looking for, at a price I’m willing to pay. Now would I buy everything there? Go and have meals there? Make Costco my destination of choice? My only reference? I don’t think so.
It’s the same online. I hang out on BoardGameGeek. The experience is neither exactly modern nor user friendly. But it hardly matters because there is so much content there. The entire board game industry revolves around this site. It can be argued that it has even created a good part of the community it now serves. BGG has become essential. But, that doesn’t make it sufficient.
That’s why coming to see this global bazaar as the only board gaming resource is to fall victim to what I call the Costco effect: A resource so big that it blocks the view, and so prevalent and convenient that the alternatives seem to us far less relevant and unnecessarily complicated. Especially in our field, where quality content is often scattered or buried under piles of platitudes.
I too thought that I could get by using only BGG. And I tried. As a tool it does have some rather interesting features. But over the years all my attempts to domesticate it have resulted in the same frustrations, which I won’t describe here.
Let’s just say that I came to realize that BGG lacked the consistent toolset and powerful features required to efficiently access its own content. And so much content has been growing outside of BGG lately.
Just like Costco, BGG excels at specific content, such as game collections or rules forums. But I also often go on Reddit for its simplicity and its offbeat and unmoderated content. Grognard and ConsimWorld are among my primary sources for content about historical games, as TricTrac or Ludovox are for French and European content. I follow my favorite designers, publishers, reviewers and players on their own blogs, on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. As well as many online stores, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon projects. Add to that some local forums, groups and boardgame shops and cafes, for nearby events or sales. And, more broadly, the many sites about history, strategy or game theory that are only indirectly related to gaming. All that in two languages. And this is just the content I know about — as I discover new blogs and resources all the time.
Just Like in a Good Euro
How do you practically approach that? Like in a good Euro, the sheer number of available options forces you to define your priorities and tightly manage your resources.
Of course, you can stay confined within BGG, come to terms with its quirks and hope not to miss too much good or fresh content. Or you can go out and try to grab as much as you can using tools like your browser’s favourites, or social bookmarking. Diigo, Instapaper, Wakelet or Pocket, with their lists of links and their collection of articles to read later, are good at what they do. But they are clumsy tools when it comes to following forums, blogs or social networks.
You see, it’s pretty simple. Approximately 50 new blogs, 1,500 new articles, 500 Facebook messages and 350,000 tweets have popped up on the Web since you started reading this article. Even if only a tiny fraction of this content pertains to the board gaming world, it is still a bit too much to ignore. And a bit too much to visit manually every time you feel like reading, just to see if any new content is available.
It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.
— Steven Wright
Aggregators to the Rescue
The tools are not to blame here. We need a change of approach. Shopping around for information is fine. So is manually digging for every piece of content. But if what you want is to stay on top of what’s going on in gaming for any period of time, you need to stop digging, and start monitoring. Instead of running outside 20 times a day with your pail, you’ll want running water installed.
For that you need a content aggregator, sometimes called a feed reader. Like with running water, all you have to do is connect your aggregator to sites — or site sections — that interest you, and it will bring back any new content, no matter how rare or how scattered, as soon as it is published. And of course you will connect to hundreds, if not thousands of sites.
Like with your emails, all that content ends up in an inbox for you to read at your convenience. Everything is right in there, neatly trimmed, curated and displayed according to your preferences. And like any email client, your aggregator can notify you as new items are received, or mark them as read as they are opened. Content archiving and sharing is also a charm.
One of the key elements making aggregators so useful is the RSS format (if you’d like to know more about RSS, it’s right here). In short, any content published on a site offering RSS generates a message readable by aggregators. Like the little red flags found on the side of traditional mailboxes, this message, called RSS feed, indicates that new content is available. When you subscribe to a site, your aggregator will go and check its RSS feed many times a day. Every time it finds a red flag, it will bring back the new content.
All very nice. But the rub is that for years we’ve been hearing that this technology has become obsolete, that very few sites still use it. In short, that RSS is dead. Is that the case?
Short answer: no.
RSS Dead ?
Long answer: This rumored death of RSS is based on commercial imperatives. It’s no secret that many large sites, such as Google or Facebook, rely mostly on advertising revenue. The way it works is that you go there, you see all these wonderful ads, you can’t help clicking on them, and a few coins fall in their piggy bank each time.
But the RSS reader doesn’t work like that. It detects new content and brings it back to you. You can read it without ever going on the original site. Thus without seeing all these beautiful ads, let alone clicking on them.
The RSS model is open and short-circuits the advertising model. This is why some giant sites have stopped supporting it. Google even withdrew its popular aggregator, Google Reader, in 2013, claiming too few users (!), but more likely hoping to deal a fatal blow to RSS.
A few systems and browsers have followed suit, but the void thus created had the opposite effect. Dozens of RSS readers, from simple browser extensions to premium applications or services, now compete in a very healthy market. The sales of the premium version of a simple service like Feedly, for instance, have increased 900% from 2013 to 2015.
Just about every major news site offers RSS. And virtually all major content management platforms, such as WordPress, which together are behind 25% of all Web content. It certainly represents hundreds of gaming blogs. Portals and independent sites also typically offer RSS.
And yes, BoardGameGeek is entirely built around RSS. It offers, at least in its current incarnation, feeds for almost every level of content. An aggregator is a much more powerful and comprehensive way of accessing this site.
In short, hundreds of millions of people and organizations use RSS every day. It may be that “RSS is dead.” But no one noticed.
Ready For a Change?
Since I’ve been using a content aggregator, I spend less time searching and more time reading… and playing. I don’t know of a better tool to benefit from everything the board gaming online world has to offer.
As soon as you’re done browsing randomly the same few sources, and dozing off in front of the run-of-the-mill rambling news and unchallenging reviews and start getting a little more intentional, you notice a few things.
Obviously you learn new and interesting facts. And you also discover new authors and resources.
But mostly you change. In small but appreciable ways. You better identify the reliable sources, and develop a healthy impatience for poor or redundant content. Not only do you learn all kinds of things about a game, but you connect things to it you already knew. These new connections, trends and influences you perceive make you think about games, and your gaming experiences, in different ways.
Because you left the tiny echo chamber of regurgitated content and gave yourself a chance to get out and stretch a bit.
You get a new vision. A new understanding. And, above all, as such an influx of quality content gets your turbine going, you get new ideas.
And there’s simply nothing like new ideas.
A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Until Next Time
OK, RSS is quite ubiquitous. But still, the best readers don’t stop there, and can understand an even wider variety of sources. My aggregator of choice is one of them.
And it does a lot of other clever things too.
I’ll tell you all about it. But that will be for the next post.