I don’t know exactly what this is, but there you go.an unboxer
Let’s see if I can get the scene right.
While looking for some online information about a heavy board game, we end up in a poorly lit dining room, where the voice of an adult quavers with excitement telling us that we are about to see what’s in that large postal parcel lying in the middle of his kitchen table. Running around the said table are his young children, or his dog — more likely both. After spending a lot of (our) time cutting and rummaging through the package, he takes out a game box, wipes off the last foam peanuts from it, and raises it as a precious artifact — the Elevation. Then we witness the customary struggle between one of his hands and the plastic film, then the box lid (the other hand is too busy shaking the camera in all directions). Finally we enter the heart of the ritual: one by one, the hand takes out of the box, as ceremoniously as it can, every game component, and holds it in front of the camera, just briefly enough to prevent any possibility of a clear focus. During the good 20 minutes that this lasts, our host attempts to punctuate the awkward silences (except for the background noise of the kids running after the dog) by breathing some enlightening comments and advice straight into the microphone (when he has one) such as: “You can use a sharp object to cut the tape”; “Here you have some black things, here some yellow things”; “Look at this deck of cards!”, “So many counters… nice!”.
I don’t know about you, but for me this type of Internet content puts to test my patience and self-control. Especially if I’m curious about the game.
But what made me even more curious was noticing that such unboxing videos routinely garner thousands of views. So I went to search for the term unboxing on YouTube.
I got over 63 million matches.
Turns out the unboxing landscape is simply unreal. There are hundreds of channels exclusively dedicated to “product porn” as it is sometimes called, and together they totalize dozens of billions of views.
Defective luxury handbags, plasticine dresses, all-too-real briefs, Bic pens, cotton bubble gum, Kinder Surprise Eggs or live reptiles — even if you find unboxings of literally anything, there are areas that are insanely popular, like tech gadgets (Unboxing Therapy: 8.2 million subscribers, 1.5 billion views), toys (Fun Toys Collector Disney Toys Review: 9.2 million subscribers, 13 billion views).
I was going to write that unboxing was a major trend common to every industry, but in fact, it has become an industry in and by itself.
Because it works
It works to the point where unboxing is consistently among the most watched content on YouTube, and unboxers consistently end up in the club of millionnaire youtubers.
It works to the point where parents have noticed that their young children much prefer watching the unboxing of a toy than playing with the actual toy itself.
It works to the point where big companies like Apple, Sony or Disney optimize the packaging of their products for those online strip-teases (numerous and colorful internal layers and folds, packaging material with lovely textures, reflective qualities that even often sound appealing).
Why it works
Unboxing has caught the attention not only of marketers, but also of scientists, in various fields of psychology, like cognitive and behavioral neurosciences.
Beyond our species natural curiosity, it seems that watching faceless hands meticulously unpacking an object we desire triggers mechanisms deeply buried in the subconscious of the (sometimes) evolved primates we are.
Source credibility and truth biases. Two important characteristics of unboxing videos make us more likely to get hooked. They present products without any of the usual marketing/advertisement dressing, so they feel more authentic. They are also presented by a non-expert, average consumer, whose face we typically don’t see — and therefore with whom we will easily identify. The two well-known biases they draw upon form a powerful cocktail. Think reality TV.
Dopamine pathways. We know that the “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine drives our desire, motivation, attention and even addiction. But recent research suggests that our brain produces more dopamine when we anticipate a reward than when we obtain it. Think of unwrapping Christmas presents.
Mirror neurons. These neurons differ from our regular brain cells in that they show the same level of activity when we are watching someone doing something than if we were doing it ourselves. By allowing us to derive satisfaction from an action performed by a stranger, even without any material reward, mirror neurons are thought to be at the heart of crucial skills such as learning, language and empathy. Or, less gloriously, voyeurism, another active ingredient of unboxings.
So despite simple exteriors, unboxings are a very complex and rich meal for our brain to digest. It is no surprise that they are increasingly linked with a new specialty within the advertisement industry, called neuromarketing, a discipline that is trying to base marketing techniques on breakthroughs by neurosciences, finding endless new ways of manipulating our desires.
Board Game Unboxing
That said, compared to the worlds of tech gadgets and mass market toys, the board game niche is a quiet and distant shore that has been spared, so far, by the unboxing tsunami.
The production of board game unboxings is quite modest in every meaning of the word. But that does not prevent some unboxings to provide value under certain conditions.
As with many things, the person doing the unboxing is key to generating interest in it and in the game itself.
So even if astrophysicist Brian May — who, I’m told, also happens to play a little rock guitar on the side — might have a hard time convincing any experienced board game enthusiast that Queen Monopoly is worth a try, his unboxing video has nonetheless been seen 100,000 times.
The same goes for hearing (!) wargame designer Mark Herman unboxing his Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars (2017).
I think it is quite reasonable, when you are asked to pay 30-40% more than average for any particular game, to want to see what’s inside the box. This is where unboxing videos can be a source of valuable information. Is the higher market price of games such as Conan (Henry, Bauza, Cathala, Maublan et al., 2016) or Indonesia (Jeroen Doumen, Joris Wiersinga, 2005) justified? Well, you can judge (almost) by yourself.
There undoubtedly is some lust in it, but still, being able to have a look at out-of-print, vintage classic games does provide value, especially if you are into secondary market games. An unboxing might very well be your only opportunity to have a closer look at the contents of The Battle of the Bulge (Bruno Sinigaglio, Mick Uhl, 1981). By the way, it is called retro-unboxing.
Part of the appeal of board games, in the digital age, is their physical aspect, their tactility. But for some games, particular components can have more importance.
Even if good photos will allow you to assess the quality of some abstract game’s unique wooden pawns, or the detail of some Kickstarter game’s 10-inch miniatures, or compare the components between two different editions of a game (or help you decide if you could live with a particular production defect or misprint that has been discovered in a game you wanted), a quality unboxing video can make things easier.
Those two unboxings can help you decide if you should get D-Day at Omaha Beach (John Butterfield, 2009) 2nd or 3rd edition:
So there is room for well-done unboxings. I mean something has to be special about an unboxing video to justify spending time watching it.
Otherwise, despite the reality cloak under which they hide, they are a pointless illusion, deceiving the viewer as much as the creator. The former because he will be the toy of programmed reactions beyond his control that he will take as genuine interest. The latter because his channel’s stats will convince him that, without much preparation and effort, he’s somehow producing quality content, and bringing something truly valuable to the critical understanding of board games.
These kinds of illusions are well-hidden inside the unboxing trend, and truly deserve to be unboxed themselves.
References and Further Browsing
- Unboxing the The Broken Token Package, by Rolling Dice & Taking Names
- Draco Magi Unboxing Video, by Rolling Dice & Taking Names
- A wacky unboxing by Tom Vasel
- What’s the Deal With Unboxing Videos?, by PBS Idea Channel
- Toy Unboxing, by Queensland University of Technology
- Toy Unboxings: A Mother’s Journey Through the Unnerving Universe of ‘Unboxing’ Videos, by Mireille Silcoff
- Let’s End Unboxing Videos, by CoolGearReviews
- A 5-second unboxing of War of the Ring Collectors Edition with a nasty surprise, by Matti Saarenketo
- Some numbers on unboxing, on Rajapack
- Unboxing on Wikipedia
- Mirror Neuron on Wikipedia