Influencer Culture touches everything, huh? (Part 1)
The gangrenous finger of clout chasing comes to hobbies I wouldn’t expect. This week, I discuss board gaming.
I. “Just do a little shit talking”
There is a tongue-in-cheek relationship advice podcast my wife and I enjoy where one of the central themes the host hammers home is how healthy it is for a couple to occasionally “talk a little shit”. Typically this is in the context of inter-couple spats, where instead of causing some public blow up at some perceived slight, you instead privately talk some shit about them within your couple unit, blow off the steam you need to, and move on.
Unfortunately, my wife and I have curated friends that we genuinely enjoy and leave us little room for us to dunk on them. Thus, for the sake of sustaining our relationship over the long haul, our concentrated cynicism must be channeled somewhere as to not shatter our frail superiority complexes. While typically this acrid bile gets lobbed on the reality show participants of shows like Married At First Sight or 90 Day Fiancé, this also comes in the form on clowning on influencers my wife hate-follows.
One of the highest profile train wrecks we occasionally check in on was the @fashionambitionist debacle, where a woman and her fiancé famously pre-planned her “surprise” engagement to be rolled out as a series multi-day Instagram stories over a multi-day timeframe. These goons had a pitch deck for brands that explained the trajectory of what locations and timelines of where the wife-to-be would be on her “pre-proposal” adventure, and along the way, would receive bread crumb “gifts” from her now-husband from whatever jewelry or skincare brands happened to be the highest bidder. Today, she has hocks her own brand of body suit (think: toddler onesies for adult women) and occasionally drops missives about how the haters can’t bring her down with no accounting of the chicanery she pulled to her audience.
But for every apex-predator of phony influencer, there are million bottom feeders nipping for the crown that bring us joy as well. Our indie-favorite was an acquaintance we knew when we lived in Nashville, who was personally very pleasant, but ferociously delusional about turning her and her husband into a full stack band/home goods store/ /YouTube lifestyle brand. Her day job was an event coordinator for the apartment complex we lived in, but we came to find out she was covertly recording the mixers she organized to use as B-Roll footage for her channel, where she instead claimed these were actually parties she was throwing for her friends. A lot of these events were intentionally done outside so her husband/producer could fly his 4K Drone Camera above people socializing, to imply that me getting on an elevator to go downstairs to get a solo cup of Charles Shaw after work was somehow a destination event that demanded an aerial production package.
I feel like the detrimental effects of influencer culture is a well known phenomenon in certain feminine-coded spheres of interest like fashion, makeup, fitness, cooking and parenting, where in all cases they present an ideal that’s impossible to live up to, but hint at obtainability provided you end up buying the right products they are happening to sell. Tracking this parasocial crossroads between “authenticity” and Referrel Codes-powered sales is practically a dedicated beat now at news organizations, supplanting a subset of celebrity culture as something for us proles to gawk at and mock. Since I don’t really have any stake in any of the aforementioned hobbies above, I never really considered how influencer culture might impact your ability to enjoy a hobby infested with it.
Over the last year or so though, I’ve noticed how aspects of influencer culture have been permeating subcultures where the I wouldn’t expect to see it: Board Gaming and Animal Crossing. The results are….really something.
II. Influencer-content and Board Games
At some point I followed a single Board Game related account on Instagram and The Algorithm—desperate for a signal—started feeding me a conveyer belt of what I can only describe as “board game influencer” content. My “Suggested Post” infinite scroll is now a virtual Helms Deep, constantly under siege by all manner of plastic orcs, dragons and 12 sided die.
Board gaming is having a moment as a screen-free, social activity for a generation whose primary vice is getting lost in anti-social, screen-heavy hate scrolling. Before this boom, board game establishments would be heavily adorned with uninviting Warhammer posters, unfolded white card tables seated with 3 wolf-moon shirted gamers, and musty carpeting that hasn’t had a vacuum pull Pocky crumbs from its fibers since the fall of the Roman Republic. Today, newer board game stores have the cleanliness and calm of a book store. In addition, there is a new breed of Board Gaming Cafes where you can grab a beer or a coffee and play a board game as a casual hang.
Now that board gaming is finding a growing audience, you can find the same influencer trappings from other domains hilariously juxtaposed over a hobby with dorky origins that doesn’t seem well positioned for it:
Some of this content is very just very silly. Like, what am I looking at here? Is this supposed to be the board game equipment version of Marilyn Monroe emerging from the cake for Vitamin-D deprived indoor kids? If Ernest Cline made an “epic for-the-win” future World War parable in his godawful Ready Player One universe, this would be the pin up poster sent to the pockmarked heroes on the front line to boost their morale. I’m just trying to imagine the audacity of rolling up to play a board game at a friends place, squatting my hulking ass into a game’s box as if I possess the subtle grace of a demure Calico, and immediately flattening the structural integrity of it, forcing the hosts to store the game in a Ziploc freezer bag. Nobody do this at my house, please!
This influencer gets served to me frequently and so many of her posts are her sitting in a box, sometimes with a tankard of grog or a rule book, making reference to a board game she’s about to “play with friends” despite the audience never seeing them in frame, giving the whole enterprise of a feeling of, well:
It’s clear to me these shots are a product of a weekly modeling shoot with game miscellany she breadcrumb drops throughout the week, but the artifice of influencer culture demands her to tell the fiction that every day, she’s going to throw on some Final Fantasy inspired straps-for-pants to sit at a friends card table in the basement 2 hours playing yet another game.
And it wouldn’t be an influencer arrangement without some cross brand synergy, like the above post that contains sponcon for something called “GeekGrind” coffee. Why do geeks need their own brand of coffee? Isn’t Coffee Culture already geeky and pretentious enough such that we don’t need to slap some Elves or Goblins on the bag and some flavor text about how the beans “are harvested from Moonlight Glen and ground naturally by the heavy steps of the native Spriggan” or some other nerd-shit? The pandering is exhausting!
Another interesting sub-genre of board gamer influencer content is overly-dramatic, staged board game photography, complete with what appears to be post processing. I don’t know what it says about BIDENS AMERICA we have such an elite overproduction of white guys with DSLR cameras, but we desperately must find another muse for them to turn their gaze and ring lights to.
However, the content that I see most of, and find the most irksome, is the “Collection Porn” aspect of Board Gaming social media. This influencer content feels a lot more pernicious.
If the stereotypical American Dream is a homestead with a white picket fence and two toe-haired spuds named named Timmy and Jill, Real Board Gamers™ aspire instead for a studio apartment and multiple White Kallax shelves overflowing with games designed by dudes that should have been punched in the face by Indy in Raiders of The Lost Ark—dudes with names like Klaus Jürgen Wrede and Friedemann Friese. So many accounts that get fed to me are dorky-but-chipper couples that quietly partner with publishers to subtlely market new products to you to keep living up to this ideal.
The sheer volume of games you see in some of these humble-brag posts is a little distressing for me to be so commonly shown as an aspirational goal for the hobby:
Look—I love board games as a medium. I love hatching a cockamamie suicide run plan with friends in Forbidden Desert only for us to botch the execution and get entombed in hot sand. I love the psychic warfare my wife and I share when playing Carcassonne: The Castle, subtly trying to undo each other’s big buildings with stray pirate workers in not-as-of-yet-connected castles. I love building and deploying a deck of complimentary cards in Seasons such that every scoring in the final year becomes a Financial Audit where you need to bean count every turn like a seasoned CPA. It’s hard to describe how satisfying I find board games, but the closest analog is how my wife describes ASMR videos to me. When a board games engine really starts roaring, it has the effect of an Eastern European women brushing her newly manicured fake nails over a binaural microphone, scratching a bone-deep analytical itch I can’t get scratched otherwise.
Scratching this itch is not a trivial investment of time, though! It may take three or five or as many as twenty playthroughs to understand the machinations of a well-engineered board game. If I were to quantify it for the sake of argument, I’d wager it may take me two hours or so before I can truly even comprehend and enjoy a game I’m playing, while I might need ten hours before I can really enjoy a game at a high level of play.
So when I get served pictures like the above, or dreadful Instagram Reel content like this nonsense, it’s distressing! It makes board gaming feel like an unsustainable purchase treadmill of buying whats new, playing a couple rounds, and moving onto the next game, which is so shallow and consumerist. Some of my favorite games, like Carcassonne: The Castle or Azul or The Castles of Burgandy, I’ve played with my wife an upwards of 30 times each. How could you possibly plumb those depths with a collection as big as the below? To me, having a collection of this size is the equivalent of going to one of those dimly lit Prohibition-era cosplay bars, ordering every drink off the menu, and proceeding to peckishly eat the fruit garnish or floss your teeth with the herb sprig from every glass instead of just drinking a fucking cocktail and enjoying its complexity.
So yeah, this sudden realization of what board gamer influencer content looks like presents a “keeping up with the Joneses” ethos of constant acquistion that makes the hobby, from the outside looking in, look as pointlessly shelf-filling and dust-collecting as POP figurines, which feels kind of a drag!
This is a 2 part post. Part 2 can be found here.