There’ve been a bunch of comments on Blogatog, Mark Rosewater’s tumblr, about marketing research in the last day or so (mostly relating to Kamigawa). Naturally, as with most things that happen in anything, ever, I found myself getting steadily annoyed. In particular, the dismissiveness of some of the fan responses bugged me.
The problem comes down to this: some fans seem to have gotten it into their heads that Marketing Research is some sort of irrefutable argument in their favor. It’s not. And suggesting that it is is bad critical practice both from a scientific and a media theory standpoint. This might seem counterintuitive, since you’d think that supporting the research would be supporting a scientific approach to art, right? Well, not really.
Let’s talk about why that is.
You Have A Right To Demand More Information
MaRo has, in a couple of posts, made the remark that many companies wouldn’t share the information he’s sharing, and we’re really quite lucky, relatively. More frustratingly, multiple people have responded that they just don’t understand why people can’t accept the market research. Clearly, there must be something wrong with them that prevents them from seeing how the raw data proves their preferences wrong.
So uh, I don’t really know how to respond to that more politely under the circumstances, since I fear that the gravity of this will get lost with a gentler sort of nudge, so my message to those fans in particular is:
Knock it off.
Anyone that is interested in any way, shape, or form in scientific truth has not just a right but a duty to be skeptical, ESPECIALLY when they don’t have direct access to all the numbers, facts, figures, and methods. It is not childish, it is not petulant, and it is not an error of thinking to want more information. Just because marketing research takes place doesn’t mean the methodology is sound or the numbers support the perception of those interpreting them, and to suggest that we should accept the interpretations WITHOUT that crucial information is anti-scientific thinking at its worst.
Which is a totally dramatic statement to make, sure, and I can see why this might seem like an overreaction…
Except for the fact that the entire economy of Europe might have been notably damaged by a spread sheet error three years ago.
Yeah, true story. A major, influential economic study that was published—and this is important—without the full methodology and data, contained not just a bunch of highly questionable methodological decisions, but an outright error on an Excel spreadsheet that swayed the interpretation strongly in favor of a particular economic viewpoint that became the basis for the Austerity policies in Greece, Spain, and Ireland. Whoops! Good job, guys!
This was a preventable error (they could’ve used OpenOffice! [rimshot]), but a whole bunch of politicians decided that they should just trust the study without access to the methodology. Similar things have been reported in the medical science fields (in fact, it has been argued that this is a rampant problem in medical research) in the form of selective publishing—companies publish those studies that support their business, and ignore or bury studies that contradict them.
Bringing this back to Magic (hey, this is a Magic blog!) I really do think that this fannish acceptance of company statements is reflective of a wider lack of true critical thought that is highly damaging to our society (especially from a bunch of geeks who really, really should know better).
So. Even if MaRo says the marketing research says a thing, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask more questions, probe further for answers, demand numbers even. And yeah, Wizards deserves credit for how transparent they are. They really do, and MaRo does have a point there. But they could be MORE transparent, and it’s well within our rights not as consumers, necessarily, but as rationalists, certainly, to keep pressing for more information. That’s how our body of knowledge increases over time.
And really… is it so wrong to be curious?
You Have A Right To Disagree With The Goals Of Marketing Research
People periodically claim to me that the reason we don’t see more female characters or racial diversity in Magic (or fantasy in general) is because the market wouldn’t care or would even punish Magic for breaking out of the mold. Fans simply can’t relate to more diverse characters, the argument goes, and since the fans have spoken (through marketing research) there’s nothing Wizards, or other media companies, can do.
Well, first of all, I’ve never seen any actual solid proof that this research exists. Maybe this argument would hold more water with me if one of these fans could hand me that research, but I can’t remember a single statement from a Wizards employee that supports these claims (and I can remember statements from folks like Jeremy Jarvis that contradict the claims!), let alone any actual data (going back to my first point).
But even beyond that, there’s a really remarkable flaw in this reasoning. The assumption seems to be that if marketing research shows that something will sell, that something should be sold. If marketing research shows that a large number of fans prefer something, that something is artistically valid. The inverse of that statement is, presumably, equally true.
Economic viability, however, does not determine artistic worth.
Or at least, that’s not the sole defining standard. We can argue whether or not it SHOULD be a defining standard (I think it’s a pretty shitty one, personally) but you must at least acknowledge that it is not the only mode of artistic criticism out there, and it’s certainly not one with a lot of historical precedent. (At least someone like Lord Duveen had the decency to hire genius art critics to write critical essays about why his price hikes were reasonable due to the remarkable beauty and significance of the art he was selling!)
And in a case like the representation of women, or people of color, or non-European fantasy cultures, and so on, I would actually argue that economic viability (again, assuming that this claim that women warriors damage sales is even true) is a caustically bad standard that values naked capitalism over the actual comfort and well being of more than half the population.
The point is that while it’s nice, I guess, to see it from Wizards’ perspective as a company that needs to make money, you don’t have to agree with any choice that Wizards makes, even if it makes them money, because you can have a different evaluative standard for art. Maybe you don’t agree that art should be accessible to the widest possible audience. Ok! I don’t disagree necessarily with New World Order, but I can see how from your critical perspective it’s a totally wrongheaded choice for the game! That’s reasonable, and because we aren’t treating marketing research as the argumentative be-all-end-all, we can have a conversation about our theories of art and what we’re looking for from the game.
And that’s kind of the point with this: we should be widening the conversation, not narrowing it. There’s so many ways to respond to art, so many positions you can take, and treating marketing research as the final word erases all those experiences and responses and conversations. We’re all better off when those conversations can take place. I mean, that’s one of the things I value in art: the surrounding critical conversation. That’s why the disdain that I see from some fans, the sheer arrogant dismissiveness, ticks me off so much.
Oh, and while we’re here:
You Can Disagree With MaRo’s Arbitrary Social Group Constructions
MaRo thinks Vorthos and Melvin are on a sliding scale.
That doesn’t mean you have to.
Look. MaRo made up the psychographics. Then Matt Cavotta made up another one. And then MaRo said No no no no, my definitions of the psychographics are the TRUE definitions. But… there aren’t any psychographics, not really. They were just… made up. Saying that there’s a true platonic ideal of Vorthos somewhere in the aether is… well, it’s ludicrous. These are artificial constructs designed to funnel information in certain ways that Wizards finds useful for, guess what, Marketing Research. That isn’t to say that they’re wrong or false, just that they exist as discrete categories to serve a particular purpose rather than immutable truths engraved on our genetics. They are constructs.
And we don’t have to be beholden to a particular definition if we don’t find that definition useful for our purposes. Whatever MaRo gets out of putting Melvin and Vorthos on a sliding scale, I find that model to be restrictive and lacking in nuanced. I love a holistically designed card that does something elegant within the rules, but I also love the novels and world design, and my experience of the game is fundamentally different from someone who doesn’t care that much about either. But on a sliding scale we two occupy roughly the same position. I have problems with that. And so, I prefer a different model because it better suits my purposes.
And the great thing about constructs like this is that you CAN contemplate whether alternatives are better, because they AREN’T set in stone, and even their creator’s word can’t make them immutable law (hell, if we believe that, then MaRo’s interpretation of Vorthos is wrong, and Cavotta’s is the one we should all be using!). This is why we see the definitions of race shift over time, and the strictness or looseness of gender roles change across cultures (and why we even see some cultures with more than two genders!). Categories are useful, but ultimately shouldn’t be confused with an immutable truth.
So I guess again what I’m suggesting is that this obsession with absolute authorities—whether MaRo’s opinions, or market research, or market research based on MaRo’s opinions—is a suboptimal way to run a fandom. Our ability to converse about these ideas is incredibly valuable, and it’s frustrating when vocal segments of the fandom seem dedicated to shutting down those conversations and dismissing the possibility of alternatives.
Kamigawa was awesome.
And anyone who disagrees is WRONG no matter how much marketing research they have!