Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"They're just, you know, games"

Via The Mighty Atom -- Listen up, gamer geeks...

You go John! Glad to see you again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Last note before a vacation

This is mostly in response to Ben's post, "linguistic drift," and also about Vincent's initial response to my prior post, here.

When I read this phrase in Ben's post -- "seen as some sort of symbol of oppression" -- I'm worried because I am afraid that I haven't communicated very clearly. Oppression? What the hell?

I got the same impression of miscommunication when I first read Vincent's line "I bolstered my courage at the expense of others'!" Huh? I thought. Who brought the "others" into it? Expense of others?

Both of those suggest to me that I have given the impression that I see people like Ben and Vincent as setting up a heirarchy of game designers, and setting themselves above others, such as my poor little oppressed self.

There are a couple of reasons I didn't expect to come across like that and am sorry I did (but I can understand how I did) --

First off, I personally don't identify as a game designer any more than I identify as a musician. I have designed games, and I've recorded music, but those are things I've done for pure recreation -- I don't necessarily consider myself "good" at them any more than I consider myself "good" at eating cheesecake or watching movies or writing blog posts. They're things I do for fun, not to pursue a craft or build a skill. I may incidentally build skill in them because that's what happens when you do something you enjoy, but it's icing on the cake. I'm sorry I even used myself as an example in the previous post, but at that moment I wanted to use an example of someone cluelessly unskilled and I didn't want to tag anyone else besides myself with that label for fear of giving offense, so I used myself.

So if there is a heirarchy of game designers, my own place in it doesn't concern me one way or another, anymore than I am worried about whether my writing skill measures up when I make a random blog post. But I can sure see how my post could have given the impression that I was concerned about it and felt quite stepped on. So I hope if I did give that impression I have expunged it. When it comes to indie RPGs I'm primarily a consumer, not a producer, a fan, not a creator. I am interested in this discussion in terms of what it implies about games I will buy, not games I might write.

And that takes me to the second point -- it's not that I'm worried that I'm gonna be oppressed, I'm worried that y'all are oppressing yourselves! I'm not worried about Forge designers elevating themselves onto a pedestal; both Vincent and Ben have been more than humble about their own place in the big scheme of things. It's just that creation tends to happen when you forget all that shit and work from where you are, whether that place where you are is zero skill or immense skill.

Jay Loomis wrote this awesome bit:

I've been privileged to meet or talk to one or two masters of their trade in my life. People whose work makes your eyes bug out. The thing that strikes me about true masters is that they don't think much about their work.

The true master is so confident in her work that she doesn't have all the hang-ups that would make her insecure, hesitant, or even boastful. She does what she does and is peaceful in that state of being.
That's totally true. And you know what, you don't have to be a master to work that way. That's the way anybody works who is mindfully engaged with their craft and not engaged in self-judgment. That's the way that everyone works at their best. That's the way a four year old draws! Maybe you have to have certain kinds of skills to work that way and make people's eyes bug out. But if you work that way at whatever level of skill you have, your work is going to be better (if you'll excuse me using a word I may seem to have disavowed) than if you don't. And if you are all worried about whether you've produced your "journeyman game" or not, and how many thousand hours you're going to have to put in before you do, then it seems to me you're not likely to enter that state.

That "masterful" state may be the state of someone whom we judge to be at the top of a hierarchy of skill levels, but no matter what your skill you can't be in that state until you stop caring about the hierarchy of skill levels. And you can cease to care like that whatever level you're at. So that master is not thinking of herself as a master when she's acting that way, except inasmuch as "thinking of herself as a master" means not concerning herself with her skill level.

That's mindful creativity.

As a potential buyer of the games that people like Ben and Vincent and others might produce, I worry when I see them engaging in styles of thought which I believe hinder both creativity and development of craftsmanship. I want them to make awesome games so I can buy and play them. So I'm doing my part to sow some possible seeds of doubt as to the whole value of this "put in your time, learn the basics, humbly accept the wisdom of the masters, or maybe you would if there were any masters yet which there aren't" kind of thinking.

Now, Ben and Vincent and everyone else are grownups like myself and get to accept or reject my thoughts on this issue and do what they want to do. That's all good. But I'd like to be understood for what I mean to say, and I fear I have not made myself understood.

Ben, ya ain't oppressin' me. With all due respect, you couldn't, cause at least to my conscious knowledge, I have nothing invested in anybody's assessment of my game design ability, cause I don't consider myself to have any more game design ability than the average Joe gamer off the street who's played a few Forge games and liked them. And Vincent, you are most definitely not bolstering your courage at the expense of me! Seriously, man, not at all. I am not "expensed" at all here. That was never my point, and when you said that it confused the hell out of me.

If this "journeyman" stuff helps you do what you want to do, if this style of thinking helps you, go for it, think that way, do things that way. I just want to buy your games. In my own experience, and in the estimation of some people I respect, it's the opposite of helpful for advancing one's craft or engaging in creative exploration. Hence my wish to give you an reason to reconsider it.

But I'm not you, I don't know how you tick or what works for you, so I don't expect you to listen to this stuff if it's not helpful to you, and I definitely do not want you to heed me out of fear of "oppressing" me. I just hear what sounds like people in danger stifling their own creativity, and I do not want that.

And now I'm gonna be gone for like a week so I won't have a chance to reply to anyone or listen to any further conversation, dammit.

So, like, Ben, before you correct me as you've promised to do, do you think you could repeat back to me in comments, maybe in summary form, what you hear me saying, and see if I recognize it this time? And I'd be happy to do the same for you if you'd like. Cause I really don't want to spend a ton of time clarifying again because I've failed to communicate what I wanted to.

I have a hard time expressing myself clearly on these topics. That's just something I know about myself, so I'm not too surprised at all this.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

When I Left You I Was The Learner

Catching up on my Anyway. This post and the comments are all full of stuff about the difference between an "apprentice" game designer and a "journeyman" game designer and a "master" game designer (it's not clear that any of the latter exist yet).

I do not personally find this kind of stratification useful. The reason that the Forge exists is that a bunch of people decided to reject conventional wisdom about the way games do and can work, rather than laboriously learning the received wisdom about their craft from their elders and following in their footsteps, hoping someday to move from apprentice to journeyman to master.

Everyone is an apprentice by some standard of measurement and in some contexts, a journeyman in others, and a master in still others.

These terms come from the guild culture of the Middle Ages. I love the Middle Ages, but good lord, the Middle Ages in general and guild culture in particular were not about innovation. They were about doing things the same way they had always been done.

Historically, the Forge has been a haven for indie creators in general, people who did their own thing for their own reasons. That's the opposite of what this guild stuff was supposed to be all about.

I've only worked on one real indie RPG and I haven't finished it. But I'm not going to get all worried about how I'm barely a mere apprentice and I have another 5,000 hours to slog through before I have a hope of producing anything worthy. Screw that. I love games that aren't "masterful" by Guild "put in your time young one and someday you will be worthy" standards. Give me The Pool and WuShu, man! They are sweet games. And their authors had not "put in their time" and earned their Mastery.

I look at stuff like this from Ben:

I'd like to note that the numbers that we are throwing around (2400 hours, 5000 hours) are

1) Minimums
2) With competent instruction

We don't have competent instruction in game design yet. Any field of it.

I have been designing games all my life. I have been seriously designing RPGs for fourteen years.

I'm still not very good.
...and I just want to bang my head against a wall. Cause everybody's learning all the time, including people who have put in however many thousands of hours you want to arbitrarily call "mastery."

And Paul Kimmel's thing:
An art example: I enjoy American "primitive" paintings. They have a directness and "honesty" that's appealing to me. But the artists who painted them made them look that way because they had no choice. I can love these paintings in spite of their limitations or even because of their limitations, but I can't deny that they have limitations. These artists never learned to overcome their blind spots.
Learning can help you overcome blind spots. It can also create blind spots. Instruction can kill or blunt ability as well as enhancing it. It all depends on the person, and what they're doing, and whether the instruction is what they happened to need at that particular moment.

Those primitivists could not have painted the good things they painted if they were packed off to art school and devoted themselves to slogging through the basics that somebody handed down to them from above, instead of going their own way and doing what they loved and cared about.

That's what "indie" is all about.

Sometimes it results in things you don't like. Sometimes it results in things you like. But if you try to institute a program of rigorous instruction that will eliminate all the shit, you are going to eliminate much of the good stuff too.

Sometimes people do good things despite their lack of instruction at the hands of the Masters. Sometimes they do good things because of their lack of instruction at the hands of the Masters.

That said, I agree with Brand's original point that it is worth while refining as well as innovating, learning how to do a known thing more effectively as well as trekking into the unknown.

Ack! I just found out via email that Vincent was commenting while I was revising this post for yet a third time. I hope I haven't revised it into unrecognizability. I'm gonna post this and let it go.

Negatrons past

Perhaps the negatrons have ineffectuated. I haven't posted in a while.

I was reading Ben's blog and came across the following humble quote in an old post:

The point is that creative agenda is often overlooked as a cause of unhappy play, not that differing creative agenda is always the cause of unhappy play.
For some reason I really liked that.

I really really really have to go back and read the Big Ron Essays sometime and get my head around them or not. I have a feeling I have some issues with the ideas behind the concept of "Narrativism" -- to wit, that in order to speak clearly about Narrativism one has to believe that we understand exactly why literature is literature -- what makes a good story a good story. My belief, as a former grad student in (admittedly ancient Greek and Latin) literature, was that the jury was still out on that point.

Oh, sure, you have individuals like Lajos Egri who have their ideas about what makes good literature good, but I didn't know that anybody considered it a closed issue. It's an open question what makes good literature good.

And if it's an open question, and we're using the answer to define one of the categories of our theory, where does that leave the theory?

Like I said, I don't know if I've ever made it through those essays so maybe this is not really relevant. I won't be able to intelligently frame it till I do more homework than maybe I am willing to. We'll see.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Astral Negatrons

Joe in his comment to the previous post ("A Forge Pas"), says -- "OK Ed, new rule: no more Forge for you. You seem to stir up some sort of trouble, or get snarky every time you go there ;-)"

And he's right. I don't know why I've had such a damn chip on my shoulder; it's partially explainable by the "Prolegomena" (couple posts earlier) but that doesn't seem to catch it all.

I was reading the "Turk and Helga" thread on the Forge as referenced by Ben's Continuity post (to which I added some comments) and I thought how much fun the game sounded like and for some reason saw very clearly this negative attitude I'd let creep up on me, like a goblin sitting on my shoulder. (Perhaps it's a demon from Ron's Sorcerer...)

I'm gonna have to read the article Ben linked to and quoted too, even though I don't think much of Claude Lévi-Strauss's theories of myth. Just read the first few paragraphs and found it interesting.

This post was mostly babble. Please move along and go about your business.

UPDATE: No, it's not really such a mystery to me, the snarkiness. I just read a couple small forge threads because they were referred to elsewhere or I was watching them, and there's just something in the tone typical Forge discourse that just gets my blood pressure up. The protocol of the Forge is such that people don't openly call each other doody-heads or threaten each other with bodily harm, but there are at least some posters there who keep just saying things in a way that provokes hostility in me for some reason. And the funny thing is the ones I'm thinking of right now are people I've met in real life and had a perfectly nice time with, but when I read some of their posts my fists clench. I don't know what's up with me with all that but I think it really would be healthy of me to heed Joe's advice on this one. Get he hell off the Forge. I'm not up to it these days.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Forge Pas

I guess that thread was old and I shouldn't have posted to it.

I will never understand the weird etiquette of that place.

UPDATE: OK, maybe I'll understand it, but I will get bitten on the ass by it nonetheless. :)

Ben and James on What Gaming Does To You

Ben Lehmann writes:

Playing games effects our lives. Some people come out of it with positive effect. Others come out of it with negative effect[...]

It is possible to design a toxic game -- one which is fun and happy making but causes its players to withdraw from society, to reject productive lifestyles, and to shy from normal social interaction. Frankly, I think such games already exist, although you might be surprised about my opinions on what is what, there.
He's commenting on this post by james_west (not to be confused with James V. West), which is about the different directions people he knows who game have gone.

The main thing I wanted to post here was one thing where I believe gaming can actually mess with people: to the degree that games try to represent reality with their rules ("simulationism"), they provide a set of assumptions about reality which people (especially young people who are still coming to understand the world around them) may swallow without questioning them.

I don't mean believing that real life is like silly genre conventions -- that there is real fireball-casting magic, or stuff like that -- but more like the basic assumptions about the structure of reality or what is meaningful and relevant about people, life, and stories.

One thing I can think of off the top of my head is the notion that being "skilled" at something is an unambiguous good; that there is really such a thing as objective "competence" which is a scalar quantity (or a bunch of related scalar quantities).

Reading the "mindfulness" books by Ellen Langer, especially The Power of Mindful Learning, exploded this myth in my head and it was hugely powerful for me. And I realized the myth had been implanted by games as well as the culture at large.

One way games can avoid giving people inaccurate representations of the world which they unconsciously assimilate is by disclaiming to represent the world at all -- which is something that Narrativist and Gamist designs are more ready to do.

I have seen a more or less Simulationist game which subverts this assumption: Mike Holmes and JB Bell's Synthesis. In Synthesis, you may have 3 dice in "Classical Guitar," which will let you play Classical Guitar well, but those 3 dice could be used against you if you were doing something which classical guitar training might interfere with, like playing punk rock guitar.

Skill is only ever skill in doing things a particular way, and learning is only ever learning a particular way of understanding things, and either can bite you in the ass and keep you from doing or looking at things a different and possibly more useful (in some contexts) way.

So that's one thing that gaming can do that will hurt you: it can impress upon you limited and limiting ways of looking at the world, and it is likeliest to do so in the areas where it seems to be representing things which are most mundane and "realistic."

There are other things I might add to the discussion, like questioning James West's assumptions about the relative value of different kinds of jobs, assumptions that he himself warns may seem "elitist and egotistical," so it might not be fair to him to criticize them. But the big thing that hit me when I read all this was "yeah, I am personally familiar with detrimental effects of games on your way of dealing with the world, though it's nothing to do with what james is talking about and I don't know if it has anything to do with what Ben is talking about due to lack of details provided."

I don't know that I wouldn't have picked up the same detrimental assumptions without games, but games definitely reinforced them, specifically the "simulating" aspect of rules.

UPDATE: John Kim's response, linked also in the comments below, mentions his concerns about "nature vs nurture" assumptions promulgated unconsciously by role-playing games, which he's written up in an essay. Note that this is exactly the same kind of issue which I've complained about; it's not necessarily something about RPGs per se but something about particular simulationist rules patterns which are widespread (but need not be universal) in RPGs, which subtly or not-so-subtly imply something an obvious truth about the "real world" which might usefully be questioned.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Prolegomena to Any Future Snark

This is Ed talking about Ed talking here, not Joe, just for the record.

I use this space to snark and rant and stuff, and I often snark and rant about Forgite RPG theory, that is, GNS theory and everything about it.

One might get the impression from this that I particularly dislike GNS theory and Forge games, that I wish they didn't exist or something.

That's completely the opposite of the truth. about 95% of the RPGs I've bought in the last 4 years have been indie RPGs whose creators frequent the Forge. About 90% of the RPGs I've played in the same time have been those. To pull numbers out of my ass, I have about ten times as much fun playing or running the average Forge/Indie RPG than the average traditional RPG.

I love this stuff. I'm really happy it exists. I might not care at all about RPGs if it wasn't for the Forge and its habitues.

So why diss it? Well, we always hurt the ones we love.

No, seriously, it's not you, Forge, it's me.

As I've mentioned, I am by nature a theory junkie and a movement toady. I tend to want to find a theory to explain everything, and act and think in terms of the theory, and I tend to want to find a group of cool like-minded explorers and theory-creators and groove on what they're doing. The Forge tempts me so much on those issues, and I don't want to get too deeply sucked into it.

So I seize on things where it seems not to work, or alternate ways of looking at things, or really deviant takes on it -- like this thread Paganini started about G, N, and S being less big a deal than people may imagine, things like that.

For my own sake, I set myself against the theory because I am inclined to just swallow it whole. My snarks and questions and doubts and objections may be irrelevant to someone who doesn't share these concerns, or share my own theory-oriented character flaws, or who does share them but is not interested in challenging them at this point.

I just wanted to let this be known in this space cause I think it would be really easy to give totally the wrong impression from the adversarial stance I tend to take towards the Forge and GNS theory. I in fact value it immensely. And that's why I want to keep its value in perspective.