Monday, September 10, 2018

Philosophy, Branding, Activism, Progress, Debate & The Future of Games

The Nice And True Thing

The other day on some social media, a popular author wrote a nice and true thing.

They were talking about some piece of entertainment for young people and noting--accurately and nobly--that it had casually inserted support for a progressive point of view in it. To be clear:
  • It was good that the piece of media did this
  • They deserve recognition for having done it
  • It was worth pointing out
  • I believe they pointed it out wholly sincerely
  • I believe this was something a big part of the commenter's audience probably needed to hear
...and the feeling I felt reading it was personal exhaustion. Nothing political, just wugh, meh, click.

Because despite all that, it's not a conversation I'd have with anyone I know irl--nor do I think it's a conversation the person who wrote it would have with anyone they chose to hang out with in real life. It would be really boring: Do you approve the Obviously Progressive Thing That Everyone We Hang Out With Would Approve Of? Yes, I do.

Nobody here at D&D With Porn Stars, for instance, sits around talking to each other about how sex work is work or that it'd be nice to be able to cam and then deposit using a bank like normal people. We know that. We say that publicly if we feel there's some important reason to point it out, but it's not a conversation we need to have, to each other, or even to our friends.

I've met many of you reading this. Few of you need to be convinced the president's immigration policies are terrible. It's assumed and known. Talking about it would be like complaining it's raining: we all wish it would stop, that's a boring-ass conversation. We're smart people with more to contribute than trading what is, in our own sphere, universally accepted wisdom.

But on social media? Day in, day out: RAIN IS BAD. IT SHOULD STOP. 30k Likes.

The author of the opinion I began this blog entry with wasn't starting a conversation that interested them, they were broadcasting a message. A cynical take would be this was branding ("performatively woke" in one alignment tongue, "virtue signalling" in another) a less cynical take would be that it's activism (that is: trying to enact large-scale change by spreading a message).


Activism is an unalloyed good, branding is a bit more suspicious, but no matter what else they are, both branding and activism are a commitment to repeat yourself.

...and, simply as a person writing blog entries, that is not something that holds my interest.

I'm not saying they're not worth doing, just that--as activities per se--they're no fun.

Saying "pay your fucking freelancers a fucking living wage and you'll get better content" (which you will) isn't fun. Going "Maze of the Blue Medusa is back in print!" (which it is) isn't fun. 

These things have to be done once in a while, but they aren't why I started this blog. And reading and trading messages like this isn't the main reason I read these blogs or any social media. I've started to block people who do nothing else, not because I disagree with them (I don't) and not even because the messages they're broadcasting make me think about things I'd rather not (they don't), but just because: I'm here for conversation and these kinds of messages aren't part of an interesting conversation--even if they're part of an important one.

The Philosophical Process

So why do I do this?

I presume most of you know this, but I'll recap to be clear as possible.

Other than simply trading useful content (which is a lot of what we all try to do here on the blogs) I basically believe in what we might call the philosophical process, and I believe it can makes play experiences (including mine) better.

The process is this:

Somebody makes a claim about how games work.

Somebody else makes a contradictory claim.

They ask questions and present evidence to prove their claims, one or both are proven wrong.

If both participants do not stop and pursue the conversation back to their different opening assumptions, both learn if either position is true* and everyone watching also learns.

The sum total of knowledge in the community is increased, it spreads, everyone learns something, and new and better ideas can be built on top of the assumption that this thing has been settled.

(*or at least as true as we can tell right now)

For example, ideally:

Socrates: "Tomb of Horrors is unbeatable."

Plato: "No it isn't, I beat it in '82, here's the actual play report. Here's three more from other people. Do you think I'm lying or fabricated these documents?"

Socrates: "No. I guess I was wrong. I'm sorry. Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

Everyone intelligent watching: "Ah, we see: Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

Kotaku, i09, Geek & Sundry, Matt Mercer, WOTC, all other media sources: "Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

The first thing any third party new to RPGs and eager for information Googles: "Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

...and from then on, if anyone ever says Tomb of Horrors is unbeatable and doesn't acknowledge the error, they are immediately treated as if they just said camels were reptiles and must then either admit their error or be resigned to a life of never being trusted ever by anyone and as soon as their screen-name comes up people just block and move on. Constantly, forever, in perpetuity, unless Plato is proved to have forged his evidence.

And, most importantly, people considering buying Tomb or playing Tomb or creating something in line with its principles have real information to guide them.

The goal is never to persuade. The goal is to provide all the information to anyone present who is intelligent enough to make decisions based on information.

This is the process working. This process, though imperfectly, has worked often in the past--many gibberish ideas have been put to rest in the last ten years. RPGs apparently can be a spectator sport, 5th edition wasn't a flaming commercial wreck, you can make good money creating independent RPG products, sexy girls really do play D&D (one works at WOTC now), more than one prominent gamer-puritan is guilty of sexual misconduct, Tomb of Horrors is beatable, nobody's found good reason not to use split-column tables, you can fit several days' adventure comfortably on a page, etc. These things are facts, not opinions.

Evidence has been presented, refutation has not been forthcoming, the information has spread, peoples' behavior has changed in response to them. Like any engineering knowledge: new things can be built because we now know these are facts. 

Progress happens when what was previously in dispute is settled and things can be created knowing this or that piece of intellectual machinery is solid, will hum, the motor will go. Then you make the next thing.

It's easy to dunk on that as a "debate club" style conversation, but it's also impossible to defend the alternatives.

There are reasons not to have conversations about your game ideas in dedicated gamer-spaces that work like this, but none of them are good reasons:
  • People are just publicly venting (at the expense of authors, gamers, products and anyone googling to help them run a game)
  • People want to build community around their opinion more than they want it to be accurate (flat earth societies)
  • People have mental health issues and so just need to talk shit (and don't have a support system outside the online game community)
  • Ok, this is possibly a good reason: They're being funny (though admit it's in front of an audience where there's almost no genuine social reward for being funny--or a lot smaller social reward than if they just went the fuck outside and were funny in front of actual present people).
Most public game conversations in the online game space about what you think is true should work the way I described above. It should be philosophical. It should be directed toward solving the problem posed by opposing ideas. And if that means a weeks-long knock-down drag-out fight, have that fight, if that means you throw up your hands and go "Well we don't have enough information to know who's right" then you do that. Otherwise: seriously ask yourself why you bothered to write anything at all. What were hoping to get out of it? If nothing? Go do something else, don't be an internet addict. Improve your fucking life. There are soooo many more fun things to do with your free time.

If it's worth logging on, putting in your password, showing up and saying a thing in public about any game--no matter how silly the game (and, yes, this is a big if)--it's worth doing everything possible to be sure the thing you said is true.

(Note I'm not talking about genuinely idle conversation--like "Yo, do you think Drizz't is bi?"--I mean the far more common kind of conversation: the one where someone claims to know how a game or a part of a game or a kind of game works.)

Either you care about the dumb game thing you said or you don't. If you cared enough to write that owlbears are racist, then you can't jump ship and claim you don't care it's just elfgames when someone questions it. That doesn't help anyone and just adds noise other people have to filter out when they need actual information--it makes their life harder. It's basically spamming on behalf of a nonexistent product. Literally nothing improves, and some things get worse.

Some FAQs pop up in the comments below. If you're like "But what about..." check them.


Needless to say, the idea I've outlined above is immensely unpopular--almost as unpopular as the results of it are popular (many fine independent products that exist in their present form due to things learned during straightforward debate, nothing good's ever come out of the other model, which is:

Plato: "Here is my essay where I say Tomb of Horrors is beatable"

Socrates: "Here is my essay claiming Tomb of Horror is unbeatable"

Plato: "B...but you ignored all the evidence I put forward in mine?"

Socrates: "I don't have to debate you, you're not my dad!"

Hereabouts Dog Corpse Libertarianism tends to rear its head:

"You can't make me talk in a useful way!"

"No, and I can't tell you not to fuck a dog corpse on a public sidewalk either, but I can say it doesn't get you anywhere."

Most places tolerate noise and misinformation more than they should. On forums it's for the comfort of those whose urge to hang out there unhealthily transcends their urge to use hanging out there to collect anything they might use in a game (including mods, who want to hang out there so much they do real work for free)-- but, more importantly, because two decades of internet and two years of ascendant fascism have gotten everyone used to the idea that it's hip, noble, and activist to avoid debates.

Originally the idea was about avoiding debates with people whose starting premises were openly opposed to your existence (I, too, see no point in debating someone who wants me in an oven) but we all know there's literally nothing anyone doesn't like that can't, at a stretch, be characterized as Naziism--especially in an environment with no debate--which is a Get Out Of Jail Free card for people who don't actually have any reasons for saying what they say. I don't have (huf) to debate you.

While I will briefly note that debate-avoiders' much-cited boogiemen--trolls and right-wing lunatics--are very easy to send packing in debate (they jump the rails into personal attacks or failing to answer questions immediately, invalidating the rest) that's not my point here today.

My point is just: People avoiding debate has consequences. And the consequence is: the work gets boring and worse. The messages become repetitive--the messages become messaging, the only goals can be maintaining an achieved level of theoretical perfection--incarnating known values that are supposedly shared, rather than applying acquired collective wisdom to new problems. The stupid are attracted (the messages are easy to parrot) and the intelligent are repulsed (nothing of value is at stake, nothing can be resolved, no new information is being generated, no new action can be taken).

In other words, if people don't kick the tires, any discussion of ideas is just reducible to activism or branding. One-way communication. The supposedly wise educate the supposedly ignorant and the best they can hope for is to clone themselves.

And before I just go "Fuck it" and leave everyone to these consequences, I figured I'd make sure I laid out my case for not letting that happen as clearly as possible.

Have conversations. Have them until there is no possible question left to answer. And if people won't do that: treat them like they're in the way. Because they are. Do something about them. Otherwise this amazing proliferation of people being creative for fun and occasionally profit will disappear.


The Dice Must Roll said...

Excellent points on what you've said in the past, Zak. Hopefully one day ideas like this become a gold standard everyone follows. If we can all start adapting "Wheaton's Law", I hope and envision a future where we use "Zak's Standards."

*thumbs up, tapdances out of the comment thread.*

Zak Sabbath said...

Might as well say what the standards are:

1. Ask questions. Answer all questions (if you think the question's an invalid "are you still beating your wife?" or "what's your social security #" question: make that argument explicitly).

2. Don't leave until all questions are answered on both sides.

3. No first-strike personal attacks. Personal attacks are only ok on someone whose exempted themselves from these rules and so proved they're an asshole

4. Ignore tone or what you think the other person's tone is. It's not important to establishing if what they're saying is true or false, which is more important than anything that tone alone could communicate.

5. Don't assume anything bad about anyone or their arguments: ask and establish it.

6. Don't lie.

7. If you make a mistake, apologize and don't do it again.

8. Don't troll or use any other excuse to say things you don't believe. If you think irritating people online in an RPG conversation is the best use of your time you aren't interesting enough for your ideas about fun to matter.

9. If you make a mistake or lie, take all possible steps to undo all the damage your fuckup may have caused everywhere

There might be a few more, but they'll be obvious corollaries of those

Zak Sabbath said...

(10. What if you're mentally ill or terrified of your interlocutor or just really busy and so cannot handle the responsibilities to answer that your statements incur? Then have someone else who isn't but agrees with you answer on your behalf.)

Sean McCoy said...

“The goal is never to persuade. The goal is to provide all the information to anyone present who is intelligent enough to make decisions based on information.”

Why *isnt* the goal to persuade?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Sean McCoy

1. Bc that would license all kinds of rhetorical techniques that aren't about rational argument (flattery, etc) which wastes time for everyone who isn't the target but just looking for information.

2. Because the audience reading (dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands) isn't participating enough to see if they're persuadable or persuaded

3. Bc the interlocutor themself is often unpersuadable, and they're only one person

Zak Sabbath said...

@sean McCoy

4. Oh and also, most important: because if you're trying primarily to persuade you have a motive to NOT find out as much as possible about the other person's argument. Which doesn't distribute maximum information. The people involved must want to collaborate to understand the truth, not persuade each other. Though that can be a side effect.

McCabre said...

Persuasive conversation is often in bad faith, whether deliberate or nor. It has a goal that would encourage you to be rigid in your stance and reject conflicting facts.

McCabre said...

Oh Zak's reply ocurred while I was reading I guess. I stand by it but if he takes it down for being repetitive that's cool

Zak Sabbath said...

responses from Google +

Matze _

What I find intriguing is that your method just presumes that the utterance in question (For example "Tomb of Horros is unbeatable") is descriptive to begin with. However the same statement can be interesting and also be read:
1 Directive: (as "I dont like Tomb of Horros and if you value my taste don't play it.")
2 Expressive (as "We failed beating Tomb of Horrors" or simply "I don't like Tomb of Horrors")
3 Normative (as "Tomb of Horrors is a bad adventure")

So I agree, of course, that when we argue about descriptive things like assertions we can and should simply check what the case is. However a lot of times people don't argue about that, no?

Zak Sabbath

It's phrased as descriptive (as factual)
__which means some underinformed but intelligent n00bs _will interpret it that way.
Which means it has to be treated that way.
Hyperbole and imprecision have a tremendous downside and no upside in RPG discussion.
Things not phrased as facts: fucking say what you want.

I just fear that a lot of nuance that language has will be lost this way, but yeah it's probably for the better in this context.

Zak Sabbath
You said it: "In this context"
No _important_ nuance is lost. Like nuance is important in real communication with real people about real life, but we're just talking about games for practical reasons, just say what you mean


Shane Ward said...

Great post once again. I agree, for me it's always about the conversation. Am I wrong, excellent! tell me why. Think that some mechanical thing I suggested needs improvement? Let's discuss! I'm really enjoying all the anchor podcasts latetly, being able to directly message someone as I listen to their show with my thoughts is fun and in some cases handy. When I first discovered the osr, i had a LOT of questions. People answered them, there was a discussion. These days there still is, but I have to sift thru a lot of "HERE"S MY THING!!!!" which is fine. There is a bit more noise nowadays I suppose. As I said, I'm finding that I'm having a lot of fun with anchor and I intend to keep up with it. Even if sometimes we go over the same old tropes. Anyways, i'm rambling as unusual. Good post.

Chris Preciado said...

Games. Let's play games. Love is the answer.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Chris Preciado

Please try harder.

Zak Sabbath said...


-To what? To write something interesting and relevant, not platitudes that can't be disagreed with.

-Trolling gets erased.

Unknown said...

Excellent points on what you've said in the past, Zak. Hopefully one day ideas like this become a gold standard everyone follows. If we can all start adapting "Wheaton's Law", I hope and envision a future where we use "Zak's Standards."

*thumbs up, tapdances out of the comment thread.*
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