Friday, March 24, 2017

Distracted From Distraction By Distraction

...that's a line from TS Eliot. He was a well-educated creative genius and a grotesque anti-Semite, back in the days when that combination was still possible. It no longer is--so we'll have to listen to someone else if we want any insight into the job creative people have in times like these. Here's Toni Morrison, talking at Portland State University. She has just finished reading off some racist quotes from eminent Americans:
Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. 
And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.  
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. 
None of that is necessary. 
There will always be one more thing. The strategy is no different than bombing Cambodia to keep the Northern Vietnamese from making their big push. And since not history, not anthropology, not social sciences seem capable in a strong and consistent way to grapple with that problem, it may very well be left to the artists to do it.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, [sigh] not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. [Audience member murmurs in agreement]
I think of this a lot: "...the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work." I am going to go ahead and make the leap that this applies to a wide variety of prejudices.

The Braindead Megaphone

Another novelist, George Saunders, describes a similar situation in his essay The Braindead Megaphone:
Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and — surprise, pleasant surprise — being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way. 
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. 
But he’s got that megaphone. 
Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing — but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. 
....In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party. The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy. They’ll stop doing what guests are supposed to do: keep the conversation going per their own interests and concerns.
Both the villain and the victims are more broadly defined but again the point of the weapon is the same--distraction: "The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy." The Megaphone--like Morrison's racist--keeps you responding to the distractor's concerns, rather than building things that respond to your own.

Extremely Important and Massively Uncomplicated

When considering the social issues outside our gameworlds in 2017 we see a series of problems that frustratingly combine the following two qualities: they are extremely important and massively uncomplicated. Should black people be shot by police? No. Should trans people be able to go to the bathroom? Yes. Are illegal immigrants a major threat to our country? No. Should gay people be allowed to marry? Yes.

The only reason the country's discussing these things is the Megaphone. There are adults who think that, like, Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization but they're not intelligent or reachable via games or anything else predictable. These are open-and-shut-cases.

Important but not complicated. Artists and critics--especially in the sphere of games--are not used to thinking with this category. We are used to thinking that the artist who tackles the Real World Issue is doing something deep and difficult. But in reality, the designer or GM who goes "Ok, stop trying to figure out how to beat Tomb of Horrors and consider this: what if orcs are just like you and me and like colonialism is bad?" is lowering the tone of the conversation. They are asking us to stop a complex problem-solving exercise that might actually be helping us sprout neurons we could use later for some practical purpose and instead think about something intelligent people in 2017 cannot possibly disagree on: colonial genocide is bad and orcs are fictional things with no moral reality and if you're a grown ass human who acts racist because they played a game (or drank a beer or lost a bet) the problem isn't games it's you being so impressionable.

What makes social problems thorny for the kind of people that are actually going to read your blog or play your game isn't that they don't know racism or sexism or any other -ism is bad--it's that, as Morrison says above, greed and the struggle for power make people compromise their principles--or refuse to formulate them well enough to know they're violating them. I know several indie gamers who have admitted privately that they are scared to speak out against the abusers in their community for purely financial reasons--or because they know the price of speaking out is the abusers will turn on them. It's the worst version of professionalism.

Saunders continues:
We’ve said Megaphone Guy isn’t the smartest, or most articulate, or most experienced person at the party — but what if the situation is even worse than this? 
Let’s say he hasn’t carefully considered the things he’s saying. He’s basically just blurting things out. And even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say. Because he feels he has to be entertaining, he jumps from topic to topic, favoring the conceptual-general (“We’re eating more cheese cubes — and loving it!”), the anxiety-or controversy-provoking (“Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy?”), the gossipy (“Quickie rumored in south bathroom!”), and the trivial (“Which quadrant of the party room do YOU prefer?”). 
We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think). This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted language into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there. 
He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party
We've seen this everyone-must-talk-about-something-stupid dynamic several times coming from inside games: GNS, chainmail bikini prudery, edition-warring, etc. but now there's a new dynamic at work--the mainstream press is noticing D&D.

And--as any freelancer is going to tell you--the articles about RPGs are not going to be well-paid or with long enough deadlines to produce new research. And they are going to be occupied with that thin slice of the Venn diagram where the game-relevant overlaps with general public interest--and the writers will be under tremendous pressure to be...entertaining, conceptual-general, anxiety or controversy-provoking, gossipy, trivial.

Saunders sums up: There is, in other words, a cost to dopey communication, even if that dopey communication is innocently intended.

Educating the Conqueror is Not Our Business

After her speech, Toni Morrison got questions--and they illuminate how having to deal with The Megaphone impacts art and artists:

I love Latin American literature and Russian literature. It never occurred to me that Dostoyevsky was supposed to explain something to me. [Audience chuckles] He’s talking to other Russians about very specific things. But it says something very important to me, and was an enormous education for me. 

When Black writers write, they should write for me. There is very little literature that’s really like that, Black literature. I don’t mean that it wasn’t necessary to have the other kind. Richard Wright is not talking to me. Or even you. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them. LeRoy Jones in the Dutchman is not talking to me. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them. It may have been very necessary. It certainly was well done. But it wasn’t about me and it wasn’t to me. And I know when they’re talking just past my ear, when they’re explaining something, justifying something, just defining something. [Glass thunks.]

But when that’s no longer necessary, and you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book—those are the people who make it authentic, those are the people who justify it, those are the people you have to please, all those non-readers, all those people in Sula who (a) don’t exist and (b) if they did wouldn’t buy it anyway. But they are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the New York Times; not to the editors; not to any distant media; not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say “Yeah, uh huh, that’s right.” 

And when that happens, very strangely, or rather, very naturally, what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large....

[Another question]

So the question is “What do you do…?” Well, educating the conqueror is not our business. Really. But if it is, if it were, if it was important to do that, the best thing to do is not to explain anything to him, but to make ourselves strong, to keep ourselves strong.

Sad Unicorns

In times when the worst ideas are popular, when, as Yeats said...The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity there is a pressure on creative people to use their platforms to point out the worst-ness of these ideas. To make their art this:
...but what Sad Unicorn games and the sloganeering that they encourage do is simply allow a degraded culture outside the conversation you're trying to have create a degraded culture inside the work.

You can't do that because (among other things) it doesn't work. When the world is dumb, you don't dumb-down, you smarten up.

You do not go "Well we have to put off the nuanced conversation til later". You do not go "Well this may be valuable but this isn't the time or context for that work". You do not surrender to the Megaphone.

You create a more sophisticated thing--you create an internal conversation that is meaningful to you and to good people, and the internal energy of that will pay off when it's needed, "even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large" because you will have made yourselves and your people strong.
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Sean McCoy said...

I was reading an old interview of yours the other day, and you said "Well, people can get tied up in knots with questions like this if they forget what the basic questions are—Where does the money go? and What does the work look like? The work should look the way you want it to. The money should be going to help people who need it."

That's been rattling around in my head a lot recently. Specifically, "the work should look the way you want it to."

It’s like if you stop making the thing that you think is absolutely the most beautiful to be topical, you’re wasting your actual precious resource: the beautiful thing that you saw that was worth making.

Thanks for writing this up. These are good and important questions, and its encouraging for me to hear you talk about them.

Peter Webb said...

Ifeel like at the megaphone party the number one thing people would be asking would be "why does this guy have a megaphone?" and "how can we get him out of the party?"

MonteCook said...

Thanks. The Toni Morrison quote is spot-on, I think, and would have walked away from this post satisfied to have read just that. But the Braindead Megaphone allegory--wow. What a fantastic way to portray the damage the Internet (and other media) can do to us. As individuals and as a culture. Even if the guy with the megaphone is intelligent and fascinating, at some point we need to have our own thoughts and our own conversations. But honestly, we know the guy with the megaphone is never intelligent and fascinating (truly intelligent people know that you don't actually learn anything by yelling into a megaphone). And yet the metaphorical guy just keeps droning on.

Luka said...

Yeah, but we've let ourselves be convinced that having the right to use a megaphone is the same as feeling no consequence for the shit you say. A Polish MP recently said some idiocy in the EU parliament about women not deserving equal pay. He got disciplined and got his pay cut, but you wouldn't believe the number of comments trying to paint it as the "right of free speech" issue. I see the current state of the public discourse as the guy with the megaphone having been allowed to talk long enough and dumbing the party to a point where nazi parties have seats in some European parliaments, because they're allowed to "have an opinion".

Jojiro said...

As I read this, I recognize the big picture and agree with it. It's not only a very well-stated one, but I think the excerpts you selected were a good frame for the argument you made.

I did get caught up in my only little megaphone vulnerability though, so I'm going to ask about something despite realizing it's not the primary point of the article here:

Why is "GNS" something which you classify as being under the umbrella of everyone-must-talk-about-something-stupid. While I am not a particular lover or hater of that system of classifying things, I have found it useful quite often as a framing, and was surprised to see it placed on the same tier (granted casually and not precisely placed) as chainmail bikini talk.

Is there some evolution of the conversation that has just gotten tedious among folks more in the know?

My apologies in advance if this falls into the trap of "innocently intended" commentary that creates "dopey conversation".

Zak Sabbath said...

GNS (like religion or astrology) may "help people" but it is inaccurate, and the terms it uses are bad and frame ideas in ways that are not applicable outside the specific subset of gamers who get into games and then find themselves unhappy because they aren't focused enough.

For a fuller discussion of both the problems with GNS and the (much greater) problems is has engendered in the RPG community:

Jojiro said...


My takeaway from that isn't very clear.

I'm going to get a bit more silly, but hopefully by being silly I can also get more concrete than "help people".

I do not feel that religion or astrology are a good tier to place game design theory on just because I think astrology is widely acknowledged nonsense, religion is a can of worms, and game design theory is the subject matter. So instead, I'm going to propose this, just to see if it's headed towards the right track.

GNS theory, or any sort of theory that attempts to place players/GMs/games into boxes, is similar to the Myers Briggs Personality Test. That is to say, the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) is pretty much considered meaningless as a scientific endeavor and is considered similar to horoscopes (hey, astrology again) in the psychological community, whether it be practicing psychologists or academic researchers.

However, the MBTI is used in Human Resources training, and is still sometimes used in counseling, though never in too serious a capacity. It's a way of getting folks not accustomed to analyzing psychological scenarios to start...and then it is immediately dropped.

Would GNS fulfill a similar role? It is useless to folks by the time they have a familiarity with tabletop RPGs and tabletop RPG players as people with different creative drives. However, for folks who don't "get it", it is a dead-simple building block for them to start "getting it", which they are then encouraged to discard.

Anywhere near what you're saying?

Zak Sabbath said...

No. Myers-Briggs is a bunch of "usuallys".

GNS makes _literal statements that are not true_ such as more than one metagame goal cannot be fulfilled during an instance of play.

This is straight up, 100% entirely, no-doubt, earth-flat, false.

And, because of that, it's bad intellectual practices helped formed a flat-earth society which has made much of indie gaming into a cul-de-sac of dishonest, intellectually vacant, unproductive, head-up-its-ass abusive behavior (mostly because the theory required everyone involved adopt an excruciatingly low burden of proof).

Myers-Briggs is like a blurry guess.

GNS is like saying "eating cheeseburgers all day won't make you fat".

Some Indie gamers going "I didn't know I liked cheeseburgers until GNS came along" or "I had an eating disorder until GNS convinced me to have a cheeseburger and for thatI am grateful" doesn't make GNS ok.

_ESPECIALLY_ because better and more rational ideas about games were _already available_ when GNS came around. It wasn't a halting first step toward a better thing, it was just stupidity.

Jojiro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jojiro said...

Ah. At this point I would firstly like to thank you for maintaining a dialogue. I know this is something you have rehashed before.

The comparison between the two was helpful. I don't know that I completely agree, but that is more lack of reading on my part than "I think you're wrong" disagreement.

When you say better ideas, is there a search string or existing convo I should consult? I did look at your prior link and saw several ideas bandied about, but I am unsure if you mean the same by your comment here.

Zak Sabbath said...

Not being a stereotypical story gamer or any other kind of asshole, I know that if I begin a conversation where I accuse someone of being wrong or stupid (which i just have) I must stick around and justify it and provide evidence so there's no need to thank me --I'm just doing the bare minimum that a decent human being would do.

As for a more accurate discussion than gns of the ways Gamers interact with games a good starting place in the prehistoric era, at least before the osr blogs came and started making a lot more sense, would have been here:

Jojiro said...

Thanking sincerely is just my way of making the world a bit brighter. World curation, as it were.

:) Annnnnnnnnnd in lieu of that thanks for the link.