Monday, October 1, 2018

The Human Machinery of the RPG Business

And you can micromanage it down to a pixel, and that happens all the time...That’s not how you manage artists. You encourage artists, and then you’ll get – you know – art. If your idea of managing artists is just pointing out what’s wrong and making them fix it over and over again, you end up with artists who just stand around asking “OK lady, where do you want this sofa? You want it over there? No? Fine.You want it over there? I don’t give a fuck. I’ll put it wherever you want it.”  
-Phil Tippet, special effects guy on the original Star Wars, Empire, Temple of Doom, etc.
This week the Roll20 people fucked up so bad it made Newsweek. In a move utterly true to their story-game roots, they banned someone even while admitting the user hadn't done anything wrong. Then defended that decision.

What's shocking is that anyone noticed. Most of us are completely over being shocked that the rearguard of the RPG business regularly creates human wreckage on a cottage-industry scale. Fans can be good or bad, indie creators can be good or bad, but within the Serious Business end of it, people who talk the talk but have less than zero regard for fellow human beings the second any other piece of cake is dangled in front of them are not hard to find. 

On the surface, this makes no sense: these are people united by a passion for games, a wholesome and beautiful thing, and not one marked by either the moneycrunching rapacity we associate with stockbrokers or lawyers, nor the bitterness of people doing menial jobs they hate for way too long. They get to make games all day! And a living wage! Why are so many of them such dicks?

I do think there's a reason for it, and I think it has a lot to do with money and talent and the kind of work RPGs demand.

This'll take a second:

The Owlbear Fallacy

If you read a lot of what the RPG community writes you'll frequently see the following chain of reasoning:

1. I like (say) owlbears.
2. Most people like owlbears.
3. Owlbears are therefore the popular choice.
4. Owlbears are therefore the moneymaking choice.
5. Refusing to include owlbears in your game is therefore a bad business decision.
6. Refusing to include owlbears in your game is therefore an act of arrogance or ignorance.
7. Refusing to include owlbears in your game is failing to listen to the wise and deserving people in your fanbase or company.
8. Refusing to include owlbears in your game is therefore morally wrong.

So: if you like what I don't like you're a bad person. Q.E.D.

This chain of reasoning is extremely common in gamer circles.

"These people are evil because they refuse to do the popular thing" is the exact opposite of the Marxist critique "These people are evil because they have chosen to do the popular thing". While both are often invoked by people in order to avoid the embarrassment of just saying...
...the difference is the Marxist critique can actually sometimes be valid, whereas the capitalism-as-morality argument is never valid.

In the '80s CBS TV took Cagney & Lacey off the air even though it had good ratings because the execs at CBS thought the leads were too butch and maybe lesbians. This was bad: not bad because it cost CBS money (who cares? Not any of us who don't work at CBS.) its bad because that's a gross standard to have, and an unfair one (did the execs similarly feel like they had to personally enjoy every show on CBS? No.). The fact they did it even though it may've cost CBS money only shows the lengths they went to in order to be that gross.

A company making a moneylosing decision in the name of aesthetic standards is itself morally neutral--it's the aesthetic standards themselves that make this decision not morally neutral.

A Scarcity Problem

So there's that. But that's not why we're here today.

What I am interested in is the kind of game personnel that this give-me-what-I-want-regardless-of-what-you-want attitude demands.

There's a frequent back-and-forth in game design about this, it goes like:

"I want this!"
"Then make your own fucking game!"
"But I can't draw/write/make rules!"

"Talent" can mean a lot of things but the simple baseline talent of being able to concentrate long enough to make a finished game thing is actually a talent. Even people who are very bad at it have a talent, even being a hack at game design, writing, or drawing is miles past what most people can do.

And here's a thing about creative talent: stupid people with shit ideas have it less often than smart people with good ideas. Creative talent doesn't demand being a smart or thoughtful person but it definitely trends toward it.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this I can think of is Fox News: while there are anchors and execs who are true believers, most of the technical crew and a good chunk of the reporters on Fox News do not like Fox News. This is not great for Fox News because it results in a lot of leaks at Fox News and they have to pay people a lot more than competitors, but--it is literally impossible to find that many people who went to journalism school or know how to operate a camera who are cool with Fox News.

Fox News is such a bad idea that, in order to even run, it requires nonbelievers to do their storyboards, graphic design, lighting, everything. Likewise, people who are deeply invested in various kinds of Owlbear Fallacy aren't so much demanding new personnel as demanding the existing ones just kuckle down and do the stupid thing they want--they need and want cynics designing games for them. And they get it.


I've seen people honestly disgusted at the thought that a decision on D&D might be "Just Mike Mearls doing what he wants to do!" And their issue wasn't Mike Mearls himself but that Mike was ignoring the mandate of the People and doing what he thought would be fun.

Let's leave aside whether Mike does that (he doesn't) but rather what kind of demands they are making on creators: they want them to do the work of producing hundreds of spell descriptions, tables, drawings, paintings, monsters and they want them to take themselves out of it.

If they want cynically-produced art they are asking the industry to create the kind of people that cynically-produced art makes. I've often talked about what this does to the art, but not so much about what it does to the people. Luckily Sarah Miller happens to have a great article up about exactly that.

Sarah was a film critic for a small Philadelphia weekly, her job reviewing movies:

-was creative

-was fun

-was full of people with higher aspirations

-was not particularly well-paid

...just like the RPG business. And, just like the RPG business, in that business sooner or later someone will offer you the opportunity to write something you don't want to for more money--and, perhaps more importantly, for a step just a little higher on the ladder.

Authors are asked to lie in order to maybe get a chance to write on a big piece of IP, to write at 3 cents an hour and act grateful for a company that could afford way more in order to get maybe a foot in the door with them, artists are asked to tone things down or simplify them to match what someone's mom or 12 year old wants, and to participate in various other gross Faustianisms to prove they're On tThe Team.

The RPG business is full of people who took that deal. In fact, pretty much every single full-time professional who's gotten caught lying or supporting harassment in the RPG community has taken a version of that deal--has admitted to doing work they knew that wasn't their best and passing it off as if it was.

Sarah took that deal too--all the paper wanted was a good review of The English Patient. 

Crucially, neither Sarah nor RPG hacks do it to survive --this isn't a job at Hardee's. Turning your creative talent to the defense of bullshit ideas is fundamentally different than daily drudgery: working at Taco Bell doesn't force you to constantly create arguments for Taco Bell, and it does not require you to agreeing to pretend something's a good idea when it isn't.

Sarah (emphasis mine):

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it. 
If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person. 
That person was very sure she understood the way the world worked. If she met a writer who was unsuccessful, she always thought, “Oh, they are either extremely untalented,” or “They are still trying to be themselves—what an idiot.” When everything fell apart, this person was incensed she could no longer make lots of money for saying incredibly stupid things. She thought about killing herself all the time. 
I used to think I thought the right way, like, who cares if everyone does bad things, because bad things are just what important people have to do. Who cares if Barack Obama bombs people and doesn’t even try to prosecute bankers, because that’s all just his job, and he loves gay people and yells at bigots and his wife is smart and has great arms. Who cares if Hillary Clinton is best friends with Henry Kissinger, because she is a woman and so am I, and she stands up to men, and isn’t that what feminism is all about, finally getting into the rooms, finally getting to be the one to kill the people who don’t matter? Since my life was a fantasy, I had no trouble inhabiting a larger one. 
That technocratic smugness ("Including Owlbears Is a basic game design principle!") is thick on the ground in the RPG industry, as if the terrible decisions being made could not possibly be made another way and subjectivity isn't any part of it.

So if you're already inhabiting the fantasy "I have to tell people a game you don't like to play is good just to survive" then how much easier it must be to convince yourself "I have to refuse to even talk to people who disagree just to survive!" or "Thinking hard about how my decisions affect people who don't even make me money isn't my job" or "If someone disagrees with my friends, its more work than I have time for to see if they might have a point". They've already crossed a moral threshold: using their talent to lie about the one thing they love. Most of the rest just follows from there.

Of course they'd think it's not just ok but necessary to pretend you know more about transphobia than the trans girl or pretend to know more about "decolonizing games" than game authors from colonized places. You already agreed to pretend that module you wouldn't be caught dead playing (but wrote) was amazing and that thing by your friend that you never even read was magnificent!

Sarah (emphasis not mine):

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.
Next time you see someone obtusely waving the flag for some stupid idea or stupid game, think what the RPG business' would need a game to have in all caps to feel ok about itself. A POPULAR IP for YOUNG ADULTS, from a company with a WOKE REP, it had CRYING and NONVIOLENCE in it. How many of the all caps words do they have to line up to forget they wouldn't go near it with a ten foot pole?

And then think about how pissed and sad and broken and secretly cynical they are when they see people making money or just having fun writing and playing what they love without having made any of those compromises.


Anonymous said...

Alright, call me dense if you need to but... How exactly does the fascist/censoring streak of a moderator/indie-developer/CEO translates to bullshit on part of a consumer base who wants a better product? or a fairly moderated community, who maybe conforms to the rules of the space in which it's been set up? Who wants to pay for a better product?

Are you going to defend micro-transactions now?

Zak Sabbath said...


I don't understand your question or what it has to do with what I wrote.

Please QUOTE the words in the text you're referring to and then ask questions around the quote.

jacob business said...

I don't disagree with anything that is actually part of the point of what this post is about but I have a very tangentially related question:

When you say this:

"Next time you see someone obtusely waving the flag for some stupid idea or stupid game, think what the RPG business' would need a game to have in all caps to feel ok about itself. A POPULAR IP for YOUNG ADULTS, from a company with a WOKE REP, it had CRYING and NONVIOLENCE in it. How many of the all caps words do they have to line up to forget they wouldn't go near it with a ten foot pole?"

Your words in caps seem like examples of shitty ideas / shitty kinds of games. Why is crying and nonviolence on the list? Like I get that your games aren't about those things and you seem to not like them (makes sense they can totally be boring) but do you think they are inherently bad content for games?

Sorry if that isn't as clear as it could be.

Zak Sabbath said...

@jacob business

The words in caps (as in the original) are not inherently bad content.

They're signs of _respectability_ that do not speak to the quality of the product at all.

Just as the fact a film is based on a literary novel does not actually speak to it being good or not, even though people pretend it does, the fact a game is full of feelz or nonviolence does not actually speak to it being good or not, even though people pretend it does.

jacob business said...

That makes sense! Thanks. Now i just need to find an RPG that does "crying" in a way that doesn't suck.

Zak Sabbath said...


You're going to have to ask your question in a more comprehensble-to-fellow-humans form

LanceToth said...

Can I just say : fuck news week. The attempted to play a video ad despite my repeated attempts at stopping it, wasting my phone internet.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous from before, I guess what I'm trying to ask is: what does this dissertation has to do in any way, shape or form with the PR clusterfuck Roll20 got? It feels like clickbait.

Zak Sabbath said...


The people who run Roll20 are clearly utter jackass morons and the blog entry is about why there are So. Many. utter jackass morons in the RPG business.

It's not complicated.

And next time I ask you to quote something, it'd help if you do it. It makes the conversation go faster. I still have no idea what any of what you wrote in your first comment has to do with anythin gI said