Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Most Disagreeable Gentleman

You know, I spent ten years obsessing over vintage games: writing about them, studying them, fisking them. I was pretty used to the fact that most people just don’t care. I’ve given countless two minute tours of my game collection and the only person that ever really cared about what the old games were about was a twelve year old boy that had what I call “the gamer gene.”

But for a solid quarter of a year now I have expanded my range of topics to include science fiction and fantasy in general. My general approach is to read a book, think as deeply as I can about it, write two thousand words on it, and then go see what other people have to say about it. This is sort of like when a student checks his math homework. I’m looking to see if I’ve gone deeper than the average commentator, but I’m also looking to see if other people have said something in a more cogent manner than I have. Mainly, though, I want to see someone hammer a point that never even crossed my mind. Some of the things I’ve seen other people write are just mindblowing….

I don’t talk games with people much anymore. Even hard core gamers that know all about gauntlets of ogre power and wands of fireballs are unlikely to be interested in the finer points of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N book list. They mostly don’t know that there is something there that they don’t know and it is very difficult to pique their interest in the confines of a five minute conversation. But science fiction and fantasy in general… you’d think that would be something a lot more people can kibitz about. And you can, but… these books that I am reading and writing about… they are largely as unknown as the vintage games I’m into!

I have noticed a pattern when the topic comes up. Young college educated people will pretend to know all about science fiction and fantasy. There’s this huge pressure on them to appear hip to just everything. This was mercilessly lampooned on Portlandia a while back in the “Did You Read It?” sketch. It can be fun to catch people out on their pretensions with a few playful questions. It’s just amusing when you get to the third or fourth question talking to them and they look at you as if to say, “who are you?” If you play it right, everyone can laugh about it and then change the subject. It’s even a little fun.

But I’ve noticed another conversation pattern. I’m just completely gobsmacked by the combination of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s incredible influenced combined with the general narrowing of fantasy that has occurred over the past thirty years or so. It’s just a tremendous cultural shift with a mess of implications outside of even just game design. You’d think that would be a great conversation topic, but even people a bit older than me have no idea who he is.

Now, I don’t expect people to get totally eaten up with this topic. I’ve only just started delving into it, really. And sure, I’m kind of a nerd that is just a little bit too excited about this for mixed company. Everyone’s entitled to answer me back with some kind of noncommittal brush off. It wouldn’t surprise me and I don’t mind.

But yesterday, I got an entirely unexpected response that I’m trying to wrap my head around. I think I might have blurted out three or four minutes of chatter on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, the moon landings, and Star Wars. I was not especially coherent and I was mostly just shocked at how my benighted listeners just had no real idea about any of it. One guy admitted that there had been some sort of shift in fiction, but wasn’t too interested in it even though there were some facets to recent trends that he disliked. The other listener answered back with about three times as much talk about how the fiction was pretty much irrelevant to the wider trends. I don’t know what set her off exactly. I stood there aghast as she argued against things I just hadn’t said. I was completely prepared to just let it go, but she went on and on and on about it.

I let her have her say and then said, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Yeah, I was insulted all right. She looked at me in shock and I added, “at the very beginning of this conversation you admitted that you’d never heard of any of these authors or even of their creations… and yet you purport to be able to synthesize their influence into a wider picture of recent history. That’s just ridiculous!” Needless to say, this goes against the advice of Dale Carnegie in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Oh my did she double down on her argument, though, and then went on about it for another fifteen minutes.

I’m not sure what it was about really. Maybe people just get really uncomfortable talking about something that they don’t know anything about. Kids fresh out of college can laugh at themselves and move on, but this other thing was just weird. She got very upset with me for not being “winsome” or something, but good grief… she spent almost thirty minutes explaining why my assertion was stupid when she didn’t know the first thing about the topic of conversation…! She basically told me that I’d be more influential if I wasn’t such a jerk. But really… I wan’t trying to influence anyone. I was standing up for myself in the face of a egregiously large pile of horse hockey.

I don’t know how much of this I brought on myself and how much of this is just human nature, but if I ever do an Appendix N TED Talk or a convention type Power Point presentation on this… this is exactly the sort of reflexive attitude I want to head off and shut down. But let’s get one thing clear. I might be wrong about a lot of what I’m saying. I may well cross the line into overstating my case. But you cannot correct me very well if you have no idea who these authors were and what they did. Just because we are ignorant of them doesn’t mean they weren’t incredibly influential in their day.

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12 responses to “A Most Disagreeable Gentleman

  1. Michael Moscrip September 8, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Ugh.. horror stories like this [that’s how I experience these occurrences] are a big reason why I tend to avoid interacting with people whose backgrounds and opinions are an unknown quantity. I never know when I’m going to run into one of these people who is soooo desperate to not be seen as ignorant, who wants so badly to be perceived as ‘Importantly Informed’, that they will be actively disingenuous in a simple conversation.

  2. Louis J. Desy Jr. September 8, 2014 at 11:27 am

    What you ran into is not a limited experience. It is all over the place. There was a time that people wanted to engage in ‘intelligent, informed, conversation’ and wanted/expected to learn from the conversation. Those that had less knowledge wanted to find someone with more to learn from and understand. Those with more knowledge gladly shared their knowledge and expertise with inquiring students to pass the knowledge on for future generations. This has almost completely disappeared today. In your conversation, the person was talking, and asserting opinions, on something that they admitted they knew nothing about, and was not even open to the possibility that maybe there could be some influence from those writers that they were unaware of or something they should look at later. Instead, they viewed it as an attack on themselves personally and felt that you were trying to ‘influence them’; as though a rational and logical discussion does not arrive at a rational answer because it is logical, but because you influence other people. (This attitude also implies, to me, that it is ok to arrive at irrational answers as long as you can ‘influence people’ in a way to get them to your irrational end point.)

    The people you were talking with also seemed to be of the opinion that since it was ‘so long ago’ (more than 30 years) that it possibly could not possibly influence what is happening today, even though it is probably the basis of what there is today. (To me this would be like saying “World War I had no influence on World War II because it took place more than 20 years earlier” in spite of the fact that many of the cause of the Second World War were from the peace treaty of the First World War.)

    “I do not seek to question but I wish to understand.”
    I am not sure where I first heard this quote, I think it was from an episode of Babylon 5; which, if correct, I expect they got from somewhere else.
    This type of inquiry is almost gone, many people usually take any questioning of what they are saying as a personal challenge or attack on their own system of beliefs. It is worse when the person you are talking with is, objectivity, completely wrong. I think part of the problem is that many people have absolutely no idea about anything; i.e. they are essentially ignorant. There have been some studies that found some people were leaving colleges, with a four year degree, but had less knowledge than when they went in. To me it is not clear how that can happen, but I theorize that if you spend all four years, doing as little work as possible, along with ‘partying’ as much as possible, reading no books, not wanting to learn, results in people for whom the thinking process is somehow crippled and then know less when they graduate than when they entered the college.

    [ Pollster (according to the story sometime in the 1960s/70s) going door to door asking a question on a survey, “Which is worse in your opinion, ignorance or apathy” Answer:“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Just as the person slammed the door in his face.]

    I believe that we are at the ending trail to what I call the ‘golden age of gaming.’ The last of the war gaming/board gaming stores in my area is a shop called The Citadel in Groton, CT (75 miles from Worcester, MA). I am friends with the owner and have known him for over 30 years. I never expected that gaming would have mass appeal or a very large market, but I never expected it would fade like it has to the point where I wonder if there will be anything left of the market in 20 years. War gaming at its highest in the 1970s/1980s was estimated to have as many as 250,000 people (about 1% of the total population). On first print runs of a war game the decision usually was, should it be 10,000 or 5,000 games? Today many war games (or the few that are put out) only print at most 3,000 in the first (and probably only) print run. One company even has print runs of only 250 games. Along with this market was a group of people that had an interest in history, politics and economics; which attracted them to these games. Today this demographic seems to be almost gone with everyone looking into their iPhone/iPad/android device to use Facebook/Twitter/Instantgram. As an example, there are stories of people that are in the SAME ROOM/TABLE sending messages to each other instead of just talking to each other, or the photos online of a group of people all together just looking into their phones instead of paying attention to each other.

    Two of my friends ran comic book/game stores in Worcester, MA. Musicquest (comic book store and some games) was run by my friend Roger Anderson, who unfortunately passed away on November 9, 2012; after which the store was closed. I had a subscription for comics (comics for my sister and I ordered board/war games) there along with our friend Robert Jennings, who himself ran Fabulous Fiction (comic store and some board games) in Worcester until he closed it in 2000/2001 and moved all of his inventory to warehouse space and sold online only.

    In my area there is still That’s Entertainment but most of their market is comics or sports memorabilia so one of the few (only?) places that I can go to/look at for discussions on history, politics or economics is The Citadel in Groton, CT. Last year, at the end of October, I was able to ‘sneak’ down to the store for about two hours in the middle of the day. I was glad I did because I got to meet and talk with interesting people that were part of his mid day customers that I would not normally have had the chance to talk with otherwise, plus on the car trip I get to listen to CSPAN or CNBC. (CNBC for when the market is open and CSPAN for all over times.) I fear that someday these conversations will not be possible if The Citadel ever closes. (The owner is at retirement age.) Online is just not the same and seems to degenerate into ‘flame wars’ most of the time similar to what you experienced in your conversation.

    Part of the problem might be the individual that you were talking with, but I don’t think so. Again, what you ran into with your conversation, is unfortunately, not a limited experience and seems to be all over the place.

    • jeffro September 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

      I like how when it is demonstrated that the person bullying you can’t argue their way out of a paper bag, they then switch gears to some sort of shame oriented behavior modification program. Ha. The fact that they’re intellectually dishonest gives them the moral authority to tell you how to comport yourself!

      No thanks, lady…!

    • Robert Eaglestone September 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

      Louis, I don’t believe I’ve ever learned or worked in any environment such as the one your describe. While I’d like to believe that your view of the past is unrealistically rosy, it may well be that you’re right. If so, then our culture had completed an important negative shift by, oh, around 1990.

  3. Robert Eaglestone September 8, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Regarding your idle thoughts about making a little presentation from your thoughts, I direct you to this most excellent sacred-cow-roasting slide deck: https://speakerdeck.com/stevan_little/perl-is-not-dead-it-is-a-dead-end

  4. CarlZog September 8, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Louis’ dismal assessment of the tabletop gaming hobby is slightly off the mark, but he may be inadvertently tapping into a deeper issue that is in parts both a cause and a reflection of the ‘narrowing’ of genre fiction that Jeff is encountering.

    Setting aside the broader social issue of ignorance in argument for a moment here, the old wargaming culture that Louis describes was built on a premise of incorporating a wide variety of inputs into a game to see what would happen. It didn’t matter whether this was a historical recreation of a World War II battle, or the fantastical creation of a role-playing universe: Nothing was “off-limits” in terms of the resources and inspirations. The result was a fluid hobby whose members read widely and played widely. You may have cultivated one set of minis, but you played with a variety of different rules sets. You may have preferred one particular RPG, but your campaign world was your own and was culled from every crazy novel and short story you could get your hands on.

    Today, players have come to expect a corporate “gatekeeper” for their gaming. They are no longer the intellectual owners of their games, nor do they expect to be. Instead, they see themselves as consumers of a specific game and game world owned and managed by some company with the rights to the game. As players, they may participate in a “community” discussion around the game, but even that is expected to be provided by the company via a website forum and official organized play/tournament structure. The idea of incorporating diverse visions, resources and inspirations into a game is alien to them.

    Over lunch at a convention a while back, I met a 20-something Warmachine player who was new to the hobby. He described his confusion in watching some of the old guys playing historical miniatures at the Con in which the minis came from a variety of manufacturers and the rules were from a completely separate publisher. He was utterly unable to wrap his head around the idea of a game that was not wholly owned and managed by a single company with rights to the IP. He was so used to the idea of some entity managing everything for him and telling him the rules, that anything less seemed chaotic to the point that I think it may have literally frightened him.

    I think the rise of this kind of proprietary gaming began in earnest in the mid-80s with Games Workshop, and was codified as a tournament model with the creation of Magic: the Gathering in the ’90s. As gamers, we became consumers instead of creators.

    I feel like that same fundamental attitude has become rooted in popular genre fiction as well for much of the same reasons. Going to science fiction and fantasy conventions as a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, the goal was to find new stuff to read, think about, critique, and incorporate into one’s ever-broadening view of various speculative perspectives. Nothing was taken at face value. Even if you never wrote a word of fiction, you were a creator by virtue of the discussions you participated in. That, in fact, was the whole nature of sci-fi/fantasy as a hobby!

    Today, while there is still a small academic community of writers and thinkers in genre fiction, the popular approach to the material has become much, much more consumptive. Fandom is not a thoughtful assessment of material in a broader context, but a much more mindless celebration of something being received from the corporate producers of some specific franchise. Discussions focus on anticipation about new releases, and speculation on what’s going to happen in the plotline. At best, fans may bitterly complain if the latest installment doesn’t satisfy their expectations for a franchise’s standard tropes — a situation that is the very antithesis of what sci-fi/fantasy fandom used to be.

    The appeal of brain candy franchises that appeal to some particular set of emotions and seek to tap into them over and over again ad nauseum is a phenomenon that has shaped the narrowing of fiction Jeff describes. Writers and publishers are not encouraged to really explore concepts through creative fiction. They are encouraged to put a different spin on something that will be familiar enough for readers to recognize, embrace, and cheer for. Hopefully, through a multi-volume contract with a movie deal tagged on.

    All of which emboldens fans to vigorously defend their favorite creation in a self-righteous flurry that lacks any critical context whatsoever.

    Carl

    • Louis J Desy Jr September 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

      Games Workshop

      I am continue to be amazed at the level of sales that Games Workshop has. From time to time I look at the annual report (Games Workshop is a publically traded company on the London stock exchange) and they report sales of over 100 million pounds. I also followed recently some of the price increases that they forced onto the players, none of which seems to have hurt thier product line.

      In my own war gaming experience, I do remember that it was a number of years before I felt competant enough to be able to modify rules that added to the game.

    • lewpuls September 22, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Carl, what you’ve observed starts very early, when children are given toys based on TV or movies or a long-standing tradition (G I Joe). The toys already have a story and purpose, so the children don’t need to make one up. Imagination, in the sense of imagining something useful, is no longer practiced by children. And since they get their toys from corporate entities who dictate what they are and how they’re used, it’s not surprising that they continue to expect same in their adulthood.

  5. Louis J Desy Jr September 8, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Table top Games / Euro Games

    I am glad that Euro Games/Table top games are around. With the decline of war games, Euro games/Tabletop games are what allows places like the stores I know about to stay open. While not all of the sales, they are a large percentage that other areas would not make up. Another problem with the war game sales is that a number of publishers seem to be pushing a ‘direct to customer’ model which leaves no place for the game store because they start to discount everything 30%.

    • jeffro September 8, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      At PrezCon, most of the people playing wargames were old enough to retire. When I looked around, I thought… that’s why I could never find opponents!

  6. lewpuls September 22, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    The Internet has become a haven for people who have lots of opinions with little or no knowledge of facts. College teachers have to try to show students that sometimes there’s something behind an opinion, that some opinions are indeed more well-informed than others, that everyone has a right to an opinion but most of those opinions, having no basis in fact, should be ignored.

    The people you encountered did not learn these things.

    I’m especially puzzled by some moron who says tl;dr about a piece of writing (that’s “too long, didn’t read”), and STILL comments as though he knows what the piece is saying! Doh!

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