Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Random Thoughts: Up or Out, Overreach, Gaming Enlightenment, and No Endgame for Games Writing

One of the things that happens when you write regularly is that you end up gradually expanding the scope of what you do. With me it happens in sort of a punctuated equilibrium that’s preceded by an odd blend of exasperation and despair. It’s hard to transition because the new topic just isn’t your beat and you aren’t ready for it! It’s nerve wracking. I went from doing mostly Car Wars, to doing classic D&D, to attempting a range of general gaming features, to general game design, and now… to old science fiction and fantasy. Each expansion resulted in a doubling of the size of my audience. I think a lot of the blogs that go dark are due to the writers being unwilling expand their scope. It’s really an “up or out” kind of thing. If you’re not growing, you eventually quit.

So the designer of Domains At War did this talk: People are Getting Smarter…Content is Getting Dumber: Alexander Macris at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity. Now, he’s talking about trends that I am being exposed to all the time lately, so this was my comment:

The Appendix N reading list is pitched to a significantly deeper level than comparable literature from the past couple of decades. It is also more diverse, displaying a wider range of tropes, concepts, and situations. The voices and tone are also from all over the map ideologically. Reading one of these books a week is a very modest commitment of time, but it can change the way you think.

I must have overreached here to some extent, because I immediately received RPGPundit’s flames of divine nemesis. I have been wondering lately when I was finally going to jump the shark in my Appendix N series, and this was it. Heh.

I haven’t really gotten a lot of negative reaction on the series. Aside from that one accusation of engaging in yellow journalism, most of the heated discussion has been with people that are completely unfamiliar with the books. People outside of the science fiction scene mostly do not want to hear about how significant Edgar Rice Burroughs is. They don’t want to hear that Conan is really jam packed with a surprising amount moral virtue. People that are really enjoying gaming the way that it is don’t want to hear the ravings of madmen that act like they can become enlightened just by picking over a few old books.

But it is mind blowing. To see someone like Poul Anderson take the antecedents of modern fantasy and take them in a completely different direction than what Tolkien was doing. To see bits and pieces of what would become D&D so plainly laid out in the work of Vance, Anderson, Zelazny, and Gardner Fox. To see that Edgar Rice Burroughs is a primary influence on Superman, Star Wars, and D&D. To see that Conan thoroughly embodied the values and integrity of the rugged and hardworking men of Depression era Texas. To see that the now nearly unknown author A. Merritt fairly well bridges the gap between Burroughs and Lovecraft in a surprisingly original way. And to see just how often science fiction and fantasy tended to merge together back before the eighties: with space aliens showing up in swords & sorcery tales and fantasy settings being set so often in a star spanning far future universe.

I read a book from the Appendix N list every week and I am consistently surprised at what I find there. I’m truly staggered by it… and if I try to explain it, people think I am flat out crazy. But the fact that trashy “low brow” throwaway pulp fiction can do this… provide this kind of “Allegory of the Cave” type experience… that in and over itself is staggering. But no one believes me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of the positive feedback that I do get is from the people that have already read most of these books and are glad to see someone else finally come to their senses. That’s pretty much it at this point! Everyone else… they think I’m totally nuts….

But this is what I don’t get: I like interactive fiction. I have played and reviewed a lot of small, “indie” projects over the past few years. I am pretty critical of the big monetized glossy slick dumbed down games. I’ve even written rants about how the industry doesn’t define my hobby. I am completely underwhelmed by the big AAA video game lines. And now… I’m off on some tangent of what is effectively literate role playing game design. (Though it makes me gag to come right out and say that.) Take all of that together… and… (oh no) I’m basically in the exact same boat as Leigh Alexander. (For those just now tuning in, Leigh Alexander recently made a big splash by essentially firing off the first shot in this huge brawl over Gamergate.)

So… if we’re so much alike, why does she rub me the wrong way? Aren’t we both sort of nonconformist types with an iconoclastic streak…? Aren’t we basically coming at games from similar off the wall angles…? Aren’t we both looking for something… more….?

Now, when I asked this over on my google+ feed, I was really looking for an answer that could strip away of the standard political and religious type of antagonism. (Just asking the question like that, it does look like I’m mostly fishing for compliments, but… this really was an honest question.) Anyway, Rick Stump chimed in that the difference is one of approach: descriptive versus prescriptive. Interesting.

I think descriptive writing is more likely to be useful to people of diverse opinions and objectives. The problem with prescriptive writing is that it leaves you in the distinctly narrower role of merely building the morale of people that already agree with you. I know that for me, the latter just isn’t an option. If the past few decades of noodling around has shown me anything it’s that my meager attempts at polemics are the least persuasive things in existence. Attempting to articulate things as they are is controversial enough, there’s just no call to go out and add fuel to the flames… especially given how small the potential audience is here in the first place.

In the process of sorting this out, I uncovered this:

“I have a freelance job with Gamasutra that allows me to not starve. But as everyone’s been saying, the market for games writing has contracted massively. I now make about half what I used to a few years ago, despite having grown in experience and in reach…. There’s really not yet a significant market for mature games writing — you hear that time and time again — and moreover, there is no endgame for a mature games writer. It’s about time for someone like me to think about the fact that at this rate I’ll never have a financially-healthy adulthood or be able to start a family.” — Leigh Alexander

Now, I think Lewis Pulsipher has made it fairly clear that no one is going to make a lot of money in game design. And there are plenty of top notch fiction writers that can’t or won’t quit their day jobs. This shouldn’t be surprising, but I’m still flummoxed by this. It’s just really disappointing to hear that someone doing something that I wish I could be doing just… can’t… make it. This is someone that could fill an auditorium at XOXO with cheering fans, too. She has connections and bona fides and credits that I will probably never have… and she’s basically at a dead end.

No wonder she and so many people in her line could so casually commit career suicide like that. They didn’t have anything to lose. I wonder what happened that could cause the market for games writing to go away like that…?

13 responses to “Random Thoughts: Up or Out, Overreach, Gaming Enlightenment, and No Endgame for Games Writing

  1. morrisonmp October 30, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Huh. Thanks for posting the link to the Tedx talk. I’ll give it a watch after work today – I’m a fan of the Adventurer Conqueror King system and it would be interesting to hear him speak.

    As far as the Flames of Divine Nemesis… I thought about commenting on that thread and realized that I just didn’t want any part of that. It seems like a fairly pointless argument when someone declares it “an argument you just can’t win.”

    I read extensively on topics as diverse as Higher Education, Religion, History, Politics, as well as being an avid reader of poetry and some of the “canon” literature. I am also an ardent fan of fantasy and in my own experience, there are two things which can be said of these stories.

    1. Some of them are worthy of being called literature in a way that they will never be recognized because of their publisher.

    2. It is difficult to pin “value” to something when you dismiss it out of hand as only worthy of reading for enjoyment. If a book or a short story touches our emotions, helps us view the world in a new way, or helps us reconcile the experience of our own lives at whatever stage we are currently in, then it has this nebulous literary value that some people feel the need to impart. Many of the science fiction and fantasy stories I have read have helped me to shape my views of the world as much – if not more – than Shakespeare or a lot of the other “old, white, men” that make up the canon of literature.

    1a + 2a. it also is worth pointing out that just because two books both appear in the scifi/fantasy section at the B&N does not make them equal. Formulaic genre fiction is formulaic genre fiction no matter what type of writing it is (Western, Romance, Spy, Men’s Adventure) but it doesn’t mean that these are the same as other well-written, intelligent sci-fi/fantasy stories.

    All that said, there is “value” in many of these old stories beyond their plots and characters in that they offer a glimpse into a different set of values and may sometimes be unrestrained in ways that more heavily vetted/edited literature may not. I am always struck by the lack of women in Lovecraft or the strange racism of Howard (while definitely racist, it seems he hates “civilization” even more than “primitives” in many of the stories). I am impressed with the variety of language these writers use – some of which I would not encounter in non-fiction or the canon.

    Ultimately, they have a lot to offer and to dismiss them as merely worthy of “enjoyment” reading is short-sighted and shows the personal bias of the writer due to his anger at the fans more than the literature itself. Conflating two issues that way is not a good basis for an argument, nor is it a good basis for judging the writing under examination.

    Sure, Gygax was a “salesman” but he was also a game designer and a writer in his own right. Sure, Appendix N is more about what he enjoyed and what inspired him than it is a be-all-end-all reading list – but it is also a glimpse into what helped him design D&D which does give it some “value” (sorry for all the quotes but I’m angry at needing to use that word) for someone interested in the history of D&D or the hobby in general. And why that’s a problem, I’m not really sure. If we consider ourselves – RPG Gamers – as a culture then we should be interested in the roots and history of that culture. We should learn about the inspirations that brought our culture to life, and those go beyond Beowulf and Tolkien.

    I’m going to quit here. That got longer than I meant it to. Anyway. I enjoy your write-ups about Appendix N and I agree with you about the value of exploring these older works. Having read many of them myself – as well as a lot of other things – I don’t think I’m smarter than anyone else… I just know that I have more options in my toolbox when I need to think through a problem or work on a project.over someone who doesn’t. I could say the same thing about learning a martial art, or designing a game, or reading a lot of indie games alongside Pathfinder and Star Wars. After all, as gamers should know, it’s all about amassing experience.

  2. morrisonmp October 30, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    It has been. Many times. I was just truly upset (my own fault) by his, you-are-objectively-wrong stance.

    Like I said, my own fault for letting it get to me.

  3. 2W2N October 30, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting. I think I have to agree with Kasimir, at least about his major point: if you’re going to hold up a selection of core literature as proof that contemporary content is getting dumber (and that past content is demonstrably superior), it should be a wide selection that has endured and thrived in the popular imagination for a lengthy period of time. The Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels is far from perfect, but it’s a much better starting place. Also, I’m not particularly into current sci-fi and fantasy, but I’ve read a few authors, and someone like Chia Mieville more than holds his own against anyone on Appendix N.

    You can’t read Moby Dick in a week. I mean, unless you’re unemployed and childless.

    • jeffro October 30, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      I don’t think I made a particularly strong claim at all. But in any case, the dumbing down of news and fiction writing was an intentional documented policy of the publishing industry. And people in general have measurably dumbed down in response to first widespread television and then widespread internet usage. Reading books from before these changes is a step in the right direction, that’s all I either said or implied. This idea that they’re not because you can come up with a list of even better and more “nutritious” books is beside the point.

      The Appendix N list has a surprising range and depth and diversity to it. It can change the way you think even if you read just a couple hundred pages a week from it. That’s all I said. This really shouldn’t be taken as that provocative of a statement.

      (Nice recognizer, by the way.)

  4. 2W2N October 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    To be clear: You’re saying that the publishing industry today is purposefully dumbing down fiction writing? As opposed to the high-mindedness of the pulps that published Howard and Lovecraft and Burroughs?

    Look, don’t get me wrong, I love Burroughs and Howard and Lovecraft. I’m just saying that we should all be challenging ourselves in terms of what we’re reading. That may have been your point. As a reading public, we can do better than Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. We can also do better than Appendix N.

    • jeffro October 30, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      For the next thirty weeks or so, I have zero interest in “doing better” than Appendix N. I don’t have the slightest idea what the next thing I’ll look at will be. However… comparing just the part of the Appendix N list that I’ve read so far to, say, “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” or The Lady Astronaut of Mars, I’d say there’s no contest. The Appendix N list might as well be Herodotus, St. Augustine, and The Lincoln Douglas Debates in comparison.

      • 2W2N October 30, 2014 at 4:13 pm

        I think reading all the Appendix N books is a really cool project! Like I said, I don’t know enough about current fantasy titles to judge how they stack up.

  5. JSpace October 30, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Well my Dad got me into everything from Townes Van Zandt (do check out Margaret Brown’s film about him, Be Here To Love Me, it’s something else), Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sam Peckinpah, so I guess it’s his fault. I don’t have an XBox, but I do have a first edition of The Moon Pool (which I got for five dollars). So yes, more positive feedback from another “nut”. Keep on keeping on.

    • jeffro October 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm

      See? Positive feedback just from the crazy people. Proving my point!!!! Hahahah….

      (Bet that first edition Moon Pool is rad. Some of those old covers are completely rad. Dig the frog-people.)

  6. lewpuls October 31, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Not surprised at Leigh’s experiences. Crowdsourcing has strongly affected all kinds of game writing. (Effectively, too many people willing to do it for little or nothing.) That’s part of my discussion in “RPGs: prisoners of capitalism”

    The Internet makes access to such writing much easier, often free access (including piracy). In such cases standards may go down, but publishers rarely worry about standards as long as people read their publications.

    • jeffro October 31, 2014 at 10:25 am

      Oh come on, there’s got to be an explanation that requires a tin foil hat! Supply and demand… is that all you got?! Haha.


      Still, the newsrooms have already been cut to the bone. I don’t like that journalism has effectively ceased to be a career in my lifetime. But I also didn’t like the old gatekeepers, either. In any case… these are interesting times….

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