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…?