SF and Gaming Blog

Thoughts, reviews and opinion on the overlapping worlds of science fiction and gaming.

When a Fandom Turns Toxic

Steven UniverseThis is really depressing read about the dark side of an online fandom, and the way social media all too often brings out the worst in people.

There has got to be something fundamentally wrong with a subculture that believes bullying to the point of suicide attempts is justified in the name of some ill-defined greater good.

Steven Universe is a beloved animated children’s show known for its smart and progressive depictions of its diverse and lovable cast of characters.

But these positive qualities in the show itself have led to a very ugly turn of events in the Steven Universe fandom, after a beleaguered fanartist said she attempted suicide after being bullied by members of the fandom who felt her art was problematic. In a bizarre turn of events prompted by the ensuing debate over what kinds of fanart are acceptable, some fans have now turned even against the show’s creative team, including show creator Rebecca Sugar.

I’ve blogged before about the way the design of some social media sites affect the ways in which their users behave, for good or for ill.

Internet harassment is a subject of major concern at the moment. Social media sites including Twitter, Reddit and 4chan have come in for much well-deserved criticism for the way they can spawn toxic communities.  You hear far less about Tumblr, despite the site having developed a terrible reputation for this sort of thing.

It does leave the impression that much of the media debate on harassment is viewed through a lens of an increasingly ugly turf war between libertarianism and feminism, and some parts of the media are reluctant to cover stories that don’t support their chosen narrative. Is the lack of coverage of this story part of that pattern?

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Mainstream vs Popular?

Over on Twitter, Serdar Yegulalp made the observation that “Mainstream” and “Popular” art, while they often overlap, are not the same thing. The former is that which gets widespread attention in the media, while the latter is what actually sells. This is a split that’s been apparent in rock music for years to anyone’s who’s paying attention. “Mainstream” nowadays tends to equate to “Indie”, despite that being one aesthetic of many, largely because that’s what has the greatest appeal to those who write about music in the media. So a mid-level indie act who sell modest numbers of albums and concert tickets get to play on “Later with Jools Holland” and are considered mainstream in a way the far bigger-selling Iron Maiden are not. It’s something most rock and metal fans have learned to live with, though it’s still galling to see the media gatekeepers give so much space to things like Metallica’s appallingly dreadful collaboration with Lou Reed just because Reed is fashionable with the elite tastemakers in a way no metal band can ever be. Metallica themselves never got a look in when they were in their prime.

Even more true in the book publishing world, of course, where “Literary Fiction”, that etiolated genre that pretends it’s not a genre punches way above it’s weight when it comes to critical attention. It’s also why I suspect the fight over the Hugo Awards within science fiction isn’t just a turf war between political tribes. Is there something of a Mainstream/Popular split going on too, with a disconnect between the books and stories that get media attention (and win all the awards), and the books that sell in large numbers? Do the major SF awards disproportionately reward the literary equivalent of “indie music” at the expense of other aesthetics?

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What has the Kepler Space Telescope found around the mysterious star between Cygnus and Lyra? Are the objects orbiting the star some previously unknown natural phenomenon, or are they really, as some have suggested, massive structures built by an alien civilisation?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Story Games vs. Traditional RPGs: An Analogy

I think this analogy makes sense, at least to people from Cricket playing countries.

Story games are the equivalent to limited overs one-day Cricket compared with traditional RPG’s long form of the game.

A game of Cricket in the long form takes place over the course of several days, five in the case of international games, three or four for domestic games. Connoisseurs of the game will always maintain it’s the higher form, where the story unfolds across multiple days. It’s true that some games do peter out into dull draws when neither side can press an advantage, but the best games ebb and flow with occasional dramatic reversals. Games like the 1981 Test Match at Headlingly where England came back from a seemingly hopeless position to beat Australia after heroic performances from Ian Botham and Bob Willis have passed into legend.

The one-day game, in contrast, cuts to the chase. It’s all over in a single day, appealing to a wider audience who doesn’t have the attention span to follow a single match over multiple days. It trades drama for spectacle, and tends to produce more exciting close finishes. But it also tends to result in far more cookie-cutter games, especially the ones that don’t end in close run chases. There is no one-day equivalent of that 1981 Headingly Test.

Like all analogies, it’s not an exact one, but does illuminate some strengths and weaknesses of two different forms of a similar thing. There are, I think, some definite parallels.

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Inappropriate Content?

Yet another big controversy has erupted in the tabletop RPG world after One Book Shelf (which owns the downloads sites RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) pulled a provocatively-titled small-press game suppliment its virtual shelves following a Twitter campaign.

It’s opened a massive can of worms.

One Book Shelf have now announced a new policy for reporting offensive content. The precise details are vague at the moment, but there are suggestions that there’s going to be “report as offensive” button which will cause automatic suspension of the reported product pending review. Some game publishers, most notably James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and The RPG Pundit have raised very serious concerns over how this might work in practice, and have threatened to pull all their products from the site should a single one of their titles be suspended under this new system. They express a strong concern that their own products may well be targetted.

It’s near to impossible to tell whether their fears are justified or not.

I would certainly advocate no suspension of any product without human intervention under any circumstances, because such a process would be far too vulnerable to abuse. The ugly “PunditGate” saga remains a faultline in the community a year on, and the past behaviour of some of the personalities involved more or less guarantees bad things will happen unless active steps are taken to prevent it.

At least some of these people have an overtly authoritarian agenda combined with axes to grind against specific game designers and publishers, and can’t be trusted not to misuse any “report as offensive” button to pursue long-running personal feuds, or to report anything that fails absurdly strict purity tests. The “everything is problematic” crowd have very broad definitions of racism and sexism, and there is a very loud faction of them with the RPG community. Give them the power to disappear publications they don’t like, and it will have a chilling effect on the hobby as a whole.

In the world of self-publishing there are all sorts of issues of quality control and gatekeeping. If a line needs to be drawn somewhere over what content is beyond the pale, it matters who gets to draw than line. Twitter mobs with torches and pitchforks don’t always make the best judges. But are ill-conceived  technical solutions which could cause as many problems as they solve any better? It’s really a social problem.

I don’t want an RPG hobby that’s awash with overtly racist and misogynistic games. But I don’t want an RPG hobby where are small but vocal minority have the power to veto on what anyone else can publish.

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backpfeifengesichtI liked The Guardian far more before it started racing the Daily Mail to the bottom when it came to button-pushing clickbait trolling. Jonathan Jones’ appalling piece of the late Terry Pratchett (which I refuse to link to, Google for it if you must) writing him off as a mediocre writer of potboilers is probably the nastiest individual piece I’ve read online since Arthur Chu celebrated the Charlie Hebdo murders in The Daily Beast. It’s not often I read something that makes me want to take the German word “Backpfeifengesicht” literally, that that was one.

I guess in the wider scheme of things it’s not as serious as their misreporting of the Tim Hnnt affair, where the paper became part of a co-ordinated campaign to smear an innocent man. But still, you have to wonder quite what the editor of that section was thinking on deciding to publish that piece.

But look on the bright side. Perhaps it’s one thing that might unite the fractured tribes of SFF fandom, seeing the Rabid Puppies join forces with the acolytes of Requires Hate to rip Jonathan Jones a well-deserved new asshole?

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Hugo Aftermath

Wth a bit of luck this should be my last blog post on this subject.

We’ll start with this extract from a post by George R. R. Martin

I had picked Mike Resnick in Short Form and Toni Weisskopf in Long Form, and indeed, each of them finished above all the other nominees in the first round of voting… but well behind No Award. This was a crushing defeat for the slates, and a big victory for the Puppy-Free ballot of Deirdre Moen. Honestly? I hated this. In my judgment the voters threw the babies out with bathwater in these two categories. Long Form had three nominees who are more than worthy of a Hugo (and one, Jim Minz, who will be in a few more years), and Short Form had some good candidates too. They were on the slates, yes, but some of them were put on there without their knowledge and consent. A victory by Resnick, Sowards, Gilbert, or Weisskopf would have done credit to the rocket, regardless of how they got on the ballot. (All four of these editors would almost certainly have been nominated anyway, even if there had been no slates).

((Some are saying that voting No Award over these editors was an insult to them. Maybe so, I can’t argue with that. But it should be added that there was a far far worse insult in putting them on the ballot with Vox Day, who was the fifth nominee in both categories. Even putting aside his bigotry and racism, Beale’s credential as an editor are laughable. Yet hundreds of Puppies chose to nominate him rather than, oh, Liz Gorinsky or Anne Lesley Groell or Beth Meacham (in Long Form) or Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow or John Joseph Adams (in Short Form). To pass over actual working editors of considerable accomplishment in order to nominate someone purely to ‘stick it to the SJWs’ strikes me as proof positive that the Rabid Puppies at least were more interested in saying ‘fuck you’ to fandom than in rewarding good work)).

I also misliked the roar of approval that went up at the announcement of the first No Award. I understand it, yes… fandom as a whole is heartily sick of the Puppies and delighted to see them brought low… but No Award is an occasion for sadness, not celebration, especially in THESE two categories.

I can’t find myself disagreeing with any of that. Sending the Puppies packing is being spun as a great victory, but in reality it’s nothing of the sort. At best, it’s a stalemate. Nobody has won, and the rhetoric from both camps suggests the chance of avoiding a repeat performance in 2016 is very slim.

Swamping the nominations ballot by block voting a slate was a dick move that was always going to provoke a backlash. It was a major escalation in a turf war that pre-dates the Puppies’ campaigns, and goes back several years. In recent years there has been an active campaign from some quarters to marginalise conservatives and libertarians out of fandom, with concerns being dismissed as “Old men yelling at clouds”. Rhetoric like “The dinosaurs are going extinct and we’re the comet” give that game away.

If the Hugos are to remain relevant, they have to get back to being a celebration of the best in Science Fiction & Fantasy rather than a battleground in a bitter turf war between two warring tribes, neither of whom exactly have clean hands. Those who care about the award also need to make up their mind exactly what The Hugos are supposed to represent. Are they Science Fiction’s equivalent of The Oscars, showcasing the best of the genre to the wider world? Or are they more like the CRS Awards, celebrating the favourites of a small community within a much larger fandom? And the moment it’s not quite either of those things, and it can’t be both.

My position at the moment is still “A pox on both camps”. When one camp places the odious John C. Wright on a pedestal, and the other still considers a great many known acolytes of Requires Hate to be respected members of the community, both sides play games with motes and beams when it comes to guilt-by-association. I am not buying either sides’ partisan narrative, echoed in their respective agenda-driven and nuance-free media channels.

As long as this nonsense goes on, while I continue to read SF, I refuse to identify myself as part of SF fandom. My fandom is, and will remain, music.

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Noah Ward sweeps The Hugos

Mushroom Cloud

So the Hugo Award voters have decided to block-vote “No Award” for everything nominated by the Puppies campaigns, which means no Hugo was awarded in those categories where Puppy nominees swept the nomination ballot.

Many figures in the SF establishment are celebrating sending the Puppies packing. But I do think this may well prove to be a hollow victory, and risks diminishing the standing of the Hugo Awards amongst the wider SF community.

The full results (including the nomination numbers) can be found here:

Back in April, I wrote this

Every year, around February time, the Classic Rock Society holds an awards ceremony in Wath-upon-Dearne in Yorkshire. Despite the name, the emphasis is on progressive rock, and the winners are almost entirely drawn from a relatively small and incestuous scene of grassroots bands either signed to small labels or who release independently. Bands such IQ, Magenta, Mostly Autumn and a handful of others at the same level dominate the awards. Indeed the award for Best Bass Player used to be known as the “Best John Jowitt Award” because he used to win it year after year, until finally he ruled himself out of contention so that someone else could win for a change. Nobody from major-league prog bands like Dream Theater or Rush ever win, nor prog-influenced mainstream acts like Elbow or Muse.

Were a large influx of people join the CRS specifically to vote for something like Noel Gallagher’s album about points failures at Stockport as album of the year, a lot of people would be highly unimpressed. But the CRS Awards has never held itself up as representing the best of all music, progressive or otherwise. It doesn’t have a generations-long history in which “In The Court of the Crimson King” and “Close to the Edge” were illustrious past winners.

Have the Hugo voters decided they want to be the SF equivalent of the CRS awards? Because that’s the signal they’re sending out.  The most telling is the rejection of Toni Weisskopf as Best Editor (Long Form) in favour of No Award; it’s very difficult to spin this as anything other than pure partisan politics that pays no regard to Ms Weisskopf’s record as an editor.

Brad Torgersen ignited a firestorm with a comment about the SJWs wanting to load his kind into boxcars and ship them off to the icy wastes to die. It was a clumsy, insensitive metaphor, but the “icy wastes” reference ought to have been a clue that he was referring to the Soviet gulags rather than the Holocaust. But the way WorldCon made a strong statement that a subset of writers and fans are not welcome in their space because at least in part they belong to the wrong political tribe does suggest he had a point. The attitude of some people in SF’s progressive wing does have more than a whiff of Stalin about it.

If the business committee now rejects E Pluribus Hugo because block-voting No Award is seen as an acceptable method of dealing with slates, then the Hugo Awards are finished.

Don’t get me wrong, slate voting, even if it wasn’t in technical breach of the rules, was against the spirit, and I have no problem with people voting No Award for sub-standard work that didn’t deserve a place on the ballot. But what we’ve seen happen goes well beyond that.

Science fiction fandom ought to be about celebrating the best in imaginative speculative fiction. If that takes second place to turf wars between warring tribes, we all lose.

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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For those who can’t get their hear around the maths behind E Pluribus Hugo, think of it like this. You have one vote, and it goes to whichever of your nominations turns out to be the most popular with other voters.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments