SF and Gaming Blog

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

Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths

Mop (Wikimedia Commons)There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.

He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.

Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.

Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?

The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.

What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?

Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.

So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.

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E Pluribus Hugo

Out of Many, A Hugo, the proposal from Making Light for changing the Hugo Awards voting system in an attempt to fix the problems that came to a head this year.

It uses a Single Divisible Vote, which is a form of proportional system rather than the first-past-the-post system used up to now, and is designed to prevent any well-organised minority from dominating the nominations out of all proportion to their numbers.

I like the system a lot, although the complexity of the counting system means the count must be computerised. It has many of the same advantages as the widely-used Single Transferrable Vote system, though a notable difference is that you don’t need to rank your nominations in any kind of order.

It would be an interesting system to use in other contexts too; the complexity of the count probably rules it out for “real” elections, but I’ve love to see Guardian Music use it for their end-of-year lists, which might see the result containing minority-interest music (like rock and metal) that usually gets crowded out by the indie/alternative mainstream.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged | 1 Comment

Anyone else wondering if Philae coming back to life and the return of The Clangers is just a coincidence?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

RIP Christopher Lee

The Wicker Man

Sad news today that Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

He was the definitive Count Dracula (accept no imitations), a classy Bond villain, Tolkien’s wizard Saruman, and of course his best role of all, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 classic “The Wicker Man”.

Perhaps because so many of the films he starred in were considered too lowbrow, it took a long time for the cultural establishment to give he the recognition he deserved. But he was eventually rewarded with a well-deserved knighthood as one of Britain’s finest actors.

He didn’t just do horror. Remember his starring role, as the villain of course, in the Australian-made comedy musical “The Return of Captain Invincible”?

His work in the world of Metal mustn’t be forgotten either. Here he is with Rhapsody of Fire; he contributed spoken-word narration on several of their albums, on this track he runs rings around Fabio Lione as a singer.

Farewell, Sir Christopher Lee. As was said on Twitter, 93 is a good innings, and cricket stumps make very good stakes.

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There are critics that help you improve, and critics that don’t

LOFPThere is a very valuable quote at the end of an interview with James Raggi, designer of Lamentations of the Flame Princess for ConTessa.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a horror-themed fantasy RPG which has garnered both strong praise and severe criticism in equal measure. Here’s what James Raggi has to say about how to respond, especially to the negative criticism that questions his work’s right to exist.

Do exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it. Spare no expense, cut no corners you do not absolutely have to. Make it reflect what you want, not what you think a customer might want. Be proud of it.

And when you get criticism, remember there are two kinds. There is the criticism that helps you improve what you want to do, and there is criticism that does not help you do what you want to do.

That second group of critics, you want to run at them naked, middle fingers extended screaming [EXPLETED DELETED] because their rage will behave as beacons that are better than any marketing for letting people know that you even exist in the first place.

Remember, hugely successful musical acts like Justin Bieber and Nickelback have their own hordes of professional haters, so worrying about it or trying to avoid it is not only foolish, but impossible.

The quote is about games, where the “perpetually outraged” are exceptionally loud critics of anything they don’t like. But it applies across any genre of art. Some people just aren’t your audience.

I wonder what category of critic I fall into when it comes to the likes of Eschaton or Black Peaks?

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RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

PolyhedralsSome recent attempts by one or two outspoken and polarising game designers to rewrite history has brought up an old post from 2009 chronicling the rise and fall of RPG Theory.

In short, RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

It started out with a handful of uncontroversial truths. It’s true that specific game mechanics encouraging certain styles of play. And having setting and rule elements that reinforce one another tends to result in a better game; we can all name plenty of games that failed due to a mismatch between the game mechanics and the setting. And baroque cruft-ridden complexity in either rules or setting is not a good thing.

But Ron Edwards and The Forge took it way beyond that, building a massive pseudo-intellectual house of cards out of incomprehensible jargon and undisguised contempt both for the vast majority of successful games and the people who actually enjoyed playing them. They styled themselves as the RPG equivalent of the punk movement in music, overthrowing what they considered as the pompous and overblown games of the generation before. But it was a punk movement without the equivalent of any three minute bursts of stripped-down primal rock’n'roll, which was ultimately the only good thing about Punk. Imagine no “Anarchy in the UK”, but keeping Sounds’ infamous one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the iconoclastic bloviating of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. That was The Forge.

Saying that, I own and have played a few of the small-press games that came out of The Forge, and there were some enjoyable one-shot games of Inspectres and Primetime Adventures at Stabcons. But when you look at what actually happened in the game sessions the play experience wasn’t radically different from many a more traditional game. But none of these games really gave the impression they had the depth needed to sustain a satisfying long-term campaign, and more importantly none of them ever seemed to be much more that fifteen-minute wonders. Are there still people playing “Dogs in the Vineyard” in 2015?

A decade on it’s an open question as to the lasting influence of The Forge. Did Ron Edwards’ notoriety obscure more subtle influences on following generations of games? Or was The Forge largely irrelevant to people who make and play games rather than just talk about them on the internet? Certainly many have suggested the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was down to their purging of Forgeist taint that had allegedly ruined the fourth edition. I’m not entirely convinced of that one myself. But do other successful games like FATE or Cortex Plus rely some of the “narrativist” ideas, or did they just develop independently?

And who was responsible for killing off GURPS?

Posted in Games | Tagged , | 9 Comments

To Boldly Go Where No Locomotive Has Gone Before

Announced today by Rapido Trains.

Rapido is excited to announce that a limited run of just 40 HO scale “LRC Shuttlecraft” DC/DCC-ready locomotives are being offered for bid in our on line silent auction in support of the Canadian Lung Association’s efforts to eliminate COPD.

Now you can bid on one of 40 exclusive, never-to-be-offered-again LRC shuttlecraft. Only one shuttlecraft allowed per person.

Starting bids are $199.95 for these once-in-a-lifetime units. Bid as high as you can because only the top 40 bidders will get their HO scale LRC shuttlecraft!

Bidding ends midnight June 1st – all winning bids will be contacted by email and will have seven (7) days to arrange payment. We accept bids worldwide. Shipping costs will be charged separately.

100% of all successful bids received will be donated to the Canadian Lung Association in memory of Leonard Nimoy.*

Full details on the Rapido Shuttlecraft oage.

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When writing about controversial subjects you have two choices. You can write balanced pieces that stick to the facts, and watch them sink without trace. Or you can write button-pushing clickbait and partisan hit pieces. But surely it’s better to keep your integrity and self-respect than to be Arthur Chu

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

The Hugo Fight Gets Ugly

(If you’re new here, read my earlier post on the subject for some context)

The Hugo Awards fight just gets uglier and uglier. It’s true that in the eyes of many Worldcon veterans, putting forward a slate is against the whole spirit of the rules even if it falls within the letter of them, but this level of ugliness is about far more than that.

Last year the stated goal of Larry Correia’s Sad Puppies slate was to shake things up, and he made the highly questionably decision to include a novella by the infamous Vox Day purely “to make heads explode”. It got on the ballot, but eventually came last, below “No Award”, partly because Vox Day is widely hated, and partly because the work was, to be put it diplomatically, decidedly sub-standard.

This year Brad Torgersen had a different stated agenda, which was to showcase quality work of the sort that Correia and Torgersen claimed gets overlooked. While the list predictably skewed towards rightwing authors, it also included left-leaning writers such as Annie Bellet, and wasn’t exclusively white or male.

Then Vox Day considerably muddied the waters by putting up his own Rabid Puppies slate. Most of it simply copied Brad Torgersen’s Sad Puppies slate despite some authors having agreed to take part on the condition that Vox Day had nothing to do with it. The only differences were some of the short fiction categories, where he added a number of works from his own small press, and the two editor categories, where he entered himself.

Now Vox Day is an outspoken far-right extremist who isn’t even subtle about his white-supremacist views, and his action has made it far easier to paint Brad Torgersen’s slate as part of a racist plot, despite the lack of evidence for Torgersen himself being a racist.

So it’s hardly surprising that the atmosphere has been getting increasingly ugly, up to the point where people wanted out.

Annie Bellet withdrew her short story “Goodnight Stars” from the nominations

I want to make it clear I am not doing this lightly. I am not doing it because I am ashamed. I am not doing it because I was pressured by anyone either way or on any “side”, though many friends have made cogent arguments for both keeping my nomination and sticking it out, as well as for retracting it and letting things proceed without me in the middle.

I am withdrawing because this has become about something very different than great science fiction. I find my story, and by extension myself, stuck in a game of political dodge ball, where I’m both a conscripted player and also a ball. (Wrap your head around that analogy, if you can, ha!) All joy that might have come from this nomination has been co-opted, ruined, or sapped away. This is not about celebrating good writing anymore, and I don’t want to be a part of what it has become.

And Marko Kloos withdrew his novel “Lines of Departure”, with this statement from Facebook quoted from Larry Correia’s blog.

My withdrawal has nothing to do with Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen. I don’t know Brad personally, but Larry is a long-time online acquaintance and friend. We’ve known each other since before our writing days. I have no issue with Larry or the Sad Puppies. I’m pulling out of the Hugo process solely because Vox Day also included me on his “Rabid Puppies” slate, and his RP crowd provided the necessary weight to the ballot to put me on the shortlist. I think Vox Day is a shitbag of the first order, and I don’t want any association with him, especially not a Hugo nomination made possible by his followers being the deciding factor. That stench don’t wash off.

I had previously stated on this blog that Requires Hate was orders of magnitude worse than Vox Day. I was wrong. In terms of the destruction and havoc he’s been able to wreak to the community, he’s every bit as bad. Just like Requires Hate ultimately ended up eating her own, he’s stabbed the relative moderates of his own side in the back by using his ideological opponents as a weapon, in the full knowledge that he’s considered radioactive and they’re heavily into guilt-by-association. Quite what his ultimate agenda might be is hard to guess, but his short-term goal appears to be destroy the Hugos entirely rather than win any awards. And people are playing into his hands.

At this point, the Hugo Awards of 2015 are as good as dead, and everyone is now fighting over a corpse. Whether The Hugos can be salvaged in future years is another matter, and it does need a consensus on what the awards actually represent, and who they belong to. At the moment it’s degenerated into a fight to the death which will only destroy the object being fought over. Science Fiction itself is the loser.

Maybe cooler heads will prevail in 2016. A few people have tried to build bridges and find some common ground, but they’re still being drowned out by the louder and angrier voices.

There do need to be changes, and there is still the chance that some long-term good can come out of this mess.

Slate voting has demonstrated how a tiny minority voting the same way can sweep entire categories. But it didn’t start with the Sad and Rabid Puppies. It was broken before, and it didn’t need an organised conspiracy to do it. With a small voting pool all it took was a critical mass of people with heavily-overlapping tastes to crowd everything else off the ballot. That fuelled the perceptions, true or not, that second-rate work was ending up on the ballot simply because the author was friends with the right people, and even that the whole thing was being fixed behind the scenes by an imaginary cabal.

The organisers of the Hugos need to do two things. First, they need to massively expand the pool of voters in the nomination round, and there are signs of this already happening. Second, they need to overhaul the voting system so that voting blocs, whether formal, informal or accidental, cannot dominate the nominations in the way they have been doing. If The Hugos are genuinely meant to represent the best of the year in SF&F, the finalists do need to be the choices of a representative cross section across all of fandom. At the moment, there is little evidence that they are.

I’m still glad my chosen fandom is music. I don’t remember even the Punk Wars ever getting this bad.

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First Past The Post – Is this the villain?

Yes, I know full well that there’s far more about the current Hugos fight than just voting systems. There are all sorts of issues about who the awards belong to and what they’re supposed to represent.

But this blog post is not about those issues. I’ve covered that elsewhere.

There’s a fascinating discussion on Making Light below a guest post by Bruce Schneier how to change the voting system to defeat the emergence of organised slate voting that’s so disrupted the Hugo Awards nominations this year. As a lifelong election anorak it’s an interesting subject. An emerging consensus seems to be some version of Single Transferable Vote is a good way to go.

As I see it, the problem isn’t slate voting, even though that’s widely considered to be against the spirit of the thing. The problem is the First Past The Post system that’s used for the nominations ballot. That’s what’s enabled a group comprising a small percentage of the voters to completely dominate the results. The Sad Puppies haven’t broken the system, all they’ve done is proved that it’s broken.

But FPTP has been causing problems long before that.

All it takes is a critical mass of voters with heavily-overlapping tastes to have the effects of completely shutting out those whose tastes don’t overlap. I believe it’s this, rather than behind-the-scenes slates organised through back channels, that’s led to the appearance of award nominations being dominated by a clique. It doesn’t need the conspiracy alleged by the Sad Puppies to produce the Hugo nominations ballots of the past few years. It’s just an unintended consequences of a voting system designed for a different age when SF wasn’t so fragmented into sub-tribes.

While I don’t doubt that some puppies have motivations that aren’t concerned with the health of the SF scene, they do gain energy from the ranks of those who feel disenfranchised from the present system.

STV will fix both the problems of slate voting and the problems that gave rise to slate voting. In that respect, it’s a win-win.

Next month the United Kingdom goes to the polls in a real election. We’re still using the archaic FPTP system in an election where the two-party system it was supposed to serve has completely broken down. We will almost certainly end up with a Parliament that bears little or no resemblance to the way the electorate voted, and may well result in a government which has no popular mandate. We’re in for some very bumpy times, for stakes far higher than deciding who’s supposed to have written the best book or fanzine of the year.

We need to be using STV for real elections too.

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