Thursday, February 12, 2009

100 Post Shuffle!

They said it couldn't be done. They said I couldn't do it, but it could and I did. The Burning Zeppelin Experience has reached one hundred posts. I win!

What do I win? Another hundred posts. Yay!

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In honor of post number 100, I am going to lay out some of my guiding principles when it comes to all the forms of creativity we explore here: roleplaying, game design, writing, and blogging. I'll be honest, some of these principles are a reaction to some things I've consumed out there, and credit belongs where it is due. Specifically, I am strongly opposed to some of the principles and arguments espoused by Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard and several other brilliant roleplaying games, and Ron Edwards, creator of Sorcerer - which I have never played - and The Forge, a foundational internet gathering place for independent game designers.

I'll get into my beef with Edwards and Baker later. For now, here are my principles as I see them right now:

  1. Art Wants to be Read
  2. Artists Want to be Paid
  3. Art Is What it Says it Is
  4. All Fun is Good
  5. Offense is Offensive - Alienation is Personal

Let me explain myself.

The first and the second are tied together. I will never, ever complain that something I wrote is brilliant, if only the fools would see, and I will never, ever complain that I am sullying my art by selling it, or adapting it to make it salable. Art is a mode of communication. What do we call people who try to communicate but can't get anyone to listen to them? We call them ineffective communicators. What is a writer who can't communicate? A bad writer.

I am not a bad writer. I will write so that I am understood. I will write so that people want to read what I have written. And, if I do write so that I am not understood or read, I will change how I write until I am. My goal is to create art, and art does not exist unless it is consumed.

As for the third, I do not like the word pretentious. More often than not, pretentious is simply used to be mean "bad." What the word actually means (according to is:

"Claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified."

The "justified" is what bothers me. All too often the reason a work's claims are considered unjustified is its very nature.

"That book can't be meaningful, it's a roleplaying game!"

"That story can't be meaningful, it's a fantasy!"

"That painting can't be meaningful, it isn't a picture of Jesus!"

It is my principle that works of art get to say what they are, and then I accept that as part of the truth. Now, there might be more to the truth than that. A work of art can be what it says it is... and also be something else, for example. Alternately, it can be what it says it is an also suck. However, I will never accuse a work of art of claiming to be other than it is. The truth is always more complicated than that.

The third principle works like this: I will never claim that art you enjoy is somehow bad for you. As I implied above, I might argue that I don't like it and that it's utter crap, but if you find it meaningful and it brings you joy, then, well, who am I to argue?

The fourth principle is a huge challenge for me. I am forever tempted to say terrible things about how crap like Twilight or The Gossip Girls is going to ruin the world. I want nothing more than to prove that these books will be the downfall of society and have every single one fed to pigs, and then have the pigs shot, butchered, and fed to other pigs, who will then be also shot, burnt, loaded into a rocket, and fired into the sun... but I won't (also, I can't). At least, I'll try not to.

The final principal is a personal one. I will never say "I am offended by that!" for the following reason: offense is offensive. Offensive, as in the opposite of defensive. When I take offense at something you say or write, what I am saying is "that hurt me, and therefore you shouldn't say it."

Who the hell am I to tell you what to say, write, or think?

Alienation, however, is personal. What you say or write can make me feel bad, scared, angry, or alone, and those feelings are entirely valid. We can even talk about them. If, at the end of the conversation, you apologize and decide never to say or write those things again, well, I'll be a happy man. If not, I'll get over it. However, I am not justified in telling you what to do, and I never will.

Those are the principles of the Burning Zeppelin. Help me hold myself to them.

* * *

I'm sure I have readers who are huge fans of Vincent Baker and Ron Edwards, so I'd better explain where I disagree with them and quick. Before I do, though, I'd like to reiterate my respect for both men. They are writers of a very high calibre. Ron Edwards, in particular, is also the creator of an online game design community that has revolutionized the world of roleplaying games. I cannot stress enough that I don't condemn these people writers or human beings. However, they have each said something that really annoys me.

With Vincent Baker, it's simple. He wrote a post (which I wish I could find for you, but my Google-Fu is not up to the task) in which he told the members of his online community that they were "Not Safe Here." The idea was that fun is suspect. That people would be told that no matter how much they enjoyed their fun, it might be argued that their fun is bad, and that other fun would be better.

My stance is that enjoyment is subjective; the proof is in the fun. If you convince me to try your fun and I like it better than my fun, well, then you're right. But if I try your fun and I like my fun better, then you are wrong. Similarly, if it sells, it is good. If people read your book, buy your story, and play your game, it is a success. Its ideas are spreading through the world, communicating their content t humanity. Success is the only abstract marker of literary merit, and I respect it.

I know this makes it harder to talk about roleplaying games, but I don't really care. The best things in life are hard.

Ron Edwards, on the other hand, continues to annoy me with what is infamously known as the Brain Damage Argument. It's outlined in this series of posts, but I'm going to go with the version I heard in his interview with Theory from the Closet (you should know, in case there are any small inaccuracies).

The long and the short of Ron Edwards' thoughts is this: some games (specifically White Wolf's games as they were produced in the 90s) are bad because it is bad for you. It is bad for you because it gives you a malformed idea of fun and narrative. In the same way that abuse and trauma can reshape the brain in maladaptive ways, so to can a bad game lead to a misshapen sense of narrative. This is all well and good.

What is frustrating is Ron Edwards' circular logic and anecdotal foundation. Firstly, he has determined that White Wolf's games were not fun. If you played them (as I did) and had fun with them, then you were not really playing White Wolf's games. You were changing the games into something else - through rules alterations or particular gaming cultures - and then enjoying them. Secondly, his evidence for brain damage looks to me a lot more like one of the common traits of geekery. Blaming them on a certain kind of gaming is bit too much of a stretch.

Now, I give the man credit for not trying to tell me that I do have brain damage after all, I just haven't realized it yet. His attitude is, admirably, that if you were playing what you turned White Wolf games into and enjoying them, then, well, more power to you. However, I find his argument frustrating because of the sheer illogic of it. If you remove the a priori assumption that the games are bad, the whole thing falls apart.

So, my dedication to the principal that All Fun is Good is a reaction to Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker, and I should give credit where it is due.

* * *

And that's it for today: a somewhat disorganized yet celebratory 100th post. If you want to send me a gift for this auspicious occasion, comment! I love comments.


Albert said...

You Are Not Safe Here

I dunno, man. First off, he explicitly dissociates "Quality" from "Fun" there. Second, it seems more like a set of logical premises from which to work than anything else. "I am interested in developing X and Y. 'For the purposes of discussion here'*, things that increase X and Y are good, and things that reduce X and Y are bad." In that context, "But I like less X" is not a constructive contribution.

I'm basically with you on the brain damage thing, though. There may well be something of value in there, but by the time you prune back the logical weirdness and trademark Ron Edwards brusqueness**, it's probably not that big a deal.

Oh, and don't feed the pigs to the pigs. Then you get mad pig disease, and nobody wants that.

(*direct quote)
(**that's the charitable word for it)

Ben said...

I like your principles. A lot. I'm going to adopt some of them, because I'm just not introspective enough to come up with stuff like that on my own. :)

Mark said...

@ Albery

That's sort of what I mean, though. What I'm saying is that the distinction between quality and fun is entirely artificial. People consume what they want to consume. That which is consumed is effective at communicating its message. Trying to create an idea of "Quality" as separate from "fun" seems... well, I'm tempted to say it's an effort to bolster games that aren't very successful by claiming they have some ephemeral quality that makes them better even though they aren't as popular as other games. I won't say that, because Baker's never produced anything less than excellent games, and I hesitate to accuse someone of such blatant intellectual dishonesty.

I'm not sure if Edwards really is brusque. I've only ever heard him interviewed, and he seems like a powerfully opinionated man, but I'd be the last to claim that that's bad thing. I'll have to meat him some day and find out.

@ Ben

Always glad to share!