Thursday, June 11, 2015

Professional Wrestling is the American Dream

Dusty Rhodes died today. I contributed an essay to Nathan Paoletta's pro wrestling roleplaying game, "World Wide Wrestling" (as well as serving as editor). With Nathan's permission, I'm printing it here in tribute to one of the greats. I'm godawful upset. RIP Dusty.

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The mother of one of my childhood friends would cry whenever Dusty Rhodes would cut a promo. She wouldn’t sob or carry on. Dusty would speak and I’d glance over to find that her eyes were wet as she half–paid attention to the grainy screen of a mid–80s television set.

I grew up in Lexington, North Carolina, one of those mill towns John Edwards made so central to his biography during the 2004 and 2008 presidential races. It was small, somewhere between a town and a city, but booming. Everyone worked in a factory, either furniture or textiles, less often the local fiberglass plant, and it was good money in a place where the cost of living was low. I had friends who had pools in their backyards due to a line worker’s salary. Nice, fast cars. Big barbecues every weekend, with cock rock blaring and pigs cooking.

Lexington happens to be about 45 minutes north of Charlotte, which was home, in those days, to Jim Crockett Promotions, base of operations for the crown jewels in the slowly eroding NWA. Ric Flair,
Magnum TA, the Andersons, the Rock 'n' Roll Express, and a host of other barrel chested pro wrestlers of the Southern branch of the art form. This was during the Rock 'n' Wrestling Era up north, where the heroes were steroid abusing freaks aiming to tap the deep well of wanting American superheroes to restore some semblance of pride after the still fresh wounds of the Carter years. Hogan et al were aiming to do the job for us working folks. We could never be Hulk Hogan, only
admire him from afar.

And then there was Dusty.

Dusty wasn’t what all us Southern working class kids and adults wanted to be. He was what we already were. Dusty was fat and slovenly, his dress alternating between work clothes and garish, sloppy attempts at what you might think a rich man dressed like had you never actually seen one. His forehead bore the marks of his career, a mass of deeply grooved scar tissue after years of chair shots and blading. He wasn’t great in the ring, but was a master of psychology and storytelling. The stories he told were working class stories. He took his lisping Texas drawl and married it to an African–American preacher’s cadence. Not for nothing was one of his earliest nicknames the White Soul King. Rather than outright co–option, it seemed to be a sincere effort on Rhodes’ part to speak to a pan–racial working class, setting him up as a hero for blacks, whites, and Latinos to cheer on against whatever villainous rich guy he was put up against.

Fighting those rich guys is what he did best. In the 1970s, it was his famous series with “Superstar” Billy Graham. Graham was the forerunner to Hogan, a muscled, tanned, blonde braggart. Hogan grievously ripped Graham off, turning the latter’s arrogant muscle worship into a face gimmick (though, if you pay attention, Hogan didn’t spend much time working face). Rhodes went north and the two wrestled the hell out of each other in Madison Square Garden before the WWWF
became the WWF. The subtext was clear: plain old Dusty Rhodes, the White Soul King and working class schlub, against the steroid abusing, vain freak, Billy Graham. Rhodes won on technicalities, never grabbing the title from Graham, but it didn’t matter: old footage reveals the crowd going nuts for Rhodes like they did for few others.

And why not? The reason why Rhodes mattered is essentially the reason why wrestling matters. Wrestling tells working class stories to working class people, even today in the slick, overproduced WWE. Dusty Rhodes is the greatest storyteller in that vein who has ever wrestled. He’s not my favorite of all time; his nemesis, Ric Flair, is and has always been my favorite wrestler. But if we stop measuring greatness by titles, instead going by pure quality of the storytelling, physical or verbal, Rhodes is arguably the greatest of all time.

Look up what’s popularly become known as the "Hard Times" promo. Rhodes (and the NWA, by extension, where he was the top face at the time) rattles off a list of the reasons why the common person has it tough as a way of dumping on Flair’s heelish reasons why his life is rough. Rhodes talks about declining wages, the first stages of what would become a new American tradition of outsourcing, and fears of being replaced by automation.

It was hot fire, left as hell, and delivered in a way that made Southern mill workers cheer. He was the American Dream, with all of the hope and melancholy that entails. When he asked the fans to touch
the screen, touching their hands to his hand, it was a two way street. Because you felt at the time that you really could touch Dusty if he happened to be next to you. He was the approachable hero, the image of us. He was your dad or your brother or your co–worker.


Not that all was well with his career. He carried his weight poorly as he aged, carried his responsibilities poorer still. He was booker off and on, leading to the famed Dusty Finish, a situation in which the babyface triumphs only to be screwed by a technicality or rules shenanigans. He leaned on it heavily as a way both to keep him in the public eye and easily get out of tough booking decisions. For every innovation he made as booker, like War Games, there were six or seven disasters.He eventually booked his way right out of Jim Crockett Promotions.

Vincent K McMahon was only too happy to pick him up. But there was none of his father’s fascination with Rhodes as a working class hero. The younger McMahon was set on mocking him as a buffoon, sticking him in polka dots and giving him skits centered on unclogging toilets. Even up north, in the changing working class landscape of the early 1990s, Rhodes made it work as best he could. His feud with Macho Man, whose own star was just beginning to fade, was better in retrospect
than it seemed at the time. The cheers were still there, the promos goofier but still tight. The age and the weight caught up with him and, shortly after introducing his son, Dustin, to audiences, he retired from in–ring competition.

His retirement came just as the working class of America shifted drastically. The 1990s brought about mass de–industrialization. That it coincided with Dusty’s retirement and the disappearance of the American Dream character (he still uses the name, but no fire accompanies it) is one of pro wrestling’s little ironies. Dusty Rhodes could only exist in the South of the 1970s and '80s, where a boom time was the product of working class pride and awareness. Neither Dusty nor the South of
those years could survive the 1990s. Hard times became desperate times and there’s no going back.

The story of Dusty Rhodes is what we want from pro wrestling and it’s what the form has always delivered. No matter how corporate the modern product may be, no matter how beholden to television deals or the stock market the feds may get, it is the tale of the American working class. Its fans are working class, its heroes are working class, and it is the only form of working class entertainment which is still visible in American life.

In Dusty Rhodes, you can see the foreshadowing for those working class heroes who came after. Steve Austin, with his swearing, boss–hating, beer–swilling badassery a few years later. CM Punk, the dumpy kid who came up through the industry the hard way, in backyards and hardcore feds, through sheer work ethic. Even John Cena, seemingly more Hogan than Rhodes, is reliant on the cross–racial appeals which Dusty pioneered.

And this is why pro wrestling, particularly in the United States, matters. It’s history in microcosm. The arc of a wrestler’s career maps closely to his or her times. In Dusty Rhodes’ career, the history of the American working class’ aspirations and fears during the 1970s and '80s is written as surely as in any book.

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You can buy World Wide Wrestling here: http://ndpdesign.com/wwwrpg/

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Physical Language of Action Movies

I was tagged into a conversation on G+ today about action movies and violence. It was a small circle conversation, so I'll refrain from giving names, but it was an interesting discussion about violence, maleness, and media. Obviously, those are things which are on everyone's minds since Mad Max: Fury Road is (depending on who's talking) the most feminist big budget film produced this century or a false prophet injecting acceptance of violence into feminist discourse.

I can't speak to that. I've not seen Mad Max and I probably won't until it's on DVD or streaming. Having a five year old and a wariness of expensive babysitters tends to curtail your movie options. Plus I just hate watching movies in theaters. I'm old and cranky. So this blog post isn't about this.

Instead, it's about the notion that violence is what action movies are about. I was tagged into the conversation because I wrote and am currently trading edits on ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD, an upcoming tabletop roleplaying game which will hopefully be out this year. My purpose with that game is to deconstruct what makes action movies of the genre's golden era (say 1980-1998, or roughly the VHS era) tick. Sometimes I write an article when I want to examine something, sometimes (rare) a blog post, every so often a game.

So here's my thesis: action movies aren't about violence. They are, of course, violent. Very violent. And that violence is very front and center. But rather than being about violence, what they're actually about is physical expression of emotions.

Think about action movies. Yes, anger turns into killing. But love and lust turn immediately into sex scenes. Friendships become about back pats, high fives, and surviving physical adversity together. Characters in action flicks yell and laugh louder than we do, because a big laugh or a loud yell are fundamentally physical acts.

The ramping up of the physicality in quick fashion is the trick. If the natural expression of feeling is physical in the world of action movies, going at a more traditionally dramatic pace is, by definition, unnatural. So you see action heroes behaving in really weird ways, like high fives turning into impromptu arm wrestling matches:



It strikes me that zeroing in on the violence of action movies misses a lot of interesting things. The scale of the violence seems like low-lying fruit when we talk about this type of movie. And, maybe counter-intuitively, I think the more low budget the action movie, the more honest and open this portrayal of physical emotion is. Deadly Prey isn't trying to subvert anything like maybe Mad Max or Alien are. It merely is, and that is is maybe ugly or funny or weird, but it's stripped down and lean. This is part of the reason why I love low budget and/or bad movies. You've got filmmakers and actors who aren't quite good enough to conceal their ids from the viewer.

There's definitely a discussion to be had about the maleness of action movies, their role as propaganda, whether they inure us to violence, etc. All of that is worthy. But I think that when we zero in on violence as the essential kernel of the genre, we're missing out on more interesting questions about how we express emotion and, maybe more importantly, how we wish we could express emotions in our dream worlds.
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Pure game talk: AMW is undergoing edits right now as we can. It will be published by Flatland Games, fine creators of Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. Check the tags for past playtest documents and notes on the game's creation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Maturing of the One Ring - Songbook

Songs are a big part of fantasy literature, especially where Tolkien is concerned. Setting aside whether you like Tolkien's verse, a Middle-earth game must have rules for songs to be complete.

The problem is that RPGs have historically done a terrible job with songs. D&D set the tone early, with bards being relegated to bland buffbots. It wasn't that the rules for songs in D&D were uninteresting (though they were). It's that there was no interesting fiction attached to them. For repositories of oral lore, bards sure weren't encouraged to keep track of what their songs were about.

This has continued right up until the modern day. Songs give buffs (TOR does this; more in a moment) and that's it. You can track your songs or write something in-character about your adventures, but there are scant few hooks to get you to do so, just like in the old days.

TOR was in a similar boat. For being in a world where song is so important, the base rules relegate it to a social skill only. Rivendell fixes this and lashes it to the fiction.

The PCs can now write songs as a Fellowship activity. The process is simple: roll Song to compose it, with the success of the roll determining how difficult it is to actually sing. You then (and this is the important bit) log the details of the song in a communal songbook for reference throughout the campaign. The idea is to create a shared history through the songs the characters write. It's simple, and by no means does it have to be the emphasis of a campaign, but the mere existence of the songbook tells everyone at the table that songs are important.

Each song is of a particular type and the difficulty is altered during the writing, with Traditional and Thematic being harder to write, Elvish more difficult. The song types break down as: Traditional (tied to a specific culture, +2 difficulty for outsiders to sing), Thematic (cannot be sung outside a specific event, like meal-time or marching), or Elvish (harder to write but can be used more often).

So what are the benefits? Like most rules in TOR, there's a theme of leaning on and reinforcing your friendship in the song rules. The party can sing each song in the songbook once per adventure (twice for Elvish). If you succeed, you're Inspired, giving you two extra dice to spend on rolls for the duration of the adventure.

This can be game-changing in narrow circumstances, like a hairy combat roll, but it's not remotely overpowered. And this is exactly what it should be: a nice benefit without being too much, with a deep attachment to the fiction.

It's this attachment to the fiction that TOR does so well. Because the designers seem to think in terms of discrete and self-contained actions (a la a board game, as stated in the last edition of this quick look at Rivendell), they can drum up the "feel" of Middle-earth in very little text.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Maturing of The One Ring - Rivendell

I don't post much here. I'm a bad blogger. But I'm going to fire this up again in the next few days for something which is, compared to my last few posts oh so long ago, fairly trivial. Which is all good by me, since trivial means I'm having fun.

What's moved me is The One Ring, the pen and paper RPG for Tolkien's world put out by Cubicle 7. I'll spare the intro except to say that the tabletop RPGs put out for the license historically have been (and I'm being generous here) a little at odds with the spirit of Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined.

This wasn't really the fault of the creators of the two prior systems, MERP and Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. They came around at a time when design goals were different and it was both fine and good to plug a generic rules system into a setting. Decipher did better than MERP in this regard, but it was still lacking, while MERP put out remarkably in-depth setting books attached to a slightly stripped down Rolemaster, an explicitly generic fantasy system.

The One Ring is different. Every rule in the game has been very explicitly inspired by a piece of M-E fiction. It plays in an almost board game-esque fashion; by that I mean that there are distinct moves and phases to the game. This enhances the fiction, rather than detracts from it, by making each one of those moves and phases feel momentous. It's no surprise that the designer, Francesco Nepitello, is both a board game designer and inspired by the games of Greg Stafford, a man who also liked those deep dives into rules as a means of emphasizing specific actions in play.

This isn't really a review of TOR, though. It's not even really a review at all, even though it's going to read like one. TOR recently put out a new supplement called Rivendell. It opens up the game to Eriador and the titular vale of the elves. It also adds a lot of new rules which are elegant and mature.

I keep coming back to the word mature when I describe the book. It's the work of a team who have thought about every nook and cranny of where the rules came from and where they're going. They're remarkably well-thought out and clever, expressing the feel of M-E through hard rules text. The rules breathe in a way I don't know that I've seen many game texts do. And they're not complicated. Quite the contrary, they're mostly simple. But that's why it's so tight and interesting.

So that's why I've come to blog. I'm going to do some periodic short entries, each on a different bit of rules text in Rivendell to talk about why they're so interesting. I'm that jazzed about this one single, not even that thick game book. So let me start with a short one:

Rivendell as Land of Dreams

In Tolkien's text, there's a hazy, dreamy quality to Rivendell for everyone but the elves who live there. That exists in any of the elf-holds which he mentions, but Rivendell is almost a anthropomorphized character in its own right.

But that's hard to model in rules text. Hell, it's hard to describe with enough style that your players fully get it, no matter how good a GM you are.

Francesco leans on his board game background here. The GM is supposed to make very clear that characters visiting Rivendell have a choice, one which has benefits and drawbacks. It's very consciously made. The rules:

1) If you spend adventuring time in Rivendell, the Shadow rating of the characters is considered zero. (Shadow is the measure of how weighed down the heroes are by the ugliness happening in Middle-earth). Characters also heal from physical wounds at a much faster rate.

2) If you do the above, however, you only get 1 experience point that session. Period. If you were set to get 2, 4, or a dozen, it doesn't matter. You get 1. Because time is weird in Rivendell. It passes slowly. You get complacent. It's too wonderful to leave, especially when it's so ugly outside of it. You get lazy, basically.

And that's it. A lesser game might rely on the well-worn fantasy game trope of "make a willpower save to leave" or something equally blunt. Rivendell (the book) presents a firm choice, equal parts good and bad: stay here if you want, enjoy it while you do, but realize that you're risking your competency long-term.




Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Case Scenario With Irrational Games

Yesterday saw the surprise closing of Irrational Games, developers of the Bioshock series. I say surprise because, by all accounts, Irrational was a well-regarded, profitable entity in 2K Games' constellation of studios. Bioshock, of course, is considered one of the finest games of the past decade. Bioshock Infinite was almost as much of a critical success in the mainstream gaming press, though it was much less so on blogs and independent outlets, being criticized for some very unfortunate in-game racial commentary.

(It should be noted that I have not played either Bioshock nor do I intend to. My FPS adventures have always been limited to multiplayer PVP fests, and that was before I lost a noticeable step in my mid-30s.)

The commentary on twitter and elsewhere has been pretty pointed, primarily because studio head and Bioshock series creator, Ken Levine, has landed on his feet at Take Two. He wants to make smaller boutique games. Not small or boutique enough to start an indie studio, of course, and that's an important tell. Between his comments about storytelling blocks, a weird press release by 2K, and his desire to concentrate on "core gamers" (I'll give some easy odds on what gender, race, age, and class his "core gamer" is), it sure looks, from the outside, like a bored guy with an enormous amount of name recognition shutting the gate behind him. And it should be stressed that an awful lot of people were left behind; he's taking anywhere from 0 to 15 people with him, going by snippets, while an estimated 185 people lost their jobs.

Naturally, the conversation has centered on these dimensions. Essentially, the thinking is one of two things.

1) 2K didn't want to back Levine on his next project and told him no. Levine said, "screw this, I'm going on my own". Levine leaves, 2K reckons that Irrational is nothing without Levine, and everyone gets fired.

2) Levine really did get bored and restless. He still had a lot of control and basically just shuttered the studio on his way out.

I'm simplifying greatly, here, but the two most common takes are those. What I've seen less of is an examination of the third option: that Irrational Games was unprofitable and probably misrun.

Before we go further, I think it's vitally important to read two very good pieces on the situation, linked directly below. The politics of the aftermath of the closing are really important.

Games By Humans

Ken Levine Isn't Looking For a Job

On profitability, I'm leaning on my friend, Russ, who pointed out that Bioshock took six years to complete and was certainly over budget. Yes, it sold four million units, but that was maybe just enough to break even. 2K, when Levine started making noise about wanting to do something with narrative Legos or storytelling primitives or whatever pomo garbage he's considering doing, is naturally skittish about Bioshock Infinite's issues.

And what about those issues? Think about this for a moment, away from the politics. Bioshock Infinite moved four million copies and it wasn't profitable. Obviously not all of those were at the release price point of 60 bucks, but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that half were moved at that price and the other half were at an average of 30 (current price is about 15). That's 180 million dollars. And it wasn't profitable.

No matter how long it took or the size of the staff, the fact that 180m doesn't break even is insane. That is not a sustainable number, particularly when looked at in conjunction with Square Enix announcing a few weeks ago that the latest Tomb Raider only just now broke even... after 3.4 million sold in the first month and, presumably, reaching right around twice that overall.

There is no silver lining to those numbers and the unprofitable theory. These simply aren't sustainable numbers and they're a disastrous portent for the industry. Essentially, numbers like that are going to translate into a more rapid revolving door, as people are laid off in greater numbers as impossible targets aren't met, and more consolidation around the biggest players, as the medium studios are priced out of making anything.

The refrain is always that indie games are the savior here (that was said numerous times in response to my Jacobin piece). My response is always the same: they aren't. Indie games are the savior if and when they can provide a livable wage and decent benefits. That's not a slight on the quality of product which indie studios churn out; indie games are good or bad the same way major studio games are good or bad. It's simply an empiric observation that the long hours and terrible wages aren't any better at an indie and, according to Gamasutra's yearly survey data, are probably worse.

This is what we're left with, then: a critical darling which moved a whopping number of copies wasn't profitable. Around 200 people lost their jobs without warning. Ken Levine is going to be just fine.

There's no real answer here. The industry is going to have to implode before it changes. Or the social safety net in the US is going to have to be able to catch people like the ones who just got canned. But I do want to zero in on Ken Levine being fine again.

More than just about any other sector of the entertainment industry, video game creation is reliant on a lot of people. Your writing can be good but if your code is garbage, people will know and remember the shoddy code. Your animations can be great but your art can be terrible. Contrast with film, another team effort (I hate that term) but one where a good actor or director can carry a movie, or with writing, which is almost always an individual effort.

By all accounts, Bioshock Infinite was at least solid, possibly very good. Everyone did their jobs and did them well. Everyone but one person: Ken Levine. Levine's primary job, more than the writing, was to bring Infinite in on time and under budget. If Irrational had become unprofitable because of Bioshock Infinite's overrun, no matter how unfair and insane the budgetary bloat which has taken hold of the industry, that's on Levine's head.

And yet here we are, with an entire studio turned out on its collective ear for doing its job properly, while the one true failure in the story has not just landed on his feet but is poised to crank out vanity projects, post-Spore Will Wright style, for the rest of his life. The games press, for the most part, is salivating about what he's going to do next, thereby enabling this sort of behavior the next time. Hovering over it all is the vicious irony that a man who made his name by writing about a Randian dystopia is going to be just fine because we're currently living in one.

Like I said, I don't have any answers, at least not any which don't involve the industry as we know it completely collapsing. I am heartened that, in the comments sections of major industry news outlets, there seems to be scant patience, this time, for yet another rock star dev landing on his feet after a failure while hundreds go home with a severance check. Small as it is, cracking the myth of the video game auteur may be the first step in fixing the industry.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal

Jase Short wrote, and Jacobin published, a rebuttal to my piece “On Geek Culture”. I think it’s a well-thought out piece and I appreciate the respectful tone. The fact that this happened, by the way, is one of the reasons why I like Jacobin so much. It’s not monolithic, just as the left isn’t monolithic. The editorial staff are willing to get dissent within the ranks even when it’s stuff that they obviously approve of enough to publish. That’s really cool.

That said, I do want to rebut the rebuttal, but here in my own space. I feel as though Mr. Short has misunderstood a bit of what I wrote, not least of which is the notion that I’m defining being a geek as passive consumption of culture. Since that kind of underpins the rebuttal, I think it’s important for me to respond.

Some of this misunderstanding is really about how the piece was written. I was a bit of a victim of my word count, an eminently understandable situation. This forced me to truncate bits of my argument. Some of it is that this is an evolving thesis and, really, two pieces in one. The first piece is trying to shift what we mean when we say geek. If I’m frank, this is the argument that I’m most interested in of the two; I firmly, categorically think that geekdom has nothing to do with what you like but how you like it.

The second piece is how that passion is harnessed by corporations. I think I do a decent job of showing how this happens in the video game industry workplace in my prospective next Jacobin piece without making the argument an outright follow-up. I’ll avoid long spoilers for now, but the tradeoff in the industry is “you work insane hours, you get to do what your subculture considers awesome”.

But let’s zero in on the first piece of that combo. As near as I can tell, Mr. Short and I are in total agreement: the geek is defined by the depth of passion toward the admired object. It seems strange that the rebuttal should center on the “passivity” of the geek when I really argue no such thing.

In fact, I argue something quite the opposite. The passion of the geek toward the object or activity, whether that’s Star Trek or a sports team or record collection, is so great, the interaction so rewarding, that it can and does supplant ties of race, gender, and class solidarity. It’s not enough to both be dock workers; if one is a traditional sports-hating geek and the other is a rabid anime-hating Giants fan, odds are that the casual bonds of commonality which might, say, let them work in opposition to management much more naturally don’t form.

Mostly my piece was well-received, but one of the common counters (and Mr. Short touches on it in his) is that this is really just human nature. That of course you make everyday social bonds around common interests.

Which is absolutely true. The problem, of course, is one which is much broader and that is corporate intrusion and ownership of what those common interests are. And, again, we return to the passion/passivity argument. By exalting those common interests to such a degree, the geek (and, again, I remind readers that I’m using this to mean people very different than the commonly used term) is essentially exalting a corporate brand as identity. It is not passivity which is the problem; it’s the passion and what it does.

But what of reclaiming the properties? What about cosplay and fanfiction? These are, indeed, active forms of engagement with the object. My counter is: reclaim them from what? If a property is created by a corporation, owned by a corporation, there is no way to reclaim it. Its essential nature is corporate. There is no separating out Iron Man from Marvel. Mr. Short brings up Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney; left unsaid is that Lucas was hardly a non-corporate entity. I daresay he’s the poster child for Boomer monetization of intellectual property and that Disney may be kinder to the intersection between capitalism and fandom than he was, though that’s a bit of a side argument.

There seems to be an air that I am dumping on geek culture as low brow or worthless. That is absolutely not the case. I love low brow stuff. I watch almost exclusively terrible movies. I love stupid games with no real higher message. I eat junk food and watch NFL football while obsessively watching my fantasy football scores. I own two Arsenal jerseys. So it is most certainly not that I have a disdain for mass culture.

What I am asking for is merely awareness of where the beloved media in question comes from, coupled with (and I could have done a better job putting this to the fore) a sincere attempt to liberate creators on the part of fans. On the creator front, I have seen so many geeks claim love for creators, whether that’s a running back or a comic artist. When push comes to shove, when those creators are sincerely, unequivocally abused by the corporations which employ them, geeks are largely silent. Not all of them, as Mr. Short is quick to point out, and that’s true, but the majority are conspicuously on the side of the ownership class, not the creator. It is galling, even as a non-comic reader, to see calls for boycotts by bloggers met with “creators will really starve if we join in”. That is passivity and helplessness, a perversion of the usual passion which is deliberately and consciously harnessed by the ownership class in these media industries for poor ends.

One final note on Mr. Short’s piece, one which I think reinforces my premise that geek culture ends up supplanting traditional cultural bonds. Toward the end he writes:

“For many, the act of “owning up” to a label once imposed by oppressive social forces, most often in middle school and high school, is analogous to the re-appropriation of labels by oppressed groups.”

I cannot get on board with this. Being a geek growing up and reclaiming the word is not the same thing as owning up to racial, gender, or sexual preference slurs. He immediately says that it’s not the same scale or type, but by putting it out there at all the equation exists. I admit that I’m taking the least charitable reading, but I see this time and time again with those who have grown up being teased: no, it’s not like being called the N-word, but we were made fun of and we’re taking the word back, so it’s sort of like that in a small way.

I don’t ever want to question the severity of bullying or tell people to get over it, but there are some bounds here which must forcefully be called out when crossed. Being a geek is not something you’re born into. There is nothing set in stone which says that you must wear that media allegiance on your t-shirt or on your mug. Nobody should ever be tormented for those things, but it is not remotely in the same league as racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia.


I sincerely doubt that Mr. Short (who seems like a very sharp, well-meaning fellow) meant to equate these things. Perhaps we need a new language for this sort of thing. Or, perhaps, we should be wary of exalting media consumption and the passion it sometimes engenders to a place where such analogies exist at all, which is really the core of my argument.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's been an age, hasn't it?

I've left this blog fallow for quite a long time. I think my last post was in June and even it wasn't very long. Status updates, though, are good for the people who found out about Before Iron and ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD through here.

Before Iron: This is still in limbo, despite my having been told that I could talk about it a year and a half ago. It is, I am assured, still a priority. I've received some good news on the Before Iron front from Stewart, but it's not the sort of thing I can share publicly.

It'll be out when it's out. I don't know when that is, but it's probably best to not think of it until I post firm news.

ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD: Always in caps. Always.

As far as I'm concerned, AMW is feature complete for testing. Not feature complete for release, of course, but for testing, absolutely. You can find the latest playtest docs here:

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0BxzKPjPAQ2CYcHBVY1hLX0pCMDQ&usp=sharing

The only reason I haven't been playtesting the hell out of this online (we've done some locally and it's gone swimmingly) is because Apocalypse World derived games are really tough to do properly without playbook pdfs to consult. There's something deliciously tactile about the *W experience, so doing it without those pdfs is both incomplete and lacks a certain ease of use.

The pdfs are slowly, ever so slowly, coming together. Work on them has been turned over to my brother and co-author on Before Iron. But he's started a new job at a new school, which slows things down, and I've started school again, been busy with other projects, and my daughter started preschool, which slows things down even further. Rest assured that our mutual breaks in the action are devoted to things like the playbook and script pdfs. I suspect testing will come in hardcore once the holidays roll around and everyone has some time off. I also suspect it might be ready for release by the end of Summer 14, though that is optimistic.

Release is already more or less settled. My brother and our friend (that's +Peter Williams and +John Cocking, respectively) have a company called Flatland Games which publishes a very nifty and well-regarded OSR titled Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. AMW will be released there when it comes out.

Will there be a Kickstarter? That's unsure. Frankly, signing on with Flatland means that it's not strictly necessary; the infrastructure for printing on demand and having an awesome pdf are already there. That doesn't mean it won't happen, however; I like Kickstarter as a way of helping with lump sum payments to talent and getting the word out.

If we do go Kickstarter (and this is probably a topic for another post), it will be handled quite differently from many others. For one, it won't go to KS unless and until it's fully written. Since it's not necessary to have the operating capital a KS could offer to get it out in some form, I see no need to kickstart it and then write it over the next however many months. This is not least because I'm rotten at time management and I want precisely zero risk that it goes over my time allotment.

We also won't have any stretch goals as they've come to be thought of. It'll be very simple: more money means better art. Maybe there's a hardcover version. Maybe it's in color. The initial goal would be very modest, as well. I prefer things simple and streamlined as much as possible.

Geeky & Genki: I'm proud to be doing some entertainment writing over at Geeky & Genki. It's a bunch of cool folks I respect the hell out of doing podcasts and writing on all sorts of things. If anything's suffered because of my busy Fall, it's really G&G; I hope to write some more for them very soon (I already have my In the Heat of the Night cultural criticism magnum opus written in my head for Fall break).

Jacobin: Being a more or less lifelong socialist of one stripe or another, I've been very excited to be able to write for Jacobin (and by extension Salon) on geek culture. Jacobin is a magazine I really and truly respect, young as it is, and to have my name next to people like Eileen Jones, Bhaskar Sunkara, Connor Kilpatrick, Corey Robin, etc truly, sincerely blows my mind and humbles me.

If all goes well with the draft, I'll have a long read on the political economy of the video game industry in the next print issue. It should hilariously torpedo any hopes I may have had of returning to the video game industry (spoiler: I actually have no desire to return), but I hope it proves a thought-provoking read.

Anyway, keep an eye on here and follow me on G+ for updates. My next focus is AMW, AMW, AMW, at least once midterms are done.