February 17, 2004

Lunch Break Upkeep
Me and my sammitch have decided to spent our lunch time with my blog. It makes me feel like I’m staying productive. Get ready for a scattered, themeless blog. First, Sara worked out another face for me, and it’s probably more accurate, so here’s that.

The Interview Meme may have run its course, but I owe answers to those who asked questions, so here they are. Watch your fingers, I may have drippled caesar dressing on these as I ate. These are from Wil of the One L.

1) If your brother works at MadTV, why don’t you? At least intern? Me? 🙂
Because my brother doesn’t have that kind of influential power at the show. Besides, I’d have to live in L.A., and I’m not sure if I could do that. Given how the folks over there treat me on the phone, I can only imagine the horrors I’d be subject to as an intern. You should absolutely look into it, though, Wil.

2) Compare living in Minneapolis to Chicago. Specifically, do you find the weather to be radically different?
To be fair, I live in St. Paul, not Minneapolis. Living in Minneapolis, specifically in Uptown, would be rather like living where we did in Chicago, except with a pair of beautiful lakes and associated parks. What we get in St. Paul is a really wonderful apartment. Sara will tell you that I pester her every time I come back from Uptown with thoughts of living in Uptown in a dog-friendly building.

So far as differences, these come first to mind: I miss mexican food. I miss public transportation, specifically the L. I miss the Art Institute and the Field Museum. I miss getting around and getting food at 2am. I like that there’s no sales tax on food in Minnesota.

The weather, though, I don’t find to be radically different. Last winter was very much like a Chicago winter: A few short bursts of heavy snow that linger in a filth-accumulating gray coldness. This winter, the Twin Cities have been much more appealing than a typical Chicago winter: Regular, beautiful snowfalls, slight and periodic shifts from deadly cold to charming chilliness, and serene scenes of life beneath a fine, white blanket. Different, sure, but not so much. Though I do wear gloves up here and almost never in Chicago.

3) You have the choice between winning the Nebula Award and getting on the NYT Bestseller list and then never doing anything significant again, or having a moderately successful but widely unappreciated career over the long hall. Which do you choose, and why?
So long as I can keep writing full-time, I’d happily accept a widely unappreciated career that keeps me in food and clothes. Winning the Nebula Award would probably be more flattering to me. Fewer authors win Nebula Awards than get placed on the NY Times list, after all. Plus, only the Nebula Award is an actual measure of quality.

At the same time, I’m a lazy schmuck and wouldn’t hate living the rest of my life on money I made off of one book. I might not respect myself, but I’m sure there’d be a lot to watch on my huge television.

4) Why does our entire industry turn into a bunch of raging alcoholics 3 times a year at the big shows? Do they all live in dry counties?
First, it’s worth noting that many of use probably binge more than just three times a year. Anyway, a lot of it comes from the desire to commiserate at shows, rather than to escape. Plus, there’s a lot of people to see and it’s take in contact with a lot of people at a party than it is to squeeze twenty people around a game table. The least satisfying, but perhaps most meaningful answer is that it’s tradition. It’s just what we do. [Edit: Greg points out that it’s not just gamer-types, it’s convention-goers the world over.]

Oh, and a lot of us don’t have the money to get lousy on drink unless some RPG company is footing the bill.

5) Roleplaying as an art form and entertainment proposition cannot easily be defined. Why is it so hard to classify a role playing game, and could an industry-wide effort to do so create an entirely new paradigm in which to play and create these games succeed?

[Edit: Reading this over, I’m not sure I totally agree with myself, and I sure as hell haven’t considered a lot of essential nuances. But this is just a few paragraphs on my lunch break, so bear with me.] I think it’s difficult to classify RPGs because their most distinctive features appear at, and may be indigenous to, the end user stage. The notion that stories from RPG sessions are of interest to the participants may hold the secret to this; RPGs are an insider experience (like an in-joke). What it is that makes an RPG enjoyable manifests at the table, and is highly mutable. The RPG experience as it is designed can be very different to the experience as it is practiced. I can’t think of any other game or entertainment experience that mutates in secret between the creation and the application the way that RPGs do. You can see the RPG book and read accounts of game sessions, but somewhere between the two (in the minds of the players), the material was changed. This end-product only rarely makes it back to the designers (because they’re not in on the joke and, so, don’t want to hear the story at GenCon), so the design process continues to work largely in one direction. Even the end-users at the table may not agree about what, precisely, they’re trying to do in the game, or at the table, or in their imaginations. So, I think it’s difficult to define the RPG experience because the game is being delivered to such a variety of users who, in turn, put it to such a variety of uses.

It would certainly be possible to further categorize the types of RPG players and, thus, the various possible sorts of RPG experience, but that would break up the player network to a point where the hobby would no longer be viable as a business venture, I think. Therefore, unless there becomes a successful method for growing the player network, we cannot better define the RPG experience as an industry without fragmenting our market. As an example, look at White Wolf’s live-action and tabletop networks. There’s some overlap, sure, but by defining the game experience one more step from “role-playing” to “live-action roleplaying,” they’ve divided their existing player base into two categories. If their player network makes purchases based on category (and there’s certainly evidence that the player network does this: branding), then they’ve just reduced the likelihood that some customers will buy some products. Regardless of whether that division actually proved profitable for White Wolf (who have arguably made their company by appealing to a subset of gamers who may argue that Storytelling games are different from D&D-style RPGs), it could be disastrous for RPGs as a business overall. It’s in our best interest right now to share the whole of the RPG player network to whatever extent we can. Therefore it’s not in the industry’s best interest, I don’t think, to classify RPGs with any more precision than we do now.

An industry-wide effort to redefine the bounds of RPGs might help the games succeed, but not at the current level of technology or without a sudden burst of money to spend on marketing. I think the current state of CRPGs has helped to expand the potential consumer base for RPGs, for example, but that no one has yet made a really successful effort to draw that consumer base to the tabletop game. Individual products have succeeded here, but there’s been no major player expansion. When the interactive media necessary to create holodeck-like RPG experiences begins to blossom, I think we might see the player network expand to absorb more casual end-users. This assumes that the advancing technology will naturally bring popular, public attention (as tech advances often do) and larger commercial intervention (e.g., Paramount Pictures, Best Buy, and Time-Warner), and thus the marketing power necessary to separate RPGs from their social stigma. This also, I predict, will separate the RPG audience from the sci-fi and fantasy audience (though only so far as the “book-buyer” audience is separated from the “sci-fi and fantasy book-buyer” audience). Then we’ll see an entertainment industry that is undeniably descended from RPGs in terms of game design and world-building, but which doesn’t require mathematics, silly-looking VR equipment, or arcane dice. We’ll see character- and setting-driven immersive and escapist games flourish; people may bring cowboy costumes in gym bags the same way they bring kayaking outfits to a wave pool. In all of this, though, it’s possible that the narrative and game elements of the hobby may vanish into a sea of simulations, though the continuing exploration of narrative experiments in contemporary video game titles gives me hope that this won’t happen.

I’d love to see some weird fad sweep the world that makes RPGs more popular, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Until technological or cultural changes turn active make-believe into a socially acceptable passtime, I don’t think we’re going to see a huge change in the popularity and, thus, success of RPGs as we know them. An surge of popularity may bring a more common form of end-user RPG application, and thus more precisely define RPGs as a hobby category. Even then, the term “role-playing game” may continue to cover both D&D and couples’ sexual counseling games. How the hell should I know?


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