“What Can I Do to Fix This?”

Continuing a few themes I touched on briefly in last week’s post, “You’re Playing It Wrong!”, I wanted to continue to talk about what to do if you have an actual problem in your game community.

No community is perfect. This is true especially when it comes to interactive games, where players have to negotiate two identities and two sets of relationships. Add to that the fact that most gamers are highly creative, emotional people; and of course issues are going to occur with some regularity.

What I want to do in this post is encourage every single player who has a problem with their game to ask themselves, before complaining to your Storyteller or Plot Staff, “What can I do to fix this?”

In many games, the Storytelling Staff is the lead authority. Beyond merely running games, they are also responsible for setting the tone, shaping the culture and (usually) adjudicating disputes between players. It’s tempting, therefore, to take one’s complaints to the Storytelling Staff and have them fix it. But Staff aren’t gods. They aren’t omniscient, and they aren’t omnipotent, and receiving the same complaints from the same player, over and over again, isn’t going to make the game better for anyone. Voicing complaints on public fora (like your game’s Facebook group or mailing lists) usually doesn’t accomplish much, either. Nine times out of ten, complaining in this way just creates bickering and facilitates a culture of negativity.

Now, I’m not dismissing the validity of complaints about a game. It’s perfectly legit to have issues with how a game is run. But the key is – it’s your game, and your fun. It’s up to you to take responsibility for your own participation. Your first impulse, when encountering a problem, should not be to ask, “How can I get someone to fix this for me?” Your first impulse should be, ‘How can I fix this?”

Are you unhappy with the low levels of immersion in your game? Focus on what you can do to improve immersion for yourself. I’ve offered to make costumes, at cost (or even for free, if I already had a suitable fabric & pattern in my stash), for other players, because it would help my immersion. Now, we can’t all be seamstresses. But the principle is similar – what resources do you personally have that you can put towards solving the problem? Organize a donation drive, share tips on maintaining immersion, bring games you can play in-character.

Are you upset because the Storytelling staff never seems to have enough time to send plot to your character? They’re probably extremely busy running a game. Focus instead on what you can do to be a proactive player. Involve yourself in the stories of others; or even volunteer to run side plots to alleviate some of the burden. I’ve also done this. After a year or so of running side plots in a game where I didn’t feel like I was receiving any significant Storyteller attention, I was invited to join Plot Staff full-time. I held the position for two and a half years, and my experiences ‘at the top’ helped me understand the mistakes I’d made with my earlier characters.

Is your game culture changing in ways that upset you; or are there elements which have always bugged you? A culture forms by everyone contributing a tiny bit to the whole. If you don’t like the game culture, don’t just complain about it. That only makes you part of the problem. Instead, focus on being a force for positive change. Lead by example and support your fellow players.

Sometimes, the problem is, the only game in town isn’t one you want to play. Maybe it’s the system, or the setting, or the play style. You shouldn’t expect to be able to completely overhaul a game and remake it in your image – the game is what it is, and other people are obviously getting something out of it. The solution in this case is to start your own game, more to your own tastes.

Now, there are some times when complaints must absolutely be made. If you’re being harassed at a game, what you do to fix it is tell Storytelling Staff – who will hopefully be willing to follow through on the responsibility they have to their game and fix the problem (more on this in a future post).

And sometimes, problems just aren’t fixable. Sometimes, the game culture is just too entrenched or the problems are too endemic. But, at least you know you did what you could, and you can leave the game on (hopefully) amicable terms.

But the next time you want to complain about your game, take a moment and ask yourself, “What can I do to fix this?”

“You’re Playing it Wrong!”

Over the course of the past week, I’ve encountered several instances (either directly or indirectly) of people being told that they’re ‘playing the game wrong.’ From a player who loves interactive games, but only certain types, to a designer who insisted that a troupe played his game ‘wrong.’ And hearing this so much has bugged me.

There are only two ways to play a game ‘wrong’: by cheating and/or being an abusive player.

Even when it comes to cheating, I’m pretty flexible. For starters, I don’t believe that it’s even possible to cheat in a single-player game. You want to enable god mode or turn on console commands or download a bunch of mods? Have fun, brave player! Whatever makes your game experience enjoyable for you!

Cheating only applies when you’re specifically breaking the rules to disadvantage another player. Even metagaming isn’t really cheating, if it’s done for the right reasons and with the right methods. Case in point: I used to belong to a troupe which highly valued fidelity to one’s character concept. When faced with an in-game dilemma, the player should be as authentic to their character as possible. To do anything else was metagaming, and therefore cheating, and therefore wrong.

Then I joined a different troupe, which held nearly a polar opposite view – not only was metagaming not always cheating, it was sometimes even desirable. Sarah Lynn Bowman, a noted academic in the field of play studies, sometimes calls this steering, Players take responsibility not only for their own fun, but for creating a positive experience within the group. The player makes decisions which are not completely in keeping with their character concept, but made with an eye towards creating a positive play experience. The ur-example is finding out that there’s monsters which need killing over yon hill. Your character likely only wants to bring people he or she can trust to have their backs in a fight, but you as the player make a decision to invite the new person along in the interest of inclusion. This is a choice made using OOC reasoning and motivations, but improves the game overall. So, not cheating – and, in fact, behavior that ought to be encouraged!

So. Cheating. It’s not metagaming, and you can’t cheat a single-player game. Narrowly defined, cheating is breaking the rules to give yourself an advantage. Giving yourself infinite resources in Skyrim doesn’t harm anyone else’s enjoyment of the game; but doing so in a cooperative setting does. Even if a cheater is not directly harming someone, they’re still disrupting the game economy – and depriving the game of Storyteller resources as now Plot Staff has to deal with someone being a cheater rather than working on awesome story.

Being an abusive player is roughly in keeping with this idea. In a nutshell: just because something isn’t against the rules doesn’t mean it’s okay to do. Of course, this behavior is harder to pin down. Cheating can be boiled down to saying 1 + 1 = 3, but abusive play is a little more subtle. Broadly, it’s when someone’s play actively interferes with enjoyment of the game. In a high PvP game, it’s easy to make a combat monster who adds a new notch to their gun belt every game session. But behavior like that, though perfectly legal, still harms the overall community by reducing the enjoyment people as a whole derive from the game.

Games are here for us to enjoy – ideally as a community (even single-player games are often part of a larger community, as players share their experiences with one another).

If someone doesn’t like a style of play, they’re not wrong. If someone prefers a particular genre to another, they’re not wrong. If someone’s interpretation of a genre is different, even from the game’s creator, they’re not wrong. If someone sets their game to ‘Casual’ instead of ‘Nightmare,’ they’re not wrong.

Accusations of ‘wrong play’ do nothing except divide the gaming community. Have preferences, by all means – I love me some immersive dark fantasy and will drop everything to play a vampire for a few hours (any setting [except Twilight]). But that doesn’t mean I think other games are bad. Just different.

Let’s enjoy our games, separately and together, and only give grief to the cheaters and abusive players.

The Art of the NPC: Notes from a WyrdCon Panel

Over the weekend, I was privileged to attend the sixth iteration of WyrdCon, a convention focused on interactive storytelling (live-action roleplay, transmedia, and the potential of games as storytelling media). I was even further privileged to run a guided discussion regarding the use of NPCs in live events. Here’s a summary of what we discussed.

I opened by talking about a philosophy on the inclusion of such characters I learned from Jesse Heinig (from whom I get most of my good ideas about games!). And it boils down to creating a space for players to form emotional connections to these characters. One of my favorite examples of this is the digital game, Vampire: the Masquerade Bloodlines. A game that killed the company which made it, but has sustained fan support and involvement for over a decade. Part of this phenomenon, I firmly believe, is the effort expended on creating provocative characters. You can see a similar phenomenon when it comes to BioWare games – that’s a company which put a ton of it’s points into character development, and it shows!

So the goal of the panel was – how can we create that same effect in live games?

The first step I took was to deconstruct the use of ‘non-player character.’ In a digital/video game context, the term makes sense – there are real players at their keyboards and consoles, interacting with fictional characters. But in a live game, it helps to consider everyone a player; even those who are only playing the role of Dread Wolf #5. I’ve been in games where staff treated those who showed up to play those roles as basically interchangeable pieces of set dressing. Those games had pervasive problems in attracting and retaining players until they started treating those who showed up to help as players who also deserved to have fun. So I got people to start using ‘story character’ or ‘cast character’ in lieu of ‘NPC.’

We then discussed a two part question: what responsibilities does a story character have to the game; and what in turn does a storyteller owe their cast characters?

The conclusion of the group was that the answer to both was generally communication and trust. Storytellers should communicate with their cast characters the intent for their role. But then they should also trust their cast characters to step outside the bounds of the given instructions. And cast characters should be careful not to break the game, but should be willing to slide on some of their instructions if it’s better for the story. One example was of a cast character who’d been instructed to be unobtrusively sweeping in the tavern until they were noticed, and could then give a plot drop. But the cast character was being largely ignored, for a long time. And eventually made the decision to go against one instruction (‘be unobtrusive’) to serve the greater demands of the story (‘get this information into play’) by engaging in conversation with a few player characters*.

The other big topic, which never really came to a firm conclusion, was regarding NPC prep. How much is too much or not enough information to give to someone planning to play a cast character. Information overload is obviously a problem – you can’t expect someone to spend the time to memorize 10+ pages of game lore and mechanics and character information. But on the other hand, neither should you leave out important information. If the main goal of the cast character is to further the story for the rest of the characters, they ought to have a firm connection to at least one or two characters there. The consensus which the group arrived at was that a page to a page and a half of information was ideal.

All in all, it was a great discussion! I’m really grateful to WyrdCon for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to being able to have similar discussions at other events!

*If we’re getting rid of ‘non-player character’ because of it’s connotations, we should probably rethink use of the term ‘player character’ as well.

Updates!

Hello again!

I’m back, after a bit of a long absence. So what have I been up to?

Working on Lydia’s Story, of course, as well as the sequel to Rain of Ash! It’s my one-year publication anniversary in a few weeks, so look for there to be a sale soon!

I also had a great freelancing opportunity, and contributed a few words to one of Onyx Path Publishing‘s current projects (in my heart, they will always be White Wolf). I’ll post the link when the book comes out!

Currently, I’m also working on an article for a new magazine about interactive games, Game Wrap. I was able to interview several people about LARP and community, and am compiling the answers into an article about one of my favorite topics about gaming. If I am able, I should also be able to squeeze in an article about designing non-Western cultures in a fantasy game. The journal comes out in January of next year.

I’m also planning on participating in several panels at Wyrd Con, a convention dedicated to interactive storytelling and transmedia. I’ll be focused on, of course, games – including one workshop about games you can play at games!

I have some other things to say, not all of which are quite as positive as these updates. But that’ll be an entry for a separate time.

Thoughts on the Hugo Controversy

Better people than I have already weighed in on what’s going on in sf/f fandom, at extensive length. But I feel like I’d be remiss without at least tossing a few paragraphs of my own thoughts into the aetherweb.

I suppose if I had to pick a side in the War for the Soul of Nerd-Dom, I’d be on the ‘Social Justice’ side. I think nerd media has a problem with representation, I think this is best solved by making sure that artists who fall outside the white-cis-het-male demo get attention and by encouraging artists of all types to challenge themselves to overcome stereotypes. I don’t think this is cultural carpetbagging; I think this is a movement which comes from within fandom and is 100% fan-driven.

I also believe in awards. I believe in acknowledging good work. And I believe that seeing which works get nominations and awards serves as a cultural barometer. I watch the Oscars and Emmys every year, and pay attention to the type of shows and movies which get awards. What are the themes and performances which are rewarded? I track nerd awards for the same reason. The absolute best work may not emerge as the winner, if only because figuring that out is an aesthetically impossible task. But whatever wins at least wins because it’s good.

My prediction is that the Sad Puppies won’t actually see their works get the attention they want. I think Skin Game by Jim Butcher will win as a compromise candidate and George R R Martin will walk away with another shiny spaceship, but No Award will sweep the other categories (though I will laugh and laugh and laugh if Guardians of the Galaxy wins, because I happen to think that movie is the most feminist comic book movie ever made). But the Sad Puppies will win the overall war by destroying the credibility and value of a Hugo award. From now on, the only thing that a Hugo means is that ‘your side’ won the culture war that year.

I won’t accuse the Sad Puppies of cheating. It’d be easy if they actually cheated – throw out any nominations which break the rules, carry on. And the Hugo awards, like every award handed out since the dawn of time, has always and will always have a political dimension. I don’t care how amazingly written and how compelling the characters are, if the story is pro-colonialism, I’m going to hate it. And I’ll promote my favorite female authors just a little harder (because Jim Butcher’s doing okay without me evangelizing for him, but Lilith Saintcrow is the best urban fantasy author you’ve never heard of).

What the Sad Puppies have done is turn the Hugos into an ideological battleground. Authors, editors and other artists aren’t being voted on by merit; but because their work represents or supports an ideology with which the Sad Puppies agree (in this case, the idea that the status should remain quo and science fiction gets ruined if it goes too far into ‘what if’, such as ‘what if a lesbian is a spaceship captain?’).

See, I’m not really thinking of the 2015 Hugos. Instead, I’m thinking of the 2016 Hugos, and the 2017 Hugos, and the 2018 Hugos… No matter how this year’s awards shake out, the Sad Puppies, invigorated by how far they’ve gotten this year, will no doubt propose another slate of candidates next year. And in counter to their favorites, the ‘other side’ will propose another slate of candidates. Chosen partly based on merit, but also partly because those works support an ideology.

And so cue the race to stuff the ballot box. People won’t just be voting for their own favorites, they will be voting against the Other Side winning. To even have a chance at being nominated, you’ll have to either fly the social justice banner high or bang the reactionary drum as loud as you can. Works in the middle, except for the 800-pound gorillas of comic book movies, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, are going to fall between the cracks, no matter how good they are. The campaigns won’t be, “Vote for this book because it’s good,” it’ll be “vote for this book because the author is politically agreeable to me, and if you don’t, the jerk on the other side will win instead. And also because the book is good.”

The only real winner will be the WSFS, receiving $40 for every foot soldier enlisted in this fight.

And I can’t think of a way to fix it.

Maybe it shouldn’t be fixed.

Maybe the Sad Puppy demi-victory is a sign that there’s more work to be done, more hearts and minds to be won, more stories to be told.

After all, if I approach awards as cultural barometers, what reading should be taken from this? Throughout all of GamerGate, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that, though they are loud, and angry, and destructive, their overall numbers are small. Despite their screaming and crying, Dragon Age: Inquisition, with it’s embrace of powerful women and genderqueer characters, still got a pile of Game of the Year awards. But the Sad Puppies have revealed they are not just loud and angry, but that they are effective and there are enough of them to have a real effect.

That’s disheartening, and I don’t know any easy way to fix it.