Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Misconceptions about Gatekeeping (Opinion Piece, not a rant)

You wouldn't think that having an opinion is how "gatekeeping" gets defined nowadays, but that's sure how it's done (happened to me just the other day). You would also think people see right through those things, but that doesn't seem to be the way it goes. Let me propose some ideas and thoughts about that. You are, of course, always encouraged to make up your own opinion, just make it an informed one.

Definitions & Implications

I'd point you to the English Wikipedia article, but the lack of content makes it useless, so we go to the German version instead and translate away (first paragraph, using DeepL):
"In sociology, gatekeepers are people who have the ability or position to influence the rise of people, also known as mobility in sociology."
It's so simple, there's almost no need to explain what this means. People at the top of a hierarchy decide who makes it and who is ... ignored. This is common knowledge. Sociology found this true in schools, in economies, actually, it's true in all the places where hierarchies are established.

The idea of gatekeeping originates from communication science and it is important to mention that the practice itself can be useful or even necessary in certain contexts, while of course bringing lots of responsibility to the one "keeping the gate". Take, for instance, the pre-selection of news before they are published: the criteria with which the available news are filtered and used can have all kinds of good or bad results.

Easy examples for this are found in the thousands. Take newspapers that decided to report unwelcome "truths" but filter politically, to those that filter for commercial reasons. Fake news is a thing for a reason: it shows how those deciding or influencing what is published (the gatekeepers) can and will abuse their power to reach goals that are not within the common interest, but in the interest of the few (whoever benefits from it, generally speaking).

Applying this to a scene or subculture has clear implications, I think, chief among them the realization that there is a distinction between a "scene" and a "hobby" (roughly the distinction between a belief (think "hobby") and a church (think "scene")). I believe it explains rather well how a hobby will have different co-existing (and shifting) scenes and why scenes themselves might end up with some form of hierarchical orders (like churches would). It also explains the dynamics that will be at work.

So scenes move and shift in the greater context of the hobby, hierarchies form and change the same way. The OSR is to be understood in this way: it's one scene among countless others in our hobby. As a matter of fact (and to be perfectly clear about this) some form of distinction is crucial to have such a thing as a scene (think catholics and protestants, to keep it with religious analogy), so you will have to state characteristics of distinction if you want to belong. Always.

Having established borders like this ("3e sucks" or "Traveller is the only true SF RPG!", insert your own), a scene will form hierarchies, mainly based on popularity and to some degree on competence, depending on how possible it is to assess or achieve any of that. I'd say the OSR is mostly popularity-driven (adding some competence from the successful publishers and some artists). 

Example of malevolent hierarchy ... [source]
Those at the top of the established hierarchy now naturally form cliques of supporters around them, and the next thing you will get are camps within a scene where each camp struggles for a better position in the hierarchy (pick the last flame war and you know what I mean). Given that this is mostly about opinions and artificial borders and with no objective measurement other than commercial success (which is to some extent arbitrary and/or manipulated by the same mechanisms), this all must come down to politics of taste.

And that's where gatekeeping comes in. Every scene has people that decide what gets popular and what doesn't. So if you are part of a clique, support will be voiced and a infrastructure of more or less sufficient sales-manufacturing instances is triggered, ensuring commercial availability and with that, success (which loops back to keeping yourself popular).

If you aren't part of a clique, the question arises how to gain access to one. This is the crucial choke point, the proverbial gate. I would argue it is also crucial in that it is the very point where it reveals if a scene is fair or corrupt.

The Corruption of the OSR?

In a perfect world, those at the top of a hierarchy would have the best in mind for the group. Publishers filter for true genius or art instead of going with what works, is popular or transports hidden agendas. Newspapers inform the public about what is relevant and offer information with the means for the individuals to form their own opinions instead of creating fake news or working for big corp or politicians.

However, we aren't living in a "perfect world", if such a thing could even exist. Instead we live in a world where those things coexist in a duality. That doesn't mean it has to be both all the time, one scene can be more or less completely corrupt and another one more or less fair. This opens a new line of inquiry: how to measure corruption in a scene. Let's look into that.

A most basic definition of corruption is (according to
"Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain."
Again, simple enough. How to measure (or proof) this in a community is a completely different animal. We have indicators for this, although indirectly (or concluding from established general research towards how it could manifest in communities).
There is proof that marginalization of people leads to criminal/aggressive behavior (here, have one paper on the subject, if you search for it, there is way more) and you can say that one of the main forces behind criminal (aggressive) behavior is the perception that a rise in the social hierarchy is prohibited if not impossible. This connects nicely to what is already established about gatekeepers further above.

It's important to understand that we have to take into account that we are applying those ideas to a social media environment, which means that "crime" and "aggression" will manifest somewhat differently while the social mechanisms are still very much in effect.

We also have to take into account that the only fair measurement of corruption in a society is based on its perception (at least that's what's used, see linked above). Which isn't conclusive at all, but can give implications. So you'll have a higher mortality rate of critical journalism in corrupt countries, for instance. Corruption has measurable consequences.

I'd like to add that "social capital" is another important aspect to consider, not necessarily "just" monetary gain. There is also a strong trend to mix personal politics in all of this, which doesn't help.

With all those restrictions in place, we can go and make fair and conclusive assumptions how the perception of corruption in a scene like the OSR might manifest in what outside the social media environment could be perceived as criminal or aggressive behavior, or the appropriate equivalent thereof.

If I had more time on my hands and if I where more than an enthusiast for social science and psychology, I'd try to formulate some indicators for a healthy community and collect data to index all that. I'm not, so we'll have to work with some rough concepts here (would be willing to do so, if someone with an academic background would be willing to help). Here's a couple of good indicators:
  • TRANSPARENCY: We already established that the scene is not the hobby, but the same is true for commercial interests. The clearer a distinction can be made between the commercial interests of an individual acting in the community and its contribution to said community, the better (the more transparent, the less corrupt).
  • FAIR MODERATION: A hierarchy comes with responsibility for those higher up. How easy it is to address the hierarchy and how those in the higher positions interact with the rest (benevolent, malevolent, indifferent), gives indications how healthy or corrupt a community is.
  • QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: What discussion culture is apparent in a community. Are extreme politics tolerated? How common are personal attacks? How are opinions categorized in general? The way a community discusses (or allows discussions) gives indications about corruption in as much as people tend to get more aggressive and polarizing, if they believe they are not heard or taken serious.
  • QUALITY OF CONTENT: The quality and the amount of the content a community produces as well as the restrictions that are put on that output (pay walls, for instance) gives an idea about the decision processes behind the content. If bad stuff is hyped or if publications are ignored, it's a sign that the processes are corrupt.
  • MOBILITY: How likely is it to become popular (or known) in a community? Can everyone do it, if necessary from scratch? Or are always the same people in the spotlight? How open is the community to new people? Stay those at the top of the hierarchy at the top? How? By what measures? Are those successful parading their success (which would, again produce aggression)?
  • GRATUITOUSNESS: One final, but very important indicator is how many people are willing to contribute to a community for free. Whose taking the time to do all the little administrative things that make a community work and are they (in some way or another) charging for it? Gratuitousness is a sign of good will in a community. If there is none, it's most likely because people perceive the community as unfair in some way or another and that would be another sign for corruption.
Those six should suffice, I think. They interconnect and overlap a bit, but should differ enough to count. This also isn't a black or white type of thing, it should have nuance (like a grading system and an average result). If tested and any or all of them show signs of corruption, the more intense should be the reactions to it in relation to the grade of corruption.

In other words, if a community has a tendency to very polarizing and heated debates where no one changes his opinion, where personal attacks and marginalization are common occurrences, if that community also allows no development and doesn't divide between commercial and non-commercial interests, if material is hyped for reasons of  privilege instead of quality and if everyone believes his or her efforts should be remunerated, then you most likely have a corrupt community. 

And that's just by applying reason, nothing else.

Where does that leave us?

This is not about if there is gatekeeping in the OSR or not. There is without a doubt. The question is if it is beneficial or malevolent towards the community at large. There's also the question how to address and oppose corruption, if it is detected.

But before any of that can take place, people should come to a common understanding how the community they are part of works and why. I hope I helped a bit forming that understanding. I also hope I was able to make a clear case that voicing opinions is NOT gatekeeping. At best it is challenging a hierarchy, but most likely it's just a border conflict between different scenes or cliques.

That said, attacking people for their opinions is a bad sign for a community in general, for the reasons I summon above. So, is the OSR corrupt? Well, you should be able to form your own opinion about that. I believe the OSR took a turn for the worse in recent years. Maybe that's the natural course of things, as scenes have the same fluctuation among each other. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a positive impact in a community.

Every bit helps, right?

This post was inspired by an article over at Tenkar's Tavern and the riposte to it  (at least in spirit) over at Monsters and Manuals.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Random Culture Generator Part 1 (LSotN Design Post - Basic Thoughts)

It's been over two weeks ... this blog needs some words! Something I have to tackle at some point for the game I'm writing, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, is a Random Culture Generator. It's something rarely done for role-playing games. Let's find out why. But before we get into that, I'd like to take a look at what I already wrote on the subject and where I'm at with all this.

Ideas about culture

First, check out this post from 2016 reflecting on a post from 2014 (yeah, I'm slow processing like that). I'll also loosely take ideas from Jordan B. Peterson's book Maps of Meaning (or rather, the 2016 lecture about the topic, which I highly recommend checking out). You won't need all this to read the post, but documentation is everything and it's good reading/listening.

One might think the good thing with settings for role-playing games that lean heavily on history is that culture comes easy. It might be somewhat true, as it seems somewhat more archaic compared to what we call "culture" today. Easier, in a way. However, as soon as you look a bit closer you'll find that on the one hand cultures, even 2000 years ago and earlier, had been very diverse. On the other hand, humans will always be humans and we can recognize that over time.

So there is patterns that will always surface and variants that might go in all different kinds of directions, depending on the circumstances. You can define those people exploring, recognizing and reproducing those patterns in an abstract way as artists. And it is an important distinction in as afar as it explains how art seems to be what lasts (here's a good talk on creativity and art).
It also gives those old stories and fairy tales an easy credibility. They touch on something. That said, it's crucial to keep the "abstract" part of it in mind, just as important it is to recognize that our ancestors found ways to comprehend and communicate what they (what we) are. Psychology and biology have proven all of that nowadays, interestingly enough.

There is evidence that fairy tales are very, very old ... [source]
I had a dispute once with a guy about how I believed that there's ultimately no difference between believing that a thunderstorm is the gods making some noise or believing whatever scientific explanation we have come up with. He thought the idea was atrocious. I didn't know then what I know now, but I defended my case (and lost a friend).
Today I'd just point towards the research and advice him to make up his own opinion on the subject. I think it all comes down to pragmatism: it's a philosophy stating that you don't need to know the whole "truth" to construe a working theory for anything.
Here's an example: there's this famous cave found in Turkey that emits deadly fumes and had been worshiped as an entrance into Hades way back in the past. You'll notice that both the archaic and the scientific approach will yield somewhat the same results: they'll tell a story about how dangerous the cave is. The pragmatic part is, that you can tell it anyway you want as long as the result is what you intended it to be.
Reconstruction of the temple at the entrance to Hades! [source]
At their core, cultures are formed around this thinking. We can use that for our games.

OD&D and 10 year olds (intermission)

When D&D came out in the early 70s, it became hugely popular and to a huge degree with very young players. The reasons for this are very much described above: D&D described the world in abstract patterns and even without fully grasping the rules, the concepts themselves are so true to how we analyze, deconstruct and communicate the world around us (brilliantly so, I might add), that the success cannot be a surprise.

I've heard people claiming they had been as young as 8 when they first started playing. I had been 12 when I DMed my first game. Now, after roughly 25 years of playing role-playing games, it's somewhat hard to look back and understand how we could grasp the game back then, being so young and all that.

Again, it can be explained with pragmatism. It's how the mind explores the world in simulations. We all know this and we all know how good children are at it, too. So I'd say, children can grasp the game for those reasons at an almost instinctive level.
Found this great pic over at reddit .. [source]
I once drove with a guy from Leipzig to Ulm. We'd talked about role-playing games, as he hadn't the first idea about it to begin with and I like talking about it. We talked a bit about the basics and he recognized them from a game his 6 year old son played with his friends called "Level". They had a game master that gave a premise (like "you are stuck on an island") and the players had to negotiate their way out of the situation.

They didn't use dice or anything, but rules seemed to emerge naturally as they played along (established from the shared narrative, as I understood it). They'd been camping once and he had an opportunity to experience it first hand (as a spectator, as he had been cooking) and he described the game as fun and creative and as very social.
That's anecdotal, of course, but there are many, many stories like that out there, but it seems to underline the connection I described above: we explain the world in stories and we explore it in simulated stories. D&D is a game about exploration and children grasp that on a very archaic level.

If you look for any "deep" meaning in role-playing games, this is where it's at.


Here's a sentence from that lecture linked above that stuck with me: " You don't resurrect your father, you become the puppet of death." This needs context, of course. The basic idea here is that across time and cultures we have an understanding of duality in the world. Yin and yang, male and female, chaos and order ... it's very well represented in the three-fold alignment system in D&D, actually.
However, you'll have the same in almost all religions and pantheons in some form or another. Tiamat and Abzu are the oldest we know, but you'll find variations of that theme all over the place once you start looking. It's one of those patterns that keeps turning up. The two concepts interacting here are chaos (female, yin, nature, ...) and order (male, yang, culture ...). It's powerful stuff.
The individual and the world ... [source]
To bring the male/female aspect into it is necessary to understand fundamental functions of the genders in human society. Females are allegory for natural selection, so that's the nature part covered. Males are create the conditions and hierarchies in which the selection takes place, and that's culture.

Again, very abstract concepts condensed to pragmatic theories to make interaction work. However, read the stories that stayed around for thousands of years (pick any source, really, the Bible, the Tao Te King, the Edda, Grimm's fairy tales ... you name it) and you'll find them telling you about life in all the detail you can imagine.

Another pattern you'll see emerge on a regular basis is the fluidity of all things. The gods fight and love and betray and create and everything has consequences. It's what that quote above refers to: the father figure represents culture and people have to keep it alive (actually "resurrect" it, as in, making it a conscious act) or they'll become "puppets of death", which is another way of saying "governed by chaos".

It's a great example of the dynamics of culture, as it shows what happens when culture/order is neglected: chaos will rear its ugly head. It could be argued that the rise of fascism in the 20th Century is exactly that.

The third prominent pattern is the hero facing all kinds of challenges to overcome chaos. I that sense the knight facing the dragon could be an allegory for a man courting a woman or a woman facing mental illness or a child facing a bully (among other things, in all kinds of varying scales).
Heroes are agents of order, fighting chaos in an ever changing world to achieve some sort of balance ...

Things that go bump in the night

A word on monsters in that regard. Humans basically think of their surroundings in 3 categories: (1) safe territory (order, routine, home), (2) risks outside the comfort zone (all the things we know we shouldn't do for reasons) and (3) the unknown (chaos).
Monsters are traditionally situated in the unknown. It's the first thing you imagine when you wake up at night in the dark because of some noise. The first thing we imagine is a chimera of possible dangers. Then we start exploring, maybe by listening if the noise occurs again, then by turning on the light, and lastly by getting up and looking for the origin of the noise. It's a simple example of facing your fear, too.
This is all monsters ... [source]
But this applies to the big pictures as well. States work like that, institutions and religion. It's why we have borders, it's the reason for cultural distinction through, say, dialects or local cuisine. Because we can only accept a limited amount of shared safe territory before we decline to risks (the barbarians beyond the border, for instance) and the unknown (climate change, maybe, epidemics, the threat of terrorism ... everything we only have a vague notion of).

Risks and the unknown needn't be bad. So it might be risky to ski down a mountain, but the prestige might be worth it. And the unknown? That's the dragon from mythology and if you can overcome that, there's always a hoard, right (analogue to the idea of fighting terrorism to gain freedom, maybe)? But you might also break your leg skiing down that hill (low risk, low reward) or the dragon might kill you (high risk, high reward).
And here's another thing: people can be destructive forces as well. Agents of chaos, monsters. It's all part of the whole thing ...

Generating culture randomly

All this describes the dynamics of culture. It's the pattern we need to copy to create a credible culture from scratch or even on the fly. Ideally with one roll, right? The pieces we have are the duality of all things, the strive for balance through agents of order, the limits of cultural perception (or range?) categorized as safe, risky and unknown, and the circumstances surrounding and shaping a specific cultural entity over time.

Building something like that is what Part 2 will be about. Lost Songs already has a Random Territory Generator and a Random Narrative Generator (that works exactly for the reasons described above because it is based on fairy tales) that produce entities of chaos and order on different levels, so all I need to do is bring all of that together in a meaningful way.

Next time.

I think I need to close this by stressing that I have no interest at all to have a political discussion about any of the above. I intent to use this for my elf games, yes, and I believe that the assumptions I base the designs on are scientifically proven as much as they are rooted in our psyche. I might be wrong, but even if so, what does it matter if it works enough to make for a better game. Pragmatism, right? If it works, it's good enough.

Might not be true, works nonetheless ... [source]