Sunday, January 16, 2022

Repost: Misconceptions about Gatekeeping (Opinion Piece, not a rant)

This respost from 2018 was triggered by this post over at Monsters and Manuals. There is no "gatekeeping"? Come on! Sure, everybody can do whatever they want, even publishing. That's just not what gatekeeping means. Gatekeeping means that those who took the same path earlier and with success, will do their best to keep that high position in the hierarchy, which MUST lead to gatekeeping, one way or another. As I say in the post: the matter is not if there is gatekeeping (that's just a reality of life), it is if it's benevolent or not ... Anyway, here we go once more:

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?

ADDENDUM 2022: I'd be interested in opinions about how those six markers above manifest in what's left of the OSR. My impression is: there is no mobility anymore. Those that had been "famous" 5 years ago are either gone or are still on the top. There are no new faces (I'm aware of) and those who are left don't seem interested in real community work. Last time that was challenged was the artpunk/nop-artpunk carfuffle that went nowhere. So how do you guys see it? Is there even a scene left to talk about? Are the gates just closed?


  1. Jens, who do you see as the current "popular kids" in the OSR movement? I admit I'm out of touch. The two OSR games I gravitated to the most (LOTFP and ACKS) have both been no strangers to attempted censures. I'm not as familiar with the story behind OSE but can see it's become fairly popular.

    1. Thanks for commenting, John! As far as I can see, I'd say that there are three big cliques out there right now. Everything aggregated around Tenkar's Tavern would be one (main drum for OSE, the new Ascendant ... more "traditional" flavors of the OSR, maybe?), the second and third are mainly along the artpunk/no-artpunk axis (clique around Patrick Stuart on the "artpunk" front and clique around Prince of Nothing on the "no-artpunk" front ... interestingly enough, mostly non-US players in those two, Venger being the notable exception). Venger is still doing his thing, Gabor Lux is running strong (both maybe in the no-artpunk camp). LOTFP seems to be in hard decline, not sure about ACKS (but Macris seems to be doing okay, being the author of Ascendant). OSE seems to be a new standard, more so than Labyrinth Lord or S&W, but mainly through product, not so much through buzz, if that makes any sense? It's all compatible anyway, so idk ... I think the Hostile RPG is considered OSR (seems to be a Traveller Clone, if I'm not mistaken) and I see lots of people talking about it. Z. Smith is still around, but he's not popular anymore (although going strong and with a strong following ... just no buzz at all). Oh, there might be a fourth group, the "sworddream" folks, but I haven't seen or heard anything from that side of the OSR (seems to be a lot of Twitter, I reckon).

      However, only my two cents. My impression is that there is no movement anymore and rarely enough hype for anything new other than in-goups lauding and supporting themselves. Hope it helped to give you an idea?

      Great to see you blogging again, btw. Here's looking forward to your play-reports!

    2. Thanks Jens, that's really helpful. It does seem like the OSR community lost a lot once G+ went away a few years ago. There was no one older place like an EnWorld or Dragonsfoot to continue anchoring cross-publisher discussions the same way - although I'm sure the relevant publishers all have their own active community hubs within their gardens - Labyrinth Lord might be on Facebook, same with LOTFP, and ACKS is on Discord. Frog God and S&W seemed to have embraced economic pragmatism and gone mostly dual OSR and 5E compatible with their efforts. Funny to think in the end Tenkar's Tavern might be the "last lonely house".

    3. Yeah, the g+ exodus was huge. That's definitely one aspect. I landed on MeWe ... it's alright, but no replacement. I just won't go back to fb and I won't touch twitter, which somewhat limits what I can see. That said, I think 5E is another huge aspect. It's popular and seems to work for many people. For now, at least. WotC show some bad corporate practice how they tread their small creatives AND their politics are quite aggressive, which will ruffle some feathers as soon as 5.5 is a thing, would be my guess. that said, many flocked to the corporate version of D&D that had been active in OSR cycles, I think. The rest is little bubbles all over the place, definitely. Almost no cross-pollination anymore.

      And I agree, it's funny how Tenkar turned out to be the last one standing ...

  2. I'm not sure I agree with your addendum about the status of the OSR community. Now, I don't feel particularly knowledgeable or involved, in that I just follow some blogs, vlogs and authors, read some Reddit, leave a comment here and there, and move on. But here's what I perceive, according to your metrics:

    - TRANSPARENCY and FAIR MODERATION: honestly, I can't say I have an informed opinion here.

    - QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: I do see some bad actors and harsh comments, but also many more good actors and constructive comments, and the bad actors tend to be pushed to the margins. So, not ideal but pretty OK?

    - QUALITY OF CONTENT: the OSR has some of the best quality in the industry at the moment, in my opinion (but the Ennie Awards don't seem to disagree much, if that's of any indication). Blogs, zines, games, adventures. There's some true excellence out there. I see in the published material an emerging culture of efficient presentation/layout and strong usability at the table that I really appreciate, and I hope it spreads more to other RPG subcultures as well.

    - MOBILITY: I've not been following the OSR closely or long enough to see many stars rise and fall, but I've certainly seen some. It seems to me that new content gets promoted on its own merits, and not because of established renown, and there's a lot of it, especially in the so-called NuSR sub-branch. Or maybe that's just what I follow most closely?

    - GRATUITOUSNESS: There's a lot of free/pwyw published material, and it keeps coming. As for "administrative things that make a community work", I must admit I don't understand what that means in this context.

    So, I most certainly have bias and blind spots, but it doesn't look so bad to me?

    1. Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts! Caveat on my side, before I go into answering: it may be that I talk about a different, mostly "older" OSR and that my perception is skewed as I don't see anymore what I used to see. I have no reddit account, for instance, so I might miss out because of that alone! Our bubbles may only marginally intersect, I realize :D

      TRANSPARENCY: Is a mixed bag, I guess. Many people offer affiliate links, which obviously only bring money if the product gets promoted, so there is an intrinsic motivator to only make save bets in that regard. Another aspect would be that many popular reviewers out there actually ALSO publish their own stuff, which can (obviously) lead to problems and biases ... That's just two cases of bad practice I can see in the scene right now. Another problem would be publishing and professional standards. There are almost none. Who's to say what's good design? By what metric? With what professional background?

      FAIR MODERATION: That's about how content is curated by those in favor. That can mean a proper blog roll or shout-outs or even just dialogue between blogs initiated by those with huge followings. Used to be that bloggers exchanged content that way (a bit like I do here). Used to be that big bloggers shared their opinions on new content, all that good stuff. I just don't see that happening anymore. Everyone seems to cook their own little soup (or just no one wants to play with me! ha!).

      QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: what you say is true for most bubbles, but only after several schisms went through the OSR, mostly political (left vs. right, Trump vs. Biden, Vaxxed vs. Unvaxxed, woke vs. unwoke, this creator vs. that creator ... in short: a lot). It hadn't been that way (well, edition wars, maybe), as it hadn't mattered that much, say, up to 6 years ago? I do not know of any OSR community where people are civil towards each other across those schisms. I'd love to see that, honestly, so if you know any, I'd be happy to learn about it and check it out.

      QUALITY OF CONTENT: Agreed, to an extent. Ennie Awards had some, say, questionable votings in the past. Scandals, even. Especially regarding the OSR. So I don't know about that or if it changed? Anyway. What would be examples of "true excellence", in your opinion? Honest question, always looking for good shit :)

      MOBILITY: Depends on how you define being famous, I guess. If the early OSR is used for indications, someone coming to prominence would be known across the board, not only in their respective bubble. I just don't see that happening anymore. Not from where I'm sitting, anyway. Who'd be a good example for that, in your opinion?

      GRATUITOUSNESS: What I mean with "administrative things" would mostly be about those people who willingly process the output of a scene and share their insights. Aggregators, if you will. A good example for that was Dreams of Mythic Fantasy for publications or Dyvers for blogs. If that's missing, there's no way (or "just" the corporate way) to find out what's going on. Again, I don't see it happening anymore (actually, ever since g+ went down ... that was a hard blow in that regard).

      I hope this explained why I see it a bit less optimistic than you seem to see it. Maybe I've just lost touch, as lots of things I used to like and associate with the OSR, are no more. Either way, I hope you'll point out some goodness I just might have missed! That'd be nice.


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.