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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Games Day: Tableflip - buy more games! (The commercialisation of our generation)

Games Day, is a new addition to my schedule. More info on the What I do page.

This piece of writing is motivated by the recent pay-toll that has been added to the very popular internet series 'Tabletop' which is hosted by Wil Wheaton.

If this had come as a total surprise then I suppose I'd have very little to say, but this outcome was entirely expected, because as a veteran geek this is the sort of thing I've seen repeatedly in 'my culture'.

A. What Culture?

So, a bit of self-identification here, but my interests put me firmly in the category of geek or nerd or saddo or weirdo. The latter two being the more common descriptors when I was younger and the other two terms being used affectionately and confidently nowadays. Ultimately it comes down to liking certain forms of entertainment that, until recently, have been looked down upon. Whether this is Star Trek or other Sci-Fi films, Tolkienesque fantasy novels and comic books, playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) or other role-playing games (RPGs), and other 'geeky' pursuits like computer games, any or all of these would have you labelled as a social outcast for failing conform to normalcy. I'll admit, I liked all of it, including being a pariah, because what was 'normal' didn't really appeal to me all too much (and it still doesn't). However, this wasn't a rebellious act (certainly not to begin with) it was just what interested me. It probably all started with a classroom reading of 'The Hobbit' when I was about ten years old, which combined with an overactive imagination, no siblings, and a love of drawing meant that I spent way too much time drawing all the dwarves and trolls and other characters, but more than that, it led me to find a hobby I felt especially at home with. Something that rewards imagination, careful thought, and fun.

The Hobbit: a primer for nerds

Perhaps because there are so many aspects to geek culture there are also so many ways to be a member of the culture. Some may like books to the exclusion of film (or vice versa), some may not play board games, or think RPGs are "a little weird," or any other combination. It's got to the point now that each 'area' has it's own nomenclature with the lines drawn around different franchises, or types of game or different mediums of entertainment. This is because it is now 'acceptable' to be a member of these communities, to be a geek at all, so that a conversation about what 'type' of geek you are is now also perfectly acceptable. When I was a youngling, back in the late 80's/early 90's, it was a better idea to fake other interests or else be considered a total weirdo (like I was).

B. Geek-capital

Geek culture is now mainstream. The most successful films and television shows of the last few years are all deeply connected to all things geeky. Consider the Marvel superhero movies, the success of Game of Thrones, and the triumphant return of Star Wars. All the sorts of things that would have been only considered for a 'select' audience years ago.

Every good business person knows that those obsessed with a hobby make the best customers, because you can literally sell them the same thing repeatedly. And this generation of geek is nothing but loyal to their chosen 'fandom' or franchise or genre. Obviously hobbyists are by nature collectors, but normally the collecting aspect of the hobby is only part of it. The activity and the community have always been the most important focal point for the hobby, even for something that is built entirely on the collection itself, for example the old classic of stamp collecting.

However, the great thing for business is that geeks build that community around the activity themselves. Indeed many would happily devote hours of their free time to help better develop a website or write fan fiction or edit a computer game (i.e. creating 'mods' for specific games). All the business need do is make sure that there is enough 'new' products for the geek-consumers to keep coming back for. 

I got into geek culture at the ideal time, it had grown enough so that even weird kids in remote corners of Scotland could buy the games and although not nearly as big budget as they are presently there were some film and television shows too (Star Trek TNG), but also it had not grown so popular that it had become a homogeneous collection-magnet

Okay, so that phrase deserves some describing before we move on. The first part refers to the habit of larger businesses buying out smaller competitors, the Imperial business model, which can mean the inclusion of some interesting ideas and innovations but also means that it becomes harder for smaller companies to get started in the first place. Ending with the point that there are only a few 'big name' brands left in the field. Once all the small fish have been squashed out of the pool, you know need a reason for your customers to continually buy from your brand. This is when the product becomes a collectable, it's also the point when the imagination tends to leave the game or whatever. Now, the final claim here can certainly be disputed, as by this point the company can afford to hire all the best writers and artists in the hobby, but there is also now no need to be constantly developing to make your game, your story, your product the most interesting conceptually, because people by this point will be buying it whatever.

X. The expected responses to criticism

Perhaps, I'm just an example of a proto-hipster, whereby I can remember when it was better or purer, but that this really only comes down to a combination of posing and nostalgia. However, that's just not true, but it doesn't stop it being a common dismissal. So, let's look at some of these common responses to commercialisation and the insidious attempt (by marketing) to remove the possibility of any criticism of their slapping a price on everything.

The responses come down to two approaches; either dismiss the critic as childish, ineffectual, anti-social, deluded, or pretentious (as above), or else suggest that without commercialisation your 'favourite games' wouldn't be here for you to enjoy, "you want this? you gotta pay!" The only way is capitalism...

Indeed, in the video introduction for 'alpha' (the paid monthly membership service that is the toll-gate for viewing 'tabletop') the presenter (complete with a I'm-too-cool-to-be-a-middle-manager-haircut-and-yet-I-am) makes mention of the fans "throwing their dice at her" when she introduces the cost, which pretty conforms to approach one. It is a soft jokey critique however, but not any less effective for that. It succeeds in making fun of those that might have thought of any alternatives to the idea of a monthly payment for viewing, in making them seem foolish or childish even.

Attacking the critic in this manner, pushes the critical geek back into 'not belonging' which seems to be the harshest of terms in this contemporary culture. Perhaps because of the internet, these formerly disparate, niche, and often very small groups have found themselves part of a large global culture (one that has indeed become 'popular') and the threatening insult that "you don't belong anymore" means that they 'go back' to being the social outcast neckbeard losers they had hoped this popularity had removed them from.

This is ironic (in a manner), because critical analysis has always been part of geek culture. Whether it is the overly literal 'rules lawyers' found in role-playing games, or those willing to debate Star Trek versus Star Wars for hours, or so forth. Being a geek is being intelligent (sometimes) and critical (always), it isn't just being a blind consumer.

Y. Commercialisation of imagination

As there are many types of ways to be a geek nowadays, there are also many markets and commercial opportunities for business. Let's start with the most famous growth model. When D&D took off in the US in the 70's and 80's there were many like-minded hobbyists that saw an outlet for their own imaginative games, but this boom in interest also meant lots more people with money to spend. Business isn't bothered by small geek movements, such as D&D in the early days, which was only really played by groups of dedicated college students, but once it became larger and much more popular then you have the grounds for an adequate market. Also, once it gets so large it becomes a proposition, then it really does need sound business management, because hobbyists or gamers aren't in it for the money, their love is for their game or their genre or whatever, they just want to keep making or developing their hobby. While this is great for gamers or readers or what have you, it's also a terrible way to do business. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were the epitome of this really, both absolutely in love with the idea of their game, and both utterly hopeless at managing a company.

Tom Moldvay's 'user friendly' basic edition re-write

So, when actual managers got involved, it seemed like things were on the up. Indeed they were, profits were certainly up, and with the introduction of 'basic' (above) and 'advanced' versions of D&D there were plenty of books to buy, there were regular releases of new expansions and new adventures, there was a monthly magazine, and many other products. However, this is the thing about D&D, about any geek hobby really, is that it's based on (like I said) the activity and the community. There is (for me) something fundamentally punk about the aesthetic of geek culture, or perhaps this is simply my generational approach, but as the community is based in imagination, and the games and stories are about using your imagination, it seems to so obvious an approach that the games themselves are merely to be taken as a starting off point. So, before it became about collecting (before it become over-commercialised, I contend) it didn't depend on owning a great deal of the products. Simply put, if you had the basic rule book and a few expansions (player's and DM's guides) for the game, then you could create your own stories, worlds, your own customised rule sets. For example: It's interesting to note that the successful and popular RPG Pathfinder is basically a customised set of third edition (3.5) D&D rules.

Of course, D&D didn't stay punk, it got bigger, and bigger! Eventually it attracted the attentions of Wizards of the Coast who bought out D&D from TSR in 1997. Wizards who had made their money with the addictive collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, were also soon bought over by Hasbro in 1999. Bigger and bigger fish! Less room for all the weird little indie fishes...

When D&D's fourth edition came out in 2007 it was pretty obvious that the publishers were trying to keep the game relevant by mimicking the style of various online computer games such a World of Warcraft, in the manner of tiered skill trees and a more simple modular game style (it's interesting how most computer game designers started out playing pen and paper role-playing games too). This wasn't overly well received and led to Pathfinder (noted above) and various small role-playing games taking off. However, role-playing games despite recapturing some of their imaginative originality are now far from as popular as during the 80's and 90's.

Φ. Keep your grubby capitalist paws off my games!

Now that the most popular genres of entertainment are those of geek culture, surely this must be a golden age to be a geek in?

Well, only if you conform to the excepted ways of being a 'geek', that is, being a 'true geek' now seems to be based upon owning all the right things and having bought or seen the rest. More than that, the constant pressure to comply means that your membership of your chosen fandom(s) is based on you showing brand loyalty. Your response to your fandom must always be one of near hysterical adoration with no room for critical questions about over-merchandising, or dumbing-down, or anything else. To do so, would show that you aren't a 'true' fan but a 'hater' or a 'whiner' or a 'basement-dwelling neckbeard troll'.

I'll admit though that I'm pleased to see the quality of the products improve. Board-games are going through a real golden period, role-playing games have quality art now (unlike before, see the basic D&D cover above), the films and television have huge budgets and finally decent special effects (sorry 'Hawk the Slayer' but you were rubbish). So, for the pragmatic buyer you can find some excellent games, it's just that most seem to be based on the formula learned from the success of Magic: The Gathering. "You want more things, you want better things?" Then you need to spend spend spend!

So, returning to this piece's impetus 'Tabletop', I could spend my money and watch the show now, or I could just wait a few months and it'll turn up on YouTube like we were all expecting it to do about six months previously. Sure we could just buy all the things we think would make us happy, that's the dream of capitalism after all (selling unneeded things to people), but that was never the outlook of geek culture. As I said, it's basis is in the activity and the community, but also; being critical of developments in the community, and being an active part of that community itself. Even if that means developing 'home brew' rules for your group, or turning that into its own stand-alone game system (i.e. Pathfinder). There are similar types of stories in each aspect of geek culture; game designers/programmers starting by re-developing a favourite computer game (aka 'modding'), writers starting by writing good quality fan-fiction set in their game worlds (i.e. NOT twilight fanfic author E.L. James) and so on. It's a community based in a love of imaginative story-telling, the precision of logical rules, and in arguing about all these things.

I'm not suggesting everyone designs their own games and then whittles the pieces themselves, or anything as similarly outlandish for other geek categories, but that neither should we accept the view that 'being a geek' is a passive activity primarily characterised by consumerism.

Futurama originates the meme/catchphrase, now used unironically