Metatopia: Assistance available!

Metatopia is a con in New Jersey that’s aimed at indie game creators. I heard a few reports about last year’s con, and it sounded pretty amazing. The folks who run it also seem to have a pretty good sense of the diversity problems that exist in gaming circles. The Indie Game Developer Network and the folks who put on Metatopia have just announced that there is monetary support for people who’d like to go to this year’s con (which is November 5~8). The deadline is October 9 — next Friday! If you’d get something out of it but marginalization has prevented you from going, go apply!

Indie Treasure Trove +3

Bundle of Holding masthead imageI was lucky enough to have Blade & Crown in the Indie Treasure Trove +2. The Bundle of Holding continues to be a great way to get a bunch of cool RPGs for very little money.

The Indie Treasure Trove +3 has just come out, and it also includes a bunch of cool games. Questlandia, by Hannah Shaffer, looks really cool. It seems to have a flavor slightly similar to Microscope, but it uses dice and has more emphasis on playing characters. I haven’t had time to read the whole thing yet, but I really like the narrative voice Hannah has used in writing the rules — breezy, engaging and very clear.

And there are six other books in the Bundle! Go check it out.

Idle thoughts about 三体 The Three Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem series by Liu CixinAnother of my treasures from that Taiwan trip was the three volumes of 三体 The Three-Body Problem, by 刘慈欣 Liu Cixin. In the small amount of time I had to look, I tried a couple of Mainland import bookstores, but neither had copies of the book, so I got a set in Traditional characters. Yes, my luggage was very heavy on the way back.

I’m very slowly working my way through the eponymously-named volume one. It’s pretty interesting, and gives me a lot of things to think about as I’m reading it. Here are some idle thoughts I’ve had so far:

  • Is Liu going to use the word 现在 xiànzài at some point, or is it going to be 现下 xiànxià the whole time? If he does finally use 现在, it will be pretty dramatic.
  • Why does the English version have such a different chapter order from the Chinese version? In the edition I have, it starts with Wang Miao, and doesn’t get to Ye Wenjie until Wang has already gone into the game. Which order is closer to Liu’s preferred arrangement?
  • How much background do you need in Chinese history, philosophy, etc. to get everything that’s going on? The section in the game with Mozi was pretty amusing to me — for someone who studied Neo-Confucianism in grad school, it’s pretty biting satire to see Confucius die in the desert, burned instantly in the hot sun for his vast impracticality. (Also, echoes of PKD’s Timothy Archer, there.)

I’ve actually tried asking Liu Cixin some of these questions, but haven’t gotten a response yet. Things to keep wondering about.

Review: 美麗島風雲 The Wonderful Island

When I went to Taiwan in June, I tried to do what I could to support the local gaming scene. When I visited Alchemy on Zhongxiao, I bought what looked like a great game, produced in Taiwan: 美麗島風雲, translated as The Wonderful Island.

It’s a highly satirical game. If you know Taiwan’s politics, the game is pretty much straight up hilarious. It hits a lot of the major stories and personalities of real life: paparazzi recordings, fake polls, overseas bank accounts, gun attacks, media frenzies, court summons slowly accumulating until candidates finally end up in jail — seems like it’s pretty much all there. The different personalities have their own different powers depending on the person: Shi Mingde can win if he is the first person sentenced to jail; Zheng Hongyi can give someone a national scolding; Lü Xiulian needn’t worry about stratagems from male candidates. Even the name and the cover art hint at political meanings: the title of the game alludes to the Gaoxiong Incident, also called the Meilidao Incident, a formative event in the formation of the DPP; and the cover art showing Ma Yingjiu and Chen Shuibian is a visual pun for “deceit” (馬 + 扁 = 騙). I don’t know if I’d recommend playing The Wonderful Island as an introduction to Taiwanese politics, but it will certainly help you learn. And with the presidential election coming up in January, now’s the time to learn.

The Wonderful Island is a partly-hidden identity game. Very consistent with modern Taiwanese politics, your true loyalties are not publicly known. You may actually be in the Green Camp, or the Blue Camp, or just out for #1. Secret meeting cards allow you to scope out your fellow players’ loyalties, but only with vague certainty. It’s also possible for multiple people to win at the same time, since agendas can be very different. Just as it should be.

The production values are very high. The boards are very thick cardstock, the cards are on nice paper, the printing is all very clear. The illustrations by 簡振傑 Rockat, especially, are amazing — beautiful caricatures that are completely recognizable yet completely hilarious.

美麗島風雲 The Wonderful Island: Game components

There isn’t an English version, so far as I can tell. The rules are also, um, not the clearest. Specific rules are sometimes hard to find. The language used is very formal, meaning that pronoun references are sometimes a bit unclear. And the game tries to do a pretty thorough simulation of the Taiwanese election process, so there are a fair number of exceptions and edge cases. There are, however, plenty of resources available, including a series of official “how to play” videos (1, 2, 3, 4) and a very helpful fan video. With help from those videos, I was able to dash off enough of a translation to play it last night with the weekly group.

I had already put sleeves on the cards; I don’t usually do that, but this game is going to be a little difficult to get replacement components for, so I want to preserve it well. I printed off some of the translations and inserted them in the card sleeves. This proved not just useful but almost invaluable; I’ll have to do the same with the action cards.

We had a pretty good time. It took about an hour to finish one game, which is consistent with the game’s estimates — pretty good for our first time out. We had a bit of frustration with not having enough useful cards to play, but otherwise, it seemed to go pretty smoothly. Even when one player ended up in jail, they were able to continue exerting influence. (Again, as it should be.) We’re going to play it again next week; and I’m planning to run this at Con of the North next year. Come check it out!

Calteir: Working in the pixel mines

The Veil, on a clear day, showing her right eyeI keep making progress on Calteir. The CSS for the main webpage all seems squared away. Some very kind folks have given me very good advice about the campaign in general, and I’m doing a lot of thinking about all of it.

In addition to thinking, there’s one last major obstacle: the video. There was an earlier version that I got a lot of really good advice about, and I’m integrating those changes. It’s all getting closer to reality. Dawn is about to break over a new world!

Calteir: Continued progress

Sample of the infeudation map for the Kreshar regionNot only did I finish a major rework of the main Calteir map (second in priority to the Morensia map re-edit), I’ve finished a bunch of small details for the Kreshar region and re-did the infeudation map to show all the various baronesses’ and barons’ demesnes. So again, apologies if I’m not more active here — trying to apply my energies to Calteir.

Heirs in the latest Bundle of Holding

Bundle of Holding masthead imageYou may have noticed what a big fan I am of Chad Davidson’s Heirs to the Lost World. It’s set in a 17th century New World where the Aztecs and Maya had access to powerful magic, and so the Conquest never happened. The rules include, as I’ve noted before, one of the best stunting mechanics I’ve ever seen in a game — creating cinematic, over-the-top action sequences is very directly encouraged by the system. Here’s my report on this year’s Con of the North session of Heirs, and here are all my posts tagged with Heirs to the Lost World.

The other games in this Bundle look pretty good, too. If you don’t have Heirs yet, it’s well worth your while to buy it; and it’s always good to support indie game developers.

Pre-gen PCs 1: Pijada the Ex-Warrior

I continue to work hard on Calteir. I have big plans for this over the next month or so, meaning that posting here is only occasional. Mountains on the main Calteir map are the big focus right now.

So I’m going to do something I’ve talked about for a while: post some additional PCs to use with B&C. The first bunch will be characters from the Mountain Monastery Mystery. All of them, save one, are trans women; some have completed their Great Work, some have not.

This first one is an ex-warrior, now trying to do penance for her part in causing so much death. Players have had a great time with this character — the highly capable soldier trying to keep up a mien of placidity is lots of fun. Will she resort to using her formidable martial prowess? Or will she keep it all under control and solve the mystery without resorting to bloodshed?

Pijada the Ex-warrior

Calteir: Morensia map revision done!

The main focus of my development for Calteir has long since been Morensia, a semi-unified island country in the north. For nearly four years now, my monthly Blade & Crown group has been adventuring in one tiny corner of this kingdom. There’s a lot to explore in Morensia.

As part of detailing the island, I’ve created a meticulous map of it. For the past year or so, I’ve been reworking the map to get the distribution of settlements to feel a bit more natural, tweak some of the bridge and ford placement and generally make it feel more realistic and consistent.

Here’s a sample, the Gyrshar region of southwest Morensia:

Sample from the Morensia map showing part of the Gyshar region

This sample is, by area, only about 0.1% of the total map; Morensia has a lot of terrain to explore.

I’ll probably continue to tweak the map over time — I keep finding small things that could use a little reworking — but now my main focus shifts to writing up all of it in more detail. It feels good to have the main revisions done; few things are more satisfying than creating a giant, evocative map.

WisCon 39, part 3: Are casual gamers “real” gamers?

Squeevolution!How do you structure a discussion about gaming? What kinds of gaming count as gaming? How do you assume your audience relates to gaming — as creators, players or something else? Do you assume your audience is all gamers? Do you assume the audience is knowledgeable about all kinds of gaming? Who gets to talk? How do they justify their ability to speak, where other people don’t get to speak?

Many places in fandom, these questions get answered as “White cis hetero guys who play electronic games get to take the floor, because why wouldn’t they?” And the white guys who have played the most electronic games are naturally the ones who should get to talk the most. According to this logic, the white cis hetero guys who have the most time and money to devote to electronic games are clearly the ones who are most serious, most dedicated, most crucial to the hobby and are the ones who deserve the loudest voice in where the hobby goes.

The logical fallacies in this are abundantly apparent. Why should white cis hetero guys get to talk any more than anyone else? Lots of people play games, and have all along, and pretending otherwise is ignoring the diversity that exists in the world. And giving louder voice to the ones who’ve spent more money and time on electronic games is messed up. It means that people who have to work at low-paying jobs, or have to raise kids, or don’t have reliable housing to keep their games in, or otherwise don’t have so many social and financial resources get excluded from the discussion. And because that discussion often includes discussion of who gets access to what resources — what games are available to whom, and what kinds of games get created — it creates a vicious cycle where the white cis hetero guys dominate more and more of the discussion. Or begin to feel like they deserve to.

So clearly the discussion needs to be broader and more voices need to be heard. But unfortunately, it is difficult to even structure a discussion about gaming without re-instantiating these biases. How, for example, do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume that people who spend the most time on the hobby are the ones who should get the loudest voices? How do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume that all gaming is electronic, or that all gamers enjoy gaming the same way? How do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume spending money on products is the primary way to enjoy it? How do we do it in a way that pushes for better representation while not ignoring the diversity that has always existed?

Many discussions — too many discussions — about gaming don’t bother to examine the framework of the discussion, even when they intend to work against the white cis hetero bias that so many discussions have. Many panels, for example, talk about “gaming” as if it’s basically all electronic gaming, and maybe occasionally deign to note that tabletop/pen & paper gaming exists, but assume that it’s not anything worth talking about.

And many discussions about gaming still happen in a larger context where we (often unconsciously) privilege people based on their similarity to the “white cis hetero affluent guy” stereotype. People who have enough spare time or money to play lots of electronic games, or people who’ve managed to get themselves branded as gatekeepers of culture, or people who play games that deal with “serious” issues — we have a lot of ways of re-instantiating hierarchies even as we work to dismantle those hierarchies.

This panel’s discussion turned out to be both great and frustrating. One excellent part was the panel’s dissection of the term ‘casual’. The panel noted how ‘casual’ gaming equals, almost 1:1, gaming that women do; and how it has an equally close relationship to class, and how people who don’t have tons of money and leisure time to throw at the hobby often get labeled as casual gamers. And several people of color on the panel noted the racist slurs they’ve been subjected to in gaming communities, and how this makes the barriers for enjoyment of gaming that much higher for people of color. This leads to a continuing vicious cycle where white people get to be the gatekeepers of who is or isn’t a gamer, and continue to feel like that’s as it should be.

The panel also noted how the term ‘casual’ itself is used as a slur, and really shouldn’t be. Calling someone ‘casual’ insults them for somehow not being ‘serious’ about their gaming. One panelist noted how, despite their long interest in tabletop gaming, they were once introduced at a session as so-and-so’s girlfriend, rather than listing her interest in the game or her possible contributions to the group. This has the complex effect of devaluing anyone whose interest in gaming isn’t single-minded, of assuming that all women are ‘casual’, and of generally making gaming hostile to anyone who doesn’t match the white cis hetero affluent guy stereotype. This attitude that ‘casualness’ is a bad thing pervades too many parts of gaming. You don’t even have to expose yourself to the truly vile corners of the net to experience the argument’s negative effects; see, for example, the many people — a seeming majority of whom are women — who ‘admit’ that they’re casual in their gaming, as if casualness is a fault that requires confession.

The panel also addressed a whole bunch of really important related issues. They talked about how to create better online gaming communities; a major part of this requires treating community moderation as an important job, not just an afterthought tacked on to avoid lawsuits. The panel also discussed how to change the close relationship that ‘winning’ has with ‘hardcore’ status, and how this meshes (often harmfully) with social hierarchies.

But the panel also had a few of the same problems that these discussions so often have. First, the panel largely ignored pen & paper gaming. At least one panelist who is more interested in tabletop gaming got largely passed over as a result; they didn’t get to talk much, because the conversation didn’t touch on their interests much. (The above example about being introduced as someone’s girlfriend was one of the few chances they had to talk.) One audience member deliberately tried to bring analog gaming back into the discussion, which was very nice; and the panelists interested in tabletop gaming got to say a bit more at this point. But the scales were still heavily tipped towards electronic gaming.

I think part of the problem here is that the panel’s description didn’t distinguish between different forms of gaming. This is a problem that I noted above, and which I’ve noted before. This problem continues with many gaming-related panels; many cons that have great fannish discussions continue to suffer from a lack of understanding about what gaming is, or how to structure discussions about it. I’m thinking more and more that panels about gaming simply have to explicitly clarify what kinds of gaming they’re talking about, even if that means explicitly stating that they’re about all kinds of gaming.

Part of the problem was certainly that the panelists themselves just seemed to start with the assumption that “gaming = electronic gaming” and that other kinds of gaming are basically obsolete or excessively niche. This assumption seems to have taken hold early on, and like so many majority assumptions, once something gains critical mass, it’s hard to challenge or change.

Another problem was that there seemed to be an underlying assumption to the discussion that gaming equals ‘consumption’. It seems to be more and more popular to discuss fannish issues in terms of ‘consuming’, as if our only purpose as fans is to hand over scads of cash in order to digest whatever ‘media’ the corporations want to churn out. I think it’s extremely dangerous to think of our fandoms in these terms. For one thing, it means that fandom is just another commodified cog in the capitalist machine, eternally unable to inspect or reconfigure its surroundings. For another, it means that our enjoyment is primarily about passively accepting what someone else (far too often, a large corporation) deigns to spew at us; it means that we ignore the amazing potential for self-creation that gaming holds. And last, viewing fandom as a process of ‘consuming’ ‘media’ means that our discussions about it will continue to privilege those best able to ‘consume’ that ‘media’ — in other words, to privilege the ones who have the most cash to spare.

Another assumption that seemed to thread through this panel was that celebrity is the main way to deserve a voice in the discussion. Panelists began by describing themselves in terms of what they’ve published, or where they blog, or otherwise bringing up their qualifications to be on the panel. One panelist felt moved to introduce themself by apologizing for not being a blogger or podcaster. It was like the panelists had to establish their places in the geek social hierarchy before they could move on to discussing the issues at hand.

I’ve discussed this tendency before — this tendency to frame discussions about the problematic hierarchies in fandom by reinstantiating those hierarchies with only somewhat different pigeonholes. I think it’s important to start examining how we construct and perpetuate celebrity in fandom. If the apex of the geek social pyramid gets replaced by a slightly different crowd, or if we fight with each other by trying to prove our adherence to the old hierarchy, things aren’t going to change much. I’m not sure what we can do to really change it — when it comes to convention programming, we seem to want a panel of famous people who do most of the talking and an audience who does most of the listening. But I’m pretty sure that continuing to list our resumes at the beginning of panels is a bad way to make everyone feel like their voice is important.

A final potential problem with the panel was that a panelist stated at one point that it’s good that games don’t require as much math now, because this allows lower barriers to entry for women. Traditional tabletop RPGs, this argument would seem to imply, are outdated because of their need for large amounts of math. This, the argument continues, makes RPGs inaccessible to women.

This argument makes me pretty angry. It gradates very easily into the ‘math is hard’ trope, trotted out to remind women how incompetent we are at arithmetic or anything that requires ‘higher level’ thinking, and how we therefore shouldn’t really try. Applied to gaming, it implies that women only want light, fluffy games that don’t require a lot of thought.

(Light, fluffy games are, of course, wonderful! Often, and for many people. Sometimes, though, I want a heavy-duty simulationist game that gives me tons of specific detail about what’s going on and, yeah, sometimes requires some arithmetic. I want different games at different times; I like different games that ask me to use my brain in different ways; I contain multitudes.)

Many times when I hear the “traditional games require too much math for women” argument, it also gets used to imply that somehow women are only now getting into gaming, because in the past the barriers to entry were too high. This erroneously implies that women haven’t been involved in gaming since the beginning. This argument erases the struggles and creativity and overall amazingness that women have had throughout the history of gaming.

I later talked to the panelist who had seemingly appealed to the “math is hard” argument. She explained that she wasn’t saying that, and I believe her. She explained that she was saying, instead, that mechanically simpler games require less time investment, an important consideration if you’re (for example) working long hours or parenting your kids by yourself. That mostly makes sense, and I’m glad I had the chance to clear it up with her.

Still, I think we should be careful about how we discuss barriers to entry and women in gaming; there really is a tendency to slide into the “math is hard” mode, even if we don’t consciously mean to appeal to it. It’s all too easy to appeal to one wrongheaded notion in order to fight another.

All in all, this panel got me thinking a lot — perhaps the most of any panel at this year’s WisCon. It brought up a ton of really important issues. The panel didn’t discuss them in quite the way I’d hoped, of course. I feel like an additional 20 minutes or so probably would’ve cleared up all the issues it left me with, and then this post would’ve been much happier. Still, the panel overall was a great discussion about the cultures of gaming, and a great look at many aspects of a bunch of very complex problems.

Getting back into my posting rhythm, hopefully.