Archive for the 'social stuff' Category


toolkit: zero sum

Zero sum is where loss or gain is exactly balanced between all participants. If one person gains, then one or more others lose out. This posits a finite resource e.g. a magical sword that must be wielded by a king confers kingship on it’s wielder (even if it’s no basis for stable government) or a hierarchy (beauty contests or asking a magic mirror to find who’s the fairest of them all).

Competition or conflict occurs if there is a need for the resource or to be top of the hierarchy – how the competition or conflict takes place and who wins depends on factors like location, timing, individual or social attributes and opportunity. Inclusion and providing frontiers provides explosive growth as exclusion and barriers lead to loss and recession.

Where there is a finite resource but enough for others to achieve their objective, zero sum may lead to a social trap as multiple parties exploit an available resource for short term gain but then loses out in the long run as that resource vanishes; this can be simulated with a bowl of snacks. When they’re gone, they’re gone unless they can be renewed. Then the game starts over again.

Making zero-sum situations enjoyable depends on a social contract – perhaps the prototypical social contract. Participation may provide benefits and more often the cliche of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ and experience through failing to gain those benefits. A zero-sum game where everyone wins assumes limited benefit for all participants leading to the prisoner’s dilemma.

Where there are a multitude of new frontiers and niches for self-expression and advantage, there is a shift in values and a sudden wealth of opportunities to gain social capital. Evaluation of such gains challenges previous perceptions of social capital and the lines have to be re-drawn; one example of this is Elizabethan England where new frontiers changed how things were seen.

I’ve touched on discovering new frontiers before though some would argue that exploitation of those new frontiers means it’s just a bigger zero-sum proposition. While it could be argued that if you’re going to win, win big there is a cost in doing so. By expanding the winner’s circle there is greater gain for others though it means you have to redefine success along the way.

One way is to celebrate the accomplishments of other participants. Another is to positively recognise what is done well and compassionately suggest successful strategies. Yet another is to increase the intrinsic value of participation so those who take part gain something more from it than just the taking part.


hiroshima and hibakusha

Hiroshima was the first city subjected to nuclear warfare on 6th August 1945 at 08:15am when the atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped by the US aircraft Enola Gay and detonated about 600m over the city with the force of 110 kilotons of TNT in a 1 mile blast radius and a firestorm that spread over 4.4 miles caused by heat, light and radiation.

The estimated population of Hiroshima was 250,000. Of that, 80,000 died instantly from the blast and another 70,000 injured. Burns, radiation and related diseases led to a death toll exceeding 90,000 by the end of 1945. Last year the toll was over 258,000 deaths. 69% of buildings were destroyed with 6.6% more severely damaged by the explosion.

Sixty-four years later, the city continues to campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The hibakusha (‘explosion-affected people’) were those survivors of the nuclear incidents at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They face discrimination due to ignorance about radiation sickness and it’s related conditions, often being declined employment due to their status and some hibakusha prefer not to declare their status to receive benefits for fear of discovery of their status since there are erroneous beliefs about contamination through the blood.

The average age of the hibakusha is about 73. Their descendents are also considered hibakusha and their legacy of radiation-related conditions continue so the number of dead now exceeds the original population of Hiroshima. The recollections of Miyoko Matsubara, a hibakusha who refused to go to the States for surgery is a chilling account of the explosion. Others can be found on the web but all are not easy to take in.

Not all hibakusha were Japanese either. A surprising number of Korean and Chinese were also affected by the explosion – about one in seven of those killed as a result of the Hiroshima explosion were Korean. They faced difficulties in getting recognition for their suffering until recent lawsuits began to address this. Unlike people, the bomb didn’t discriminate.

The Hiroshima Maidens were twenty-five young women among the hibakusha whose bodies were affected by the blast. The dark patterns on their clothes were burned into their skins, their faces twisted by keloid scarring and hands crooked into claws. Ten years later they travelled to the United States for extensive reconstructive surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York which helped to rebuild their bodies.

During this time their public appearances raised awareness of the impact of nuclear weaponry; one of the most shocking was the NBC show ‘This Is Your Life’ where two hibakusha were hidden behind screens ‘to prevent embarrassment’ and compere Ralph Edwards brought out Lt. Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay to give a brief speech. He later committed suicide after being institutionalised due to guilt and depression.


toolkit: maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow described a model of behaviour based on a humanist point of view and was innovative in that it was one of the first models for positive mental health rather than for ill or aberrant personalities. This hierarchy of needs is prioritised by five levels of need.

  1. Physiological (breathing, food/drink, environmental comfort, sex)
  2. Safety (body, family, health, morality, property, resources)
  3. Belonging/Love (family, friendship, intimacy)
  4. Esteem (achievement, confidence, respect, self-esteem)
  5. Self-Actualisation (acceptance, creativity, morality, problem solving, spontaneity)

People put things at the top of the hierarchy at a greater priority to the ones below. Also note the presence of morality in both self-actualisation and safety. The former shows a proactive approach, the latter more reactive and in context dealing with a situation where that morality comes under threat. his model can be applied into two obvious areas:

  • Character Motive – These needs feature significantly in human behaviour and can be applied to your character (writing from an alien or non-humanist perspective can skew these priorities) and why they do what they do. It takes some significant threats for enemies to work together; any/all of the physiological needs will do so.
  • Plot Hooks – Attracting the interest of your audience (who are usually human) means giving them something they can relate to. These hooks can prioritise perspective and even colour participation. The safety of family can cause someone to turn against a lover, especially if they’re the ones threatening them.

The interface between plot and character can lead to that sweet spot of engagement with both character and plot. The hierarchy of needs provides a handy point of reference if you wonder if something is going to matter. Obviously like all tools, there are things it’s good at and things where other methodologies apply. That said, most people work from a humanist perspective.

(Inspired by this blog post.)


tyranny, self-entitlement & getting over it all

I want all of you boys to be able to look me straight in the eye one more time and say: “ARE WE HAVING FUN OR WHAT?” — Top Dollar, The Crow.

Ever get into one of those dialogues where you don’t want to say anything but know that you’ll have to? There’s been recent themes in my blogosphere of late. First – a so-called tyranny people submit to when they experience a game or story – an interesting point-of-view. Tyranny implies an arbitrary or brutal exercise of power, abuse of authority, severity and oppression.

When you hear this phrase being applied to concepts like fun, the role of an author/game master or participant then you consider what boundaries of trust or consensual play have been violated. The concept of social contract (discussed here) means participants need to be honest with each other – an honesty oft set aside in the name of compromise or social fallicies.

Your time is important. It’s non-renewable. Getting an invitation to ‘Titanic‘ to discover you’ve arrived in ‘Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus‘ will annoy. Communication and effective feedback is essential. Keep with what you like and acknowledge when it doesn’t inspire. Speak up – you’re with friends (or people with a common hobby) so why suffer in silence?

That said, who wants to be an ass? Consider how you’d respond if your statements were made to you. Think about the words you’re using before going as a friend of mine puts it ‘all bardic vomit’. Give respect and you’ll get it back. It’s really that simple. Tactful suggestions on how it might go better can help steer people towards greatness.

Secondly is the opinion tabletop RPGs are doomed. This particular saw has been played since the 1990s by people who fear their hobby will fold in the face of large-scale collector games or computer-based gaming. The latest view is customers are so cheap that when they can find free alternatives, they do so, rather than spend money on merchandise that can be hard to find.

This pessimism is taking the industry further away from it’s audience. It implies a basic lack of respect about the product and it’s seller. So is complaining about how hard it is to make it in the hobby today, about which version is best, or how it doesn’t fit your vision of the ideal game even though they make blog content. You might have to move on. You might have to get smart.

Choose carefully – remember your time is important. And if you think your audience or peers are petty, self-entitled whiners you may be in the wrong business or peer group. I’d rather be with a bunch of discerning, creative enthusiasts. I know they’re out there. So do they – and I don’t have to insult or litigate against them to get them to listen. Does that count for something?

You might even want to look at how people who are making it in the environment are going on. In closing – a video of a presentation by Mike Masnick of on a case study featuring Trent Reznor, Jonathan Coulton and others who have realised that it’s now about the patronage of the customer. It’s a bit lengthy – start from 02:30 if your time is short – but worth it.

P.S. By the way…
Have you?


steel, steam and spit

This month’s RPG Carnival is hosted by Mad Brew Labs and deals with steampunk and klokwerks. Some have noted steampunk seems to comprise two divergent streams – the utopian steam-based science and dystopic punk social dynamics; you can mention Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, Moore & O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You may even mention the movie Wild Wild West (or it’s TV inspiration) without too many outraged looks – alright, maybe that last is a bit… colonial. You get the idea.

While there is plenty of the steam, there is not so much about the punk elements – a shame because there is an awful lot to rage against for any subversive. The historic eras that steampunk draw on were times of massive social upheaval and reform.

How do you consider poverty caused by massive industrialisation leading to slum living? Or the rocketing abuse of gin and opium? Maybe prostitution and the hypocrisy of the public towards the ‘unfortunates’ who were committed to asylums to reform or being subjected to humiliating inspections by public officials if suspected of having an STI?

Or child labour and exploitation? How about the conflict between creationism and evolution? And the rise of feminism and the suffragette movement? All at the same time? The enforced social mores and repressed conservative attitudes yield much for punk ideologies and ethos to illustrate and attack – whether it be Fabian ideals, patriotic socialism or an alternate morality.

A sense of manifest destiny grants divine right to conquer and exploit in the name of your nation, God, Reason or Progress. Ugly? Industrialisation isn’t always pretty. Finding the focus on technological marvels lets us embrace a sense of wonder inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yet there is a darker edge to steampunk, dealing with social ills that still hang over us.


on genre death, means & ends and industry

Let’s start to look at ourselves and let’s stop characterising ourselves as a besieged minority: we are connected by an umbilical cord which is unbreakable to every huge movement in the workings of theology and philosophy – the labours of the imagination as far back as we know how to look.

— Clive Barker, speech at Fantasycon 2006, Nottingham

Think on that a moment then consider the following…

There is a glossary of terms to be found at Amagi Games that helps capture the means and ends we aspire to by experiencing drama, playing games, gambling and performance – yet we can aspire to greater things than even these. Games with social consequence beyond the footprint it takes up to prep and run and experience, be it via giving a share of profits to a good cause or getting people to brainstorm on real-world issues while having fun at the same time.

Delta’s D&D Hotspot posts that it’s not all about fun. He posits that fun is not the only fruit (to borrow from Jeanette Winterson) and that catharsis is perhaps a better aim, preferring to follow an Aristotlean approach. I’m more pluralist. Why not let yourself have all the flavours at your table – including fun – and choose what you want according to your mood?

Onto a wonderful counterpoint by JoeTheLawyer (with props to taichara for the pointer) on why the Old School Renaissance is about emotion. Emotion is one of the key drivers behind the RPG blogosphere (along with creativity and it’s talkative friend, rumour). The appearance of 4E and other books on bestseller lists indicates a beseiged minority label may no longer fit us; it’s time to get a new coat that fits us better.

And if your coat is fine, then your attitude may be next…


torture – not fluffy bunnies

This post is a counter-rant to this one, posted in response to this one. And because I see flames in the future, I’m putting up a picture of Johnny Cash special. It has been argued that the presence of torture in games and stories is disturbing and done for tittilation.

To which I say: No.

The presence of torture in story can be traced long way back – by TV Tropes terms it’s older than dirt. Before Hans Christian Andersson and the Brothers Grimm, before Scherezade’s 1001 Arabian Nights. Yesterday was St. George‘s Day (patron saint of England etc. and dragonslayer) who was tortured before being executed for his beliefs, along with so many other martyrs.

There are inevitably real-world parallels and inspirations. Spanish and European inquisitions, the witch hunt and ordeals outlined in the Malleus Malificarium, the courts of the Yellow Emperor and Genghis Khan, trials by ordeal in Saxon and medieval European courts and just about anywhere that humanity has demonstrated it can be inhuman.

In literature you’ve got Poe’s The Pit & The Pendulum, Orwell’s 1984, Dumas’ The Man in The Iron Mask, C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy and numerous others including A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin where the character of the Tickler is particularly reviled.

In cinema, you’ve got examples in Braveheart, Casino Royale, Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, Pan’s Labyrinth, Rambo II and III, Reservoir Dogs, Spartacus, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Matrix (Morpheus’ interrogation by Smith)The Passion of the Christ, The Princess Bride, V for Vendetta, adaptations of the previous novels and yes, the Saw films.

In television, torture is also used. 24 has Jack Bauer commiting atrocities on people (is it me or has Dick Cheney got 24 confused with real life?). Alias has numerous examples involving Jack Bristow, the new Battlestar Galactica uses it on both humans and Cylons. Jean-Luc Picard suffers ordeals yet holds out against the Cardassians in Star Trek: Next Generation. Firefly sees Malcolm Reynolds tortured to death and back again by Adelai Nishka, Lost sees Sawyer get tortured by the islanders and Xena, Warrior Princess was crucified by order of Julius Caesar.

Do any of these glorify or glamourise torture? No. Even in the Saw films, Jigsaw’s fiendishness is the lashing out of a terminally sick craftsman with a broken moral compass; his apprenticeships are by ordeal, not initiations into justice as he attempts self-justification of his actions.

Are these compelling stories? Probably. You’ve heard of them, haven’t you?

Finally, I have to include a link to Amnesty – because this story isn’t over yet…