Where I’ll Be At GX Australia 2017

I normally post one of these for most cons, because I am a winding sinuous serpent who hops from event to event to panel to game like a flitty floaty mixed metaphor, and I give prizes for finding me. But now, I have emerged from my butterfly anti-cocoon and become a caterpillar who stays still: for much of the con you will find me at booth 12 (near the Nintendo display), shilling the fine RPGs of Half Monster Games AND the fine RPGs of Tin Star Games.

We’ll be selling our brand new single-player Western story game, The Tin Star, in gorgeous sepia toned parchment pages for that old-westy feel. Plus copies of Daughters of Exile and Afraid of the Dark. We’ll also be demoing our card games we have in development and if you’re very lucky we might run some It Is Forbidden.

I will also be moving about though, so when I’m not at the booth I may be found at:

Saturday

I’ll be at the booth all morning (unless we get a game going in the RPG area, ask the RPG devs if we can!)

At 1pm I hope to attending How To Break Into the Industry in the Development Panel Roomn

At 2pm I hope to scoot over to the Auditorium to hear about how games can actually change people’s minds for the better, something I’m very big on

At 4pm there’s a panel in the Development Panel Room on Mental Health Representation in Games which they said they needed a moderator for and I am waiting to hear back so I might be there.

At 5pm I’m running my panel on masculinity, which you can read more about here.

Sunday

At 1pm in Development Panel Room there’s a talk on Queering Your Tabletop which is basically a sequel to our panel on inclusivity in table top games that we did at PAX last year. The question came up: how do you show queer identities when there’s not a lot of sexual preference in a board game? Time to answer that!

At 2pm I may hang around there to see the companion piece to yesterday’s 2pm talk: Using Games to Build Empathy.

Is there a theme building? Yes. Games can change minds, in a way no non-participatory art can. In keep with this theme, anyone who comes past the booth on the weekend can get our free game THE DAY THEY CAME, which is a parlour game about escaping from your country when the nazis take over. I mean, the space nazis. This is SF, of course. It’s not real. It couldn’t actually happen.

And of course, we’ll be officially announcing Relics, our big new RPG coming in 2019.

What’s it about?

It’s about time you came and found out…

Masculinity

SURVEY

At GXAus in two weeks I’ll be running a panel entitled Conceptions of Masculinity in Gaming Culture. We’re going to look at that as widely as possible, where all our ideas about masculinity come from, and how that conflicts with actual male-ness, and other kinds of gender identity. We’ve got straight and gay guys, non-binary peeps and even a lady on the panel, but we also want this to be a safe space for guys to talk about the things they’re scared to talk about. Because masculinity teaches men to be poor at socializing and bad at asking for help and terrible at admitting any weakness – and because we’re punished harshly for getting things wrong – we never ask the questions we should be asking. When I was growing up, you had to read Playboy Letters to find the answers. Nowadays, it’s porn sites and asking 4chan…

Of course, nobody’s going to ask these kinds of scary questions in front of an auditorium of strangers, I’ve set up a form you can fill out anonymously. We’ll also take questions during the event. Please don’t abuse this. Only fill it in if you’re coming, and if you have a question – but DO feel free to ask whatever you need. Ask the crazy. Ask the stupid. Ask what people laugh at you about.

I remember when we did this in grade school, one of the questions was “is oral sex illegal?”. We were fourteen. How were we to know? People lie to kids all the time. And it didn’t get better. I was so confused by sex and how I was taught it was bad to lust after women, I convinced myself I was gay for three years. When I finally did have sex with a lady, I had a panic attack (first time), cried (second time) and kicked her out of my house in shame (third time). So believe me, no question is too stupid or too awful or too embarrassing. If you’d like, you can leave an email as well so we can get back to you if you have any big issues or we can’t cover your question on the day.

Anyway. Reach out. Please.

SURVEY

How Dogs Play Games

As I said in my last piece, it’s crazy how we have this idea that the game is a late human invention, as if we created art, science, war and then, as an afterthought, thought to simulate war with games of strategy. And one way we know this is that many non-human species play games. There’s some suggestion they also get asthetics, too, and can move colours and forms around as art, but there’s no doubt whatsoever they play games. Some suggest that they’re not playing games they’re just “playing” – just going through mock-actions of hunting and eating to test their strength and build social links and test social constraints.  Certainly this kind of play is not quite a game, and is common in millions of species. But when you get closer to humans – when you get as close as possible, with the dog – you see that games exist.

Dog games have rules, winners, losers and above all, the magic circle. I talked a little about this last year, but as I learn more, there’s more we can learn about dog gaming and human gaming in turn. Here are some things science has recently discovered about dog gaming:

1. Dogs Use Games To Affiliate With Dogs They Like

Dogs don’t need games. Dogs isolated from other dogs and trained not to care about play seem to suffer no social or psychological disadvantage. But given the option, dogs seek out play quickly, and they use it to build affiliation with others. The primary purpose of play is NOT to test physical strength, test social barriers or prepare for hunting, but to share a social bond. When your dog wants to play with you, it’s because that’s it’s favourite way of saying it loves you. Dogs do NOT like to play with every dog they meet, they play most with the dogs they like most. They also play most with dogs who play well with them. Dogs that do not play well or do not play in their style are quickly chosen not to play with. Dogs will remember that there are certain dogs that play certain games with them in the best ways, and seek those dogs out for those games: they will find good chasers for when they want to chase, good pullers for when they want to pull.

2. Dog Games Have Specific Structures and Limits

Dogs play in groups of 1 to 3, with 2 being the best. When numbers get above three, they usually break into smaller groups. Group play is unusual, and involves vastly different games that use crowd psychology. Dogs often find group play confusing or less fun – it offers very little of the same rewards. Solo play is also rarer, as dogs are inherently social  and use play to affiliate, as mentioned, but they do enjoy the struggle. Dog play is also limited in time. Dogs get bored after a while of play, and go back to socialising or being alone. Play increases arousal and focus, and if prolonged can lead to anxiety or exhaustion, so dogs take breaks. Dogs will also switch games or change the structure of games for variety. They will also alter the structure of games to suit their opponents: strong dogs will bite the stick with less leverage to help a weaker dog; fast dogs will slow down for slower chasers. The games will stop, the rules will be renegotiated, and then the game will begin again.

3. Dog Games Have Specific Unspoken Social Contracts and A Magic Circle

Dogs, like humans, can get confused about dog games because aggressive dog games are easily confused with fighting. Dogs will leave aggressive games or enter combative stances or do inappropriate responses (fight, flight, freeze, appease) if they feel the game is a fight. The way that dogs tell if something is a game is through several tests. First of all, dogs ask first. They set up the magic circle of the game by pre-establishing social affiliation. They lick faces, they play-bow, they touch and smell each other. Then they regularly check in with the play. If one dog is very focused on the play and the other less so, the play usually stops or wears down. If one dog is confused and gives inappropriate repsonses, the play stops. Dogs also prefer that the game involves give and take, with each individual experiencing both sides of things. Some times a dog will prefer to chase or be chased, but the chaser wants to both get away sometimes and be caught others. Other dogs will change between chasing and chaser. Dogs will get bored if they knock the other one down all the time. It’s not a game if you always win.

4. Dogs Show Preference to Copying, Connection, Fairness and Abundance

This is true of all dog cognition, so naturally it also shows up in how dogs play and how they learn to play. Not unlike humans, they learn primarily by watching others. Not through mimicry of physical action but through watching what others value, what others fear and what others respect. They favour the games and opponents that give them the most focus and attention and connection, they want to be as connected as possible to what they are doing, whether they are winning or losing, it is the social connection that matters. Dogs understand fairness, up to a limit. They can get that everyone gets a treat and will get confused or angry if someone is treated disproportionately even if it benefits them. Dogs also like abundance. They flock to those dogs and people who give away not just food but contact and affiliation and focus – and to games and game structures that allow all these things.

As you can easily see, all these rules apply to humans as well, except we can play with 1 to 6 players, with 2 to 4 being preferred because of our slightly bigger social structures. Everything else is the same. If you want a happy dog, help it learn to game well, and if you want to game well, ask a dog.

Games Aren’t Art

Because art is a kind of game.

Obviously, the philosophers will simply draw a larger circle here. There is no definition of game I can give that they cannot draw a larger definition around and call that art. But I want to approach this anthropologically.

See, we have all these ideas about how civilization works. We know this because they are in thousands of civ-inspired games. Most of them divide humanity into some kinds of divisions. We make war, we make science, we make religion, we make culture, we gather resources and spend them elsewhere. We rate civilizations in these fields, these are the activities we perform in the game. And we know civilization has begun because these activities are going on: we’ve stopped being “animals” because we have these early game pieces: we stopped just fighting and invented war. We stopped just eating and invented agriculture. We stopped just reacting and invented thinking about why we react. We stopped just existing to survive and put some marks on a wall just so they were pretty. Civilization begins with the spearhead. The plough. The daubs on the cave walls at Lascaux.

And we know animals are creating civilizations because chimps have been shown to have mysticism. Orangutans can and do use tools. Bonobos domesticate animals and till the soil. Depending on your definition, simians have been in the stone age for up to 700 years, and have primitive versions of currency, trade and politics. We’re still waiting for the caves at Lascaux but we know dolphins have names and seem to maybe be making patterns just because they enjoy it.

See, we believe our ideas about civilization so much that our history is informing our biology. We’re looking to see when animals are doing the things you do in civ games to see if they are human.

And in civ games, sometimes, SOMETIMES…there’s a bit where the culture or war track goes “oh, and then there’s games or the colloseum or something”. Indeed, I was taught growing up that sports and games were invented to simulate war.

Simulate conflict, yes. But simulate war? I don’t think so.

Because here’s what else we know. Dogs play games. They know the rules of games, they know when games start and stop, they know what victory conditions are, and they know how to cheat, and they know how to stop cheating and follow the rules properly. They also know, god bless them, how to cheat forward, ie to make it easier for weaker players. Dolphins play games too, they throw sticks around and hide things and play hide and seek. Monkeys run races with each other.Elephants put paint on a brush and it is sold as elephant art and we have no idea if they see it as making an image or representation – but we do know they find it an enjoyable GAME, to make the colour go on the page.

(Again, leave the definition for the moment. Please.)

The earliest Egyptian artwork that still survives includes them playing games. Before they even developed language they were playing games. And then somewhere along the line, we put the paint on the wall. We made a game of colour-daubing. And then someone made a game of making the daubs look like mammoths and people.

See, we have this idea that art came first and then games. And that games are primitive yet also secondary. And that it’s only just now, right now, that games are so awesome and narrative and pretty that okay maybe they can qualify to be art. Even if we agree that games are art, we have in the back of our mind that they’ve been ALLOWED to be art. That they’ve finally reached that level. That they’ve been let into the club because now we see truly what they are.

And one of the reasons we think that is because we think in Civilization mechanics. We think art came first. We think humans are defined by making art, making tools, making weapons. And we looked for those things, and those things alone, in animals, to see if they were like us. And we ignored games.

What if humans are defined by games. By tools, by weapons, by games. What if games are as fundamental to intelligence, to human-ness, to civilization as using a tool. Why the hell have we ignored that for so long? We’ve watched animals play games for centuries and never once said “that means they’re smart”. Because we didn’t have it in our list of Civ categories. Because we were undervaluing games. Because games don’t count.

And this why I think we need to reverse the argument. Even by saying games are art, we’re still stuck in a world where art is awesome and part of civilization and being human, and games are allowed to be part of that. But games have always come BEFORE art, as far as we can tell, by any common man’s definition of art.

So turn it around. Put games where they belong. Central. Core. Primary of what makes us human.

Games are what makes us intelligent. What shows our soul. What lifts us above and transcends us. And one kind of game is the game where you shape materials into pleasing forms and call it art. We’ll call it a game. It qualifies. It goes in the “non-interaction” section. It’s not always a GREAT game, but you know, it’s better than Monopoly. Pandemic is better than Dracula, but not as good as Hamlet. I’ve played Bridge, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa…they’re about the same. Does that sound weird? It does. Because we’re still thinking art is above, games are below. Because of the language we use.

Games aren’t art.

Art is non-interactive gaming.

That small change in language changes EVERYTHING.

 

The Five Reasons People Do Things

“Grade school, high school, university…black hole…” – Peter’s Friends

I was born a gifted child which meant that every time I showed the slightest bit of interest in anything, or ability in anything, I was expected to turn into Mozart. This led me to become absolutely terrified of liking anything or being good at anything. This is, surprise surprise, a sub-optimal way to go through life, but I avoided dealing with this issue through the miracle of education, where you just do what you’re told for twelve or fifteen years or so. Eventually, of course, school ran out, and I found my options afterwards were things I hated so badly I wanted to hack my legs off with a chainsaw if that would somehow stop them from being my options.

Part of that was also that I was also depressed so didn’t like doing anything, but I became more and more depressed the more I found literally everything I was expected to do as an adult was literally agony. In order to try and stop my life from being a hellish nightmare from end to end, I devoted everything I had to solving the puzzle of What The Hell Do I Do. This is, I think, an extremely non-trivial problem and getting skills to solve it is something we should teach in schools, not least because school is very much the antithesis of almost every job you will ever have.

The upshot of all of this is between the angst and suffering of a decade, I pumped a huge amount of time, money and effort into studying the science of motivation and job satisfaction, and that has served me well, even if the answer overall was not to do a job at all because of the aforementioned depression. I got a good lens to understand what motivates people, and it helped me understand myself and what I’m good and why I do things which is hugely important in making the decision you have to make every day of your life: should I do the thing? (And which thing, and how, and why should I do it) As an artist and a game designer, you run into this question constantly, and if you don’t have a guide for how to answer it, you will be in trouble.

The amazing Peter M Ball has blogged a few times about these kinds of decisions, and how you need to have a mountain, not a map – a goal you want to get your artistic career to, and to keep checking your decisions to see if they lead towards or away from the mountain. But the problem with the mountain on its own is mountains are deceptive as hell. One of the things I did first when I hit my after-school black hole was attempt to do a PhD, and it exploded spectacularly very quickly. At that point, I read a book which was designed to help you figure out if you should do a PhD and its very first point was to understand the difference between wanting to HAVE a PhD and wanting to do the work necessary to get one.

And this is where you have to be careful, because if you mess this up, you’ll be aiming for the wrong mountain for the wrong reasons. It’s a natural human thing. We see things we value and we see people doing those things and having those things and we think we want those things without understanding the life that comes with them. So when we think “oh I want to be an actor” we mean “we’d love to go to the Oscars and shove canapes down our bra” not “we want to get up at 5am every morning to run twelve miles so our waistline never exceeds Hollywood standards”. When people say they want to be a writer, they mean they want to have their name on the front of a real book in a real shop not sit up till 4am in their underwear crying about narrative structure. But on the other hand, some people are perfectly happy to do the latter to get the former. And that’s where the five reasons comes in.

Expensive and wide-spanning research apparently discovered there are five basic reasons why people do jobs. And here they are:

  1. Money. Plain old money. Which is about lifestyle. We will take a job to suit our desired lifestyle. This isn’t about whether you need to stay alive, it’s whether you’d change jobs if it meant work that didn’t meet the other five requirements but upgraded your lifestyle somehow.
  2. The Environment. The perks. This is a big bucket involving everything about doing the job except what you do and how much you get paid. This is for people who don’t care what they do if they can chat to their friends as they do it. It’s also for people who do a job because the whole town does it or their father did it, or because it’s out in the open air or by the sea side or up in a plane. It’s about the environment around the job.
  3. The Prestige. Prestige is not the same as fame. Fame is a lottery, prestige is something which is assured and bankable and has social capital. People who are on TV and such get this, but so do important folk like doctors and lawyers. Prestige can be a big pull for artists even if they can kick the drug of fame, it’s about being known as a craftsman in your field.
  4. The Meaning. This is about what the job does, how it effects the world. People who join the army rarely do it because they are super into jogging and making beds, they do it because there’s prestige, they like the environment or because they believe it makes a difference. A lot of the time people wonder how billionaires can sleep at night despite poisoning the environment. It’s because they have no interest in this entry whatsoever.
  5. The Task Itself. Weirdly, this one almost gets forgotten even though it’s the heart of the matter. This is the jogging, the bedmaking, the hiking, the sitting around on your butt in a desert that makes up being a soldier. Not something most soldiers talk about as being why they took the job. Because they don’t care much about this number on the list.

The key thing to remember here is that not everybody cares about the five points the same way. A lot of the time when we talk about jobs, we forget this. We tell people they might like a job because it’s a great opportunity for advancement (money, prestige) or maybe it’s changing the world (meaning). I first tried to do a PhD for the environment (I didn’t want to leave university) but I’m not an environment person at all. Then I tried doing medical science because I thought it might mean something if I was helping people but it turns out I’m #5. I have a busy busy mind and if I’m not 100% entirely engaged in what I do for every second, I am out of there. And boy does that matter.

And it matters not just for what job I do in general, but what parts of that job I do. It shapes entirely my mountain.

Example: when I got into freelance RPG writing, it was for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, a game I adored. Then that game finished, and I thought “aha, I’ll pursue the life of being a freelance game writer”. The moment I tried working on other games, games I wasn’t 100% passionate about, I hated it. It was awful, and boring and painful, and I wasn’t great at it as a result. And I felt like a complete failure. I knew how to be a success at freelancing, it was to prove you could write anything, at short notice. And I couldn’t. I was very discouraged. But I’d been trying to get prestige – reputation as a good freelancer – and money. And I do not care about those things. So it was never going to work.

Today I was watching a video about making good prototypes of your card game. This is important because it gives a strong sense of success (prestige) which engages potential customers and potential investors (money). But what I saw was four hours of tedious repetitive labour gluing and cutting and that would make me very very unenthused. I’ve got enough emotional intelligence now that I could push through and do it if I listened to music but it bores me so much. As does endlessly playtesting the same games. I crave variety. I’d rather learn a new game every time then play an old one. So here my mind remembers: it’s about the task itself. Do I want to be a game designer? Because for me, that means figuring out what the task involves and figuring out if I can do that all day every day. If I can’t do that, then I cannot do the job.

For writing RPG setting material and rules expansions, the answer to that is yes. I love doing that. I do it without being paid. I do it reflexively – as long as I love the setting and the game. That means I can’t be a full time freelancer, because there’s almost never going to be a game around all the time that needs that much work. But it MIGHT mean I can design my own RPG. At least the world. I may need to outsource some of the playtesting. But that’s doable. I can build my career around my needs.

The point is, Peter is right that you need to have a mountain, but you need to know what kind of mountain it is. For some people, they want to make money making games, or make games that can change the world, or make games with their buddies. But for me, none of those are actually my mountain. My mountain is to enjoy every second of making games, and that means I can’t always make games that make money or change the world or work with my friends. Which means I do other things with my friends, and get money from elsewhere, and change the world elsewhere.

In my other job, I’m a dog sitter. Now I could do that self-employed. I might make more money, maybe build a business (prestige). But if I work for an agency, I never have to do a budget or order supplies or put out advertising or build a website or juggle clients. Every second of my job is interacting with dogs. That suits my #5 temperament perfectly. That means I don’t have a nice place to live or a car and I can’t afford to buy board games. But it also means I never have to file a goddamn invoice and that makes me ecstatic. And see how that leavens out two very different ways to do the job of “be a dog sitter”?

As artists, finding our mountains is harder than it is for regular people, and it’s almost impossible for them. This discovery has helped me a lot, and helps every single day. Maybe it’ll help you. I know I like writing blogs, and I like helping people.

The Triumphant Dead

It’s a cliche but it is true: the only thing we can do with death is let it make us better people. And remembering is part of that. And it is part of how we grieve. I can no longer tell Jason Sinclair how much he meant to me. All I can do is tell you. So we all get better.

A long long time ago, I wrote a short story about angels. One of the very first short stories I wrote. In it, one of the angels says he is currently employed as a muse. He clarifies this position: it’s not about being some beautiful object or ideal which inspires an author: his job is to find new, struggling artists and tell them their work is good.

This year has been the first year I’ve been okay with calling myself a writer, and a game designer. I’ve been therefore thinking a lot about how I got to that point, and how hard it was. About the enormous things that worked against me. And about the forces that worked for me.

I sometimes feel as if I never had friends until I found the internet. There were exceptions, but never people who supported me the same way. Maybe it’s easier on the internet to say you love someone. Maybe it was because I finally found some nerds, people who were like me. Not in an adolescent way, as adolescence was long gone. But artists and feelers. People who saw me as great. People like Keith and Jim and Isaac and Winna. People who put my quotes in their signatures and said my brain was amazing. People who wanted to hear me talk. Not stare at me like I was stupid, maybe even retarded. Not sigh at me for doing something they couldn’t understand.

Maybe the first of these was Jason.

I don’t remember the thread or the reason but I pitched my first silly idea for a card game, which was called Temple Tantrum. Everyone is playing a Jesus (one of many Jesii) and trying to do the most damage to the moneylenders in said Temple. Throwing over tables, hitting them with a braided cord. Scoring points for spooking a donkey. And then there was Jason who liked it. Like it so much he wanted to make it. SERIOUSLY want to make it.

Sent me emails. We brainstormed early design. I didn’t have the skill back then, nor the self-conception. Only just got the latter. And I’d written the pitch as a joke. But Jason believed, and never let it go. Every time I was down, he’d bring it up again. Maybe half-seriously some times. But sometimes very seriously. To him, it had to happen. It was the best idea, and it had to be made.

Belief can be dangerous. So many people want you to be who they see you as, do things the way you want them to do, and if you fail to do so, will decide it’s because you don’t believe in yourself. They use belief like a weapon. They believe in methods, not outcomes. But the shoe that fits them will never fit you. If you want to believe in something, believe in its outcome, not its path. In its total, earth-shattering world-conquering success. Don’t believe in people, either. People don’t really exist. Believe in ideas. In projects. In dreams. People are too complicated to believe in, and just need to be loved. Ideas need belief. Have esteem for people, confidence in ideas.

But do believe. It matters some much. At a very young age, I saw this moment on the Muppets and spent a long time waiting for it to happen, praying for it to work. But too many people believed in me in general, like “yeah, you can do whatever you want”. Which had the edge of demand in it too – you better do something great. And you can’t believe without support either, that too has a demand to it. You know that one thing you said that one time? Why isn’t it conquering the world yet? That’s “belling the cat”. Believing in an idea means giving to the idea.

I’ve come back to this a lot over the last year, but everything is about power. Never trust anyone who tries to take power away from you. Surround yourself with people who give you power. And give out power. Sometimes that’s just “this is idea is great, I want to see it”, over and over again. Sometimes that’s just “I love this”. Other times, it’s “what do you need from me?” or “Hey, this is how I want to help us make this.” Sometimes we’re worried about that taking away from ourselves, and that can be a danger. But collaboration makes us all grow and do more.

Jason was a man who understood about this rule. He gave power to those around him and to their works. Charged them up. Made them stronger, made their works stand firmer, reach higher. And I miss him terribly.

 

 

 

Panel Ideas for GX

Very quick notes of panel ideas for GX. I’m moving house and then house sitting so low on time, so here’s my ideas, let me know if you want to panel up with me.

 

It Is Forbidden – It Is Forbidden is a unique story-making game of building cultures and taboos and watching them tear each other apart. You the audience will collaborate to build two unique fantasy cultures – and learn something about your own. (This could also be done in the game area)

Extra Mans – Masculinity, Toxic and Otherwise, And The Hypercompetitive Ideals of Game Culture

How To Succeed In the Tabletop RPG Industry Without Really Trying – making them, selling them, freelancing.

Narrative In Tabletop – The New Hotness. The Gone Homes of tabletop are emerging. Let’s talk about how we got there and where it’s going.

Diversity: Strategies, Action Plans and End Points. We know it matters, but what do we do as individuals?

The New Nerd – How has nerdiness changed since Tolkein wrote Lord of the Rings, and why does that matter?

 

Also, does GX have LARPs? I’ve been asked to run Sunset Claws again, but need a venue and the right crowd.