Gaming With Values

You know about Train, right? The game by Brenda Romero where players compete to load the most people onto little trains and get them to a destination and slowly it becomes clear you are acting out the Holocaust. It (and the associated series) more performance art with a game, but the point is well made. To put it simply: theme matters. But more specifically, theme matters, and story matters, when it intersects with our values.

I can give you an example of this from my own experience. On my first run through on Civilization: Beyond Earth I encountered a story path where you were faced – as is so often the way in modern game design – with an branching choice. One was to send escaping refugees back to their captors (who claimed they were criminals), the other was not. Both options had mechanical value, and the returning option was by far the best one for my game at that point. But with Australian refugee politics as it was, there was no way on earth I felt able to send those people back. Those fictional people, without faces or even symbols in my game; people who were just a sentence.

There are lots of other branching quandaries in the game, all of them about what should be valued over other things – and not just should we build a farm first or a hospital first, but should health care be based on civil sacrifice or given out equally, should religious freedom interfere with scientific progress, and so on. Games prized on their stories, like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have become so famous for their storytelling that branching moral choices are now seen as the default go-to for story-telling. But I stopped playing Mass Effect when the game forced me to destroy the cure for the genophage, a genocidal disease which had killed billions of the krogan, a race whose representative character had become my favourite. I refused. The game could not progress. The game ended, as in I stopped playing and never played again. (Which is a warning to game deisgners: if your story is too good, people might stop playing.)

Again, the whole game was built on value choices. But what mattered was when those hit home. When they encountered MY values.

Not everyone plays games the way I do. Not everyone feels things as acutely as I do. I couldn’t play black when I used to play Magic, for example (too evil). But one of the things we desperately need to learn about game design is how much values are a key part of how human beings interact with the world, and not just because more and more people game like me.

Humans make decisions based less on logic or reason and much more on what we need at any given moment, and those needs depend on where we are on Maslow’s heirarchy. And certainly a lot of stories and games like to talk about that. It is the central appeal of the zombie genre, really: to see how our values at the top of the pyramid, our philosophical and moral values, stand up when the values at the bottom – safety, survival, basic belonging – are threatened. Dead of Winter is a board game about that very thing, although it doesn’t really succeed therein: you can only win by achieving your personal goals so it’s mostly about being a selfish jerk keeping yourself alive at all costs. A far more interesting game in this area is the legendary Pandemic and the unbelievably good Freedom: The Underground Railroad. In both of them success can only be achieved by sacrificing individual lives, which alone takes its toll as the symbolic dead rise (I’ve been told not to describe the deaths of the slaves for each cube I take off the board in Freedom, as it makes the game too painful) but also the game rules mean you can lose if that death toll gets too high. It is literally about balancing achieving the good of the many at the expense of the few – but not too many of the few.

The thing is, this clash of values is actually much more potent to an every day human. For most of us playing board games, our daily struggles are not far down the Maslow scale. If we can afford board games, we typically have food and shelter and safety, and either can’t imagine not having them, or don’t want to remember the times when we didn’t. Yet games are, for historical and technical reasons, typically focused at the bottom of the pyramid. Chess is tactical, but it’s kill or be killed. It makes sense as I said for technical reasons: games tend to be about expending resources to capture positions and we naturally think of that in terms of warfare. Or the other habits of humans: status racing, as we try to build the nicest kingdom, the richest trade empire, the tallest tower. Status is all very well and good, but again, for most of us, not one of our values.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who isn’t a typical gamer and shies away from typical boardgames because they’re full of status competition and being mean to other people. Those people’s values are removed from that, so even in abstract form they don’t want to do it. Let alone in a thematic sense. This is why it was a misstep, I feel, for Bloc by Bloc, a game aimed at people interested in social change, to have hidden goals and betrayal mechanism, because social change people usually don’t like those mechanics because those mechanics go against their values. A much better idea is the full co-op of Rise Up (on kickstarter now).

And that’s the point: engagement peaks and great storytelling comes not when there’s a clash of values but when the values in the story connect with OUR values. Pandemic hits home with me a great deal because I work in public health and social change; ditto Freedom. Much more so than Robinson Crusoe, with its similar mechanics. But mechanics have values attached to them as well, which is why I – being a squishy sentimental wolly-headed bleeding heart – play collaborative games almost exclusively.

Understanding the values your game expresses, in its mechanics and its theme, will tell you what kind of people will want to play your game. And more importantly, who will NOT want to play your game. Or how to expand it or tweak it or reposition it to get in touch with different values in different players. Abstract games are good like that, you can make cubes mean anything you want. So are game variants to suit different mechanical values, or different victory conditions (your business might be richer but my building is taller). And trying to tap into people’s values, to what they personally care about, is a great way to sell games. People like kittens, which is why Exploding Kittens did so well. I used to pitch Guillotine to people by saying “it lets you kill annoying French people”. Because “being annoyed by the French” is a value. Other times I’ve pitched it as “it lets you lead the glorious revolution against the aristo scum” – to socialist types who have that value. Because people think in values, not in logic or reason.

If you’re making your own games, think about what you value. If you’re making RPG characters and want them involved in the adventure, find ways to tag in your own personal values into them – and be careful not to ever tag your values in ways that would compromise going on adventures. A pacifist character who gets dragged into a dungeon crawl is NOT going to be fun if you’re an actual pacifist. On the other hand, a game of something about clashing agendas like Hillfolk, Smallville or Prime Time Adventures might be a great place to tag that agenda into a character, to make those struggles hit home as they reflect your own.

I personally struggle with value clashes all the time, and am constantly curious about how they intersect with social change, politics and psychology. So much so I wrote an RPG about it. Two of them, actually. One very recently called It Is Forbidden, which is about the cultural clash aspect, which was available through the crowdfunding only. And another long long ago called Walk the Line, a Firefly/Serenity emulator where the whole basis of the game was swinging between your own conflicting values. Very very old Steve fans might remember it and expected it to never see the light of day, but it’s here now. What can I say: fulfilling promises and pleasing fans, those are BIG values to me.



Security and Adventure

“Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.” – TS Eliot

Of course, you read that quote and think “yeah, now I’m thinking something new, go me”.

The other day a dog trainer said to me “a good dog is a dog who understands other dogs.” And he’s right. And it goes for humans too. Although we don’t call it being good. We call it wisdom. A lot of figuring out how to be the kind of artist you want to be and the art you want to make comes from understanding yourself, and understanding humans in general helps with that. It’s also a vital skill to learn about how people encounter games. So permit me, for a moment, to talk about security and adventure.

I first heard this from Tony Robbins, who called them the two most important things humans want (assuming they’ve got the base of their Maslow pyramid, of course). We want to feel safe and in control and assured. We want predictability. We want tomorrow to be exactly like today, and today to be like yesterday. We’re not angry because the computer won’t work so much as because it worked yesterday and the new thing bothers us, it makes us work. And you can make millions of dollars with books about cheese talking about how we react when today isn’t like yesterday.

But we also want adventure. We feel paralyzed if things can’t change. Because we always want more. So we need the sense that we could go out and get more and that means we need unpredictability. We need to know tomorrow won’t be like today in some way. That thrill is addictive – but so, of course, is the need to feel secure. Robbins’ best example of this is the gun. The gun in American culture is sold along these exact lines: on the one hand, you’re convinced your safe because you can’t be hurt, while on the other hand, the danger and taboo and criminality and action-movie-excitement tells you that when you pick up a gun, anything could happen. You feel secure and you get the thrill of adventure. The car is sold in much the same way. Super safe. But you can go ANYWHERE. At high speed. In fact, most advertising is like this. McDonalds is your old nostalgic friend whose always there, but gosh, look how much FUN you could have if you grabbed some burgers! As Don Draper said, advertising is about rocketships and time machines, new and nostalgia – adventure, and safety.

In that speech he also talks about the carousel, which is maybe the best example of this. For a five year old, the carousel is so exciting. They get a horse. They go spinning off at high speeds. But just as they start to get scared, there’s mum and dad again. Phew. Security and adventure, over and over again. It’s how we learn. How we explore. How we plan our days and our evenings out. We must go out, we must come back.

Popular, enduring games, play with these things. The trump cards and the ace are your security. You know they are winners. But you wouldn’t play if you only had trumps. The chess pieces are safe behind the pawns. To attack you must expose them. When threatened, you draw them back. It sounds ludicrously simple, but being aware of it helps; games walk us through the carousel ride, the constant dance from security to adventure and back again. In classic RPGs, your security are your cool powers. Your adventure is not knowing what’s behind the dungeon door, or the GM’s screen. Security is a +1. Adventure is rolling the die.

But, like everything humans like, and as the Eliot quote reveals, there’s a danger to this. We cling to bad forms of power and strength, one’s that a toxic, hurtful, false or dangerous because we need the security and adventure we think they provide. We also cling, strangely enough, to bad forms of surrender and weakness. Sometimes, when somebody hurts us or overpower us, we create in our head a sense of security from it. I can’t change this, so it’s safe. Or it reflects some value in me, so that’s safe. And since I’m no longer in control or responsible, there’s a twisted sense of adventure in it. Surrender means you are secure because you don’t have to do anything, and yet you go on an exciting adventure.

Maybe the classic example I see of this is when people call their dogs to try and stop it from doing something but the dog doesn’t really respond. Then people just stop. They’ve tried and done the signal of trying, which meets their values, and that makes them secure. They then get to surrender and watch what happens. There’s no drive for them to take responsibility or accept power over the situation, because they already have what they need. They’ve got security and adventure. The only way they’ll do something else is if the security is being threatened (like someone starts judging them further) or the adventure stops.

A lot of times when you can’t win a game, or a game kind of runs out of real involvement, we fall back into this kind of surrender. Indeed, decent games can be about this kind of surrender. It doesn’t matter what happens, because we’re securely held by the random events, so let’s just enjoy the ride. In many cases, RPGs are like this. It’s not our fault if anything our character tries succeeds or not, we’ve surrendered to the dice. That lack of power keeps us secure, and then adventure comes along and we roleplay it out. In a sense, the adventure of the randomness of the game, combined with the unreality of the game environment, because a dispensational security.

I mention all this because last week I talked about weaknesses. Specifically, I talked about how you can’t be afraid of them, you need to understand them and make them your friends. But there is a flip side to that, where you can surrender to them too much. You can go well, I’m not good at rules design so I’m just going to work on settings. I feel secure in that “choice”, and the adventure comes as I surrender to where it takes me. And if you do that, you’ll never learn and you’ll never find all the things you really are good at. You might also be fooled, because surrender is so enjoyable you’ll take a weakness you don’t have.

My most recent work for Shadow of the Demon Lord was this book, Weight of the Underworld. When Rob commissioned it for me, I was like, no thanks. I never use planar stuff in my fantasy games, it’s of no interest to me, so I have no idea how to make that cool. I’d decided that was a weakness because then I could say real-world stuff like culture and people, that was my strength. Give me the next book, I said. I had to feel secure. And like I said in the article, it came with the tickle of adventure knowing I could write anything IN my wheelhouse. But there are other kinds of adventure, and I took a deep breath and decided to push myself. And I think it came out pretty good.

This isn’t anything new. We’ve all been told about the need to accept what you can’t change and change what you can. But it is important to understand why we can’t tell the difference, how we cling to surrender and power because of false adventure and toxic power. And after I told you how awesome your weaknesses are, I had to point out the other side. Make friends with your weaknesses, but don’t cling to them. Like all friends, they will come and go. Make sure you’re always ready to wave goodbye to them, even if it makes you feel unsafe.



Making Friends With Your Artistic Weaknesses

There’s a lot of stupid things said about weaknesses. Things that have a core of truth but get turned into over-applied koans of wisdom. That you can do judo on them and always turn them into strengths, that you can cling to them too tightly until they become your identity, that you must break them or transcend them or confront them or master them.

Weaknesses suck, and you can’t always master them, or deal with them, or turn them into your strengths. And you shouldn’t let yourself believe they will always be there or can’t be changed. But much more importantly, you need to make friends with them. For most of my writing life I’ve been terrified and ashamed of my weaknesses. As a young artist, I tried to look for signs that I had potential, and so would look at the lives and works of people I admired, and every time I saw something that didn’t seem to fit, something they had or did that I didn’t or couldn’t, I died inside. I knew then I didn’t have what it took.

Playtest everything they say. And I hate hate hate games that are so obviously unplaytested, because I have standards. But I have so much trouble finding playtesters. It was like pulling teeth. So much so that some of my games have come out with little or no playtesting. Then a little birdie told me the other day about a very famous RPG that had one playtest only before it came out, and I knew I wasn’t alone.

One reason I’m not great at getting playtesters is I’m actually not great at RPGing, and don’t enjoy it, so I couldn’t just run everything I wrote. And because I sucked at GMing,  it was hard to believe I could write good games. But I’m good at copying what’s around me and most RPGs follow very similar pathways. I could copy those enough for my other skills to kick in – and discovered people can’t tell that I don’t run much. I had the weakness, but I had to learn to not let it stop me.

I’m actually really good at emulating things. You give me a game and I’ll give you the expansion or the supplement. I can match the language and the style and instantly see places where the rules can be expanded, developed or squeaked into new spaces between them. But I could never design my own games from scratch. I felt weak. Everyone whose anyone has their own game right? But now I’ve got people who ask me to be game developers and advisers for them. And it’s okay that I’m not good at the core. Because people have ALSO noticed that I’m good at emulating.

I was so good at emulating that almost all my work was in pre-existing media. I wrote a Matrix RPG and a Firefly RPG and a WFRP LARP to wide and loud critical acclaim and popular appeal, and I died inside because I could never publish any of them. It killed me to feel like I had skills I couldn’t market. What a failure that would be, to have these great works I couldn’t sell (because selling is the only achievement that matters, remember). But that emulation was a gift I could use when writing for the Buffy RPG, which was where I first got published.

Originally, I was terrible at rules, or so I thought, because I couldn’t quite see all the maths in my head. But I was good enough at emulating to get through AND I found people who would help, who could check my maths for me. RPG books are split up along those lines sometimes. I wrote such good flavour text for the skaven book for WFRP we won awards. And the more I did that the more other stuff caught up. I can’t code so I thought I’d never get into computer game design but I hear their are heaps of opportunities for that stuff now. I expect if I started at other points, slowly my development skills in actual computing might kick in.

After Warhammer 2nd ed finished, I tried to be a freelancer, and worked on a whole buttload of games but quickly found out I don’t like research. I don’t. I don’t really like reading game books (or reading anything), especially long detailed settings and histories and backgrounds. I don’t like doing much other kinds of research either. Don’t tell other nerds. I’ve been shunned and shamed for this a lot. But it’s just how it is, and fuck anyone who doesn’t get that. But it meant that working on Vampire was a bad idea for me, because I only get paid by the word, and I had to spend months and months of grueling research into a setting I never really liked – which meant the pay rate wasn’t fair compensation. So I thought I was a failure at freelancing. And I kind of was, in that respect.

I almost signed up for freelance work on 7th Sea, but didn’t, because I knew I wouldn’t want to do it, but it hurt. There I was, failing again. Then along comes Shadow of the Demon Lord which is a much blanker, un-filled in world, and that, I could do. If I’d signed up for 7th Sea I’d be up to my armpits in research I hated an not able to do what I love which is building the setting myself.

And with that realisation I came back to the idea that I’ve never made a game from scratch. But if I took a core system from over THERE, skipping over that weakness, and got this person and that person to help out with THOSE bits, skipping over that weakness, I could get around my weakness for working in other people’s universes, and focus on my strengths which would be filling in the universe from scratch…which would get me to break my weakness of not having my own game.

Your weaknesses aren’t strengths. You can’t sit down in an interview or a resume and list the things you suck at. You do need to try and work to not suck at things that you may need to cover. But there are some things you aren’t going to be good at and your best strategy is to do as little of them as possible. To build your artistic path away from the things you can’t do or don’t like to do, and towards the other things, because goddammit, it doesn’t pay or give you fame, so for god’s sake, it has to be FUN. And you can’t do any of this kind of planning if your weaknesses hang around your neck like a millstone, or sit on your chest like a scarlet letter. Don’t let your weaknesses define you or control you but understand them, accept them, make friends with them. Then they you can learn from them.




Stream of Consciousness

A reply to a person, to all the persons, to each and every one of you and got there are so many of you, there’s been so many of you so many who have said it

“Men aren’t violent” you say to me.

You, a man, would know, it seems.

I, a man, would not.

Men just express things differently. We’re more physical. We arm-wrestle our feelings out instead of hugging them out.

You say.

I say:

When I was ten my best friend attacked me.

You wouldn’t call it violence. Certainly not assault.

You’d call it wrestling. Horseplay. Rough-housing. Rough and tumble.

To be fair it didn’t really frighten me, although it left marks.

Aching testicles. Throbbing bruises. Confusion.

Of course I fought back, gave some of my own.

I didn’t like it though. I liked playing games instead. I stopped doing physical activities around then.

Board games don’t have natural opportunities for violence, unlike…cricket. Or swimming.

But I didn’t question it. Couldn’t have put it in words couldn’t have told you WHY I went to board games

but I sat by the side of the pool later that day, unwilling to enter while others played.

And I wanted it to stop, but it was normal.

By the time I got to high school, it was all like that.

It was normal.

Every day, every moment, was violence.

We said hello with a punch. Said goodbye with a punch.

Underlined a point with a punch. Communicated with a punch.

You wouldn’t call it violence.

You wouldn’t.

It was dead arms. It was chinese burns. It was wet willies and pink bellies.

It was death-ball.

It was towel-flicks and back-slaps and boys training and planning their attack so it could appear vaguely passive but deliver the most devastating pain possible without a bladed weapon.

They would dip the ends of their towels in water and carefully roll the ends

like craftsmen

measure the distance, wait until the victim relaxed, perhaps left his stance too wide

left the edge of the fence, took their back from the wall

(which we learnt, so quickly, was the only vaguely safe place or less dangerous place)

but in our pink fleshed tiny-bathers confusion we might make a mistake and then

a towel flick so vicious it would break the skin

and the game was afoot

the trick was to make me scream and if I did, they would win applause

and you try NOT to scream of course

but the pain

jesus christ the pain

the bruises

the marks on my skin

the dull ache in the bones that never went away

and YET

it was never enough because it wasn’t enough to prove anything

you couldn’t go to a teacher and say “he punched me”

A bruise, no matter how dark, how sickly yellow and blue, was just roughhousing. Horseplay. Wrestling.

I prayed every day they would break something, a wrist an arm.

Because you wouldn’t call it violence.

Not that I could tell anyone.

When they stole my calculator and threw it off a building and shattered it into a thousand pieces

my parents blamed me

be stronger they said

stop them from taking your pencil case

that’s a lesson you don’t forget

When they held us down on the football field and raked their boots across our faces, that was the rules. When we ducked and ran, we weren’t playing the game, and we were punished for it.

When we ran so hard we vomited, when our bodies ached from physical exertion so badly we could barely stand, we were punished.

And we were mocked

But you couldn’t call it violence. It wasn’t abuse.

And they already let us…let them…do whatever they wanted to me.

Beat me bloody, choke the breath out of my throat, bend my fingers and arms so far that I felt sure they would shatter and the pain was like white hot heat

Why would they care when they saw it happen?

When they shrugged it off?

It wasn’t violence.

There were some extremes, of course.

The man who hit me so hard in the stomach I blacked out from lack of oxygen. The person who hit me so hard in the face I couldn’t see for five minutes. A few black eyes. The occasional torn shirt.

But they were rare.

Mostly it was the pulled ties and tugged collars. Throbbing muscles and tired bones. And the invisible scars. The flinching instantly. The hypervigilance. The PTSD at age twelve. The real honest to god PTSD.

I remember when I got to uni I said to a friend “How come it isn’t a battle any more?”

because every day was a battle

every schoolyard a warzone

every corridor a charnel scene

every journey from one class to another an exposed run where the enemy could strike

every seating choice about danger

about proximity to enemies and blind spots and flanks you couldn’t defend

every conversation about risk

every moment about threat

and like the concentration camps of the nazis, no way to ever be sure what behaviour would save you. One day one thing would spare the beating

The other something else

One day one person would suddenly be kind, be human, be normal

The next your worst nightmare

There were no friends

Only people who beat you less

But who knew your weaknesses more

Who could hurt you psychologically in much deeper ways

But if your friends did it

If everyone did it

It wasn’t violence

And maybe it wasn’t

Not to them

When they said hello with a punch

and goodbye with a punch

when they talked with punches and shared emotions with punches

and understood the world in punches and broke up every social interaction by punches by who could punch who and when

when they studied how to hurt like it was skateboarding

when they tortured for fun without a second thought

when they swam in violence

they wouldn’t call it violence

a fish doesn’t know about water

My nickname at school – my first nickname, the one that didn’t hurt, that wasn’t designed to tear me to pieces and destroy me and unman me and dehumanise me – was Confuscious.

Because I had this radical idea that hitting people wasn’t nice

I also used to smile a lot to try and cheer myself and others up

So they called me smiley

and beat me

kicked the smile out of me

Broke the pacifism

Tortured me

Tortured me

Caused unstoppable agonies until I begged for mercy

until I knew over and over again the fear

of someone holding your life in their hands

and having no idea if they will let you live

and praying

that they will

and they might lessen the pain

I shouldn’t call it torture

That’s an insult, you say, to victims of torture.

I shouldn’t talk about warzones.

That’s an insult to soldiers.

I shouldn’t talk about concentration camps

That’s ridiculous.

That’s rude.

Everyone is rough when they are young

People are jerks all the time

They told us we had to do group work to learn how to deal with other people because that’s what happens in society

That’s what happens

After I graduated highschool nobody has ever tried to torture me for fun.

But you wouldn’t call it violence.

You wouldn’t


who was there

who still cries

who still wakes up from the nightmares

who still screams in the darkness

who still goes cold in my stomach and tastes the memory of blood

whose hands clench and vision fades and head swims when memories rush back

who spent twenty years flinching from being touched, expecting every man to beat me bloody.
You wouldn’t call it violence.


I would.

I wrote the first two minutes of a Fantastic Four film

Because I had nothing better to do. Yeah, it assumes the property ties into the MCU. Sue me.

SCENE ONE: INTERIOR. We track in to an auditorium. The audience is journalists, scientists, staid people, but excited, like it’s for NASA. But the stage is like it’s for a rock star. We pan up to ANNOUNCER. Screen behind him shows earth from space.


Space. It was the final frontier. Then the Chitauri came. (show battle of New York) The Asgardians. (Destroyer from Thor) And who knows how many friends they have. Space used to feel like a kiddie pool we were exploring as humanity found its feet. Now – now we’ve been dropped in the deep end. And our attempts so far to find lifeguards – they have not been successful. (Civil War shots)

But that’s all about to change. Ladies and gentlemen of the science community, of the press, you’ve all been wondering what we’ve been building here these last two years. In a joint operation with five sovereign nations, the US is about to put humanity back into the space race. To catch us up with the big kids, and start swimming in the deep end.

(screen shows a super sweet rocket) This is the new Excelsior starship, although I’m told the boys at the launch pad call it the Pocket Rocket, because the engine is just that small. What you’re seeing is it shooting into high earth orbit and back again in real time, using the radical new EM pulse drive.



But to me, that’s not the exciting part. Rockets, sure, they take us places. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re shiny. But give me Neil Armstrong over the Apollo, right? Christopher Columbus over the Santa Maria. Exploration is about people, not ships. People. So what I’m really here to do today, ladies and gentlemen, is to introduce you to the crew of the Excelsior. The new breed of American astronauts. Of American HEROES.

MUSIC CUE: building importance


A lot of people don’t like what I do. They think it’s cheap. That it cheapens science, and the work that these great scientists too. But those same people have the same lament. They lament that we don’t value science. And instead, well, we value pro-athletes (slide shows someone like Michael Vick), rock stars (someone like Kanye)… superheroes (slide shows Tony Stark).

I say, let’s start turning that around. Feminism mattered when Beyonce stood next to it. Race mattered when Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for it. I say, let’s make our scientists into our athletes – our rock stars – our superheroes. (slide shows Fantastic Four symbol).



So with that in mind, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to your new science heroes. Your new generation of space men and women. Let’s start with…


Jonathon Storm. Yes ladies, that is his real name. (montage of JOHNNY plays) Child prodigy. Daredevil. But most importantly, the greatest engineering mind of this century, the new Henry Ford, the man who build the near-light EM engines that can take us to space in less fuel than it takes to fly cross-country. Ladies and gentlemen, please, let me hear you cheer like you would for Led Zeppelin when I say the name…

(pan up to reveal JOHNNY in shadow on the platform. He’s all white teeth and youthful charm. Like Chuck Yeager meets Flash Gordon.)



Cut to a studio production booth. A producer leans forward to the mike)



Flame on.

Jets of flame shoot up around JOHNNY. He waves, dances a bit. He likes the attention. The audience is shocked, then claps, starting to give into the energy despite themselves.



And let’s not forget his twin sister. After all there’s no point flying near the speed of light if you can’t see where you’re going. Enter Doctor Susan Storm. (Sue’s motage plays) The youngest woman ever to win a Nobel Prize for Physics for her work on quantum entanglement, she has just revolutionized all thought on how we see the universe itself with her work on the teleportation of light itself. And she’s an expert gymnast and martial artists as well (cut to her in a leotard, obviously to appeal)


CLOSE UP ON SUE. She’s as good looking as Johnny but she pushes that back because she’s had to.


(through gritted smile) Go fuck yourself.



Go absolutely crazy for the lady of light, the venus of vision, SUE STORM


SUE smiles grudgingly at the crowd. She wishes she were invisible.



And now, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time for the nine-hundred pound gorilla of intellect. The man with eleven PhDs and forty eight patents. (montage of Reed shows him moving nanobots with his mind, and shaking hands with a man in a hospital bed with a bandaged face). A master of physics, chemistry, electronic engineering and nanotechnology who build a ship that can not only run itself but rebuild itself, the new Albert Einstein, the new Thomas Edison, the name that will reinvent the twenty first century, the tall drink of water they call…

CUT TO REED. He has his eyes closed. He’s composed, but enjoying it.




REED steps into the spotlight. He is old-world academic, almost avuncular which sits oddly on a twenty-something.


I saved the best for last, ladies and gentlemen – and especially ladies. This man was your hero long before today, of course. Born with nothing on the wrong side of the tracks, he put himself through college on a football scholarship – and then led the New York Jets to three Superbowls – and then go on to win an Olympic bronze medal in wrestling. He’s the king of the Wheaties box, the hero of the sports pages, and yes ladies, he’s single. On the field he was so fearsome they used to call him “The Thing with the Swing”, and “Old Blue Eyes” but you know him as BEN “THE ANIMAL” GRIMM!

CLOSE UP OF BEN. He blinks in the light and puts on shades. He’s built like the proverbial brick shithouse, but he’s unassuming, gentle.


(archly) What a revoltin’ development.

BEN walks up onto stage. The others now free to move, walk to the center. By now, the audience can’t stop themselves. These guys are likeable, and the music and pyrotechnics is infectious.


Ladies and Gentlemen, your FANTASTIC FOUR!

The four wave at the audience. Music grows louder. Flashing lights more intense, blinding. Sudden smash cut carries sound and light cues over to crashing into military ER. The four are on guerneys. Burned black. Doctors rush. Something BAD happened between the cut.

Art / Therapy

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I find interesting about the bible is that it collects mythic stories over such a large span of different time periods and cultures that there’s actually some really noticeable and interesting philosophical switches that go on across the book. Most notably the switch from Abrahamic stories where people don’t think about individual life and death but only about cultural and personal legacies, where having descendants means more than life itself, and the messiah is destined to restore Israel, to the later Old Testament and New Testament books where life and death matter and the messiah comes to bring eternal life.

One of my favourite books of the Bible is both a good example of this and a wonderful story: the book of Jonah. It’s generally a story that’s misread about a cruel and vengeful God but that was mostly made up to scare sailors and doesn’t really appear in the text, although it’s possible it’s a revision of an earlier Babylonian myth about angry gods, and exists as a “twist” on that story.

See, the story of Jonah begins by God telling Jonah to go Nineveh and tell them to stop being wicked or God will punish them. Jonah doesn’t want to, because, as he explains later to God, that when you say things like this, people immediately clean up their acts and then nobody gets smote, and then eventually they’ll be wicked again. Jonah is angry that there’s no accountability (and he’ll look like a twit) – in many ways Jonah is a story about why good things happen to bad people. So in the bit everyone knows, Jonah runs to the sea, and a great storm brews up, and Jonah says “look, this is my fault, drown me and it’ll all be over because God wants me dead”. And they throw Jonah over the side, and he is swallowed by a fish.

And here everyone gets it wrong and thinks that the fish is part of the punishment, but this is akin to an old Persian story about a sailor being SAVED by being swallowed by a fish. And that is indeed what happens: Jonah doesn’t drown. The fish saves his life. So Jonah, thankful (but confused about why God didn’t kill him) goes to Nineveh and says “God’s gonna smite you” and just as he predicted, they change their ways, and God relents and nobody gets smote. Frustrated, Jonah goes out into the desert to ponder this, and while he’s there a tree grows in the desert, gives him shade and coolness and food, and then the tree dies. And Jonah is angry that the tree died and yells and stamps about how unfair life is. And God appears to explain the Very Important Lesson: Jonah didn’t do anything to make the tree grow, but he really liked that it was alive. God made the people of Nineveh personally, so far more than the tree, he doesn’t want to squish them. Yes, they’ll probably go back to being wicked again, but God would rather have them wicked then dead.

I mention all that because it’s typical of humans to get a story about how important it is to be alive confused and turned into a story about how angry Gods will murder you with fish. Because even today, a long time from Abrahamic culture, we’re still very confused about whether we want anyone dead or alive. People become sacred when they die, their sins forgotten, their memory inviolate. And when we lose people we don’t know, we mourn for their art. Which is absolutely natural, because art is a wonderful expression that extends beyond ourselves to touch other people. We never knew Prince or David Bowie. We’re not really mourning them. We’re mourning – and celebrating – what their art gave us. And it makes sense that us symbolic humans get the art and the artist combined in our heads. But sometimes we take that too far, and we think that the art is the important part. Art, after all, makes your immortal and universal. It is all too often, in our culture, a religious fetish designed to assuage the fear of death.

And like every religious object, boy howdy is it dangerous. Because people will value it above life.

I mention all this because yesterday was R U OK day, an Australia health initiative about helping people open up about mental illness and suffering. And by coincidence, not by malice, I saw an internet meme say “make art, it’s cheaper than therapy”. It is not an uncommon sentiment, just as trite as “everything is a learning experience” or “everything happens for a reason”, and just as common. And on that day of all days, it filled me with rage and reminded me again that our society, if it had its choice, prefers you dead with a masterpiece than alive without. We do it by minimizing the nature of mental illness as a debilitating disease, and we do it by conflating that illness with artistic minds, and we do it by pretending art is a kind of therapy.

There is art therapy, which is where, through VERY SPECIFIC EXERCISES, you use art for therapeutic purposes. But to suggest art is therapy is ludicrous and insulting and insanely dangerous. Art is art. Therapy is therapy. And what’s more, art is the very antithesis of therapy, in the sense that most of the time you need the therapy to make the art. Nobody would tell someone who’d broken both their legs to take up jogging, because it’s cheaper than having their bones set. But we do.

Don’t get me wrong. Mentally ill people can make art, and beautiful art. And people without legs can run marathons. And art is a way to express ourselves and communicate which are helpful activities for the mind, body and soul. But mental illness is not to be romanticized or belittled by suggesting it can be cured or ameliorated by art. That dishonours and disrespects the suffering under one of the main things mental illness does, which is rob us of the ability to make art.

I spent thirty years of my life wrestling with mental illness, and it cut my artistic abilities to the core. It broke them as surely as if it had shattered a painters’ fingers or cut the throat of a great singer. And I thought the problem, for the longest time, was my art itself. That it wasn’t worthy, that my passion was dead, my imagination weak, my diligence non-existent. It is only now, through medication and hard work and ten long years of therapy, that my art is finally starting to flourish and come easily – as easily as it always should come.

To suggest art to the mentally ill is therefore a great cruelty. To demand it, as we do to every human being, as proof of life, as a religious fetish against death and religious sanctification of worth, is barbaric and merciless. It is is also dangerous, for there are ferw things so dangerous to the mentally ill as art. Art makes you an open vein, an exposed nerve, drained of all sense from the need to create, burned by jealousy and comparison, driven mad by self-doubt and confusion and left vulnerable, unshielded, to the demons in your own head.

Again, I’m not saying do not do art if it helps you. Nor am I saying everyone should grow up to be stockbrokers. But art is dangerous enough on its own. We must stop turning it into a fetish. We must confusing it with life itself. We must stop wearing it as our identity. And above all, we must stop confusing it with therapy. Medicine is real and important and needs to do its work. Medicine is what allows art to exist, because we can only make art when we are well. It is sickness that takes our art away, and health that gives it to us. Let medicine be medicine – the pillar of our art. The platform that lets us create. And – which is far, far more – it keeps us alive. And let that, more than everything else, be the value. Let us always strive to value life first and foremost. Let us prefer people alive without art then dead with it.

One of the themes that emerged in my recent RPG work Afraid of the Dark is how the young often feel betrayed by their parents because adults can’t remember just how vulnerable children feel. It is, in a very real sense, an expression of me dealing with some of the issues of my own childhood. And I’m glad I can see that, and I’m glad I can express that, and I can take some therapeutic remedy in that.

But far more so, I look at me writing that, I thank the ten years of therapy that let me write it, that I could never have written it without, that gave life to the art within. Let art be art, and therapy be therapy, because otherwise, we murder both. And then we murder people.