Kevin Weiser of the Walking Eye podcast interviewed Ron Edwards last November. They talked about a new development at The Forge, from which a non-controversy had sprung on a few forum threads. This would normally be of little note (and Ron, to be sure, seemed rather perplexed at the idea of giving time to the controversy, only speaking on it at Kevin’s request). But something emerged tangentially from the discussion that hit me like a ton of bricks.
Ron had announced that The Forge, an instrumental site in promoting self-published, creator-owned RPGs, was entering a new mode, a “winter phase,” having accomplished the main goal of its “spring” and “summer.” The way Ron stated it was: “…bluntly, I (and Clinton, and Ed Healy, and a lot of other people active at the founding) have unequivocally won the battle we wanted to win.”
With such a turn of phrase, it was easy for people to take offense—just who did he think he was winning a battle AGAINST? It’s obvious from context that the “battle” Ron and the Forge fought was not over GNS Theory or Narrativism or any such thing, but for the recognition of creator-owned RPGs as a widespread, viable artistic and financial choice. But the question remains. Who was the Forge’s enemy in this fight?
In Kevin’s interview, Ron was obliging enough to tell us: “I have every respect for anybody who plays the way they want, and does it in a fashion that doesn’t belittle and hurt other people at the table…what I have no respect for…what I will continue to regard literally as the enemy as far as the hobby is concerned, is identity politics based on sunk cost.”
Emphasis mine. This succinct phrase resonated with me. What an elegant way to state the problem of insular tribalism in the roleplaying scene! How tragic and silly that one could invest their identity in an image based on possessions, rather than on sincere enjoyment for its own sake! Yet I’ve encountered this mindset running rampant through my own corner of the roleplaying hobby, and if the anecdotal evidence of the internet is any guide, my experience is not unique.
Ron describes the attitude thus: “I bought it; this is who I am; I’m the guy who buys this. And now, devoid of any imaginable shred of knowledge, I am going to make it my social business to try to get that particular brand of identity politics into place commercially and socially.”
The indie RPG movement has certainly encountered this attitude as a barrier to acceptance. The identity politics involved in owning a dozen D&D supplements or 20 White Wolf sourcebooks can leave little room for the entry of a self-published, single creator’s vision. At best it’ll be seen as a quaint novelty, and at worst a threat. So this was old news to me. And it was all well and good to discover a new and pithy way to describe behavior that annoys me in others. But here’s the thing, the bit that really floored me: I realized, simply enough, that these identity politics are just as much a danger in the self-publishing scene.
Just because our “brand loyalty” is to a whole cluster of individualistic auteurs rather than a single company or RPG “line,” doesn’t make status jostling and insular snobbery any less an insidious and very real danger for all of us. I know it has been for me.
When I first discovered the indie scene, I was overjoyed that people were making games that actually addressed what I wanted out of play. And the identity politics of my group, God bless ‘em, had become as odious to me as they were obvious. I started acquiring games, but had no one to play them with. My group had little time or social space for anything outside the few games they were loyal to, and the people I tried to describe these new games to seemed skeptical at best.
So I became bitter. And I continued to acquire games without an outlet for playing them. And my OWN identity based on sunk cost began to form, that of a persecuted, enlightened soul, forced to endure week after week of puerile dreck, all the while burning with the frustrated desire to play a “real” game instead, with people who could appreciate truly sophisticated gaming.
Even when I started to discover new friends with whom I could enjoy the kind of gaming I longed for, I continued to play with the group, which had become a source of sunk cost in its own right, hoping to “salvage” the players I didn’t consider lost causes. I’d play week after week, passive-aggressively trying to push new techniques or mindsets, my discontentment growing. I took to carrying Indie games in my bag, like Sorcerer or The Shadow of Yesterday, as if the games could rub off on my friends by osmosis—all the while wishing to God we were using those rules, good rules, in our current game.
When this untenable situation finally exploded, it wasn’t pretty. Close, intimate loved ones didn’t speak to me for a year.
I’ve discovered that Ron has made this exact point, in the comments for the podcast’s page. But it came to me on my own, instantly upon hearing it. The story above should be proof of that. This is a lesson learned in bitterness, pain, and damaged relationships. it’s disconcerting to discover one has become the very enemy one set out to fight, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
So how DOES one fight that attitude, without adopting it oneself? In the interview Ron offered some advice: “When I say I want to combat it, that doesn’t mean going nose to nose with the person who does it…instead, you simply make the alternative as widely available as possible.”
That’s key. You can’t avoid status games; I’m not even convinced they’re a bad thing, as I realized recently in another discussion of the identity politics of the indie community. Seeking the appreciation of those you respect, for example, is quite healthy. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that as long as it comes from a place of personal authenticity and genuine enjoyment, you’re good. As Ron said, “A person who’s enjoying playing different games, and is also enjoying the propagation of the games…what you guys do that’s most important is simply play those games.”
Forget the politics. Forget the posturing. I can derive all the status I need from simply enjoying what I do. I may want respect, but more than that I just want to play.