Sunk Cost

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.



12 Responses to “Sunk Cost”

  1. 1 Colin Creitz
    March 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    I think Ron is overlooking the value created by network externalities. The value of my mastery of the BRP system (e.g.) increases with the proportion of people I might game with who have also mastered BRP, and to the extent that they are spending time practicing (again, just e.g.) Sorcerer, they are reducing the value of my investment in BRP.

    Of course, the kind of irrational behavior Ron calls out happens too, but there are good reasons to propagandize, especially in a world of game systems that call for a lot of repetition to learn (D&D’s edition wars pop to mind).

  2. 2 Per
    March 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Nice post, Joel, thanks, that’s a very familiar experience to me.


  3. March 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    You make some excellent points.

    I definitely sympathize with what happened between you and your group. I had a similar experience, and it ended badly too. I think that a lot of story gamers going through a similar phase. You embrace your perspective on gaming and become a narrative evangelical, only to realize later how off-putting that can be.

  4. 4 JDCorley
    March 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Cool post, I would add that those of us with ridiculously broad tastes (low standards?) have never had this problem. We’re too varied in our experiences (promiscuous?) to ever develop anything remotely like loyalty to a brand (refined taste?) That said, we have our issues. We’re still loyal to the idea of finding something good even in a game that might not be the greatest (beer goggles?!) and that can be offputting/fight-picking in the wrong context.

  5. March 8, 2011 at 9:40 am


    Would you say that choosing not to play “trad” games any longer is jumping on the identity-politics bandwagon, or is it only a problem if you adopt a shitty attitude about it and ruin others’ games?

    That is, can you identify what, specifically, the concern or worry is here? What are the consequences of an attitude like the one you describe, and do you see them expressed?

    I ask because I think by our nature, we people who gravitate to the Forge-diaspora style of game, we can be self-flagellators. I think we get very upset about things that we might be doing wrong. So whenever I hear discussions like this, I wonder “what’s the actual harm?” rather than “what do I fear might come of this?”

  6. 6 Omnivorous Rex
    March 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    cf: Vegans.

  7. 7 Joel
    March 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Thanks, everyone!

    Chris, I’m…not sure what to do with that statement. I mean, yes, everyone has limited time, attention and resources, and there’s only so much mindshare to go around for whatever games are out there. Where are you going with that statement? Are you saying that a darwinian struggle between game systems for mindshare dominance is a healthy state of affairs? Because I don’t think I can get on board with that. Or are you saying something else?

    JD, once I did find other indie-hip gamers, I totally became that guy…I internalized a weird fallacy that all indie gamers like all indie games ever, and that every indie game will be good and fun in all circumstances. I didn’t think that with my brain, but I certainly acted that way. I was always “guys, c’moooon, give this game a chaaaance…” and it was a hard lesson to learn that finding the right presentation of the right game with the right players was as important as finding a “good” game in the first place.

    Rob, I’d say that “adopt a shitty attitude about it and ruin others’ games” is exactly what I’m talking about. That’s what my story was all about. There’s nothing wrong with deciding you don’t like playing X kind of game, but in that case why keep doing it? It’s like becoming an atheist and still going to church. In both cases there are understandable social and emotional reasons for doing so, but you’re not going to bring anyone anything but pain.

    Given that I’m sharing concrete experience, I don’t think this has anything to do with worrying about what MIGHT be happening, or fearing what MIGHT come of this. I can point to some very real and demonstrable pain that DID result from this.


    • 8 JDCorley
      March 11, 2011 at 11:37 am

      Yeah, my particular version is bopping into story-games periodically and saying “Vampire! What a terrific game!” Somehow after each ensuing freakout I manage to maintain my blithe air of injured naivete at how my innocent comment couldn’t possibly be provocative. When we decide to build bridges, it makes us all trolls.

      • 9 Joel
        March 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

        JD, man, your blithe air of injured naivete is a cosmic force. The only thing that could possibly destroy it is the Ultimate Nullifier, in which case the user would of course annihilate himself as well.

        Anyway, you raisa an interesting point–trolling doesn’t have to be about ruining fun or causing grief. You can definitely troll in the interest if promoting fun, in the same way missionaries troll in the interest of getting everyone into heaven. (my, but I’m about the Christian metaphors in this conversation!)

        I spent some time at the RPGsite a few years back. I told myself it was an attempt to broaden my horizons, to hear other perspectives on gaming, to make sure I wasn’t just surrounding myself with like-minded bohemians in an insular back-patting environment. And that was true, but I was also there to read TonyLB’s quite entertaining posts. He was clearly trolling, and in excellent humor to boot, and all in by maintaining a “gosh-wow games are fun” sort of vein. And while it was quite gratifying to see him run circles around the RPGpundit, in the end it wasn’t a satisfying use of my time. And I found that my own attempts to simply talk about what I was enjoying in games were met with all kinds of hostility toward my “blatant evangelism” as a “Forge cultist.” It was aggravating, consuming my free time, and I gave it up.

        I don’t think it has to be that way. It has to be possible to reach out to others without doing social violence to them. Perhaps the key is in leaving a bridge open to them should they wish to use it, but not so much crossing the bridge and foisting your own preferences in them? In practice I think it’s easy to see the difference between welcoming inclusiveness and pushy salesmanship. The reason Missionaries are trolls isn’t that they offer something they believe is good, but because they assume (and justify any and all means accordingly) it’s something everyone NEEDS.

  8. 10 Marche Hare
    April 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I know exactly what you’re talking about with the Sunk Cost in Indie games. The first group I started playing with had every RIFTS book, every OWoD book, every Shadowrun book (well, 1E – 3E, and that only because of the level of cross compatibility between all of them). When I started getting Indie games I’d bring them to the game. Initially this was because it was my RPG time, and thus the best time to read the books (before everyone got there that is). Eventually I started trying to talk people into at least /trying/ some of the games, but they weren’t biting. So I ended up bringing the books along anyway in the hopes that someone would see them and ask. Thinking, as you had, that they would rub off just by being in the same room. About a year ago I let go of that thought. I still hang out with them, but we don’t game anymore. When they get ready to start playing, I make my way to the door.

    All that is just to say I know where you’re coming from.

  9. July 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    “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.”

    This is one of my greatest struggles…I’m way too prideful, but I’m not willing to give up my critical judgement of “The System”, of mainstream society.

    Thank you for reminding me of this – roleplaying is just another area that I need to guard myself in.

    ~ Joshua

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: