... now with 35% more arrogance!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Scene and Value

I have a companion post about hobby press publishing in the RPG community, but there are a couple lingering issues from the previous post. I think Telecanter basically agrees with my sentiment, but doesn't like my supporting argument because it implies that people can't participate in the RPG scene unless they produce a product. Here's a quote:
There are good reasons for producing a product--synthesizing years of blog posts, for example, or spreading innovative ideas outside of our blog community, but I wish we could get away from this assumption that *selling* something is the way someone takes part in our hobby conversation.
And a follow-up quote:
I'd say: "People who complain about self-publishing -- in noise or in RPGs -- are basically saying they don't want there to be a scene. They want the hobby to be restricted to tiny, isolated groups with limited interaction." pretty strongly assumes the hobby can't exist without self-publishers. And by self-publishers you seem to not be talking about blogging, but selling things to other hobbiests.
This is the quote that told me Telecanter and I are not using the same words the same way, which with luck I will be able to clear up in this post. But first, I'll make my claim more direct and less vague: you absolutely cannot participate in the RPG scene unless you produce something.

When everyone's done shrieking about how I'm discounting them as bona fide members of the RPG community, I'll move on to clarify two concepts.

First: the scene is not the hobby. I should have made that clearer. When I said that some people seem to not want an RPG scene, only a hobby composed of isolated groups with limited interaction, I'm trying to distinguish "playing an RPG" (the hobby) from "conventions, blogging, forum participation, and the hobby press" (the scene.) Of course the hobby can exist without self-publishers. But not the scene.

Second: I may be using a concept of value and production that's completely not what Telecanter is used to, since he feels that I'm saying that selling products is necessary for the scene to exist. I was very clear that self-publishing -- including distributing items for free on a blog, as I do here -- is almost always done at a loss, even in the internet age. It's because self-publishers, without exception, put value into their products. Without exception.

Talking about money may have confused the issue, even though my point had to do with money. Let's get rid of it for a moment and talk about labor. Every product involves labor. It may not be hard labor, and there may not be very much labor, such as when you operate an internet-based company that bundles Wikipedia articles into PDFs and sells them or offers them for print-on-demand. Hey, someone had to design the website and write the scripts to steal aggregate Wikipedia articles, didn't they? And they have to provide customer service and make sure orders are being fulfilled. It's a minimal amount of labor, but it's still labor.

And labor has value. IS value. Money is just an abstract representation of labor, really. You can put a price on your labor, maybe even charge more than others based on how you feel about the quality of your labor, or you can donate your labor to some cause. And any kind of community effort requires labor to keep it going. Most of that labor is donated. In some cases, all.

Let's take another example: a local poetry scene. Before the internet -- well, before Eternal September -- I went to some poetry readings. Most of these were in coffee shops. Most were free. Most of the people involved weren't selling chapbooks or anything like that. But you had people reading poems, people listening and applauding, people talking to their favorite poets afterwards to provide feedback. Somebody had to write the poetry. Somebody had to read it aloud. Somebody had to secure a venue. Somebody had to put up flyers or tell people about the readings. Somebody had to be there to clap or snap their fingers or say "yeah!" at an appropriate moment. All of that is work, of a kind, and all of it is donated, but that doesn't mean that there was no cost involved. Poetry readings basically operate at a loss -- a complete loss, since I've only been to one or two that charged admission. And most poets operate at a loss, too, since they have to pay for paper and pencils to write the poetry, and either buy gas or catch public transportation to get there. Same goes for the audience; in fact, most of the people there also buy something at the venue (which is why venues offer their space for poetry readings.) Everyone's out some money and time, if they are part of a poetry scene. But if no one donated any of their time and effort to the scene, there would be no scene.

The RPG scene is not really any different than a typical poetry scene. Even on the internet. Even on the free parts of the internet. A couple places offer free forum hosting, but even free forums require people to write stuff on the forum and people to act as moderators. Places that offer free blog space need people willing to become bloggers, writing stuff on some kind of schedule. Other people read or even comment on forums or blogs; that's not zero effort, either. There needs to be an exchange of valuable products, even free, seemingly trivial products like comments on a thread or post, for there to be anything resembling a "scene".

So yeah: if someone doesn't produce anything, or if they produce something and keep it secret instead of exchanging it for something, anything, even just comments on a blog post, then they are not part of the scene. Because they aren't participating. And if no one is exchanging anything, except for a tiny number of big-name companies exchanging commercial products for money from people running isolated games, then yeah, there is no RPG scene, even though there's still an RPG hobby.

But then, the point of my previous post wasn't: "let's figure out who belongs to the scene and who doesn't." But rather: "Does the exchange of money make a product commercial and thus not artistically valuable? Do people who sell products always have a purely monetary interest in RPGs?"

I hope I've laid to rest the side issue of what I meant by participation in the RPG scene, even if no one agrees with me.


  1. I agree with your definitions.

    I think commercial RPGs balance return on investment and artistic endeavour. Art (good writing and imagery) is expensive and commercial projects must keep costs down to protect margin. I imagine that there is a desire to make art but financial reality gets in way.

  2. I don't disagree with anything you've written (though I think it's unfortunate that our society sees everything-- even poetry and music-- through a business lens, tallying up profits and losses).

    My personal answer for your question:
    "Does the exchange of money make a product commercial and thus not artistically valuable?"
    Is pretty clearly, no; something can be great and be sold.

    I guess the question that I was reacting against (and you weren't really asking) was:
    "Is selling a product the pinnacle of engaging in the scene? Is profit the best way to measure merit?"
    Which I think, again, clearly is no, but as far as I can tell the underlying assumption in the community is that the answer to this is yes. I'll probably write a blog post about it.

  3. @Telecanter: Cool, I figured we agreed more than we disagreed. But I don't think the community is actually placing commercialism at the top of the RPG scene (with a small number of exceptions.) Rather, I think that people are sort of forcing themselves into commercial publication for reasons other than profit. But that's something I'll address in the next post.