Tuesday, February 24, 2009

HCE

James Joyce's 1939 novel Finnegan's Wake is a dream-narrative one of whose protagonists is Humphrey (or Harold) Chimpden Earwicker, called "HCE" in the text. Joyce plays freely with the meaning of this abbreviation, at various points stating that it means "Here comes everybody." The interpretation of almost any of Joyce's books is a difficult business, particularly so for Finnegan's Wake, which defies convention on almost every level. In one controversial interpretation, the phrase "Here comes everybody" is seen as a metaphor for the Catholic Church in Ireland in Joyce's day -- a mishmash of sinners and saints, fools and philosophers, all united by a bond that keeps them together despite their near-constant squabbling, often to the brink of destruction.

Thinking about this, it struck me that "Here comes everybody" is a pretty good motto for the old school community. One of the myths that people like to perpetuate about old school gamers is how narrow-minded and crabby we all are and it's true that, as a group, we sometimes are both, myself above all others. But I think that, much of the time, what outsiders see as narrow-mindedness and crabbiness are rather a willingness to stake a position about our gaming preferences and to defend those preferences. Nowadays, having an opinion that runs counter to conventional wisdom is often treated as a social disease, something for which one should be embarrassed, particularly if doing carries with it the implication that other preferences are ill-considered, if not outright mistaken. Part of the problem too is that "preference" is treated as a synonym for "arbitrary" and so it's bad form to argue in favor of a preference or to treat it as if rationality were exercised in doing so. I like chocolate and you like vanilla; what is there to discuss?

Take a look at my "Links of Interest" on the right. What you will see is a very long list filled with gamers and game companies whose preferences are different than mine. Indeed, in some cases, I think those preferences are based on a number of fallacies and I've taken time to argue against some of them in this very blog. Yet, I haven't kicked them out of the clubhouse and don't intend to do so. Whatever our differences, there is in fact a bond that unites me with every one of the people behind those links. We argue and debate and occasionally get a little overheated in doing so, but, in my experience, that's the nature of human interaction, especially when dealing with friends -- and we are friends here.

The old school community is a contentious bunch; we like to argue. We argue about everything and it's always been this way. I can see how, to someone on the outside looking in, it might seem as if we're nitpicking and obsessing over things that don't really matter or that should have been allowed to rest decades ago, but why? Of course, none of what goes on in the old school community "matters" in the wider world. Debating whether or not the thief is appropriate for OD&D isn't going to cure cancer or bring about world peace, but since when was a hobby ever supposed to do such things?

What I find funny is how often the community's amicable disagreements are overlooked. That's understandable, as it's always easier to caricature a group when all one sees is its vices and not its virtues. As my list of links attests, though, our virtues far outweigh our vices. Scoff all you want but the sheer amount of gaming goodness -- including actual gaming -- that the old school community has generated over the last few years is enormous. And some of that goodness is the direct result of our narrow-mindedness and crabbiness, as the defender of one preference contended with the defender of another. I myself have changed my preferences on several issues in just the last few months and I will almost certainly change them on many others in the future. I see that as valuable.

The problem with HCE is that it makes it all too easy for outsiders to see only a riot of sinners and fools rather than ever comprehending the bond that unites them not just to one another but also to the saints and philosophers as well. I've spent nearly a year articulating the nature of that bond, so I'm not going to repeat myself (any more than I've already done). Suffice it to say that I think the old school community is more or less as it should be. We're not going to win any beauty contests and we certainly won't be invited to any formal dinners anytime soon, but that's OK. We don't have much interest in either anyway. Instead, we'd rather continue on our journey together, sharing thoughts, opinions, and ideas -- as well as elbows -- with one another as we do so.

16 comments:

  1. Ah, if only politics resembled the old school gaming community.

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  2. Good post, James.

    I think our community needs to collectively toughen up a bit and grow a thicker skin. Sometimes we come off as contrarians, and while that's not accurate that's at least not horrible. What I really worry about is that we often come off as "whiners"... and that's a terrible impression to give.

    Old schoolers aren't just a bunch of aesthetic refugees. We've got something substantive to say.

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  3. Well said.

    There's been a lot of the "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude floating around for some time - and not just in terms of gaming. Thank you, James, for recognizing the depth of the "old school movement" (a phrase I'm gradually coming to think may be getting a little overexposed) and pointing out that having a difference of opinion is not a Bad Thing - nor is sharing it.

    And yes, that's a fine, long list of friends to the right... with a notable exception (from my self-interested perspective, at least). /wink

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  4. Some of the negative over-reactioning is a function of being in the minority. As the old school community grows, coalesces and strengthens, this will fade away. Posts like this one are both an example and a contribution to this process. Well done.

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  5. I knew that phrase was too smart to be a Clay Shirky invention.

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  6. Once I pick up a book, I rarely set it aside without finishing it, even if I dislike it. However, Joyce's Ulysses has defied me twice. Not because I didn't like it, but because there is just so much there. It kills me to feel like I am missing so much when it is right in front of me. As a result, I always feel taunted when I see Joyce. -I haven't yet tried Finnegan's Wake.

    Waxing philosophical...

    I enjoy the gaming community when it comes to sharing and debating ideas. I don't like the occasional ugliness of course, but I agree that ideas, preferences and home-brewing is what good gaming is all about. In my mind, part of what differentiates the old-school from the new-school is the uniquely hobbyist approach that old-schoolers take. I think old-schoolers often see 'resources' where new-schoolers see 'product'. Maybe that's even why we often enjoy old-school art. -It has a non-commercial, individualistic quality to it. Similarly, I believe old schoolers often focus more on authors than on product lines. IMO, old schoolers like a RPG to ask them to jump in and get their hands dirty. Tear it apart, tweak it, throw some stuff away, make some stuff up. -I think that's why we like to debate and share our preferences. Of course debating what should be done and how to do it is half of the fun. Just as long as we keep our egos in check.

    I appreciate that Grognardia represents a focus for this kind of dialog and food-for-thought. I like the breadth of exploration (literary roots) as well as the genuine consideration that goes into what some might see as minutiae. To me, being a gamer is all about the process, discussion, creation and play.

    I think old-schoolers are occasionally mislabeled as exclusive folk. Instead, I see old-schoolers as intellectual hobbyists that are always on the road to better their games. Through much effort and experience, they've worked many things out and enjoy what they have. Glossy art, new product, or new systems aren't going to easily persuade old-schoolers to toss out what they've achieved, especially if it works well for them. You might change their mind on some points if you have a good idea, but only if you are respectful of the process. For me Grognardia captures this living aspect of old-school gaming. It's not a game, it is way.

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  7. Wow. When I wandered over here today, I never expected to find an analogy drawn between Finnegan's Wake and old school gaming. That's exactly the sort of imaginative thinking that keeps the "old" school fresh and vibrant. It's also why I read your blog every day. Perfect.

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  8. And I was hoping you were going to talk about the unrecognized influence of James Joyce on the development of D&D! (There might be halflings in there somewhere.)

    Is HCE the hallmark of the ideal D&D party: clerics and thieves, goblins and elves, bumblers and wonderworkers . . .

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  9. Not sure what I could say that might seem smart, because I don't have the creds. I just know that the book has always fascinated me. Whatever the story, I reckon there's something that commands respect in the able story-teller.

    If it's fancy, it's not arbitrarily so. It's not at all to my mind like today's common computer-generated BS.

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  10. Please forgive me. I was born besotted with books, but I have never bought a university degree. If I could remember it, I would point you to the blog of the lady who got one of her Ph.D.s with a paper on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." She also knows her way around a spectral analysis of a star, and some other practical matters a bit removed from the usual pedantry.

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  11. There's a book titled Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky that examines this same topic, only from the perspective of a technology-enabled populace. Less contentious than your Grognardia posits, but still a nifty point of overlap.

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  12. What I really worry about is that we often come off as "whiners"... and that's a terrible impression to give.

    Well, whining is in the eye of the beholder. What I have discovered is that, if people take the time to understand what we're saying and why, the accusations of whininess and crabbiness tend to go away.

    Old schoolers aren't just a bunch of aesthetic refugees. We've got something substantive to say.

    Absolutely. It's one of the reasons why I often find all the aping of TSR's 1970s trade dress to be silly. IMO it makes it easier to dismiss us rather than listen to what we have to say.

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  13. And yes, that's a fine, long list of friends to the right... with a notable exception (from my self-interested perspective, at least). /wink

    I'll see if I can't update the list soon. :)

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  14. As the old school community grows, coalesces and strengthens, this will fade away.

    I very much agree.

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  15. That's exactly the sort of imaginative thinking that keeps the "old" school fresh and vibrant. It's also why I read your blog every day. Perfect.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. I figure I ought to put my education to good use once in a while :)

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