Friday, April 9, 2010

Meanwhile, in the Real World ...

Here's an excerpt from an interesting post by Nicholas Carr that, while ostensibly about the recent release of the iPad by Apple, has relevance for many of the things we discuss on this blog.
But I'm not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want. While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist's ethic. One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool. In its place, we get an abstraction of human agency that represents the general desires of the masses as deciphered, or imposed, by the manufacturer and the marketer. Indeed, what tends to distinguish the advanced device from the primitive device is the absence of "generativity." It's useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices and that the earliest phonographs could be used for recording as well as playback. But as these machines progressed, along with the media systems in which they became embedded, they turned into streamlined, single-purpose entertainment boxes, suitable for living rooms. What Bray fears - the divergence of the creative device from the mass-market device - happened, and happened quickly and without much, if any, resistance.

Progress may, for a time, intersect with one's own personal ideology, and during that period one will become a gung-ho technological progressivist. But that's just coincidence. In the end, progress doesn't care about ideology. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress, of technology's inexorable march forward, will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about. "We love the things we love for what they are," wrote Robert Frost. And when those things change we rage against the changes. Passion turns us all into primitivists.

Unsurprisingly, I largely agree with Carr, particularly his conclusion.

Feel free to discuss this in the comments, as always, but I don't want this to degenerate into a discussion of the merits of Apple, the iPad, or any such related topic. This is, after all, a blog about roleplaying games, so bear that in mind before you make a comment. Thanks.


  1. I roll my eyes when I see opinion pieces like Carr. It shows little understanding of what goes on progress.

    Any commercial enterprise has to respond to the demands of the customers. For brief periods of time it may be able to force something on the market but ultimately they will be forced to irrelevance if they don't make the customer's demand as GM, and IBM found out. And Microsoft is now learning.

    The loss of generality as Mr. Carr puts is for the most part an illusion. Sound recording equipment were continued to be made even after phonographs lost that ability. And for prices cheaper than the original phonograph. What he is missing that the reason that phonographs could record sounds at all was they can use wax cylinders. Vinyl Records proved to be a more convenient, cheaper method of delivering sound recording.

    The same with the latest iPad. Now the jury still out whether a device of it's specific functionality will be of a general interest or merely relegated to a curiosity. The are pros and cons to both sides of argument beyond the scope of this blog.

    The real problems occur when a company has has a MONOPOLY over a thing. Without alternative sources you are stuck with whatever the company dictates.

    Whether it is technology or RPG this situation causes the most issues with the customers who to do their own thing or continue to enjoy what they like.

    Until the release of the OGL and subsequent creation of the retro-clone we were stuck with older editions locked up in the vaults of TSR and WoTC.

    Now that we have the freedom use much of the older edition rules, new companies can create material to satisfy the demands of fans of older editions. Fans of older edition are no longer dependent on the graces of a single entity to obtain new material.

    The iPad however popular it will get will be just one of many computing devices. The genie has been long let out in the computer nothing that Microsoft and now Apple do can ever stuff it back in.

    It may be that the cheapest (unlikely) and most readily available products are Apple products. But the rest of the computing world will be churning out their own stuff as well including the generalist hardware/software.

    And now we have the same situation with older editions. With the OGL there is little that Wizards can do to stuff the genie back into the bottle. They could re-release the older edition but that will only mean that the cheapest (maybe) and most readily available version of older editions will change. The rest will continue doing what we always have.

  2. Rob, you may have confused generality with generativity.

    Generativity is a condition that allows you to produce something. A non-generative tool turns you into a consumer.

    This is part of the old-school lament: modern rpg products are created "to be consumed", rather than produced as tools to spur your creativity.

  3. @A paladin in citadel, Point taken. I did mix up the terms in my comment.

    I did address the issue of generativity when I talked about how the specialized equipment that capable everything was still available and at cheaper prices. Just not as cheap as the consumer device.

    In the original blog post by Carr he talked about how the original Apple came with schematics. What he forgets that Apple ][+ cost well over $1,000 with Monitor and disk drive thrown in.

    Today you can buy the equivalent for considerably less. A computer of Apple ][+ power fits in the palm of my hand and comes with all the schematics and do it yourself electronics you want for under $100. However it not the one sitting on shelf at Wal-mart or Best buy.

    See Propeller from Parallax

    The issue is that what you see at Best Buy is just the tip of the computing juggernaut. Unless you are a hobbyist or it part of your job most people don't see this side of computing.

    Which brings it back to roleplaying as that is an issue that afflicts old school gaming. That newer gamers are not aware of the world beyond the offerings of the Wizards and the larger publishers.

    So they lament the loss of their beloved game not knowing that a renaissance has already occurred and that they get their rulebooks and new stuff to boot along with the freedom to publish their own if they so desire.

  4. Most people don't truly like to generate, they want to be generated for. Everyone claims they want to be creative..but people tend to prefer a restraunt to cooking their own meal. So businesses cater to the weak wills.

  5. I’m not sure what the point of this post is. Yet, here’s my rambling response about iPads and RPGs anyway. ^_^

    I’ve used my iPad to bring RPG PDFs to the table and reference the Hypertext SRD.

    I’ve also created a web app B/X combat calculator for it. I’ve used Numbers on the iPad to create a character record that can calculate some things for me. I’ve taken game notes on the iPad.

    And that’s in less than a week. And that’s not talking about any of the non-RPG creation I’ve done with it.

    Portraying the iPad as merely a media viewer/player is pure silliness. It’s abilities as a creative tool are there and will only expand as more software is written and updated.

    Just like you can just buy a RPG system and supplements and use them as-is without any creative input of your own. You’ve been able to do that since the AD&D days, and you can do it today with the “fourth edition”.

    Neither, however, prevent you from bringing as much of your own creativity to the party as you want. Last I checked, you can still buy graph paper and pencils. Or you can use the newfangled tools—like an iPad—to create your own RPG content.

  6. @Robert Fisher - where did the web app reside on a server you control? Or where you able to load up on the iPad itself?

    What most of the techs object to on the iPad is the inability to run the software of your choosing without having to go through the app store. Although if you can copy a web page your iPad that would be a neat way around that limitation.

  7. The Apple I was progress in the first place. Macs, Newton, blah blah. So go make your own new game. Progress!

    People hackmod Apple tech all the time and it's not like Macs were designed from the start to be easily opened. I think I still have a Mac case cracker. Apple's released multiple versions of MacOS for free download. And it's easier to make your own programs for Apple tech now than ever.

    And yes that relates to roleplaying.

    heh "If memory-starved tablets become ubiquitous, we’re looking at a future in which there are “normal” computers, and then “special” computers for creative people"

    cue PC vs. Mac Holywars

    (yawn) This is old rose-tinting with a bit of new spackling.

  8. The good news is that there hasn't been technological progress in RPGs since the mass production of the ten-sided die. Sure, game mechanics change, but as you well know, that's just fashion. And, all it takes for an RPGer to indulge in the "hobbyist" approach, the loss of which Mr. Carr is lamenting in relation to computing, is creative impetus, a pad of paper and a pencil.

  9. Um...just to talk about something other than computers...

    @ James: totally in agreement with you, and with Mr. Carr as well. I am in a (non-computer) profession that while incredibly specific and by necessity adherent to law, is constantly changing and adapting to new laws and legislation for good or ill. Thankfully, we are not driven by the market or commercial value (it's a government agency) but even so, "progress" can be a pain in the ass, often lamented by the Old Guard.

    But I definitely see the parallel between computer technology and RPG "technology;" CHANGE while painful in my profession, is not usually bad but a matter of expedience of necessity. "Change in product," however (due to the dictates of the market or marketers) is not always for the good.

    The damn proles! They just don't know what they've got till it's gone! I blame the public for allowing themselves to be dupes!
    : )

  10. Fitzerman said:
    "... and, all it takes for an RPGer to indulge in the "hobbyist" approach, the loss of which Mr. Carr is lamenting in relation to computing, is creative impetus, a pad of paper and a pencil."

    ... and players willing to put up with the experiment. The "official industry standard" has a considerable grip on the imagination of many players. I have trouble running any idea past my pool of potential players (about a dozen individuals) that doesn't have the shiny stamp of approval from a major entity like WotC or Paizo.

    The technology takes many minds with it when it moves on. You're not just raging against change, you're raging against the loneliness.

  11. Progress, or at least change (because the two terms are not interchangeable but are often used interchangeably) is simply something that exists.

    The fact is that the human race is on it's way to becoming the transhuman race, and though we may disagree with "innovations" (be they in rpgs, political systems, or scientific), they will happen because they can happen. Change is an organic process, and once something can be conceived it will eventually be realized. That's where the line blurs between Science and Magic, I guess.

    To attempt to make this ramble relevant, the thing we conceive as a role playing game is beginning to mutate like everything else. Many who might describe themselves as grognards are very much against this. Yet it happens, and will continue to happen. Someday, people who grew up playing 4e will be very angry about the launch of, say, 8e (if D&D is lucky enough to survive that long). They'll be all "I don't wanna take this pill or get into this capsule or plug this wire into my spine to play. That's not my D&D".

    I'm losing whatever point I thought I had, but I suggest that many of us who are into "the hobbyist approach" would be happier by engaging in that hobby, rather than bitching constantly about the inevitable mutation of that hobby.

  12. where did the web app reside on a server you control? Or where you able to load up on the iPad itself?

    It’s on a server, but it is completely client-side. It could be turned into a data URL bookmark and actually stored on the iPad. There’s also an HTML5 feature that can be used to tell the device to keep a local cache, but I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet.

    Of course, I didn’t actually code it on an iPad. Two points there, though:

    I created it for the iPad. In the absence of the iPad, I never had a reason to create it.

    (BTW, it’s not about some people having “special” computers and some people having “normal” computers. I have both because they serve different purposes.)

    Secondly, I can envision tools that allow creation of apps on the iPad itself. Heck, we already have spreadsheets.

    What most of the techs object to on the iPad is the inability to run the software of your choosing without having to go through the app store. Although if you can copy a web page your iPad that would be a neat way around that limitation.

    Well, the App Store monopoly is a whole ’nother issue. There are generative apps in the App Store, and there will be more.

    But we do have the web app work-around.

    And while I’d rather not have to pay $99/year for the privilege of doing nigh whatever I want to with my own iPad, that option is available to me.

  13. If you're interested in one-way vs. two-way communications in technology and creativity you might want to look-up the TED talk I wrote about.

    Larry Lessing has a lot of great material on the internet's ability to reverse that trend in music and video. I think his argument applies to the OSR and helps explain the importance of the OGL you brought up yesterday.

  14. When it comes to RPGs and big companies, new editions have little to do with any real NEED for improvement (even though they may tell their customers otherwise), but everything to do with the need to have something new to continue making money. That's what business is all about, making money.

    Saying your old product (which no longer generates the sales it used to) is old fashioned and out of date, is a great way to enthuse customers to the bright, new, shiny "improved" model. And then just watch the cash roll in. This must be done periodically to keep generating money. Nothing personal, just business.

  15. What he is describing is not "progress", it is commercialization. The two are often conflated by MBA's and other capitalism fanboys.

    Commercialization sucks. When people mention their job is souless it's because they deal mostly with commercialized products. There are many examples of sucktacular commercialization of D&D by TSR, WoTC and Hasbro. Commercialization is not the same as selling something. It is about selling anything. Commercialization is about efficiency, sameness, assembly line, shaving off every last fractional cent of expense, and above all profit.

    It's the opposite of small & beautiful. The opposite of Hobby and DIY.

  16. I run across a lot of $20 words, but that word - "generativity" - is one that I did not know about. I like it, because it relates to something I have always known about, but I had no words for!

    I always seen RPG systems like Computer design. Older computers and older RPGs (and DIY RPG systems) are all like an "open architecture" format. That is, the games are built in a loose and open-ended way, so the game can be adjusted to the tastes and needs of the individual player.

    I do give bones for the 3rd ed development team for trying to go this rout, but its a shame they had no follow through! 4e has no "generativity", whats so ever! Its built to be a complete, unalterable rule system - until the next system update or service patch (and fans ask why folks keep comparing it to an MMO?). This is also the only version I know that hits you over the head for just thinking about house-ruling (its actually a warning in the DMG about how tight the rules are, but if the whole game fall apart because of a simple alteration, what is even the damn point!?!).

    Oh and thanks for showing me that new word.

  17. @Aquatic Environment
    I feel you, man. About two years ago, I had the idea to run a game that was based on trucker movies from the 70s, and my group at the time's response was basically "sounds kind of boring without powers".
    I still think it's a great idea, and luckily my online group recently persuaded me to run it. I can't wait.

  18. In think an important point in this discussion is also commented on in The iPad needs its HyperCard.

    And that is we need good tools that are usable by the non-technical/programmer individual to be able to create versatile and readily usable product that is ideal for the tool represented by the iPad. So that if you want to create an RPG that makes best use of the platform, you don't have to employ specialists in order to do so.

    There is no argument that this idea of very portable computing with easy access can be a wonderful tool, with uses we have yet to even think of, but those uses are only really possible if people get the opportunity to play with the device and see what they can do with it (something only programmers who abide by Apple's restrictions can do so at the moment).

    More argument for generative tools, here.

  19. Malcadon said:
    "... but its a shame they had no follow through! 4e has no "generativity", whats so ever! Its built to be a complete, unalterable rule system - until the next system update or service patch..."

    This passage contradicts itself. It's harder for non-professionals to modify, yes, but that's because the system pretty much does everything you could think of trying before you get to it.

    Tedopon said:
    "I feel you, man. About two years ago, I had the idea to run a game that was based on trucker movies from the 70s, and my group at the time's response was basically "sounds kind of boring without powers"."

    Yes, exactly. That's the sort of idea that's always tickling my brain but I can't get anyone to try because they let their comfort zones be defined by whoever has the shiniest presentation at that moment in history. I'm fairly satisfied with 4th Ed and I was frustrated by 3rd Ed, but I really play/ed them because that's where the average player is/was.

  20. While there's a discussion to be had about the openess of the iPad platform, as it is irrelevant to this blog, I'm not going to touch on it.

    Regarding RPGs, I can't see that there's a discussion at all. There has been nothing even remotely analogous to the evolution of open architecture towards closed architecture in the table-top gaming world (the OGL is about IP and has no effect on one's ability to use the product as one likes). Table-top, print based RPGs are by definition open because all mechanics are hanging out there to be fiddled with. Moreover, this is even an explicit part of every RPG product I've owned. All of them, without exception (to my recollection) have some passage along the lines of "this is your game, do with it what you want; go crazy". Despite Malcadon's claims above, this includes 4th edition D&D. I can't see in the DMG any warning that one will break the system because it is supposed to be "complete" and "unalterable", certainly not in the house rules section. One is actively encouraged to make of the game what one will. The only thing that comes close is a suggestion that one should put some thought into game design and the effects of mechanics. That, of course, should be common sense. Make sure any changes have the desired effect.

    Beyond that, regarding RPGs, I see this as only a manifestation of a simple screed against change, one which the OSR could do without as it runs to cross purpose, as I see it, of promoting the positive aspects of games' older editions.

  21. I'd much rather have games (and computers) usable and knowable by the general populace than the esoteric provenance of a select geek few who hoard their knowledge.

    TED's very good, much interesting video and audio there. There was a good one on how to get around documenting now with gadgets back to living while having gadgets, which ties in nicely with some of the creativity talks.

    Carr's main point actually seems to be slowing down or getting away from the internet and its oversaturation of information, as the quoted post is from a "Luddite Week".

    (shrugs) Computer articles usually aren't good fodder for RPGs because little has really changed in them. The decoupling of GM <-> Group model or diceless are about the only two real differences and aren't more than rare alternatives so far.

  22. This opinion of Carr's is just completely wrong. He's confusing "progress" with "Business decisions."

    Look at Apple computers, for example, which are now much more generative than any equivalent machine in the 80s for far less money.

    The statistics software I use now is vastly more capable of creating statistical tools than it ever was in the 80s, and the most generative of all the stats software is free, while the most consumer-oriented is the most expensive. It's as if the cost of the software were in the packaging of it for people who want to consume it, but the real technology were available for those who want it far cheaper than it ever was before...

    For RPGs, the idea of a generative vs. a consumer game is just meaningless. Particularly against the background of the OGL, which this blog uses all the time. And particularly given that the basic mechanics of gaming are now so well known that anyone can cobble together their own system in 10 seconds and get "generative."

    Progress is not a force or a movement, it's what happens when large numbers of people bend their creative talent to designing what other people want.

  23. Wonderful, A+ observation in the original post.

  24. Faustusnotes nailed it. Quoted post is silly, confused, and ignorant.