And secondly, this Tuesday I got a box from Simon & Schuster containing an awesome surprise:
Actual dead-tree copies of Geekomancy! These are simple tape-bound copies, and are even more basic than normal paper ARCs, but it’s a book! A real, paper book with my cover and my name on it and my novel inside on pages I can turn and smell and that I can hug and hold up like a power-up in Zelda!
I’m a little excited, as you might be able to tell.
This means I can give a copy to my parents, keep one on hand to refer to while writing Celebromancy, and still have a few left to do other cool things with (I got 10 copies). My editor has another 30 or so, which he’s taking to San Diego Comic-Con to try to pass out to appropriate VIPs to help get more exposure.
Dear Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Team Unicorn, Team Sword & Laser, and anyone from Mutant Enemy — Please visit the Simon & Schuster booth at SDCC and talk to Adam. He has something fun for you.
There’s quite a Theory — Praxis gap here, but her group has already taken steps along the path she proposes, and it’s a good thing for culture-makers, game-designers, and policy-makers to keep in mind.
I find it especially amusing that the "Social Fabric" she discusses runs along the same lines as the descriptions of social bonds/cohesion that are developed and affirmed by gaming (in my research’s case, it was with tabletop rpgs, a predecessor of MMOs). So I suppose I would count as a part of the “researchers have shown…”
For me, there’s two main points here — identifying that the kind of engagement that MMO players achieve is something that can be well put to work, and also the notion that by imagining our future, we can influence/create our future — which is an idea well-known in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Theory world. Judith Butler would agree with William Gibson in this, I believe.
The hard thing here is getting enough people to care enough about the games that she's suggesting that they put in the time and effort — then you also have to have a game where the result are directly applied to enact social/technological/scientific/economic change, or that the game has a direct effect on these issues/matters. So there’s a social trick (get the players), a design trick (make it relevant), and a policy trick (do something about it).
But for all the difficulty jumping the Theory-Praxis chasm, there's good ideas worth spreading here, in keeping with the TED mandate. I’ve put “Give a TED Talk”on my list of life goals, btw. Just you wait.
I’ve found my way onto Google Wave and am very excited about its potential as a communication/collaboration tool, especially for geeky things. And by this I’m mostly talking about Role-Playing Games.
Not much of this blog’s content ends up being about RPGs, despite the fact that my M.A. thesis was on tabletop RPGs and I’ve been playing/following RPGs since I was in fourth grade.
Like any new communication technology, one of the first things that people have done with Google Wave, aside from making porn (I can only guess, based upon the general adage) is to see if you can use to it game. Because when your early adopter set is pretty much geeks, one of the things they’re likely to do when exploring a new technology is get it to roll dice so we can play exciting games of make-believe with our friends. It’s what we do.
There have been a number of different exploratory attempts along these lines, and I’ll try to create a short round-up here before moving into actual discussion/analysis:
The emerging thought is that while Google Wave is in its infancy, its official utility/intended utility is very much up in the air. The Futurismic post’s title is a paraphrase of Neuromancer, stating “the geek finds its own uses for things.” Much like how Wired commented on how Twitter’s ‘real use’ was decided by its users, Google Wave is being investigated for its various potentials, and Geek communities are pursuing explorations and trails of the technology as a strong next step/sideways development for roleplaying games as collaborative storytelling.
The idea put forward by the Game Playwrights is one of the most interesting, and the one I’ll ruminate upon further. Using a Google Wave as a persistent artifact of play changes the textual status that of RPGs. A tabletop RPG doesn’t leave an artifact of play, nor does a LARP. Each of those could be recorded, by video or audio, but would not represent a polished or total account of the story, instead showing a very fractured account. But if Google Wave games (or Waveltop, as some are calling them) move towards the ‘script of play’ model that Will Hindmarch of Game Playwrights is suggesting, we may see a move towards RPGs leaving behind readable texts, and this is for me, a very interesting move.
There is certainly already discussion of games past in the RPG community. From ‘let me tell you about my character’ to game stories like The Gazebo or group-specific stories about how one player is deep in character, using a special voice and cadence, embodying his motions, and saying with a sweeping motion, “Allow me to introduce my cousin”, gesturing to the player of the ‘cousin’ who is in fact…asleep on the couch. But even the actual play reports lauded in the Forge community among others are less direct than the ‘Wave as script of play’ idea.
If Wave players are using this script of play as their primary narrative reference but are also constructing it in a way that reads like a story/script, this, for me, would make it infinitely easier for players to read about and engage with one another’s stories in a way more consistent with films, television, novels, etc.
Different versions of one module could be combined and sold alongside a module (Buy Keep on the Borderlands, complete with game scripts by the Penny Arcade/PvP teams as well as three other star teams), and moreover, there would be room for groups to emerge as stars/paragons of RPG writing/play moreso than already exists (the stars such as they are tend to be specific game designers, known as designers more than being known as players) We may even see a re-figuration of the RPG novel. Could it be that once developed, people would pay to read the polished game texts of well-reputed RPG groups published as e-books/pdfs? It’s a very different way of monetizing the efforts of role-players, like but rather unlike the efforts of the gaming group who decided their superhero game was taking too much time away from writing and decided to do the Wild Cards anthology novels.
And of course, this need not be monetized, nor is it inevitably going to become monetized. However, in these early explorations, it’s not hard to see the varied ways that this technology could serve as a breakthrough tool for roleplayers to engage with one another. It is of course notable that the role-playing done via Google Wave is a notable offshoot of tabletop play, since it will not convey any degree of embodied performance, instead relying on writing as performance, At least until someone pushes the technology even further and weaves together audio play to cohesive uninterrupted narratives. (There are a number of podcasts/records of play that take the raw audio of a RPG session and distribute it, but again as said before and restated, the main appeal of Google Wave is the ease with which it allows a seamless narrative text which is both a part of play and a readable artifact that results from play.
I’m hoping to take part in some of this exploration myself, and will comment on that as I can.
Rumors from last year have already presented the possibility that Whedon could give up TV and return to an internet-based model as seen in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Dollhouse has been assured a full 13-episode run for the season, but there is no word of picking up the back 9 (ordering more episodes to make a full 22-episode season), and there’s also a rumor from Brian Ausiello that Dollhouse will be benched during November sweeps. All of this seems to point to Dollhouse not surviving past its second season. Only time will tell, but the show’s renewal last season was a big surprise to many, and seemed to revolve around the fact that Whedon proved he could make the show for less money (see the post-apocalyptic “Epitaph One” for his example of lower-budget Dollhouse)
TV Addict does some quick math to speculate that a core audience of 2 million viewers buying straight-to-internet downloads at $.99 a pop yields a revenue of just under 2 million dollars per episode. Add in merchandise sales, DVDs and possible syndication, it seems pretty reasonable. There are also some other possibilities for budget-cutting, including shooting in video vs. digital (which then reduces the max quality of the material for DVD, a trade-off to be sure). There’s also the fact that a pilot episode can cost several times as much as a regular series episode due to start-up costs. Whedon and Mutant Enemy are a reliable entity, known for producing fan-favorite, intriguing material but recent lack of success with TV properties on network TV, which makes them an ideal case study for considering this change in model.
My girlfriend is more knowledgeable and interested in industry/funding/marketing than I am, but she’s in class in California right now — and I’m thinking out loud at least partially as a creator. Plus, this is my blog. However, she’s likely to come around and correct some of my numbers and/or add her opinion.
For Whedon, using a model adapted from/close to Felicia Day’s The Guild may prove as a starting point (and likely informed his approach with Dr. Horrible). Find investors for start-up costs (Pilot + 8 episodes) and make it go. Whedon’s fan community would reliably do vigorous viral marketing without having to be asked. Everyone in the geek-o-sphere (amusing name, TVAddict)
A show like this would probably live and die on the efficacy of its marketing campaign. Dr. Horrible was free to watch for a short period of time, and then became digital download only — it later ended up on Hulu for free and then became available by DVD (with extras, natch). If this new Whedon show were available online for free for X period of time (a week per episode?), and was also sold via iTunes/etc., would enough people pay to download it to sustain the show’s budgetary requirements? DVD sales of Whedon/Mutant Enemy material is consistently strong, but without the advertising revenue as a primary source of funding, it’s intriguing to ponder if a high-ish-budget show could survive in this model. Felicia Day’s The Guild is free to watch/download and pays for itself off of advertising and alliance with MSN (to by knowledge) — but it also appears to be a very cheap show to produce, with less than 10 minute episodes and little to no special effects.
If one production company can do it, doesn’t mean that any others could. Auteur/Star Power goes a long way in the digital world, but it goes as far as those consistent 2-million-ish viewers, not necessarily further. The Long Tail Theory probably applies here, where a figure/group famous within a subculture (geeks) can serve as a sufficient base for demand — without being The Next Big Thing like LOST or Heroes.
What Abut Going Cable?
An alternative would be shopping shows to cable networks — where the ratings demands are lower (and therefore, so are budgets, often times). Cable networks have been making critically-acclaimed shows for a number of years, and in recent memory, challenging shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad have all come from cable networks and enjoyed popularity, critical praise/awards or both.
Whedon’s shows Buffy and Angel survived on 2nd-tier broadcast networks (UPN and WB) rather than the Big Four. The lessened ratings demands of these 2nd tier networks allowed the shows to survive. Right now, the descendent of UPN/WB — the CW) occupies that median position, but is strongly branded towards teen girl dramas (Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, or dramas that appeal strongly to the 18-25/49 female demographic (SF shows such as Smallville and Supernatural (which help court the beloved male 18-24 demographic). It’s uncertain if a Whedon show would find a place in the current CW brand — certainly possible, given Whedon’s feminist-friendly approach (for certain brands of feminists, that is — debate continues on the ultimate standing of Whedon’s feminism), but not necessarily an instant match.
There’s a few issues with the ‘Go Cable’ approach. Here are the big two for me:
1) If a show is on cable, it automatically cuts out a portion of the potential audience. Some dozens-ish millions of viewers have/watch TV but not cable. This reduces potential viewers (likely reducing ratings) but also can be seen as inherently elitist — if you’re making shows for cable and have a social agenda (like promoting feminism or critiquing the capitalist system, etc.), you’re already always speaking to a more affluent population (we’re speaking in generalities here — there are better-off households who never watch tv, and there may be less affluent households that still decide to have and watch cable).
2) Ad space on cable networks is going to be sold at different rate sets than ad space on network TV. This goes back to the basic numbers of who has/watches cable vs. who has/watches network TV. Depending on the type of cable (basic vs. premium and all permutations), this can change how your show’s budget is determined. Whedon may be able to make quality TV on a lessened budget, but those limitations inform what kinds of shows can be made.
A modern-day+something cool show is likely to be far cheaper than a futuristic SF or historical/otherworld fantasy show (props, sets, costumes, etc.) — Whedon has frequently done the modern-day+ settings (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) but I know as a writer/creator, I would blanche at the limitations of that reality. Brilliant shows like Defying Gravity may fail to succeed because of budgetary problems like the above.
Wrapping it Up
These questions aren’t quite relevant for Whedon, et al. until/unless Dollhouse meets its end, but they are questions that need to be asked in general about the industry. We should be asking What purpose do these networks serve? Has technology developed to the point where other models are viable/recommended? What will it take to make those models viable, if they aren’t there yet?
I think I might like to write for TV one day, but by the time I make it there, the landscape may be violently different, just as the publishing industry is going through a major shakedown (price-wars at big-box stores, Borders teetering on the edge, increasing technology for e-readers and digital distribution, etc.)
Have you read that? No? Go back and check it out. Take a walk or go sparring to work out your righteous fury, then come back to read.
The essay in question is both 1) infuriating and 2) about genre fiction and society. Which makes it a great topic for a blog post! The essay is one of the writings from The Spearhead, a group blog designed to focus on men’s issues and men’s voices (as response to a perceived ‘cultural gap’ that has ignored men’s voices). While I agree that part of the ‘let’s all be equal’ agenda must include an analysis of how cultural forces shape men’s perception of the world and define masculinity in a way that is exploitative of men and teaches exploitation of women — I don’t think the Spearhead writers and I agree on the nature of the problem with men’s status in society or how to address it.
The essay starts out with a bang:
“Science fiction is a very male form of fiction. Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction. This is no surprise. Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc. Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.”
This particular essay focuses on a limited definition of what ‘science fiction’ means, in a Golden Age Asimov kind of fashion, where characters were as flat as the paper they were printed on, little more than mouthpieces for expositing and resolving scientific issues. Now don’t get me wrong — there’s some great idea work in Golden Age SF — it’s that era that helped develop SF as the Literature of Ideas. But the genre has developed since then, it has become larger and (to me, more relevant and sophisticated. We’ve gotten Alfred Bester and Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney and Connie Willis.
To begin with, the essay relies upon versions of masculinity that are unsurprisingly as old and outmoded as the SF they rely on. For “Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech” — masculinity, like SF is about “men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.” The author references scientists who speak about being inspired by SF to move into their disciplines. Of course I agree that science fiction is instrumental in inspiring and encouraging scientific development.
On the other hand, it’s as if there have never been any female engineers or scientists who have never been inspired by science fiction. And in other news, all men smoke cigars and drink scotch at work with expertly coiffed hair while wearing fedoras and the only power women have is influencing men through their sexuality while working as secretaries. No wait, that’s Mad Men.
The author talks about the name change of SciFi as part of a feminizing trend, following the 1998 changeover when Bonnie Hammer assumed control of the channel and began courting female readers. The 2000s era Battlestar Galactica is positioned as one of the culprits of a feminizing Sci-Fi channel, since the character of Starbuck was changed into a woman. Strangely, it’s Starbuck the woman who is also Starbuck the cigar-smoking, hard drinking, sleeps with anything that moves. That part is not mentioned in the essay — instead the author points to an essay by original Starbuck Dirk Benedict, bemoaning the “un-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica.
Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech also talks about the shift in programming towards fantasy and away from science fiction, because “women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal than men are.” Is this supposed to be a biological pre-disposition? The author then complains about the increasing presence of gay characters on the channel (as a death knell post-name change) — and how that means that it well be less about men doing things. Does the set of ‘men’ exclude homosexual men in this case?
The author then cites Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher at MIT. Minsky gives his distinction between general fiction and science fiction as such: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.” This is a notably reductive definition to be sure, specious at best. Where does 1984 fit in there? Winston Smith ‘gets into problems and screws his life up,’ among many others. This depiction of science fiction as the only fiction with ‘real importance’ is an insular isolationist stance that fails to acknowledge that powerful, historically-relevant literature can occur without spaceships or advanced physics. I like my SF and think it’s had important effects, but it’s not the only game in town, for sure.
“The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is representative of the perspective of someone within the world of SF fandom, a part that exists and continues to proceed despite the fact that the mainstream has moved away from them. Analog Science Fiction and Fact is often noted as the home of this mode of SF, and the magazinecontinues as it has for decades, admirable for its continuity. I think we need the scientifically rigorous aspect of speculative fiction, the part that refuses to use handwavium to solve its problems just to get to the point and instead interrogates the ways that the possible could become reality. Hard SF may not be for me, but it’s an important part of the genre.
A lack of hard science doesn’t automatically make a science fiction story into melodrama. And I certainly don’t think that either scientific rigor or the science fiction genre is or should be part-and-parcel with outdated gender norms, homophobia and misogyny.
Just because you’re a big company doesn’t mean you can intimidate journalists into not criticizing your work, especially when it’s horrendously bad like the picture in question. I wonder, did they hire Rob Liefeld as their Photoshopper?