Why is the idea we should be civilized contentious?

“Good Lord, Conrad, you don’t mean to tell us you want us to mollycoddle authors who don’t, for whatever reason, spellcheck their games, or who write two rooms that are each north of the other?  The quality of IF games would go to pot if we did that.  What’s your problem with arguing for competent use of the medium?”

I’m for competent use of the medium.  I’m for raising the overall competency of the pool of people who author IF.  And I’m against mollycoddling.

But between mollycoddling and being abusive there is a vast middle ground.  In that middle ground you will find a position where you can *both* tell the truth *and* be nice.

And the IF community won’t implode if we’re civilized to each other.  That’s a myth.

There’s a contradiction in the attitude that IF games are getting steadily worse in quality and that if we were to be nice to each other, the quality of games would go down.  And the solution to the paradox is simple:  it is the belief that being nice to each other would cause the quality of games to drop that is itself causing the quality of games to drop.

Wesley Osam every year tells authors their games are no good and they shouldn’t be in the Comp.  And he informs those opinions based on deeply shallow readings of the games.

Jimmy Maher, editor of SPAG, has recently held out last year’s _Cry Wolf_ and its relatively high placing in the Comp as an example of the community as a whole responding favorably to good writing, even in the face of technical flaws and “game-killing bugs”.

However, Jimmy doesn’t seem to recall that Wesley told that author she shouldn’t have entered the Comp, because her game was too shoddy.  And he told a story about another game, that was good up until the end, and that then fell apart.  And he said that *that* game had been rewritten, but nobody paid any attention to it, because the prior version had been so bad.

And, in case anybody missed the little moral, he spelled it out:  that’s what would happen to _Cry Wolf_.  Because the author had made the mistake of entering into the Comp, nobody would pay it any further attention.

Wesley Osam’s overall strategy is one of punishment.  He can’t get to the authors physically, so he aims for a kind of emotional punishment, to discourage new authors as much as he can from staying in the IF community.

The trouble is that Wesley only knows a good game when it bites him in the ass.  Besides being a bully, he’s an ignoramous — Jimmy doesn’t like me to say these things, but it’s the truth.  Wesley is an ignoramous who values _Eruption_ over _Cry Wolf_, because he can only see glitter and glitz — is the game spellchecked? — does it have a help menu?

Now, it wouldn’t even be a problem that Wesley Osam values _Eruption_ over _Cry Wolf_, except that he tries to bully authors of works like _Cry Wolf_ out of IF gaming.

This is a stupid strategy, for a couple of reasons:

For one thing, by the time a jackass like Wesley Osam has access to new authors to do this bullying routine, it’s too late.  He doesn’t like seeing first games, but he can only have an effect after the fact, determining only whether he’ll see the author’s second game.  Which would almost certainly have been better than the game that so deeply offended him.

And conversely, every year there are more new authors, whose gamewriting carreers he does his best to nip in the bud.  So the only thing he accomplishes in his campaign of discouragement is that he fails to promote (or he is one of the people who causes the community to fail to promote) new authors into seasoned authors.

Think about that:  you, who every year suffer the unspeakable agonies of playing rough games by new authors, go through all that for nothing, because of people like Wesley Osam.  If he were only a little more civilized, then some of those authors might come back and, knowing better what you want, write decent games for you.  But instead, every year you get more newbies and fewer seasoned authors:  you go through that hardship for nothing.

For another thing, Wesley’s bullying kills diversity.  By selecting on only one criteria — whether games are programmatically smooth — and doing his best to alienate everyone else, he, and others like him, such as Richard Bos, create a filter that encourages only people with programming backgrounds.

By and large, most *public* feedback I’ve gotten on this has been, “What do you have against technical proficiency?” and, basically, “Why are you spoiling the fun?”

Every year, Wesley tells people, explicitly and implicitly, to stop writing IF.  And he claims to do it in your name.  He’s not saying, “Stop writing because I don’t like your game.”  He’s saying, “Nobody wants to play a game like yours.”

And it’s a big mystery, to people like Wesley Osam and Richard Bos, why they’re not getting more games by seasoned writers.

Wisen up.

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 7:57 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. I couldn’t agree more. One of the worst things that happened to IF when I was first getting involved was the raising of the quality bar: sure, polished games are great, but they take an incredible amount of time and effort which most people simply don’t have – and they never did, but we got away with it a lot more back in ’99 than we’re allowed to now.

    (I should know: the Mulldoon Legacy was first released with no beta-testing /at all/ and did pretty well for itself.)

    The second thing here is that polish is something that basically anyone can do, given enough time and RAIF support. But a good concept, strong writing, a vision…

    A large of Comp games are bad and will always be bad. They could be polished up, but there’s not a lot of point. That’s okay. Those which show promise are good, and should be encouraged.

    It’s only a shame that comp games aren’t hosted on a server where they can be updated as they get fixed, through the competition and afterwards too, to ensure players who finally get round to playing get the best experience possible.

    But, that said, there needs to be a distinction between “polish” and “buggy”. Buggy is not good.

  2. Okay, now we’re getting beyond “meaning making” and “profoundly empty non-art” to something much more coherent, and much more reasonable. I actually agree with quite a bit of what you said. Certainly in my own reviews I don’t pull any punches, but do also try to point out the positives of any games that I judge to have been written in good faith, and also try to be encouraging to new authors in particular that show real potential. The thing is, though, I think most of the reviewers I work with through SPAG do exactly the same. Taking it on faith that Wesley Osam is as consistently harsh as you say he is (I don’t normally follow his reviews or his blog), is he really reflective of the majority of IF reviewers?

    That point aside, I think many reviewers who have not written games of their own fail to understand just how painful harsh criticism of one’s creation can be. I think everyone who has ever released an IF game thinks on release day that it is pretty great; reading a laundry list of flaws in the days that follow can be difficult. But of course that’s par for the course with any artistic work; when you put a creation of yours out there, you are exposing yourself in a way that non-creators might not always understand.

  3. It seems like if you are going to play Perry Mason at least you could link to Osam’s review of Cry Wolf. I will leave it to the reader to judge whether Osam is being a bullying jackass ignoramus in this review.

  4. I’m certainly guilty of writing a few no-holds-barred reviews. I agree that such reviews can be discouraging, and that more supportive reviews would be a grand thing. (Emily’s reviews are, from what I’ve seen, ideal models in this regard — very civilized.)

    The fact that IF is a level playing field — it’s all self-published, with no gatekeepers — creates a certain danger in this regard. One may not know whether one is reviewing an ambitious but flawed game by a 15-year-old or a desperately inept and slipshod effort by a 35-year-old. In the former case, measured praise and support would be warranted; in the latter, perhaps “try harder next time, damn it” is all that need be said.

    One doesn’t know, in addition, what the author’s aims may have been. Does the game aim low and hit its mark? Or does it aim high and fall far short? With conventional fiction, this is less an issue, because if a novel makes it into the bookstore at all, one is entitled to make certain (genre-dependent) assumptions about what the author was attempting to do. One is entitled, for instance, to judge an epic fantasy novel by comparing it to other epic fantasy novels. In IF, we don’t really have that type of context to guide our expectations.

    In the end, though, I think it may be a mistake to assume that negative reviews will discourage talented writers. A writer who has passion and a vision will find a way to convey them, irrespective of any criticism, just or unjust, that may be leveled. Or at least, we can hope that that will happen.

    Illegitimi non carborundum and all that.

  5. Jim, I agree that Emily writes model reviews, very balanced and fair. I think Victor G. does too, as well as others.

    Jeremy, thanks for the link. You will see that Osam does indeed tell Clare she shouldn’t have entered it, and that even if she fixes the problems nobody will pay attention to it.

    Jimmy, you’re right: these bad seeds are certainly not the majority. But they don’t need to be the majority — they’re loud.

    The problem is that civilized people, like Emily or Victor, are not willing to get involved in mud-slinging around and about the Osams and Boses of the IF community. So they have free rein.

    This is generally how bullying works: someone claims to spew for everyone and nobody speaks up.

    But it is necessary to speak up when thugs try to commandeer the process. Otherwise, thugs will commandeer the process. Public spaces where people are too polite to challenge thuggery go bad very quickly.

  6. It might be interesting to try to contact all of the first-time authors from the Comp of, say, two years ago, who haven’t gone on to write more IF and ask them why not. Perhaps then we can find out whether overly negative reviews are really having the effect Conrad believes they are, or if it’s something(s) else. As it is, we’re just guessing.

  7. Osam’s review of Cry Wolf doesn’t read particularly mean to me. (I don’t normally read his stuff.) It doesn’t sugarcoat the main issues: the game is essentially unplayable as is – it crashes everywhere – and has a bunch of minor issues that might make it semi-unplayable (there’s only so many times you can individually pick up each one of a bunch of objects.

    The game does indeed sound deeply flawed, and I agree with him – games that crash consistently should not be released. I mean, are we really disputing that? It’s not even put in a way that I read as harsh – just honest. The game’s not ready, and rushing it out will hurt the author’s chances of a fair review on second release. Which it does for me, at least – maybe other players are more tolerant.

    I guess maybe there’s two audiences for reviews: authors and potential players. As a potential author, I want to know the good and bad points, preferably couched in straightforward, kind language. As a player, I want to know why I might or might not like the game, if it has extra value or flaws (say, a particularly well-implemented conversation system, or particularly despicable attitudes towards women). I want the review to be interesting and entertaining.

    These goals don’t necessarily have to be in conflict, although some of the more snarky reviews (which I’ve engaged in, certainly) are less helpful and more entertainment. On the other hand, we tend to snark about stuff that is both aggravating and common, and thus fair game, assuming the author has gone to the minimal effort of either getting beta testers and/or reading some past reviews of work.

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