Monopoly

As someone who advocates for tabletop games in libraries, I often have to talk about Monopoly. It’s one of the best-known and best-selling board games in the world, but (while I can get it at a discount for libraries if they want it) I don’t include it in my bundle of games, and I don’t recommend libraries spend their limited games budgets on it, except if they are planning on pursuing more advanced active games criticism activities. Why is this?

The answer is bound up in some really interesting broader questions about games and libraries, and also some of the more fascinating aspects of the history of Monopoly and of board games more generally.

 

Libraries – just for books?

Libraries exist to make the world of human thought, culture and information accessible and discoverable to our communities. This is why most libraries now include not only books but music, television, movies and videogames in their collections, and why we increasingly offer access to creative technologies as well.

In pursuing this mission, there is often a tension between quality and popularity: between giving our community what they know they want, and ensuring that they have access to the kind of high-quality material that our professional experience and judgment indicates they are likely to need as they develop their knowledge of and engagement with the wider world. In other words, to give them the intellectual room and resources to stretch their developing tastes and capacities.

To some librarians, those other collections – movies, music, and so on – are only bought at all because they fall under that “popular” rubric. However, most librarians now acknowledge that a picture of our culture that ignored media other than books would be woefully incomplete; while books are still a major focus, we do try to offer some sort of collection of other media according to the same mix of popularity and quality. So movie collections will include Casablanca, Citizen Kane and maybe some Kurosawa; popular music collections will include the Beatles; and so on.

When it comes to tabletop games, though, we generally just throw some dollars at a staff member and send them off to a nearby department store to buy with an eye to value. This has the same results for quality that would result for our book collections if that was how we did book-buying. We wouldn’t consider a small bundle of mass-market paperbacks of mixed age, some reprinted multiple times, an adequate collection – but that’s what we usually end up with in the tabletop game department. (One library service I know of recently opened an incredible new central library with the latest consoles and maker tech, and all the most up-to-date equipment you could want. Its board game collection? Scrabble, Twister – which seems to have been swiftly removed from public display – Monopoly… and Avengers Monopoly.)

The irony is that if there’s any single medium that most benefits from the kind of showcasing of excellence that libraries do, it’s games.

 

Games and the network effect

All creative works are subject to some sort of network effect – the more other people know about a work, the more likely it is that any given individual will hear about it and decide to take a look. But with tabletop games, this effect is magnified by two key facts: (a) that games are more easily learned in play than self-taught from instructions, making it more daunting to pick up a game cold than a book; and (b) they need other people to play with – so popularity affects not only recommendations and retail availability, but ability to engage with the work at all.

This means that the normal bias towards novelty is counterbalanced by conservative pressures that keep people playing games that are already widely known. In this context, libraries’ roles as discoverers and curators of excellence becomes even more important.

But surely this only matters if the most widely-known games are also not good games?

Yes. Well. Let me ask you: do you seriously believe that in the past 100 years, there have been no advances in the art of game design? That nothing has been learned about human nature and psychology, or the nature of fun? (And fun, again, is not trivial but the active aspect of joy.)

In fact, all these things have been rich veins of discovery, and games have been the single greatest area of cultural innovation in the 20th and 21st Centuries. This is true even setting aside the obvious originality of videogames, possible at all only thanks to recent technological advances. In the past 70-50 years, tabletop games alone have given us several major new subdisciplines, some of which were spawned during the modelling of existential threats such as nuclear war and ecological catastrophe, and others of which (roleplaying games, story games) are closely linked to libraries’ undisputed interests: narrative and literacy.

So obviously games will have improved in the past 100 years. But aren’t the classics classics for a reason? Mightn’t some old games be worth having too?

Some, yes. Chess unquestionably belongs in a library, for instance. But looking at Monopoly from any angle other than popularity or historical interest isn’t especially favourable.

 

A note to the reader: no disrespect intended

Before I continue, let me be 100% clear about one thing: I’m not saying that it can’t be fun to play Monopoly, or that those who find it enjoyable are wrong or bad people. If you enjoy it, good for you! I’m saying that what fun there is comes from the players themselves rather than the design of the game; it reflects well on your playgroup that you can enjoy it. And perhaps, if you were to try games that are actually better designed to produce fun, you might enjoy yourselves even more.

Certainly the evidence is that this is the case; international board games website boardgamegeek.com allows users (a diverse global crowd whose primary shared characteristic is to have played a wide range of games; BGG is the tabletop games equivalent of goodreads) to rank games on a few different scales. On its overall ranking, which at the time I checked (6 June 2016) contained 12,288 games with enough ratings to be able to sort them into a ranked order, Monopoly was #12,280 – the 9th-worst game of all of them. This isn’t just hobbyist snobbery; in its family game ranking, which contained 1481 family games, Monopoly was #1480. Clearly, people who have played with any kind of “breadth” (in the same way one might “read broadly”) think poorly of Monopoly.

 

Monopoly is bad, and that’s for a reason

Monopoly is widely known, but it’s as legendary for spawning bitter family fights and for dragging on interminably even though it’s obvious who’s going to win as it is for being widely played.

It’s also notorious among tabletop enthusiasts for making some people loathe the entire medium of board games; pretty much any tabletop game aficionado has at some time had to convince a potential player that actually, most board games are nothing like Monopoly in order to get them to even consider playing a board game.

The structure of the game is such that players lucky enough – and it is hugely dependent on luck – to secure an early advantage almost invariably find that it snowballs into more of the same. The only thing that offsets that early luck, other than extreme good luck later in the game, is the ability to persuade, manipulate or bully others into making the deals you want.

And this isn’t a coincidence.

The myth of Monopoly is that it was created during the Depression by an out-of-work salesman named Clarence Darrow. The truth is that the game Darrow sold Parker Brothers was stolen: it was invented in 1904 as The Landlord’s Game by a feminist and social campaigner named Lizzie Magie, as an educational tool to demonstrate why capitalism’s concentration of wealth is a bad idea. Her original game had an additional set of rules that produced a more balanced, sustainable outcome, modelled on her Georgist economic principles, designed to be played in contrast to the capitalistic rules of the game we all know, and to produce a steady increase in wealth for all players.[1]

Take a moment to absorb two points. First, far from being trivial, games were being used to deliver serious (though not necessarily correct) systemic arguments on pressing social questions over 100 years ago. Second, the game we’ve all played was actually designed to be tedious and divisive, to be increasingly unfun for most of its players, and to reward blind luck, bullying and conniving.[2] Magie clearly underestimated the appeal of schadenfreude[3] and of playing the role of being one of the lucky few at the top of the pile.[4]

 

If Monopoly was a book: literary equivalence

To translate this into literary terms, I’d hark back to the kind of sentimental pulp novels about poor but virtuous orphans exploited by rich and powerful people but saved at the last minute by marrying one of those self-same exploiters whose hearts they have suddenly melted through their patient, noble, non-resistant and above all steadfastly apolitical suffering (and never mind all the other employees who are still being exploited, maybe with a slight raise).

These schmaltzy novels were rip-offs of the kind of trenchant social critique offered by Dickens and similar authors, recognising the power of tugging on the heartstrings but doing so simply to sell copies without offering solutions to, or motivating change in, any of the broader structural social ills that occasioned the very real suffering they depicted.[5]

Now, these trashy poor-orphan-married-into-wealth novels were immensely popular in their time (Wodehouse readers may recall him sending up the type repeatedly), but were recognised as junk even then. Literature as an artform was taken seriously enough that, despite their popularity, the obvious unoriginality and implausibility of the novels meant they were (rightly) denied serious attention. They made their money and then they faded away. (Though it is worth noting that they are immediate ancestors of the Mills & Boon school of formulaic button-pushing.)

Imagine if one of those novels had spawned a vast fortune, and the possessors of that vast fortune had dedicated it to ensuring that that particular novel was regarded as The Novel, emblematic of the entire medium. They spent fortunes promoting it, made sure that everyone had read it, and that such reading was bound up with memories of family spending time together.

This wouldn’t actually work with fiction, of course. Novel-reading is solitary, so it’s less easily associated with family rivalries or fond family time together. Moreover, our hunger for novelty – pardon the semi-pun – militates against such endless repetition of a single work. But in board games, the network effects discussed earlier push us towards known works to a greater degree than in literature, and the injection of play from the audience means that outdatedness is less immediately obvious and repetitiveness is reduced. And the fact that games are not taken as seriously as literature has meant that the obvious flaws in the game have not been as widely noticed or critiqued, until now – though among aficionados of games they have been widely known for some time.

 

Why it matters that Monopoly is bad

To be clear once again, the problem is not that the game exists, nor that people enjoy it – indeed, more power to them!

Rather, the problem is that it’s considered emblematic of the medium. Again, this is a game which – by design – causes fights, is tedious, plays on negative emotions, and does little to exercise the brain (when engaged with as intended by its current publishers; clearly it’s fascinating as an object of critical study). It is such a bad example of its kind that it is known to frequently deter people from the entire medium of tabletop games.

Given a limited budget for books (or music or movies…), no sane librarian would spend it on a novel that was so antagonistic and tiresome that it caused a fair number of people who read it to give up on fiction altogether.

Of course, we might buy such a novel if it was requested enough, or if it was going to be used to study the medium. But given the kind of really limited budget for books that is typically on offer for board games, would we waste it in this way instead of buying something better? I submit that we would politely explain that our priority was to help people access the good stuff, and put a little effort into helping people find that. (My tabletop games bundle is designed as a decent start.)

And I further politely submit that, until such time as our board games budgets are more than the crumbs from our programs and collections budgets, we should do the same with Monopoly.

 

Endnotes

[1] This paragraph is a potted summary of an excellent book on the subject, Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists. I recommend it as a fascinating, well-researched piece of the best sort of cultural history, one that goes deep into its particular subject but maintains an eye for the wider connections and import of its topic.

[2] And one can’t help but feel that Magie would take it as further proof of her views about the worst of corporate capitalism, as an act of intellectual theft covered by brute-force legal and PR shenanigans, and a co-opting of a radically critical voice to make profit.

[3] Safely contained within the magic circle of play, of course; idealists don’t always anticipate how that can transform the subject matter they’re so earnest about.

[4] To be fair, the appeal of such roleplaying would have been even greater during the Great Depression, when Monopoly became such a massive hit, than it was during the age of robber barons that came before it.

[5] Note the parallel to the co-option of Monopoly from its intended purpose.

Follow-up to Libraries and the future of the audience contract

Hey folks! I just added an additional heading, Embedding portals to creators in library catalogues/metadata, to the possible practical solutions part of my previous post on libraries and their role as mediators between creators and audiences.

I contemplated posting it separately, but it was always part of the idea, just one I originally took out because I wanted to think about it some more. But I’ve decided I like it, so it’s back in. If you’ve already read the original version of the post, click the link above to skip straight to the new stuff. If you haven’t, just read the whole thing 🙂

Libraries and the future of the audience contract

The problem

Corporations who claim they speak for the creators we love are major driving forces in turning the internet into the largest mass-surveillance tool in human history.

The crux of the issue is the one-sided defense of copyright by powerful vested interests. (And, per Doctorow, the lack of countervailing powerful vested interests in the citizenry remaining free and unsurveilled.)

The one-sidedness of the policy conversation in this area is leading governments to act in ways that are inimical to freedom and the human rights of everyday citizens, through the imposition of excessive and disproportionate penalties for noncommercial copyright infringement and the enabling of a vast katascopocracy[1] to detect such infringements. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been making this argument for years, far more effectively than I could, so I’ll just link you to them. (The folks at Defective by Design and Chilling Effects also have some points to make about the problems of DRM and a heavily-surveilled internet.)

But the “content” industries have one incontestable point in their favour: we do love creative works.

Not only do the folks who create them inherently deserve some prospect of reward for doing so, but if creators aren’t rewarded for making them, they will be able to make far fewer. This is the crux of the audience contract: in exchange for people taking the time and effort to create something, and potentially making themselves vulnerable and the centre of attention by sharing it, the community will ensure that there is at least a hope that they will end up no worse off – or even better off. Without some expectation of a return on creative work from the audience of that work, dedicated creation becomes much less viable, and creation has to happen in time carved out of a life supported some other way. That makes certain creative forms and professions (those requiring large budgets, long periods of dedicated work, and/or large groups of collaborators) near-impossible without the patronage of the hugely wealthy, granting them a destructively disproportionate, quasi-feudal voice in the culture.[2]

The solution (in principle)

So how do we combine easy, effectively unlimited, and unmonitored copying of creative works with rewarding creators?

We shift the focus away from the creative work, and onto the act of creation and the creator(s) themselves. Rather than just an industrial, widget-based economy where a work is rewarded based on the number of reproductions sold, we move to an artistic, networked economy where audiences can express appreciation for a specific work or for its creator with equal facility in a wide range of ways – and sharing copies of a creator’s work, rather than robbing the creator, is actually helping spread their work and their reputation.

Purchases of artefacts will continue to be one major way to do this. Artefacts may of course be hard-copy reproductions of the work, whether generic reproductions such as mass-market books, or prestigious limited editions with fancy covers etc. They may also, as webcomics creators have found, be associated artefacts that declare an affiliation to or appreciation for the work or the creator, such as T-shirts or various tchotchkes. They may be entirely unrelated; some online creators derive significant income from goods that, aside from a common creator/publisher, bear no relation whatever to the works for which the creator is best known. Regardless, whatever the nature of the artefact, commercial production and distribution of those artefacts should of course require that the creator of the work(s) be rewarded for the use of their work.

Active recommendation/sharing of the creator’s work is another – after all, an audience is a potentially valuable thing for anyone, especially a creator. The creator can also derive income from the other side of this process: using affiliate links in online marketplaces, and similar technology, to capture a fraction of any sale triggered by their recommendations is much more lucrative if those recommendations have a substantial audience. And other as-yet uninvented modes of endorsement and support are still on the way.

However, direct payment from audience to creator will become – is already becoming – another substantial avenue of support for creators. The tools to support aggregation of mass support both for specific projects and directly for creators themselves – crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Pozible, Flattr, and Patreon – are already in place and growing in popularity. (Note that these are not inherently hostile to existing production and distribution models – numerous successful crowdfunding beneficiaries have gone on to use existing channels for publishing completed works to a wider audience.)

By enabling popular/mass patronage to compete with that of a single wealthy entity, platforms like these substantially, though not entirely, mitigate the feudal tendencies alluded to above of historical models of patronage. In some respects they even go further towards democratizing culture, enabling niche audiences and creators to find each other who otherwise might be missed by publishing bureaucracies focusing on larger returns from larger market segments. After all, the additional costs imposed by such corporate apparatus means that an income which can viably sustain a creator is often not sufficient to sustain them plus the industry that supposedly supports them – making the bureaucracies that supposedly exist to help creators find sustainable livings, even if entirely honest and efficient, sometimes a barrier to that same sustainability.

Certainly in the games industry, the use of these services by independent creators and critics to fund work that otherwise would have gone unfunded has had a huge impact. Whether the colossal success of the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter in 2012 resulting in games propelling that service into the mainstream and becoming its #1 category ($300m of its $1.5b to date), or the breakout success of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Kickstarter revealing the scope of both the audience for basic feminist critique of popular culture and the vitriol of the anti-feminist backlash, it is fair to say that crowdfunding has been central to the last few years of games culture. (Which is, of course, a large and growing part of mainstream culture.) But while games creators have been particularly quick to jump on the opportunities offered by these new models (gamers being trained to spot opportunity and advantage, and highly sensitive to network effects), no medium is ignoring them – or can afford to.

The library, however – the place that above all others has been about enabling the public’s right to access to culture and information in a systemic, sustainable way; that above all others is about connecting the public with what they love regardless of commercial considerations – has been sitting this transformation out.

I believe that this is a mistake: we have a key role to play in this. Further, I believe that if libraries take a more active interest in helping creators and their audiences find each other efficiently and make a living, the supposedly irreconcilable tensions between free (meaning unsurveilled as well as unrestricted) sharing of culture and the needs of creators start to look a lot less intractable. Finally, I believe that remaining blind to the tremendous ferment of creativity enabled by these new funding and publication channels is a great way to make ourselves irrelevant. If we are increasingly seen as supplying a representative sample only of corporate-approved materials rather than of the full range of contemporary culture, we both abandon our popular mandate and play into the idea that all we do is compete with retailers of commercial creative works.

Below are just a few suggestions for how we might make that shift. But before I close this theoretical section, let me address one key argument against free culture: the economic-rationalist view that once someone has something for free they will never pay for it. To me, this says more about the mean-mindedness of the theorists than it does about reality. The actual facts of piracy contradict this, with shows and movies that have been shared unauthorised still being heavily watched and purchased, and even some producers of such projects (the hugely successful Game of Thrones comes to mind) acknowledging the role that “piracy” (actually peer-to-peer sharing rather than industrial-scale commercial reproduction) has played in making their shows more popular and more successful. But more importantly, it also ignores the tremendous willingness people have to invest time, energy and money into supporting and celebrating the things they love. Fan culture, which has been on the rise alongside peer-to-peer sharing and, not coincidentally, has always been one of the major places such unauthorised copying occurs, is merely the most overt example. The correlation between library usage and book purchasing is another, less obvious demonstration of the fact that free access to culture – far from reducing interest and investment in it – only increases the time, energy and money people are willing to spend on the things they appreciate.

Some solutions (in practice)

Let me note at the outset that, while some of these suggestions may result in substantial changes to library practice and relationships, I don’t consider any of them to be particularly significant changes to the basic job of a library. My point is that for libraries to continue doing what they’ve always done – sampling and making available a wide variety of content to suit their particular patrons’ interests – they need to start considering these sorts of possibilities, because the old models for publishing and distributing creative works are being forced to make room for new ones.

 

Expanding the pool of publishing/distribution channels from which we buy

For various reasons, libraries have outsourced more and more of their collections and processing to companies who use economies of scale to lower per-unit costs.

Aside from any other effects of this trend, it locks libraries into materials that are available to be distributed (and processed) at those kinds of scales. And it does this precisely at the historical moment when original voices are less likely to make it through those filters (owing to the consolidation and resulting homogenisation of editorial voice into publishing megacorporations), and more likely to publish through the newer channels we are neglecting.

As these more direct creator-audience publishing models become more prevalent, there will be less reason for creators to have industrial-scale volumes of stock created and hanging around to be sold. Such creators will already know the size of their audience, and in some cases will have printed directly for their previously-measured demand. (For instance, a Kickstarted project might print only the number of copies of a work needed to fulfil the project’s obligations, plus a small percentage of spares in case of damage, shipping error, and so on.)

For this reason, libraries that rely on traditional print-then-sell publishers may miss out entirely on opportunities to acquire particular works which may be hugely influential. While such works are likely to find a reprint, past experience has shown that this can take some time, during which period the library is failing to supply the work to its patrons. And again, this assumes that the work finds a home with existing publishers – which many critical viewpoints may not.

Therefore, libraries need to consider allocating some budget to buying works from new crowdfunding platforms, and to as-yet-unknown publishing models, not just the 20th-century publishing models we’re used to.

Naturally, some of this purchasing will need to be done at patron request – just like regular collections. In fact, I’d suggest that in the interests of discovering the widest possible range of such works, you might want to actively cultivate patron suggestions in this area. The trend towards targeted promotion includes creators looking for their audience; you are unlikely to see interesting new authors advertising in the mainstream press or publishing trade journals.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that academic libraries are moving towards models where their catalogues will find items to which the library does not yet have lending rights, and acquiring those rights in response to demand from the academic populace they serve. Of course, this is partly a response to the outrageous prices and conditions being imposed by academic publishers, who are making sharing of research (research that is of course founded upon the intellectual commons) harder and more expensive at precisely the historical moment when doing so is actually getting easier and cheaper. Even so, the models exist, and may well have lessons for how to find the best purchases for a given library’s collection.

 

Engaging better with free content – including rewarding creators who contribute to the library’s collections and resources after the fact

As discussed above, part of the present shift in cultural production is moving away from the make-a-widget-sell-a-widget industrial model. If creators choose to make their content available in that way, we should by all means continue to use existing systems to pay for their work. But as more and more creators explore open culture publishing models, and rely on support from those who use their creations, I believe that libraries need to start considering their relationship to such creators and their work.

I’m only too well aware that library budgets are often a pittance compared to demonstrable need, and that it might be hard to justify paying for “free” resources. I’m also well aware that simply by having an item in the library’s collection, we are helping its creator find their audience – and therefore, in crude commercial terms, their market.

However, I believe that libraries need to not only take seriously the material that’s published free online and do more to explore it for our patrons, but to acknowledge the debt we have to the free online resources we use.

And, as a logical and moral extension of that point, to consider chipping in financially and practically accordingly – both as a matter of principle, and as a matter of modelling the appropriate relationship to creative and other original work to our patrons.

This is a complex and nuanced discussion – for instance, by having the library contribute to the costs of a creator, does that make our patrons feel they are absolved from doing likewise, causing them to donate less? It probably deserves a post of its own, really. But in the age of Creative Commons, copyleft, and the Free Culture movement, too few libraries are even considering these questions.

[But for the sake of clarity: yes, this does mean I am saying that libraries should consider both donating to Wikipedia and allocating some staff time to be made available to edit it. (Aside from any other considerations, this might go a long way to redressing the gender imbalance among Wikipedia editors.)]

One fact I feel needs to be central to these considerations is that as an institution with a considerable – though usually inadequate – budget, libraries are often better off than either individual creators or the project teams to which they are donating their time and effort. While I fully understand and even applaud libraries wanting to conserve budgets, the fact remains that however resource-poor we are, chances are that creators of free resources are also not well off – and unlike libraries, they actually feel hunger. It would once have gone without saying that we need to be willing to contribute to the costs of resources we include. This applies equally to resources for which we pay via non-conventional means as to those purchased under long-established models. To do otherwise is to discriminate against creators who are attempting to make it easier to share their work – in other words, people who share our values.

I’m not proposing carte blanche for anyone who publishes free stuff online. Given that these resources are free, it is not unreasonable to add them to the collection and see how they fare. However, I submit that we must be willing to consider paying creators at the point we are certain we want their work in the collection, whether that decision comes before they are added or after assessing our patrons’ response to the works.

I’m fully conscious that – budgets being directly affected by this idea – there are some key stakeholders who will resist it: organisational managers who will ask some pretty hard questions about why libraries should pay for something they already got for free. Those are valid, but answerable, questions – we should be able to demonstrate the value of the items to the collection, and therefore the need to sustain and reward creators. And answering them properly will also incidentally reduce the gameability of such systems (whereby library staff might corruptly dispose of library funds to the benefit of themselves or those close to them).

But let’s be clear: this will also inevitably involve a certain amount of managing up. We shouldn’t shy from that. Organisational managers are excellent at managing generic “resources”, but librarians are the experts in the collection and sharing of culture. It is right that managers ask questions about how resources are expended, but they are not qualified to offer leadership in making those decisions. Again, for library folks not to be in the forefront of engaging with a cultural shift of this magnitude is to voluntarily edge ourselves and our beloved libraries towards redundancy.

[Also: It’s not directly relevant to this paper, but crowdsourcing can help libraries too!]

 

Libraries cultivating support for creators as a moral and practical imperative if people like content

Libraries could do more to get people supporting the creators they love, and even those they don’t love, but benefit from, or think are interesting or important. This needn’t be restricted to newer crowdfunding-type channels; buying a book or a DVD is just as much an option for supporting creators as pledging to their next project (or a past one). That said, it is worth us helping our communities explore what share of the money spent on each option actually ends up with the people who created the work – and how clearly that support sends the signal people want it to send.

Most people, including most creators, certainly make the common-sense assumption that libraries already foster this kind of active appreciation and support of culture to a considerable degree. (And they are right to do so: both logic and evidence very much point this way!)

But we could do more both to celebrate what we already do and to find new ways to advance the principle of supporting creativity. (It helps that both these things would also give us further leverage in negotiations with recalcitrant publishers over price and terms of newer forms of published works, e.g. ebooks.)

For instance, we could (and should) act in an educational capacity – telling the story of what these new funding models enable. Not everyone will be interested, but just as we help people explore the world of books and then translate their tastes into purchases at the bookshop, there are genuine opportunities for us to support our communities in exploring these new channels – both as audiences engaging with original work, and as potential creators themselves.

We could also spell out the connection made at the start of this paper, between the need to protect privacy and the need to provide an alternative to the widget-sales model of cultural economics.

We could also do more to foster yet other ways for creators to engage their audiences, and for audiences to enable their creators to make a living, as some of the following suggestions outline. To this point I have largely focused on ways libraries can work in with existing or emerging systems that are independent of them. In the suggestions that follow, I will begin exploring ways in which our unique attributes and position enable us to offer opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

 

Libraries cultivating their own audience’s creative aspirations as a way to instil respect for other creators

As I’ve discussed previously, libraries are increasingly moving towards becoming libraries of their community as well as for their community, with a growing focus on supporting creativity among their patrons rather than simply gathering the best of what’s happening elsewhere.

There has always been an element of seeking to support local creators in libraries’ work; at the very least we are inclined to purchase their work, if not actively promote it to their community. After all, a work is more likely to be of interest to patrons if they have met its creator, and more likely to be relevant given the greater odds of a similar background.

Likewise, we have sought to foster new creators through programs like writers’ workshops, especially for young people. Similarly, as the internet has grown to greater social and economic prominence in people’s lives, we have sought to help our patrons learn how to navigate it.

I believe that we can fruitfully combine these two things and help new creators learn to navigate these systems to find support. Having done so, we can help our communities discover their local creators just as those creators are seeking their audience. And we can help those local creators to build on that audience and leverage it into wider success, and to network and support each other in making their way out to the wider world.

How does this translate into supporting creators? One necessary corollary of helping people create is that patrons who have attempted their own creative work, and to a lesser extent those who aspire to do so, will better appreciate the work involved, and the need for creators to have a sufficient income to continue to create. This is not entirely dissimilar to simply respecting those who make things we like, as in the previous point, but the respect is likely to be more nuanced and to include those who make things we don’t like but who make them exceptionally well.

Again, rather than leaving this as an implicit point of learning, libraries could make an effort to explicitly leverage these teachable moments to make this point. (As always, heavy-handedness can backfire, but the basic point is incontestible.)

 

Libraries as channels to contact creators/agents if their patrons are interested in work

If the library is to become a vector for the audience-creator relationship, clearly our greatest strength is on the audience side of that equation; it’s our relationship to creators that we will need to develop.

One possibility here might be to develop tools and protocols that enable our circulation and activity data – thoroughly anonymised, of course! – to become a resource for creators and their representatives.

One such option might be a standardised, automated interface for flagging that the library staff, on behalf of their patrons, are interested in the creator’s work, along with some capacity to suggest particular activities that might be of most interest, or to outline activities that are happening anyway that might offer opportunities for the creator to piggyback their own event onto. For instance, a library might report that their members would love a presentation from a particular creator, or might report that a book club are holding a cosplay event themed around a creator’s work.

There would be no expectation of a response – that would need to be up to the creator, who would have the information to dip into as their own interests suggest – but creators would have a potential insight into where their work was being appreciated… and where they might profitably be able to visit and engage their audience in whatever further ways they desire.

The obvious use of this is in finding hotspots for things like book tours, but creators who want to run things like workshops, or to engage with audiences in other ways (perhaps to gain audience input into new, more collaborative creative forms), could also use information from such an interface to target those efforts as well. In the book club cosplay event example above, the creator might get in touch with the library and offer to judge, plus hold a signing or a Q&A about the characters.

Such engagement need not take place within the library, though it is a logical venue for such things as creator talks, creative workshops, and so on. Local retailers (bookshops, music shops, etc) or other businesses might come on board to help organise, promote, and host the event. The creator might see sufficient demand in a region that they might hire out a larger public venue. The event might be a specialised activity requiring particular tech, furniture and/or spatial configurations, such as LAN gaming, a theatrical production, or an artistic installation.

In any case, the library could become both a channel for the creator to notice that demand exists, and a potential partner in letting the audience know about it. And it would provide a level of granularity in the detail as to where demand exists that is currently not possible – or at least not without invasive data mining. (I hope no library worker needs an explanation as to why supporting alternatives to mass snooping on the public is a good thing!)

Another (and related) option would be to have the library be the place where people learn how to reach out to the creators whose works they admire. A workshop on writing to creators and other public figures, where attendees can nominate who they want to contact, and which covers basic etiquette, reasonable expectations, understanding of the demands on public figures’ time, and maybe a little research into the specific creators’ preferred channels of communication and/or modes of relating to their audience, could potentially be a relatively easy way for individual libraries to start moving into this space. (I’m also quite sure it would be a remarkably popular program! Contact me if you’re interested in pursuing this further.)

Admittedly, the existence of celebrity stalkers means this could be somewhat fraught! But as with most situations, the conspicuously unbalanced individuals who make trouble for everyone are a tiny minority. In fact, by planting the seeds of reason at the beginning of someone’s engagement, libraries could do a great deal to avert the obsessive spirals such people fall into.

 

Enabling creators to routinely see stats on loans/access to their works through libraries

The basic idea here is that thoroughly anonymized loan stats are fed into a centralized system and then made available to creators (or their deputized agents), so they can see a global heat map of the public’s engagement with their works in libraries.

Not only does this potentially feed into marketing for their next creative work, it also allows them to plan book tours, and even potentially help fund a holiday by picking up a little public speaking work in the destination country. And for creators who are more interested in direct relationships with their audience, this sort of information could be invaluable.

To be genuinely useful, this would need to distinguish number of loans and number of borrowers so that creators can tell when a library has a single obsessive re-reader or when they have a genuinely wide audience there.

Given that libraries in many countries already track some such usage statistics as part of public lending right schemes, and therefore some such central reporting already takes place through national libraries, in some ways this is not that much of a stretch from current systems – especially if the trend towards centralising and amalgamating library services continues, and given that library loan records are all electronic anyway.

In other respects I can see it being a political nightmare, on the one hand used by creators (and the megacorporations who benefit disproportionately from managing their rights) to lobby for higher lending payments or more restrictions on libraries, and on the other hand pushing for greater violations of privacy in the form of more detailed access to more-poorly-anonymized lending information. Certainly libraries would need to value this information appropriately as the tremendous resource it is, rather than simply giving such information away without a substantial tradeoff.

Just as crucially, libraries would need to recognise that such data is held in trust from the public, both as individuals and collectively. It is not an asset libraries own and are free to dispose of in their own interests, without regard to the interests of those from whom it is derived.

Lastly, this need not be limited to loans or other access data. As above, it could include information about activities (including those outlined below) taking place in the library relevant to a particular creator. Given that we also report on this sort of thing already to some degree, once again it’s just a case of making sure that the information is sufficiently detailed (specifically, that we are reporting on the subject of activities, rather than just aggregating headcounts under general headings like “story times” etc) and goes where it can be used.

 

Embedding portals to creators in library catalogues/metadata

[For those who read the post early and are just wanting to find the new stuff, this is the section that was added after publication.]

Given that we already have independent authority records for creators, and even have value-added subscription services such as Syndetics and OCLC providing expanded content for our records, to simply add a link from a work or a creator’s authority record to a URL they nominate seems pretty simple. All we need is some sort of central authority to track authors’ official “home pages” – something that could largely be automated and built into library deposit or public lending right schemes – and we’re already helping people connect with creators.

But this is only the least of the possibilities. We might for instance allow similar creator-controlled fields within bibliographic records, to take people to the official URL for a particular creative work, rather than just a standard link for the creator. The tools to manage this would be slightly more complex technically, and more work to manage, but would still be well within the realms of possibility.

Taking this even further, I can imagine a third-party service that provides (moderated!) embedded content to library catalogues directly from creators. As an example, when the publication date of the next installment of a beloved series is revealed, one of the channels for that announcement might be the catalogue pages of the previous installments. Obviously this sort of thing would need moderation – nobody should have unrestricted anytime access to the pages of the library catalogue – but a trusted third party working within agreed frameworks and standards could very easily make something like this a valuable tool for audiences, libraries, and creators.

We could even allow creators to post links to purchase copies of their work in ways that the creator feels best supports them. This might be referral links to online stores like Amazon, or it might be a service that lists local booksellers that stock particular works, or it might be a print-on-demand service. Simply putting this decision in the hands of creators would give them additional leverage in the creative economy – leverage that at present is very much with publishers and distributors – without the library being seen to misuse its position to favour one particular local (or other) business.

And naturally such things need not be limited to widget purchases. We might also – especially for works that we have included in the collection unpaid – allow crowdfunding links, such as those from services like Flattr or Patreon. These might be general “fund the creator” links, or they might be more specific “reward this particular work” links. Either way people who have found the work worthwhile can support the creator – and everyone is completely clear that the sharing of the work was beneficial to the creator.

In the interests of privacy, we might even consider becoming an anonymous channel for such support. One downside of direct patronage for some members of the public will be that such systems involve putting their support or appreciation for particular ideas or works on the record in ways that are not visible or accountable to them. Just as we are channels for anonymous reading, we could become channels for anonymous patronage. It would be a politically fraught process, with only the imperfect anonymity our readers enjoy; and it would be tremendously open to corruption (anonymity and money are never a good combination!), but it’s certainly a conceivable role for libraries to play.

 

Libraries as places to build community – and for communities to build themselves

We like to talk about libraries as the new village square, but it’s remarkable to me how little we do to enable public-driven usage of the space. I understand why: there are custodial obligations to our collections, spaces, and patrons that rule out or at least complicate a number of public activities. But in a true village square, activity is not predominantly programmed by public employees but often emerges organically from the interests of the people in the space at any given time.

Given those custodial obligations, which are real and too important to abandon, we can’t aspire to that level of unsupervised, unstructured public usage. But as I’ve touched on earlier in my two-way libraries paper, we could be doing a lot more to provide a degree of structure and mutual accountability that would allow more of this self-directed usage.

One such usage could be to encourage people to think of the library as a safe neutral (and somewhat anonymous) venue for shared cultural interests. We do this somewhat with book clubs, but rather than organising them ourselves and fixing the topic and activity, we could quite easily create tools based on pledgebanking systems that would allow the public to propose their own (suitably moderated) shared uses for our public meeting spaces and discover if there were interest for their ideas.

I think it’s quite likely that some such uses would include fan clubs for the various media we enable people to access – and this would be very much to the benefit of creators, especially in combination with the above reporting.

It is not a coincidence that the media that most require this sort of co-ordinated physical copresence, in this case to experience it at all not only to share appreciation, are the various forms of interpersonal play, especially social and tabletop games.

 

Libraries to host networked meeting/lecture spaces to connect communities all over the world

Technologies to connect multiple groups in different locations into a single larger group have largely been the domain of corporate meetings. But they do already exist, and could provide some remarkable opportunities for libraries to connect their communities not only indirectly through the shared world of learning and culture that we enable our patrons to access, but by directly allowing them to share experiences.

This could – and should – include homegrown experiences such as local history events, talks by local creators, and so on. (“Sister City” arrangements could particularly benefit and be strengthened.) There is a lot to be said for horizontal grassroots sharing of this sort, though that’s another post.[3]

But it could also allow numerous libraries with smaller budgets to pool funds to pay for creator talks by famous creators, or other more-expensive-but-relatively-simple events, that would then be shared live throughout all contributing libraries. (In my view, any library worth its salt would talk to the creator about then posting such talks on the internet under some sort of free culture license, but having the chance to be in the live audience – and potentially interact with the public figures in question – would be the preserve of the participants in the actual libraries at the time.)

It would even make such events cheaper, since travel costs would be reduced to the distance to the nearest participating library – or the nearest other facilities capable of streaming such events.

And of course, combined with the above patron-driven approach to the use of spaces and facilities, new uses for this sort of capacity would be quick to emerge.

(Once again, I confess a non-personal vested interest, this time in the possibilities for International Games Day @ your library and especially my own volunteer project, the Global Gossip Game.)

 

Libraries supporting lobbying for more creative funding

Finally, I fully realise that libraries have plenty of lobbying to do for our own budgets. But if we’re going to be helping audiences and creators engage more anyway, we’re going to be de facto supporting one common cause that is likely to draw broad support from the creative sectors: improving funding for the creative sectors.

While limited public funds mean that ultimately there is a degree of rivalry or tension between funding creation and funding libraries, both are clearly essential, and proponents of both should be vigorously supporting each other. And it would certainly cement the library as a key ally to the creator.

This is a point worth stressing. The reason that the corporations of the “content industry” have so successfully imposed their clearly disproportionate demands on the internet is because they have portrayed themselves as the champions of the creators who make the cultural and intellectual works that we love and need. And, to be fair, they have enabled some truly astonishing work.

But publishing corporations are not the only ally to creators. (Indeed, in some cases, the relationship has not been an alliance but rather profoundly exploitative.) And the corporations (and the lobbying groups that represent them) have clearly abandoned any respect for the interests – let alone the rights – of the public, except insofar as those rights are the right to purchase their product.

As the institution that has always been about the public freely engaging with culture, the library can and should step up. We are here for our patrons, and because our patrons (and we) love culture, we are here for the people who create it as well. Perhaps we can even help publishers let go of the obsessive need to monitor and monetise every possible engagement with a creative work, and go back to their core job: finding and supporting original, amazing creators. There are wider social forces at work here, of course, but most publishers are already keenly aware of how despotic and bureaucratic they look at times (and how much money is wasted on their attempts to assert oligopolistic control over the Internet). They need only a sense that there is another way to make a living, that they are not abandoning their responsibilities to shareholders and creators, and it suddenly makes sense to simply walk away from the worst excesses of the widget-selling model of culture.

But they won’t do this without creators taking a lead, and creators too need to know that they can find a living elsewhere. That sense of tension, of competition for limited funds, evaporates when you look at the bigger picture of what the point of libraries and of creating original works actually is. This is why it’s important for libraries to advocate for funding not only for themselves and the audiences they serve, but for the creators they serve as well.

In this regard, it doesn’t hurt that – if the suggestions above and in that two-way library piece linked earlier gain traction – libraries will be directly supporting creation to a greater degree, such that funding one is funding the other!

 

Conclusion

We in the library business are deeply committed to creators, and always have been. Our whole reason for being is to help the communities we serve find the created works (whether artistic or referential) that most meet their requirements – a function that, while public-facing, also serves creators. Far more than a mere recommendation engine or discovery interface, we enable our patrons to explore and develop their own tastes rather than merely throwing back at them endless iterations on themes they already like. In doing so, we serve creators of both excellence and originality – and most of all those creators who offer both at once. In other words, we both broaden and deepen the market for culture.

But because we are public-facing, we are also custodians of the bigger picture of culture: that created works exist to serve a greater good. That’s the reason that copyright and similar elaborate legal mechanisms have been created and operate at such vast expense to the public – original work is important enough that we recognise the imperative to reward it.

However, creative/original thinking isn’t the only public good, and material incentives aren’t the only way to encourage it.[4] The right to access culture and information unmonitored, and the right to freedom of expression, are both central pillars of the kind of intellectual freedom fosters genuinely original thinking. And both are threatened by measures actively proposed by the corporate industrial interests supposedly speaking on behalf of creators.

Privacy is under assault by corporate forces that seek to prevent unauthorised copying by spying on everyone to make sure that only authorised – which is to say, remunerated – consumption of culture occurs. (To be fair, they are strongly supported in this by others who seek to spy on us for other reasons.) It is not possible technically to prevent copying the “wrong” data, but it is possible to combine the threat of ridiculously disproportionate penalties (tens of thousands of dollars and a criminal record for watching a TV episode without paying?) with highly visible, seemingly state-endorsed (and increasingly state-run) surveillance schemes to scare people into compliance. The fact that these systems can be – and are – abused to breach privacy is bad both for humanity generally and for creators specifically. Without privacy, creators are discouraged from exploring experimental, challenging, and/or personal works; these render creators vulnerable in different ways, but the hope of privacy can mitigate some of that disincentive. And of course in the bigger picture, lack of privacy fosters a climate of self-censorship and self-moderation which puts a system-wide brake on effective peaceful dissent against those in charge of these systems.

Freedom of expression is, of course, inherently inhibited by copyright laws around use of fictional characters and settings – that’s more or less its point, to prevent people other than the creator of a work from making free with it! And that’s fine – I’ll be the first to admit the undeniable benefits, both economic and intellectual, to allowing the originator of an idea or work to maintain a voice and a financial stake in how it is published, and further developed and explored. But the system we have in place now stifles genuinely original reworkings of past culture under mountains of licensing and permissions red tape (making the use of, for instance, music samples prohibitive to most people not already signed up to one of the labels with the legal departments who run the show).

It makes it impossible for scholars and archivists to preserve our legacy, by criminalising digital preservation of works without clear permission from a creator who may be untraceable – or entirely unknown. (And even if you throw principle aside and argue that a work being abandoned in this way makes it a safe bet that you can get away with unauthorised copying, there are people who would consider it just as safe a bet that they can falsely claim to own the copyright and sue.) I’ve read a number of statistics about the percentage of works from the early days of the current copyright period – which is to say, the earlier part of the 20th Century – being lost to posterity because of this. They vary, but all are shockingly high.

And it has created a remarkable new tool for censorship: simply allege copyright infringement through an automated online tool and you can get even private companies to take down material they host, pending a counter-complaint by the original poster. This has already begun to be used as a tool for removing – even if only temporarily – material that is unwelcome to some unaccountable soul at some particular moment. Governments and corporations have attempted to claim copyright in the material their critics are using to criticise them. Antagonists in various culture wars have targeted each other with false copyright claims. Far from encouraging reasoned discourse or promoting the development of cultural works, copyright has become a tool to suppress unwanted views.

Controlling the reproduction of created works in these ways is only justified if this is our mechanism for rewarding creators. If we can achieve that goal of offering incentives to creators to create in some other way, what is now seen as theft (enabling others to access a creator’s work) becomes a supportive act, an act of endorsement – which is how many people actually experience the act of sharing the works they love.

By reaffirming our commitment to supporting creators (and taking the lead in exploring new ways to do so), libraries can help break the industrial-age connection between reproduction and remuneration, helping creators to continue to prosper from their work without having to endorse – and divert ridiculous amounts of resources into – these oppressive, wasteful, and anti-creative systems.

And of course, it frees up the infosphere for us and our patrons too.

 

 

— Footnotes ——-

 

[1] ‘Rule by spies’. Technically, there is no effective way to encrypt something that ultimately has to be human-readable. So the only way to prevent unauthorised copying of content is to scare people into not doing it – and that can only happen if they have a reasonable expectation of their private activity being watched and recorded while online, or even by their own personal property.

[2] One could quite plausibly argue that this is already somewhat the case (*cough*Murdoch*cough*Walden Media*cough*), but at least under the current system there is some mechanism for finding support from a mass audience – even if that support is typically funnelled through (and heavily taxed by) a large number of institutional middlemen who contribute nothing to the actual creative work.

[3] Briefly: by encouraging people to pay attention not to the centralised culture industry with its necessarily skewed perceptions and priorities but to other everyday folks, we get a counterbalance for the mass-produced monoculture that distorts our sense of ourselves and our place in the world… though of course until EVERYONE has access to the networks this would create, distortions will still be built into the system.

[4] In fact I would argue that there is an inherent human drive to create, one which (history shows) finds expression regardless of such incentives. Further, the massive external incentives we’ve created for the creation of culture have – as external incentives typically do – distorted the activity they’re supposedly incentivising. Rather than becoming a tool to remove daily survival pressures and free people to express the burning truth or beauty inside them, it’s become a prize to be won by creating experiences that compel attention – regardless of whether it’s worth creating for its own sake, or whether that experience (or the compulsion) is healthy. Of course, it has also enabled a great deal of extraordinary work, and even more research into why people like what they like – I’m not saying it’s all bad. Just something to consider.

Games and real life: economics edition

I’ve spoken elsewhere about how games companies are now not only creating virtual economies but are hiring actual economists to help manage them. Valve, one of the first to do this, has just had economist-in-residence Yaris Vafoukaris headhunted – to serve as finance minister of Greece.

Let’s be clear – Vafoukaris already had solid credentials, which is why he got the Valve gig. It’s also true that Greece is a small country and that Syriza’s left-wing politics make their economic ideas unconventional. But it’s also clearly true that his time working in the virtual economies of Valve’s games and Steam client, and their conversion to and from real-world economics (which some would say are themselves increasingly virtualised), hasn’t been seen as hurting his ability to manage one of the more troubled economies in the Eurozone.

Once again: games=fun, right; fun=trivial? not so much.

Up for air! (Briefly)

Hey folks! Just a quick post to say that International Games Day 2014 is over and was a huge success – so that’s off my plate – but thanks to increasing family responsibilities I will continue to be sporadic in updating this blog.

I’m updating the site a bit more frequently as I add more details on services that I offer (and sometimes new services!) but those are largely incremental updates. The big things that I’ve added and will be working on in 2015:

  • I’m selling a bundle of tabletop games for libraries that also comes with a substantial discount on training – and the discounts are stackable across library services, meaning if you buy enough bundles the training is potentially free!
  • I’m offering Australian libraries access to a service called OnePlay which enables ebook-style e-lending of PC and Android games. It’s a promising start on lending for media we struggle to enable our users to access!

Contact me if either of these, or any of my services, interest you. And to be updated when I do get a chance to post more substantive articles – which are coming – please follow me (using the button at the bottom right of your browser window, or by signing up to the RSS feed).

Otherwise, all the best for the end of this year and all of next!

The Game of Life

Sometimes it’s just SO interesting you can’t tear yourself away!

(And sometimes the grind just won’t let up…)

Aside from International Games Day @ your library, which I’m helping run again this year (and yes, the Global Gossip Game is part of it again), I’ve also been working on a semi-original design, attempting to put… something… together to give games a boost here in Oz, helping out a little with James Portnow’s Games for Good, and having an attack of Real Life (entirely too Real in some cases) on a few different fronts.

More substantive (and hopefully exciting!) posts soon, I think. But meanwhile, if you’re interested in helping to share games and play with your local community, IGD@yl has pages for librarian and non-librarian gamers who might want to get their local library participating. I encourage you to support your libraries’ forays into games and play!

Talking Points: Play, happiness, and health

You wouldn’t know it to look at our arts or health or archival policies – or even, to a lesser extent, education – but a tremendous amount of research has been undertaken on play and health in numerous dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, social. There are numerous practitioners in each of these disciplines battling away to get better recognition of play and games, but the policy framework – and particularly the funding framework – for the playful arts is still negligible. (There’s an interesting post on why this is to be had… another time!) Changing this and enabling the community to better tap into and explore the world of play is one of my key objectives in writing this blog, and indeed in the work that I do generally.

I could cite numerous papers on the health effects of play for body (strength, health, flexibility, dexterity, speed, senses, reflexes), mind (memory, perception, comprehension, analysis, intuition), soul (motivation, happiness/pleasure/joy, creativity, assumptions that problems can be solved, capacity for reflection-in-action, drive to learn, ability to centre oneself), and what you might call intersoul – the part of us that inhabits and thrives in our connection to others – and at some point I’ll do that. But this is just a Talking Point and I’m short of time, so I’m going to argue from first principles instead and leave you to seek out the evidence yourself.

It follows logically from the previous discussion about the nature of play as a concept (that it is fundamentally about acting according to one’s nature) that play promotes activity. Given that we know that all of our faculties grow in response to moderate, unforced exercise – and dwindle with neglect – it makes sense that play in and of itself tends to be (though as always, subject to the complex interaction of specific activities and circumstances) a force for health in whichever elements of ourselves we allow to play.

The obverse is also true. Where people – and indeed mammals – are actively restricted from play, there are immediate effects on their health in all the above dimensions. Indeed, and this is one of the studies I’d link to if I had time, some experimental animals completely deprived of play became terminally miserable and died.

(The parallels to the links between freedom and health should, of course, be obvious.)

These findings have been behind the efforts of numerous educators to see play reinstated as central to education, but just as I believe that learning needs to be lifelong, I think play needs to be as well. An adult life deprived of play – whether actively or through passive exclusion – leads to that adult being less happy and healthy, and therefore – counterintuitively, if you’re a beancounter who insists that only the readily quantifiable should inform decisionmaking – more of a burden both to themselves and to others. This has ramifications that go beyond the cultural and medical, and include the political, economic, and industrial.

Still think play is fundamentally trivial?

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and learning.)

The art of games and play

This is a slight reworking of a post from an earlier blog, made here because it seems like a useful addition to the discussion of games in the wider cultural context.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) Art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes (allowing nature photography, or even running a hiking tour, to comprise art in and of themselves): directing your audience’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience.

Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty. Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, perhaps exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By some definitions, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great Art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in others’ thoughts.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour certain attributes:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience: “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms over interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience): media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect (and maintain a connection) with a wide range of people: obvious or unchallenging themes and content.

(This of course ignores the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition, which can shift these weightings.)

So how do games fit into this model?

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. As the technological platforms on which they are played become obsolete, they also suffer on the first, though this is changing as gamers begin to take seriously the value of archiving their medium.

Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced).

This in turn tends to instil certain fallacious presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

The logic used by some critics who argue that games can’t be Art, namely that player interaction with the game – control of pacing and even sequence – nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art, is one such fallacy.

Consider sculpture and architecture; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal, and while the creators have some influence on the flow of their audience’s experience of their work, it is far from absolute.

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth.

Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art most strongly lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Romero’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or, perhaps, conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols.

Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters both theory of mind and “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender them, I say: Let’s Play.

This is not a particularly high-traffic blog, but should anyone be inspired to comment, I’m particularly interested in suggestions of other games whose systems allow for expressive, even emergent moments.

Welcome!

Hello! Welcome to the blog of Philip Minchin (or Phil Minchin, I answer to the nickname too – as the title of this blog suggests 🙂 ).

For the last few years, I’ve been advocating for games and play as essential parts of culture, particularly in a library context. (For an outline of why I hold this view, read this series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog.) I’ve also been exploring new opportunities for libraries in the online world, moving from the old one-way, broadcast models of publishing to more two-way, networked one. And I’ve been writing and designing for games, both electronic and tabletop.

If you need to contact me, I’m available via Gmail – I’m euchronic there.

I’ve been happily working in the background, but it’s getting to the point where I need a central online location for all my various bits and bobs so people can find me easily. So here it is! More to come soon.

I’ve presented at numerous conferences, conventions, and library services; those with public links are:

I’ve also written a paper on libraries in the age of interactivity, which touches on questions of play but focuses more on the structural role of libraries.

I’ve had blog posts selected as weekly Feature posts on game designer site Gamasutra.

In 2011, I was instrumental in getting the ALA to recognise that its National Gaming Day @ your library was in fact an International Games Day @ your library, in 2012 I founded the Global Gossip Game to link libraries worldwide for the event, and in 2013 I ran the IGD@yl blog and took the GGG to all seven continents.

I’ve been a consultant to various games companies on working with libraries to share their games with audiences. I also do freelance creative writing and worldbuilding work; in the last couple of years I’ve contributed to numerous tabletop RPG books, including an Adventure Path, half-a-dozen Player Companions and the Bestiary 4 for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

I’ve been a consultant to libraries around games, as an important part of culture in themselves, as the basis for interesting new forms of literature, as tools for promoting both traditional and new modes of literacy, as promotional tools to bring people into the library, and as a simple source of fun. Most notably, I prepared a Games & Interactivity Strategy for Melbourne Library Service around their new Docklands Library (opening in mid-2014).

I’m a contact point for library e-Game lending – I’ve been advocating for a few years now that libraries need to work with vendors (I particularly recommend Valve Software’s Steam product) to develop an e-lending solution for electronic games, and one of my current projects is acting as a central clearinghouse for people interested in that prospect.

And I’m currently beginning the work of establishing APILI, an institution that will be to play and games what the National Library of Australia is to the archived written word, ACMI is to the moving image, and the National Gallery is to the visual arts… only with key parts of its work being (a) more fun and (b) more readily accessible through local communities’ own libraries and schools.

Here’s my standard intro blurb if you need it:

Trained in history, literature, classics and archaic languages, Philip Minchin has worked in publishing, arts production, NGO governance and campaigning, and library IT in Melbourne, Australia. There he got interested in the evolving relationships between libraries, communities, games, interactivity, systems and UI design. He now presents and consults to libraries on these issues, helping to develop games & interactivity strategies that blend the best of old and new media to support intelligent, literate engagement across the full range of modern culture. He also writes game content for Open Design and Paizo Publishing, among others, and volunteers for International Games Day @ your library (Saturday November 15 in 2014) – including running the Global Gossip Game, a not-so-little exercise in information theory and silly community-building fun.