Choosing Democracy, Peacefully

It’s important to understand that we (the US) are in a tricky place right now. I doubt anyone reading this will be surprised by my saying that. But part of what’s tricky about our current political situation is that—categorically speaking—nonviolent protest is far more effective at achieving its aims than violent protest, and it’s relatively easy for violent instigators to cast doubt on nonviolent protests by engaging in violence around the edges.

If the President refuses to follow the process, it is vital that Americans partake in nonviolent protest and demand that the process be followed. This might be necessary, especially in light of this reporting (there’s far more than just this quote):

“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.”

The stories we tell about this, before, during, and after, are critical. Our efforts here are to preserve our democracy, and to keep our democratic republic (to paraphrase the apocryphal words of Benjamin Franklin to Philadelphia’s political doyen Elizabeth Willing Powel). If there are calls to cease counting votes, or to ignore votes, we should call it what it is: an attempted coup, and a violation of the processes our elections rely on to maintain their legitimacy and the consent of the governed.

If we wish to keep our democratic republic, we can speak out and engage in nonviolent protest. We can engage with others, and call on them to protect American democracy alongside us. No matter how personal this may seem, this isn’t about an individual; this is about preserving the agreements and values which are the foundation of our democracy. This is something that anyone who believes in a democratic republic should support.

I suggest that you read about the Choose Democracy project, and plan to advocate for our democratic values and process.

“Just Kidding”, quick political thoughts

Trump can waffle and correct himself and scrawl little words into the heaving blank spaces he left to carry his message all he likes. What remains is the fact that he is casting doubt on the American electoral system, casting doubt on voting by mail (which has staggeringly low rates of fraud, even lower than the already low American norm), and trying to use funding to support a piece of critical election infrastructure as a bargaining chip during a pandemic.

He’s said before that he thinks having more people vote is bad for him, and for Republicans in general. He said that back in March.

Now he’s withholding resources for allowing people to vote. It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s serious or “just a tactic.” It’s dangerous, and it’s bad for the republic. It’s bad for America, and for everyone in it, and, fuck, it’s bad for people outside it too because we can’t pretend America doesn’t influence the rest of the world.

I’m fucking upset. I’m angry. I’m… not surprised. Not especially surprised, anyway. Trump’s been saying—for a while now—that he doesn’t believe in voting by mail (despite voting by mail himself). He’s suggested (“joked”?) postponing the election. This is more of the same, but…

But withholding funding for the USPS so that it will be harder for mail-in voting to happen, during a pandemic, is abominable. It’s abominable from the perspective of public health, from the perspective of the continued health of our democratic republic…

It’s something that I feared, and something that I didn’t think he’d actually say out loud.

If knowingly suppressing the vote and eroding elections isn’t criminal, it really ought to be.

Watching Trump do these things, say these things, feeds the fears I’ve felt for years. I’ve told myself I’m paranoid, or at least that I’m catastrophizing, when I worry about Trump’s next steps, but time and again he does the thing that I feared.

The next step, the next thing I (and others I know) fear, is a large scale repeat of the Ballot Security Task Force which, in New Jersey in 1981, effectively suppressed minority voters (here’s the wikipedia article). Until 2017, the RNC was limited by consent decree because their actions in 1981 were so egregious. That consent decree expired (here’s Politico on the expiration of the limiting consent decree), and the RNC is working on recruiting and training election observers (Washington Post on the topic, note about observers is a little ways in) while Trump foments fear about fraud.

I’m not afraid that my vote won’t be counted, not really. I’m voting in Massachusetts, and I’m voting Democratic. If anything, my vote will barely matter for entirely different reasons. That’s okay. I’d rather not use first-past-the-post elections, but I’ll nerd out about election systems another day.

No, I’m worried about the chilling effect on participation throughout the rest of the country, and especially in those places where a small margin might make a big difference for Trump. I’ve been angry with the Republican Party’s elections strategies for a long time now, but if they manage to pull this one off—fuck.

Look, John Scalzi is a generally good person and has lots of other words, including plenty about voting, here.

He also has links to important voting resources there.

In case you’re too lazy, here: REGISTER TO VOTE and CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION STATUS

Election Day is November 3rd, 2020.

LARP Camp in the time of Covid

I work at a LARP camp. I love the community there, and my coworkers are some of my favorite people. And when it comes to making magic happen, I would be hard pressed to find a better group of collaborators. I think we do an excellent job giving kids both awesome experiences and tools to change their lives for the better.

Obviously, this spring and summer have been a little complicated because of Covid. We run day camps and overnight camps, we have one-day events, we organize games of capture the flag with swords. All those things happen in-person.

But I’m happy to say that Covid hasn’t stopped us. With some quick thinking on the part of our community, we’ve adapted. One of my friends threw together a discord server for our community as soon as the shutdown started (J. Dragon, the creator of indie horror RPG Sleepaway). Folks have stepped up to run games on our server, and there’s a good feeling of warmth and engagement there.

Better yet, we’re running digital camps this summer. I’d been worried about them at first; they clearly won’t be exactly the same as being together in person, and I’d feared that they wouldn’t capture enough of what makes our camps really sing. But after playtesting our first game last weekend, I’m happy to say that I think we’ve got something really cool to offer.

I was right that these digital camps won’t be exactly the same as our in-person ones. That’s inevitable. But our game writers have put together a really cool set of games for this summer, and I’m really excited about them. I’ll be working the first of them, from July 13th to 17th.

I’ve been playing RPGs since before I could read and write. I’ve played more LARPs than I can remember. And I’ve taught improv theater and LARP for years. These games are good.

Part of what has me so excited is that the games know what they are. They know their constraints, and they’ve embraced those constraints instead of trying to pretend they don’t exist. Because of that, the technological interfaces for our first game actually added to immersion instead of feeling like a barrier.

I love it when a game’s systems and fiction fit together and support each other. That’s a big part of what I like about Monsterhearts, for example. But having the underlying means of interacting with the game world be part of the fiction too is even more exciting. It offers the deep immersion that so many ARGs have sought to offer, blurring the lines between fiction and reality in a way that makes the whole experience far better.

Anyway, I’m excited about all of this. If you happen to be of age to be a camper, I suggest you check out the site.

Hard Work Brings Rewards, National Narratives cont.

When I brought up the Protestant work ethic in my previous post about National Narratives, I glossed over important details and context. The Protestant work ethic is more than “hard work brings rewards,” and it important to know where it came from and what else it’s informed. Its past continues to shape our naturalized beliefs today.

Before I dive in further, I have to define what I mean by “naturalized” (see ‘naturalization’).

First off, in this case ‘naturalize’ is a verb used in semiotics, and has little to do with immigration.

Naturalize (a sign): to make a sign or a set interpretation of signs (a code) appear natural or inherent truth; a naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangement will seem common-sense, normal, or self-evident.

These naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangements can range from deeply held ideological beliefs to surface level impressions. The degree to which codes are naturalized can vary as well, as can the degree to which a code is naturalized across a population. These codes can vary in their complexity and in their interpretation or justification. The important part, for our purposes, is that these codes are held as self-evident, normal, or common sense. Inherent, and natural.

Here are six concrete examples of arbitrary cultural arrangements in the US: “Irish people are drunks,” “WASPs are uptight,” “black people are lazy,” “people have a right to own firearms,” “there should be freedom of speech,” “all people are created equal.”

So let’s look at “hard work brings rewards” as it relates to the Protestant work ethic.

When you trace its roots, the Protestant work ethic is founded on specific beliefs about the possibility of reaching Heaven, and the difficulty of knowing who could or would reach Heaven. It relies on the belief that having true (Christian) faith is the only way to go to Heaven, and the assumption that good people want to go to Heaven. Furthermore, it is founded in the concept of good works, and the idea that true faith in God can only exist if faith is present in conjunction with those good works (provided there’s an opportunity for good works—there’s some disagreement among Christian sects about the necessity of good works for salvation, and about what defines “good works”).

In summary, this belief combines “true faith brings the reward of Heaven,” and “true faith requires good works,” into “good works bring the reward of Heaven.”

Not only that, but because possessing true faith in order to go to Heaven is presumably the ultimate goal of any good Christian (remember: “good people want to go to Heaven,” and “Christianity is the only way to Heaven”), therefore good Christians must perform good works.

Notice all the value statements here, all those ‘goods.’ We’ll come back to them later.

Let’s examine this belief from the inside—the naturalized belief that “good works bring the reward of Heaven.” What if we follow its internal logic when thinking about people in society?

True faith isn’t reliably visible. But a person’s actions are. If someone performs good works, we may reason that they may have true faith and may thus go to Heaven. Good works bring the reward of Heaven (we’ll assume that this person has faith).

Conversely, by this reasoning someone who does no good works lacks true faith. If they lack true faith, they are damned. While the arguments about this are long and varied, the usual answer is that their damnation is probably their own fault.

Thus, if “good works bring the reward of Heaven” is a naturalized belief—if we think it’s inherently true—then it should also be true that someone’s lack of good works means they won’t go to Heaven. It allows us to make a moral judgement about them: they’re not good enough. They might even be a bad person.

That’s a value statement which can be inferred from this naturalized belief.

But what if society reapplies this code, “good works bring the reward of Heaven,” in a secular context? It could be simplified to “work brings rewards.” Or perhaps “hard work brings rewards.”

But it still carries many of the same implications when thinking about members of society.

Again, let’s follow this belief’s internal logic.

If “hard work brings rewards” is inherently true, and someone works, we’d expect that they would be rewarded. If they’re not rewarded, they must not have worked hard enough—and their lack of rewards can’t be bad luck or adversity, because we know that “hard work brings rewards” is true. As with true faith, good works, and going to Heaven, if someone works hard enough they’ll be rewarded enough to overcome any amount of trouble. Like damnation from the exploration above, someone’s lack of prosperity is their own fault.

Moreover, if “hard work brings rewards” is true and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be a hard worker. It isn’t difficult to make the leap from someone not being a hard worker to not being a good person. That’s especially true when your beliefs about the rewards of hard work are founded on moral beliefs about good works and going to Heaven. According to this belief, people who aren’t hard enough workers may be bad people. That’s another value statement—more on that in a moment.

There’s an important difference between the religious and the secular forms of these beliefs. It isn’t possible to see someone go to Heaven. But we can see people rewarded, or not rewarded.

According to the strictest form of these beliefs, when someone’s good works are lacking we can guess that they’re not a good person. But when someone lacks rewards, we know that they’re not working hard enough. We know that they’re not good enough to enjoy prosperity.

This is long, but hold on: because of the strong associations between rewards and goodness—and between lack-of-rewards and not-goodness—if someone is rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a good person. And if they’re not rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a bad person.

And all that reasoning is based on arbitrary cultural arrangements, codified interpretations of a series of signs that we think have specific meaning that is somehow inherently true… even when there’s nothing inherently true about any of it.

It’s easy see the legacies of these lines of thought. They’re deeply ingrained in American society, especially in the secular form. The belief that “hard work brings rewards” is often referred to as Achievement Ideology, and both are integrally linked to the American Dream.

The belief that people who haven’t been rewarded with prosperity may be moral failures or are otherwise to blame has been part of British and American legislation around poverty and welfare for centuries. The moral failing involved varies, depending on who makes the judgement, but it is often laziness, or sin, or some other behavior disliked by the person who believes “hard work brings rewards.” Drunkenness and addiction are often held up as examples, despite research suggesting that these are correlated with environmental stress, and may be reduced through reducing environmental stress.

Yet those moral failings are often taken as signs that people do not deserve aid or succor.

Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth, a basis for modern day philanthropy, very explicitly warns against giving charity to the “unworthy” (p.16, 18) and valorizes the “industrious workman [who says] to his incompetent and lazy fellow, ‘if thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap,’” (p.6). Modern American welfare, with its work requirements and restrictions, is similarly caught up in the idea that giving to people who don’t deserve it is perilous. And Britain’s New Poor Laws in the Victorian Era intentionally made the support they offered no better than living in abject poverty, out of concern that people would rather claim support than work. These are the same laws which gave rise to Charles Dickens’ famous novels about impoverished people in Victorian England.

Yet it’s entirely possible to work hard and receive no reward. American slavery is an obvious counterargument to the naturalization of the idea that “hard work brings reward.” Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed delves into the experience of the low wage labor market in the 1990’s after the US’ 1996 welfare reform act, and how little reward hard labor brought.

The few existing experiments involving unconditional financial giving and support to members of communities (often called Universal Basic Income) suggest that the fear of laziness the New Poor Laws were based on, and which Carnegie articulated, was largely baseless. The Canadian experiments of the 1970s showed little decline in employment after the introduction of Basic Income, and Namibia’s experiments from 2008 to 2009 were successful on multiple fronts, including “facilitat[ing] an increase in employment and income” (BIG Assessment Report, p.68).

“Hard work brings rewards” is a naturalized code. It’s an arbitrary cultural arrangement, a belief that is not inherently true. Plenty of people work hard and get nowhere, while others work little and yet prosper.

I don’t write this to demean hard work, or to claim that people should not work hard. I am too much a product of our society to not value hard work, especially for a good cause.

But what might our world look like if we recognized that those who’ve prospered aren’t necessarily good, and those who’ve suffered aren’t bad? How much better might we treat each other? How much more willing might we be to make ways for us to support each other?

Last time, it took the Great Depression for us to have this epiphany—and we may be on track for another Great Depression. Last time, because of Southern Democrats (and others) clinging to racism, we only helped some of our fellows.

What if we did better this time?

National Narratives

The US has got a doozy of a narrative shift in store for it. I think we’re either going to change our national narratives, or we’re going to find all the ways that our previous narratives don’t match our new reality well. Or both. We could definitely do both.

And that process is going to involve a lot of pain.

These aren’t unique or special thoughts. Most folks I’ve talked with recently have had similar ones. I know I’ve read things like them in other places. I think both John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig have been writing about things related to this, as has Graydon Saunders.

But I’m thinking about all of it from a particularly narrative-based focus.

The New Yorker article Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders is particularly relevant here.

So, I suppose, is my post last week about finding hope in books.

Let’s talk specifically about narrative.

The New York Times has a piece on the surge in unemployment which includes some good words from Professor Alice Fothergill at UVM: “A lot of people in the United States are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent… This is something that is definitely going to be very, very difficult.” She also noted that those who feel ashamed about seeking help are often the ones who need it most.

That same article also had this marvelous quote:

“In its unsparing breadth, the crisis is pitting two American ideals against each other—the e pluribus unum credo of solidarity and its near-religious devotion to the idea that hard work brings rewards. Those notions coexist peacefully in prosperous times. Today, both are being put to the test, forcing the newly unemployed to re-evaluate beliefs about themselves and their country.”

Those ideals are two stories that we tell about what it means to be American. They’re our national narratives. They’re institutions and ideologies, if you want to get into the weeds. These narratives are not always well-rooted in or supported by reality, but being well-supported by reality isn’t a narrative’s job. The narrative, the ideology, isn’t here to accurately reflect our world; its role is to tell us where we fit in, and what we should do. These narratives are often more aspirational than descriptive.

Follow me as I wander through a few more articles:

Some businesses are pledging not to fire their employees. Some are going further to take better care of their employees. I don’t know that I believe the article’s supposition that there will be any reputation-based reckoning for the companies that callously fire their employees. I’ll wait and see. Personally, I’d *like* there to be something, but… yeah, I’ll wait and see.

The Economist has data from the Spanish Flu about how social distancing preserved economic function in the 1918 epidemic, which is both neat and reassuring.

And it’s sensible in light of FiveThirtyEight’s piece on the cost of life which basically agrees that human lives are individually expensive, or at least that we’re willing to put a large number of resources towards preventing human deaths. But I think another profound acknowledgement is buried in a side comment: large scale losses of life also strip society of other things which are entirely in excess of the value of an individual life (arts, culture, education, etc). While we can tally up what we’re willing to pay to prevent a death, we can’t actually account for the full cost of a life… and the loss of many lives creates a loss greater than the sum of its parts.

Wandering back…

That “e pluribus unum credo of solidarity” is the narrative bedrock on which phrases like “united we stand” are built. From many, one. It’s how we come together as a country, as a unified community. It’s no mistake that “e pluribus unum” is on so many official seals of our government. It was adopted as an official motto in 1782 by an Act of Congress. Even when people don’t know what e pluribus unum means, you can see this in the devotion and considerate care people give each other during and after natural disasters (here for article, here for meta-study).

That belief that “hard work brings rewards” moves hand in hand with Professor Fothergill’s point that many people in the US “are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent.” Those elements are stories that’ve been part of our national narrative for ages, often referred to as the Protestant work ethic. They fed the romanticized vision of the Western, among other things, and when taken to the extreme encourage focusing on work to the exclusion of most other aspects of life.

They’re also foundational to other more toxic narratives, as people reason out from these ideals as though they were unquestionable truths.

For the past decades, we’ve prioritized the narrative of hard work and independence over the narrative of from many, one. We’ve taken apart our social safety net. We’ve told ourselves that we wouldn’t be the ones needing help. We’d be the ones who were smart, who worked hard, who reaped the rewards of our own work unlike those shirkers over there—because if hard work brings rewards and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be working hard enough. We were Aesop’s ant, not the grasshopper.

Except, maybe, we as a country were wrong. Maybe sometimes people suffer regardless of whether they deserve it. Maybe people saw the success of mid-century white America and forgot what it was built on, what made it possible. Maybe we saw the later continued growth of corporate America and told ourselves that everything was okay as long as the big numbers went up—because eventually that would help everyone, even the little people. Someday.

It turns out that removing the things that help others around us also weakens us. Avoiding human deaths is good. Not avoiding them—even stripped of ethical or moral judgment—is still expensive.

Look.

It’s fine to take pride in supporting yourself and doing well. That’s healthy. But I don’t think it’s healthy for that to be the only place we find pride in our lives.

It’s important for us to take pride in supporting each other, and others around us. And to remember that we don’t *only* support our fellow humans by giving them money (though money matters, especially given the society we live in). It’s high time we remember that E Pluribus Unum is as much a part of our national narrative as any other ideas are. And with that in mind, and as we take care of each other by not getting each other sick, let’s find ways to make our country a little better at being kind and supportive instead of embracing something as callous as “live and let die.”

Arisia 2020 is next week!

I’ll be at Arisia next weekend, from Jan 17th-20th (Friday through Monday). I’m going to be on seven panels, and will be moderating three of them! Here’s my schedule, and a quick overview of *some* of the material for each panel.

The GM-less Game; Lewis, Friday 7pm: discussing the growing genre of GM-less games, what makes them work, and how to dig into them.

Cooperative Games (mod); Marina 4, Saturday 4pm: discussing cooperative and semi-cooperative board and video games, barriers to entry, how to pick the right ones for your group, and how to navigate their traps and pitfalls.

Feet of Clay, Mind of Light; Marina 2, Saturday 5:30pm: discussing sentient life in non-organic bodies, with plenty of robots, AIs, and conversation about gender, immortality, bodies, dysphoria, and the soul.

Harassment, Missing Stairs, and Safety in LARP; Faneuil, Saturday 7pm: discussing do’s and don’ts of writing and enforcing codes of conduct, dealing with malicious actors in your social groups, and maintaining a healthy and welcoming community that is less vulnerable to abusive behavior.

Death and Funerary Practices in Science Fiction (mod); Marina 4, Sunday 1pm: discussing how genre fiction has dealt with (and failed to deal with) death, how this informs our understanding of the cultures inside those stories, and how our own culture has shaped death and funerary practices in our fiction.

Bringing Horror Into Other Genres (mod); Otis, Sunday 7pm: discussing what horror actually is, the effect of horror’s dread and frisson, what purposes horror may serve (both in horror and elsewhere), and how horror and its elements can expand and improve other genres.

The Hacker’s Guide to D&D; Marina 2, Sunday 8:30pm: discussing D&D 5th edition, how (un)important it is to use the rules as they’re written, and how we as storytellers can use rules and systems from elsewhere to create the experiences we want for our players inside the constraints of D&D’s 5th edition.

I am sans Internet

I’m moving, and don’t have reliable internet! I’ll be back next week.

DIE, and other RPG development

I’ve been lucky to be part of several different people’s thoughts about RPGs in the past month.

At the beginning of April I was fortunate enough to playtest Kieron Gillen’s DIE RPG, which was Continue reading

Writing LARPs for Multiple Audiences, Quick Thoughts

I’ve already submitted the LARP I wrote about last week. Now I’m deep in finishing a second one in time for the deadline tomorrow.

While a more detailed report will have to wait, I can give you additional tidbits. And it just so happens that those tidbits play neatly into another topic: writing for multiple audiences.

The game I mentioned last week is about death and mourning, but I can’t be sure that every person who plays it will engage with it as such. Actually, I can be pretty certain that they won’t. Audiences aren’t monolithic, after all, and some of my players might not yet have experienced death as a personal thing. Even if they had, they might not recognize what I created as anything like their experience.

So I wrote a game that plays with all those themes I mentioned last week, and which has places for good fun outside of but adjacent to those themes—almost like two games running in parallel. My hope is that players who don’t feel the emotional resonance of connecting with and mourning the dead (or being mourned) will find reward in fighting and building relationships with the big scary monsters of the Land of Spirits.

In many ways, the game I wrote is reliant on the skills of my staff and players who start the game as monsters. They need to give the People, the folk traveling into the Land of Spirits, enough space to have their emotional scenes. But they also need to present a challenge to the players who are bored and spoiling for a fight. And I’ve made it clear that I want them to encourage the fighters to engage with them in status-and-respect interactions. The underlying idea is that the Player Characters aren’t the only ones who can be mourned; the mechanics I introduce around mourning and offering respect to the dead work for *everyone* in the game, including people who aren’t PCs. I want the monsters to reward the PCs who mourn them, even after fighting them, because I want the people who are distracted from dealing with mourning and connecting with the dead to be drawn back into the main themes of the game and be rewarded for interacting with them.

The warriors will mostly be self-selecting, so if there are people who want to fight they’ll have the chance. And if the PCs who fight monsters never mourn any of their foes, they’ll still have an opportunity for more fighting. Actually, the more they fight and don’t mourn, the more fighting they’ll get in the future. So while one group of players is connecting with and mourning the dead, getting their enjoyment from the more emotional content of the game, another group can have a totally different experience at the same time in the same place. I hope.

At present, my rules say that dead spirits who are bored can go to RE (our system’s personification of reincarnation). My plan is for bored spirits to come back as more monsters. I see an obvious failure mode here, if RE sends people who lack the requisite skills out as monsters. Game could rapidly devolve into butchery and loss if too-eager monsters murder all the PCs. But as long as RE knows the players well, I think we can avoid that.

With luck, maybe this will work!

Death, Mourning, and a LARP

It feels funny to say this, but… death has been a big part of my life.

Not in any ground-shaking, crushing way, but as something slow and omnipresent and always visible. I suspect my mom’s work with the elderly and in hospice influenced that. I learned that people react oddly to their own incipient death, and that they have many ways of coping with the loss of those they love.

I lost several pets before any family I knew died. Those experiences weren’t at all the same, but in some way the one helped me with the other. Now, most of my grandparents’ generation is dead. I’ve lost friends younger than me, a cousin, others. I was so choked up with an unwillingness to process grief that I took years to say goodbye after my first grandpa died. Saying goodbye to my friends hasn’t really been easier, except insofar as I know that mourning them is a cycle I will revisit many times.

This is something that I’ve thought about more in the past few years. Coco really drove it home for me. I knew after watching that movie that I wanted to create something that would help others learn how they could mourn, learn how they could remember even as they let go.

I’ll tell you more about this when I’m not racing a deadline, but I’m working on a LARP that I think might do some of this. I want to give my players a chance to experience grieving for others, and being grieved for, in its entirety. I want that to be a healthy experience, one that allows for connection and catharsis. And I want my players to have fun. I hope it works.

More details soon.