Friday, May 18, 2012

Ulrich Beck in the shower

I'm told this was originally posted by Evan Torner on some "google plus" venue. Paul Czege was kind enough to share it with me.

So I've re-read some of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and determined the following way of presenting capitalism's "issues" to undergrads while in the shower:

1. Capitalism only works by feeding itself. It has no natural predators. It is a badly written game system that serves no one.
2. To feed itself, it must constantly monetize and rationalize the world.
3. Monetizing and rationalizing the world means subverting or destroying structures that do not provide capital and predictable gains. Everything must become an "industry." Everything consumable, and locked away.
4. Capitalism actually doesn't act on the level of the individual - it requires unassailable institutions (governments, corporations, industry networks) that systematize the extraction of wealth and value through making everything consumable but locked away.
5. Minimizing risk in the extraction of wealth and value means projecting any social, health or financial problems onto the individual.
6. Individuals then become the managers of their own risk (Beck's thesis). They are isolated, alone with their bad bargains and untenable decisions. Cutting them off from communities or inserting capitalist relations into communities to monetize and rationalize them make these individuals easier to control and incorporate into capitalist logics (debt, alienated labor).
7. Nobody likes being the manager of one's own risk (how stressful!), so those who can afford it quietly build up new social defenses (i.e. personal wealth, gated communities, Platinum cards) against the risk management.
8. The wealthy's bolstering of their own defenses requires capital, so further pressure is applied on those poorer individuals ("young, loitering, non-property-owning, poor" as Rich Benjamin recently put it) to create a safety net for themselves. Communities for the 1% holding all the wealth preserve pre-capitalist social networks and leisures. They help perpetuate the chaos outside their walls while believing themselves to be mere managers of their own wealth. A community-defense mentality sets in, and others not in on the 1% believe they can gain access to their safety nets if they help capitalism push the rest of the 99% down.
9. The poor are meanwhile fed into feedback loops (like the prison industrial complex or the surveillance state) to track their risk while denying them the ability to adequately manage it.
10. Poor people turn to desperation, and so do the talented people who don't want to be poor. Everyone oppresses everyone else in the hopes of getting behind the wealthy's wall (though they're still overworked and anxious thanks to the risk society).
11. Everyone oppressing everyone else is actually not a desirable, productive or healthy psychic environment. Despite or perhaps because of their defenses, the wealthy continue to feel insecure. Were they the ones responsible for this mess? Of course not! An abstract system that, by definition, cannot take responsibility is, in fact, responsible. But they as individuals need to continue protection against risk until the mess "sorts itself out." They churn up the engines of capital to protect themselves, and the cycle continues.

I see now how socio-historical catastrophes happen. It's these damn feedback loops.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Monthly wrap-up: April snow & playstorming

Phew, last month’s been a hectic one! I went to Helsinki for Solmukohta (plus some sightseeing), then to Este-in-Gioco, I role-played even while traveling, made big promises I failed to keep, and run a 2-days-long playtesting of my major work-in-progress.

- § -
So, Finland… Over the ten days I spent away, I managed (in no particular order) to have a culture shock from sky-high food-and-beer prices and another from the easy availability of vegetarian alternatives everywhere, to contemplate the glum shores of the Baltic Sea with no little sense of beauty and awe, to improve my sauna-fu from kiddie-level to beginner-level and maybe learn where the green branches come from, to quickly grow relatively bored of the plainness of Helsinki as a urban landscape and cross the sea to visit Tallinn (which was a very pleasant surprise), to meet Eero Tuovinen in person (at last! and he doesn't even look more bear than man) and play Fables of Camelot with him (quite interesting and fun), to see for myself that heavy-metal is inexplicably tolerated as not-necessarily-the-antithesis-of-cool in Finnish culture, to try some delicious blueberry and lingonberry ciders, to grow more and more used to social nudity (and I’m finding it very liberating), to come out as weird to random passersby and girls in bars, to eat mammi (not bad at all, but I much prefer it with no milk/cream) and get tipsy on minttu and salmiakki, to crash into the most surreal and inanely drunken after-party ever (featuring a wedding between Claus and a teddy bear), to show off how I’m always my own fashion designer, exploit some German rules, fail at getting into a mask-induced trance, to make some lovely new friends and to meet some much-missed old ones again. But first and last thing, I had to wonder at the majestic, unforgiving craziness of a land where it snows in April (It! Fucking! Snows! In! April!) adding to the already half-meter-deep cover of unmelted winter snow which still chokes the ground (and ice-covered lakes!).
As for the Solmukohta/Knutepunkt proper, it’s always refreshing – rejuvenating even – to step for a few days into this alternate-reality world where role-playing is cool. Yes, that sums it. Nordic role-playing apparently succeeded in allying itself with its more mainstream cousins – arts and education – rather than quietly accept being marginalized as niche entertainment for geeky and socially inept people. And it succeeded at doing this while strengthened, rather than neutered, in its cultural relevance and political aggressiveness. The KP-going crowd mirrors those developments, consisting in a dazzling array of beautiful and enjoyable people who either experienced a personal growth thanks to role-playing or were attracted to the form while coming from a different (usually artistic) background and chose to stay: these people role-play, talk smart, are possessed of powerful political views, have a sense of dress and love to dance at parties (thus showing your average foreign attendee that the above aren’t inherently irreconcilable things). The level of the conversations one can enjoy, thus, is stunningly high.
The hottest topics this year, as represented in the convention program: use of larping/role-playing in education, and the feasibility of organizing larps as a day-job – both very concrete issues, spearheaded by successful early adopters. After two years of hogging the spotlight, by the way, jeepform appears to be forgotten, or rather digested, and nobody mentions it anymore. My personal highlight, program-item-wise: attending the method demonstration of Østerskov Efterskole, the Danish special school where they teach all subjects through games, preferably larps. I already knew about them from an article in LarpZeit, international issue #1, but now I feel like I know them, and it was a great, eye-opening experience. I was recruited to help out Emily Care Boss & co. with their demonstration of GM-less tabletop rpgs: I promptly accepted, not realizing the event was scheduled for 10:00 am on a Saturday morning [if that sounds harmless enough to you, then you have no idea of the kind of parties they throw at night during Solmukohta!], and then chose to demo Polaris, not realizing I was only to be allotted half an hour for that. To my surprise, I think the event – or my Polaris demo at least – was actually a success! Too bad that, afterwards, sleep deprivation exacted its toll from me, so that I failed to achieve much at all during Alex Fradera’s lovely mask-trance technique improvisation seminar (after a while I stepped back and just watched).
Naturally, more than a handful Solmukohta-goers disseminated the Internet with their own tales or even detailed diaries of the trip: there’s Thomas (who spends honeyed words about me and even notices my early morning samue), Lizzie, Lizzie again, you can’t have enough, Evan, John, Rafael, not to forget the Mike Pohjola… It’s actually a lot of fun to read them all, the same way it’s intriguing to hear different players’ stories after a larp: you get a feeling for a vast multitude of individual narratives that sometimes, just sometimes touch. Oh, and I haven’t been able to dig into the Solmukohta book, yet, but I will, word by word – also ’cause I want to have a hand in disproving Andrea Castellani’s malignant theory that nobody ever reads the book (and be sure I read the many books from last two years pretty thoroughly!).

- § -
As soon as I was back to Italy, I embarked in the pretty short trip to Este in Gioco, a gaming convention in the Padua area (in case you’re wondering how I manage to move around so much while being unemployed/broke: this time I was fully reliant on friends for driving me there, hosting me for the night, etc., so it cost me very little money to go). I’ve been attending Este in Gioco almost every year since a good while, and I was thrilled when I heard that the convention had finally moved into the very scenic town center of Este proper, in the park enclosed by the castle walls. It was then a bit of a disappointment, upon arrival, to realize that the whole convention was confined within a single pavilion and enjoyed very little visibility from the outside – even the posters advertising it were few, far between and small-sized. With the town being very lively on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I had hoped we were going to visibly invade public spaces and hook in random passersby to try out games! Nothing like that happened but, on the other hand, I wasn’t really prepared for that either – no easy, “introductory” games in my bag, nor colorful devices to show people I’m there. Board-games and the like have it easy: visible game components act as their own advertisement or, at least, as a token of existence; role-playing games, on the other hand, tend to be mostly immaterial, which also means they’re nigh-invisible. It’s telling that, as I and friends were attempting to gather players for an excellent mini-larp by Oscar Biffi, our attempts only turned successful after Oscar produced a bunch of wooden swords (which are, mind you, only employed as a costume prop in the larp, not actually used for fighting): now we had a visible, obvious cue that something was happening, and that we could leverage to break into people’s mind-space and ask them into the game. Anyway, a bunch of the usual suspects were there and I had a good time with them. There was a pretty sweet game of Mist-Robed Gate (how’s that for something visible which could be played in a public space to get some attention, by the way?) and much playtesting of friends’ work-in-progress designs: Dawn of a New Tomorrow by Davide Losito is turning out a very solid game, in fact, and I feel like through my vampire character I only played for a couple hour I was able to channel so much more angst and negative energy than I ever could express as a teenager – well done! And, you know, maybe next year we’ll be able to make the most from the convention’s new location and make role-playing games visible to the general populace (probably through specially designed events, or at least strong visual cues).
Also this last month, I’ve been playing lots of Remember Tomorrow – as a two-players game. It is indeed true that it works this way, almost as well as with three or more players, as its only feature which is directly hampered by the two-players setup is the (in my experience) very uncommon 3-way conflict; the game mostly plays as a string of 1-vs-1 face-offs (interspersed with monologues) anyway, even in a larger group. Since I and my sweetheart share a fondness for the subject-matter, Remember Tomorrow has become our default go-to pastime whenever we’ve got some time to kill: we played it in German international airports, onboard Baltic ferry-boats and while sunbathing on Italian beaches* (one just has to remember to pack the little bundle of playsheets and 8d10; small-change coins work well enough for Edge tokens). I feel like I’m now experienced enough with the game that I begin to notice its probable limits, but still I think it’s extremely good for a regular, you’re-not-sure-how-long-it’s-going-to-last game, and completing an “episode” (it took longer than we expected) left us hungry to start another one almost immediately (which we did).
* On the topic of sunbathing: yes, this is Italy, and in April we go to the beach. Sorry, Finland!
Finally, speaking of actual play in April, we summoned a bunch of friends to the usual place for what we call “a home convention” on 30th and May 1st. The original plan was to playtest Ben Robbin’s Kingdom, but as one of the players wasn’t jazzed with my synopsis of the game (too bad, since I’m extremely excited about it!) we went for Plan B: we set down to playtest my own I reietti di Eden — the first ever playtest for the severe rule changes I’ve been cooking up since version 0.2 crashed like a train-wreck. What actually happened over two pretty intense afternoons could better be termed a “playstorming”: new rules were made up on the fly to patch holes, and the whole thing barely held together, though the players unanimously reported having had fun. It’s crystal clear that some balancing still needs to be done before a playtest draft can be let out in the wild, but that’s the least of the discoveries made, and was almost expected. More critically, I have to give up on the idea that this can be a quick, convention-friendly one-shot game: it took us some 10 hours of play before we triggered the endgame, and most startling is that I liked it that way, since the rhythm of play was feeling perfectly right or at times even too fast; while I could theoretically re-design everything from the ground up, that would necessarily involve cutting away large chunks of play I actually have fun with. Better to quit my insistence on a one-shot game, then, and focus on the emergent strengths of the design, even if doing so will mean far less opportunities for playtests and, consequently, a slower development. Also, game setup methods (or lack thereof) came under some heavy fire, with “blank page syndrome” denounced as a universal issue: this proved fortunate, as it immediately generated ideas for a more structured setup phase, which I’m going to test out as soon as possible.
Besides, do you remember how I was supposed to translate the Italian finalists of the Game Chef? Well, while the feeling of being a “staff member” to the contest was great for me (and helped me cope with the disappointment for not being able to participate, the actual contest period overlapping almost exactly with my journey to Helsinki), I had no idea about the deadlines. Deadlines which actually came up when I was either off-line or presumed to be off-line (whether rightfully or not) by Giulia and Mario — the result being that it was Giulia, and not me, who did the job. To be fair, I suspect her to-English translations are vastly better than I could hope to achieve (I know she’s way more experienced than me there).