Recovering from a migraine, so creativity just ain’t happening (I know, I know, what else is new) but here’s a blog post I did back in 2009 on my own blog, ‘Fraggmented’, inspired by a joke in the Cinematic Titanic release “Blood of the Vampire”. (And as an aside, if you’re at all a fan of MST3K, consider giving to their Kickstarter?)
Now, gentlemen, allow me to welcome you to Fisticuffs Society. The first rule of Fisticuffs Society is: It is impolite to discuss Fisticuffs Society.
The second rule of Fisticuffs Society is: It is EXCEEDINGLY impolite to discuss Fisticuffs Society.
Third rule of Fisticuffs Society: Should a gentleman request disengagement from fisticuffs, whether verbally or through some form of hand signal…or in the event of incapacity…the other gentleman must desist immediately from battle.
Fourth rule: It would be inconsiderate for more than two gentleman to engage in a single bout.
Fifth rule: It would also be inconsiderate to engage in a bout of fisticuffs while other gentlemen are doing so.
Sixth rule: A gentleman disdains the wearing of anything other than proper attire while engaging in bare-knuckle fisticuffs–this implies full dinner dress, gentlemen. Anything else would be quite uncivilized. And I should not even need to mention that the use of weaponry is quite, quite unsporting.
Seventh rule: Naturally, no member of Fisticuffs Society should even dream of interrupting Fisticuffs Society due to other obligations; please clear your calendar for the evening in order to ensure that bouts can continue as long as they are obliged to continue.
And the eighth and final rule: If this is your first time at Fisticuffs Society, etiquette requires that you engage in a bout of fisticuffs yourself.
And we’re back! Phil reminds us that Justin and Diana bickered hard last week, but came in first, while the Chacs finally retired their catchphrase for good. On with the Race!
continue reading "Amazing Race 27, Episode 8: “Krakow, I’m Gonna Get You”"
There was a time, back around 15-20 years ago, when I was able to get genuinely enthused about “reunion projects”. They were much rarer back then–the archival nature of modern pop culture means that there’s always someone willing to throw a little money at any intellectual property to see whether or not their fans will bite, but back in 2000 or so, if something was coming back, it was usually something pretty amazing that got a second chance mainly due to the unstinting love its fans had for it.
I think that it was ‘Dark Knight Strikes Again’ that cured me of my unquestioning enthusiasm for revivals of long-abandoned properties…well, that or ‘Phantom Menace’. Kind of a one-two punch there. But Lucas was always someone whose reputation was more as an enabler of other people’s good work–seeing Frank Miller utterly shit the bed was far more of a shock. After that, while I could still get excited about the things I loved coming back (Doctor Who, Serenity, and did I mention I chipped in $100 to the MST3K Kickstarter?) my enthusiasm was always tempered with the awareness that sometimes our fannish refusal to let things end results in nothing more than an effort to cash in on that devotion with a lazy and slapdash followup. (Like ‘Before Watchmen’.)
So I was fully aware, walking in, that ‘W/Bob and David’ could wind up terrible. It could be nothing more than the dregs of rejected “Mr. Show’ sketches, cobbled together and performed unenthusiastically to get a paycheck by comedians who wanted to cash in on their status as underappreciated legends. I watched it, but I was emotionally prepared for another ‘Dark Knight Strikes Again’ experience.
It didn’t suck! Actually, it was really amazing. The sketches were pretty much all very strong, both conceptually and in execution, and the performances were extremely funny. Part of that is that they made the smart decision to only do four episodes (plus a making of special)–doing the series for Netflix, rather than having to fulfill a network’s full-season order, meant that they could focus on their strongest material. Bob Odenkirk once said that a big part of the reason their show is funnier than SNL is that SNL has so many handicaps; they have to include musical numbers, they have to write around guest hosts, they have arbitrary limits on sketch lengths due to commercials, they’re performing live and have to include time for costume changes and set swaps, and they can’t swear. Add to that now that they have to produce a lot of comedy in a very short time, and you’ll see why Bob and David have the edge.
More than just being good comedy, though, it feels very much like a continuation of the work they were doing with ‘Mr. Show’. Although they continue their decision to avoid “topical” humor, there are a lot of bits that feel incredibly relevant in today’s climate, like an interview with a documentary director whose vision of the antebellum South omits the word “slave” and has plantation owners who hand out coupons “good for one free hug”. (I’m not saying Ben Carson made this documentary, but he probably gave it thumbs up.) There’s also an excellent gag involving a boy who’s excoriated for returning from a near-death experience with a vision of a non-judgmental Heaven that lets in everybody, because as one woman puts it, “There has to be a Hell, otherwise Heaven wouldn’t be nearly as nice.” These bits don’t make reference to any particular controversy or scandal, but they understand the mindset that produces them.
Not every bit kills–there’s a couple of weak sketches in episode three (one about Muslim terrorists as Hollywood power players that feels a bit too much like punching down and another about people trying to write a shitty Broadway musical that feels a bit too much like the joke is watching untalented people brainstorm boring ideas) but there are tons of new classics, like a cooking competition show where everyone forgets about the cooking entirely to embroider their human interest bios and an interrogation sequence where the “bad cop” and the “good cop” need couples therapy. It’s definitely the kind of triumphant return that makes me hope that the new MST3K will (cross fingers) pick up right where the old one left off.
Back again! I know, we’re settling into a schedule of recapping last week’s Race about two days before this week’s Race, but on the other hand you’re not just getting hammered with 12 straight posts of TAR content, so hopefully it evens out. Last week, of course, we had a lot of running around through France that ended with everyone except for budding Southern Gothic Denise and James Earl being told they were still racing and heading for Rotterdam. Which, given that this is the second of back-to-back double legs, means that the Racers are getting tired…
continue reading "Amazing Race 27, Episode 7: “Full Speed Ahead, Captain!”"
Wow. That title sounds a lot more ominous than I planned. No, I was thinking about “the worst” not in the sense of the impending global war between the zombies and the Lizard People (sorry, folks, but this Tuesday is gonna suck) but in the sense of the way we define quality in entertainment, which is after all a highly subjective thing. I recently picked up a book from dim and distant 1980 called, “The Worst TV Shows Ever”, by Bart Andrews and Brad Dunning, primarily because I’m utterly fascinated by failure, and it was interesting to me that in among shows like “Turn On” (a sketch comedy show notable for being canceled in some markets before the end of the first episode) and “My Mother the Car” were long-running hits like “Hee Haw”, which ran 21 seasons, and “Three’s Company”, which was one of ABC’s perennial draws.
So what does it mean when we say something is “the worst ever”? Can something really be “the worst” if tons of people love it? I’m reluctant to credit that idea, I’ll admit, even though there are certainly many times when I’m convinced that I’m right and the rest of the world is wrong about the quality of a TV show or movie. (**cough** Anything Adam Sandler’s ever done **cough**) We all do that, I think, but I like to believe that most of us don’t take ourselves seriously when we do. It’s one thing to be confident in your tastes and to be able to justify your opinions, but it’s another thing entirely to genuinely believe that the average person has terrible judgment and is incapable of appreciating quality entertainment. I feel like it shuts down discussion rather than opening it; if you decide that “Queen for a Day”, to take another example from the book, is nothing but wallowing in other people’s misery, then you won’t be able to understand what made it popular, and what continues to make successors from “Restaurant Impossible” to “Undercover Boss” work. (In all three cases, it’s about the imposition of a moral order onto the universe–good people who do not deserve to suffer are delivered from their suffering, giving the audience a comforting sense that reality works the way they hope it does.)
Taken to its ultimate extreme, this becomes “hipsterism”, the belief that anything popular must be bad because most people like it and we all know that most people have terrible taste. It can be incredibly exhausting dealing with someone like this; they refuse to believe that there can be any intersection between popular success and artistic success, and will reject their own previously established tastes rather than give up their prejudices about society. Ultimately, though, they’re only hurting themselves by ignoring fun and exciting entertainment.
The other type of “worst” is the commercial failure, which I’ll admit is what fascinates me (and what fascinates Nathan Rabin, who continually does yeoman’s work with his series of “My World of Flops” columns for the Onion AV Club that seeks out failures and dives headlong into what made them crash and burn). There’s certainly a lot of these in the book; variety shows by the likes of Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr that didn’t make it past thirteen weeks, and the aforementioned “Turn On”, which didn’t even make it to Episode Two and which you can’t even find on YouTube. (If I’m wrong on that, please link to it in the comments–I looked like crazy, and all I found was a 45-second clip.) By some standard, these have to be considered to be at least in the running for “the worst”, right?
Except that there’s more to failure than meets the eye, as well. Sometimes the same things that make something a flop can make it a cult classic as well; entertainment that challenges people and makes them uncomfortable can sometimes take a long time to find its audience. (‘Fight Club’, while it didn’t actually flop in theaters, still needed DVD to make its reputation.) Sometimes marketers can fail, sometimes internal politics can doom a project at a studio. Sometimes things just slip between the cracks. (Nathan Rabin calls these “secret successes”, efforts that worked creatively even as they got no box office.)
But I have to admit, my favorite kind of “worst” is always “best worst”, the kind of thing that Rabin labels as “fiascoes”. They’re terrible, and everyone knows it. They’re apocalyptically creatively misguided, generally disastrously bad. But you watch them in a sort of perverse fascination because they’re made with such conviction that you almost feel like if you just tuned your brain to the creators’ frequency, you’d suddenly be seeing a work of staggering genius. “Turn On” is kind of my holy grail for exactly that reason; I want to see it precisely because everyone agreed so instantly and thoroughly that it was a horrible mistake, but at the same time the same people put it on the air in the sure and certain belief they had a hit on their hands. I want to watch it because I want to understand the strange glamour that failure casts, maybe to avoid it or maybe to find a way to recast those ideas free of their flaws. After all, every good idea started as a bad first draft.
Or maybe I just like them. We’re all flawed, we all fail, but good things come out of that. Maybe I just like to remember that some of the most interesting things out there start out as mistakes…but they don’t have to stay that way.
When last we left our intrepid Racers, they were in Zimbabwe. Josh and Tanner continued their poor habit of underestimating the abilities of everyone who isn’t them, Logan and Chris amped up their long-simmering feud with each other, and Jazmine and Danielle went to the Pit Stop twice without having finished the leg and were eliminated as a consequence. On to the next episode!
continue reading "Amazing Race 27, Episode 6: “My Tongue Doesn’t Even Twist That Way”"
Steve Jobs opened wide this past weekend, after two weeks of a very small introductory opening run to build up buzz, and grossing just over $7 million over the weekend probably puts it in the “minor flop” category. It didn’t cost a lot to make, comparatively speaking ($30 million) so it will probably end up breaking even at the least. But, despite massive hype and ton of media attention, Steve Jobs is definitely not a hit movie. (Which is not surprising really because a couple years ago they released Jobs, which was an awful movie starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, and that movie made about $16 million. Steve Jobs will end up making a little more than that, but not that much more. Probably because, come on, Ashton Kutcher? But I digress.)
I propose that the reason Steve Jobs did not do well at the box office is because – wait for it – most people do not particularly care about Steve Jobs. Because let’s be honest here: Steve Jobs was not nearly the revolutionary and populist figure that some people think him to be. Apple was for a very long time simply a hipster response to IBM and Microsoft. Sure, via management of his technology company, he popularized mobile computing. That’s fairly important, sure, but is it truly groundbreaking? He didn’t invent smartphones; he just streamlined them and made them a little more accessible. (And not that much more accessible, not really.) Less than a decade after the iPhone was introduced, Apple doesn’t even have half the market share of a market they more or less created. Steve Jobs hasn’t even been dead five years and already Tim Cook is getting at least 75% of the Jobs hype just because he’s keeping Apple profitable.
But most people, on an everyday basis, don’t care about Steve Jobs. Why should they? Whatever direct effect Jobs had in the creation of all those various Apple products (and that’s something that’s quite debateable) is minimized on people’s everyday lives. Most people use their iPhones for texting, Candy Crush and maybe email sometimes. That’s Jobs’ legacy for most people: the guy who let you spend money for Candy Crush powerups.
Now, on the other hand, to the upper class (and the people who worship the idea of upper class), Steve Jobs is really really important. Steve Jobs became a rich guy and then he became a richer guy.1 That’s why there’s a big fancy biography about Steve Jobs which sold almost a million copies worldwide, which is a lot of books.2 But one million books sold worldwide means about $15 million in movie ticket sales if everybody who bought the book also went to see the movie, and you will recall that Jobs made $16 million so maybe we’re starting to get a sense of exactly how big the market for Steve Jobs-related things in fact is. Which is not large.
But if it’s not large, then why is there a Steve Jobs book and an unauthorized Steve Jobs book and two Steve Jobs movies and two more Steve Jobs documentaries and lots of other things with Steve Jobs on them? Because rich people think Steve Jobs is important and that drives what our creative culture is willing to lionize. Hollywood doesn’t need to be convinced that a Hunger Games will make them a billion dollars, because they know what people actually want to see and usually they’ll do their best to satisfy that. But Hollywood is run mostly by rich white guys who like rich white guy things, and Steve Jobs is one of those things, just like fiftysomething leading men pairing off with twentysomething romantic lady interests. Which means that studio heads will push for a Steve Jobs movie even when a Steve Jobs movie already crapped the bed, because the first Steve Jobs movie didn’t do Steve Jobs right, you see, it just needed a better chance.
None of this is particularly original analysis, mind you. But it’s still right.
Full disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author, David Kahn, for the express purpose of reviewing it on this website. I was not previously aware of his work and have no bias regarding him, but if you give me a free book I’ll happily read it and tell you what I think. (In fact, you probably won’t be able to stop me.)
That said, I feel at least a little bit guilty about accepting it now that I’ve read it, because while I think that the geek set will enjoy it, it really functions more as an ambassador to the non-geeky professionals out there who think of comic books and superheroes as a waste of time. ‘Cape, Spandex, Briefcase’ takes as its thesis that in fact, superheroes have a lot to teach about leadership, and it uses comic book (and movie) characters as metaphors to talk about the fundamentals of managing a team.
That’s not to say there’s nothing for the geek set–there are a lot of entertaining comic book references, and certainly I got a few chuckles out of the little Easter eggs thrown into the book (team members include Mary Jane and Virginia Potts, for example). But it’s really about management principles, with the comics used as a means of illustrating those principles. If you’re not looking for advice on how to motivate people, you may find the rest of the book a little thin. That said, if you are looking for advice on how to motivate people, already being a fan will probably help you absorb the lessons easier, since you’ll already be familiar with the subject matter under discussion. That is, unless you decide to nitpick the use of Cyclops as a moral center for the X-Men due to his actions in ‘Secret Wars’ or something.
It’s also important to note that while it is aimed at non-fans, it’s not intended as an education in comic book history. It does do some education along the way–the examples that the author uses, some of which get pretty obscure for non-comics fans (I would not have expected a reference to Sub Diego) are relevant to the topic at hand and explained well enough that a non-geek can follow along–but it’s primarily using those examples as teaching tools. Even so, it illuminates some subtle facets of superheroes along the way. There’s a very nice section, for example, where it looks at Batman through the lens of management–he has sidekicks that function as his employees, he promotes from within by helping people realize their full potential, and he surrounds himself with good people who are willing to challenge him. (Which are obviously some of the traits that Kahn is trying to instill in the reader as well.)
So now that I’ve discussed what it isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Kahn has five basic principles of leadership, which he describes in a tongue-in-cheek fashion as “super powers”, which he believes will help to make a more effective manager. (The book focuses on the business world, since that’s where the audience is for a book like this, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use it when running a convention or gaming group.) I feel like it would be a bit unfair to summarize them here, since the whole point of the book is that you need the context to make sense of the principles, but I will say that they seem like reasonable skills for any good leader to develop.
Each one is illustrated with several examples from the comic book world. Some are illustrated in the positive sense (Professor X as an example of business ethics–I’m assuming it’s the one from the movies here, not the one who threw a bowling ball at Iceman’s head to test his reflexes) and the negative sense (Luthor and Otis are given as an example of why management through intimidation creates learned helplessness). Along the way, he shows the main character, Ben, putting them into action with his own team in a sort of framing sequence that surrounds each session of comic book lore.
I did enjoy the framing sequence, although there were a few times I wondered how Ben could have gotten to 2015 without knowing who Wolverine is. (Although as a concession to common sense, Ben has seen ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Thor’.) Still, I’m willing to forgive the author a certain amount of noobishness on the part of his protagonist, despite the fact that it caters to a stereotype of business types as boring stick-in-the-muds who don’t know anything about pop culture, because Ben needs to learn something for the story to progress. And there probably are people out there who don’t know who Wolverine is–I just don’t move in their social circles.
On the whole, I liked the basic premise of the book, and I thought it was well explicated from the beginning–of course we can learn just as much from superheroic titans as we can from titans of industry. They’re designed as metaphors to teach us about ourselves, after all. I don’t know how much opportunity I’ll have to apply the lessons in the book, but they do seem like good lessons to teach and good lessons to learn.
Maybe I’ll recommend it to my boss…
Welcome back to the Race! Phil fills us in by reminding us of Josh and Tanner’s devious, brilliant perfect strategy to knock the Green Team out of the Race, which was marred only slightly by its complete and total failure on every level imaginable. We return to the Race, already in progress, as Josh and Tanner are forced to give up their Express Pass…
continue reading "Amazing Race 27, Episode 5: “King of the Jungle”"
I did promise that I’d be providing you with content every week in between Race posts, because as much as I love writing them and as much as some of you love reading them there’s definitely a contingent of people who want something to break up the string of Race-related posts and I don’t blame them.
That said, I didn’t promise it would always be new content. So here’s an old post of mine from my own blog, Fraggmented, that I liked a lot and figured people might not have seen. Enjoy!
The LucasFilm Sale: How It All Went Down
(SCENE: A BOARDROOM AT LUCASARTS, MAY 2011. A KEY EXECUTIVE IS SITTING AT A TABLE, ANXIOUSLY AWAITING THE ARRIVAL OF HIS BOSS.)
(GEORGE LUCAS ENTERS.)
LUCASARTS EXECUTIVE: Hello, sir. You said you had some big news for me?
LUCAS: Very big. I think this could be the biggest thing for this company since 1999.
EXEC: You mean…we’re…?
EXEC: Episode Seven?
LUCAS: Huh? Oh, that. Um, yeah, I have a few ideas I’ve been tossing around. No, I’ve been thinking about new revenue streams for the company. I mean, the movies have always sold well, but eventually we hit saturation on that. People have the originals, they have the Special Editions, they have them on video and DVD and Blu-Ray, and they’ve all seen them in the theater a couple dozen times on top of that. It’s the ancillary revenue streams that keep us in dough, you know that.
EXEC: Um, but Episode Seven would be a new film. They’d want to see that.
LUCAS: But you have to spend money making it, first! Millions of dollars scouting locations, hiring actors, putting them into mo-cap suits so that you don’t actually have to see them on-screen when you’re done…arranging all those pixels into fake aliens costs money, you know. And when you’re all finished, what do people do? Complain that you didn’t do it right and decide not to see it another sixteen times! No, if we’re going to do this, we have to make sure it’s profitable before the first ticket sold. Like ‘Phantom Menace’. That’s where my idea comes in.
EXEC: More merchandising, sir? I’m really not sure there’s anywhere else to go with that. We’ve sold ‘Star Wars’ action figures, ‘Star Wars’ video games, ‘Star Wars’ tissues, ‘Star Wars’ muffin tins…we sold that candy that made you french-kiss Jar Jar Binks! I don’t think we can really put the logo on anything else, not unless you’re willing to sell ‘Star Wars’ toilet paper.
LUCAS: Hmm. Actually, write that one down. But no, I was thinking along the lines of advertising tie-ins.
EXEC: Kids’ meals, drink cups, that sort of thing? I mean, I’m sure we can round some up, no problem, but–
LUCAS: You’re not thinking big enough. Ever watch any sports?
EXEC: Well, um…yes, but–
LUCAS: Not me. Never really had the interest. Not enough CGI. But one of my kids had on a basketball game last night, and do you know where those guys play? Staples Center.
LUCAS: “STAPLES” Center! Don’t you get it? The guys at Staples paid big bucks just to get a building named after them! I looked it up! It’s like, millions of dollars! And I was thinking.
EXEC: OK, maybe we should do a little less of that–
LUCAS: Naming rights! How many of those damned aliens do we stick in the background of each shot? Twenty? Thirty? And every freaking one has an action figure, its own novel tie-in, and something like three comic book series about them! And we’ve just been naming them after our friends and stupid inside jokes! All this time, we’ve had a frigging gold mine right under our noses, and we haven’t touched it!
EXEC: I’ll be honest, sir, this sounds–
LUCAS: Brilliant? Lucrative? Like the future of cinema? Here, I’ve drawn up designs for a few new characters. That’s Wal-Martto, he’s going to be a wacky alien sidekick who does all the bargaining for the heroes. This, this is Darth Verizon. He’s going to be a villain, but a “cool” one. Over here is Starbuck, a new Rebel pilot who loves to fly with the kind of energy only a Chai Latte can give you. And…you’re giving me a look. What’s the look?
EXEC: Well, first off, Starbuck is already a pilot in another series.
LUCAS: I know! And they didn’t charge a dime! Don’t worry, I’ve got a product placement deal going with the BSG people. We’ll get twice the money for the same character, and they’ll get a free ad for their DVD boxsets. It’s win-win…you’re still giving me the look.
EXEC: It’s just that…I mean, doesn’t this kind of cheapen our franchise? I think the fans will see it as kind of, well…lame.
LUCAS: They didn’t complain about Sio Bibble, Salacious Crumb or Elan Sleazebaggano. I think if we can get away with Elan Sleazebaggano, we can get away with Darth Verizon.
EXEC: …OK. Look, George. How much would it cost to get you to not make this movie at all? Or any movies? Ever?
LUCAS: I dunno. Four billion dollars?
EXEC: Let me get Disney on the phone.
(Disclaimer: All kidding towards Lucas aside, I’ll be honest; I really only did this because I wanted to get the name “Wal-Martto” down in print somewhere.)
I’m going to say right off the bat–this episode was great. It’s a Race-themed political thriller that has the seamless thematic unity of a Greek tragedy; we’ve got our hubris, our hamartia, our anagnorisis, and all in a story about two douchey fratboys who see a chance at a million bucks. This is the Race at its finest. Let’s kick it off, shall we?
continue reading "Amazing Race 27, Episode 4: “Good Old-Fashioned Spit In the Face”"
I’ve been feeling tremendously nostalgic for ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness’ lately. For those of you who aren’t exactly familiar with this, back in the mid-80s when TMNT was an obscure black-and-white comic and not an all-conquering cartoon/merchandising juggernaut, indie game publisher Palladium Books bought the rights to do an RPG of the property for a relative song, just in time to catch the wave of popularity the Turtles generated. The late, legendary, lamented Erick Wujcik, who is perhaps best known for his diceless RPG based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, worked out an interesting freeform character generation system that allowed players to generate any number of unique variations on the “mutant animal” motif that also fit into the Palladium Megaverse rules.
Now, Palladium Books doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation among gamers. It tends toward power gamers, with an entire setting that is invested in superweapons, superpowers and superarmor that all do damage on an entirely different scale from ordinary people and an emphasis on buffing your characters through a time-intensive and complex character generation process. The lengthy, detailed character generation created a sort of “have” and “have-not” split between people who knew the rules well and were interested in number-crunching and those who either didn’t know or didn’t try to get the most out of the complexities of the rules. As a result, without a GM who could keep tight discipline or a party willing to keep to the spirit of the game, Palladium has a rep as a system that tends to attract munchkins and repel the number-averse.
That’s arguably a fair assessment (although I’ve never yet seen a system a munchkin can’t abuse through dickery and I’ve never seen one a fun gaming group can’t homebrew and rule-kludge into a serviceable game). But I didn’t really buy Palladium’s games to play them. I bought them to make characters.
Because when I was growing up, it was right around the same time that role-playing games were growing as an industry. I was a kid right around the time Gary Gygax decided to push his hobby game into the mainstream (the “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon remains a fond childhood memory), and as a comic book fan it seemed like it was simply understood that I would become a gamer sooner or later. How could I not? TSR advertised relentlessly every month in every Marvel and every DC comic, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels were the next step after children’s fantasy for a young reader, and unlike many people, my parents put absolutely no stock in the Satanic panic fad. I was steered into tabletop gaming as inevitably as geeks today are steered into video games. (And I was steered into those, too, but that’s another story.)
But the thing about tabletop gaming was, it was ultimately a social hobby. It was something you played with other kids, and I spent my entire summer every year, as well as all my weekends in the spring and fall, transplanted six hours north of all my friends to work at my dad’s summer business in an area where there were maybe a dozen kids my age and their predominant interest was drinking. This made it hard to have a social life at home, not just because I missed the actual time socializing when school was out but because when I did return, most of the social networks were pretty much solidified without me. I played a few times in junior high and high school, but to me, gaming books were something that I read for pleasure. I didn’t play them, I used them to make characters whose stories were elaborate and filled with potential.
As a result, I never got that much into AD&D. I read the fiction, but 2nd Edition (which was around for most of my childhood and well into my adulthood) was all about creating characters quickly and getting into the game fast. You rolled your stats, you picked your race and class, you applied a few skills and bonuses, and there you were, ready to dungeon crawl. Which was fine if that’s what you wanted, but without realizing it consciously, I’d discovered that games can have purposes beyond simply being played. They can be creative outlets in their own right, ways to tell stories to yourself without needing another person. They can be a lifeline, if you’re short on friends but have all the dice and paper your heart desires.
So I gravitated to Palladium, with Heroes Unlimited as my gateway drug. They had dozens of settings, all of which were compatible with each other with only a minimum of work. You could make cyborg ninjas and alien superheroes and telekinetic knights from the future and oh yeah, they also had dwarves and elves and all that stuff too if that was your speed. You could make robots with your very own R&D budget, you could make elephants the size of mice with super-advanced future brains to make up for the size difference, you could spend hours paging through the details of character generation and learning all sorts of arcane secrets to make your character more powerful, more interesting, more real. All that and someday, there was the promise of playing those characters in a game, too!
I eventually did get into a gaming group in college. I don’t think I played a single one of those characters in it–we rarely even played a Palladium game, although we had a few memorable one-shot campaigns in between our lengthy AD&D sessions. (It was easier to teach people.) Eventually I couldn’t justify the expense of buying so many sourcebooks for games I almost never played, and my Palladium collection dwindled to give over shelf space for other things. But I will always have a soft spot for any Palladium product, a pang of nostalgia for Rifts and Beyond the Supernatural and S.D.C. and M.D.C. and taking Acrobatics and Gymnastics to increase my character’s P.P. and figuring out how best to spend my BIO-E and eagerly flipping through each new sourcebook to see what new animals they added. It makes me probably far happier than it has a right to, and I think it always will.
I never played much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
Hi all! Sorry for the delay on posting this, but I got a stomach bug that sidelined me for a few days. I’m feeling much better now, so let’s go ahead and recap, shall we? As you may recall, we were in Buenos Aires, with Justin and Diana coming in first and the Douchebros injuring themselves in an attempt to make up for lost time. But the cousins, Alex and Adam, were the ones who finally went out in defeat. On with the Race!
This is a conversation that we’ve been having a lot lately, due to the shootings in Roseburg, but I want to make it clear: It is not only in the context of a mass shooting that I object to journalists describing people as “mentally ill”. In fact, part of the problem is that we only talk about it when we’re discussing something that cannot, under any circumstances, be seen as a sane and rational act. It’s hard to stand here and say that Chris Harper-Mercer should not be described as a mentally ill individual when he did something that seems like it could only have been motivated by suicidal depression combined with a narcissistic demand for attention and a sociopathic disregard for other human lives.
But I can’t say for sure that was the cause. I am not a trained mental health professional. What I did in the previous paragraph? It was an armchair layman’s diagnosis using terms I’ve picked up from reading about the field of psychiatry. Understandably, we all do that to some extent; the jargon of psychiatry has increasingly become part of the language of modern life. But I remain a layman, as do the journalists reporting on Umpqua. Diagnosing someone with a mental illness without proper training and without direct interaction with the patient is always a mistake, and reporting that armchair diagnosis as fact is criminally sloppy reporting.
But most journalists are even sloppier than that. I made a guess that the shooter was depressed because he killed himself; I made a guess that he was narcissistic because he wanted to draw massive amounts of attention to his death. I made a guess that he lacked the ability to empathize with others because he chose a method of drawing attention to his death that hurt others without any apparent regard for their suffering. Again, layman’s guesses, not a diagnosis. But most journalists probably made similar guesses, and what was reported? That the shooter was “mentally ill”.
“Mental illness” is as vague a term as “physical illness”, but the latter is never used in modern journalism. No reporter would ever describe someone in a news story as “physically ill”–they would clearly report that the cause of the symptoms was unknown, and promise clear and specific updates as more information was available. They would then update with the opinion of a medical professional who had studied the specific symptoms and treated the patient (and was able to speak on the record regarding the issue), and from that point on they would refer to the person as “suffering from” the specific condition. Chris Harper-Mercer? He’s “mentally ill”, and that’s all there is to it.
That kind of reporting lumps a sociopathic mass murderer in with a compulsive hand-washer, or an agoraphobic. It contributes directly to the social stigma that people who have a variety of mental health conditions have to deal with on top of their health issues–bad enough that they may have clinical depression, now if they talk about their health it sounds like they’re one bad day away from shooting up a college campus. Mental illness is every bit as common as physical illness, and sometimes just as treatable, but we’ve turned it into something to fear rather than something to treat. It has to stop.
Journalists aren’t the only ones to blame, of course. Part of our problem may be that we only discuss our mental health when something’s wrong with us. (If we get a yearly physical check-up with a physician, why not a yearly mental check-up with a psychiatrist?) But as long as journalists persist in the lazy habit of making armchair diagnoses without consulting with professionals–professionals with knowledge of the specific case history involved–and as long as they continue to treat “mental illness” as a blanket term that can be applied to all diseases equally, the problem can never be fixed. I know I’m not saying anything new, here. Many people reading this will probably be rolling their eyes that it took this long for me to write something this obvious. But I have to say it, because every voice helps.