Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Permanence of the Written Word

I consider myself first and foremost a writer. The fact that I happen to have spent much of my life writing game material comes from merging my ability to distill ideas onto “paper” with my enjoyment of various diverse subjects (literary genres as well as historical periods) and a fondness for ordering things within rules and related systems.

I am fond of the past and the ways of my younger days. As a youth I learned to touch type on a reliable Smith-Corona portable typewriter. I still relish browsing the stacks in a used book store. I don’t care much for and don’t use electronic devices like tablets and laptops at the gaming table. For me words set down on paper still retain a kind of powerful permanence that even words in today’s ubiquitous electronic internet media still do not and cannot possess.

Even as a young gamer I had an overwhelming need to write down rules, scenarios, and other bits to make them “official” in my own eyes by their very act of occupying the page. Nothing was real until it existed on paper in text or map format. Even when I received an electronic daisy-wheel typewriter as a going-to-college gift I still wrote out adventures longhand (and made some nice pocket money in the age when a college freshman could make $1 a page typing term papers for other students at 70 words per minute). The mystique extended into my more mature gaming days, when I typed out (on an electronic typewriter, then a personal computer) or printed manuscripts of scenarios for the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, Cyberpunk 2020, Space 1889, and, of course, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I still have binders with those printouts...documents far more accessible than the computer files (and 5.25- or 3.5-inch floppy disks) upon which they were originally written and stored.

I’m not alone. I’ve heard about folks who print out their favorite PDF game books and take the time to bind them; not just three-hole-punch them and stick them in a binder, but actually indulge in the mostly lost art of book-making to create actual tomes to read and use at the gaming table. Some board and card game designers have turned to the “print-and-play” model, releasing game components in PDF format for players to print, mount, trim, and otherwise prep for actual analog play. The roleplaying game hobby – particularly among fans of the “Old School Renaissance” movement – has seen a recent upsurge in printed gaming zines. I have tons of gaming PDFs on my computer, but when I get a zine in the mail, I sit down immediately and read it...and it resides on a shelf where its physical presence reminds me it’s there filled with interesting ideas to bring to the game table. I can’t recall the numerous free gaming PDF files I’ve downloaded to my computer and simply forgotten about after absently perusing. I print the most noteworthy and file them in binders or folders, but these remain an extremely small fraction of the material on my hard drive.

I understand printed words will eventually fade, the books fall apart, the paper disintegrate – and all of it’s prone to physical damage by unfortunate events, natural and man-made – but since such physical artifacts do not require an electronic interface to read (one that contains built-in obsolescence and a dependency on electricity and compatible software platforms), one can enjoy them at nearly any time and place.

I fondly remember my old production manager mentor at West End Games who was, in that naive pre-Internet Age time, enthusiastically proud of the Starfighter Battle Book: X-wing vs. Tie Interceptor and Lightsaber Dueling Pack products, combat picture book games designed by and based on Alfred Leonardi’s award-winning Ace of Aces line of World War I aerial combat books and the Lost Worlds fantasy combat booklets. They allowed two people to play out a head-to-head dogfight or duel without the use of a computer, network, or electricity. You didn’t need a computer, you didn’t need a compatible operating system platform, you didn’t need power. Granted, you had to haul the books around, but they provided some fantastic head-to-head gameplay in a medium that didn’t require a large board, pieces, and dice.

Don’t get me wrong...I immensely appreciate the freedom and ability to share gaming material enabled by today’s technology. Electronic publications make it possible for gamers to carry around their entire library in their tablet device or laptop for immediate reference, without hauling around bulky backpacks or wheeled dollies. Certainly the internet has granted gamers the means to reach around the globe on an unprecedented scale to share their ideas, from basic opinions and reviews to adventures, settings, and entire games. Even then, though, they maintain only a fleeting presence. Some folks claim things never die on the internet, though I can recall several items – interesting PDFs, articles, blog posts, forum posts – I’ve sought out and found no longer available. Perhaps the domain disappears, the files get deleted, websites fold. Some PDFs exist on people’s computers and tablets, some remain in virtual bookshelf libraries for future access, but they don’t maintain a physical presence and thus remain subject to the whims of the internet.


Where do you fall in the print versus electronic spectrum? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.