Games & Community: Andy K on Story-Games.com
This interview is part of a series on Games & Community. I ask people for their thoughts and offer my own on various gaming communities, both digital and meat-based.
Today I sit down with Andy Kitkowski, the creator and moderator of Story Games, a humble but popular forum built to discuss tabletop roleplaying games of all stripes. I wanted to find out where it came from, where it’s headed, and what kind of a community it is. This interview was conducted via text chat, only minor spelling/grammar edits have been made.
What’s Story Games, in its own words?
“This site is a place to loosely describe Role Playing Games. Specifically, new ways to play RPGs and new ways of approaching the hobby. This site is meant to be a relaxed, non-threatening, non-confrontational environment to discuss the above.”
Giant Fire Breathing Robot: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Story Games? What was the idea behind it? What hole did you see in gaming discussion that you wanted to fill?
Andy: So yeah, Story Games actually was born in two places: my love of side-chatter at the then-active game development forum called The Forge, and extreme procrastination. The Forge was very focused on game development and publishing, such that all other talk was off topic.
However, once a year there was a week-long “birthday forum”, where people would come to talk about themselves, and sure there was “normal chat BS”, but a lot of the talk was about:
-what games do you like
-what are some play tips you have
-what was the best experiences with gaming you had
-what do you do to create atmosphere
So, game play (not design) discussion sandwiched between stuff like “what religion are you” and “do you do martial arts?”
Anyway, it was a really awesome week of really looking into the act of play instead of the (what I’d later start finding kind of myopic) look into design in that community, and realized that I wanted to have a “The Forge Birthday Forum” that never ended. So I put down some money and time and made one.
The other half, as I mentioned, was my extreme procrastination. For example, I love my job, but the reason I excel at it and never get bored is because there’s an “always explosion occurring, a crisis lurking around every corner” type of workload that keeps me engaged and interested.
For example, a few years previous to SG I was writing my own Sorcerer (the RPG) supplement, and then as a distraction I said “Hey, there’s no RPG awards for small-press games,” so created the Indie RPG Awards (which are still kinda going on). And the “24 Hour RPG Design Challenge.” And later on, hosting a few years of “Iron Game Chef.”
GFBR: I didn’t know you made the Indie RPG awards and the 24 hour design challenge!
Andy: Yeah, both of those were like two years before SG or so. But at the time I created SG back in 2006, I was working on the official translation of a Japanese RPG into English. Now known as my personal white whale, that game (Tenra Bansho Zero) is finally two hairs from production and release, but at the time it was taking a lot of my brain space, and it was exhausting. So I basically made SG to fulfill a need, a need to blow off some steam. And procrastinate.
So SG and its 6 year span is what Steven Pressfield calls in his great book “The War of Art” capital-R “Resistance.” I did it at the time because it was something I wanted to see happen. But at the same time, I did it because Tenra Bansho was stressing me out and I needed to blow off some steam. And I perhaps went a little too far, given that TBZ is finally about to come out some 6 years after that act of Resistance was created.
GFBR: I’m not familiar with that concept of “Resistance.” I’m getting a picture of the stress of one project pushing you in an equal-yet-opposite direction into another project. Something like that?
Andy: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Although not necessarily Another Project, it can also be things like Playing Video Games to blow off steam but far too much steam-blowing for the amount of work (guilty), getting caught up in talking about the project rather than working to complete it (guilty), little acts of basically self-sabotage that don’t seem that way at the time.
GFBR: Cool, that sounds really fascinating. So, has Story Games been what you envisioned it to be?
Andy: More or less, exactly! It’s basically a low-maintenance low-volume gaming (game play) discussion site. There’s been an uptick in “stuff that has to be moderated, or stuff that makes me feel uncomfortable, or stuff that makes me want to roll my eyes and pull the plug,” but it comes and goes in waves, once about half a year or so. Otherwise, where I used to myself go to Story Games in conjunction with other various RPG forums and sites for discussion, I realized that SG (and outlets like Google Plus) are pretty much where 99% of my game discussion is fulfilled.
Oh, a third reason SG was created: I wanted a small server/laboratory for understanding Linux and MySQL, because I’m kind of a systems admin in real life and wanted to do stuff for fun on the side to get my skills up a bit. That’s why I put in all the money and time into SG initially and haven’t asked for cash to upkeep it: It’s always been a lab to get me used to the fun side of being a computer tech. So there’s that minor point as well. Otherwise, I would have simply bought time on an existing forum site somewhere instead of doing almost everything myself.
GFBR: I was wondering that. It’s basically all you then. Do you see Story Games existing indefinitely into the future?
Andy: That’s a question I ask myself sometimes!
I’ve always stated that SG is always an experiment, that I reserve the right to pull the plug at any time and all (which is probably the main reason I haven’t asked for money; I’d feel bad about taking folks’ cash then at some future point burning it all down). Not so much as a “I’m setting a fire to my own house in spite!”, but because pretty much from the start I saw SG as kind of an ongoing Buddhist sand mandala. And all sand mandalas eventually get blessed, carefully swept up and removed from existence. Actually, I’d probably have been surprised to know that SG would last more than 3-5 years.
But at this point, if I decided that The Experiment Is Now Over, I’d probably offer the reigns (control of the database, name etc.) as I walked away rather than sweeping it away. A lot of folks get pleasure from SG, to the point where it doesn’t feel right for me to just declare it Over.
GFBR: It’s taken on a life of its own.
Andy: But it might be a good idea to remind folks that that stance has never changed; it was never planned to last forever. It may one day go away, and that decision lies with me.
However, one thing that is interesting is Google Plus. I’m gunshy about directing people to G+, because Google has been closing down various moderately successful projects on a whim for dumb reasons (the shit we expect from “Other Companies”), but G+ as an institution is about like two hairs away from being an alternative Story Games replacement. If in the next five years things change, who knows; we might see SG change into a forum/area of G+.
GFBR: Interesting. Well, you’ve kind of been messing with the format already, right? You spun off dedicated game-design talk into Praxis. It’s been pretty slow when I show up there, but what do you think of how that’s working so far?
Andy: Yeah, and also Kit la Touche has volunteered to help with the forum software upgrade to Vanilla 2, which will happen in the next few weeks. Praxis definitely worked, but not for the reasons you might think.
Praxis was always meant to be a dumping ground for Shit I Didn’t Want Clogging Up Story Games. In that regard, it succeeded. But if people legitimately wanted to use it to discuss the intricacies of game design divorced from play… well, I’m not sure about that. I myself only visit to approve members and maybe browse some topics once a month or two or so.
SG at the beginning was mostly people from The Forge, so a bit of “what I’m designing now” talk was inevitable. Actually, it was fine, and kinda fun too.
But as more and more and more people from outside kept showing up (and in turn the game play discussions becoming far more interesting, and not echo chambers), a lot of people mistakenly saw SG as “the place to talk about my game I’m working on.” In fact, for a time about half the new members had that as their Join Message: “Hi, my name is X, and I want some feedback for a game I’m working on.”
Which, still… okay. But for a few months a lot of the threads were choked with new (mostly) and old users wanting to talk about their game, or design it “in the forum” (like basically using SG as a Game Design Livejournal; not really participating at all in other discussions, just posting like to a blog).
So Praxis was created, and all “from the ground up” game design discussion was pushed over there. Every once in a while a thread or two sneaks onto SG, but most of the time it’s in relation to a bigger question about play, so it’s “okay” in my book.
GFBR: So Praxis is more about making Story Games what you want it to be than about making Praxis into any particular thing.
Andy: Exactly. For the longest time, I just told people, “Look, you want to talk game design, go to The Forge or somewhere else.” And I kept getting responses of, “But I don’t like it there” or “But I like the community and responses here more” and the like. For a long time I was just like, “…so? Take it elsewhere”.
But then after a while I thought, “Hey, these guys are designers AND active members here. And they are asking to keep the design stuff tied here because they love it here, which says a lot about their motives and trust in this site. So hell, if I make it clear that the Design portion of the site is an offshoot for those who want it and it won’t get the same amount of eyes, and they’re cool with that, and it takes me no time or energy or real money to do it, who am I to fight that?” and thus it was created.
GFBR: It’ll be interesting to see if traffic and use of Praxis go up when the Forge closes.
Andy: Yeah. And I’m currently thinking about how Praxis might fit into Vanilla 2.0.
In the new forum software, you can actually have a “top page” where it doesn’t just show every single category (think “sub forum”) of discussion, but you can group them together. So I am considering later re-adding Praxis (game design) into SG proper: Same logins, etc. Still, with all game design topics on their own sub-forum sub-page, but much more closely tied to SG proper than Praxis is now.
GFBR: Ah, that would be cool. So, this might be a stupid question, considering the splash page for Story Games and all, but: do you view SG as a community?
Andy: Yep. The word Community has a lot of weight and a lot of baggage, but if you don’t think too hard on it (are we all friends? do we all share opinions on the same subject?), it totally is a community. As soon as you log in and look at some thread starters, and go “Oh, that thread title doesn’t grab me but Member X starter it, and she always says cool stuff, I’ll check it out” or “Huh, I see that that thread is started by Member Y. I’ll avoid it for now, it’s likely not of interest to me/that member is contentious so I’ll stay out,” then you’re in a community.
And even more so when a community has Japanese style Off-Kais or meetups: “Story Games (Location)”, “Camp Nerdly“, etc,; places where locals get together and play some games. I wish I had programming skill (I’m a sysadmin, I deal with hardware not software), but if I were to say “in which ways do you want to make SG a more ideal forum?” it would be through creating more Off-Internet community.
So, not just “I want to mod more so that everyone is happier Online,” but rather “I want to create tools both technically and socially to help the forum members meet up and organize in real life away from the Internet.”
GFBR: Something like forum software marrying Meetup.com.
Andy: Yeah… though Meetup is so categorically tied to Regions: Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill stuff is totally divorced from Charlotte, Washington DC, Richmond or Charleston. It’s very hard, but I’m trying to go the other direction: from the broad “Story Games Members” to the more regional “finding people you’d be able to walk/drive/travel to meet.” It’s utterly difficult. I’m open to ideas though!
GFBR: Speaking of community, I know there’s periodic discussion about Story Games having issues being a welcoming place for women and people of color. What are your thoughts on that?
Andy: Too many thoughts on it. Unfortunately.
GFBR: Sure. It’s a big topic.
Andy: Essentially, I want Story Games to be more open to diversity away from the stereotypical white male gamer. To be more open to women and people of color.
So with the help of the other admins/mods I gathered, we have dug deeper into ways to go about doing this. You will actually start to see some changes in the way patterns of communication happen at SG, and see some new rules to boot about how this will go about. One of them – an ingenious one utilized by the Italian version of Story Games – will go live likely this week (it’s called “Slow Down”; look for it).
To put this in context, very recently there’s been one of those “six month dust-ups,” where the community exposes some of its worst issues and behaviors, and people within the community kick at it with criticism for true, legit reasons while others kick at it to increase the drama that “punching the beehive” brings.
In short, there’s been some kind of bad-natured things that have happened recently, and I want to make sure that they are minimalized or destroyed. And there’s been a lot of poor interpretation of how communication should happen, of what “The Zen” is, and a focus away from RPGNet‘s “laundry list of rules and gotchas that are used to hand down judgment both well and very, very poorly.”
So there’s definitely a need for some changes, and they’re finally coming. Mostly because of the work that John Stavropolous (mostly!) and I have been doing in looking into how to make the community better by following the good and bad examples of other sites we’ve been involved in.
GFBR: That’s good to hear; I’m excited to see the changes.
Andy: On the other hand, there’s some problems in that some people online have a very specific ideal of a kind of use of the psychological term “safe space,” and want to see Story Games become a True Safe Space for people.
But that cannot happen, unfortunately. This means that we have to have mods thoroughly read and interpret every single thread and post that happens on SG (this isn’t an exaggeration or hyperbole, this is a direct request from a few people). That just can’t happen.
More darkly, there’s a lot more under the surface.
Some of the biggest proponents for “safe spaces” or “making a more welcoming community” (through rules enforcement, etc.) basically either come from communities that were absolutely destroyed by those very behaviors they want to see at SG; and in some cases, were some of the greatest misusers of such rules or conventions in order to play social status games with peers and friends.
I’ve seen firsthand normal people (not “deep to the bone racists,” but “folks new to talking online and not familiar with delicate issues”) treated like shit and bullied by peers, so that peer could look good to their friends. On a forum that tried to be a true safe space through social rules and behaviors, I watched my gay friends get silenced, my women friends get silenced, my black friends get silenced, because someone with a dark heart and an ability to carefully navigate social rules wanted to take them down a peg in public or in private, and used those very tools of inclusion and support to silence.
Or bending those rules to silence folks who didn’t share the same exact opinion, stance etc. as they did. Or because someone didn’t recognize them as the expert they wanted to be thought of. It has literally swiss-cheesed communities, caused them to implode. Communities that were normal or good, where the leaders made sure everyone had a chance to speak without being Silenced.
GFBR: I can tell you’ve thought a lot about this.
Andy: Another thing that we see is blatant American/western monoculture: Americans, Canadians want to have an open and international discussion site, but when Europeans and Asians come in with very different opinions and stances that do not correspond to what we were taught in the west, sparks really fly. “How dare you not know and think exactly like us Americans do on issues of gender and race???” etc.
GFBR: Huh. Come to think of it, I’ve definitely thought that and probably said it. In one way or another.
Andy: Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are just some wrong-headed dudes from other countries that need to talk less and listen more!! But there is a lot of cross-cultural issues going on, and I’ve seen a lot of folks get hammered on from folks in America, the UK or Canada because their opinion or stance comes from a very different background.
That’s where I’m coming from on that: I really do want to make Story Games more of an inclusive place. But I’d rather pull the plug on it myself than implement rules used by internet socialites to play bullshit status games.
“Hey, I’m glad you implemented these rules designed to weed out sexism and racism. Now I’m going to use them to shut down this conversation because some guy I don’t like is posting. Then I’m going to use them to shut down this thread because the black woman speaking has different opinions of being black and female than I do, and I want to be recognized as the Real Expert on this.”
Sorry, that sort of behavior as I mentioned has directly lead to the death of communities, and endless needless suffering. So that’s about it on that!
GFBR: No, that’s a lot of good thoughts! Again, I’m excited to see what you and your mod team are working on implementing.
Andy: Note: those rules I mention will be coming slowly, one is coming in 1-2 weeks, and more in the coming months (we all have day jobs and real-world commitments, etc. Some people genuinely forget that!).
GFBR: Do you have any other thoughts on Story Games that we haven’t touched, Andy? Anything else you’d like to discuss or put into the aether?
Andy: For me, Hmmmm.
* Story Games is still laid back, still getting new members pretty much every day, but at the same time I’m hoping to keep it small.
* I’ve actually considered making it an unofficial rule that you should try to meet other members at local meetups if there are any near you, to increase the community feel and increase goodwill among members. It’s really hard to think of someone as an asshole, when you’ve met them, shook their hand or played a game with them.
GFBR: Oh yeah, definitely.
Andy: Many people say “I’m Just a Lurker!” when they meet me or others. However, I think that lurkers are as real a member as an active poster. While I’d encourage those folks to say something if they have input, none of us (the admin team) stratify people by “active member” or “lurker who just posts a little.” If you’re reading the site, you’re a member.
And to that end, we’re going to be doing some new things in the future to underscore that fact: guest posts and stuff off of Story Games, looped back in. More emphasis on people continuing discussions from threads on their own private channels like blogs or other venues (I almost want to encourage every member to start a G+ account, even if it is inactive).
But if you’re reading the site, yeah, you’re a member, and we do consider those peoples’ opinions when considering the direction of the site.
Finally, the Resistance is coming to an end: Tenra Bansho Zero (that game I procrastinated on translating by creating SG) is about a month away from being listed on Kickstarter (and then after that, a couple more Japanese games that I’ve been translating with Matt Sanchez or others), my White Whale is almost harpoon’d. Many folks have asked to donate to SG to keep it going, because they like it, etc. I’ll be pimping it heavily later, but I’d say that if you still want to donate to S-G, throw a buck or two at the TBZ Kickstarter when it comes out. I think that’s about it from my side.
GFBR: Thanks for your thoughts, man. And thanks for Story Games. I remember when I was a brand-new gamer back in 2009, I joined SG in awe and trepidation. I was actually intimidated to post! It’s funny looking back on that.
GFBR: It’s been a really good community to be a part of, though. It’s spawned a lot of thought and play and connection with people in the real world. Thanks for taking two hours to talk to me!
Andy: No problem man!
GFBR: Talk to you later.