Precinct Omega Podcast - News #41 - Storms & Teacups

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This week, the news is going to take a slightly different twist. This is a one-time-only thing, I promise. We’ll be back to the regular programme of highlighting small manufacturers and loosely connected trends in a fortnight. But the last couple of weeks I’ve felt my irritation at some stuff building up and as it’s relatively sort-of, kind-of, current affairs in our world, I figured it was more “news” than “design”.


So, y’know. Here is the news.


Perennial industry-dominator, and hobbyist bete noir, Games Workshop, has announced a new range of miniatures for the Orruks in Age of Sigmar. The Orruks are the re-branded version of GW’s classic fantasy orcs range and some people are irrationally angry that these orcs don’t look like the old orcs.


Meanwhile, online general gaming e-magazine, The Wire, has published an article asking why there aren’t more women in wargaming. Everyone agrees that its a stupid piece of click-bait, but no one seem able to agree why it’s a stupid piece of click-bait.


And in a related spat, two adults on Twitter who should know better and who don’t deserve the added publicity of me naming them have interrupted their normally reliable stream of hobby-related content to have a public trolling competition.


By the time I get to have my say in a podcast, most of this has, it must be said, blow over. But I wanted to take just one episode to look at these as examples of regular storms that crop up in our hobby’s minuscule little teacup and try to give them some rational analysis.

WAITER? THERE’S A STORM IN MY TEACUP!

All hobbies create their own ecosystem of disagreement and controversy. This was, it has to be emphasized, always true. But the 21st Century’s interconnected world and the opportunities that the Internet has created mean that, for all of the many positives that have resulted, there are also some significant negatives, and one which absolutely works both ways is the ease with which people can engage in debate.


Something I’ve always enjoyed is getting unreasonably passionate about things that don’t matter. I’ve mentioned before that they are scones not scones and that the cream obviously ought to go on first. These are things I feel strongly about and can have years-long disagreements with loved ones over. But they ultimately don’t matter.


It’s fun to have these pointless, silly, interminable arguments. Right up until someone decides that, for some reason, they do matter.


For example, does crochet count as knitting? If you’re listening to this podcast you may be hazy on what the difference is. But if you’re into knitting or crochet then, I can assure you, tempers run pretty damn hot in the knitting and crochet worlds and knitters, in particular, have literally made death threats over the idea that crochet “counts” as knitting. Along similar lines, academics specialising in the works of Edgar Alan Poe have had a long unwritten rule that one doesn’t talk about the orangutan. But amateur fans don’t know this. Let me warn you: if you ever find yourself in a Poe chat group and the subject turns to whether Poe was or wasn’t a racist, for heaven’s sake… don’t mention the orangutan!


I say all of this, simply to preface this week’s discussion, because I’m going to talk about some of our hobby’s particular current controversies. I will be expressing some opinions and asking some open questions, but it’s important to note that, really, these issues are all trivial. Perhaps not equally trivial, but by comparison with our world’s great challenges, they really aren’t that big a deal.


However, this is, after all, a news episode. So although I’ve got some stuff to say about storms, teacups and these trivial distractions from the important work of playing toy soldiers, I’ll also do my usual review of what all this means for Precinct Omega.


<ORRUKS>

Let’s kick off with an easy one: a familiar aesthetic has changed and you don’t like it. The latest example of this has been GW’s new Orruk designs for Age of Sigmar. But I could equally pick out any Age of Sigmar faction, or the Primaris space marines, or - to get away from GW, the switch from 15mm to 28mm that Konflikt 47 made when it was licensed by Warlord Games, or the decision by Warcradle Studios to retire all of the original designs in the Dystopian Wars range of ships, or Corvus Belli’s astonishing scale-creep over the last ten years.


The obvious response to this is “holy ****, people, no one is going to send the miniatures police to take away your old orks!” - or whatever - insert your faction of choice here.


But when you’ve got an already-successful and well-loved aesthetic, it’s not unreasonable for people to ask why a company decides to change it and the answers to that are manifold.


  1. <Internal Consistency>

When you’ve got a wide product range, it’s important to sustain an internal consistency so that everything gels together. This is true whether you’re selling socks or laundry detergent or Botox or toy soldiers. Internal consistency makes cross-selling within your range far easier. Humans are naturally tribal and brand-loyalty is a modern expression of our tribalism, expressed in politics as much as in buying habits.


But brands evolve and a smart company will always be looking to exploit new market niches or respond to emerging trends. Maintaining a dialogue with your customers means hearing their feedback and, although you have to be careful who you listen to and how much weight you ascribe to it, this will still result in companies changing stuff.


In the case of the Orruks, pretty much every other faction in the AOS universe had been through a dramatic change of aesthetic that has more closely aligned them with the new reality of the Realms of Man. The AOS setting wasn’t ever just a cosmological shift from the Old World: it’s an entirely different flavour of place and time, with a different sense of humour. That’s not to say it’s humourless. But a Gryph-hound is humour of a different kind to that of the Chaos Toilet. The original shift in the orc aesthetic, led by Brian Nelson’s terrific sculpts, was in step with a change in the aesthetic of the Old World. And the new orcs are a new shift again, to a new internal consistency.


  1. <Corporate Exigency>

Some stuff just happens because it’s in the interests of the business. Everything from the Imperial Guard turning into the Astra Militum to AOS elves obtaining a new “a” at the front of their name.


In the case of the change in the orc aesthetics, the business reasons are cynical but real.


  • <Creation of sales>: existing orruk players may not want to replace their collections, but they’ll feel compelled to. And the Cult of the New will bring in new customers attracted by the up-to-date aesthetics. At the end of the day, GW is a miniatures company so don’t be surprised when they come up with new ways to make you buy their miniatures.

  • <Frustration of competition>: lots of after-market manufacturers make designs to complement or replace GW’s existing orc ranges; but a new aesthetic will frustrate the loss of internal sales to these external competitors. It’s a small thing, but for all that GW relies on their unpaid R&D teams in the independent market, they would still rather all the lovely shiny money flows into their profit margins than someone else’s.

  • <Defensible properties>: it’s not just about having names they can stake copyright over. GW would like to stake copyright over every aspect of their business. The fact that they belatedly woke up to the fact that an endless stream of C&D letters wasn’t just futile but actively damaging their brand hasn’t altered the core corporate desire to fully control their intellectual property. Because of the dilution of the orc aesthetic by independents, the appearance of their minis had arguably lost the “distinctiveness” it required to be defendable. A new aesthetic can have its “distinctive” qualities more clearly articulated, making it more defendable.


  1. <Artistic expression>

This is the most positive of interpretations, but I don’t think it should be under-played for all that it might seem far too airy-fairy for GW. Remember that all of these points apply to all of the companies I mentioned who made dramatic changes to their lines for various reasons and this one might be the most compelling. On its own, the ability to allow creators within the industry to more freely express their vision is a low priority. But if enabling better artistic expression aligns with the other points I’ve mentioned, it actually takes on a catalytic role.


Concept artists, designers, sculptors and painters are creative people and creative people do their best work when they are inspired. Customers will tend to have a positive response to projects in which the creative talents involved were doing their best work. So, it becomes a virtuous circle.


For all that Brian Nelson’s vision for the orcs was ground-breaking in its time, it’s now decades old and has inspired dozens of imitators. So it makes sense to allow a new generation of designers to collaborate on a new vision.


Of course, none of this adds up to the change being a good one. And I’m not here to defend GW’s aesthetic choices. Whether or not you like the new Orruks is an entirely personal decision, just as it is up to you whether you like Infinity’s scale creep.


The final message on this topic - which I’m sure few of my listeners really need to hear - is that whether you, individually, like something simply isn’t a statistically significant factor in whether your favourite company does something.


And on that topic, let’s talk about another recent storm in the wargaming tea-cup, which I’ve touched upon before: women in wargaming.


WOMEN IN WARGAMING


<Do we have to talk about this again?>


Yes, Bernard. Yes, we do. Because Wired - bless them - recently published an article asking why there are so few women in wargaming. To miniatures wargamers, this was pure, uncut clickbait. Whatever side of the conversation you find yourself on, it’s almost irresistible. And what made it particularly addictive was the way that the article almost entirely failed to engage with or answer the question.


You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to attempt to do that here, by the way. Rather, I think it’s the wrong question asked by the wrong people in the wrong way. Instead, there are two different questions that need to be asked.


The first question is one which absolutely everyone should be asking themselves all of the time, which is: how is the comfort of my existence predicated on unacknowledged social norms?


This is big sociology, I’m utterly unqualified to discuss it, and it’s straying outside the realm of this podcast but, just briefly, a friend recently told a story in which it was recounted that a colleague had talked with exasperation about her inability to “express her authentic blackness” in the workplace - a complaint that my friend found baffling, and I understand why. Our model of eurocentric cultural norms are built upon a foundation that was made entirely by white, working age men just.


<Just like you?>


Precisely.


Everything from the industrialisation of cities to the legal code to religious institutions to your workplace dress code was predicated upon this foundation and everything that deviates from this is treated as an exception. Whether you’re too young, too old, too female, too black, too pregnant, or too gay - even in a society where those things are given specific legal protection, the fundamental components of society still treat them as exceptions to a white, working age male default. Even the fact that the nine protected characteristics have to be protected underlines this.


And this applies especially to nebulous institutions that fall outside normal legal regulation - like hobby communities.


But I said there were two questions and the good news is that most of you listening don’t need to ask the second one unless you work in leadership in a miniature wargames company. The question they need to ask is:


“How do we sell more stuff?”


You’ll notice that the question doesn’t even engage with whether the people buying the stuff are of the male or the female variety. To them, it doesn’t - or shouldn’t - matter particularly. What matters is that half of the world’s population, give or take, is female. And if women, generally, aren’t buying their stuff, that’s a problem they need to solve. And you don’t solve it by turning it pink and raising the cost by 20%.


The question isn’t “how do we market our products more effectively to women?” It’s “how do we market our products more effectively to everyone?”


GW rather limply insisted that wargaming was for everyone and that its alt-right fanbois wouldn’t be missed but, in practice, they will. GW doesn’t want its fascist fans to stop buying their products. They want them to stop being fascists! And, more importantly, they want their products to stop appealing to fascists because that automatically means that their products are failing to appeal to lots of other people.


However, whilst manufacturers - including but not limited to GW - really ought to be thinking about how to market their products more effectively, there is one group of people who thrive on division and argument: Twitter Hobbyists.

<AH, THE TEDIOUS ART OF SELF-PROMOTION>

If you’re a hobbyist on Twitter, by the way, that doesn’t make you a Twitter Hobbyist. If you like to post pictures of your minis, send compliments on other people’s painting, share crafting ideas or just chat about your favourite game - more strength to you! You are the hobbyist we need.


But perhaps you’re not the hobbyist we deserve. Because there is another brand of Twitter Hobbyist who seeks to drive traffic and attention towards themselves at all costs. Often, they are talented hobbyists, with good content and interesting ideas, with great minis or comprehensive battle reports. But they have found that these things alone are insufficient to drive the traffic they so desperately crave. They are hobbyists in wargaming. But they are also hobbyists in Twitter. And the latter - being “big” on Twitter - is how they truly measure their self-worth. And so they weaponize the storms in our community tea-cup to create divisiveness, tribalism and a culture of “us versus them” that spills over from Twitter to other platforms and, eventually, real life.


I don’t plan to feed that process by naming the individuals involved in the latest tedious example. Suffice to say that, in the context of the issue of minority groups in wargaming of all sorts, it is generally a good and positive thing to boost the audibility of the voices of such people, because the more visible they are, the more it will normalize their place in the hobby.


But it’s also worth remembering that being a member of a minority group doesn’t stop a person from being a needy, argumentative troll. And also that not being a member of a minority group and being the target of a needy, argumentative troll who is doesn’t mean that you aren’t also a needy, argumentative troll.


Do you know what stops you from being a needy, argumentative troll?


It’s not starting arguments and, if you do find yourself accidentally starting an argument, it’s apologizing for starting an argument and walking away from the argument.

PRECINCT OMEGA

So part of the reason I made this episode - and why I occasionally do these bleeding heart, lefty, liberal rants - is because, like it or not, this is my venting platform. And while it’s nice to just get splenetic when we rant, and it’s infinitely more entertaining, I find it more helpful to get rational about this and forcing myself to try to articulate my instinctive, emotional response to these things with reasoned explanations is good for me. And no one gets to interrupt, which is even better.


But seriously, the reason I started this podcast and took it in the direction into which it has evolved is so that I can learn more about this industry, which means that rationally analysing things that are going on is part of my professional development.


I was recently challenged by a very eminent designer in the industry on my decision to fill the cover art of Horizon Wars: Infinite Dark with people rather than spaceships. In retrospect, maybe I could have fitted more spaceships on the cover, and I never ignore constructive criticism, especially when it comes from someone whose work I respect so much. And some people could very reasonably point to me - a white, middle-aged man - making a black woman the principal authority figure in my art and accuse me of flagrant tokenism. It could be said that I got so self-righteously pleased with myself about putting a Woman of Colour at the centre of my cover art that I forgot it was a game about spaceships.


To that, I say this:


Yes, maybe you’re right. Maybe I have been raised in an environment of privilege that makes the white man the assumed default and that any deviation from the default requires justification and explanation. Maybe I made a conscious decision to make the lead character in my book a Woman Of Colour because I am desperate to virtue signal my opposition to the white male hegemony.


Or maybe… just maybe… a fictional character can be both black and female because why the **** not? And if I didn’t think to put spaceships on the outside, you can be damned sure I didn’t forget to put them on the inside.


As for companies making aesthetic decisions that hurt your feelings…


Actually, you know what? For all that I laid out the rational explanations for those decisions, as a designer and publisher - especially a small one - let me say that your feelings are valid. Companies should toy with the affections of their fans at their peril. When it comes to orcs, who didn’t love that soccer hooligan image of a green-skinned, man-eating 1980s Millwall fan turned up to eleven and riding a wild boar? It was a great example of the anarchic, punk-rock mindset in early GW. And Brian Nelson’s sculpts tapped into that aesthetic in a new way. GW has great and sensible reasons for their aesthetic shift, but it’s hard not to see that this new direction cuts ties with the orcs of yesteryear. These orcs may be green-skinned, man-eating savages, but they are apolitical green-skinned man-eating savages. They have nothing to say about the rise of English nationalism. They make no subtle criticism of colonial imperialism and the dehumanising of dominated peoples.


And that’s a shame. It is. It’s a shame. But, the other thing to remember is that Cnut couldn’t hold back the tide and neither can you.


And as for Twitter…


Sometimes, I wish I was important enough to be embroiled in a Twitter spat. My social media following is very modest. I post a handful of times every week and, for those of you who like or re-tweet, believe me when I say that I treasure every one of them! But social media popularity needs to be seen as an outcome of a process, not a process in itself.


What I mean is that I think it is more important that my social media popularity be grown upon an increase in the popularity of my products and games, not vice versa. This is for two reasons. First, if you focus on social media popularity, it will eat up time and effort for zero useful return on your investment. People who follow an account for the account won’t be converted to consume the accounts other products. They are, by their very nature, unreliable consumers. Whereas people who follow an account as a direct result of their attachment to the products will be far more receptive to social media news about those products!


People who deliberately engage in social media conflicts and stoke them may not always be aware that they are just farming for valueless attention, but that is fundamentally what they are doing.


You and I are far better off having just a handful of supportive followers who are interested in and supportive of our work than we are having tens of thousands of followers who are only there to watch and laugh as we fight.


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