Organic Farming

by SpaceBass

An editorial reply.

I wrote the following in response to a recent article on ARGN by Larry Eisner, "Building Fences," and the resulting discussion that it sparked among the ARGN staff. I was thankful that both had forced me to articulate some concrete thoughts about why things are the way they are with respect to the unforums, beyond just "it's always been that way" or "it feels right" and I am curious to see how the wider community might respond.

The Ontology of Unfiction

Allow me to begin by reiterating the underlying philosophy of the unforums, which can be simply–if vaguely–stated as, "Welcome!" In other words, the idea of uF is that it is a resource where anyone and everyone should be embraced and encouraged to read it, use it, and to collaborate and form social bonds within it.

This philosophy is reflected in the very "hands-off" way in which the moderators operate, as I try to remind them that they are there to facilitate discussions rather than to control them. I strongly believe that all participants should be allowed the opportunity to voice their opinions, be they positive or negative, in a free and constructive fashion. To the extent that such discussions can avoid degeneration into personal attacks or other abuse, they should always be allowed to continue. I feel that such debates are extremely valuable, much more so than only permitting a one-sided viewpoint to be put forth.

The philosophy is also reflected in the setup of the majority of the forums to allow unregistered users to post and participate alongside registered users, which is not the norm on most Internet boards and which garners me quite a bit of flak at times. It is only in unusually uncontrollable circumstances that we lock down a particular game's forum or category to require registration for participation, and this generally only happens when the amount of guest posts of little or repeat substance skyrockets due to the high popularity of a given game. This is not to say that these decisions, though they are for the most part few and far between, are not difficult to make every single time.

Many people know that I was extremely reluctant to even host a community forum in the first place. I agreed to do so for reasons that are too complicated to go into here, but on the condition that the forum be run under this philosophy. Its implementation has, over time, evolved to address new issues raised by the operation of the community and by its response to outside influences. However, the core axiom has always remained.

My opinions have evolved over time as well and I have also grown a strong emotional bond to the site, to the community, and to that philosophy. That bond generates an emotional response when I perceive something to be an attack on that ideology. Indeed, writing about this now is affecting me in the same way that I felt when I had to begin asking for donations to support the forums during ILoveBees.

The Unusual Civility of Unforums

I cannot begin to count all of the instances in which newcomers to the forums have remarked upon how peculiarly cordial are the discussions they find on uF. It is almost a foreign concept to those who have experience participating in other Internet forums, bulletin boards, and mailing lists that a debate can take place in one without degenerating into a war of flames. Why is this so atypical? Although I would defy anyone to definitively state any particular reason, I believe it is a product of the growth of the community under the umbrella of the above principles and the subsequent birth of a defining subculture that cherishes that distinct Weltanschauung.

This worldview permeates Unfiction and, in so doing, fosters that all-important collaboration, as well as encouraging creativity and constructivism. The forum itself is merely a framework, an arable plot of land where the seeds of interactive collusion may flourish. The ideology under which the forum operates is a fertilizer that cultivates a society which works together for a common goal. That common goal, however, is decidedly not to "win" a particular game, nor to "outdo" other player groups. It is not even a terribly discrete goal: Enjoy The Play. As Jane McGonigal aptly put it in her talk at ARGFest NYC about the term, "Alternate Reality Gaming," it is the "Gaming" bit that is the key; it's about the doing, rather than what gets done. This is why we have little reminders of the Unfiction philosophy everywhere, such as the admonishment to "Play Nice" on the java chat applet page.

I have a difficult time envisioning a scenario in which this ideology could be successfully adjusted to encourage truly adversarial or competitive play without damaging the prevailing ethic and aesthetic, thus discouraging the social cohesiveness that currently exists. I would expect that such a change would bring about a kind of schizophrenia to the collective mind that would, over time, be self-destructive and ultimately self-defeating.

Unfiction is Out-of-Game

The context in which this meta-concept generally arises is when a puppetmaster abuses the boards in an in-game fashion, such as by posting in character about their own game. However, the welcoming of an adversarial nature of play could as easily invite similar abuse by legitimate players. Would it not be considered a double-standard to countenance those players who become deeply involved in a style oriented toward character or role-playing to utilize the boards in furthering their in-character aims using out-of-game resources?

This question brings us back to the issue of trust, which is the strongest point forwarded by opponents of in-game posting to the boards. If the boards are to be used as a cooperative resource that belongs to the entire community, that community and the individuals of which it is comprised must be able to trust that what they read on the boards is not a product of purposeful misdirection. That level of trust is upheld solely through an unwritten social contract based upon the above philosophical principles.

We, as players, already realize on some level that when we play a game, we cannot necessarily believe wholeheartedly the information that we receive from the game. This is why we must hold out some out-of-game area to enable a discussion on a meta-level of those in-game elements that we are attempting to piece together. Without that level of trust in the out-of-game area, we damage our own ability to analyze the data we have observed, to form critical opinions about where that data analysis may lead, or what it may mean. How can we collectively measure any sort of progress when all possibilities are equal in viability? We must allow ourselves some metric, some ability to define and categorize, in order to allow ourselves any ability to move forward.

At the same time, we must avoid over defining our goals or excessively compartmentalizing our efforts. Again, if we accept that The Play is The Thing, we must allow ourselves as much freedom as we can afford to participate in that Play without spoiling the Play for others. This turns out to be a delicate balancing act, allowing as much leeway as possible for individuals to find their own roles, while creating an almost invisible web of guidelines that can be used to focus and intensify the efforts of the community as a whole. The anarchist end of this spectrum would hold that each individual should be wholly allowed to do as he or she pleased so that each such player could enjoy The Play to his or her utmost. The altruistic opposite would find that the community should be held in the highest regard, to the possible detriment of the enjoyment of certain individuals that don't agree with, nor wish to follow along in, the collective's mindset.

It is my fervent opinion that encouraging competition within the collective mind would unbalance that equation, to the detriment not only of a few individuals but of the entire community.

Endangering the Historical Record

Finally, I would submit that, were the collective to embrace such internal adversarialness, it would pose as great a future danger to the development of the genre, and the continued growth of the genre's subculture, as it would in the present. We have already seen what happens retroactively when players begin to mistrust one another, and to see the community boards as a compromised resource. They begin to delete their own posted information in order to keep it away from their competitors, as pointed out by Larry in his editorial with respect to Project Ashcroft 3. This is not a new tactic, but it is one that only crops up when the collective trust is abused and when players begin to doubt one another's motives.

The effect of this upon a game which has engendered such activity is debatable. As I have argued numerous times in the past, the puppetmasters are always in exclusive control of their own games, regardless of the actions of the players, individually or collectively. Whether the puppetmasters choose to utilize, for better or worse, the actions of the players is wholly up to the PMs.

On the other hand, how do such actions affect the other players in the game? Beyond the mere competition, it may well be detrimental to the ongoing enjoyment of countless others who had little or nothing to do with the incident at hand. If such an event occurs where Player A deletes game data that they have posted because another, competing Player B has used it in-game to forward a goal antithetical to that of Player A, and then a day or two later Player C gets some free time to catch up on the forums, how is Player C to understand what happened? The recent history as it applies to this incident has been either secreted away or excised from the community memory. Player C must either attempt to continue on without that knowledge, or expend additional effort in attempting to locate another Player X who not only knows what has transpired but is also willing to share that information with Player C. While Players A and B may have immensely enjoyed their little online contretemps, it may have effectively shut out many others from participation or amusement, at least with respect to that precise element of the game. Depending on the import of the incident, it may indeed affect the other players' ability to follow the game in the longer term as well.

The long-term viewpoint is also important to consider. The historical record for each and every game is something that should, in a perfect world, endure forever. There are billions of potential players alive today who have not yet even heard of Alternate Reality Gaming. Do we not have some duty to future generations of players to provide them with complete and accurate information about what has transpired in games past, if only to allow them the ability to educate themselves about the nature of The Play? Many times have I seen newcomers who have asked, "How do I start?" be directed towards past game archives of both sites and discussions, to "get a feel for how it works." How will these future players learn from an historical record that contains gaps, that is inconsistent in its presentment of the narrative? Would not these gaps, in such an internally competitive environment, also extend to other player resources outside of the forums, such as game wikis and guides? Would we prefer to have competing guides for these games that put forth opposing viewpoints backed by differing sets of data that are at odds with each other?

Preservation of the historical record is the sole and precise reason why I ask both moderators and players never to delete anything unless absolutely necessary.


I write here from a distinct perspective where the continuing success of Unfiction is my central concern. I do not claim that Alternate Reality Games must conform to some particular norm and that if they don't comport themselves as I would prefer that they should be shunned or otherwise denied an audience, nor that the Unfiction community should ban or otherwise deny its resource to those games that would test these arguably mutable boundaries. It is merely my opinion that such internally adversarial play is inconsistent with and counteractive to the current successful tenets underlying the Unfiction community.