L’Affaire le Laissez-Faire

A little over a month ago Valve issued warnings to the makers of adult visual novels and others which became publicized resulting in controversy and uncertainty regarding the status of games with sexual content on Steam. A few weeks later Valve reversed this implied decision and announced that they would open the store to anything that they “…decide [is] illegal, or straight up trolling.” A lot of commentary seemed to react to, or at least occupy the same space as, Leaf Corcoran’s (of Itch.io) response that the new hands off approach was “ridiculous” and to keep “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” off of Itch. Gamasutra summarized a number of reasonably high profile comments here.

Given that this news is already a month old, the best I can offer here is a room temperature take, but I’m struck by how the focus has been on free expression when I don’t think this is really what is at stake here. For all the effort to form two poles between the Itch and Steam approaches, the main differences are technological. Before weighing in on any of the commentary, I’d like to begin by examining possible reasons for Valve’s actions.

The economics of keeping games on Steam

Valve’s announced laissez-faire approach to Steam should be viewed in light of the original news that there was a coming crackdown on sexual content in games, which invites us to ask why Valve might want to take a game off of its platform. Valve has a pretty good deal going with the Steam where games pay $100 to be listed (recoupable after $1,000 in revenues), and they take 30% of revenues, meaning their variable costs are matched by increases in revenues and their slotting fee ensures the developer is on the hook for at least some of the on boarding/vetting costs of a game that does not sell.

Since the on boarding costs are sunk, why would Valve ever want to stop selling a game? There are likely two sets of explanations: Costs directly relating to the title itself, and knock on effects from a certain class of product. Direct costs are fairly intuitive to understand. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to identifying entertainment products bringing about the decline of civilization and so carrying that title also means assuming the liability of angry people complaining that you are carrying a product that brings about the decline of civilization. In physical stores these encounters are diffused among different locations and staff. For a digital storefront they are taking on the sum of complaints which will be directed to their staff who could be tending to other requests from other games, and are doing so on the internet which tends to alter the character of the interaction. Nobody would seriously consider removing GTA from Steam, but dealing with the associated complaints do represent a real cost for carrying that particular game over a less controversial title.

Indirect costs are a bit easier to understand when considering a class of games. A common complaint about Steam now is the discoverability problem: Getting a game in front of its audience when more and more titles are being released. Some genres take less time to create games for and so it is to be expected that there will be a proliferation of low-cost titles entering the market on a daily basis. The indirect costs can be summarized as follows: Valve may take 30% of sales, but if the problem is severe enough that customers are shown games that do not result in sales over games that would have, everyone loses. These costs can be compounded by discouraging developers to release on steam or even create the game in the first place, though it’s doubtful we’ve reached this point (this will be covered later). Forgone sales are one of the more quantifiable indirect costs, but the main point in considering both costs is to show that some titles will be more costly for Valve to carry than others and that it is likely there is a class of product that can be identified as such.

In light of these added costs we can now consider Visual Novels. Visual Novels are relatively low-cost products with a straightforward production model. So long as the game can sell more than the costs of obtaining art, words, and someone to glue it altogether, it makes lots of sense to put it on Steam, and the tools built to create the first game (say a script that links certain phrases with displayed character emotions or a set of templates to produce characters faster) can be reused, lowering the costs of future games. None of this is to make a quality judgement, as there are clearly people who  enjoy these games, and some of them (Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend, Doki Doki Literature Club) seem to have appealed to players who do not normally engage with this genre, but this is a recipe for overproduction and the potential crowding out of other titles.

A noticeable number of Visual Novels also follow in the fine tradition of independent and European films trying to sell into the US market. Hollywood has an edge on production value and spectacle, and so rival offerings need to offer something to entice audiences away. While I’m sure there are defensible aesthetic reasons for doing so, it is not a coincidence that these films have a fairly high incidence of the leading lady, sometimes the leading man, and sometimes everyone else taking their clothes off. Sex doesn’t just sell, it’s high margin. As with film there are plenty of Visual Novels that do not fit this description, but there are many that do and by their very nature are the most attention getting. Whether this is because the Visual Novel field is crowded or it is just one of the conventions of the genre, a product in this space is more likely to contain sexual content than a product in another genre.

Returning to our evaluation of costs, it’s pretty clear to see how both the direct and indirect costs can be higher in the case of Visual Novels, specifically adult ones. If discoverability is a problem, the economics of Visual Novels are such that we’d expect them to be a larger contributor. More importantly, the higher incidence of sexual content means that Valve will need to spend more time vetting entries to ensure compliance, and likely committing to additional costs as patches will likely command greater scrutiny than a game like Opus Magnum. Finally, it is likely there will be a higher incidence of reporting/complaints with this kind of game, either due to hostility at the lack of quality or with regards to content. Whether any of this seems fair or not, it is understandable for a company like Valve to turn around and say that these games are more trouble than they are worth and to reevaluate their place on Steam. The focus on games with sexual content suggests that Valve was aiming to curtail simple games whose primary draw was titillation, regardless of their profitability. The subsequent focus on the content of these games (as opposed to their volume) is unavoidable, as it seems to have been the only condition for reevaluation, but the motivation here is not personal dislike on the part of decision makers at Valve but the fact that this content was associated with other costs that Valve no longer wanted to bear. This distinction is important as it explains why The Witcher 3 or GTA V did not face the same scrutiny.

The economics of opening up Steam

Just as games have indirect costs, so do policy decisions. A vocal subset of gamers were upset, but this doesn’t carry very much information nowadays. Likely more concerning to Valve were the expressions of uncertainty on the part of game developers. As Amazon, Netflix, and Google will tell you, content is king, and so Valve has a vested interest in being the first place developers think of when it comes to distributing their game. There are strong network effects at play with Steam, and while they can be difficult to unravel, they can do so swiftly. If the speculation in the preceding section was at least somewhat correct, then the uncertainty of the developers who have already been chosen for removal is no big loss, and it’s debatable if this can be read as “First they came for the adult Visual Novels and I said nothing…”, but the publicity resulting from the reevaluations serve as a reminder for something that has always been true: A ban (de facto or de jure) from Valve can destroy your company. A large number of developers are not just big unhedged bets on the PC gaming market, they are bets on Steam itself. If your business model is built around releasing lots of small, low-cost DLC, Valve is one submission pricing decision away from making it unaffordable, and the announcement can come right in the middle of production. If you made small games that can be completed in under two hours, guess what the refund policy did to your revenues. I’m not sure if Valve has ever done anything quite so heavy handed as what was implied by the reevaluations for sexual content, but introducing this level of uncertainty will leave firms wondering if their next title should maybe be a mobile game instead.

The uncertainty created by Valve’s decisions is something of their own making given that they are so tight lipped, but it also made the announcement of the new plans all the more noteworthy. A statement from Valve is also a useful point for a summary since everything above has only been speculation on news about Valve. We know firms were contacted regarding the reevaluation of their games for content and that this became a fairly prominent news story. From Valve we know they were responding to that public discussion, that they are changing course, they now prefer the laissez-faire approach and will collect their 30% while only intervening in the case of illegality and trolling. We’re left asking if this is a good decision and what the consequences will be. Following our reasoning above, this essentially means that the uncertainty felt by developers after the news about reevaluation was more costly than the decision to leave things on the platform. This seems plausible seeing as developer uncertainty can be an existential threat to Steam in a way discoverability is not, as well as the fact that Valve privately contacted the developers for reevaluation but publically posted when responding to the media coverage of that decision. Valve’s post does also spend a lot of time talking about discoverability which inclines me to think that this has always been the focus.

Had the story not been public then eliminating the biggest problem spots (cheap titillating content) was seemingly the lowest cost way of clearing the channels and helping discoverability. The uncertainty created through the subsequent publicity was more costly than the gains from improved discoverability and so the decision was reversed. However, reversing the decision doesn’t solve the original problem and so the second best option is to invest in technology to help mitigate the discoverability problem. The opening of the platform adds another dimension to the problem, but I suspect in part it lessens the burden on the people handing reports and curation as the only real decision rule will be the Valve defined category of “Trolling” which may not reduce the volume of content complaints but can reduce responses to boilerplate “Valve does not curate…” messages.  The case for Valve’s reversal being caused by developer uncertainty is also strengthened by the fact that Valve merely announced the new policy with later implementation, while their usual pattern has been to implement then announce (even if it’s meant letting a negative story fester for longer than we’re accustomed to from other companies).

What does it mean to have an open Steam? The economist Joel Waldfogel has a good and readable summary on the effects of digitization on music, movies, books and television. At the risk of oversimplifying, Waldfogel’s conclusion is that digitization has created a golden age for these media and this is due to projects that otherwise would not have been realized but for the fact that digitization has lowered costs. Conclusions like this normally inspire a dismissive “Well that’s obvious” (if it helps, you’re very smart and I’ll be sure to ask you next time), but analysis like this is valuable because it helps us understand the mechanisms that brought about the outcome. I’ll take a point from Waldfogel and present it as a puzzle: Should the effect of lowered costs of production translate into marginal gains in niche areas, or will it produce unexpected hits that produce substantial gains? Most readers are likely going to know of some indie successes and so say that it will produce hits, but this does not harmonize with the ‘obvious’ conclusion that digitization produces a golden age. To see why consider that under the old model there would be gatekeepers who evaluate a given project and if the returns exceed the cost of production then they would approve it. Lowering costs allows more projects to get made, but these are projects with returns lower than the previous threshold, meaning we should see a proliferation of niche projects, not hits (which would have been produced under the old system). Where do the hits come from? The hits come from the fact that gatekeepers aren’t that good at predicting future outcomes for present day production and so lowered costs are allowing more hits to be realized outside of traditional channels. This is observed in the data through the growing share of self-published/independent/non-traditional projects in revenues or best seller lists. Since the quality or success of a given product is something of a random draw, the gains from allowing more products on Steam have an outsized return even when some of the ex-ante losers turn out to be ex-post losers.

If we think Waldfogel’s analysis has applications to gaming as well, then distribution platforms need to be better at predicting final quality, or the platform should be open as possible to projects that previously would not have passed gatekeepers such as Greenlight or a large publisher. But Steam already seems to have achieved this through the Steam Direct program. Morgan Jaffit’s (Defiant Studios head, makers of Hand of Fate 2) analysis indicating more winners and more losers seems to be exactly in line with the experience of other creative industries as reported in the Waldfogel article (though the an increased share of ex-ante losers in revenues is something of a matter of speculation given the notorious difficulty of estimating sales on Steam). This is why it is important to recognize the mechanisms through which the gains in other media were made, since these gains rest on the unpredictability of outcomes and the failure of traditional gatekeepers to manage it. The most relevant question stemming from the new lassiez-faire approach is whether or not quality guidelines are analogous to gatekeepers in terms of evaluating the value of products. If you feel that they are an impediment to high value products being realized, then Valve’s decision is a good one, will likely be profitable, and we’ll all benefit. If you feel they are largely irrelevant (possibly even orthogonal) to a project’s value, then the best case scenario from this decision would only be the incremental gains that will come from incorporating niche products.

Another way of examining this question is whether or not there is such a thing as a pornographic masterpiece. That is, is there a work of pornography (realized or unrealized) of genuine artistic merit that we have suppressed through these guidelines that would achieve a level of appeal beyond its traditional audience? Most definitions of pornography deny any aesthetic value, but if this is the only argument then we are simply begging the question. The same might be asked of hate speech (is there a work of bigotry of such sublime beauty that failing to publish it would impoverish our culture?), though this would certainly be illegal in some jurisdictions and so still banned. While there have been independent successes outside of Steam (Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress for instance), none of them seem to be products that would have failed to pass the Steam Direct system. These exceptional cases are always dangerous ground to tread on, and so it is possible that the unavailability of traditional commercial channels really has prevented a pornographic masterpiece from being realized in gaming, but it doesn’t seem like a product has emerged that has achieved universal acclaim within its own niche, let alone as a contender for mainstream success.

The reason we care about whether or not the gains from removing content barriers are incremental (i.e. niches) or the realization of mainstream hits is that it is what we should measure against the cost of lowering these barriers. For this we return to the discoverability problem and see just how far apart Itch and Steam really are.

The costs of discoverability problem

If we believe Waldfogel’s analysis applies to Steam then Steam Direct has produced gains above and beyond the incremental benefits stemming from lower costs for games. However, we started with the speculating that the impetus for reevaluating adult visual novels and similar games was the discoverability problem brought about by implementing the more open system. Waldfogel briefly addresses this in the “more research is needed” section at the end, though the idea of information cascades (the Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch 1998 reference) does seem to be in line with the “big open” strategy employed by recent successful releases. Waldfogel’s summary does suggest that the cost of search (which we’ve termed the discoverability problem) may not increase, but I am operating on the assumption that this is not the case for games given that developers (who are better informed than I am) describe it and Valve has dedicated resources into mitigating it (and they see almost the entire market).

All of this may seem a bit abstract, so here’s an illustration of what this means. Suppose everyone had an app like Tinder which contained true information about potential romantic matches, but was optional to use and had some search preferences. Let’s say the search preferences start with the default setting of people who are very similar demographically to you and if the love of your life is present in this group, you will find them within two or three swipes. The next setting will put you in a pool of likely matches which, if it contains the love of your life, will find them in 7 to 12 swipes. Finally you can include literally everyone but you will not find the love of your life until 400 to 328,922 swipes. The growing number of swipes represents the increasing search cost as we grow the pool in search of that special m’lady or m’sir. Our choice of search setting is going to depend a lot on our expectations of how likely it is we’ll find our match in each of the groups. The cost difference between the default and second option is more than double, but is broad enough to be pretty appealing to risk averse people who want to maximize their chances. The literally everyone option is so costly that even if we turn the chance into a certainty, we may prefer to reserve it as a last ditch option (or abandon the app entirely).

Switching to Steam Direct seems a bit like switching to the second option in the example above. It does increase the cost of search, but the reward is worth it, especially if we’re looking to expand beyond what’s familiar. But we are unlikely to want the pool to increase indefinitely since the search costs don’t merit the increased chances of finding the love of our lives (game or person). If the benefits of removing content restrictions are analogous to the ones obtained through the reduced costs of games, then we should be willing to entertain higher search costs, but if the benefits are limited to the incremental gains of niche products then we may not willing to accept any additional inconvenience.

A key difference for Steam is that at the moment we are collectively setting one search preference for everyone, and so we’re deciding if we want to go from the expanded category to the literally everything one. It’s true that some people are not able to find the love of their life from the current choice (maybe this explains the desire for pornography), but the inconvenience to this group is considered the lesser evil compared to the universal inconvenience faced by the entire platform and its attendant frustration and likely abandonment by some users. To return to games specifically we can characterize search costs on Steam as the time it takes a customer to find a game they like, the forgone opportunity of Steam to make a sale by serving up the wrong recommendation, and the equivalent lost sale to the developer.

Valve’s new approach involves investing in technology to help lower search costs, including allowing them to restrict the pool of potential games they are exposed to. I don’t think anyone really knows how successful they will be at it. If Valve succeeds, then we will all benefit through faster matches to games we enjoy the most. If the system doesn’t work as well as they plan, then I suspect we’ll see a few more applications of the “trolling” criterion to keep users from encountering offensive content they wouldn’t buy in the first place. When looking at the Steam Direct guidelines, it becomes apparent that Valve hasn’t really given up a lot since half of the rules are already legal matters, and the remaining can credibly fall under a the trolling criterion. In fact, Valve offered some clarity on the condition and used a banned school shooting game as an example of what would not be permitted.

This brings us to Itch. Itch’s submission guidelines are extremely permissive, a fact that tends to be lost when you see people who have never used the site complaining about censorship in response to its founder’s Tweet. Itch also does not have the resources that Valve does in terms of being able to automate the curation of a given user’s pages and so they are less likely to propose a technological solution to the problem. Itch faces the same issues of discoverability and desire to maximize revenues as Valve but needs to employ solutions that reflect its capabilities. It is difficult to find a more direct solution than saying ‘don’t put this kind of stuff on our site and if you do we’ll ban you.’ If anything this is likely more a timely reminder of Itch’s existing policy rather than any kind of policy shift (so far as I can tell, the rules have not changed substantially since Corcoran issued his tweet or, indeed, years before he did). In fact, based on the clarification Valve offered to the definition of trolling, there seems to be very little difference between Itch and Valve in terms of what they consider (or will consider) unacceptable on their platform.

If it turns out there are substantive differences between Itch and the future Steam, it will be an interesting experiment in terms of whether or not these content guidelines actually do prevent the realization of good games. At the moment Steam is not my go-to source for interesting and unknown games but Itch is. The free speech warriors reacting to Corcoran’s tweet seem not to have been interested in the relative freedom of Itch’s platform to Steam Direct and Greenlight, and Itch has done fine without them. Gaming as we know it has also not collapsed under Valve’s relatively more restrictive policies, and Itch’s ban buttons are not likely to steer the industry into some kind of Hays Code. In truth, most if not all of the percieved difference is likely explained by Corcoran’s directness and Valve’s vagueness.

It’s fun to wrap oneself up in the illusion of a principled stand on free speech or against intolerance, but there really isn’t a lot for either side beyond rhetorical posturing. People who want to see the Valve decision an unmitigated win for free speech need to reconcile that with Valve’s follow up comments which seem to be banning exactly the kind of titles we’d expect a reasonable set of content guidelines to ban. Likewise, Itch’s permissive submission policies do not seem to have reduced the storefront into the dumpster fire predicted for Steam, nor has it seemed to produce the controversial hit that has demonstrated the outsized welfare gains from removing content restrictions. This is why I think the difference is merely technological and if anything Steam is shifting closer to Itch. The small scale experiment of Itch also suggests that the gains from loosening content guidelines are incremental for their respective niches rather than an opportunity for previously censored hits to finally be realized.

Seeing the realization of Valve’s promises will make all the difference, but my own expectation is that this decision will result in much needed curation tools being made available to users and developers, pornographic content will be made available (though the most egregious examples will likely still be banned) but will need to be opted in, and there may be some improvements made to the recommendation engine. Because the new policy will likely mean the entry of niche products, a ‘first do no harm’ approach would mean that most of the changes should be imperceptible to users, since these are products they have no interest in buying in the first place. So long as Valve is able to ensure these niche entries aren’t a nuisance to the rest of us, it’s hard to see this move as a bad one, but it hinges on both the new entries not being as bad as the worst that people assume (the hate speech case) and Valve being able to segment the user base in a way that doesn’t cause games we would have otherwise enjoyed becoming invisible to us. Of course, if Valve finds this problem is much more difficult than they anticipated, they have left the details open enough to make the changes modest and we may find the store isn’t all that different from the way it is now.


Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Hot Sex Robot Takes

Ten people in Toronto lost their lives when a man drove a rental truck down a street with the intent of hitting as many people as he could. A screenshot of his Facebook post identifying himself as an incel was verified, Redditors cringed at the quality of mainstream coverage of that community, and commentators took to their keyboards for a fresh set of hot takes.

The takes are a particularly depressing reminder that being dumb and outrageous will generate more attention than a thoughtful and honest effort to engage with any given topic. I will credit one column with bringing my attention to Amia Srinivasan’s article Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?, even if I suspect the author did not read it all the way through, but have no intention of rewarding sloppy thinking with the traffic it so obviously craves. It is sufficient to say are a lot of op-eds talking about sex robots and incels right now, and not one of them has acknowledged that this is a solution that community actually wishes for.

If we are looking for some kind of ur-take, the most likely candidate is Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias : Two Types of Envy. Why include a link just after claiming I don’t want to reward a certain type of article? Mostly because I think Hanson is actually trying to make a point about our attitudes towards income redistribution. Leveraging the Toronto tragedy is tacky, and the analogy between sex and income is unconvincing, but it seems reasonably clear it is intended to provoke deeper consideration of a fairly major policy that most of us take for granted as being good. I am warmer to Srinivasan’s article than Hanson’s since the former taught me things I didn’t know, but I recognize the latter as an effort to make its readers be reflective. Furthermore, it is one of the few articles that directly acknowledges the threat of violence that comes with the incels’ self-pity.

This omission of the violence underpinning everything written in that community is combined with the curious implication that somehow multiple commentators just happened to independently arrive at sex robots as a solution in time to discuss its relative merits. There is no way to know if any of these writers did bother to read about the community, but it difficult to tell which admission is more damning: That they have carefully sanitized the group’s conclusions for their take, or that they are covering a group responsible for multiple acts of violence without bothering to do any research. One can argue the merits of the equivalence Hanson draws between income and sex (for instance, calls for income redistribution being underpinned by threats of violence seems almost axiomatic to someone with a libertarian worldview, but this is not the only motivation for this policy), but he starts with the violence in Toronto and he specifically says the threat of such acts is the tool incels think will achieve their goals.

It is appropriate to describe what is happening in the incel community as young men being radicalized by an online extremist group and carrying out acts of violence. As such it is useful to take them at their word as to their motivations. The Oklahoma City bombing did not seem to inspire think pieces about what McVeigh got right about US foreign policy, and nobody seems to be rushing to ask if IS has any good points to make about slavery, but apparently we can’t just reduce a violent subset of the sexual have-nots to its most toxic form and instead should consider what the Toronto attack means vis-à-vis getting some. In contrast, Srinivasan identifies ways in which our sexual preferences and norms lead to unequal outcomes and the loneliness that entails, all without having to ask whether or not we’re doing enough to keep misogynists happy.

Reducing the conversation to sex robots and the need for incels to have their desires satiated presents a violent group as far more reasonable than it actually is and essentially grants all their premises all in the name of another column and some retweets. Who can seriously look at those posts and say the obvious problem is the quality and availability of masturbatory aids? As it happens, columnists only needed to read the full argument with regards to the sex bots to find a mapping from an average readership to incels. Incels hope for a future with sex bots so “a woman’s only value” falls to near zero due to the availability of alternatives. It’s repellant, it’s obviously wrong, and yet the lived experience of What It’s Like to Be a Really Beautiful Woman reveals this is apparently how beautiful women are actually treated by ‘normies’. Not only does this allow for some soul-searching on the part of men, but creates a stronger link to an incel’s beliefs on which an effort to de-extremize them can be built.

Columnists looking for a particularly sharp edge need not limit their economics study to Hanson, but could instead consider a paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah which found a decrease in sexual violence that coincided with the decriminalization of prostitution. Such a column would not need to resort to science fiction to consider the consequences of the introduction of alternatives for people unable or unwilling to find a traditional partner. This concreteness is exactly why such a column is unlikely to appear in the op-ed pages as it would require the columnist to be accountable for getting things wrong in a way that science fiction does not.

Among the details that have been glossed over in the attack, the reaction of the police officer on the scene is the most interesting. Despite the attacker’s efforts to provoke him to open fire, even asking him to “Kill me”, the officer did not fire his weapon and instead apprehended the suspect. There will be no martyrdom for the Toronto attacker and he will be confronted with the humanity of his victims and the consequences of what he has done. It’s easy to imagine writing that the attacker got what he deserved if the encounter with the officer had gone differently, and yet now I will have to confront his own humanity. This exceptional bit of police work now means that we have a better chance at gaining an insight into why and how these men are being radicalized, and replaces the nascent incel legend with court appearances and consequences.

This is what we are losing in the op-eds about sex robots: The humanity of the victims, the loneliness of the incels, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of our daily conduct and their ideology. The angry response on social media is not a demand that these columnists suspend their right to speech, but that they exercise their right to thought.

On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.

Copyright Revisited

I wrote a blog about copyright. I am happy with its content (perhaps not the style) but given the latest streaming controversy I thought it would be good to revisit the topic and make some ideas more explicit. Because so much of this topic deals with the recognition of an author’s work, I would like to acknowledge the work of Suzanne Scotchmer and her book Innovation and Incentives, which contains a useful primer on intellectual property law for non-specialists. It is a good economics text on intellectual property, and is available here (which is attached to an affiliate link for a good friend of my cast JessyQuil).

The essence of the case is this: A very popular streamer uttered a racial slur in anger towards a player while playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In response, Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo (developers of Firewatch) announced he would be using the DMCA to take down the streamer’s Firewatch playthrough and bar him from streaming any future Campo Santo games. The issue of the slur seems clear cut to me, but the copyright issue seems to be far less clear and of more interest to streamers and the public alike. The problem is further complicated due to the fact that Campo Santo appears to have a very permissive streaming policy on their website.

As is common in most copyright disputes, the doctrine of fair use is invoked with regards to streamed content. Furthermore, we are interested in whether or not the broad statement on Campo Santo’s website can be ignored or retroactively revoked due to behaviour in the present. The previous article talked about copyright as a means for authors to protect their work from infringement, as well as abuse through associations they do not want to have made. Here I would like to discuss the issue from the perspective of fair use and see if the consequences of Vanaman’s actions align with our intuitions when we first hear the story.

What is fair use?

Fair use has been in US law since 1976, but has been recognized as far back as the 1840s. It is intended to retain some public benefit from copyright which is by definition a restriction on the public’s access to a creative work. The Stanford page dedicated to fair use offers two broad categories: Commentary and criticism, and parody. More granular examples would include news reporting, scholarship, search engines, library photocopying, as well as parody, commentary, and criticism. Essentially there are some exceptional cases where copyright should not apply because they are in the public interest.

Congress has not told judges the objective of fair use, only four factors to consider in deciding whether or not a work is infringing:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the materials copied
  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

To my knowledge, there has not been a court case to decide if streaming falls under fair use or not. While this individual case is unlikely to go before a judge and ultimately establish a precedent, we can examine for ourselves how closely our streams fall under these categories.

How does fair use apply to streaming?

I would like to reorder the list of criteria into what I think is the least complicated to the most complicated.

  • Amount and substantiality

While they are limited to a subset of all possible choices, let’s plays are as close as we can get to the entirety of a game being distributed online in a non-interactive form. This particular factor seems to be the most clear cut in the fact that ‘less is more.’ The less of the work you use, the more likely it is that you fall under fair use. The nature of streaming is that most, if not all, of a game is used in the creation of the content, and so I think that all of our work is ahead of us if we are attempting to base our fair use claim on this criteria.

  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

From the previous blog, we’ve talked about how not all coverage is good coverage. I am not a suitable candidate for an authority on this topic, but I can leave this magnificent twitter thread by @twittysuch as an example of what marketers think about streaming and its effects on the market. Her rather prescient thread anticipated the exact case that was the catalyst for this article. However, Vanaman did allow that the 5.7 million views potentially helped the game. It is possible that the specific video Vanaman issues the strike against may not run afoul of this criteria due to Campo Santo’s stance on streaming and his allowance that the video may have helped. Generally, streamers cannot rely on this being the case in their own circumstances.

The Stanford page cites Rogers v. Koons (960 F.2d 301 (2d Circ. 1992)) as an example of how works that are not directly in competition can still deprive a copyright owner of income. This case involved wood sculptures carved using a photograph as a basis without asking the photographer’s permission. The sculptures, which earned the artist several hundred thousand dollars, were claimed to be fair use due to the photographer not being a sculptor. The sculptures were found to be infringing as what mattered was the potential market for the sculptures regardless of whether or not the photographer had considered making them himself. This is an instructive case because so much energy is spent on talking about whether or not the experience of watching a streamed game is a substitute for the game itself or a complement. We often make distinctions between games like Firewatch (which tend to be very story driven and ‘movielike’ and so more prone to competing with the game itself) and something competitive like Counter-Strike (where the eSport component is a complement to the experience of playing the game itself and is usually enabled in client). It seems that we are having the wrong argument as this argument has failed to address the potential market that the law cares about. Developers seem well within their rights to claim that even though they develop and distribute games, streaming represents a potential market and so the work is infringing.

  • The nature of the copyrighted work

This is one of the most difficult to apply to streaming since the nature of the work refers to features such as whether or not the original work was fictional or non-fictional. Clearly video games that can be streamed are products that have been published (and ones that have not been released are not disputed when efforts are taken to remove the offending video). Fictional work is generally more difficult to copy from than non-fictional (from a fair use standpoint), but this seems to be a meaningless distinction in the case of games. What about a transfer between media: video game to live video? This is partially covered by our discussion of Rogers v. Koons above, but let’s consider another case that comes from Scotchmer.

During the run of Seinfeld the Carol Publishing Group published a trivia book called the Seinfeld Aptitude Test (SAT). The book contained references to the characters and quotes from the show without obtaining a license from the rights holders and the Carol Publishing Group was sued. Carol Publishing’s argument was that only minimal parts of the episodes were used and that more substantial use would be covered by fair use anyway. The court rejected both arguments, finding the trivia book to be substantially similar to the original work (the TV show). The fair use argument was rejected on the ground that it was not “transformative” which is the final category we will consider.

  • The purpose and character of the use

This criteria seems to lie at the heart and soul of most fair use cases and certainly is the most discussed when it comes to streaming. Does streaming have the tranformative aspect that we look for in the obvious cases of fair use? To demonstrate what I mean, consider the case of parody. Nobody can seriously claim that Spaceballs is infringing on Star Wars, or that Galaxy Quest is infringing on Star Trek. In fact, particularly good satire may go so far as to destroy the original work that it was based off of. This is a proud institution with a clear public benefit, and so I personally consider satire to be my favourite example (maybe even the gold standard) of fair use. It annoys the hell out of people and makes them want to stomp it out, and it’s very important that we not allow that to happen. Academic work is also a good example of a transformation, though for many of us it is a transformation from an entertaining product to a soulless, dry, scholarly artifact.

Our usual attempts to map these clear cut cases on to streaming is to point out the commentary of the streamer as enhancing or transforming the work. To use the phrasing from the Stanford page, a streamer’s commentary may provide “… new information, new aesthetics, new insights, [or] understandings.” As a streamer it is flattering to think so, and I do my absolute best to provide added value in my casts, both to differentiate my own stream but also to respect the game that I am streaming. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that commentary is simply enough.

There was a TV series that ran from the late 80s to the late 90s called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). The series consisted of hilarious commentary running over old B movies of highly dubious quality. While some accounts I have read attest to the films used being in the public domain, I recall some episodes were difficult — if not impossible — to get a hold of due to rights issues. Even though seemingly nobody would watch these films on their own merits, and the value of the work seemed to derive entirely from the cast’s commentary, a reasonable case was made that the rights holders of the original works should be paid. I find it hard to disagree with this line of reasoning, simply because I do not believe perceived quality should be a determining factor in the application of intellectual property law. Either I have produced a creative work and am entitled to its protection or not. I can entertain the possibility that the cast of MST3K was so hilarious as to transform these works to a point that would dictate fair use (as I think anyone who has seen the series would be inclined to believe), but it is also hard to argue that I am not letting my appreciation for the show affect my thoughts regarding its interaction with intellectual property law. I think it is commendable that MST3K sought the rights where it needed them, and by and large the format seemed to work. I am also encouraged by the fact that this kind of comedic alchemy was able to create value for otherwise worthless films simply because it creates an environment in which film financiers are more willing to take a risk on projects due to the ability to generate revenues from them (though there may be a perverse incentive to make especially bad ones that get showcased on commentary shows).

I give this example  mainly because few, if any, casters can ever aspire to the quality of MST3K, and so if they can’t claim fair use, I’m not entirely sure our commentary has any more hope. I can’t think of a single caster who can claim their commentary reaches the level of scholarship that applies for the academic transformation, and it would be absurd to argue that streaming provides a new aesthetic to a point that our work is described as transformative. Simply put, we’re not Joel and the bots, and we really aren’t adding that much to the game. We try our best, and we add value. In fact, a lot of developers seem to appreciate the work that we do. But even when I reflect on the best streamers I’ve watched, I really can’t say that they have transformed the game to a level where the streamer can claim to have created an original work that stands out as fair use. And more importantly, as the controversy shows, any claims that what we do is for the public good are highly suspect.

Should Campo Santo use the DMCA strike?

While my analysis above may be overly pessimistic for streamers, it is clear that there is a very difficult case to be made if streamers want to claim fair use. As such, we may want to move beyond whether or not Campo Santo can use a DMCA claim against the Firewatch video to whether or not they should.

I am genuinely torn by this. I think any developer should have the option to sever ties from public figures who can associate their work with views they find intolerable. Again, this is their property and they have every right to defend it. Of course, we are also worried that this can be used to silence criticism of a game. It seems to me that criticism is clearly covered under fair use, and that we have had means of informing consumers as to the quality of the game before streaming became a factor in purchasing decisions anyway. In truth, I’m doubtful that it would ever come to this, but even if it were, criticism is a place I’d be willing to plant my flag and say there is a strong case for fair use, which is why I have avoided discussing it here.

Despite how repulsed I am by the streamer who is at the center of the controversy (both past and present actions), I do find it hard to justify Campo Santo’s position here. In one sense, I find fault with their overly broad invitation for streaming. Compare the policy linked above, to Amplitude’s streaming policy. Amplitude’s policy goes down to the expected ESRB rating of the content on the stream. In this sense, it is hard to be especially sympathetic to Campo Santo’s displeasure at people’s streamed use of their product simply because this is a studio of veteran developers and it is not uncommon for studios to put restrictions or guidelines as to the conduct of the caster when streaming their games.

The biggest problem I personally have, and I suspect causes the most unease regarding this decision is the retroactive nature of the copyright action. The streamer’s content with regards to Firewatch was fine, and it was their behaviour a year later when streaming a different game that caused the problem. Again, the association is what’s important here, so even then it’s a grey area, and I suspect the battle lines are likely to be drawn largely around how much people like Campo Santo or the streamer. One might argue the onus is on Campo Santo to have done a better job of vetting who they gave their keys to, since this streamer’s current behaviour is not entirely out of character. Of course, a mistake in the past does not prevent its correction in the future, though if we want to hear their actual reasoning we need only look to Vanaman’s tweets.

Assuming we want to place some blame on lax vetting policies at Campo Santo’s feet, either in the form of the overly broad permission on their website or the willingness to ‘look the other way’ with regards to this particular streamer’s conduct, it’s important to remember this is a two way street. This streamer is a millionare from what they do. We have gone well beyond the realm of being a hobbyist, and with professionalism (even if only in name) comes paperwork. Their failure to get the proper permissions in writing is their own problem. Every other industry that relies on intellectual property has managed this, and virtually every public resource on this topic recommends that you get your permission simply and in writing.

The paperwork is what gives me hope. At the moment we exist in a wild west for intellectual property and most of our discussions have much more to do with our feelings and hopes rather than any sober evaluation of the facts. I am partially sympathetic to this simply because for most of us it’s a hobby and this is all it will ever be. But if we want to start taking this role seriously, and be taken seriously, then we need to start acting like it. This means checking for permissions before streaming things rather than relying on convention and goodwill. This means having to hear “no” when a developer does not agree with your vision for their project, or does not see the value in what you do. One day the free ride is going to end, and some will be better positioned than others to work in the new environment. There are certainly some content creators who are doing very well for themselves with some very liberal use of other people’s IP simply because the owners of that IP have not deigned to enforce their rights. So long as streamers continue to operate this way they will always do so at the pleasure of the developers.

Taking content seriously

Ultimately, while I can’t feel comfortable with Campo Santo’s position, this largely reflects how poorly streamers have positioned themselves. If your entire business model rests on one group not enforcing their intellectual property rights, then you are opening yourself up for a major risk that could come at any time. The next claim of this nature can come from anywhere. Consider that there was a fracas over a very popular trailer for The Last Night when one of the developers was revealed to have been involved (or at least supportive of) the gamergate movement. Suppose this developer, upon releasing their game, decided that any streamers perceived as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ would be subject to a DMCA strike due to disagreement with their views. The principles that enable us to approve or condemn Campo Santo should equally apply here, though I suspect there would be more (justifiable in my view) outrage in this imagined case.

So long as we continue to have these debates along ideological lines (that is “The streamer is right” vs. “Vanaman is right” based on our priors) I don’t see a resolution. As indicated in the previous blog that talked about this, I also don’t see Twitch using its resources to protect streamers’ interests when it comes to intellectual property either (their Terms of Service leave it entirely in the streamers hands to mange these permissions). If you are fine streaming at the pleasure of the developer, then you can simply continue as before and hope that they are not particularly ideological or, at least, are on your side. But for those who seriously want to consider making a living from streaming, we are long past the point where people can afford to ignore asking for permissions. Developers have put years and often substantial amounts of their own money to realize these projects. It is not just respectful of their efforts to seek out their formal permission to create content based off of their work, it is respectful of your own status as a professional content creator.

 

Advice

Given that this blog is still connected to my Twitch channel which seems to anchor all my other online encounters, I wanted to talk a little bit about advice. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the kind of advice you get on the internet, and how generally careless we seem to be about who we ask for this. It seems to me a lot of the time what we are asking for are opinions, but because a lot of the people we are interacting with are ‘known for doing some thing’ (make a game, write a book, have a YouTube channel) we lose sight of what their area of expertise might be and ask inappropriate questions. This is compounded by the fact that it seems that we are also just generally expected to have opinions about things, that nobody really likes to say “I’m sorry, I really don’t know” in public, and the fact that it’s easier to become ‘known for doing some thing’ as the barriers to entry become lower.

I don’t think I can be really comprehensive on this topic, and it might just boil down to some good old fashioned griping, but I thought I’d start with the most recent example I saw online.

A catalyst

I thought about how I would introduce this quote. It’s from a well known broadcaster, and I generally feel that there needs to be credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I also know there is a tendency online for things to get blown out of proportion and what  becomes an engagement with an idea suddenly becomes a referendum on one’s taste and character. I also think my preference is to treat everyone as if they were reasonable and then just deal with the people who behave disrespectfully , and so I was originally just going to post a direct link to it. I decided against this. One big reason is because the ‘who’ does not matter as much once some limited biographical details are revealed. Also, it is not especially difficult to find out who it is, so if you really want to find out I can’t really stop you. I only ask that you consider your motives in doing so, as so far as the content of this post is concerned, I will post what I think is relevant. That throat clearing out of the way, here’s the quote:

The worse advice given to aspiring streamers is ‘focus on your chat’ instead of ‘focus on being entertaining and learn how to present’

Obviously, this is not the worst advice an aspiring streamer can get, but my intention here isn’t really to nitpick. With regards to the claim, my biggest issue is that focusing on chat and focusing on being entertaining and learning how to present are not substitutes. It is not a natural opposition to say ‘focus on your chat’ or ‘focus on entertaining/presenting’ and I think many people who give the ‘focus on chat’ style advice do so because it is a useful heuristic to make people a better entertainer. That is, if I consider my audience (even if there is nobody there, so potential audience) I am likely to be conscious of how I’m coming across and take active steps towards improving my presentation style while openly saying ‘focus on being entertaining and presenting’ just leads us to “well how am I supposed to do that?” Notice that it’s kind of hard to distinguish between the two once you talk about them. This is the kind of statement that works well on the internet because there’s just enough fuzziness to give you a bit of wriggle room if it does turn into an argument, but diminishes its value as advice. The same could be said of ‘focus on your chat’ to be fair (How should I focus on chat? Should I not ban people to expand my audience? Should I not care when people start backseating me? Do I need to say hello to everyone who comes in?) but at least it has the benefit of being actionable in the heat of the moment on cast.

Moving on, I can see that there’s some room for disagreement here. Some people will likely say that a focus on chat is overrated (I may even agree. eSports professionals are great examples of people who tend not to have a lot of interaction and yet are successful), or that focus on chat is important but not to the exclusion of others (again I would not disagree with this, but not everyone is as inclined to give mega essays when asked a question). One of the biggest problems I have with this advice is a very large disconnect between the perceived authority of this individual (they’re a big broadcaster) and the areas on which they can provide good advice. Here are some biographical details that I consider pertinent:

  • They got their start and are primarily active on YouTube
  • They started making the content they are best known for in 2010, though had been producing gaming related broadcast content since 2005 (I can’t say for sure. I consider the 2010 start most relevant)

So let’s consider the advice again. Is this advice consistent with their experience? Almost certainly yes. Their primary format involves producing content not known for its interactivity, and so it is sensible that they would value chat interaction less. YouTube, however, is not streaming, and while there are similarities, the differences are substantial. More importantly, this broadcaster got their ‘start’ (caveats in the bullet points aside) seven years ago. While it is true this individual is a successful broadcaster, not only is their start further back in the past for a more static style of broadcast, but the entire landscape was different from what it is today. The fact of the matter is that for all this individual’s accomplishments, and whatever merits they may have in other spheres, they are inappropriately leveraging their success in one aspect of broadcast to issue proclamations with authority in another area where they should not hold as much weight. There is something of a personality factor here. For instance, this person generally is fairly forceful in their opinions and so is less likely to offer the ever-admirable “I don’t really know, it’s not my area of expertise.” And, of course, there is something to be said for a person judging their sources of advice carefully. However, so long as we are operating in a world where people feel the need to offer opinions on just about everything, and have a level of fame that in the past might have counted as quite something, let’s think a bit about the advice we seek and particularly the bad advice we get.

Inappropriate questions

I would like to make a game. This may not be the same as wanting to get into the games industry any more than someone at a craft fare wants to get into the garment manufacture industry, but suppose I caught the bug enough that I said “okay, I want to break into the games industry and make this my life’s work.” Where should I look for advice? How about some designers I really like: Alexis Kennedy? Soren Johnson? Julian Gollop? Paul Kilduff-Taylor? Sid Meier? All remarkably talented individuals who have delivered on multiple projects and I’d more or less give a blank cheque to so far as their next game goes. Assuming I could reach out (and at least one on that list does answer questions for sure), would they be the most appropriate choice for advice? And the answer is… it depends. What is the question I’m going to ask? If the question is “how do I break into the games industry” then I’m probably asking the wrong question because I think the youngest first project in that list is about 7 years old, possibly 10. I have no doubt that they would try their best, and would try to offer advice consistent with their experience in maybe bringing new people on to a team or just generally what they’d know from working in that field, but these are all people who simply will not be able to experience ‘breaking in’ to an industry that they have all shaped in their own way. Simply put, if the advice didn’t turn out I’d not really be in a position to complain.

I watched a lecture given by Robert Merton where he explained that once he got the Nobel Prize (Economics) people would be asking him questions about everything, including medical problems. This case is easy to tease, but is it really all that different from the case of game designers? Do we really expect designers with a decade or more of experience to be reading ‘101 Ways to Break in to Game Development’ or to be enrolling in a game design college to keep up to date on ‘breaking in’? Do we expect the world to remain static so that those designers will be in a position to give relevant advice?

It may be that all of the people listed above are really great at answering this question anyway, but my experience has been that when this happens it’s because the person giving advice possesses the rare talent of identifying the question that should have been asked. That is, like a good teacher, they are able to discern the motivation behind the question and tailor it to the student’s circumstances. “I don’t understand this” has a range of causes from misunderstanding the sentence just uttered to lacking the prerequisites for the topic and just as many remedies. A good teacher can tease this out, but we can help a lot by asking the right questions in the first place.

Aggrandizing advice

These seem to come up most frequently as unsolicited statements like there quote above (performative advice that marks one’s status a thought leader), and on panels at convention. The personification of this kind of advice is in response to the inevitable “How do I become a successful streamer?” with the equally inevitable “Well you just need to work hard and keep a positive attitude…” to which I have been dying to hear the more instructive followup “How did you get your head so far up your ass? Was it nudged incrementally over the years or did you just slam it in all in one go?” In the best case this is simply repeating platitudes and acts as a stand in for ‘I don’t know’. Even then, I’m still not inclined to let someone off the hook since this still is prioritizing the desire to seem knowledgable over the wellbeing of the person asking the question. In truth, I think the reasons for giving this kind of advice are less benign, but this may simply say something about me. Either way, are we to infer that the people who are not successful are lazy and have bad attitudes?

Sometimes this really just boils down to asking the wrong person for advice. Presumably you would like anyone who are asking for advice from to have some stake in your outcome, even if that stake is simply being a nice person and wanting to see more people in the world happy. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the people you look up to are particularly good at giving advice or at least won’t be indifferent to their advice going badly. Clearly unsolicited advice (usually in the form of proclamations) are easier to identify here. When encountering people individually it’s harder because you already have the investment of meeting someone you look up to. As before, excellence in one field does not mean someone will be nice, good at giving advice, or even very good at anything else. Nike even made a commercial about it.

Being asked

Up to this point I’ve been fairly confrontational with the person giving advice, but the truth is that more of us are finding ourselves in a position to give advice. New platforms open up for opportunities to give advice from ask.fm to stackexchange and your influence extends further than you think. I am a very small Twitch streamer, and yet once I passed 1,000 followers I found I would be getting more questions about ‘being successful on Twitch.’ I don’t feel particularly successful in so far as reaching a broad audience is concerned, and yet clearly I mattered enough to some people to merit the question. This is encouraging, but also somewhat daunting. If I were to have more substantial accomplishments I suspect I would still find it a bit disconcerting. A post from Neil Gaiman suggests that fame does not make this any easier.

The best I can say is to be honest. In one sense it’s very flattering to be asked and in a perfect world the compliment of being asked really should be enough. There is a very strong tendency to want to push the advantage and start running down a path of giving bad advice that you will ultimately not face the consequences for. Obviously paralysis about ‘what if I mislead someone’ isn’t particularly helpful either because presumably the person would like an answer. I worked in camera for movies for a while, and so it was not uncommon to have people ask ‘how to break into the industry’ (even total strangers on the street while I was coming out of the truck). Time permitting I would try to talk about my particular circumstances and then move to a more general point. I don’t think this is especially effective advice, but I suppose in the interest of disclosure I should say what I said and we can critique it after.

How I got into camera

From school up to the moment I worked on my first union project I looked for every opportunity I could to work on a film set. Student projects, indies, everything, and often without pay. I worked as a Production Assistant for a while and found myself tending the craft service table on a TV show. A nice thing about this placement is that craft service gets to meet just about everyone because they have all the snacks. I had always tried to be personable, but especially in this case I made sure she knew about my interest in camera and, since I was a nice young man and helped her when she needed, she mentioned to the camera crew about my interest and, as it happened, there was a shortage of trainees on another big show that they had some friends on. I got a call later inviting me to help out on a couple of big days.

But that wasn’t the end. The union eventually caught wind that someone out of the program was being used as a trainee and they put a stop to that, so I was back more or less where I started. I continued as I had before, with perhaps a few more camera gigs due to having some experience, until I worked on a short film for a 48 hour film competition which happened to have a secretary at the union as one of the actresses (I didn’t know this at the time). They showed the film at the office, the head of the trainee program commented on the lighting and the actress noted that I had applied for the trainee program. By their telling they got a call from a TV show looking for a new trainee and I got the invitation to got in.

I haven’t really gotten to the advice part, but obviously if someone is in a rush I’d just tell them the application process for the trainee program. I’d tell the story above to make the point that any ‘how did you break in’ story is usually very unique to the individual and, while maybe not as baroque as mine, doesn’t really have any repeatable path to entry. That is, most ‘rules’ likely would likely be short lived as there are more applicants than positions and the channels would get clogged (for instance, once upon a time in a book somewhere apparently an independent filmmaker said that dentists had a lot of money and had boring jobs which made them inclined to financing independent films. I am told this lead to a point where there were places where dentists had to screen calls from aspiring filmmakers, though I never looked to verify if this was actually the case). The point of telling my own story was one, to establish my lack of credentials (I don’t have one weird trick to get you into camera), and point out that everyone kind of has their own unique path to getting into that business.

What are the actionable behaviours I would draw from that story? I would usually suggest that being open to opportunities when they emerge helps, because hanging around professional productions as a PA let me see how the big guys did it and I learned a bit about how scenes were lit and generally people went about making movies (this helped me when it came time to that 48 hour film as I wound up taking on a lot more responsibilities than just camera). Also, any one of those productions I could have worked on might have been the ‘break’. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ‘found out’ on that first show I was a trainee on and in another world I just got into the program there rather than waiting another year. Each opportunity was a roll of the dice, so while each chance was slim, the aggregation would eventually tilt in my favour. Being able to talk to people doesn’t hurt, because in the end you are looking for a position that involves working with people, and in the case of film it’s long hours for extended periods of time. If you are difficult to get along with, the show is going to be miserable, while if you’re easy to get along with you will eventually have your choice of show because you are in demand. Being personable allows you to work with difficult people which opens you to experience that others might miss due to personality conflicts. Basically, stay open to as many opportunities as you can (get as many rolls of the dice as you can), and if it doesn’t come naturally for you, cultivate an ability to talk to talk to people (including difficult people), let them know you’re interested, and generally find mentors who will help you build your skills and cultivate your passion for the job.

Was that good advice?

The advice part was a little muddled simply because I usually wouldn’t go over that material unless it was over coffee with someone or in some other context where I could do some kind of Q&A, but generally the ‘open to opportunity’ and ‘be personable’ themes would come across. How does that rank against what I’ve written before?

The ‘man with a plan who uses his raw charisma to seduce craft service into getting him a job’ might be aggrandizing advice, but anyone who has met me knows that a) I’m not that charismatic, b) that wasn’t my opening into the industry, and c) craft service volunteered to let the camera department know. The better takeaway is that if you treat people as means to an end of ‘getting that job’ people will detect it and you’re likely not smart enough to see where the opportunity comes (most people would not see craft service as a means to get into camera. While the departments may be regimented, people share a workspace and they talk to each other. It’s easier to actually be nice to people and take an interest in them than to pretend all the time in hopes that they can advance your career).

One big problem with this story is that it potentially makes people waste a lot of time and do something that I don’t think is very good: work for free. At the time I was trying to get in, there was no shortage of productions who were perfectly happy to snap up free labour even though they had the budget to pay them. I stupidly worked for one production company on several commercials without pay until I had other opportunities at which point they offered to pay me (i.e. I wasn’t going to get what I didn’t ask for, and I obviously had value to them). Someone’s circumstances may not allow them to dedicate that time to work for free, or at low pay, and ultimately I did do a lot of work that wasn’t relevant to my job. While my temperament is such that I could pick up some details by simply being present, I can’t really argue this was a very efficient use of the time. In the end it was ultimately going out and working on an independent short in a senior position that was the  ‘break’ and this is what a lot of people suggest outright (i.e. Between spending money on film school or an independent film, most people think the film is the better use of the money).

I’m trying to give myself a hard time on the advice about being personable, but I still think this holds up. It carries with it the recognition that not everyone is so active in stating their interests or meeting people (particularly the people in a position to give them a job). That is, it’s different from ‘have a good attitude’ because it does not immediately imply that people who have not followed my advice are arrogant or standoffish, just potentially shy. Even then, I think there are problems here. I dealt with some pretty verbally abusive and demanding bosses. This is an unfortunate reality of at least my department (and I think in the film industry in general, and I have little reason to think it’s changed even though it’s now been a while since I worked in it), and I think it would be a firing offense in any other context. This advice could very well lead someone to a position where they are belittled and degraded and don’t stand up for themselves in the name of ‘following good advice’. It’s hard to find the right balance here, because on one hand advice should account for the realities of the industry (i.e. If someone is looking for advice regarding to working in sewage treatment, the smell should probably be taken as a condition of employment), and yet this is a negative that should be changed and advice that leaves people in a position to simply ‘accept’ it may entrench something that should be dislodged. In truth, I probably make more of a virtue of my ability to work with difficult people than I should, because it absolutely was something that allowed me to get more work when I was starting out. On the other hand, I also think that working with difficult people is a good, if not essential, skill to have. Perhaps the change I would make would be to leaven it with a bit more attention to the individual and their ability to be professional and personable without being a doormat.

Advice on advice

It’s hard to avoid a certain self-consciousness about writing about advice. During most of the writing I’ve had plenty of reflections on ‘motes and logs’ (Matthew 7:3) running through my head. Mostly I think we could stand to be a bit more discerning in the advice we consume because technology seems to move much faster than our ability to appreciate the shift it creates in the landscape. Various social and media platforms have created a level of specialization where it’s not that unique to be ‘famous for being famous’ and that even small time players (such as myself) can develop something of a dedicated audience. It’s great that people like my stuff, but being entertaining, or even knowledgeable in one area, does not grant me any special weight when discussing other topics. As it is, I know I certainly still react as if I’m in a media environment where I see people for basically accomplishing things and generally being sought out for their opinion on the topic being discussed. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Because this environment is becoming more and more specialized many more of us are finding ourselves in which we are sought for advice, and so we can also take some steps in terms of what we are saying and the potential effects it can have. We are obviously not responsible for the behavior of others, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time and consider basic things like “am I saying this because I think it’s good advice, or because it will make me good?” or “am I really setting someone down a worthwhile path with this?” (or, simpler “should I even be offering an opinion here?”). I may bruise my ego in admitting that I don’t know something, and maybe the person asking will think less of me for it, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll think any better of me if they turn around and blame me for whatever half baked advice I come up with to avoid social embarrassment.

The Secret Reason Your Favourite Streamer Hates You: Backseating

Introduction

This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.

Origins of the Term

While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.

Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.

Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.

Backseating on Streams

Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).

Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.

Negative Motives for Backseating

We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.

The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.

Positive Motives for Backseating

Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so  will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.

My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.

Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.

The Impact of Backseating on a Stream

Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.

In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.

Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.

This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.

The Spread of Backseating

Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.

Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally,  while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.

Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.

This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.

In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.

Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”

What’s in a Name: The Case of ‘Metrics

While it is hard to think of an econometrics book being popular in any traditional sense of the term, the best candidate for a popular econometrics textbook is Josh Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics (MHE). The title is a deliberate reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and communicates the irreverent tone taken in the handbook. While it came out a bit before I was aware of such discussions, it seems like the Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read online) seems to be dedicated at least in part to the approach the book takes (though almost certainly these were in practice before the book) and responses to it. While MHE does not concern itself too much with theory, it is a good companion to an existing textbook, or may be of interest to someone who is interested in applied work, though it demands a certain level of sophistication from the readers (I’d say it’s probably targeted to an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level).

This year saw the release of the pair’s second book called Mastering ‘Metrics (MM) which is geared more towards an undergraduate level. On the first page of the introduction they say “Economists’ use of data to answer cause-and-effect questions constitutes the field of applied econometrics, known to students and masters alike as ‘metrics.” When the book was released I was taking my 3rd course in econometrics and found that it was the first I had ever heard of the abbreviation. Now in the graduate program and taking my 4th course in econometrics I find my classmates referring to it as ‘metrics, though, curiously, those who use the term most readily (and originally from my understanding) were my classmates at UBC who received the same econometrics education that I did and had not used the term before. Reading MHE or MM will tell you how I could design a project to test whether or not the release of the book led to the adoption by my classmates, but I will state without evidence that I believe the release of MM marks the coinage and widespread adoption of the term ‘metrics. (Edit: not entirely accurate. See below)

Is there anything we can make out of this? As always, I’m interested in reading too far into things, but I think the title of the book indicates positive things for the social sciences and Angrist and Pischke’s audience, though does not communicate anything favourable about my peers. MHE contains an endorsement from James Robinson (probably best known for his collaboration with Daron Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail) declaring it a “must-read… [for] political scientists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and anthropologists.” He himself seems to stand astride economics and political science, though his collaborations with Acemoglu unquestionably fall under economics. My interest in the abbreviation to ‘metrics in the undergraduate level text (MM) is that I think it communicates to open up these extremely helpful tools for causal inference to a wider range of disciplines. I am too early in my academic journey to be able to speak with much authority on this, but econometrics appears to offer one of the best sets of tools to answer these kinds of questions, and they may find ready applications outside of economics itself. For instance, my undergraduate thesis involved taking a data set from a political science paper and in a first pass I simply replicated the results then went in and adjusted where I felt the methods were inconsistent with my understanding of how to work with such data, which immediately resulted in stronger results (later, it also identified some areas in which the other paper was weak and possibly the results were heavily worked to promote a particular conclusion). My own result wasn’t necessarily impressive in any respect (for instance, there are likely endogeneity problems and, well, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about), but I think it at least some evidence that good questions can find good answers if researchers are willing to look at the economist’s toolbox which seems to hold some of the most advanced techniques.

The idea here is that the abbreviation is a good one because it removes the ‘econo’ element and communicates that the techniques (the ‘Furious Five’ as Angrist and Pischke call them) are not limited to questions in economics, but have more general applications in conducting any kind of causal inference. This isn’t to limit economic inquiry (the great appeal to me at least is the great flexibility economic analysis affords me), but rather to be more inclusive in the terminology. It doesn’t really change anything, but it does avoid the hang up of, say, a sociologist taking advantage of something like quantile regression, explaining it’s a helpful econometric technique and then having to answer “what does economics have to do with any of this?” (or worse, dealing with the assumption that economics is somehow tainted by unreasonable assumptions and thus the technique is invalid). Basically, if we have social scientists using the best tools available (at least so far as I’m aware), then we, as a whole, benefit. A common language between disciplines will allow for easier collaboration, and, rather than hoping that economists have all the good ideas, disciplines with other interests can take advantage of these tools to improve their research (this, of course, makes it more difficult for researchers if the overall quality of work improves, but this is a nice problem to have. I won’t cry if there are fewer papers with results that collapse with a minor change in assumptions). Of course, to gain the full benefit of the tools available, researchers should take up MHE, and maybe move on to something like the Handbook of Econometrics (behind a paywall but possibly available to you if you went to a university that gives alumni access to academic journals) which requires getting over the red herring of what we call things, but I don’t mind dropping ‘econo’ in the introductory material if it means we’ll benefit from better research.

My enthusiasm for the rechristening to the term ‘metrics is somewhat diminished when I hear my peers use it. There are a couple of PhD students who use this term, but I notice a fairly high rate of adoption amongst the MA students. I can get the impulse, the hope to communicate that one is hip to the latest trends in the profession. It’s a bit problematic when you consider that the term seems to have gained currency when an undergraduate level book has been released, but never mind that, only squares who use words like ‘hip’ (and square) call it econometrics, all the cool kids call it ‘metrics. My problem is that I actually think taking the econ out of the MA economics cohort is actually a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Here’s an example: I spent a few minutes this afternoon writing in the discussion for wiki entry on the protestant work ethic because I noticed a claim made about Schumpeter’s account of the origins of capitalism that I’d not read before. Following the reference did not present any support for the claim in the entry, and so it raised a few interesting questions for me: Did Schumpeter ever write on the origins of capitalism? If so, where? If not, where might this impression have come from (it seems similar to Marx’s account, but not enough for me to want to make an edit)? What I would like to be able to do is to raise any one of these topics with a classmate and investigate it (it might be a short conversation because I’ve only read a little of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but I’d find it preferable to find myself understudied for conversations with my peers). The most common conversation will be either how to find problem set solutions or how to land a good job after grad school. In fact today a student more or less said they haven’t really understood what’s been said in the last two econometrics courses (not classes) and have just focused on how to solve the problems. It’s hard to see the class as particularly interested in economics so much as building the appropriate ‘signal’ to employers that they’re worthy of a high paying job.

Again, I sort of understand the impulse. Everyone has to make a living, and we prefer a high paying job to a low paying one. Likewise, econ is a decidedly employable degree, and a BA has been reduced to the point that it has become a requirement to rent cars to people at Budget. But that’s not the reason why I’m in the program, and in the end, I think advanced study in any subject should be more than just finding a good job. To me it’s a problem that I cannot have a conversation with an MA student about a topic in economics if it is not directly related to the grade they will be getting in the end. It gotten to a point that I argued with a classmate who was complaining that we weren’t permitted a formula sheet for the mathematics final as being ‘unfair’ because they were planning on writing the solutions to past finals. In addition to pointing out the dubious application of the term ‘unfair’ my position was that the purpose of the course is to teach us not just mathematical techniques, but reasoning (ie. how to do proofs), and that rewriting a past answer (which is actually more successful than you’d think) is simply imitation, not understanding. For this I was perceived as being the unreasonable one because the material was ‘hard.’ The problem is that I know it’s hard, because I struggled with it and had to write the same exam. Topology defines open and closed sets in a way that allows sets to be both open and closed at the same time, confirming my suspicion that they are deliberately trying to make the subject even more difficult than it already is. But it’s economics, and mathematics is the tool and language we use to bring clarity to the problems we work on. We don’t study topology to impress the ladies (though, ladies, you know where to find me), we study this because that branch of mathematics allows us to prove certain propositions fundamental to our analysis. A working understanding of mathematics not only allows us to understand the fundamentals of our discipline, but equips us to handle our ultimate goal: answering questions that nobody has gotten the answer to yet (or, ideally, haven’t even asked yet!). You can’t imitate your way to that, and it requires a lot of hard thinking both mathematically and creatively. A technically perfect solution to an uninteresting question is at least useless as a poorly formed but interesting question (although, in theory, the latter can be picked up by someone with the capacity to do the heavy lifting). Economics problems are worth taking the time to do right, and nobody ‘owes’ us our degrees. Either we have the tools or we don’t. It sucks for me, because I know I’d love to have free time to stream, and read for pleasure, but I also want to be able to formulate and answer these questions head on without hiding behind “well I haven’t learned <topic> yet…”

In the end, while I think the general abbreviation to ‘metrics is inclusive and encouraging, its specific application is a tragically accurate representation of the priorities of my peers (at least most. Obviously there are exceptions in any case): concerned with appearances, and not too interested in economics.

Edit: It dawned on me I could actually find out of Mastering ‘Metrics was the origin of the term by checking out economics resources. I’ve never really seen it used in any blogs, but I noticed that on EJMR there are references to ‘metrics going back 4 years (possibly more). While I still think its application in my cohort comes from the use in the book (I have the advantage of seeing them before and after), it’s definitely not Angrist and Pischke’s coinage.