Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Self-Taught Industries

I'm trying to articulate something that's been on my mind lately. It's something that I started thinking about when we started the Spheres of Power kickstarter, grew during LTUE (Life, The Universe, and Everything, the BYU symposium on Sci Fi/Fantasy) and has sort of culminated lately. It's about what it means to be in a creative industry where the professionals are almost completely self-taught.

Tabletop RPGs are at a strange place as an industry. On one hand, it's an industry that can support several major companies and a host of smaller ones. On the other hand, it's still new enough and small enough that, at least to my knowledge, there's no college degree out there in tabletop RPG design. RPGs as we understand them weren't invented until the 70's, and after the initial crop who invented the game, many of the game's great pioneers were players who decided to contribute to their favorite hobby. Many of those pioneers are still major voices in the industry today.

This industry is certainly not the only one to have this unique professional/amateur relationship. I've known several best-selling authors who've argued that aspiring writers shouldn't bother getting a degree in Creative Writing and that doing so can actually be counter-intuitive to being a good writer. I've also known several stage directors that have complained about actors who've spent so much time in acting school that have a hard time relating to- and therefore playing- ordinary people. 

The thought that's been developing in my mind that I wanted to share, though, is that I think sometimes people take this 'formal education isn't required' thing and assume it means NO education is required. Few things could be further from the truth: Brandon Sanderson worked as an editor of a fiction magazine in college and wrote over half a dozen books before finally getting one published, and I once heard David Farland go through his study process before he began writing, and it involved dissecting novels with an almost clinical academia. Even those afore-mentioned RPG pioneers, the ones who's industry didn't even EXIST until 40 years ago usually had degrees in business, journalism, or an extensive background in other games before they got involved in the RPG scene.

Perhaps I'm conflating education and experience, but when you're dealing with a self-taught industry the two are usually one and the same. It's why the Writing Excuses podcast releases writing advice every week, and at least 1 in 5 of that given advice boils down to "go practice more." 

As the owner of a small RPG business, I've found there are lots of people that either want to ask me how they can break into the industry as well (since I did it so recently ago) or want to talk about the RPG they hope to publish one day. In both cases, my first response is to ask them about their education. What have they read? What have they written? What have they done that could convince a publisher, buyer, or kickstarter backer that they can, in fact, do what they claim they want to do? There have been times I've even thrown small projects at these people, just to see what they could do. More often than not, I never got anything more than a few unusable paragraphs back or some sort of excuse; often they didn't know what to do when actually given a chance to design.

When I got my start in designing, I knew I had no qualifications to speak of. Yes I studied novel writing with Brandon Sanderson, but most of my time had been spent studying acting, and while I'd played tabletop RPGs since I was small, my brothers did most of the GMing. What I did have, though, was the internet; I read everything I could find by different designers about their process and work, and I wikipedia'd a bunch of companies to get a sense for how they got started. I read Paizo books, 3rd Party Publishers, famous RPGs, obscure RPGs, and everything else I could find to get a sense for what separated good products from mediocre ones. My collection got pretty extensive. I knew I had little experience in running a business and putting books together, so I started small and tried to published products quickly, and every mistake I made along the way I analyzed to help me learn what I didn't know that I didn't know. I can say with confidence that I'm better now than I was only a few months ago, and I was better then than I was last year. 

I guess what I'm getting at is there's always a chance to learn, and in an industry like this one you learn by doing. That doesn't mean you have to hunt down publishers right now to get a gig, but you need to be doing something right now to prepare for that gig - writing societies, coming up with new archetypes, doing SOMETHING so that when you do get that chance you A. have something in your bag you can show them, and B., know enough about the industry that you can create whatever's asked of you. Knowing who to talk to or where to send your manuscripts is secondary; if you're work isn't practiced and polished enough to impress, it's not going to get published no matter who sees it. I'm a firm dis-believer in Auteur theory; there's no mythical creativity that you either have or you don't; it all comes down to practice and study, and sometimes doing it badly is a prerequisite to learning to do it well.

Perhaps that's not nearly as profound as I'm making it sound. I hope so. Like lots of others in this field I love watching new people get involved, especially since I'm so new myself. The industry may be small (relatively speaking) but its growing, and it will only continue to grow so long as new voices are constantly being added to the mix.

And I, for one, would love to see this industry boom.

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