Sunday, 16 January 2022

There Are Neither Gates Nor Keepers

 


[T]he outside world is subject to the law of imperfection; there it happens time and again that one who gets bread is one who does not work, that one who sleeps gets in greater abundance than one who labours. In the outward world everything belongs to whoever has it, the outward world is subject to the law of indifference and the genie of the ring obeys the one who wears it, whether he be a Noureddin or an Aladdin, and whoever holds the world's treasures does so however he came by them.

It is otherwise in the world of spirit. Here there prevails an eternal divine order, here it does not rain on the just and the unjust alike, here the sun does not shine on both good and evil, here only one who works gets bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest, only one who descends to the underworld saves the loved one, only one who draws the knife gets Isaac. He who will not work does not get bread, but will be deluded, as the gods deluded Orpheus with an airy figure in place of the beloved, deluded him because he was tender-hearted, not courageous, deluded him because he was a lyre-player, not a man.

-Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling


We hear a lot about 'gatekeeping' in the world of RPGs. There are, apparently, keepers of gates, and they exercise a great and arbitrary power over all they survey - a complete discretion that allows them to identify those that they like, the sheep, who they usher through into their green pasture; and the goats, who they hate, and keep outside in the barren wasteland. 

The phrase is most often deployed when it comes to publishing. The reason that one fails to find an audience, to 'make it', to achieve greatness, is due to having been singled out as a goat by the gatekeepers, and all that one can then do is to look plaintively in from beyond the fence at the sheep in the green pasture, who work tirelessly to promote one another's work and grow fat and hearty on the juicy wet grass. You, the goat, must live off scraps in the wilderness; you, the goat, are an outsider; you, the goat will never amount to anything because you can only be the vector of forces beyond your control.

But it is also sometimes even a complaint when it comes to the mere playing of the game. The sheep, it is said, exclude the goats. The sheep do not like anybody coming along and disrupting how things are done in their pasture. The sheep are against change. The sheep discourage, dissuade, bully and ostracise, and thus exert an iron grip on participation in the hobby.

Both of these myths are, of course, absurd. There is no 'gate' when it comes to publishing, not since the internet blew the whole thing apart in the 2000s, and there is nothing stopping anybody picking up a copy of D&D and playing it with their mates - you can even buy it in Waterstones these days, and in the unlikely event you can't figure out how it works for yourself, you can go on YouTube and watch probably hundreds of millions of hours of videos explaining how. Ultimately, there is nothing stopping anybody doing anything they put their minds to, except for their own inertia, shyness, lack of motivation, busy lifestyle, and so on, and those ought not to be considerations at all.

That is not to say that there is no injustice or unfairness in the way in which the world arranges itself. In publishing, of course, there is a bias towards incumbents that can be hard to overcome for newcomers in a crowded marketplace. And there are, it is certainly true, a number of demagogues out there with large followings who are keen to pontificate about badwrongfun and insist on their own variation of the One True Way. 

But Kierkegaard is instructive in this regard. As our Danish friend points out, the acknowledged and unavoidable unfairness of the outward world is immaterial to what happens within us. We have no control over the world, but we do have control over ourselves. And within those limits, we can elect to work, or not work; to descend to the underworld, or fail to; to draw the knife, or refuse. We cannot bend the deterministic world to our will. What we can do is elect to exercise our will, or not. Faced with the fact that doing something is difficult, we can either try to do it anyway, or not do it at all. Which of these is better? Will we act? Or delude ourselves into thinking we can receive 'bread' without endeavouring to act in the first place?

There are neither gates, nor keepers. But even if there were, their existence would have no effect on one's own decision to do whatever one wished. 

47 comments:

  1. I cannot comment about publishing, as I never published anything. However, I disagree with your take about other meanings of "gatekeeping".

    Obviously, nothing stops anyone from playing the game however they see fit. The game functions with a single group of friends in a vacuum. So far, I agree with you.

    However, *communities* can and do gatekeep. Generally, this too is fine - if I'll go to, say, dragonsfoot, but only try to talk about new-school RPGs, I will be shooed off. This isn't *bad*, but it is gatekeep-y - not everyone is welcome to participate in a given community.

    Maybe I'm missing the context this post is made in, but I disagree that "gatekeeping" doesn't exists, at least in the context of (online) communities. In other media, the term is used mostly when fans try to dissuade other fans from participating (the classic example of "you're not a real fan of X if you don't.."). Nothing stops me from watching the star wars movies with my friends, but I wouldn't extrapolate from this fact that no star wars community is gatekeeping.

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    1. I think that speaks to my closing point. I don't believe that there are gatekeepers in either playing or publishing RPGs. But even if there are (say, the Dragonsfoot forums) it is of no practical relevance because you can just start your own forum (or join one of the many others). So if there is gatekeeping within that limited context, it makes no difference to how you lead your own life and make your own decisions.

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    2. As regards the original article, well said.
      In the (possibly hypothetical) example given, I don't see how Dragonsfoot is at fault. It advertises itself as a "TSR D+D" site, and you would expect most of the discussion to be about that. But there is an "Other Games" forum where people would be welcome to talk about new-school rpgs. And if this is not to your liking, I hope and expect there would be many other sites that would be a better fit for your interests.
      Do we not all have an obligation to be both "Good hosts" and "Good guests"?

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    3. Fair enough, re: Dragonsfoot. I think it was hypothetical.

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    4. I think it is a bit relevant, since communities are resources. You can start your own forum, but then you have to attract people to it, and the more hyper specialized your interest is the smaller the crowd of people who will seek it SPECIFICALLY (as opposed to more general communities), which can lead to less attention on purchased products, or, more likely, just less people to talk to. Gatekeeping isn't a be all end all I think, merely potentially unpleasant and annoying.

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    5. Well yes, that's true, but that's just a feature of human existence, right? If you are into things that not many other people are into, you will find it hard to talk about that interest with others.

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  2. There's a significant difference between "gatekeeping doesn't happen" and "you shouldn't confine yourself to being gatekept" and it seems you are conflating the two.

    Perhaps you have never walked into a game store and been condescended to or excluded because you didn't fit the mold of what a "RPG nerd" looks or sounds like to the people in the store. RPGs are fundamentally a social hobby and often is shared with newcomers by an experienced person showing them how to play. That isn't going to happen when the experienced people are unwilling to play with you or act in a way that makes you deeply uncomfortable to be there.

    I agree with the premise that there's nothing stopping someone from publishing their own material outside the traditional publishing route. There's nothing stopping a group of friends from waking up one day and collectively deciding to learn DnD from scratch, without being introduced to the game from someone else. I suspect that's fairly uncommon -- it isn't how I got into RPGs, it isn't how the guy who got me into RPGs got into RPGs, and I doubt it's how you got into RPGs, either.

    Like I said, maybe you haven't been new to something and been on the receiving end of gatekeeping -- which if true, congrats -- but to say that gatekeeping isn't a thing or doesn't have an effect on people is ignorant of the experiences of others.

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    1. It's not about whether or not that kind of behaviour has an effect on people. That's an empirical claim. Here, I'm making a normative one.

      Going back to Kierkegaard, you can't change the condescension or exclusionary attitudes of the people in the game store (I have to point out, by the way, that they do that to everybody; it's a defensive tactic of the socially inept). But you can change whether you let it effect you, and how you respond to it.

      It's about whether one chooses to see oneself as the passive subject of external forces, or as an active agent.

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    2. So now you are saying gatekeeping is a thing that socially inept people do (I agree) but that people shouldn't let it affect them. Is that not contradictory to your original post?

      I understand part of what you are getting at to be along the lines of, "you should not let other people's shitty behavior get in the way of you enjoying/interacting with a thing." I agree with that, and more to the point, that people ought to be more resilient. That being said, the way your post and comment are framed, I read your claim as being critical of the one feeling shamed, rather than the ones doing the shaming. Do you really think that's helpful?

      If we were discussing a hobby that has a strong solo component (i.e. playing the harmonica, painting, gardening, etc.) then the "don't let the gatekeeping affect your enjoyment of the thing" has a lot of weight. I don't think it's as strong a point when it comes to a hobby that requires some sort of community to work well, like RPGs. Because "screw what the gatekeeping community thinks, do your own thing" doesn't work as well if your engagement in the hobby in no small part requires interaction or participation in that community.

      Not long ago, you put up a blog post about the benefits of engaging in your community and specifically, your church. If the members of the church were hostile to your presence in church because of your unfamiliarity with scripture, the way you looked, your age, etc. do you really think "ignore them, do your own thing" is a valid response? Sure, you can pray at home, but you are missing out on the benefits that being part of a community bestows -- is the RPG scene really that different?

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    3. Well, I can only go back to the point I've repeatedly tried to make.

      If you go to a church, or gaming store, or anything else, and people are hostile to your presence, "ignore them, do your own thing" is the only valid response. What other response is there, other than "get depressed and discouraged"?

      In those circumstances, you have to either pursue your faith or interest privately, or create your own community, or look for another one elsewhere. You can't magically stop hostile people being hostile, but there are plenty of other things you can do.

      So people in the local gaming store/online are not very friendly. Fine. Find some people who are. Or start a gaming club of your own. Or do it online. These things have never been easier.

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    4. I think a distinction can be made between correcting behavior from within vs without. If you are being gate kept, as it were, then yes, your only useful tool is to do your own thing. If you are part of a community, however, you have the 'ability' to lower the gates, either through your own direct behavior or through encouraging or discouraging others behaviors.

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  3. A lot of what gets called "gatekeeping" these days is more incredibly rude behavior more than stuff that actually can keep people out of anything. But even if it doesn't keep people outo f anything they want to do incredibly rude behavior is still bad.

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    1. Sure, but that sort of goes without saying.

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  4. I never trusted Kirkegaard, he was always biting the heads off whippets.

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  5. As far as I can tell, “gatekeeping”, as the term is actually used 99% of the time, simply means “having preferences”. Sort of like how “gaslighting” and “mainsplaining”, as the terms are used 99% of the time (if they are indeed used at all anymore), simply mean “disagreeing with a woman”.

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    1. This is getting way off track, but I think the existence of those terms/memes is really just testament to the fact that men and women think, and argue, in very different ways. An awful lot of problems ensue from this strange idea that people have got into their heads that formal equality between the sexes means they think the same way and behave interchangeably.

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  6. If I am not mistaken, I believe that at some point you stated that you do not use social media much, which would explain your sentiments from this post. But the Twitter and Discord space, to name a few, are severely gatekept. It's all good if you go in line with what the "community" endorses, but as soon as you step beyond that you get scolded.
    But sure, you can go around it, do your own thing and then hopefully likeminded individuals will eventually flock around you, but stating that there is no such thing as gatekeeping is just false.

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    1. Define "severely gatekept". Am I not allowed to Tweet about RPGs or make Discord servers if I want to? Where is ths "gate"? And why do you care about being scolded by "keepers"?

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    2. From personal experience (and this is just one of many), I was negatively interacted with on certain big servers for my own preferences on how I run games as a GM, to the point where it became obnoxious and I left. "You don't play the way we do, either bend the knee or you're a pariah."

      I care, when a certain space that is supposed to be open to everyone is unpleasant. And no one is stopping you from opening servers or tweeting, but the whole idea behind the term "gatekeeping" is that someone is LIMITING your access to something. The gate is there guarded by assholes and yeah, you can walk through it, but it's no surprise that many are bitter about it and drop the scene altogether because walking through can be difficult.

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    3. I get that, and I'm not excusing that kind of behaviour, but the best answer to the existence of unpleasantness on one forum/server is for the pleasant people to make their own one and let the unpleasant types stew in their own juices.

      As far as I can tell, this is kind of what happened to rpg.net and therpgsite. Both are unpleasant, and normal people gradually just stopped going to those forums and found alternatives.

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    4. Hey, I'm on therpgsite and I'm lovely! :D
      therpgsite members engage in unpleasant name-calling/abuse, but anyone can post there (except Nazis posting Nazi stuff). rpgnet mods will ban any opinion that deviates slightly from the approved narrative, which has got more and more extreme over the years, so is a lot more 'gatekeepery' IMO.

      I'd say Dragonsfoot moderation is a lot more 'gatekeeping' than therpgsite free-speech-zone approach, but unlike rpgnet it is done in what I'd say was a good cause, keeping the site focus on old school D&D gaming and off politics. I think this approach, while gatekeeping, is at least as worthy as therpgsite's no-gatekeeping moderation. Whereas rpgnet modding to create a political echo chamber is horrible in the context of an RPG forum. I can't really think of a context where it would be ok; even political party sites ought to allow some disagreement.

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    5. Does twitter have gatekeeping? Perhaps. But that's not the point.
      The topic here is about playing RPGs. You don't need anyone's permission or approval to play the game outside the people of your group. Playing the game, and playing in a specific group are completely different wolds as well.

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  7. A good post. I know it's easier for some of us than others, but "you have control over how you feel about things" is a message/rule/lesson we should all spend more time trying to recognise. Even if it isn't true in a absolute sense (we're just animals/sparking neurons/sentience is an illusion etc), isn't it better to live your life as though it is true? Why grant anyone else control over your mental state? It's a long road, but I'm on it.

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    1. Yes, I agree.

      The idea that sentience is an illusion is really just an interesting thought experiment. It is impossible to know for sure, and also impossible to live your life as though it is the case!

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  8. I suppose I'm beating my hobby-horse again. Given what you just said - that doing one's own thing has never been easier than it is now - doesn't it strike you that cries of gatekeeping continue to resound? Maybe the complaints are actually about something completely different.

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  9. "The phrase is most often deployed when it comes to publishing. The reason that one fails to find an audience, to 'make it', to achieve greatness, is due to having been singled out as a goat by the gatekeepers, and all that one can then do is to look plaintively in from beyond the fence at the sheep in the green pasture, who work tirelessly to promote one another's work and grow fat and hearty on the juicy wet grass. You, the goat, must live off scraps in the wilderness; you, the goat, are an outsider; you, the goat will never amount to anything because you can only be the vector of forces beyond your control."

    Sounds like academia, amirite? >:)

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  10. Communities certainly set their own norms, and exclude those who deviate too far. I think that's pretty much necessary for any group to be a community.

    Re game stores, I understand how feeling excluded from a Games Workship store can make you feel excluded from the 'Warhammer community', because most people need the store playing area & need to play with strangers. I don't see how this can apply to RPGs though, which tend to be played at home with friends - or these days on Roll20 & Discord. Do the denizens of RPG games stores matter at all?

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    1. Yeah, I agree. That's a big part of what I was driving at.

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  11. I'm unhappy about somebody at Waterstones gatekeeping my products from their shelves 😉

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  12. I agree with your fundamental point that you are free to do what you want to do, but I think the problem of gatekeeping is that too much of it does make one, as per your earlier comment, "get depressed and discouraged". The comments section on this blog is always a bit of a sausage fest, but I suspect that if you talk to a few women gamers then they would have quite a different view on whether it actually impinges on anyone's freedoms (and, sure, women can go set up their own games, but even that can be seen as a political act and a fair target for bullies)

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    1. I don't want to get too new agey about this, but while you can't control whether or not you get depressed and discouraged, you can control how you response to those feelings. For example - by setting up your own games.

      I can't help but feel a bit accused by this idea my blog is a "sausage fest". Gaming is a sausage fest, whatever the reason for that may be!

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    2. Ha! I'm sorry that I called your blog a sausage fest. For all I know, most of your commenters may be female. It's just that for some reason I picture them as almost exclusively men of a certain age or older, stroking their beards. (I stroked my chin while writing that, it felt necessary)

      In my experience gaming is not all that sausagefesty - I probably know more women gamers than men - but talking in depth about gaming-related topics is probably a different matter. And the OSR (though not the nu-OSR) is probably pretty pork-heavy.

      As for depressed and discouraged: sure, you can decide how you respond to that. Until you can't.

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    3. I forget sometimes most people don’t meditate routinely. I’m by no means advanced in it but yes, I believe you can decide how you respond to depression with the right training and information.

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    4. I've mediated unroutinely since 1989 and... nah. The very fact that you are able to manage to do it *routinely* suggests you're already at a great advantage.

      But this is rather OT. My point was that while gatekeeping needn't prevent anyone from playing or publishing, it's one more psychological barrier, one that will prevent some people from playing or publishing.

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    5. 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes in the evening. It is within almost everybody's power to decide to do that, or not. Of course, you have to be taught how to do it properly, but it isn't hard. And, again, it is within everybody's power to decide to learn.

      Otherwise you might as well say to somebody who takes medication, "The very fact that you are able to remember to take antidepressants routinely suggest you're already at a great advantage." No - it suggests the person wants to get better and is applying their agency to decide to do something about it.

      In the same way, you can decide to meditate. Doing it routinely isn't indicative of being at a "great advantage" by having some innate propensity. It's indicative of deciding to do it, and doing it! ;)

      (I have nothing in particular against people taking antidepressants, by the way.)

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    6. It's not, it's really not. Trust me when I say that I have tried (especially over the last 15 years) every form of mindhack and habit-forming technique going. "Just do it when you brush your teeth" is common advice - well, yeah, I also forget to brush my teeth. And of course to take my tablets.

      There is also increasing evidence that meditation can sometimes be bad for depression, and that's certainly something I've often experienced: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2251840-mindfulness-and-meditation-can-worsen-depression-and-anxiety/

      I've done every type going, had several teachers, and been on retreats. I've now got to the stage where I'm pretty good at it - I can switch to a very relaxed mode in seconds. But not when I'm depressed.

      Quite a few of your posts involve an element of "if only people took the same approach as me then they would be so much better off. And if they won't, they're just being lazy and need to pull their socks up". I don't want to protest too strongly because I really do appreciate reading pretty much everything that you write and your sometimes very different takes on things, but I do think you have a blindspot when it comes to both other people's lived experience and the way their brains function.

      I'm reminded of an incident when I was at university: our developmental psychology lecturer told a long story about a geeky, antisocial engineer who had been promoted so far that he found himself having to deal mostly with people. He put himself on an intensive sociability-training exercise and, after 3 months, emerged as a completely different, uber-social person. Our lecturer went on to say that this demonstrates how you can change anything about yourself that you want to, it just takes willpower. I put my hand up and asked what if the thing that you want to change is that you don't have enough willpower? He laughed, the whole class laughed, but I never did get an answer.

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    7. Dan, I'm not advocating meditation as a cure for depression. I'm advocating it as a way of learning how to respond to depression. That's a different thing. Anyone who sells meditation as a 'cure' for anything doesn't understand meditation. The point of doing it is to gain perspective/distance, so that in acceptance of being depressed (or whatever) you can function normally. It's not about relaxation. In fact it is very often difficult and frustrating, and may indeed make you feel more anxious. The point is, you eventually gain perspective on that anxiety as well, such that it no longer has to affect your behaviour.

      In response to your other point, everybody has a blindspot about how everybody's brain functions. Nobody knows whether it is possible or impossible for any other human brain to do anything. Game theoretically, though, it's better to hold people to the standard that they can change themselves. If it's true that people have a free will, they can change themselves. If it's true that they don't, and they really are just a vector of forces/brain chemistry/electomagnetic pulses/whatever, then holding them to high standards becomes an incentive they will respond to behaviouristically. In the absence of perfect knowledge about what goes on in people's heads, the default position should therefore be to treat people as though they are accountable for their own decisions.

      I take this view not as a result of having a blindspot. It's a product of having thought about this stuff for years as a result of having immediate family members, and a family history, of severe psychological problems - i.e., psychotic breaks and schizophrenia.

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    8. I dunno, saying that meditation means depression will "no longer has to affect your behaviour" and let you "function normally" sounds either like a cure or some dubious semantics. I think I'm right in saying that the entire diagnosis of depression is centred around abnormal function.

      I can only really speak for my own experience, which is as someone with BP-II, a genetic condition (one that has driven members of my family to suicide) and one that I've been learning to cope with my entire life - which I think I've done a pretty good job of. Certainly understanding my depressive episodes has not been a problem for decades, and coping with them is also relatively easy nowadays (although not for my wife - god knows where I'd be without her). But it's simply not been possible for me to develop any kind of regular practice - the fast cycles of Bipolar-2 in particular kibosh any kind of routine - or to apply much of what I've learnt while practicing to actually being depressed (some has certainly sunk in though - like I said, I've got a hell of a lot better at coping with this stuff in recent years, and and in particular the Headspace introductory quote that "there is always blue sky behind the clouds" is one that has served me well)

      I think meditation *might* act as a "cure" for some unipolar depression and anxiety, though again every case is different.

      I totally accept the rest of what you say, and I really *do* like reading this stuff, even when it comes across a bit bossy.

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    9. Definitely not dubious semantics. This is what the insights of Buddhist meditation are built on. The point is that through meditation you can separate the conscious will from feeling and emotion. You don't stop feeling the feeling. But you are eventually able to get into a position that it doesn't affect your actions. You can put it in a box, so to speak, accepting its existence and not letting it control you.

      To be honest, it seems from this comment that you have got to that kind of position with respect to your condition, whether through age/experience or, well, maybe meditation (even irregularly practice) has some effect after all? ;)

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    10. Hmm, I don't think I have reached there, but I don't think I ever will, and I have reached a point where things are manageable. And, yes, the intermittent mediation played a big part.

      But I reiterate my statement which triggered this interesting digression: "as for depressed and discouraged: sure, you can decide how you respond to that. Until you can't." I stand by that. I've managed to shift my responses to something less disabling and destructive, but I still get incapacitated, and I also still sometimes get "triggered". If I actually gave a shit about the opinion of the "gaming community" then I can see how being "gatekept" could... well, negatively impact my range of available responses 😅

      As it is I only give a shit about the opinion of a small handful of members of the gaming community, and they're all nice folks, right?

      Right?

      😉

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  13. Publishing is an interesting one - the gaming world does seem to be very receptive to and supportive of independent publishers. Or perhaps my view is skewed because of where I hang out? I think perhaps the fact that games books have always been very expensive probably makes it easier for independents to scratch a living.

    I can't help comparing it with the world of "proper" publishing. A friend of mine had a novel published last year - she has published plenty of things before, and found a fair amount of success, but this was the first book through a big name. It's been a real education to see how much the publisher actually does, and what effect this has had. Advance reading copies, newspaper reviews book groups, awards shortlists, placement in bookshop windows, "best book of the year" lists. Publishers aren't stopping you from publishing anything, but they do have access to a, uhhh, much bigger gate. Or something.

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    1. Well, the thing is there are no gatekepers in RPG publishing, really. I mean, I just wrote Yoon-Suin and published it. Where were the gates, and how were they kept exactly?

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    2. Yeah, I guess my point was more about marketing - but my one small venture into games publishing has demonstrated that it's a hell of a lot easier to reach and engage a sizeable bunch of gamers than it is a bunch of ̶n̶o̶r̶m̶a̶l̶ ̶f̶o̶l̶k̶s̶ fiction readers.

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  14. Gatekeeping! is the cry of the quisling, whenever its lamprey jaw is sunk halfway into the unsuspecting cow's hindquarters, and the sheperd catches it with a rock on the temple.

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