All About Where You Place The Frame: On The Sad Puppies' Hugo Victory

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So let’s say you really like playing chess, so you start a chess club.  Every week, you get together with your buddies to move those black and white pieces across the chessboard.  Because you want to encourage the best chess players to thrive, you offer a valuable prize to the person who wins the most games.
Eventually, someone figures out that chess players don’t play as well when they’re distracted. These people decide to engage in psychological warfare – playing purposely slow to annoy their opponent, insulting them between moves, wearing T-shirts containing photoshopped pictures of their opponent’s mothers in pornographic positions, blaring them with foghorns when they’re deepest in concentration.
“It’s not in the rules you’ve created!” these people say, and in fact it isn’t.  You have not, in fact, created a rule stopping them from sending forged emails to their strongest opponents to tell them the tournament is cancelled today.  What happens is that soon, your chess club is filled with people who achieve victory with all sorts of creative techniques, and your club stinks of donkey dung because the latest distract-an-opponent craze is to wear a ghillie suit smeared with mule shit.
“We’re winning,” they say, when people complain, and this is true.  “You just don’t like losing.”
Yet what they’re winning at largely has nothing to do with chess.  Psychological warfare is as old as, well, warfare.  Yes, perhaps you can snag a victory by taunting your teenaged opponent until they break down in tears and resign the game, but it’s difficult to argue that this win is the result of your skills at the game of chess.  You could win any game under these rules with these tactics.
Worse, what happens is that your chess club now attracts the sort of people who don’t really give a crap about chess, but in fact just like watching people suffer.  Your club becomes filled with people who actually dislike chess, but they do very much like the idea of making those snooty chess players pay for showing up.
Week by week, this chess club becomes less and less about chess, and more and more about inflicting psychological torture.  The game is diminished by those who seek victory at all costs.  There are still wins on the books, but those wins become increasingly cheapened, because now the game’s frame has expanded from “win using the skills unique to chess” to “win using a variety of very old techniques, most of which require only a rudimentary knowledge of chess.”
The people who actually like chess drift away, not wanting to endure so much agony for a win that contains a very small amount of playing the game they love.
The chess club, if it survives, can barely be said to be called a chess club.  Perhaps an endurance club with chessboards, yes, but not a chess club.
The reason I say this is because Brad Torgerson said an astonishingly stupid thing the other day on his Sad Puppy victory at the Hugos:

Best SP3 quote yet: “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I am endlessly amused by people who claim to love democracy until somebody they don’t like turns out to be better at it than they are.”

Now, in case you’re not familiar with the Sad Puppies slate, here’s a brief summary I’d encourage you to read, but a briefer summary is this:

  • Conservatives get very outraged because the “right people” are not winning the Hugos, and the Hugos no longer reflect the works they want to see nominated.
  • They go to GamerGate – those bastions of free thought – and ask them to pony up $50 apiece to vote in the WorldCon nominations, asking them to vote for these exact works, regardless of whether they’ve read them or not.  (Brad made a vague, handwavy show of saying “You should read them,” but of course others did not and explicitly said to vote for these line items because it would piss off the liberals.)
  • About 200 GamerGate folks, I’m told, rubber-stamped this ballot, and as such, of the supposedly best three Novellas published in 2014, three are from the same man.

And like the home-grown chess club I’ve discussed, this is a victory in the sense that yes, you put your shit-smeared ghillie suit and drove other competitors out of the field.  “Voting blocs” are an old tradition, one of the earliest methods to gain victory when you’re not actually that popular, and it’s not that hard to game an open field.
And yet the point of the Hugos is to have the most deserving works voted in.  If you legitimately believed that of all the novellas you read in 2014, John C. Wright wrote the best of them, then great! Nominate! I think your tastes are hopelessly narrow, in the same sense I despair whenever some Neil Gaiman fanboy auto-nominates whatever Neil does because ZOMGNEIL, but you’ve got your vote.
But how many GamerGate members do you think read all the novellas and judged them, and how many just voted for whatever Vox Day and company told them to vote for because it’d piss off the liberals?
If you’re voting for the Hugos to “stick it to the Social Justice Warriors,” then, well, you’re not actually achieving victory at the intended purpose.  Just as in chess, you have shifted the frame from “Let us nominate the best writings we loved most and think we deserve it” to “Let’s nominate whatever will send a message to liberals that this award is ours.”
Which is, like wearing Photoshopped pictures of someone’s mother to a game to get them to lose, a form of victory.  But it’s not victory in the field originally intended.  Sure, maybe you didn’t like what got nominated before, but mostly what won was because people you didn’t like were enthusiastic about the work.  Brad is claiming, facetiously and erroneously, that Scalzi and Stross somehow stuffed the ballot box by dint of being popular people – and it’s always been a flaw in the system that a popular person can sway the vote by bringing certain works to greater visibility – but until this point in the Hugo Awards, nobody had specifically gone and fetched people who specifically had not read science fiction at all in order to make a point in the sci-fi community.
(Or maybe they’d tried before, but now Brad and Larry have the dubious honor of succeeding at it by encouraging Vox Day.)
It’s rather like hiring a bunch of thugs to form a threatening crowd outside your chess club to scare away the other players, and claiming you won this shrunken tournament because of your love of chess.  You didn’t.  This wasn’t you doing “democracy” better, this was you exploiting rules to change the very nature of what the game consists of.
If you’re stupid enough to conflate “doing democracy better” with “winning,” then gerrymandering and making it illegal for people to vote and all sorts of techniques designed to reduce the number of active voters becomes victory, and you’re “doing democracy better” by reducing the number of people involved, which involves some craniorectal contortion in order to see that as a victory at democracy.
However.  There’s a reason you don’t see chess clubs inflicted with these sorts of over-the-top antics.  That’s because most chess clubs have a general rule prohibiting Unsportsmanlike Conduct – an often-subjective, umbrella-like rule that says, “Anything that’s not in the rulebook but would pull focus from ‘this is about chess’ to ‘this is about victory at all costs’ is, in fact, illegal as well.”
This is why chess clubs remain, largely, about chess.
(As a side note: before anyone accuses me of being against psychological warfare in games, you may do well to look up my long history of writing about Magic: the Gathering, where I rose to prominence by specifically discussing psychological tactics to manipulate other players into supporting you in multiplayer games. I love using sneaky techniques to steal victories; it’s just that as an experienced player at doing these sorts of things, it doesn’t have much to do with your skill at Magic, which I am at best mediocre at.)

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