The other Homeless Moon folk have wildly outstripped me in posting lately, so I am going for the TKO this evening and catching up on some things I’ve been meaning to post here. Apologies to those on my LJ who will get it all at once.
Jay Lake’s recent post on writer ages reminded me of something I was discussing with pantlessjohnny at last ReaderCon, and later with thehollowbox — on the value of a peer group for one’s writing, or any life passion. This specifically came up when we had the immense privilege of watching Jeffrey Ford (14theditch) interview Lucius Shepard (lucius_t) at the convention. I was also reminded of the Grandmaster panel at World Horror Con; when writers at this level get together, they’re more than the sum of their parts, which are already formidable. They know the most interesting questions to ask each other, and it’s a window on a kind of elder insight that is pretty mindblowing.
It was good to watch those guys just talk to each other because they could obviously connect and have a meaningful interaction. I mentioned later to pantlessjohnny that there is pretty much no other way for a grandmaster caliber author to have a productive experience with an interview. They can give us advice, but it’s pretty unidirectional, and ultimately I think to some extent a young writer can only get so much from the advice of a master writer; they just operate on different levels.
Which, of course, reminded me of WoW, and before the discussion with pantlessjohnny degenerated into figuring out what character class our fellow 05 Odyssey graduates belonged to (boonofdoom was clearly the resident druid, but the others involve more debate), we talked about the metaphor that RPG mechanics provide for these kinds of interactions. RPGs are a form of escapism, but to be effectively escapist they have to rely on mechanics equally valid in real life. We have levels and character classes and races in real life; the RPG metaphor just makes them simpler to discuss. So I could tell pantlessjohnny that Shepard and Ford were clearly level 70 and talking about Outland raids and netherdrake grind while we were still grubbing around on Azeroth and haven’t even gotten our mounts yet. We have a bit of purple armor and we’re well out of the starting area, but the long road is ahead.
What’s interesting to me about this is that while listening to veteran writers discuss their ideas an careers is always enjoyable and useful, I tend to get a lot more out of these discussions with my peer group. I frequently get better recommendations, greater insight, and more applicable ideas for my own work from them than I do from the wisdom of the masters. Some of it is purely a matter of scale; I interact with them a lot more, and feel like I can do so without completely wasting their time, which is not the case on the rare occasions, for instance, that I get to talk with Shepard, Liz Hand, or Peter Beagle. They’re all fantastic people and very magnanimous, but there is only so much entertainment they are going to get out of talking to people with minimal weapon enchants and dorky short cloaks.
When I spoke the Immersive Worlds Conference about female leadership in MMO environments, one poll response that really surprised me had to do with how players — across the board, not just women, but the women surprised me more — selected their guilds. Were they looking for social connection? Shared interests? Peaceful community? Upper level leaders that could give them stuff? Nope. Or, likely they were, but it was not their first priority. First priority? Guilds that had people at their level, people that they could count on to be around to level and quest with them.
I’m being fairly flippant about this, but I do believe that this is yet another instance of a virtual world environment being a source for study and insight on the real world. Great figures throughout history, including Nietzsche and Einstein, reached a point of acceleration in their careers when they made contact, and kept contact, with young, passionate people who shared their interests and rapidly became integral to their lives. I think that the “peer level” element is a big part of our human experience, a factor in self esteem, motivation, and accomplishment. Which is how this winds up being a sort of appreciation for Odyssey. (And by the way, the ’08 guest lecturer lineup looks absolutely stellar this year, so those of you who have been thinking about applying, now would be a good time.)
Without Odyssey I wouldn’t have had this peer group, this “generation”, as Lake puts it, of writers. I knew a few other aspiring writers beforehand (brennye, for example, for a long time), but Odyssey catapulted that forward, and it wasn’t entirely due to the instruction. The discovery of that peer group was invaluable, and I believe that it is one of Jeanne’s largely unheralded talents to create an environment for that kind of community, to maximize the chances that we would finish the course and continue to connect and learn once we were outside the immediate sphere of her influence.
There are other aspects of this, such as dual-classing, for one thing (most of us, as is my deal with game development, have a day job where our level is much higher than it is in the fiction community — which is an interesting dynamic), but those are the basics, and segue later into another notion I’ve been turning around as to the purpose of MMOs or online games in contextualizing the social experience, as one of the explanations of WoW’s wild success. It’s a mark of excellent simulation to create a virtual environment that can be used as a metaphor for real life, a meta-language.