Ego Check: Michael Bruce, Editor, Philosopher and Writer of Angst! Blog

Michael Bruce

When I became interested in the strange new world of non-ownership and how it relates to tabletop roleplaying games, I spent some time researching what others have written or said about the topic. In my online travels, I came across a blog entry written by Michael Bruce who is an editor and previously taught philosophy and mathematics at University of Washington. I reached out and he was willing to talk about his column – and his background investigating the changing currents that influence the lives of young people including technology.

While Michael is not involved in the roleplaying game industry, I benefited from his perspective and hope you find the exchanges below thought provoking. And what better day than Black Friday to discuss to changing culture of ownership in our society!

Thank you for agreeing to communicate on the subject of ownership. When I first started to research a column on the subject, I discovered an article you wrote for Psychology Today last summer titled Netflix My Life: A Culture of Non-ownership. I immediately connected to the themes you discussed within the article. But before we dive into that specific topic, could you introduce yourself and let the readers know about your work?

I received my master’s degree in philosophy from San Diego State University where I concentrated on the history of philosophy, particularly on rationality and the philosophy of science. I have taught philosophy and mathematics at the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington, Seattle and publish in academic journals, books, and online.

You’ve co-edited two book, College Sex – Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits and Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy. Could you discuss the premise of each book and your motivations for creating them?

As an undergraduate, I took a philosophy of sex and love course from Robert Stewart (CSU, Chico) that was influential. Philosophy was in direct conversation with relevant and engaging issues for me and my fellow students. I was extremely excited when Dr. Stewart was able to edit the volume with me. The book looks specifically at philosophical issues pertaining to the sex and love lives of college aged people.  The essays include topics on technology, experimentation, monogamy, ethics, and student-teacher relationships to name a few.

The  Arguments collection was an idea I had while in graduate school trying to keep track of all my notes and references in the most efficient way. It has 100 influential arguments presented by researchers in their fields and acts as reference tool for students, teachers, and anyone who enjoys philosophy.

I developed both of these books with the idea of making materials that I wish I had or would enjoy reading both in an academic and in a “fan of philosophy” sense.

You have also written over 20 columns for the Angst! blog featured on Psychology Today. In the blog, you explore the assumptions, values and motivations in youth culture paying particular attention to the topics of sex, love and technology. It is here that I found your column on the changing “culture of non-ownership.” Could you explain that phrase and talk about what led you to tackle the subject?

I observed a minimalistic trend in myself and my friends over the last few years. I no longer bought DVD’s or CD’s. My interest in buying a house was deflated. I was saw the larger relationship dynamics in youth culture  like dating veered toward less formal, less committed arrangements (friends with benefits). Part of this is that technology and services like Netflix and Pandora allow us cheap access to material without having to actually own it—invest in it, shelter it, move it, resell it, etc. The fact that the housing bubble popped in the United States influences people’s opinion that renting might be better than owning a new house. These are just a couple of examples where I saw a shift in the social psyche from a mindset of individual consumerism—I want to by a new car, to go with my new house, for my wife—to a more calculated restraint with a suspicious eye toward previously held assumptions regarding what one needs and when one needs it.

The College Sex book you collaborated on dove into the “friends with benefits” relationships, which you equate with the new culture of non-ownership. What were some of the more eye-opening discoveries while working on the book?

“Back in my day, we had to write notes or make phone calls to start dating someone. And we had to walk uphill both ways back and forth to school!”

In terms of sex and love, there has never been a better time for college-aged youth to meet people. Social media has been a game changer along with the lessening taboo of formal online dating sites for young folks. The downside of this is that students are often isolated by their technology; I give an example in the book of students walking across campus who are habitually on their iPhones whenever there is a free moment. This cuts off the world around them, including meeting classmates and potential partners that are actually near them and not online.

You mentioned earlier that the entire mindset of the consumer has shifted and previously held assumptions about what one needs and when one needs have changed. Besides advancements in technology, what do you think is driving this change in cognition and behavior? And what do you see as positive and negative implications of the shift?

The changes have been influenced by witnessing the failures of modern relationships (divorce rates) and by experiencing the consequences of living beyond one’s means (foreclosures, debt). I would not underestimate the basic urge toward faster, cheaper, and easier ways of living. We have seen parts of our infrastructure crumble and it can feel overwhelming.  I think fear and uncertainty that the economic crisis isn’t over or could happen again is a strong motivation. In an analogous way, friends with benefits relationships flourish due to uncertainty—Do I really want a partner? Is this the right person for me? Should I just be dating right now?  This anxiety is the negative condition. Before there may have been clear social cues as to what we are supposed to want, with certain time lines, but now the clock has stopped, or has been broken. It is up to us.

The shift has positive aspects to it. The economic and housing crisis has created an opportunity for reflection and re-visioning commitments to “things” and values.  Awareness of one’s relationship to products, advertising, and the media has been expanded. But will it keep? I do not know. Is this a momentary refrain while culture is panic-ridden? Perhaps.  This might be the birth pangs of a new system of values and that is exciting.

What do you find exciting about a new system of values? Or put another way, what are some of the values in the old system that have outgrown their usefulness?

I could write on this topic for a long time, so I’ll try and keep short.  The shift in values from ownership  to access is fascinating. I don’t need to have something by my side all the time, but I want to be able to get it when I want. The move from concreteness to flux emphasizes freedom and flexibility. In general, it is exciting to be participating during a time of when there is the possibility for change.  Ruptures  from society’s entrenched values takes a great deal of time and momentum. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s critique of morality and values:

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”—

You touched on a key piece regarding the ease of use. When I was a teenager, the easiest ways to listen to new music was on the radio or listening to a cassette tape or compact disc, which I had to buy from a local store, borrow from a friend or order through a mail-order catalogue. If there were easier options, then I imagine I would have taken advantage of them!

Now we’ve reached a point where it’s so fast, cheap and easy to obtain music that artists’ rights are often overlooked or outright ignored. Not only does the consumer prefer not to own anything, but many consumers do not even believe the creator has a right to sell their goods in the first place. How can our selfish desire for faster, cheaper and easier sustain itself over time if artists are not rewarded for their efforts in creating media to consume in the first place?

This is a serious concern but one with many opportunities. I think music and other digital media will always have a black, Internet, market but that usage will continually drop as companies make it easier to access media cheaply. The “hackers” for lack of a better word will always outrun the huge corporations and security, but it may not be worth the effort for most people.

Part of the solution lies in indirect revenue. While it may be free or cheap for us to listen to music, we still listen to it on an app that generally has advertising, movies are streamed on demand, and the artists will need to tap into those sources. Another part of the solution is to sidestep the middlemen altogether. Look at the success Louis C. K. has had releasing his latest film (DRM free) for $5.

Tabletop roleplaying games have traditionally relied on tangible books to convey the rules and present the background information for gameplay. Other physical materials like dice and miniatures may be required, but “the game” is found in the books. Given your research and interest in the psychology of ownership and viewing other industries facing these challenges, how do you think the RPG industry can tap into those indirect revenues? What would you suggest to those who are designing and selling games to cope with the new sense of ownership?

The RPG industry can utilize the same approach as other media and games. As content moves from printed media to online and as ownership changes from buying a product to purchases access rights, the industry can evolve by focusing on access fees, advertising—which can offset user premiums—and by developing a superior product.  It can be hard to stomach a shift of selling a product to giving the product (game) for free and charging for the right to play the game but if you consider the larger picture of tapping into a continuously renewing revenue stream across product releases it makes a lot of sense.  They key is leveraging the change by utilizing technology, e.g., employing virtual applications of tabletop games may allow lower expenses and cheaper distribution to customers in the long run.  Incorporating social media into the service expands product visibility and customer interaction, which can translate into advertising revenue. If the product—which is now a service—is a better experience than the competition, success of the game and the industry has a great opportunity.

What is your experience with roleplaying games? As someone not closely linked to RPG universe, what is your opinion of the state of roleplaying games?

I do not have a lot of hands-on experience with roleplaying games. I think that the games will evolve and there isn’t much that can change that. As new generations of players grow up with online games and tabletop games will have less and less appeal. In general, consider how pinball games—if I can make an analogy to the advent of computer games–are now collected as fun antiques. The shift in gaming mutated from nuts-and-bolts games to computer games and consoles. The demand for a modern presentation of the games will occur by customer demand or by developers who can leverage the changes in their and the clients’ favor.

Thank you very much for your time! I think readers of my site will find your thoughts and background quite unique, and I appreciate the time you have shared for the interview. What current projects are you are working on and what might we see next from you?

I’m supporting my recent book Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy, which has translations coming out in German, Portuguese, and Korean.

About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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One Response to Ego Check: Michael Bruce, Editor, Philosopher and Writer of Angst! Blog

  1. Alphastream says:

    I used to work in audio and video and well before the mp3 companies were discussing a future without actually owning music. This is due to many factors, but in part due to how music costs work and how little manufacture/production/shipping is useful to the owners or artists. Of course, for all that advanced thinking, the music industry never saw the mp3 coming – there is a cautionary tale there…

    In the RPG industry there is also a danger from a flood of poor content. We saw it in the d20 craze and we can see it online on sites like RPGnow. Equal footing can be really dangerous for established brands. It can also be really dangerous for consumers; the airline industry is an example where lowering offered value to compete with cheap carriers has hurt everyone. I want my RPGs to be fantastically crafted. I’m not interested in seeing a level playing field where every RPG product is a 99 cent download. And, truth be told, I love physical product. There are large numbers of gamers who find they use and benefit from their physical RPG products far more than the digital ones. That will surely change over time in many ways, but I’m not sure it will do so completely. It is hard to play a boardgame on a digital surface and not feeling that something has been lost over its physical counterpart with nice wood pieces, cards to shuffle, dice to roll, etc. The same is true for many with RPGs.

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