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A Hobby on the Brink? - An Interview with Conrad von Metzke

by Conrad von Metzke

PREFACE: Greetings. I seem to have talked my way into becoming DW's "new" Interviews Editor, and as such it is my hope that I can provide you with regular probing investigations into major hobby personalities and dominant issues that drive the hobby as it marches across President Clinton's bridge to the 21st Century. Beginning next issue, I will do that. For this time, however, my original plans for a spectacular opening salvo - which have changed three times in the 24 hours I've been working on this, and have fallen apart each time - will have to be shelved in favor of an approach which may seem rather pompous, but which may acrually be useful in the long run. For my first interview with the DW team, I'm going to interview a long-time hobby figure of occasional (though erratic) importance, someone who has seen the hobby ebb and flow almost from the beginning, and who has participated at virtually every possible level at one time or another - in short, one of the tiny handful of true "old-timers" left in our midst.

I'm going to interview myself!


DW: Give us, please, a capsule introduction to yourself, and to your place in the hobby today.

CONRAD von METZKE: Gee - I'm really surprised you asked! But since you did - I 'm a California native (1944, San Francisco) and have lived in the State of Lunacy my whole life - in San Diego since 1957. I've had a career in various capacities with the U.S. Postal Service, which I suppose gives me a vested interest in the future of PBM gaming. I'm presently in charge of the registered mail division in San Diego - and I'm now verging on retirement. I'm married with two teen-aged sons, God help me, and apart from gaming my free-time interests include voracious reading, classical music (both listener and performer), keeping tropical fish, philately and doing just enough household and garden work to keep from becoming sedentary.

I first discovered the game Diplomacy in a classified ad. in "Saturday Review" in 1961, bought a game set by mail, and enjoyed many long evenings of FTF gaming with friends for some while. (I even tried to start a PBM game in mid-1962 when some of our local group went off to college and/or the Air Force, but the attempt failed.) Along the way I had occasion to write to the designer concerning a rules question, and this letter got my name on his mailing list. Thus, one day early in 1965, I received in the mail a solicitation to play Diplomacy by mail in a new 'zine called "Wild 'n' Wooly," published by Steve Cartier. I quickly signed up and thus learned of the tnen-fledgling PBM hobby founded by Dr. Boardman. In April '65 I started my own 'zine, "Costaguana," which came and went for years before folding entirely in 1976 - and then restarting in 1984, since which time it hasn't stopped.

I've been Boardman Number Custodian (1972-74), Miller Number Custodian (on a brief interim basis in 1973), Orphan Games Honcho (same time frame - I was busy then!), editor of "Diplomacy World" (1976-78), two-time Runestone Poll winner (1987 and '88), and will be taking over again as Boardman Number Custodian later in 1997. I've also done an immense amount of publishing, using a variety of formats - but these days I confine myself to "Costaguana" (20 pages of games and drivel every few weeks), an e-mail effort concerning the game Railway Rivals, and later this year I'll resume editing the hobby statistical 'zine I started twenty-five years ago, "Everything."

DW: So - you've been a hobby "leader" on and off, and you seem to be angling to resume that role. Can you give us an assessment of the "state of the hobby," its vitality and health, its prospects for the future?

CvM: Aren't you supposed to ask one question at a time? Well, no matter - I'm frankly concerned that the postal hobby is in a state of terminal decline. Actually, I'm not so much concerned as convinced of it. My fear is that hobby participation will continue to narrow to the point where it won't be possible to mount games any longer, because the circle of participants will be too small to provide significant variety in a player base.

So far, this decline seems mainly to have affected America, where computers are gradually taking over. In Europe and elsewhere overseas, the postal hobby still has great following and much life to it. But I suspect they'll follow our lead eventually.

I see evidence of this decline everywhere. The number of 'zines published has been in a downslide for years. The number of NEW 'zines is quite small - once upon a time they seemed to pop out of the woodwork every few minutes, but now they've become a rarity and a real event. The number of gamestarts is down dramatically. Interest in variants - once a good bellwether of interest in the hobby and the game itself - is close to nonexistent (except anonymous, or "Gunboat," Dip, but I think that's significant too as I'll discuss in a minute). Participation in the Runestone Poll (of 'zine popularity) is no longer of much interest. And, curiously, I think the fact that the hobby no longer has much interactive bickering among its personnel - i.e. no 'feuds' - is a bad sign as well.

DW: Sounds ominous. Do you have any idea why this decline has set in?

CvM: Obviously I have several ideas, or I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now. My feeling is that the several contributing factors, which seem to have converged all at once, are: (1) the emergence of e-mail gaming, (2) a decline in interest in the type of game Diplomacy is, (3) a social trend toward depersonalization and efficiency, and (4) a dropoff in interest in board gaming in general. Of these, the first is of course paramount - the bald fact is that computers are taking over, and will continue to do so. And once someone has a computer in place, e-mail becomes quick, cheap and generally reliable in ways that postal mail is not.

Let me relate my own experience, which may not be 'average' but is probably representative. Apart from one quick on-line fling in 1987, I didn't get into the on-line world until about nine months ago - I'd had computers and modems all along, I just hadn't bothered to use them. But when I finally did, and established an e-mail "presence," my world shifted almost instantaneously. Previously I'd gotten tons of postal mail, and eight to ten 'phone calls close to my deadline day; but e-mail cut the postal delivery down to almost nothing (except other people's 'zines), and the 'phone never rings any more. And this for a person who had made no effort whatsoever to collect a subscriber list that was on-line. It simply happened. Now, this doesn't mean that all these people actually PLAY their games by e-mail - obviously not, because that's not what I'm running. But they could just as well, and more cheaply at that (no game fees or sub costs), and as the e-mail gaming community expands to allow more variety in matters e.g. of deadline, I strongly suspect that the on-line people will be slowly winnowed from the postal hobby.

But that's not the only factor. Read any news magazine or journal of social commentary, and one of the common themes is the depersonalization of society as a whole in the '90s. Postal letters are a personal touch; even when they're just bare-bones game orders, the writer usually feels some obligation to include a personal "hi, how are you?, we've had lousy weather" note, or at the very minimum a personal comment bemoaning that (s)he doesn't have time to include a personal note this time. But by e-mail, no such; very often all I get is a print that says "Game XXXX, Spring 19XX," followed by orders. Often not even a signature - not needed, as the sender's name appears in the electronic transmission data at the top of the message. Of course exceptions are there, but the percentages are not exactly "warm and fuzzy."

It's this kind of insularity to which I referred when I mentioned the continuing popularity of Gunboat - a good deal of it no-press Gunboat at that - and of the disappearance of hobby feuding. If there is anything more impersonal on this planet than no-press Gunboat, I am unable to conceive of it. (It also has the side "benefit" of allowing a GM to operate effectively with a narrow player base; as identities aren't known, the same people can play over and over without ever really becoming "inbred.") As to feuds, I'm not for one minute suggesting that personal invective and continuous bickering are wonderful things, but consider for a moment: They did force an interchange among personalities like nothing else has ever done. They represented a form of energy and vitality - negative, to be sure, but energy nonetheless.

And then there's the general decline in board gaming overall, and the specific decline in the kind of political game that Diplomacy is. It was devised in a political-science atmosphere in a day when the international stage was of more interest to the population as a whole, and it grew and matured in the socially-active '60s and '70s. But the '80s and '90s have spawned a retreat from that focus, and game popularity has followed suit. Shelves in the game stores I know no longer reflect variety and diversity; everything is now children's or "family" games (a retreat into one's own little world?), or "party" games for those who still entertain friends and neighbors. There's also apparently a rage in card-based games, many of which feature quick gaming results and a focus on acquisition ("I have more 'Magic' cards that you do!") rather than on actual player interaction. I don't involve myself in this stuff, so I may well be a bit off base here, but I do know what the game shelves at the shops reflect because I've looked, and I'm not happy.

DW: But don't you see a diversification developing out of the very decline in socio-political gaming? Don't postal 'zines show a variety of games these days instead of the old "dip-and-variants" staples?

CvM: Sure. That's good, and it helps immensely. Word games, for instance, seem to have scored some big points in recent years - those games don't require negotiation or interaction, but can still represent a "family" of players within a given 'zine. Shorter and smaller games than Dip crop up a lot too - fewer turns, fewer players, thus more chance of actually completing the game before players lose interest or the 'zine folds. In the respect that 'zines seem increasingly inclined to vary their games base, I'm encouraged - not so much that the hobby itself will rebound in any massive way, but rather that it can retain a 'niche' where a more limited hobby would eventually succumb.

DW: Did you just say that you think the postal hobby can make a comeback of sorts, or not?

CvM: What I said, if you'd been listening, was: There's a fringe area that can continue to be occupied by purely postal-based gaming, and this will be true for some time to come no matter what happens with the electronic world, IF (and I suspect ONLY IF) diversification continues to the point that enough people can be gathered in one place to keep 'zines and games viable.

There was a time in the past when my 'zine, "Costaguana," had a circulation over 200, and it could have gone higher if I'd pushed it (and found some way to make the copies - in those days I used a spirit duplicator, and 200 was about the upper limit of possibility). Today, when I could theoretically make infinite copies, I'm down to about 50 - again I could push it up some if I tried, but I have a healthy respect for my own limits of time and money, so I don't. But I cannot imagine pushing it all the way to 200 again, unless I sent it to random names as unsolicited "junk mail." More to the point, at least a fourth of my 50 people are "deadwood" in the sense that they receive and presumably read, but don't play or contribute. My most popular game at the moment, a word game, started with about 24 participants (out of 60 at the time) and is just now ending with 18 (out of, to be exact, 49). That's something like a 40% participation rate - but translate this to Diplomacy, and it would be very difficult to sustain very many regular Dip games when there were only 18 players willing to join, as the player lists would get pretty repetitious.

None of which really addressed your question. I think there's absolutely no way the postal-based hobby can ever be rekindled to the way it once existed, and I think continuing compression is inevitable. I suppose eventually postal gaming will vanish altogether, probably by transmogrifying into something wholly alien to our current concepts - but I'm not expecting to live to witness the denouement, just the run-up.

DW: Well, gee whizzers...if the decline and fall is inevitable, why don't we just chuck it right now and be done with it?

CvM: Because of Yogi Berra - "It ain't over 'til it's over." Despite the increasing limiters, there's a good deal of fun still out there. With a couple of exceptions, I haven't seen a whole lot of creativity in the on-line community, but it's still there in the dangling remnants of postal-dom. If I really felt that all that's left is the hobby's wake, I wouldn't be here now.

DW: Perhaps then the postal hobby ought to be thought of as "creative chaos" and left to do its own willy-nilly thing, without further effort at any formal trappings.

CvM: In other words, why not dismantle all the hobby 'projects' and 'offices' and let the hobby turn back into a free-fall 'happening?' Oh, I think that's already under way. As examples, I don't see the "'Zine Register" and the Runestone Poll lasting very much longer; the support is just not there. Miller Numbers for variant games can probably be forgotten pretty soon, too - apparently a few people still care, but not many, and with the whole variant hobby largely moribund I don't see much point. But other things will last a while longer - Boardman Numbers, "Diplomacy World," the orphan rescue service - because they still have some utility and because they serve to keep the hobby elements connected to one another

DW: You mentioned earlier a decline in board games overall. Do you think Diplomacy - the commercial game - is on its way out?

CvM: I'm not in touch with the Avalon-Hill people and have no inkling as to their business decisions. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if production were discontinued at some point in the near future. It's already disappeared from most of the game shelves I know anything about in San Diego - the last time I found one on a shelf, it was so faded that it had obviously been there since the Great Flood. Perhaps there's a small mail-order market for it, or maybe more cosmopolitan cities than mine still peddle it successfully, but I'm pretty dubious.

DW: If the commercial game goes, won't the hobby inevitably follow suit?

CvM: Of course, after a while. It's pretty tough to snag new blood if the game can't be bought; there are limits to what can be done with conference maps and photocopies of rulebooks passed around hand-to-hand. Some of us diehards would linger on for a while, of course, but in the last analysis, without game sets to be had, I don't see any way to stop the sand from running out.

DW: You know, your whole attitude sounds pretty negative. It almost seems as if you think you and your ilk are dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. Aren't you helping to kill off whatever hobby remains by that sort of approach?

CvM: Maybe, but I'm concerned that some of us are flailing in the wind trying to sustain something in ways that just aren't viable. I'd be much more comfortable with a reality-based approach to postal gaming - it's small, it's getting smaller, and there's no point in trying to make it come roaring back when it simply can't do that.

But if you want some positives, they're there all right. The most positive thing I can come up with is that there are at least ten postal 'zines, based in the U.S. or Canada, that I really look forward to receiving and reading - plus a batch of foreign ones. Yes, it used to be twenty or more. But ten isn't bad at all, and in those 'zines I find some of the most scintillating creativity I've ever known - even compared to the ostensible "golden age" of the hobby, which by the way wasn't all as "golden" as some people seem to think. In some ways, the restriction of the hobby is a good thing: It now makes it possible to keep up with most of everything, rather than have to pick and choose. But mostly, the people remain animated and exciting - editors and contributors alike. Okay, maybe such people are fast becoming anachronisms. So what? Anachronism can be a lot of fun as long as you don't expect it to be something else, or try to force it to conform to a mold. And if the ranks really do dwindle, I'll just spend more time with those who remain.

DW: Well...this has been fascinating, and certainly immensely informative. Could you wrap it up now with a succinct summary of how you see the hobby now, and in the near future?

CvM: Me - succinct? Well, why not? - I like a new challenge. I see the postal hobby in a state of flux, trying to "reinvent itself" (to steal from Al Gore) to carve out a place for itself in a world that is trying very hard to pass it by. And I think it will work far better if the hobby carves out that niche on its own terms instead of someone else's terms. Postal Diplomacy no longer lends itself well to formalisms - structure, forced cohesion and artificial skeletal trappings. If the hobby continues to posture as in any way "serious," it will evaporate very quickly; but if it can accept itself as a relaxed gathering-place, there can be a lot of fun to be had still. This isn't to say chaos is the answer; but that's not going to happen anyway, because the games themselves are.the focal point of the hobby and they necessarily have structure. No, it's more an attitudinal thing - we postal types just aren't on the cutting edge any longer, and we might just salvage a perfectly fine hobby if we'd stop bemoaning this change and get on with it.

DW: That was succinct? How long will it take you to tell me the time of day?