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In Search of the Cult of Personality

Part 5 -- Play-by-Mail Diplomacy vs. Play-by-Electronic-Mail

Diplomacy: Some Differences in Style and Feel

by Jim Burgess

This must be represented as a personal view of some of the differences between the world of Postal Diplomacy and the world of E-Mail Diplomacy. In particular, on the E-Mail side I have been involved with the Internet based hobby for nearly ten years and the postal for about twenty. Others may have had different experiences or different conclusions from those experiences. What I hope it will do is to give both audiences an idea of what factors might lead them to want to try the other medium. I also apologize up front for the gap in the columns since I do intend them to be read as a balanced sequence. An earlier version of this particular column in the sequence has been available on the Internet through the Canadian Diplomacy Organization home page and The Diplomatic Pouch. This version should be considered the final one.

Playing Diplomacy by mail now has a history lasting more than three decades but some have said that its days are numbered. The perceived threat usually has been seen as coming from the interconnectedness achieved by Electronic Mail and the perceived superiority of that medium. My argument, focusing on the differences in personality between these two media, is that both are viable and both are likely to thrive into the next century. Nevertheless, the equilibrium sizes of the two different, but related, hobbies still has a bit of movement toward the electronic medium to go before it is done, I think. Therefore, I will focus on those differences that exist and how they interact with our personalities as players to determine what medium or mediums we will choose to get our Dip fix.

The differences between the mediums fall into a number of categories. Some differences are inherent in the media themselves. These differences have been much discussed in the popular press since they are general and not confined to the game of Diplomacy. Postal players and E-Mail players also sometimes use different definitions for similar terms and have playing preferences that are driven by the technical capabilities of E-Mail as opposed to the post. These differences can be subtle, but extremely important as they play out in playing styles in the exercise of the personality through the game. In addition, how can any discussion of personality in the game be complete without addressing the psychological factors that differ? As I study this one more and more, I am fascinated by the explosion of issues in this category -- still not completely addressed in this article -- that perhaps might be revisited in a future article in this series. Lastly, there are some other subtle details, including the role of press, that characterize differences today; however, many of these may lessen over time as ways are found to minimize these differences.

Differences that are General and not Confined to Diplomacy

Postal play is more touchy feely. There is an aesthetic value to touching a letter or a szine that is missing on E-Mail. This is generally accepted by people when they use E-Mail and has been widely discussed on the Net for years. In particular, the impersonal nature of E-Mail allows people to create" a new personality or approach interactions with other people in an impersonal way. These characteristics carry over to the play of Diplomacy as well and brings out a general pervasive factor that affects how games are played. People flesh themselves out into real people as they interact with their opponents far more often in the postal world than they do in the E-Mail world. Postal people also are much more likely to organize and go to Diplomacy Conventions. Efforts by E-Mailers to organize simple face-to-face get togethers, let alone conventions, usually fare very poorly. For example, for the 1995 North American DipCon (the one in the Bay Area), I and other people intensively pushed all of the Convention details on the net. There are LOTS of E-Mail players in the Bay Area (perhaps more concentrated than in any other area). I didn't go, but all available evidence suggests that this effort resulted in NO additional participants. Pete Gaughan was part of this effort and discussion on the Internet and he did go; however, his primary background is as a postal player and publisher. This summer's World Dip Con/North American DipCon in Columbus was a pleasant surprise that might change this direction as a number of prominent E-Mail players showed up and one (Pitt Crandlemire) actually won the World Dip Con title. Of course, I shouldn't say "actually" like it was a big surprise. The best E-Mail players are as good as the best Postal players. I'll address that more below; however, more E-Mail presence at conventions is a very good thing. Now perhaps convention attendees will be able to evaluate both Postal and E-Mail play as a place to play Diplomacy in between tournaments and get-togethers.

Differences in Definitions or Technical Capabilities

On the Internet, Anonymous games are extremely popular! This is where your identity (both E-Mail address and name) are concealed from the other players. All negotiation occurs through the Judge (the UNIX based programs that adjudicate games on the Internet). Paul Rauterberg once tried such a game postally (I played in it), but it was very difficult and time consuming for him to do the activities that the Judge handles so effortlessly (taking in mail, stripping the identfier, and re-mailing it). E-Mail players seem to like Anonymous games for two reasons. First, since they are anonymous, no one has any excuse for trying to inject any personality into the game (in fact, it is severely frowned upon because you might be doing it in order to let your real identity slip). This style of play is good for people who like to play in lots of games at once and do all of their negotiations in quick one liners that are devoid of personality. Second, there is no reputation factor. Good players with lots of experience on the Internet say they like this since other less experienced players can't gang up on them out of fear that they will sweep the board with their skill. These good players (and they are as good as any players I have seen anywhere in the world) think that gives them a better chance of doing just that. Poor players or novices believe that it gives them more time to develop some skills or some luck while other players won't quickly gang up on them as easy pickings. I don't have any complete statistics on this, but roughly speaking about half of all games played on the Judges are Anonymous. What postal players call "Gunboat" games (anonymous games that do not allow "partial press" or private press between players) are also popular on the Judges for the same reasons... they play out quickly without requiring the injection of personality, but they also don't require negotiation at all (except in public press, where that is allowed, or in hints delivered through impossible orders like A Spa-Lon in No Press" games). In fact, some interesting debates occur about these hints" since the Judge will accept certain types of impossible orders, but not illegal ones. A Spa-Lon is possible with a convoy, while A Bur-Lon (e.g.) is not. This adds a bit of unreal surreality to No Press games on the Internet Judges. Some of these definitions end up being confusing without really qualifying as differences between the two hobbies. E-Mail players have a tendency to call all of these games I am describing as Gunboat games, while I have carefully distinguished between No Press, Gunboat and Anonymous games.

Psychological Factors

In concert with the age of the hobbies, the E-Mail crowd tends to be younger than the postal crowd. The E-Mailers dominate in the large pool of high school to mid-twenties aged players that always used to be hanging around the postal hobby. I now find very few postal players that are not out into the work and family worlds and almost no college students. Moreover, most of those exceptions are old-timers who just haven t settled into families yet (such as the Ellis brothers or Mike Barno). While this is most true of the US, it also seems to be true in large part in other countries like Britain as well. Unlike in the US though, where every college student pretty much has an Internet account these days, the British E-Mail crowd appears to be more diverse. There is a high concentration of older students pursuing advanced degrees mixed with professionals who have a high degree of Internet access in their jobs and fewer younger college students. In a parallel fashion, more US Diplomacy players as a percentage appear to have some access to E-Mail than their British counterparts, so some of these differences may fade over time with further market penetration of E-Mail into the British market. These issues create a difference in the psychology of the way games play out. Since most postal players are older, the seriousness and general level of play has been rising. People also have to pay real money for sub and game fees while Internet games are free. There is a huge degree of turnover in the younger E-Mail based players. It appears to me that people sign up sometimes without even knowing the rules or owning a game. This very seldom happens with postal players. Nevertheless, as I suggested above, the very best players in each medium are comparable in ability, just not in style. These issues also possess feedback loops through other parts of the discussion above. In a related way, computers and E-Mail themselves tend to generate a more mechanistic style of play on the Internet. Many more people are fascinated by finding and knowing stalemate lines of all types, even stalemate lines holding fewer than 17 centers. The analogy may not be apt, but many E-Mailers sit in front of their computer screen in the same way as they sit in behind their stalemate lines.... silently and with no intention of breaking through or moving forward. There are a lot of wins in the E-Mail world, but I would assert that they are due to the high novice factor. When most E-Mailers run up against serious resistance, they look to lock things up. Generalizing a bit more than necessary to make the point, postal players will probe for calculated risks to turn the advantage, frequently with a great deal of patience for long games. In games between experienced E-Mail players, on the other hand, they nearly always quickly move to the stalemate lines and lock into large draws. The free-wheeling aggressive postal players are almost nowhere to be found. I have found this myself in the E-Mail games which I have played. My aggressive postal bred style has found few converts.

Press and Other Subtle Details

Postal Diplomacy games (good ones especially) are well known for their "press". This press appears in publication with the game results and can be funny, sarcastic, or witty. Good GM's collect and order this press for maximum reader impact. Many E-Mail players cannot see any reason whatsoever for writing this kind of press (dubbed "broadcast" press by the Judge). Thus, it tends to be pretty sparse and highly oriented toward the one liner. One of the reasons for this is the technical one that the Judge does not save up such press and print it all at once with the results. Moreover, even if it did, the ordering and placement of press is crucial in the postal szine to maximize its growth and impact. The computer Judge expert system to do this likely never will be designed. Instead each broadcast item goes out by itself as the equivalent of one hand clapping. Nevertheless, the intricate detailed stories that many postal people write as press with their games, or filks and poetry based off of popular songs or other inspirations, still would seem to be possible and desirable. Nonetheless, they are nearly unheard of in Judge games. These are speculations, but I would assert that the speed of E-Mail games is a factor here. Most games schedule moves once a week, or even faster. There just isn't time to get involved in writing press in this way. I suspect the equilibrium of games between the two worlds eventually will include much more explicit recognition of the speed of the games being the primary differing factor. Games with less than three week deadlines will be played entirely by E-Mail and 3-6 week games will be played postally with postal szines, yet E-Mail will be one of many communication media used (also including telephone calls). The world here will be one where everyone has E-Mail, yet there still will be postal games. In the current Internet world, there also tends to be greater emphasis on the quantity of games played at a time, possibly because of the quantity based nature of the dominant rating system (the Hall of Fame or HoF) where the more good results you have, the higher your rating. Perhaps a switch to average ratings would change this. It would be an interesting experiment to see if the ratings system is driving the play or if it is more fundamental in the nature of E-Mail play.

There are many other differences between postal szines and the Judges that organize Diplomacy games, but this is a good summary of some of the ones that I think are most important. Try both! They each have aspects that are worthwhile, but if you're interested in meeting people and getting involved in the interaction of personalties and things outside of the strict conduct of the game, the postal world is the place you have to go.