Elderblog Sutra: 1

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I learned about elder games from the classic Steve Yegge post, The Borderlands Gun Collectors Club  (ht Chris Reid). The idea is that in a complex game, after most players have finished a first full play-through, the mechanics might still leave interesting things for them to do. An Act 2 game-within-a-game emerges for experienced players who have exhausted the nominal game. A game dominated by such second-order players  is an elder game. In Borderlands, the elder game was apparently gun collecting.

An elder game tends to be more open-ended than the nominal game. In the ideal case, it is a mature infinite game that can go on indefinitely.

Blogging is now an elder game. After a decade of pursuing virality (out of the corner of my eye — direct pursuit is a recipe for burnout by pandering), the inside of my head now looks like the picture above. A vast mess of unsystematically explored territory, with flags planted on a few legible patches. That’s what organic virality is, epistemologically: a communicable patch of legibility in an ungoverned thought space of interest to many.

An elder game can be contrasted with a late style, which is a style of creative production taken to an extreme, past the point of baroque exhaustion, in a sort of virtuoso display of raging against the dying of the night. Late-style game play is an overclocked finite game resisting the forces of mortality. An elder game is a derivative infinite game, emergent immortality hacked out of mortality.

Old blogs must choose: should they turn into elder blogs, or should they turn into late-style blogs? One does not preclude the other, but you must decide what you solve for.

I don’t grok the ribbonfarm elder game yet, but I do know it’s time to ask: what comes after virality?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. > What comes after virality?


  2. Ralph W Witherell says

    It probably peaked the day we met for coffee a few years ago. Speaking of old and slow, just started tempo and am enjoying it. Cheers and thanks

  3. Engagement and Organic Growth.

  4. “what comes after virality?” – maybe small audiences that you cater to in a more direct and bespoke way? This post is a great thought to chew on. I’ve been blogging since the turn of the century and would love to find my own elder game. At the moment it might be the two or three posts that sit in my archive garndering tiny but steady traffic, long after I stopped posting at all and turned the blog into a “website”, but they’re an odd bunch somewhat at odds to the reason I started up the blog in the first place.

  5. I’m not sure I agree that late style represents a finite game, I haven’t read that book specifically, but if we bypass it to go to the raw material, and think about the characteristic elements of creative activity approaching mortality, which I think it should be fairly natural to describe, then it is possible to connect it in a useful way with the concept of finite and infinite games:

    A far better description would be an infinite game with a finite actor. In a sense this is obvious, (it cannot be about the finitude of the game itself because people don’t usually die because they stop being artists, but the reverse) but there are particular characteristics produced by becoming aware that not only can you not complete a game, because it is effectively infinite, but you also can’t fully embrace that unending potential, either because it will itself come to an end due to non-internally driven factors or because you will;

    there’s a change of motivation, transforming simple habitual play characterised by proprioceptive values like difficulty-curve-flow, pace preference, immediate curiosity etc. into reflection-dominated play driven by symbolic values; like creating dispersed waypoints forming collective representations of a problem space that will outlast and refer to the dimensionality or strangeness of an experience, using fluency within the medium’s language to find outside concepts that can be expressed more naturally within that language, or trying to isolate this particular experience’s personal value to you.

    Different but similar problems occur with a “too-large” game, one that unlike the infinite game, is comprehensibly finite (rather than having invisible boundaries that do not act as goals for completion) but still cannot actually be exhausted or completed within the time you have, which can lead to expeditions to particular extreme configurations of the system, defining some problem subset that can be definitively completed within the alloted time. But technically this would exist for any problem space within which you can create some internally justified self-contained subset, and creating particularly personal or externally referential work can be a way to create this kind of enclosure, a constraint that is meaningful to you but still appropriately sized to the remaining possible play time.

    In that sense personal meaning can be thought of as a way to impose finiteness of your own on an infinite game, a way of cheating mortality or mmo server closures of their influence by asserting personal reasons why this limited range is sufficient.

    In fact, you might expect longevity to lead to more “impersonal” artwork, or for longer lived systems to be dominated by more conventional or casually inventive participation, driven by situated experience and experimentation with the immediate mechanics of the systems they participate in, with work becoming more personal or constrained at the beginning and end of someone’s subjective experience of it, in the process of adaption, and in the re-investigation of what has become normal as its end approaches.

    To put it another way, we might expect longer lives to be far more dominated by their tools, as the temporal boundary conditions of beginning and ending participation are moved further apart, separating the finite size effects associated with beginnings and endings from the internal dynamics of the system.

    Via the usual existential trap, once you recognise the mortality of, say your blog, it ripples back and transforms the current material; are you covering everything you “meant to say”? Do you have an appropriate succession plan? Does your blog have a bucket list? You can probably still choose the zen-like forgetting of an immersion in process, the embrace of eventually ending abruptly on part 700 of 10000, as part of a continuity of “writing on the internet” held by the internet archive and whatever future blogs embrace the same mode of densely netted links and references, embodying the process driven immediacy of the hypothetical immortal.

    Or to move back a layer, if that turns out not to be an issue, and there comes a point where “ribbonfarm” has a sufficiently stable inflow of new people, new concepts, new difficulties and new income within a certain constrained scope or repeating methods, so that it has a longer theoretical lifespan than “Venkat”, then you can really get into the practise of having a late style! And that isn’t just about the more conventional question about detaching a business model from a particular person, but having a project, like a form of writing or series of forms of exploration, instantiated through a person, that can quite reasonably last longer than that person, if only it were possible to detach it.