Monday, June 20, 2005

WPI SFS 2: Electric Bugaloo

Read chronologically. This is part two.

When I arrived at WPI, the SFS was... not the same. I don't know if it was notably smaller than the SFS of the future, but it had lower attendance and no real enthusiasm. It was in the righteous era of the Goth, and some 90% of the games (LARP and tabletop) were Whitewolf-themed. It was painful. I skipped it for two years, and when I finally came back, that era was just beginning to die. And good riddance!

The backlash against the growing pessimism of the Whitewolf leaders led to the election of the most energetic and cheerful president the SFS has EVER KNOWN, I’m sure. But first, I’m going to discuss SFS policy of the old era.

The SFS hosts ‘events’. The primary events they host are AnimeFest and two Gaming Weekends. These are excessively fun. They also allow basically anyone to get up on the podium and announce their wacky game idea. In short, they act as a community center through which the whole game-geek culture can advertise.

The SFS has an extremely high (essentially 1-1) overlap with the group known as “wedge rats”, which are people who spend way too much time hanging out in the college’s common area, chatting, eating, and generally geeking out. It’s a very fun past time, even if the name is now outdated due to the ascension of the campus center and the ‘octagon’, which serves the same purpose.

However, this overlap was largely unofficial, and wedging rarely made it into the SFS’ “official” lineup, save for an occasional “meet in the wedge to discuss” or whatnot. The SFS kept itself largely restrained to organizer and occasional host.

That changed when Mike hit the stage. Mike was a huge fan of the “old legends” (they can be found at and the “ancients” who continued to interact with the SFS, such as Uncle Don, Android, Noah, etc. He was young and Eager when elected, so he had no particular respect for the sloth and inertia of the old ways, and immediately scrapped and replaced them. The SFS even had a “no humor” policy. Defenestrated!

He kept the old core, but he added to it. Ads were made for both gaming weekend and Animefest, for example. The cards and teeshirts that the SFS regularly made were fronted with more vigor, creating more of a sense of community involvement. He actively sought out elders and encouraged the running of games (which would, of course, be touted at meetings).

But the biggest change he backed was gaming Friday. I don’t remember who originally came up with this idea, but probably someone who lamented the rise of the octagon and the fall of the wedge. It was essentially a miniature gaming weekend. Every week. Acting as both advertisement and social gathering, it was a stroke of genius. Generally, between ten and twenty people would show up, eager to play any game which floated their way. Except, unfortunately, Apples to Apples. Still, much gaming was had, and I’m sure we gained many recruits that way.

The SFS grew. I’m not sure if we actually gained an unusually high number of members, but we definitely gained unusually ENTHUSIASTIC members. Why? What made the SFS so incredibly fun?

The answer was clear to me before I even started researching: the socializing.

When I started researching, I found way more behind the scenes. The socializing was part of it, but the SFS itself followed the classic “cult methodology”, of which socializing is only a part.

A cult offers advantages. Linux geeks can talk for hours about the advantages of Linux, and the same applies to Apple geeks. Frats offer parties and housing, religions offer succor and stability – they all have that in common. The SFS didn’t offer a whole lot of advantages – just the three major events – which is why the SFS never really gained a ‘cult’ status in my mind. Most of their events were pretty divorced from the actual SFS structure, so they felt unrelated, even though they were technically “hosted by the SFS”.

A cult offers isolation in addition to its socialization. Think of it like this: you’re a drop of water who wants to become vapor. If you stay in the lake, the top layer will become vapor bit by bit, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be part of it. However, as soon as someone puts that water in a pot, it can be boiled and your chances of becoming vapor are much higher. You really can’t reasonably boil a LAKE.

Most cults offer isolation by superiority: we ride Harleys, we’re Bad Boys. Take your tweed and shove it! Linux users are inherently superior to Windows users – the fools! Religions know that the rest of the world is, at best, misguided… and more probably, evil and doomed!

The SFS did offer this. A cauldron of geekhood, reveling in games and Babylon 5. I doubt anyone in there didn’t feel superior to the jocks and airheads that was The Rest of the World.

A successful cult prospers through its socializing. People talk to people, both inside the cult and outside the cult. The cult grows stronger both by growing larger and growing more devoted. The social events the SFS hosted allowed this.

But in addition to that – and this is something you won’t find anywhere else – a successful cult is about PERCEIVED INTERACTION and PERCEIVED STABILITY.

The difference between a generic brand and a brand which is considered a cult brand isn’t popularity. It’s whether you’re performing a one-way transaction or a two-way transaction. A one-way transaction either way requires no dedication or fervor. It doesn’t matter how dedicated or fervent you are, the transaction won’t change any.

That’s why everyone hates the government. They take and take, but never ask us what we want. On the other hand, Linux and other religions offer interactivity. You get a product, perhaps, but it’s not just buy it and move on, like most brands. You buy the product, and the product works for you. It distinguishes you, strengthens you, and often asks for your feedback.

The SFS did a lot of this. We voted on which anime to see. We voted on what nicknames to use for our officers. We got to submit ideas as to what we should blow the last of our budget on every year. The SFS was pretty strongly interactive.

But it wasn’t a cult. Why? Because it had no PERCEIVED STABILITY.

Stability is like a cat. There’s flesh and bone – that’s the actual stability. That is gained by having actually been around a while without undue fluctuation. But the cat also has fur. A large cat with short fur looks the same size as a small cat with long fur. That fur is perception.

The SFS had no fur. It wasn’t even a very large cat, since it had been fluctuating pretty badly in the previous years, thanks to the Cult of Goth.

On the other hand, Wedging had very, very long fur. In addition to legends (whose influence cannot be overstated), it had living elders.

As Mike meandered through his time in office, he CREATED fur for the SFS. I don’t know if he did this on purpose or not, but one of the things he pursued with a passion was SFS history. He tracked down elders, he wrote up bits about how the library was once stored under someone’s bed, and how the SFS once sponsored an actual anime convention (disastrous!). He gave the SFS fur.

He also tried valiantly to combine it further with the idea of Wedging. Virtually every meeting ended with “meet me in the wedge/octagon”, and virtually every meeting BEGAN with “okay, enough wedging, let’s go over to the room and start the meeting.”

Mike was striving, without knowing it, to strengthen the power of the SFS.

And he succeeded. But, like so many emperors before him, he failed.

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