Monday, 12 November 2018

In praise of miniocrity

Why do I spend so much time obsessing over tiny toy soldiers? I spend time painting them, playing with them, organising them, reading about them, buying them , researching them, building them, packing them, unpacking them, hiding them, blogging about them, selling them, talking about them, arguing about them, obsessing about them, identifying them etc etc. The list of activities that can be assigned to miniscule fighting chappies is horrendously long when you start to think about it. What is it all about? This odd habit that we find ourselves neck deep in?
Well, it's a Hobby.

We are lucky enough to live in a society that allows us to have some time in the day that we can greedily call our own. And that (often small, if you have a Job, Wife, Kids etc)amount of time we can indulge in an activity that has no other merit than it is something that we find enjoyable. In my case I  get to indulge my kid brain. I can spend time not being a parent and an authority figure and spend some time being me. A Hobby is a way of distracting yourself by being creative or acquisitive in a way that brings a little warm fuzz to your soul.

What can happen, however, is that, what started out as a enjoyable distraction, can become an activity that adds stress to your life and becomes a negative rather than a positive to your well being.

How does that happen?

In Praise of Mediocrity by Tim Wu NYTimes

In the Article above Tim Wu describes how Hobbies can gain a competitive edge and this produces a set of circumstances where, without even noticing it happening, your Hobby becomes an arena for you to compete with others. Your obsession about your 'wee men' mutates into an obsession about something else. Perhaps it's the need to collect a whole range of figures, perhaps it's about winning all your games, maybe you just want to make your painting better than the next person. All this is made more acute by Hobbies being shared over the internet. In today's world of likes and comments, followers and adsense, instagram and podcasts, your impact and presence in the groups that you have joined becomes something that is easily quantified. 'Why didn't that post get as many likes as his one?', 'Why did no one comment on my paint job?', 'Did I post the wrong kind of figure? Are they laughing at me?'. The Social pressure is the same amongst Wargamers and Miniature painters as it is amongst anyone else. This is kind of constant grading of your Hobby output can turn what was supposed to be your opportunity to escape into a stifling, stress induction process, making you fear and despise the very thing that you love, all in the name of being 'better' or even the elusive position of 'the best'.

Twitter is an interesting example. The number of partially constructed Primaris marines that I've seen on there is mind numbing. Each one showing an near identical attempt at reproducing a technically perfect studio paint job. Line edging so neat that it looks like it was applied with a technical pencil. The lack of fun in these paint jobs is astounding. There is no creativity in applying colours in such a manner and the pics only serve to underline the pursuit of perfection that is part of the struggle. Next to these partial-primaris' are figures covered in attempts to show Non Metallic Metals on nearly every surface, no matter whether they should reflective or not. The actual study of the way light behaves when striking a solid surface is completely ignored in the pursuit of applying a 'technique' as egregiously as possible. Don't even get me started on airbrushing!
The point is that there is constant competition amongst posters to be showing off more and more technically perfect paint jobs in order to gain positive feedback, retweets and followers. The joy of painting up a favourite figure has become an attempt to recreate a technically correct scheme. The point of the exercise has changed form 'pleasing yourself' to 'getting it right' in front a world wide audience. No wonder taking part of a hobby has become something that causes us stress when we can't hope to reproduce these technically 'correct' paint jobs we see banded about on the interwebs.

Then there is the even more obvious stress producer is the competitive aspects of the games themselves. In essence a wargame is a battle between two people. One person must win and one person must lose. And no one likes to lose. The difference between playing a Wargame and rocking up for a game of Ludo is the amount of investment in money, time and effort you have put in before you actually play a game. The preparation vs playing time weighs heavily on the former meaning that the last thing many people want to do is build an army that is liable to lose. Of course this is a direct effect of the competitiveness that the tournament mentality brings to the game but no matter how hard you try, the mechanics of games tend to force you down that route. The idea that you would spend all that time creating an army without ensuring that it had a better than 50% chance of winning every match is a complete anathema to some gamers and this quest means that for many, this is the point of choosing an army. Without the knowledge that you have all the tricks you need to win there is simply no point in even starting a miniature. The ability to win comes before the enjoyment of the game. You reduce the randomness to the lowest point you can.

This is what we do to ourselves. The thing we have turned to as a way to relax has instead become another route for stress to creep into our lives. How many times have you sat and painted a figure because you 'have to' or you 'need to get it finished' or you 'just need to make it better'. When was the last time you painted a figure just cos you liked it?

As for playing a games, the best games are always the ones where the result isn't the point. If the only enjoyment you get from a game is the moment of victory then that makes the previous 3 hours a dull slog. A game should be a social event form start to finish, the unfolding story of the events on the battlefield being a conduit for a shared experience that both of you (or how ever many are playing) take something lasting away from. If your opponent(s) are not talking, laughing and cheering with you throughout the game then there is something wrong with the way you are both playing.

This silly little hobby with silly little figures and a silly massive price tag is just that. A Silly Hobby. But a Hobby nonetheless. If you aren't getting the enjoyment you want out of your Hobby then it's time that you took a look at what your doing.

Go have a dig in your boxes and find a figure you really want to paint. Move everything else off the work bench and just take your time and enjoy painting it. From start to finish. Don't share WIP's. Don't ask others opinions. Don't question if it's the 'right' figure. Just paint him till you are happy with what you've done. Then don't put it on the internet. Keep it for yourself.

Then, phone up that mate that you always have a great game with, that you haven't seem for ages, that you want to have a chat with. Organise a game with a scenario, with a story and bring along a bunch of figures that fit the fluff. Who cares what points they cost. When you meet up, glance at the two forces and adjust them by eye. You'll know whats right. Then sit back, roll some dice and talk bullshit with your mate.

That's what this Hobby is all about.

Enjoy it.


  1. Oh Mr. Colin you do know how to push my buttons just right don't you! As you know I'm stuck right in the doldrums at the minute with regards to painting, or pretty much anything else toy soldier related at the moment, not because Im stressed at my inability to fire out Curis level paint jobs or anything like it, but I think it's because I'm setting myself goals in an attempt to light a fire under myself instead of just letting things happen naturally. Maybe I will dig through a box when I get home and see what jumps out at me instead of searching for that "perfect" project that never seems to grow legs

  2. Good article. Making your hobby into a job is a trap that's easy to fall into. Gods know I've done it myself more than a few times. However, I find that a touch of pressure can be a great boost to mojo. Having an upcoming game is a good incentive to finish models. I couldn't care less about making killer lists, but I do want my forces painted. I think, as with all things, balance is the key. Working toward having a force done for games is great in my opinion, but taking on too much drains all the joy out of the endeavour very quickly. Learning to know when to turn down or switch a project keeps the hobby just that.

  3. Good read! I agree with the overall intent, although I hesitate slightly from the dismissal of taking the time to learn new painting techniques (airbrushing, nmm, blending, any of that). Some really do enjoy the hobby as a form of art, and developing skills there can be important for satisfaction beyond just repeatedly producing similar paint jobs. One needs to keep perspective that it is absolutely a learning process.

    The most important message you provide is that of context and perspective. Take a step back, see what you enjoy and don't about the hobby and tack toward that.

  4. Some good thoughts. I personally also find much of "top level" (or whatever) miniature painting these days to be incredibly boring, and I hate NMM too--but if some folk like it good on them, I guess. I like that there is a community on line and in real life too where the old school ethos and miniatures are still alive. I have to say the reason I have always liked 2nd ed 40K the best was because you could throw a game together without too much thinking and the reuslt would alwys be up in the air until the very last turn (most of the time).

  5. I was speaking to an ex-GW guy a while back who complained about all these things in the community especially all the "boring" space marines.

  6. Nice post. Funnily enough, I stopped doing all of the above a good few years ago and now only really play games that are scenario driven, painted to the ability that we want - I'm forever encouraging people to paint on the basis that NO IT DON'T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, as the context of fully painted table + fully painted models is more than enough to have a culumative effect - and are approached in an easy manner.

    Now I'm starting to creep back towards GW games, I do wonder how easy it'll be to maintain this as they do have a tendency to steer people back down a set route and become more dogmatic about things.

    Even reading GW reviews and blogs has an indication of the competition that drives the hobby in some respects, as it often descends into "this ability gives a 2++, so combined with 3 units of X armed with Uberbolters puts out 24 shots per turn 3+ hit no save, rerolls to wound blah blah....." and then I switch off mentally.

  7. Our heads certainly occupy a lot of the same space. I make a conscious effort these days not to pressure myself to and certainly not to paint to please others. I find NMM a very strange phenomenon. As I do a certain amount of 2D art I do a lot of NMM - out of necessity, as I am creating a static image.

    The reason I find it strange is because it applies a 2D technique to a 3D medium. It's the equivalent of making a movie where your sword props are painted to look like swords rather than being actually metallic and interacting naturally with their environment. The lighting on metal is fluid and changes with movement and viewing angle. I've noticed while looking at some (award-winning) NMM (in the flesh) that if I change my viewing angle it doesn't look particularly natural or particularly good.

    I'm not saying that NMM isn't a skill, or that there aren't some amazing NMM artists out there, but my issue is that you're painting a 3D model specifically for 2D photographic reasons and appreciation. It's the painting equivalent of competitive gaming. And any game that has been designed specifically for 50/50 competition is a red flag for me. Like Kings of War.

    Enjoy your games. The scenario is a brilliant thing. As a kid I really got into Standard Games' "Cry Havoc" and "Siege" and others. The fact that every box set came with a scenario book is something that has stuck with me throughout my gaming years, in fact I sometimes use them in skirmish WFB games.

  8. Excellent Blog. I'm going to dig out a fave model on Weds. Spray it, and paint it that day. Looking forward to it.

  9. Good post! I think a lot of this hobby is finding out how you want to do it and focussing on that. A lot of styles in painting don't grip me that much - the more abstract Blanchitsu stuff as well as the technically "perfect" NMM styles. While I like looking at the amazing Golden Demon models, I find myself more inspired by painting that's a little bit better than what I can currently do - something to find inspiring rather than intimidating.

    As for games, I'm a big fan of skirmish games because you can spend a lot of time on each model, and because the games are quite quick you don't feel that you've lost a huge amount if it goes wrong. A lot of the fun of something like Necromunda is in the modelling and seeing how your characters progress (and giving them silly names).

  10. All I seem to do is dig out models I like, paint them for no reason apart from liking them, then buy a bunch more to accompany them, get bored with the idea, go find another model I like, paint it for no other reason, etc...etc... Hobby woo!!

  11. I think it's good to check yourself once in awhile and make sure that your hobby has not become a source of stress. It's very easy to start taking yourself too seriously.

  12. Must admit, I've always been fairly contrary when it comes to my approach to the hobby. I don't do tournaments, I don't powergame, and I've always gone for the least obvious choices when it comes to my armies. I like my little corner of the hobby and I think I'll stay in it.

    Also, excellent use of a Callan still. I loved that series, rewatched it again recently.


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