It's in the Air
By Alfred Barten
Auran Trainz booth at the NMRA National Convention Train Show, Philadelphia, PA, July 2006.
In case you're wondering about the future of the model railroading hobby, you could have learned a lot by being a fly on the wall at our booth last January at the Amherst Railway Society's annual train show in West Springfield, MA. Our single table had onlookers three and four layers deep throughout the weekend. Center of attraction was our three computers running Trainz Railroad Simulator by Auran, being operated by ourselves or, more frequently, by adolescent boys (and some girls) from the audience. What was more striking to me was that two of our four helpers were teenage boys - one 14, the other 15. They were polite, helpful, knowledgeable, and established a great rapport with the younger kids. What might also be of interest to manufacturers of traditional models as well as virtual models was that while I was running my 2-foot gauge Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes equipment, my teenage helpers were running mag-levs and TGVs lickity-split.
This same scenario was repeated last week in Philadelphia at the National Model Railroad Association's National Convention Train Show. I was at the Auran Trainz booth for the three day show. In short, we were mobbed.
Whether traditionalists like it or not - and I understand there are reasons why they wouldn't like it ("we like it the old way", "we don't like computers", "what's this world coming to?", etc.) - virtual railroading, or V-scale railroading, or running trains on a computer is here to stay and is capturing the imaginations of the young and many of the old. But it's the young who are of interest when talking about the future. They are the people who will carry our hobby forward in the years ahead.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting model railroading as we know it is doomed or will ever be relegated to second class citizenship. What I'm saying is that virtual railroading is going to be an important segment of our hobby - unless, of course, we refuse to acknowledge it, in which case it will become its own hobby. It's not just a question of semantics. It's a question of structure and organization. Does it find a welcome home in the NMRA and in modeling publications? Or does it develop its own standards organization and media?
As someone who is as much interested in writing and publishing as in railroading, I continue to look at virtual railroading with a question of how best to reach the hearts and minds of our constituency. Every virtual railroader knows that the fastest way to get an answer to a question is to ask it on one of the many forums. The answer is usually forthcoming within an hour. What does this say about the future of how-to articles or collections of tips published monthly? Of course we will always need carefully constructed how-to articles in easily found locations, but bear in mind that with the computer's ability to index and search, finding relevant past posts on a forum takes only seconds or minutes.
Every teenager today has grown up with a steady diet of fast-paced visual images from movies, TV, and video games. How many will take the time to read our thoughtfully crafted prose when it is now popular among the young to post forum questions written in a kind of shorthand that spells words by their sounds rather than society's standards. (Fortunately, there aren't many like this - yet.) If you've had a look at game magazines, you've probably noticed that they are long on pictures and short on text. This is true of some sports magazines as well, so it's not just a gamer phenomenon. It's a youth phenomenon.
All this tells me that those of us who are in the publishing business - and I include myself, even though my Virtual Railroader e-zine is small by comparison to the familiar modeling magazines - need to be aware of the changing times. The seeds of the future are everywhere. The question is, what are we going to do about them? More specifically, will a traditional model railroading magazine find a spot for regular coverage of VR, just as it does electronics? If so, what effect will that have on the magazine's base readership? What kind of articles will future readers find most interesting? (My own web sites show a preference for free downloads, links to resources, and collections of data - not very inspiring for a writer.) What format will be best? Paper continues to do well, but doesn't it make sense that a generation raised on TV, and averse to writing with correct language, would prefer to watch articles on a Sony Play Station Portable (I may be onto something here) than read them on paper? I've heard that newspapers are already beginning to feel the pinch from people's changing preferences. Many papers and news organizations already publish online editions in recognition of the times. And while we're at it, let's not overlook the potential of electronic media for added video and sound as a means of bringing how-to articles and layout presentations to life.
I don't have a crystal ball, but I certainly can see which way the wind is blowing. My Virtual Railroader magazine is web-based, partly because of economics, but also because it seems appropriate. You can find every issue at http://www.virtualrailroader.com or drop me a line. And, by the way, if you're wondering when the next issue of VR will be out, stop wondering. We've gone to a reading room format, which means articles are posted as they become available. That way there is no delay for author or reader - just one more advantage of an online format.
Virtual Railroader (TM) booth at the Amherst Railway Society's Train Show in West Springfield, MA, January 2006.
©2006 Alfred Barten. All rights reserved.