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There are multiple questions on the site about fantasy or science fiction creatures that aren't directly related to a specific on-topic work. Most are eventually closed, but they're often quite contentious

A few examples:

Do we have a set policy on how to treat these type of questions?

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  • 6
    I personally feel that these should be on-topic. I suspect community opinion is against me though :-(
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:01
  • 17
    @Randal'Thor I usually see comments of needing to constrain these to one work to avoid them being "too broad" as the creatures can have highly different abilities/features depending on the universe.
    – Skooba
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:04
  • 11
    Can you please post more examples so we can vote them closed.
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:35
  • 4
    @Valorum After waiting to get a community consensus here on meta first, I hope :-)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:38
  • 2
    @Randal'Thor - We already have a strong rule about this, as evidenced by the existing close reason. If we want to change the way the site operates (potentially affecting hundreds of currently closed question), I'd hope that you would seek a greater consensus of opinion than a single unfeatured Meta question asking what the existing policy is.
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:41
  • Creature featured
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Jun 7 '16 at 22:35
  • 3
    Considering that there's currently a split on this meta question, the assumption that we have a "strong rule about this" is clearly mistaken.
    – Beofett
    Jun 8 '16 at 13:18
  • @Beofett +1 to you, but it looks like your votes to reopen were foiled.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 8 '16 at 14:22
  • 5
    @Randal'Thor Small groups or individuals deciding that meta discussion is irrelevant to their opinion is one of the primary reasons I've limited my participation on this site.
    – Beofett
    Jun 8 '16 at 14:28
  • 4
    I find it ironic that the complaint is being made that a meta discussion is insufficient to change our policy, when the majority of these questions were open for years, until a handful of users decided to change the policy by closing them without meta discussion just within the past few months.
    – Beofett
    Jun 10 '16 at 15:39
  • 1
    It would seem that we have a majority view, if not a consensus.
    – Valorum
    Jul 7 '16 at 18:13
  • 2
    @Valorum My "on-topic" answer now has both more upvotes and more downvotes than Skooba's "off-topic" answer. Each answer has more upvotes than it has downvotes, but their scores are almost neck-and-neck. And your claim that we already had a consensus on this issue has been proved wrong :-)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jul 7 '16 at 22:54
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    @Valorum The idea that we might allow interesting questions requiring in-depth knowledge of the SF/F genre as a whole, as well as franchise-specific trivia which can usually be answered by electronic searching, makes me rather happy.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jul 7 '16 at 23:10
  • @Randal'Thor - For the record, I'm not overly fussed about the result (for the reasons mentioned above) but I am concerned that with as strong a split between yay and nay, however we decide to go will result in hurt feelings and annoyance, in exactly the same way that we persistently have to deal with the fallout of never really getting to grips with self-answered questions and those who insist on downvoting them.,
    – Valorum
    Jul 10 '16 at 18:36
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OK, I'll bite. (Note that this is my personal opinion - I'm not speaking as a moderator here.)

These questions should be on-topic.

Questions about (for instance) zombies in general, without being tied to a particular work of SFF, are answerable by experts in SFF works. Where on Stack Exchange can we find experts on SFF works? Here, that's where. This is a site about the science fiction and fantasy genres, and questions like these are archetypal genre questions. A good answer to Why don't zombies eat each other? adds more to our collective knowledge of these genres than a good answer to some specific question like Why didn't Gandalf or Frodo Fly to Mount Doom? or Why don't muggle-born wizards use Muggle technology to fight Death Eaters? At the end of the day, we're here to gain knowledge about science fiction or fantasy as a whole, and a nice general answer to a genre-specific but not franchise-specific question teaches us more about that than any amount of knowledge about one particular work.

To put it another way, imagine you're an expert on SFF literature (the sort of person we want to attract to this site). What kind of question is more likely to pique your interest and inspire you to write up a really good answer: Aren't zombie outbreaks self defeating? or How many times has "Make It So" been demanded by anyone other than Picard? ? Trivia has its place here, but we shouldn't throw out complex and interesting questions in favour of keeping only trivia.

The counter-argument I'm expecting to see is that these questions are "too broad": they could take too many different possible answers depending on which particular work is used for context. My response to that is that a good answer will consider the genre as a whole and cover many different works. For instance, consider What Happens to Zombies that Don't Eat? and the excellent answers it has received from Jeff and Wad Cheber, both of which are general answers about zombie fiction. Franchise-specific answers to general genre questions should be considered bad answers.

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    The problem with "non-universe bound" question is that they can spawn contradictory answers that are equally 'right', for a given value of rightness. Even somethign as basic as "Do vampires drink blood" = yes, no and sometimes depending on which universe you're talking about
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:27
  • 11
    @Valorum So can universe-bound questions. Even something as basic is "Is the Doctor really a doctor?" = yes, no, maybe, sometimes, or you've got it the wrong way round. The point is that a good answer would cover all the different possibilities (as in the example I mentioned in my final paragraph).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:29
  • 4
    Ah, but in that instance we can all agree on which fictional universe answers should relate to. Now imagine the question wasn't restricted to Doctor Who and was "Are all doctors in scifi actually doctors?"
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:32
  • 4
    @Valorum That broader question would be analogous to, say, "What happens to legendary beings that don't eat?" The question of where to draw the line between too broad and not too broad isn't as clear as you're making it sound :-)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:35
  • 6
    @Valorum - there's a fairly broad spectrum between "general discussion" and "an answer analyzing trends and synthesizing a summary". You cannot legitimately claim tat ALL non-specific-universe questions fall under the former end of the spectrum just because some do. Jun 6 '16 at 20:21
  • 5
    @Valorum - sorry, i'm calling you out on definition games again :) Adding one topic to valid scope isn't "reshaping the site". Especially if adding said topic is done intelligently, within guidelines conductive to SE format and good-subjective-bad-subjective and all that. Jun 6 '16 at 20:28
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    @Valorum - that's the point. You don't enumerate BOOKS, you enumerate approaches. 1. Vampires that die from garlic (ex1, ex2). 2. Vampires that are in severe pain from garlic (ex1, ex2). 3. Vampires that are irritated by garlic (ex1, ex2). 4. Vampires that aren't affected by garlic anymore than humans (ex1). 5. Vampires that only drink garlic infused blood as it's a delicacy (ex3). 7. Vampires made of garlic (ex) Jun 6 '16 at 20:36
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    There truly aren't all THAT many distinct, different ideas out there on any topic. Jun 6 '16 at 20:37
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    These broad questions could be made on topic with something like "What's the historical SFF reason that x?" We can answer it objectively with history, and I'm sure we have plenty of experts on SFF history around here.
    – user31178
    Jun 7 '16 at 3:00
  • 5
    I totally agree... I actually think that broad questions often help expand the knowledge base of the genre in question. Without these types of questions how are we would not have gained enough knowledge to be here on SE in the first place. I really can't see the harm if excepting these questions.
    – Rincewind
    Jun 7 '16 at 19:32
  • 13
    Just throwing it out here, but this answer (which I agree with) doesn't make any question about fantasy/sci-fi creatures that aren't about a specific canon automatically a good question. Such questions can still be too broad, or unclear, or primarily opinion-based. I think assuming all questions of this type should be closed, without meeting the criteria of any of the close reasons I just mentioned, would result in us losing good content.
    – Beofett
    Jun 8 '16 at 19:06
  • 4
    @Valorum - one feature, no. 10 main ones, yes. I seriously doubt there are many that don't fit within 10 broad ideas Jun 9 '16 at 15:36
  • 8
    @Valorum - who cares? I am interested in an analysis of tropes, not individual zombie instances of them. Highlight some example of 9 out of 10 ones, some of 1 out of 10, and then concentrate on tropes Jun 9 '16 at 16:12
  • 8
    +1, 100x this. Don't throw out a whole class of the most useful questions because we don't like the paperwork.
    – DCShannon
    Jun 13 '16 at 20:36
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    @Adamant Source for that statistic? Have you looked at the list of people who close voted questions of this type prior to this discussion (in many cases after months or even years after the questions staying open and upvoted)? I seem to recall a dozen or so users. I'm pretty sure the total number of users on this site is significantly higher than a couple of dozen.
    – Beofett
    Sep 7 '16 at 1:37
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In general the format of these questions would be considered off-topic should be closed. The reason being that the creatures have different abilities or features across a vast number of works.

Any one question therefore may have numerous acceptable answers. As our "too broad" close reason states (emphasis mine):

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.

While these may be good questions that can solicit good answers from some our dedicated users who have a great knowledge of, it seems the overall SE preference to not do this. This is also not to say the subject matter is "off-topic"... Obviously vampires, werewolves, and zombies are on-topic; the formatting on the question would just need to be a better fit for the community.

One possible way to answer these questions could be a community wiki and have a different answer for each universe. However, that may still to be too much as many creatures such as zombie or vampires are in an almost countless number of works.

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  • 9
    Agreed. Wikipedia has a list of over 400 zombie films. Even taking into account sequels, that's potentially hundreds of different fictional universes just from cinema. If we add in famous zombie books, TV shows and radio plays, that's potentially thousands of sources.
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:30
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    Note also that this is our existing policy and has been almost since the creation of the site.
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 18:42
  • 6
    @Valorum Was this policy previously decided somewhere on meta, or do you mean "existing policy" as in what VTCers have been doing for years?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Jun 6 '16 at 19:08
  • @Randal'Thor - Good question. I'll go hunting. I'm reasonably sure I read it was posted within a few months of the "elevator pitch" Q
    – Valorum
    Jun 6 '16 at 19:17
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    I'm forced to downvote. These questions aren't off-topic, they're too broad. Voting to close as off-topic is incorrect, but they should be closed. Jun 8 '16 at 22:11
  • 5
    @AnthonyGrist Good point actually. I think we were combining "off-topic" and "should be closed". I am going to adjust my answer a bit.
    – Skooba
    Jun 9 '16 at 12:47
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    @Skooba - If I could +1 again, I would. We should definitely be closing questions that don't specify a universe but what's weird is that we just seem to have wandered into that policy without any real discussion on the issue.
    – Valorum
    Jun 9 '16 at 14:35
6

These are too broad

Without specifying a particular work, questions like Why don't zombies eat each other? are far too broad. Virtually any answer one wants can be correct, depending on whether one can find a work containing a "zombie" that follows the right principles.

Is it because:

  • The virus in them seeks to infect human beings?
  • They are reanimated corpses that simply obey the whims of their animator, and thus have no desire to attack their fellows?
  • They are humans placed in a near-death state, and those don't want to eat humans' brains anyway?
  • They thrive on life energy, and the undead don't possess it?
  • They are evil, and see no reason to attack other evil creatures?
  • They are actually aliens, and the "brain-eating" was a myth made up by frightened humans?

Any and all of these could be true, and most of them likely are nothing close to the sort of answer the OP wants.

The accepted answer on this question ends thus:

In short, it's a conceit of the genre, and each author gives it his own spin (or doesn't - some just don't address it).

Such questions are the definition of "too broad." They can have any of a very large set of answers, and producing a complete answer is basically a matter of creating a large set of mutually contradictory answers and combining them into one.

Fortunately, I believe most such questions can be made clearly on-topic by clarifying what kind of creature or situation the questioner has in mind, and asking about a specific work that exemplifies that situation. Thus the question becomes narrow, with well-defined answers.

For example, perhaps the questioner has Romero-style zombies in mind:

Question: Why do zombies in the Romero films not attack each other?

Answer: "...they seek living flesh. If it isn't warm, they leave it be."

Similarly, Should werewolves in literature be considered magical living creatures or part of the Undead? has two equally correct, entirely contradictory answers: yes and no. But specify a work of fiction (and the questioner probably had one vaguely in mind in any case), and the question becomes much more clear:

Question: In the Parasol Protectorate, are werewolves undead or alive?

Answer: Werewolves are considered a form of undead.

Or

Question: In the Dungeons and Dragons, are werewolves undead or alive?

Answer: Werewolves are living shapeshifters. Although they are vulnerable to silver, they are not undead.

Indeed, there very premise of such questions is often incorrect if applied to every instance of a category.

Why are vampires not rotten like other undead?

The answer varies from "magic" to "no, they are most certainly rotten." Specify a universe or narrow set of universes, and the question becomes better-posed.

With all such questions, we should pick a work that exemplifies what kind of creature the questioner is thinking of, and run with it.

That way we get to keep the question, but actually give it a proper answer, rather than a (possibly unbounded) set of answers. In addition, there's nothing preventing one from adding contextual genre information (if such a concept is well-defined) to such an answer.

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  • I like this answer as a middle ground. Many times a questioner may not even know enough about the genre to know how broad their question is, they just have a question about "zombies". This lets the Romero expert answer, the Walking Dead expert answer, etc; the questioner learns more than they expected to, I have a more interesting topic to read, everyone wins. This reminds me of the way answers happen on the code golf stack - same question gets answered a dozen times in a different language. The languages here in SFF are franchises.
    – nexus_2006
    Dec 6 '16 at 13:43
1

For some reason I was not aware of this discussion until I got a notice that someone tried to modify a question I asked that's in this list. I'm referring to this question about werewolves. (Apparently someone tried to edit it to add that they wanted to be a werewolf!) I'm noting the date of this discussion and the date my question was closed and know it was at a time when I was overwhelmed with work dealing with the death of a parent and doing a lot of work on land we had bought to prepare for building on it. (That included a lot of paperwork and similar issues due to wetlands on the property.)

I was one of the early users of SF on Stack Exchange, but backed off from it dramatically after a while. I'm on other SE sections as well and I know, for many programmers and system admins there are running jokes that all you have to do is find the answer on SE and copy the code. But I find I use SE less and less. At this point I use it mostly for Blender issues, but, even there, I'm using Blender forums more often.

I cannot count the number of times I Google for something and the answer is on SE, but is closed. I recently found a question that was close to one I had that was marked as a dupe. The answer to it, on the original question, did not specifically state a clear answer to the closed question. I wasted two hours explaining to a moderator, who knows his stuff well, that many people do NOT know things as well as he does, and that the duplicate is never directly answered. He finally addressed that in a comment - which is all I was asking for from the start.

But it's not about just that two hours. It's about how many people found that question, went to the other one and went away to look elsewhere because their question wasn't answered.

My point: There are convergent thinkers and divergent thinkers. There are a lot of other ways to describe different ways people think. I'm not even getting into people dealing with reading disabilities or similar issues. What is obvious to one is not obvious to others.

One reason I use SE less and less and specific forums on topics more and more is because of issues like this: Hasty closing of questions that may not really need closing or marking questions as duplicates and closing when there is a subtle difference between the duplicate and the other question with an answer.

There often seems to be an ego issue connected with these issues. It's something like, "Oh, I can close this and it makes me feel like I have some control. Now that I've voted to close, I don't want to discuss it or change my mind."

I don't think my response here will change anything, but I do think, all across SE, the communities and moderators need to change their focus to understanding what's going on and thinking more carefully about closing. For instance, the "too broad" reason always felt to me to be a pointless reason to close. I don't see that SE gains anything by closing questions like that and it's quite possible that if such questions are left open, someone might, at some point, provide a useful answer.

I'm finding, more and more, that the answers I need are on forums other than SE and that the questions I have often closest match SE questions that are closed but could eventually yield helpful answers if they were not closed.

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    A large chunk of this answer seems to be a stream-of-consciousness rant about evil people using their ill-gotten powers to make them feel good. Honestly I'm not even sure what point you're trying to make here other than [closing things = bad]
    – Valorum
    Aug 3 at 18:33
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    A large chunk of this answer is part of why I left SFF. +1 for Tango's consciousness being absolutely right. Aug 3 at 18:47
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    @Valorum: yes, closing without careful evaluation is bad. I included more to provide an example of closing things without an awareness of their usefulness to others. But if I wanted to focus on the whole "using their ill-gotten powers to make them feel good," I'd include "to satisfy their odd whims at the risk of damaging the community."
    – Tango
    Aug 4 at 2:39
  • There are, of course, other forums (fora?) that function precisely as you've described, allowing open-ended questions to flourish. Quora seems a perfect example, with sporadically brilliant essays floating amidst a total sea of dross.
    – Valorum
    Aug 4 at 7:07
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    @Valorum: Thank you for proving my point.
    – Tango
    Aug 4 at 7:57
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    @Valorum: Meh, these days, you could ask nearly any of the questions listed in the OP on Worldbuilding, and if the question body was appropriately detailed, you would get good answers. I'm not convinced they belong on SFF, but they are suitable for the SE format in general.
    – Kevin
    Aug 4 at 18:48
  • @Kevin - The problem with allowing garbage to accumulate is that it (metaphorically speaking) starts to stink. Then you end up being the internet's toilet, like poor old Yahoo Answers
    – Valorum
    Aug 4 at 19:15
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    @Valorum: Go tell that to the Worldbuilding folks. They seem to be doing just fine.
    – Kevin
    Aug 4 at 22:21
  • @Kevin - They also have pretty strict rules about what they allow though. One man's trash may be another man's treasure, but that doesn't mean that all trash is treasure. Sometimes it's just trash.
    – Valorum
    Aug 5 at 7:03
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    While your general sentiment is appreciated and relateable, I think trying to explain this with "ego issues" or control-freakery is both wrong and disingenuous. Argumentation like that rarely is going to solve any problems. If you think everyone who closes good on-topic questions is just a power-tripping asshole without any (to them) proper reason, the actual underlying problems that lead to people closing good questions won't ever be solved. If you want to try and improve the situation, a bit of common decency and respect besides just angry vest-pocket psychology would be advised.
    – TARS
    Aug 5 at 9:26
  • @Kevin Unrelated to this discussion, rest assured that appreciation for empty what-iffery isn't unanimous among the Worldbuilding userbase either, some of whom very much intended something else when founding the site back in the day.
    – TARS
    Aug 5 at 9:34
  • @TARS: Nowhere did I say, "Everyone..." Where did I say that's ALWAYS the case? I'm pointing out that lots of times people close without thinking about if we need to close. It's the old, "Just because we can, does that mean we should?" issue. Lots of times it's a case of some people not getting why a question can help others and I've seen, in discussions, a number of times, ego behind that. It becomes a case of, "I closed it and I'm doubling down rather than listening to another view and considering I may not have had a good reason to close."
    – Tango
    Aug 5 at 16:59
  • @Tango - His strawman might be bigger than yours, but you've still not given a single coherent example, let alone "lots"
    – Valorum
    Aug 6 at 19:57

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