—This is Part 2 of a reflection on the efforts made towards inclusiveness in the role-playing game subculture and by extension, in related geek subcultures. You can read Part 1, where I talk about the background of this push for inclusiveness, here. Holy shit, I think I made it way too long but I really tried to make this constructive.
Let’s move on to what we can do about our own knee-jerk reactions to change in the face of pushes for inclusiveness. I’m addressing a reader who does not want to deliberately exclude anyone from our gaming hobby on the basis of gender, race, religion, orientation, disability, and so forth, but is nonetheless bristling at some of this newfangled stuff.
How far should we go in the name of inclusiveness?
TL;DR: As far as we can.
Our internal monologue
I said in my earlier post that the first step is to take a good look at our reasons for reacting negatively. Some have to do with self-image: the fear of being judged harshly by our peers, or a feeling of having our intentions and actions misunderstood. They sound like this:
- “I’m not racist.”
[“I don’t want to be thought of as racist.”]
- “But I’m an ally!”
[“I’m on your side, why are you not appreciating me?”]
- “It was just a joke.”
[“I want to say things but I don’t want to be held accountable.”]
- “It’s just a game.”
[“I don’t want to change my habits.”]
- “I can’t be myself anymore.”
[“This is making me feel bad about myself.”]
- “Don’t call me privileged — I’m marginalized, I had it tough.”
[“I don’t my efforts to be dismissed.”]
Then there are reactions to change. Human being often dislike change when they are not the one to initiate it. Often it feels like you’ve barely learned to live with a change, yet you’re being asked to do it again and again. (That’s fair: our ancestors were able to spend multiple generation with barely a change in the technological, social, or moral landscape, but we live in an era of constant change.) Some of the changes to concepts we had accepted as immutable can be profoundly jarring, asking us to revise our world view. Our reactions may sound like:
- “This isn’t realistic.”
[“This doesn’t fit with the view I have of the game setting.”]
- “This isn’t even a word.”
[“I don’t like this new word, it sounds weird.”]
- “No one actually does this/thinks this/lives this way.”
[“No one who matters to me does this/thinks this/lives this way.”]
- “No one who is like that is a gamer.”
[“I’ve never played with anyone like that, or at least they didn’t bring it up.”]
- “This is nothing — you’re just looking for a reason to get mad.”
[“This is irritating to me — that’s way more important than how you feel about it.”]
- “This is disgusting.”
[“I’m uncomfortable with that and I don’t want to dwell on it.”]
- “This is immoral.”
[“I don’t want to deal with this in my world view.”]
Most of the time several smaller objections lump together into one big ball of denial and smouldering resentment, but it’s important to untangle them from one another if we are to address them successfully.
Rolling up our sleeves
Once we start separating all these little bits of internal monologue, we can finally figure out how to handle them in a way that will integrate the challenges in a mature way while leaving us feeling better about the whole experience.
It’s not about you
Lest I come off as too sanctimonious, I will start my examples of poor reactions with some of my own. Some years ago, I blundered my way into a thread on the Story Games board where a quip had led to a discussion around the idea of having a D&D-style game set in mythic India.
To me, that sounded AWESOME! I’ve been into role-playing games for over thirty years and I have had time to burn out on a lot of staples of the genre, starting with pseudo-European vanilla fantasy. I love every chance I can get to include other cultures in my gaming. So when some fellow gamers, starting with someone who had every right to be tired of appropriation of his own culture reacted with warnings about exoticism, I was astounded and disappointed.
You can check my reactions in that thread, bad knee-jerk by bad keen-jerk (I posted under my “Anemone” handle.) Let’s see: inappropriate tone policing, a strawman argument, an excluded middle argument, an “it’s just a game” minimization, and probably more I’m forgetting. What I was really thinking was “I don’t want to change my habits,” “I’m on your side, why are you not appreciating me?,” and “This is making me feel bad about myself.”
I reacted to the fairly minor warning about exoticism as if it was about me, and then I felt shitty for even having argued that way because I vaguely felt that if I was such a nice person, I wouldn’t have to argue about it and I wouldn’t place my gaming fun above someone else’s cultural roots. It wasn’t the only time either; I can recall at least one other discussion (I couldn’t find the link) where my disenchantment revolved around the fact that when other people in the thread used the word “Orientalism” dismissively, they meant RPGs that do a crappy job of representing other cultures, while I meant the art movement of the 19th century.
What I did wrong: I made it about me. No one had called me a bad person; I suspect I may have reacted that way was because I held subconscious suspicions about the depth of my commitment to diversity. Was I truly looking to make the gaming community more open and welcoming, or was I just looking for some exotic flavour in my games? The answer is not A or B; it’s both. Nowadays I can admit it to myself, but at the time I had a vague feeling that it had to be one or the other.
I distinctly remember that having even argued my position in this faulty way made me feel childish and ashamed, but I couldn’t quite articulate it.
What I could have done instead: Leave myself out of it, spending no time to defend my gaming. Leave the tone argument out. Ask a few questions about how other cultures could be integrated in games with respect, without becoming academic rather than escapist.
Put it in perspective
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
— Attributed to Mel Brooks.
For years now I have been volunteering as organizer for a number of game conventions in the Seattle and San Francisco areas. I’ve had a chance to see the gradual push for establishing policies on safety, harassment, accessibility, and so forth. From my perspective this was years in the making, but for a lot of (white, male, cis, able-bodied, etc.) gamers it seems like a brand-new thing.
One convention in particular does a wonderful job on inclusiveness and has been repeatedly praised by people who normally stay away from conventions because they feel excluded. But at debrief last year, one of the staff members reported the following:
I know several people who did not come this year because the emphasis on pcness and “the right way to play” stressed them out too much and made them feel like they could not be themselves. They felt like that they would have to second guess everything they did in fear of being labeled or judged. They didn’t feel like they were free to “play”. There are several others who have said that this would be their last year because of the same reason. These aren’t assholes or misogynists, or homophobes, or racists. They are all considerate, thoughtful, wonderful people who happen to be, like myself, pretty irreverent at times. They also have never had any real problems at any tables because they know how to judge boundaries and when to pull back for the good of the game.
In other words, the people reportedly staying away are saying things like “I don’t want to be thought of as racist (misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist…),” “I don’t want to change my habits,” or “I want to say things but I don’t want to be held accountable,”
We (the staff) had an extended and respectful discussion on ways to make diversity and inclusiveness as friendly and attractive to all participants as possible. I’m sure it’s something that will take years of effort and we’ll keep at it.
But here I want to look at what these individuals who stayed away from the convention can do themselves. From the staff conversation we had, as far as I understand they were all men. I don’t have any other information on their demographics, but the conversation suggests that they were part of the privileged in other ways as well. And the best indication of this is that this discomfort, this fear of saying the wrong thing and being rebuked or even ostracized was new to them.
But you know what? For the non-privileged gamer, it’s every like that 24/7, year-round. Every time you walk into a game store, you hope that (white, male) people won’t stare at you for being dark-skinned, that patrons won’t complain about your wheelchair being “in the way”, or that the staff won’t mansplain to you or ignore you. Every time you game with strangers you hope that people at the table won’t deliberately misgender you, make dick jokes, rape your character in-game, or treat you to their best impersonation of a Jamaican gangster.
What these gamers did wrong: As in the previous example, it’s an error to make this all about yourself. In this case, it also shows a need to put the situation in perspective: your discomfort when people won’t laugh at your joke, your disappointment when players tell you that your scenario mismanaged the issue of slavery, are not equivalent to what marginalized people go through day in and day out. And your desire to play and to be yourself is not more important than theirs.
What they can do: Admit to their discomfort and think about how they can make things better in the future. If you’re only encountering this shock now, it means you a privileged person and you should spend some time thinking about how much worse others have it in the “just being oneself” department. Be a good host, a good ambassador of gaming, and place the enjoyment of the non-privileged above your own for the duration of the game. Does it really cramp your style so much not to regale us with your “Jewish mother” accent or your Mighty Whitey scenario? Is it very traumatic to drop the words “lame,” “retarded” and “gay” from your list of derogative expressions?
Look around: The Other is not a unicorn
I game with a lot of people these days, depending on who is available and interested in a given game. My circle includes women and men, cis and trans, non-binary, disabled, Middle-Eastern, Asian, and of course WASP people. Frankly, it’s still rather too white in comparison to the population at large in my area, but otherwise it looks fairly normal.
Now understand, I don’t invite people to play based on their demographics. In fact, my husband and I are very picky about people we game with; after some bad experiences many years ago, we decided that we wanted friends first, gamers second. But we make efforts to meet new gamers and to invite newcomers to try role-playing. We participate in online discussions, we run newb-friendly events at store game days and conventions, and we let organizers know that if they have orphaned players, we take in strays. Whenever someone approaches to ask “What are you guys playing?” we try to be courteous and welcoming. This is how we have the long list of people we consider to be our “regulars”: we gamed at an event, we hit it off, we got together again.
So I met my diverse friends in places that were filled with white men gaming with other white men. Sometimes it’s been positively hilarious (in a dark way); I have overheard conversations where typical gaming grognards were reinforcing one another that any gamer outside their own demographics was an aberration, a statistical fluke — while three paces away from them I, an aberration, was busy meeting a table full of flukes and unicorns.
What these gamers did wrong: Game in a closed circle; validate one another’s preconceived notions. Sure, they showed up at stores and conventions but only for space considerations; they they weren’t out to meet new gamers, and certainly not ones from a different demographic group. And all their jokes were in-jokes, their language exclusionary. (For example, the language that assumes that gamers are men and that their wives don’t understand and disapprove, or that if a woman is at the game table she must be a gamer’s girlfriend.)
What they can do: Invite people outside their established circle to play, and make it as open and friendly as possible at the game table. Bathe regularly, let people talk without interrupting, behave like a well-mannered adult with other adults (and young players!)
Don’t make so many assumptions about what minorities and women are or do, or why they’re not sitting at your own game table. Get informed about the ongoing conversation in the larger world, in the geek and gaming communities. Make the effort to learn the basics, the “101”, of diversity issues from the source.
In addition, don’t make so many assumptions about what role-playing should be. Get informed about play styles and recent developments in game design; if you always play the same game or a very narrow range of games, then you’re also going to narrow down the range of play styles and origins. For example, if you are unfamiliar with the small-press gaming movement that has brought a lot of women and members of minorities into the hobby, then you’re unlikely to attract these newcomers at your table.
Think around the challenges
When objections are centered what is or is not “realistic” in games (or other works of fiction), a lot of extravagant things are said. In its classic form, this argument sounds like “Dragons yes, gender equality no; elves yes, black people no; giant mecha yes, wheelchairs no.” And when talking about disabilities and what is”feasible” or “reasonable” in this context, the speaker often betray their own lack of familiarity with the day-to-day reality of the topic. Living with disability: It’s not what you think.
One of the conversations that prompted me to write this happened last week, launched by the recent release of Deep Dark Blue, a new Fate World by Lore Graham and Mike Olson (Evil Hat Productions). I’d been eagerly awaiting this release, which reminds me of such books, movies, games, and television shows as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Seaquest DSV, Startide Rising, Blue Planet, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
In keeping with Evil Hat Productions’ efforts to increase representation, the examples of play include a variety of characters who aren’t, you know, super-muscled white guys. One of the example characters uses a wheelchair. This prompted someone to comment:
In the set of characters presented, p. 12, Frankie West, you have a character in a wheelchair! How is a wheelchair going to maneuver around a submarine, which p. 6 already said is a “cramped space”, and not get caught on valves and levers and such? I don’t know of any documentation from the U.S. Navy, or any world navy, that has accommodated staff in wheelchairs. […]
In other words, “This doesn’t fit with the view I have of the game setting.” Most readers on the thread disagreed; people were quick to point out that role-playing games in general, and Fate in particular, are about having exciting adventures at the game table, not about closely modelling reality. (Note that the setting also includes Lovecraftian monsters and colossal submarines waging corporate warfare at abyssal depths, but these received no mention.)
What the commenter got wrong: While the post raised other fundamental problems, I want to concentrate here on one very specific point, which the commenter elaborated on later: the realism, or lack thereof, of a wheelchair on a futuristic submarine.
What he could have done: Even granting that it’s difficult for a wheelchair to move aboard a submarine, I mentioned that as an engineer, my first thought is always that we should design stuff (submarines, RPGs, etc.) around people, not force people to fit stuff. So let’s reformulate the problem. First, if we’re going to have a character in a wheelchair on board, then clearly there is a reason: maybe the character has exceptional skills that will be needed (*cough*Stephen Hawking*cough*), or has history on the project and is too integral to the team to be left behind, or is wealthy and owns enough shares in the company to force the issue. Whatever it is, it will make for an interesting plot thread in your game!
Second, let’s think about the in-setting limitations. For example, we probably don’t need the character to have access to every nook and cranny on board. The example character, Frankie West, is the gunner’s mate. She’ll need access to the bridge and to her quarters at a minimum; maybe to a gym, or even the EVA airlock. Those areas will likely be designed with her in mind: traffic zones as wide and open as possible, lots of hand-holds and grab bars to lift herself and manoeuver in position. As a GM I would make sure to clarify what these limitations are with the player so that neither of us would get ambushed by misunderstandings.
Now let’s talk about the tools the character would use to be functional in her role. She will likely have a powered, computerized wheelchair that locks in position on the bridge, and at least one other non-powered wheelchair with maximum manoeuvrability that she transfers to for other areas of the ship, something like one of the many sports wheelchairs in current use. Heck, there are wheelchairs designed for playing rugby, so the bridge of an expensive submarine doesn’t seem that outlandish. I think she might be able to evac the ship like everyone else (without the chair, of course.) Yes, disabled people swim and scuba dive, and sail, kayak, zipline…
To be clear, I’m not saying that if you pick up Deep Dark Blue you must include wheelchairs. But I’m saying that objections based on perceived realism are:
- Generally irrelevant when we’re talking about games that explore genre fiction and escapist spaces (now is actually a good time to say “But it’s a game!”)
Solution: Place people first.
- Frequently vastly overblown when they are dealing with optional trappings in a setting (Frankie West is an example character, you don’t have to use her at all.)
Solution: If you really hate it that much and it’s not intrinsic to the setting, examine why your reaction is so strong.
- Almost always displaying ignorance of what exists in the real world and instead illustrating the objector’s own limitations on the topic.
Solution: Get informed before arguing too much. (And I don’t mean “Selectively gather information that supports your preconceptions.”)
After all I have said about trying to address our internal refusals in the face of otherness, I think sometimes walking away from an argument or a situation that will not allow for fun gaming may be the best thing to do. I don’t mean walking away from the issue — I mean stepping away from a specific situation, at least until we can cool down, reflect, maybe wait for a different opportunity.
I’m going to end as I started, with a personal example of imperfect interaction with minorities. It’s not from the gaming world but from another of my geeky hobbies, photography. When I was living in Seattle, I worked for a consulting firm that counted a lot of Native American tribes and tribal agencies among its clients and I ended up with a nice array of friends and contacts among tribes. I was invited — as an individual, not as a company rep — to private potlatches as well as public dance performances, etc. and I was very interested in the cultures I encountered.
So one weekend my husband and I went to a nearby event that included a Native art fair and I brought my film camera. I’m actually too shy to do portraits and close-ups of people, but I love to do street photography, trying to emulate Helen Levitt or Henri Cartier-Bresson. So I was walking among the artists’ booths with my camera at the ready, and one artist called me out. He pointed out that general courtesy and accepted practice in Indian Country both required that I ask an artist before I take photographs of their art and that I respect any refusals.
He was absolutely correct and I was aware of this rule of etiquette. Had I been in fact, trying to take pictures of people’s art and not street scenes, I would have asked — just like I muster up the courage to ask if I really want to take a portrait of a person. But what I had been doing was trying to make some art of my own, in a different medium. I felt slighted at being essentially accused of something I had not done, and also ticked by the long rebuke; but I did not want to argue because I was perfectly aware that the man was correct, and that he probably had had to explain this fifty times already that day. I just put away my camera, smiled as politely as I could, and said, “I understand, I won’t take pictures without permission.”
I think this is not the reaction the artist wanted; I think he wanted me to ask him, “May I take pictures of your art?” So he started again, reexplaining as he probably thought I was not making the effort to learn what he was imparting about his culture. This went on for a bit as I continued to agree without arguing but making no requests; I let him wind down because it would have made things worse to cut him off. Then I walked away and I didn’t do any more photography that day; not only didn’t I want a repeat of this exchange with another artist, but I was no longer in the right mood to do art.
What I did wrong: In retrospect, I should have anticipated that this could happen when pointing a camera with lots of artists around. I had a plan for what I wanted to do that day and I failed to think enough about the cultural context and etiquette because I thought I already knew.
What I could have done: If I had thought ahead, I could have asked a contact to introduce me to the artists at the fair. Or I could have prepared myself mentally and simply asked for permission before photographing, explaining what I was doing, thus preempting being called out.
But having failed to plan properly and blundered into an awkward situation, I think I did what was best: withdraw so I could do better on a different occasion.
Let’s deal with reality; wishing it away won’t work. Denying the existence of minorities of origin, skin colour, gender, orientation, ability, and so forth, and denying inequality of access and perception in today’s society, is as silly as claiming that the Earth is flat or the Moon landings were faked. And for the people being forced into invisibility, this is painful and dangerous.
Do we really want to be the gatekeepers of a gaming community of white middle-class straight cis men (and those who will be able to “pass”)? I get that this sounds like the good ol’ days to some, but to me that sounds at once stultifying and scary. I say we break down the gates instead and have a gaming community as rich and diverse as what’s out there in the rest of the “real world.”
When we stumble, let’s get over it and do better. Sure we’ll get it wrong every once in a while, we’ll occasionally put foot in mouth, we may get called out for getting it wrong, our intentions may be misunderstood, blah blah blah. Are we going to stop trying to be decent human beings because our widdle feelings were bruised? Hell no.
We’ll learn from the missteps and do better next time: listen better, react better, communicate better, learn better, apologize better, forgive better. And we’ll have a thriving community of people who respect one another.
Here are some links on places where you can learn more about diversity and how to integrate it in your thinking.
- Diversity and Social Justice: A glossary of working definitions. University of Massachusetts Lowell, Office of Multicultural Affairs.
- Everyday Feminism
- Because I Am Human: Glossary
- Diversi podcast
- Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, by John Scalzi
In the week elapsed since I posted Part 1, I have seen ugly things online around the topic of inclusiveness but I want to believe that at least some people can be reached by reasonable arguments. For those who can’t, worry not: I’ll return to mocking you after I’m done talking to people of good will.
Credits: “Caucasian Adventures” created by Daniel Solis, 2007. Map of Caucasia created by Jonathan Walton, 2007. Dungeons and Ponies Plus One Dragon by johnjoseco. Frankie illustration by Arthur Asa taken from Deep Dark Blue, © 2016 Evil Hat Productions. Photo of Luca Crippa © 2015 Disabled Divers International (DDI). Photo of diver © 2010 Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS). Pow-wow etiquette masthead © 2005 Santa Cruz Indian Council.