In the past few years there has been schism in geek fandom. Gamergate. Sad Puppies. Rabid Puppies. The HUGO Awards. Like so many other facets of our culture, we’re becoming increasingly Balkanized. Ugly people on both sides saying ugly things to one another until everyone stops listening. The lines are drawn, the trenches are deep, the cannons are set.
Hmm…I feel a song coming on. Take it away, Jerry!
Geez! Was that song really released back in 1970? The more things change…
All of this has of course bleed into RPG fandom was well. You have the Social Justice Warrior contingent on TBP and elsewhere that regularly elicit swift and venomous responses from those who don’t subscribe to their way of thinking. You are starting to see some strange independent games that address all manner of taboo topics and those games may be applauded or trashed and pilloried (even censored) depending on what side of the line you are on.
Now, none of these games really sound like a whole lot of fun to me. I like my gaming with a side of heroic escapism. If I want to explore the dark, disgusting side of the human psyche, I’ll read a book or watch Law & Order:SVU. KULT is about as far down that hole as I’ll go. There are more mainstream games and settings, like the Queen’s Cavaliers and Blue Rose, that are accused of pushing an ideological agenda. And while I get the audience these types of games are trying to appeal to, I personally feel that, from the boiler plate back cover text, they’ve bled so much conflict out of the setting in their lofty goals of creating an imaginary Utopia, what’s the point in playing?
But as a response to this sort of stuff, there seems to be a growing chorus that increasing representation of women, ethnic and gender minorities is just paying lip service to the SJW crowd and is little more than panhandling. After all, if only women make up a drop in the bucket of GMs, why go through the trouble of alternating pronouns in your game. If LGBT players a tiny fraction of your audience, do we really need art depicting these relationships (and all the baggage that comes with it? Geez, we just got over the whole demon worship thing, for crying out loud!). Does it make sense to have images of black and brown people in games set in medieval Europe?
Now that’s probably a bit of a straw man argument. The number of gamers who are adamantly opposed to all those things is probably more minuscule than the people who identify with those things. But the US vs THEM mentality that is being fostered by both sides makes it very difficult to take a nuanced stand. And since its easier just to lump someone into the wrong crowd than actually listen to what they are actually trying to say, we probably shut out a lot of voices just because of the noise on the fringes.
F*&$ing SJW! I’m out!
Ok, if you’re still reading, I’m going to try and give you my “nuanced” view. I call it nuanced because there are still things certain geek sub-cultures demand in the name of inclusion that don’t make a lot of sense to me. But that really isn’t important. So here goes.
My Teen Roleplaying program at the Lewisville Public Library is closing in on 10 years. During that time, we’ve had scores of kids come through of every stripe imaginable. We take all comers. I don’t care how big a socially awkward misfit you are, I’m a 40 year old guy who likes to play Advanced Cops and Robbers with dice and charts. I’m not gonna judge you…unless you gush on the Twilight series or Sailor Moon, then we’ll have words. Because we have to set standards somewhere. But I digress.
The first year we started, I was using Savage Worlds and running the 50 Fathoms plot point. Rather than let the players make their own characters, I created a stable of around a dozen different characters. The rules were simple: each time you come to play, you pick a character. If you played a character last session, you got first dibs on it this time. If you want to change it up and play a different character, no problem.
One of these characters was a fiery swordswoman from 17th Century Spain. Think Catherine Zeta-Jones from The Mask of Zorro, but more willful and spiteful. She was put into the mix because its just a cool concept. I like strong women type characters, and we had a pretty decent parity between teenage boys and girls at the time (something, I’m proud to say, we’ve been able to maintain over the course of the program! Yay, us!). So if a girl wants to sit down and play a fighter archetype character, I’ve got it covered.
So one evening, a young Latina girl — She’s probably 12; maybe 13 at a stretch — picks the swordswoman to play. She was new to the game. This might have been her first or second game session, but she was excited to give it a try and had a couple of friends from school who were already playing. As I always do when I’m explaining the game, I try to put it in terms of the player’s character. So I’m giving her the boiler plate description of the character and rattle off, “she’s Spanish…” and the girl interjects, “like me!”
Now, I won’t lie. Part of my brain wanted to correct her. “No, she’s European.” But the larger part of me realized that she was relating personally with this character. As in “Spanish swordswoman is a badass = Latinas are baddass = *I* get to be the badass!” And right then, at that exact moment, my whole perspective on this diversity in roleplaying business changed. Because of that one connection. This young girl was looking at a piece of paper and seeing something bigger. It was giving her, the person she saw every day in the mirror, permission to be a bigger than life hero. And she embraced it and ran with it!
If that character hadn’t been there, she might have happily played some other character. I don’t know. She played the swordswoman character consistently for the next few months.
That singular moment brought in a sea change in my thinking. I WANT kids to look at an RPG book and imagine themselves in those situations, and I don’t expect them to imagine themselves as european male knights in shining armor. I want them to imagine them as themselves, whatever race, gender, sex, whatever. While I don’t think anyone really disagrees with me on this score, I’m not sure how many people have seen that connection happen right in front of their eyes.
Being a college educated white male from an upper-middle class family (Cis, is that what the cool kids are calling it these days? Everyone has to have a label, right?), I will be the first to admit that I do not understand the formula behind all this. But I am smart enough to know that if I see a picture of two women kissing in the crows nest of a ship, that picture is not there for me. When a transgendered dwarf appears in a Pathfinder book, that’s not for me either. It’s there for someone else to see it and think “holy shit, *I* get to be the badass!”
For me to complain about that or take that away from someone else seems kinda selfish.
Now that doesn’t mean I LIKE every game that puts it out there like that (see my previous comments on Blue Rose and Queen’s Cavaliers). I certainly see how a publisher could over do it. (“I never realized there were so many Africans in 16th Century London. What gives? Is there a convention in town?”). But let’s not be dismissive of it as a whole. Because if a kid somewhere in this world can pick up an rpg (or any book really) and find something of herself in it that sparks her imagination in such a way that she HAS TO GET HER FRIENDS TOGETHER TO PLAY THIS GAME NOW!, well that’s a win-win for ALL of us who play these games.