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On Queer Identity and Coming Out at the Gaming Table

Jason Beck
United States
Alexandria
Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love walk-in closets

Last Friday, a thread was posted that wondered whether or not a gay man should pre-emptively “come out” to people who are coming over for a game night. I’d like to respond at length to the thread and the conversation it spawned. (Fair warning: The thread has been moved to the dungeon of RSP, so I do not particularly recommend visiting it.)

Much of the thread is littered with straight men insisting that there is no need for him to come out, and that being gay is “irrelevant” to the playing of games. (Indeed, many repeated this position while simultaneously noting that they either hadn’t read most of the thread or that they were simply reiterating what others had already said.) Many also seemed eager to fall over themselves to demonstrate how open-minded, liberal, or whatever they were, insisting that such a thing doesn’t matter, and my goodness, how strange to think that it should!

Tolerance, Acceptance, and Safety

Let’s get some low-hanging fruit out of the way here: There can be (and in this case, is) a wide gulf between a thing that is irrelevant and a thing that ought to be irrelevant.

The blanket assertion that being gay simply doesn’t matter at all, or the assertion that it is strange to think that, in this day and age, this would be an issue, is naïve at best. I’m thrilled that [you] have a gaming group composed of the most enlightened souls in the world, a gaming group that’s a mix of men, women, and non-binary individuals who view sexuality as a spectrum and are so utterly conscious in their actions and their words that institutional discrimination and bigoted social behaviors crumble before them like the walls of Jericho, but please consider that this is not universal.

It really ought come as no surprise to anyone that queerness is not universally accepted or even tolerated, and that there exist plenty of places not only around the world but indeed in the United States and other so-called “Western” nations where gay people can and do experience a gamut of discriminatory practices, from hate speech to murder. It is therefore entirely within the prerogative of every queer person to assess and evaluate individual/specific situations or scenarios and decide whether or not we need to come out (or, indeed, whether or not we can come out).

Sexuality and Sex

The thread is replete with mentions made to sex acts. From Crisco-assisted-Twister to gay sex dungeons to orgies, again and again people would simultaneously insist that “no, being gay doesn’t matter to gaming” and then turn around and say something akin to, “if someone brought up that they were gay, I’d assume there was some other motivation.”

I’m not a special snowflake who will melt at the slightest provocation, but I’d like to take a stab at explaining why this line of “reasoning” is offensive. For years, gays (lesbians have their own stereotypes associated with them, but this one is primarily aimed at gay men) have been routinely stereotyped as promiscuous, as sex-crazed, as bathhouse-trolling, park-cruising, dick aficionados who just can’t get enough. This stereotype is everywhere, and it is malicious. And the assumption is always this: if there’s a gay guy around, straight guys need to watch their backs (or their fronts, whatever), because that homo is gonna get all up on it, amirite?

We saw this, for example, in the debates around the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, with politicians waxing poetic about those dastardly homos suddenly being able to shower with other men, and be on the front lines with other men, and since gay men are All About The Sex, All The Time, that would impact the readiness of our armed forces!

We see it, in another example, in the so-called “gay panic” defenses in court, where a man murders a gay man and then claims it was justified, because, you see, your honor, the homo flirted with me, and so the natural and proportionate reaction to that was literally to kill him.

This assumption is reductive and pernicious because it turns gay men, as a group, to little more than human divining rods, whose setting is on “dick” instead of water. It’s also more than a little silly to see a bunch of straight guys saying things like, “Well, if he brought up he was gay, I’d assume there was some other motive…” Guys, we don’t want to sleep with you. You need to stop flattering yourselves. Here, I will make it easy for you:

How to tell if a gay guy wants to sleep with you
Are you Chris Evans?
No? Congratulations, gay men do not want to sleep with you.

Being gay is not all about sex any more than being straight is all about sex. There are other aspects to sexuality beyond just the bangin’, and this kind of reduction is both silly and unfair. And I’m calling it out here—again, because it’s a pernicious view that needs to be confronted, examined, and put to rest.

The Political Existence of a Queer Person

Let’s unpack, further, why being gay is not “irrelevant.” Like it or not, the very existence of gay people is political. That’s right: MY very existence is a political act. My existence has been turned into a political act by a variety of social forces (political, religious, whatever). I cannot escape—no matter how much the Log Cabin Republicans would like to pretend otherwise—the fact that my existence is simply not palatable to some people and that, as a consequence, my very being is an inescapably political thing.

Hence, I am not particularly surprised the thread got moved to RSP, or that discussions of gay people, or gay things, or whatever, are almost invariably fraught with emotions. Indeed, if you don’t believe me, I ought need only point to the fact that there are still people who will say things like, “Well, I believe that homosexuality is a choice.”

That view, right there (“being gay is a choice”), politicizes my existence. I cannot escape the politics of my existence because there are people out there who will not let me escape it. That the notion of homosexuality as choice is utterly bunk, is total nonsense, does not concern them—appeal to logic cannot breach such an invincible ignorance, because a mighty fortress is our bigotry.

And so I cannot and indeed will not apologize that my life has complexities that go un-faced or un-realized by the heterosexual. Because there is a presumption of heterosexuality such that I oftentimes must come out in order to have my very existence known. (Certainly more or less true depending on the circumstance; a Prada purse packed with rainbows practically spills from my mouth whenever it opens, but there are others less prone to prancing and more to passing who might otherwise go unnoticed.)

This gives lie, too, to the notion that heterosexuals need to “come out.” You do not. This is not a thing. Straight people: Stop making the false equivalence between a need for queers to come out and your need to come out. Literally no such need exists for straight people; the argument (raised by some in the thread) that since they don’t need to come out as heterosexual, why ought a gay feel the need?, is stupid. Again, the presumption of heterosexuality is such that you are assumed to be heterosexual unless you inform people otherwise. These are simply not the same things.

Coming out is a repeat process. Most queer people have their “coming out stories” or whatever—that time in their lives when they told groups of people, en masse, that they were queer. But what we often don’t talk about is that coming out is a process. It is not solely a singular event. Whenever we meet someone new, we have to come out all over again. And this, again, is a political act. And so the question of, “Do I need to come out?” is one fraught with many and more layers of complexity—social, historical, religious, political—than it might otherwise appear. This is not just about etiquette, this is not just about guests, this is not just about the duties of a host—it is about quite a bit more.

And, indeed, this kind of thing can impact thinking even beyond just coming out. I am frequently asking myself, “Wait, am I being too gay?” when I’m at the gaming table, or hanging out with friends, or whatever. (“Do I need to reel it in a bit?”) And this kind of thinking—wrong-headed or not, reflective of/on my friends or not—is the product of the politicization of my being.

The Integration of Queerness in Personhood

You may be saying, “Jason, that’s all very well and good, but, at the end of the day, what has being gay got to do with gaming?” In which case, you’ve arrived at the correct section (assuming you did not skip the previous sections—if you did, tut tut; go back and read them; every word I write is worth reading; and anyway if you don’t read the whole article, however will you criticize my over-use of commas?).

And what I have to say is this: Being gay is an integral part of a person’s personality, an integral part of their life experiences, an integral part of their experiential matrix, an integral part of what makes them them.

There is—perhaps—a distinction that can be drawn between certain social scenarios. I sit down at a table to play a game with strangers at a large convention. We play the game. There is amiable chatter. The game ends, and I leave. In such a scenario, my queerness may, in fact, be largely irrelevant.

But I say may here, because it might not be! Perhaps the group I’ve sat down to game with feels the use of bigoted language is acceptable. Perhaps we’re playing a one-off RPG, and sexuality comes up. Perhaps I’ve not physically sat down with them, but am instead playing a video game, and have thus waded into a chat channel filled with bigoted garbage.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

My point is that, even in isolated situations—situations where you won’t be seeing gaming partners multiple times—queerness can be relevant. But let us restrain ourselves more to the scenario at hand—a situation in which [you] are gaming with someone in their home.

I reject the notion that we ought know nothing of our gaming partners. Human beings are social creatures and gaming is a social activity. The notion that we are all automatons who sit down, play games, and speak nothing of our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our wishes, who reveal nothing of our personalities or our histories, is nonsense.

And it seems almost self-evidently nonsense, doesn’t it? Are we seriously to believe that all these scores of people are playing games with fellow gamers they know nothing about? Because we ought to care. Being gay informs who I am as a person. It may inform my personhood in different ways, but it informs it nonetheless. It may impact my politics, or my religion, or my beliefs, and certainly it impacts my life experiences, my history, and so on.

So my final answer is this: Being gay at the gaming table does matter, because people matter, and some of those people are gay, and because queerness is a thing that is inextricable from a person’s identity in a way that other things simply are not. And because we ought to care, because we ought to care about the people around our game table, and how they are feeling, and whether or not they are having fun, and what kinds of people they are, and where they come from and where they’re going, and whether they’d like another glass of water so long as they know that if they spill it on the BSG board their life is forfeit—gay or not.
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Tue Mar 24, 2015 3:22 pm
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On Changing Our Default Setting Regarding Sexism in Gaming

Jason Beck
United States
Alexandria
Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Cassandra of Troy

Generally speaking, I like gaming. It’s nice. It’s fun (even when I lose, which is more frequent than I might care to admit). It gives me an opportunity to build space stations and Oxford colleges; to be a Cylon or a knight of the Round Table; to fling spells or wield a lightsaber; to conquer the world by hook or by crook.

Gaming is a lot of things to a lot of people. Sometimes, it’s a social activity that facilitates friendships. (Sometimes, unrestrained by sense and reason, it may destroy them.) Sometimes gaming is just fun—an outlet, an escape. Sometimes gaming is more than that, and I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times during my life when gaming became almost necessary. (Because sometimes the world is dark, and terrible, and difficult, and overwhelming, and sometimes retreating into a video game is what you need to get through another awful day.)

As such, it can be frustrating to look about at the general state of gaming (if it helps, you may imagine me casting my gaze upon the World of Gaming, seated, such as it were, atop a resplendent throne of diamonds—I have no qualms with my readers thinking of me in this manner) and see exclusion.

That is, I know first-hand the power and promise of gaming. At its best, it can be a deeply—even profoundly—positive experience. Games can be (and are) art. Games are cultural texts that we read together; texts that we read alone; texts that we incorporate (by reference?) into our own experiential matrices, into our existence.

And because I know and have experienced first-hand the positive potential of games and gaming, it is therefore even more frustrating to witness a cultural milieu in which not everyone is welcome, in which there still exist those attitudes and people who are hostile to others. This hostility is not always overt—racism is not always helpfully dressed in the hood of the Klan anymore than homophobia headlines under Westboro or sexism is displayed by a lecherous and leering middle management type.

I’d like us to change our default setting when it comes to sexism in gaming.

Us—I mean, men. Men! Fellow bros. Dudes. Whatever. (I’m still an “Other”, here; the presumed default “bro” is heterosexual. But this is my blog, so I guess I’ll have to do.)

One of my favorite things Anita Sarkeesian has said is that, “the most radical thing you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”

So, I’d like us (bros!—can we be bros? let’s be bros) to readjust our internal settings and make an effort to simply believe women when they talk about their lives, talk about things that they’ve dealt with, talk about things that have happened to them. So if a woman has a bad experience in a game store, maybe we can accept the narrative as it’s presented to us.

I’ve talked about ways to improve our micro-cultures before; all of this has happened before, but it doesn’t have to happen again. And again. And again. And again. And part of ensuring that these things don’t happen again, part of ensuring that we do improve our gaming culture (both at the micro- and macro-levels) is making sure that, when women speak, we listen. If a woman says, “Something sexist happened,” our default setting needs to be supportive, caring, helpful—our default setting does not need to be, “Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? Do you have irrefutable evidence of this? Is there video? Do you have sworn written statements from all the involved parties and also the people across the street? And you know, if you could produce the blueprints for the building in which this event happened, that’d probably be helpful, too.”

Because gaming is pretty okay! Right? This is a blog on a site called BoardGameGeek, so I think we can all agree to that. And it’s frustrating to think that a woman or many women might not be able to experience what we do (what I do!) when gaming—frustrating to think that, in search of a safe refuge, in search of fun, in search of positive experiences, they’re instead met with a two-fold problem: first, sexism, and second, a lack of support from the broader gaming community when trying to deal with the issue (of sexism).

And a big part of our general ability—both as individuals and as a broader community—to be excellent to each other is re-orienting ourselves (deliberately) into a mindset that, instead of saying, “I do not believe you,” says, “That’s crappy—how can I help?” Because it is right and just and ethical and moral and empathetic and all of those sorts of fancy things, sure, but also because—because, look: try to think back to one of your best gaming memories, a memory when something was just, it was just great, right?, and then try to imagine a situation where you never had that experience because something sexist or bigoted or otherwise crappy happened. Sucks, right?

So! Bros. We need to believe women when they talk about their experiences. Because it is the right thing to do, and because it’s important that we continually work to improve our culture to ensure that women can—and do—experience all the positivity that gaming has to offer and that, when they encounter the uglier parts of our macro-community, the micro-level response doesn’t reinforce that ugliness, but banishes it instead.
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Thu Dec 11, 2014 5:24 pm
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On the Role of Men in Re-Shaping Gamer Culture for the Better

Jason Beck
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Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love #MeepleForMeeple

Emma Watson, perhaps best known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, recently gave a speech at the U.N., launching a new #HeForShe campaign. The speech is excellent and worth watching, not least because she takes on the notion that “feminism” is a negative term (and that feminism is often incorrectly equated to “man-hating”).

The broader basis of her speech and of the (rather awkwardly named, but there it is) #HeForShe campaign is that men have a stake in feminism, too. That is, men ought to be interested in feminism, broadly speaking, for two reasons: first, because we ought to want equal rights, equal dignity, fair treatment, and so on, for the women in our lives (i.e. not just as an abstract philosophical notion, but because we can and should look around us and see mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends, aunts, co-workers, friends, all of whom are impacted by structural inequality); and second, because men (generally speaking) hold the positions of power and, as such, are positioned to encourage more rapid change.

What I’d like to do, then, is consider the ways in which Ms. Watson’s speech can be applied at the micro-level of our gaming communities and at the macro-level of gaming culture.

Men.

Generally speaking, they’re in charge. This just is—both here, now, and throughout history. And this is one of the main thrusts of Ms. Watson’s speech and the accompanying campaign—that, since men are generally in power, they have to be part of the effort to change the status quo. (Women, for example, did not elect the government that gave them the right to vote.) Women can and absolutely do influence the world, but how much faster would change come if there was buy-in from the people in power?

This same idea can be applied to gaming writ large. Despite evidence that women are a large and growing element of the gaming population, it’s safe to say that the hobby is still dominated, in many ways, by men. The gender imbalance on BGG is not disputed, and even a cursory survey of game designers and developers (both board and video) is going to show a significant imbalance there, too. So long as men are the “gatekeepers” of the hobby—so long as they are the ones publishing the games, dominating the professional networks, and so on, they’re going to have a disproportionate impact on the hobby as a whole. And, by virtue of that power, they’re also the ones best positioned to change things for the better, to combat against the noxious or foul influences that may arise within or otherwise permeate the gamer culture.

“But Jason, I thought this wasn’t about ‘man-hating’. Are you going to blame men for all the problems in gaming culture today?”

Nah. Look, I like dudes as much as the next guy (and probably more, amirite? #obviousgayjoke #isobvious), and I’m not trying to say that every man in the gaming hobby (or industry) is a bad person. The point, instead, is that men—by virtue of the fact that they dominate the hobby/industry—are better positioned to effect positive change in a hobby that needs it.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was a freshman in high school, I went to an after-school club. I’d heard they played board games there—specifically, that they played Diplomacy. Boy howdy!, I thought, Diplomacy? What luck! I love that game! (I’m paraphrasing.) And it’s true: by that point, my friends and I had been playing it for a couple of years, and it was a lot of fun (Diplomacy was my gateway game).

So I went to this club one afternoon, and I sat down to play Diplomacy with these fellows. I was Russia, and I was the new kid at the table, and I was wiped out so efficiently you’d think that they’d planned it. They did—plan it, I mean. The game was totally miserable. I was new, and therefore easy prey. I was Russia, and picked apart by the concerted actions of Austria-Hungary, England, Germany, and Turkey (and a complicit France and Italy), with a glee that can only be described as malicious and unkind. After I was eliminated (it hardly took any time at all, frankly), I got up, left, and never returned.

There was a lot happening there—a lot that unfolded in that short space of time. A new guy entered a club, bright-eyed and hopeful that he’d find more people who liked playing Diplomacy and had fun doing it. And, instead of finding a welcoming atmosphere, instead of finding people who thought, “Gee whiz, someone else that not only has heard of Diplomacy but wants to play? What luck!”, found instead people who took pleasure in making someone else’s gaming experience miserable—who, in fact, went out of their way to do so.

This was—and is—deeply, deeply stupid.

Those jerks probably don’t remember that game anymore than they remember me. In some ways, the experience was a personal net positive, because, although I was disappointed and a little disheartened, it crystallized in me an attitude that I have maintained ever since: that we absolutely have an obligation to be kind and welcoming to fellow gamers, and especially to potential gamers, and that exclusivity at the gaming table is not a positive trait.

Which is not to say that we must accommodate everyone. Being kind does not mean being a doormat. If you’re a jerk, you’re not welcome at my gaming table. But I’m not going to go out of my way to make you feel unwelcome; I’m not going to put a “No Girls Allowed” sign on my clubhouse.

Men in the gaming hobby are like those guys when I sat down at the Diplomacy table—before they were jerks. Those guys had the power to create a positive and welcoming atmosphere for me. They had the power (they were members of the club—I was not; they were the old-timers—I was the new kid) to be welcoming, to be proper stewards of a gaming environment, an environment that is fun, that is a positive experience for those involved, that makes people want to come back (or even, in my case, to come back—bearing friends! [but instead I warned them all away]).

Ms. Watson’s campaign, #HeForShe, is making the same point as my [rambling?] Diplomacy story. There are people in a position to do something, to make changes, to make improvements, and they ought to do so.

And this, fortunately, is applicable to our hobby, at both the micro- and the macro-levels. We can and should make it clear that anyone who’s a dick to women is unwelcome at our gaming tables; we can and should make it clear that sexism and other forms of bigotry are unwelcome faces in our hobby. We can and should make it clear that we—men—are going to make a concerted effort to call out bad behavior, and to examine our own lives and our own behavior and see where we can and should make improvements.

Although bad behavior is ultimately the responsibility of an individual person, we ought not tacitly condone that behavior by turning a blind eye or generally allowing it to continue. So long as men are the predominant presence in our hobby, then it is up to men to re-shape it in a positive way, wherever we see a need to do so (and to listen when we don’t).
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Wed Oct 1, 2014 6:53 pm
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On Penalizing Games for Sexism

Jason Beck
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love No One Lives Forever

I’ve written a lot of articles on this blog, and a frequently recurring response to my posts is, “Well, why don’t you go out there and do something, instead of just complaining about things all the time?”

I reject the notion that fostering a discussion about issues I perceive as important to the gaming community does not, in fact, constitute “doing something”. These sorts of things—these problem, these concerns, these behaviors, these ideas, these approaches, these beliefs—can and do require open and honest communication. If you are presented with a viewpoint that you find alien, radical, strange, or otherwise incomprehensible, it can be helpful to discuss it—to find out where the other person is coming from, to try and understand why they believe what they do, what drives their belief(s), and attempt to reconcile their understanding of the world with yours.

This is not, however, intended to be just a defense of my blog and my walls of text. I do think that some “calls to action” can be disingenuous, or at least a little misguided. For example, telling someone that, if they don’t like the games out there, they should just “go make their own”, is silly and non-productive. What would be better would be to emphasize the measurable things that can, realistically, be done. That is, it is best to focus on the achievable, rather than shutting down arguments with specious or outlandish recommendations.

I try to emphasize small, practical ways that people can influence their micro-cultures, because sometimes sweeping cultural change may seem at once necessary and overwhelmingly impossible (or, perhaps, overwhelming and therefore impossible). We can modify how we treat each other on internet forums; ensure that our gaming spaces are open and inclusive; actively patronize companies that produce good games.

These actions are all important, and I continue to believe it is necessary and right for us to continue to engage in our micro-cultures, not only because those are areas in which we can have an immediate and demonstrable impact, but also because widespread micro-changes can and will add up to something greater. And I will reiterate here that I think it is especially important that we support companies and individuals that produce games (and other media) that are “steps in the right direction”.

However, I would like to suggest an additional line of change: We should, in our reviews of games, dock points for problematic treatment of women and other minorities.

These do not have to be outrageous; I am not suggesting that we should, upon identifying a game featuring a woman in a chainmail bikini, immediately post a review of “0”. Such reviews are going to be counter-productive and will be perceived, essentially, as trolling.

Rather, what I am suggesting is that you dock, let’s say, ten to fifteen points (on a hundred point scale) from a game. And, when doing so, be specific: have a line or a paragraph in your review that discusses the issue; that says exactly why you are docking points and how this could have been avoided. “This game is really great on so many levels, but the depictions of women in the game’s art are ridiculous, and so I’m taking some points off for that… I’d love to see a new version of the game with better, less sexist art.” Additionally, it is worth considering that most reviews already comment/score games based on their graphical representation. In this sense, incorporating another matrix into the judgment ought to be relatively seamless.

People repeat the mantra that “sex sells”, so it is up to us to impress upon game designers and producers that there are plenty of women and men who are not only not interested in seeing sexism (or other kinds of discrimination) in their games, but that we can and will speak up about it when it happens. If games come out that feature women as sex objects and no one mentions it while they go on to give the game high marks, then we’re simply going to reinforce the status quo—and the status quo is that this kind of thing is not only acceptable but desirable (because all gamers are white, male, heterosexual teenagers, right?).

I think this may be helpful if applied in a reasonable manner because it will represent an area of concrete, possible change. For example, if I suggested simply giving games that had this kind of nonsense in them a 0, I don’t believe it’d make any difference. Such reviews would, as I said, simply be dismissed as trolling. But, if the difference is between a 7.5 and an 8.5, and the review explicitly says, “This game has been bumped down because X depiction of a female character was sexist,” then that offers a concrete and action-able suggestion. (In fact, it may even be helpful to go further, to say, “X depiction is sexist and if you did Y or Z, it would be an improvement.”)

Only by introducing this concept—that sexism in games ought not be without consequence—into a broader narrative can we hope to see real change. And, indeed, there are some high profile people (like Anita Sarkeesian) who are doing this. But inserting these sorts of penalties into game reviews may offer a way to expand the scope of the discussion, to bring attention to these issues when and where they pop up, and provide a tangible, demonstrable way in which game designers, game producers, game publishers, and game players can see that casual misogyny, casual sexism, casual bigotry, have consequences.
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Tue Jul 8, 2014 4:55 pm
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On Women, Internet Comments, and BoardGameGeek

Jason Beck
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Professor Quirrell

My last post here on The Bored Gaymer dealt with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, geek culture, and what we can (or should) learn from “universal” experiential value. I closed out the post by mentioning some (illustrative, not exhaustive) examples of everyday sexism that could (and should) be curbed in geek culture writ large, and by asking BGG members to discuss further ways that our community (especially our micro-cultures) could be improved.

It wasn’t lost on me (or others) that, in a conversation about how women experience sexism and what we could do to help reduce sexism in geek culture, women were (for a while) decidedly absent. Which is not to say that they weren’t reading or even responding to me privately (they were), so much as that, as with many other Conversations On The Internet, it was largely dudes talking to and with dudes. But if the question is, “Why are so few women participating in [conversations on BGG]?” the answer isn’t going to lie solely with reference to statistics on BGG users, disproportionate gender representation, and so on.

(I suppose you might also say, “Jason, perhaps the issue is simply that not many people read your blog, ergo there are not many women to comment in the first place.” That is ridiculous, of course—this is the most popular blog on BGG with “bored” and “gaymer” in the title. The most popular.)

The problem here is not (necessarily) one of gender imbalance at the aggregate level so much as it is a systemic problem that is by no means unique to BGG. Rather, the issue is one of consequences. I can post here, to my blog, relatively freely—though the subject matter is “controversial”, I don’t really have to worry about anything beyond a few scattered, overtly malicious comments, or generalized dickishness directed my way.

Indeed, it seems fair to say, generally speaking, that men don’t have to worry about the consequences of their posts online. That is, they can join in conversations freely without needing to ask, “What is going to happen to me as a result?” Certainly, you may conjure up a counter-example (“But I’ve had plenty of people say nasty things to me on the internet!”), but what I’m talking about here is specific, and different. The point isn’t that men can simply post whatever they want without any consequence whatsoever and that everyone will always be nice to them—rather, the point is that the default online environment for men is different than it is for women.

As I said, I don’t need to worry about the consequences of posting blogs here, despite the sometimes controversial nature of what I say, or the frequency with which I use commas. I can—and should—expect feedback, even hostile feedback, for the things that I say, especially if I know I’m going to be discussing a particularly hot-button issue.

But these “consequences” do not give me particular pause, nor do they stay my hand. For women, however, the equation is different. The abuse endured by high-profile-internet-women like Anita Sarkeesian is well documented and horrifying, but, as plenty of other women will tell you, the abuse is not limited solely to people like Ms. Sarkeesian. If a woman wishes to post on the internet—perhaps something utterly benign, but especially when it comes to something more “aggressive” or “pro-woman”—she must weigh the consequences of posting in a profoundly different manner than men do.

In other words, the difference between me posting a comment on a thread and a woman posting a comment on a thread is that I don’t have to stop and ask, “Is this going to spill over into my offline life? Am I going to receive rape threats? Death threats? Am I going to be stalked? Harassed? Are people going to call my home phone number, my work, show up at my doorstep?”

These things do happen. And so, a woman on BGG may be forced to make a judgment call: Do I participate more fully in what BGG has to offer (e.g., the community; the discussions; the forums), knowing that there might be actual consequences for doing so, or do I just… not participate?

If these scenarios seem too extreme to stomach, too unlikely (“That kind of thing would/could never happen on BGG!”), it is worth considering that misogyny is often invisible to other men. However, even if we accept that BGG’s online community is of a caliber such that these sorts of offline harassment aren’t going to happen (I do not accept this, but let us press ahead), there are other things that women have to deal with in online forums that men simply do not.

I discussed this issue privately with some women, though there were others who chimed in with comments on my last post, for which I am grateful. And, in those comments and conversations, women again and again highlighted how the “simple” (to me/us/men) act of participating in an online conversation could, in fact, produce a great deal of anxiety.

Anxiety—over being shouted down, or shouted over, or simply ignored, or treated with contempt, dismissed. I certainly expect to be treated with contempt… if I say something contemptible. But what I do not expect is to be ignored or shouted down solely as a product of my gender.

The debates that periodically flare up over the presence of the Women and Gaming forum on BGG are a good example of this (though not, by any stretch, the only)—if the subject gets brought up, how quick are men to chime in with their opinions?

The simple fact is that women have to work harder to be heard, both here on BGG and elsewhere. And this is not always a conscious manifestation of misogyny—I’m not saying that women need to be treated with kid gloves. But if an issue concerning women arises, how often do we see a thread wherein man after man after man posts a reply, and the voices of the women involved simply get drowned out?

Or, alternately, how many times have we seen a woman’s opinion dismissed as hysterical or overly sensitive (particularly the latter)? Or, if not dismissed for supposed reasons of “tone” (those dastardly women, with their emotions!), then simply dismissed out of hand as being irrelevant?

These are things, concerns, issues, that have been raised right here, in comments on this blog, and that bear consideration. It is incumbent upon us as men to behave better. And I do not mean this in a patronizing sense—there is no, “Poor widdle Susie, are her feewings hurt?” attitude here, and such would be as stupid as it is grotesque. Rather, what is needed is a clear-eyed recognition that we can do better and that these problems are, to put it simply, the creation of men. Anita Sarkeesian is not getting rape threats from women. She is getting them from men.

Oftentimes, problems like these are easy to ignore because the alternative, the clear-eyed recognition, is ugly. It’s much easier to cry, “Not all men!” and position oneself as one of the “good guys” than it is to say, “We need to have a conversation about this,” or to call out this kind of behavior when you see it.

However, this isn’t a call for a sanitized, watered-down, kid-gloves version of the internet, or of life, or of BGG. The point here isn’t that women are weak and need to be put on pedestals or have their hands held. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that men would experience these kinds of anxiety about participating online if they had to face the consequences that women do. Rather, the point is that, by allowing these types of behaviors to go unremarked upon and/or to let them continue unabated, unchecked, we are enabling a culture in which huge numbers of people are being kept from the table and it absolutely has to stop.

Problems like these are not isolated, but this piece is already long enough, so I’m going to spare you a lecture on why I don’t think tackling issues like this is worthless because our culture is interconnected even in its problems. Rather, I will reiterate what I have tried to make an ongoing theme of mine, which is this: Problems in our broader culture can and should be addressed by us in our day-to-day lives and interactions, and this includes our micro-cultures (like gaming). Change can come from the top-down, but it can also come from the bottom-up, and we have an obligation to improve things wherever we can. Over time, as we improve our micro-cultures, these victories, these changes, can and will add up and become a broader cultural shift—a shift that, eventually, renders blog posts like this mercifully obsolete.
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Fri Jun 13, 2014 4:23 pm
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On Geeks, Experiential Value, and #YesAllWomen

Jason Beck
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and STFU

There have been a lot of terrible things in the news lately—terrible things that are happening to women, worldwide, whether it’s a mass shooting in California or a gang rape in India, there’s never, it seems, a shortage.

This isn’t a blog about current events, and I doubt that I have much to say about these sorts of dreadful things that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and better, by others. I would, however, like to talk about the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen that sprang up in response to recent events, especially the UCSB mass shooting. (I’m also not going to link to articles about it—sorry, but I’m not sure feeding the glamorization-by-mass-media-frenzy of mass murderers is particularly helpful.)

The #YesAllWomen hashtag started out as women describing their everyday experiences with misogyny, experiences that are widely, near-universally or even universally felt by women around the globe. It provides a fascinating look into the world that women have to deal with—a glimpse at the near-constant barrage of nonsense they have to put up with just as they go about their day-to-day lives.

Before I continue, please consider: If your first reaction to these sorts of things is to say something like, “Not ALL men are like this!”, or, “I don’t think this is true,” please take a step back, sit down, and try to lower your defenses a little. I understand this impulse—when I read about the heinous behavior of men, or geeks, or whomever (oh jeez, especially when a gay person does something bad, and I groan and am like, “ARGH you’re going to screw this up for all of us”), my first instinct is to protest. “But *I* am not like that! See? I’m one of the good ones!”

Unfortunately, this impulse isn’t helpful when it comes to engaging in constructive dialogue. It is, frankly, basically a given. “Not all men are rapists.” “Not all men are mass murderers.” Yes, we know. Really—we all know that.

Instead, the best way to approach these situations is to ask, “Why are these things being said?” and/or, “What do these things mean?” That is, instead of saying, “Not all men!”, ask yourself, “Why is this being brought up in a public forum? Is this truly so important?” (Faced with thousands upon thousands of tweets detailing similar experiences by women the world over, the conclusion ought to be simple: Yes, it is truly so important.)

Universal Experiential Value
Or: All of this has happened before


I’ve talked about experiential value before, and am not going to re-hash everything I said here. (Such is the beauty of intertextuality in the age of the hyperlink, amirite?!) When I was discussing experiential matrices before, however, my emphasis was on the non-universality of individual experiences. That was, and is, true, on a fundamental level. However, it would be wrong to insist that there is no commonality between individual experiences. We do not, after all, use words like “culture” in a vacuum.

This is a rather circuitous way to say that the hashtag #YesAllWomen is important because it is speaking to universal or near-universal experiences of and by women around the world. Reading through those tweets, and articles about them, I was constantly and consistently struck by how damn shitty it was—how utterly crappy that so many women had similar stories of such pervasive sexism.

In some sense, this isn’t new. The statistics on these sorts of things are out there, and are readily available. Women have been saying, for a long time, that we live in a culture that is saturated, through and through, with misogyny. (If you feel the need to call these ladies a name, please feel free to choose from the vast array that our language has supplied you with. You may, of course, find your selection somewhat more limited if you wish to discuss a man. How curious!) But the virtue of the #YesAllWomen hashtag is the simplicity of the format, of the curatorial nature of the voices of so many different women expressing their experiences.

When observing the reactions of heterosexual (usually white) men to this and similar things, I am often struck by their disbelief. And, in some ways, I sympathize with it. The world can be an ugly, ugly place, and white men are insulated, in many ways, from the worst of it. These experiences discussed by women are things that do not mesh with the experiential matrices of many men, and are frequently, as a result, met with skepticism. “Sure, there are some wackos,” the response will be, “but there will always be a few bad apples. I don’t treat women like this, and I don’t know anyone that treats women like this.”

Of course, what we have here is, again, a misapplication of the commonality of experience. And, as I said, I can sympathize with it. We do not, after all, want to live in a world that treats some of its members in such a way. It truly is terrible. Unfortunately, it is also easier to question the commonality than face the cold reality it offers.

My sexuality has served as a useful bridge for me to get from the proverbial here to there. By virtue of my experiences as a result of my, uh, gay-ness, I am better equipped to understand the struggles of others. This does not, however, mean that I will ever truly understand. I am, after all, a white guy. By virtue of my gender and my ethnicity, I am shielded from a great deal of the ugliness that the world has on offer.

I can, to be illustrative (but by no means exhaustive), walk home alone, at night, and have far, far less to worry about than a woman would. (Generally speaking.)

But the fact is that (again, for example) sexual assault is simply not something that enters into my day-to-day concern. I do not have to get into an elevator with another man and worry, “Is he a decent human being, or is he one of the bad ones?”

However, my sexuality has served as a useful bridge between the social privilege that I enjoy and my actual awareness of the privilege that I enjoy. (Another example: When I put up a blog post, I do not have to worry about getting rape threats if someone disagrees with me, whereas they are a literally daily occurrence for many women on the internet.)

I can, for example, sympathize with how women feel unsafe when out in the world. This is not something I can truly sympathize with simply as a man (and obviously here I’m not speaking about specific instances, like, “Well, Jason, I’d feel unsafe in Iraq!” Yeah, okay…), but it is something I can sympathize with as a gay. The thought, for example, of walking hand-in-hand with another guy down the street is something I find actively frightening because, though it is a generally innocuous action, it is one that could actually get me killed. There are countries and places I would like to visit but have crossed them off my proverbial list because I have weighed “See interesting historical site” and “Preserve ontological unity” and declared for the latter.

I am expounding at length about myself here—in this topic that isn’t really about me at all—to illustrate what I think may be a stepping stone for others. An expansion of our own empathetic abilities is, frankly, useful. This is, in a very real way, what is meant by “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”—it is an approach that allows us to see the world from someone else’s (possibly very different) perspective, thereby broadening our understanding of the world.

People, after all, say things and do things for a reason. We do not, unlike Athena, spring forth, fully formed, from someone else’s forehead, and then enter into discussions on the internet. And so it is useful to us (and by “us” here, I specifically mean dudes/bros/men-folk) to try to extend our sympathetic faculties and ask why someone would be saying or doing a particular thing. And, if we are presented with a situation in which literally thousands of women are saying something about their experience, it behooves us very much to try to learn from it.

Geek Culture and #YesAllWomen
Or: But it doesn’t have to happen again


In the face of such overwhelming commentary on the sorry of state of our culture writ large that is presented to us by an event like #YesAllWomen, it may be easy to say, “Well, what am *I* supposed to do. No, but seriously, I’m just one man/woman/robot/unicorn/robot unicorn!” (If the latter, please to not underestimate your power.)

One of the most obvious things that can be done is for men to examine their own behavior(s). Are you subtly (or not-so-subtly) engaging in behavior that is misogynistic? Are you assuming that a female customer in a game store is buying something for her male-significant-other? Are you accusing women of being “fake geeks” in order to attract attention? Are you making rape jokes, or using language that states, either explicitly or implicitly, that women are commodities, or are otherwise less valuable than men? Are you creating an environment, either through your actions, language, or general comportment, in which women feel uneasy or uncomfortable (or downright unsafe)?

If a woman walks into a game store, do you stare?

These are, of course, examples—as usual, illustrative but not exhaustive. And, really, you might be just fine in this department. You might not be a creep, or a jerk, and you might be very mindful about how you act and what you say and the like, but even if that is the case, a little self-examination isn’t going to hurt.

Perhaps more importantly, then, is the imperative we have to speak out against these types of insidious language and behaviors. A culture in which a woman can go to a geek convention and be sexually harassed is enabled by men who do nothing to change that culture. The “boys will be boys” attitude is as noxious as it is problematic—which is to say, very. However, if men aren’t calling out other men for their dumb/obnoxious/inappropriate/disgusting behavior, then things just aren’t going to change. If a guy wolf-whistles at an attractive woman who walks by, and his friends don’t turn to him and say, “Frank, you need to cut that shit out right now,” then Frank is going to keep doing it.

What I’m suggesting, in short, is that we, as geeks, must change our culture by changing our micro-cultures. I don’t expect everyone to get up on a stage and give a formal presentation about sexism in gaming or whatever. What I am saying, however, is that, if this problem seems huge (it is) and unsolvable on our own (also true), then we ought to approach it from a micro- rather than a macro-level. And it is here—in our gaming micro-cultures—that we have not only the opportunity but also the ability to change things for the better.

If our internet forums or video game chat channels or geek conventions are toxic atmospheres, it is incumbent upon us to change them by calling out bad behavior and sticking up for our fellow brothers and sisters (not in a way that robs them of agency—“I’ll handle this, madam, for I am virile and potent,”—but in a way that says, “We’re all in this together”).

And finally, as a wrap-up, I will admit that my suggestions are largely confined to those I’ve enumerated above. I would encourage [non-specific you] to comment with suggestions that may be helpful as to other ways to help foster a more welcoming, inclusive, and safe atmosphere within our gaming communities. Are there specific behaviors that are common/pervasive among (especially male) geeks that need to be curbed or reformed? Are there specific things that can be done to make women feel as if they are safe in a geek gathering?

~

Please to note: That the purpose of this blog has always been to facilitate discussion about issues I felt (queer issues, primarily) do not receive much (if any) real attention in our hobby. When the blog first began, I engaged with the comments section. Eventually, I ceased doing this, a policy I have continued. There are a lot of people who comment on this blog, and, in general, the level of discourse can be very high. When I initially stopped my involvement with the comments, it was because I felt that the comments section was, in fact, better off for it. That is, I did not want the conversation to be “Jason says this” and “Commenter says this” and then “Jason responds to commenter”, ad infinitum.

Generally speaking, I think this has worked well. If someone raises a point that is important enough, I can and will discuss it in a future post, but on the whole I think it’s safe to say that I’ve said my piece in the original post (and probably more than enough, really…).

With all that being said, I am more than happy to receive feedback privately, and am always grateful to hear from people, especially those who find this blog useful or otherwise interesting. I thought I ought to specifically address this here, now, since the final bit of this post is an explicit request for discussion. If you do not feel comfortable responding publicly, please feel free (now, or for any post, really), to simply geekmail me directly. I am happy to post, without attribution, further discussion here in the comments myself, or just to engage one-on-one via private conversation.
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Fri May 30, 2014 6:58 pm
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On the Virtues of Diversity in Gaming, Part Two

Jason Beck
United States
Alexandria
Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love #CancelColbert

This is the second in what is intended to be a two-part series entitled, “On the Virtues of Diversity in Gaming”. You may have gathered this from the title of the post—but in case you didn’t, there you go. The original post can be found here, and was written in response to a conversation that was started on another part of the site about diversity in the gaming community.

My first post dealt with, unsurprisingly, the virtues of diversity in gaming—or, to put it another way, whether or not diversity in gaming is a good thing. This long-delayed post is intended to address the question of whether the gaming community is already diverse (or diverse enough), as well as the related question of what it means to even be “diverse enough”.

“Diversity” seems to be one of those buzzwords that generates an emotional response from the audience regardless of its use or context. Like “political correctness”, “diversity” is perceived by some as an intrusion by the government—as something that is mandated, forced, or otherwise shoved down our collective throats in the name of some vague, academic-sounding multicultural bullshit.

To put it another way: Sometimes, in these sorts of discussions, there are people who react with implicit or explicit hostility (to my blog, or elsewhere, to other things), as if my or other peoples’ suggestions regarding things like greater inclusivity are an assault on an institution or tradition that they value. It is my hope that we can try to move past these knee-jerk reactions and into a realm of more reasonable and productive conversation by creating and maintaining an atmosphere in which issues are aired politely and greater empathy can be had on one or both sides of a/the debate.

Which is to say, when I answer a question like, “When will our hobby be diverse enough?”, the image that oughtn’t spring to mind is one of mandatory racial quotas, or some other heavy-handed Diversity Enforcement. I’m not here to insist that your gaming table include at least 20% X, 15% Y, and 10% Z.

Instead, I think it would be helpful to think of diversity as a process, rather than some quota-driven end-state. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with a gaming table made up, for example, of white, heterosexual, cisgender males. That is to say, advocating in favor of greater diversity/inclusivity doesn’t mean a simultaneous condemnation of the supposed status quo—or, at least, a condemnation of those people who participate in the status quo. Having social privilege does not make you a bad person, per se. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, I enjoy a great deal of social privilege by virtue of my socioeconomic background, my gender, and so on. But I didn’t choose to be born white or male anymore than I chose my parents, my country of birth, or my historical time period.

To put it another way, I don’t expect anyone to disrupt their regular gaming group because they think I’ve mandated them to go out and find a "token black friend" to add to the mix. That isn’t at all what I mean.

When we approach the issue of diversity, both on the micro-level (i.e. at the gaming table) and at the macro-level (i.e. at the aggregate level in our hobby), I think it most productive to ask, “What can we do to make our hobby welcoming to everyone?” And, as a corollary, “What is it about our hobby that some might perceive as unwelcoming, and what can we do to change that?”

In other words, I’m not asking for all the straight white guys to shove off. (“This is OUR HOBBY now.”) Rather, I’m asking that we reject my initial question (“When is our hobby diverse enough?”) as being fundamentally flawed. Our hobby is not and will not ever be “diverse enough” in any meaningful sense until we’ve constructed a macro- and micro-level culture in which all people reasonably feel welcome.

Successfully doing this, then, is going to require us to ask, for example, what kind of message we’re sending to both the gaming community and to the world outside the gaming community (“There’s a world outside the gaming community?!!11!”) when a noxious game like Busen Memo gets posted to seemingly every geeklist on the site (“But it’s funny!”), or when people feel the need to insist that the existence of the Women and Gaming Forum is itself sexist (“It’s reverse discrimination!”), or when artistic depictions of people in games are so often lacking in depictions of people of color (or women who don’t have a chainmail bikini in their wardrobe).

That is, a successful drive at expanding inclusivity in the hobby will require some measure of introspection. It is not enough to simply look around your gaming table and say, “I am welcoming, therefore the hobby must be welcoming”. Not all experiences are universal, after all, and we, as participants in the hobby, bear some level of responsibility for the macro-level culture of the hobby itself, even if we have already worked to create a micro-culture that is welcoming, open, and diverse.

In other words, it becomes worthwhile for us to, as an exercise in diversity, challenge our assumptions about the hobby. Are we, for example, docking points in reviews of games if those games exhibit sexist (or otherwise prejudiced) proclivities? If there was a widespread tendency among reviewers to say, “I was going to give this game 7 stars, but I’m giving it 6 instead because the art is ridiculous and sexist”, it seems plausible that game makers would respond. Similarly, actively patronizing companies that create games that include minorities is a way we can put our money where our mouth is, so to speak.

At the end of the day, diversity and inclusivity are abstract concepts that we can and should view more as a process than as a static goal. Creating an atmosphere/environment in both our micro- and macro-cultures in which women feel welcome, and people of color feel welcome, and LGBT people feel welcome, and so on, is not something we can simply pronounce, “Okay, done!” and move on. Rather, it calls us to review our own behavior—to be sensitive to language we use, attuned to the merchandise we consume, and attentive to the company we keep—both because it is the right thing to do and because we, collectively, can only benefit from making our hobby more inclusive and diverse.
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Thu Apr 3, 2014 8:50 pm
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On the Virtues of Diversity in Gaming

Jason Beck
United States
Alexandria
Virginia
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Felix alearum famis! Et posse impares sumus erimus en tui semper favoris.
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love cloning vats

Recently, a conversation was started on social justice and gaming. Specifically, the thread’s aim was to discuss, “What do you think game designers can do to grow and diversify the gaming community?” These sorts of threads, though they begin with promising premises, frequently get derailed (it even happens here, from time to time…). This is regrettable, because such conversations have the potential to be quite fruitful.

Instead of tackling the question head-on, however, I’d like to address two slightly different—but related—points: First, whether or not “diversity in gaming” is actually a good thing, and second, whether or not the gaming community is already diverse. I will address the first in this post, and the second in a follow-up post.

There are many people for whom the “status quo” of the gaming industry writ large is perfectly okay. (I know this because they always seem to find my blog.) By and large, these people are white, heterosexual, cisgender men. That they are happy with the status quo is not necessarily a sign of malice, nor is it particularly intended as a value judgment. Rather, the point is that they’re satisfied with the way things are because they are—in this case—part of a/the social class that is being catered to. For example: out of all the big-budget, blockbuster first/third-person video games created to-date, how many of them featured lead characters who were not white (cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual) men?

That the status quo might be undesirable to other people (people who are not men, or who are not heterosexual, or who are not white, or who are not, are not, are not…) does not necessarily occur to them, because they see themselves represented—no problems here! Again: I’m not ascribing malice.

To people who already find themselves well-represented in an industry, an outside call for “more diversity” might seem at once unsettling, unnecessary, irrelevant, or generally bizarre. “Why would we need more diversity? There are plenty of fun games out there now!”

Why, indeed? So, let’s set aside the ethical imperatives and instead ask what we have to gain (as individuals, as a community) from diversifying the gaming community.

There is a fundamental value in broadening our experience of the world. I do not mean this in a specific instance, necessarily—I’m not sure there would be much value to be found, for example, in experiencing the world through the eyes of a serial killer. But surely we can agree that, foundationally, “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” is a Decent Thing To Do, right? At the very least, it ought to lead to an increase in our empathy for our fellow humans.

Beyond simply expanding our understanding of “the human condition,” however, I should think that increasing our experiences vis-à-vis other people might yield things that are simply interesting. If we assume that gaming is a hobby largely limited to straight, white, American/European, middle/upper middle class men, then we’re going to have and sustain a hobby that is, in fact, limited to that sort of person. That is to say, an exclusionary assumption about the audience of a hobby is probably going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy that excludes those who do not fit within the bounds of said assumption. Or, to put it another way: if we tell everyone that video games are for boys, then non-boys are either going to stop playing them, or (more likely) non-boys are not going to start playing them.

And what a loss it would be if we were to be bereft of the experiential matrices of people from cultures/backgrounds other than our own! This is not to say that the white/heterosexual/male/American/whatever paradigm cannot produce art (I’m not going to argue, here, whether or not I think games are art, except to say that yes, I do, and I’m going to use the terms interchangeably henceforth), or even that they cannot produce great art. What I am saying is that limiting the production of art to a certain segment of the population (either through intentional or non-intentional exclusion) is inherently limiting.

How many games (this is intended as an illustrative, non-exhaustive example) do we have about Ancient Egypt? Classical Greece/Rome? And you might (reasonably) assert that these topics are not necessarily about white/straight/American/men, but isn’t it a relatively common trope of discussion that this-or-that-theme has been done before? (And might we understand the prevalence of certain themes within the context of American/European culture, especially as regards past colonialism, etc, being the genesis thereof, rather than actual experiential matrices?) It is not a stretch to imagine that injecting diversity into the gaming community might result in the organic development of themes, mechanics, play-styles, and so on that may otherwise simply not have arisen.

To put it another way: In the free time I spend piddling about, designing games of my own, there are strong elements of religion and history that can be found in them. In this game—building cathedrals in medieval England. In that game—putting together Gregorian chant. In this game—assembling stained glass windows. In that game—building a church in Byzantium while navigating the iconoclasm controversy. The simple explanation for the prevalence of these themes is that I make games with themes that I am interested in (true) and that reflect my educational background (also true). That explanation would be deficient, however, because it ignores the biases that I, myself, have: in this case, a very Western-oriented worldview that understands “history” as, well, the history of the so-called “West” and understands “religion” as—you guessed it—Catholicism (and, ahem, deviations there from).

And you might say, “Hey, Jason, those games sound super neat! Can I get a copy? What’s the problem here? Aren’t you male/white/American?” But the answer here is not that I, in the name of diversity, must cease my own dalliances in design, but rather that diversity affords us the opportunity to have “not only, but also”, rather than “only”. Or, again: How interesting it would be to play a game whose theme is… theological developments in early Hinduism, or a game about Animism, and so on.

If we have wearied of the “you play a medieval Lord” trope, perhaps it’s because “we”, as a community, are primarily drawing from a common, experiential/cultural well. Don’t you get tired of the “damsel in distress” trope? Why does Mario always have to rescue the princess? Maybe the princess is actually on a diplomatic mission to Bowser because the Mushroom Kingdom is being faced by a serious/existential threat from elsewhere, and she is attempting to patch up their long history of hostilities and begin a new era in Mushroom-Koopa relations with a treaty of mutual defense?

In other words: Perhaps we should understand “diversity” from a standpoint of, “What could more/different people bring to the table?” This is, in some ways, a very selfish view (“How can these [other people] make my hobby better?”), but I think this selfishness is at least mitigated by the fact that, presumably, since this is a hobby “we” engage in for fun, other people might find it fun, too.

Note, further, that we are not discussing here an insistence that Every Game Design Team Include Someone Of Every Ethnicity And Sexuality And Gender And So On. No one is advocating for the kind of environment in which the next Risk iteration is mandated to be designed by a panel of people from across the ethnic/socio-economic/cultural spectrum (though, to be fair, that might actually have interesting results!). Increasing “diversity” in the gaming community is about an increase in diversity at the aggregate level, it isn’t about imposing a whole bunch of restrictions and such on everyone who wants to design a game. (“You’re a straight, white, American male? Sorry, you can’t design a game until you have X, Y, and Z people helping you.”)

The point, then, is that diversity can be an excellent force for good in our hobby in that it can bring to the hobby, to us, people who may approach the world/the hobby/the game in different ways. This variety of approaches can and will yield dividends in the form of new themes, new mechanics, new perspectives, new stories—in short, new ways and methods and modes of gaming that leave everyone enriched.
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Wed Jan 29, 2014 9:40 pm
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On Penny Arcade and the Penny Arcade Expo

Jason Beck
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and IDEHTW

There’s a controversy on The Internet lately, and since it directly involves gaming/geek culture, it seemed a relevant topic for The Bored Gaymer. In my fevered dreams and imaginings, there are legions of loyal TBG fans who, upon encountering an Issue, ask, “Why hasn’t Jason posted about this Issue yet? I need to know how it is okay for me to feel.”

That’s not really the highlight of said dreams and imaginings, but this is a public blog.

Anyway, this whole thing is lengthy and I’m not going to recap it; instead, you can find an exhaustive timeline here, as well as other relevant articles here and here. There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over this and I don’t want to completely re-hash what others have said and done, so instead I’d like to address some specific arguments that I’ve seen raised.

Ultimately, the bottom line here is this: that Penny Arcade (and I speak of them as a unit, because, though most of the problematic language has come directly from Mike, it is clear that the others are enabling him) responded to a situation in a manner that was not only inappropriate but indeed offensive; that the original comic is not the issue here, but rather PA’s response; that there is no reason not to respond to sexual trauma survivors with compassion, even if you disagree with the points being raised, and further that there is no reason not to err on the side of caution in such a situation; that apologizing is necessary but ultimately not sufficient, as it must be accompanied by a behavioral change, and, rather than seeing sincerity paired with change, what we’ve seen from PA is instead a pattern of saying and doing offensive things, apologizing (you know, ish), and then saying and doing the same things again.

And that, in light of the above, it is entirely appropriate to drop PA from your internet activity; that it is entirely appropriate to drop the Penny Arcade Expo from your to-do list; that it is entirely possible to wash your hands of PA and move on.

Additionally, I’ve frequently used this blog as a platform to discuss how and why we ought to make our gaming micro-cultures more tolerant/safe/open/accepting, and this is a very public example of what happens when you do the opposite. Promoting a positive and inclusive atmosphere has benefits for everyone, and indeed I think it is safe to say that we have an ethical obligation to try to improve our environment, if possible (though this obligation can be mitigated by other circumstances, of course).

How much more obligation, then, do influential figures have to positively shape culture? That is: Do the wealthy co-founders of a global gaming/convention empire have a duty to use their comparatively huge influence within broader gaming/geek culture to shape said culture for the better? Yes, absolutely. Is this the part where I throw out the cheesy, “With great power comes great responsibility” line? Yes, absolutely. To have a significant platform (as PA does) through which good can be done (something they’re obviously aware of, given their Child’s Play charity) and then to not only not use that platform to make gaming culture better but indeed to make it worse—this is a problem.

But this controversy is dumb/ginned up by feminists/meaningless!

The statistics surrounding the number of people who have been and will be (particularly women) sexually assaulted in their lifetime are astonishing. And, even if rape and other related trauma weren’t so common, it would still be worth treading lightly around the subject because of the particularly heinous nature of the acts and their consequences. Which is to say: If you make a rape joke, or a joke that involves rape, and some people call you out on it, or ask you to be more sensitive, then you ought to err on the side of being sensitive. Because, at the end of the day, it takes the barest whiff of human empathy to understand that rape survivors maybe ought to be given the benefit of the doubt here, because duh.

It is not our prerogative to question the experiences other people have, at least in terms of how those experiences made them feel. I might, for example, disagree that the actual comic—what started the controversy—is offensive (all things considered, I think it’s pretty mild), but if someone came to me (hypothetically, as the creator of said comic) and said, “Hey, I find this offensive,” being a complete jerk about it is absolutely not the best way to react. Even if your response is, “I’m sorry you found it offensive, we weren’t trying to make light of rape, we were trying to make X point instead”, that’s fine.

The vast order of difference between the “basic human empathy” response and PA’s response is the issue here. It is staggering that someone would not only respond in such a manner, but then merchandize it. And then, years later, bring it up again in order to express regret over the one thing—the one thing!—they did right.

At the end of the day, this controversy has meaning both because of the subject matter (and its seriousness) and because of what it represents (a public figure actively worsening the broader cultural environment in which he operates). If this was just some internet troll saying terrible, misogynistic things, it would just be another Day In The Life Of The Internet. (Which is not, of course, to say that this is acceptable: the behavior of some of PA’s fans in this situation is so far beyond reprehensible, so utterly grotesque, as to beggar belief, and is certainly vastly worse than what PA has said/done.) But PA isn’t just some guy, or even just a couple of guys—it’s a large and influential taste-shaper/maker in the gaming/geek world, and people listen to what they have to say.

Why should the PA guys have to be role models? They’ve explicitly said they don’t want to be.

I understand why someone might be uncomfortable with attaining a position within society that they did not expect and did/do not particularly want. Unfortunately, sometimes a responsibility gets thrust upon you, and the best you can do is buck up and try to rise to the challenge. Which is to say: Even if the PA guys (either individually or collectively) don’t want to be role models or celebrities or whatever, the fact is that they are. So tough shit.

Social media is increasingly making it hard for people to back away from the dumb things they’ve said or done, but this isn’t just about an isolated case of someone doing or saying something dumb. Instead, what we’ve seen is a pattern of behavior and speech that indicates an attitude that is extremely problematic, a pattern that is coming from someone who, by virtue of his public role, is bound to not only receive increased attention but also increased scrutiny. When you get on a stage in front of thousands of people, you can’t expect that what you say will have no consequence.

Okay. I can concede that PA has behaved badly, but I don’t see why a boycott is an appropriate response. It’s not going to accomplish anything. We shouldn’t be censoring someone just because we don’t agree with them!

People throw around words like “censorship” a lot, but oftentimes this seems to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what censorship actually means/is. No one’s freedom of speech is under attack here. No one is petitioning the government to force PA to pull the original comic, or to lock them away in jail. Freedom of speech means that you have the right to say stupid things, but it also means that I have the right to call you out for said stupid things, and freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from the consequences of said speech.

Ultimately, I think there should be consequences. If a company behaves ethically, then I am more inclined to support them. If a company behaves unethically, then I am less inclined to support them. This is okay—really! No one’s forcing you to read PA comics, no one’s forcing you to go to PAX. You are a consumer of what they produce, and that consumption is optional. In some sense, a “boycott” is always an appropriate response. You’re exercising your freedom—putting your money where your mouth is, such as it were. Is this any different from me boycotting Wal-Mart because they treat their workers poorly, or not going to Chik-Fil-A because of their CEO’s stance on marriage equality? Nope, it’s the same thing. And, sometimes, it’s the only way that we have to demonstrate—tangibly—our disapproval or dissatisfaction.

If we see a pattern of behavior from someone and find that words are not making a difference—as is the case here—then it is appropriate to explore some other avenue of action. Perhaps PA will re-think what they’ve said and done if there is some actual, financial impact. But, if that doesn’t happen, what incentive could they possibly have to change?

But boycotting PAX is counter-productive! Why should we punish a convention? Why can’t we be responsible for making PAX a safe and welcoming environment?

In some situations, this is a position towards which I would have considerable sympathy. At the end of the day, however, PAX and PA itself are too bound up with the personalities involved in this controversy to be separated out. At what point does being silent about something imply approval? At what point does inaction imply agreement? These are potentially thorny ethical questions, but they’re much less difficult in this circumstance for several reasons, the primary of which is that you simply cannot separate the founders of Penny Arcade from Penny Arcade.

I agree that it is incumbent upon participants in activities to create spaces that are welcoming and safe, but this behavior is coming from the top. And there are, after all, other options. PAX is not the only convention, it is not the only expo. There are others. Go to those. Go to places that are not being sponsored and headlined by someone who says and does these things. It simply isn’t the case that you will be going to all the conventions, so pick and choose—and don’t go somewhere problematic.

Look, I went to PAX East this year. (It was my very first convention!) And I had a good time. And so I’m disappointed and frustrated that saying “Nope, we’re done here” to PA makes me a little sad, but at the end of the day, I don’t have a good reason to go to PAX. “But it’s fun!”—so are other conventions. “But it’s important!”—which is exactly why this controversy matters.

At the end of the day, we’re better off with Penny Arcade than we would’ve been without them.

That may well be the case. I’m not trying to assert that everything PA has ever done forever and ever is terrible amen. Their Child’s Play charity—I’m not trying to say that’s terrible. I’m not trying to say that their role in shaping gaming/geek culture is entirely poisonous. I don’t think anyone is saying that, frankly. The point is not that they’ve done good things in the past, it’s that they’re doing lousy things now. It is entirely possible to earn a “bank” of goodwill, such as it were, that may give you a “pass” when you say or do something dumb. And again: everyone has bad days, or has gaffes, or says something inadvertently stupid, or maybe even says something that isn’t inadvertent at all, but is nevertheless stupid, but perhaps is simply a product of ignorance or a lack of self-reflection. But the issue here isn’t with one guy saying one dumb thing—it’s bigger and broader than that, and Penny Arcade’s actions and statements are such that they help feed into a pernicious aspect of gaming/geek culture, whether they intend to or not.

At the end of the day, we ought to remember that actions can and do and ought to have consequences, be they good or bad. Actively soliciting a person or organization, actively participating in an event, even though there are other options, even though it is voluntary, even though that person/company has said/done shitty things—that’s the problem. We don’t have to patronize people or groups who contribute to a toxic environment, and we ought not. Because, sometimes, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment may mean cutting something—or someone—out of it.
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Tue Sep 10, 2013 7:07 pm
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On Sexism and Failure of Imagination

Jason Beck
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love playing straight characters

Recently, a thread sprouted up here on BGG about female representation in the new Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Somewhat surprisingly, the genesis of the thread was actually a complaint that there were too many female characters, rather than the usual (and usually justified) comment that there are too few. I’m not interested in attacking the people who’ve commented on the thread with whom I disagree—rather, I think it’s useful because it’s illustrative.

The original post says, “Just wondering, because it's always hard to get my 13-year-old son to play female characters (and I don't really like to pick them either). Are there a lot of women playing Pathfinder games? Easier for me to "role play" when I have at least something in common with the cartoon character I'm playing.”

This isn’t an uncommon attitude, and I’m going to harp on it because it packs a lot of assumptions into one small bite. And it’s probably worth noting again that I don’t think people who say things like this are bad people—I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these things because social privilege comes with the unfortunate downside of insulating you from non-privilege. That is to say, it can be a kind of “bubble”, and sometimes perfectly nice and well-meaning people simply don’t understand something because they haven’t been properly educated on this topic (and maybe I’m softer on these people because I used to be one).

The flip-side of this attitude is obvious. If the complaint is, “There are too few men, and too many women”, the obvious rejoinder is, “I bet women don’t mind”—not because women are happy to see men marginalized, but rather because they’re happy to finally have some representation. Note also the justification for the request—that it’s “easier” to RP a character with whom you have something in common. And again, this is identical to an argument I’ve made before: that yes, people do prefer to be able to connect to characters, that it’s easier to relate to a character if you have common grounds for relating, and so on.

And again: There’s nothing wrong with that kind of attitude.

Really! It’s perfectly okay for a white dude to want to role-play a white dude in a game. The argument has never been, “Games should force privileged white people to only play as non-white characters!”, but rather, “We are tired of the lack of inclusivity in games because not everyone is white, not everyone is male, not everyone is straight, and so on, and we would like to see ourselves represented, because we exist, too.” To put it another way: I’m not saying that there’s a problem if you want to play a straight/white/male Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, and I’m not saying that Bioware should restrict Commander Shepard to only being gay/non-white/female. Instead, what I’m saying is that, “I’d like for there to be options.” (NB: I know Mass Effect has character customization; that’s why I’m using it as an example.)

I don’t think this is altogether too difficult, nor do I think it should be particularly controversial. However, it is perfectly reasonable to note that, sometimes, games are restricted in their options/offerings simply because of practical constraints. That is—perhaps Paizo wanted to keep the costs for the game down, and so they decided against doing male/female options for every character. Perhaps a computer game company doesn’t have the resources Bioware has, and so cannot offer a game with a wide variety of alternative appearances. That’s fine, and I think we should all be understanding when it comes to those sorts of limitations.

What does rankle a bit about this sort of assumption (or presumption, such as it were) is the failure of imagination that can be evident. When Dragon Age II came out, a lot of people got their knickers in a twist over the “universal bisexuality” of the potential romantic interests in the game—e.g. they were bothered because you could romance Isabella as a guy or a gal, or Anders as a guy or a gal, etc. Why make everyone bi? That’s not how it is in real life! And so on.

This line of argumentation seems spurious (to me) because, even if you set aside the (again, I think reasonable) arguments about technical limitations (even a company like Bioware doesn’t have infinite resources to make their games), it baffles me that people would have a problem with “bisexual” characters and not with, say, dragons. Or monsters. Or magic.

Because what we aren’t seeing are complaints about characters who presumably have far less in common with your average (whatever that means) game player than some dude who likes other dudes, or some lady who is a warrior. Right? We’re not seeing complaints that, “Hey, why’d you have to include so many Dwarves in this game? I have no possible way of understanding and therefore connecting to/with a Dwarf character, because they’re totally mythical! I have no idea what it would be like to grow up a Dwarf, to toil away in vast, underground cities.” Are we seriously to understand that the intellectual difficulties posed by choosing to play a female character (or to be hit on by a character whose sexuality you don’t share) are actually greater than gigantic flying lizards that breathe fire?

And again, I’ll note that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see “yourself” represented in a game. The problem comes when your desire for personal representation comes solely at the exclusion of others. You [in a non-specific sense] need to be able to step back and see that the vast majority of art and the like cater to a certain—privileged—section of the community. That is, when you look down at a character card and think, “Oh man, I wish this [character] was more like me,” what you’re experiencing is something that female gamers or gay gamers or non-white gamers experience all the time—the “default” experience for [us] is this, whereas this is the rare exception for [you].

Perhaps, then, the same imagination we use to appreciate flights of fancy (or even just board games about utilities) can be applied in our own pursuits, in the same way. Which is not, of course, to say that a desire to “see oneself” in a character or a work of fiction is faulty—it is indeed quite fair. But if you’re confronted with a situation in which the “norm” has been disrupted in favor of greater inclusivity, maybe we can apply our “suspension of disbelief” just as surely as we do when we watch a group of Dwarves tromping across the land, fighting monsters.
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Tue Sep 3, 2013 5:11 pm
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