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On the Role of Men in Re-Shaping Gamer Culture for the Better

Jason Beck
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Alexandria
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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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