INTRODUCTION

The genesis of this blog came from an article that I wrote for See Page XX examining prevalence of sexist depictions of women in different areas of gaming. Before you read anything else here, you should really go read the article. (Yes it’s important enough to link twice.) If you find yourself wanting to argue with the article, please read this post here elucidating common arguments against my findings and clarifying some points regarding my criteria and methods.

My goal is to make this a place you can point people to regarding specific issues pertaining to sexism in gaming.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, welcome! If you don’t want to read chronologically, consider checking out this guide on how to use this blog. If you’re a feminist or ally looking for a specific post to use as a reference, then visit this guide here.

Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

  1. The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
  4. As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.

Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.

Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.

So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.

Before I go any further: an important note

It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.

That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:

“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and

It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.

First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:

vistani

And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.

In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

  • Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up
  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
  • Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
  • Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
  • The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.

The Vistani are all drunks:

  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
  • Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
  • Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
  • Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
  • Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”

What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

  • Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
  • The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
  • The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122

The Vistani steal children

  • Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238

(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

  • Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
  • Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
  • Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”

The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye

  • There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
  • Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234

And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?

EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.

When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)

In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.

dca9mongrelfolk

Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:

“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.

This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source: blog.dictionary.com

You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.

So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.

First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.

Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.

Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.

I don’t have sympathy for 101-level questions because men exhaust me

[Hi, folks. I apologize for the radio silence; the start of a new term is always a hectic time. I’m currently finishing up the research for a 2-parter on Curse of Strahd – the republished version for D&D 5th Edition (OMG, folks, I have so much to say about this book…), but in the mean time, I wanted to take a moment to address something that I’ve been thinking about since last week.]

Recently, in an online community that I participate in, there was a post discussing community standards which included the word “trolling” in the list of intolerable behaviors. Someone expressed concern that some people might not know what “trolling” means, to which I replied (rather bluntly) that if someone participating in an online community doesn’t know what a word that has been around so long that it has passed into the common parlance means when used in reference to anti-social online behavior, that’s their problem for not taking the time to educate themselves. (I mean, that’s why Google exists, right?) And apparently, my comment was perceived by at least one person as bullying.

Which. On the one hand, sure. I’m a bitch, and have long since stopped trying to be anything other than a bitch; no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, someone is always going to think that you’re a bitch if you’re a woman, since “bitch” pretty much only means “woman that I don’t approve of”.

And yeah, I don’t have much empathy for ignorance about 101 level issues, which isn’t always the best – especially when I’m dealing with people who are part of communities that I’m invested in. In those sorts of situations, bridge-building is important, and it’s not something I’m terribly good at. While I look up tremendously to the women in my circles who are bridge-builders, I know that’s not ever going to be me. I just don’t have the patience.

On the other hand, though, I’m pretty annoyed that saying forthrightly and without apology that people need to be responsible for educating themselves is something that someone can feel “bullied” by. I have been both 1) bullied and 2) a clueless white person who couldn’t buy a clue to save her life, and I can tell you from personal experience that the pain of learning that you are ignorant about social justice and need to do some work around educating yourself does not even come close to the pain and life-long trauma caused by being the victim of bullying. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

Learning how ignorant I was about social justice and the level to which I needed to educate myself? That sucked, sure. It’s painful realizing that you’ve been inadvertently reinforcing systemic injustice, because everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person. Being bullied? Left life-long scars that I won’t ever recover from. Saying that you feel “bullied” by someone telling you to do your own damn work in educating yourself about important issues just shows how much marginalized people are expected to do the work of teaching their oppressors how not to be oppressive. Marginalized people are expected to hold their oppressor’s hand while gently stroking their hair and whispering softly in soothing, dulcet tones about how their behavior was oppressive, but it’s okay because they didn’t know and they’re still a good person.

Which. You know what? No.

Now I am talking generally and not a specific person, just to be clear

It’s no secret that this is and never has been a 101 level blog – it’s right there in the sidebar. I delete comments pertaining to 101-level questions and issues, because there are so many better places on the internet to educate yourself. There are two reasons for this that I give whenever I am asked about the policy:

  1. Something I learned in the first few years of running this blog was that if I tried to answer all of the 101-level questions I got, I would never get any real actual work done. If I did all of the work around educating clueless privileged people that I was expected to do, I would never get to write about the deeper issues that are my real passion and focus.
  2. I am tired of having the same damn 101-level conversations over, and over, and over again. Explaining the basics of social justice 101 is fucking exhausting and aggravating to me, and I just don’t want to do it anymore.

But if I’m honest, there’s also a third reason. One I don’t talk about much, because it’s hard to address it without sounding like a complete and total bitch: I don’t have empathy for the 101-level struggles of men because men fucking exhaust me.

I’m not proud of it. As much as I make jokes about misandry and male tears, I’ll cop to the fact that those jokes are more of a coping mechanism for dealing with the shit I get because of writing this blog than an actual desire to laugh at men’s suffering. I would like to be able to respond to these situations with empathy and compassion, but that’s just not possible, because I have suffered too much from men too often. When my daily life is full of struggles that reinforce the fact that society sees me as less because I am female, I just don’t have the energy to feel empathetic about a man’s pain that a woman is refusing to educate him about the basics of the basics of the basics of social justice.

Specifically, I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that patriarchy exists. When daycare costs in Canada are forcing women out of the workplace and back into the home… When the male-domination of the tech industry means that tech towns are also areas in which women suffer the greatest economic inequality… When, at my last job, I made 78% of what my husband makes, despite having a higher education level than he does… When my life is full of glass ceilings and invisible barriers that I have been beating my head against, with no perceptible progress, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the daily indignities that I face.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that you are accountable for your sexist actions. When I worked for several years for a company at which the sales bros could talk openly in the office about strippers, call women bitches, and engage in other sorts of misogynist language without any penalties or repercussions… When that same company literally broke the law in regards to condoning a hostile work environment and doing nothing to change it when it was reported to them, and I was told that I had no real legal recourse… When I once temped as an assistant to a high-powered real estate broker who was so condescendingly insulting and patronizing that he made me cry on multiple occasions, and I later found out that I was his fifth temp in four weeks… When my life has been full of men who have harassed, insulted, or harmed me with sexist words and actions, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the fact that only you are responsible for your actions.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that the male gaze exists. When IGN had a section of their website devoted to covering booth babes at E3 (before booth babes at E3 were outlawed)… When games like Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive offer up sexualized depictions of women who are reduced to a collection of titillating body parts… When Bayonetta is sold as an empowered and liberated “strong female character”… When the hobby that I love reduces women on a daily basis to the sexual pleasure and gratification that they can provide to the only “real” gamers – straight men – I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the fact that objectification of women is a problem.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that rape culture exists. When all the girls I went to high school with wore shorts under their uniform skirts because the boys would flip up our skirts to “see if we were wearing underwear”… When truck drivers coming into the office of the company I used to work for would routinely sexually harass the women in the office… When I have been pursued by men who are only dissuaded by me making a show of the ring on my finger… When literally every woman I know has at least one story about unwanted sexual touching by a man at some point in their life… When there are now 50 women who say that Bill Cosby raped them and there are still people who say those women are just looking for attention… When I have to exist daily in a culture that commodifies my body and tells men that they are entitled to use it for their sexual pleasure, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the ways in which our society excuses rapists and blames the victims of rape for their own rape.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education understand that rigid gender roles are bad. When my four year old daughter thinks that women can’t fly planes… When my daughter wants to grow up to be a princess who gets saved from a monster by a prince, marry that prince, and have babies, despite my husband and I telling her she can do anything she wants with her life… When a friend’s five year old son gets bullied for wearing his favorite skirt to school and cries because of it… When the daily reality of parenting my four year old daughter is trying and failing to combat the social programming she internalized when she was TWO that she is less because she is female, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the ways in which gender essentialism and binarism are harmful.

So that’s where I set the bar of “you must be at least this enlightened to be worth my time”. Make of that what you will.

When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers]

[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]

One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?

So. Hold that thought a moment.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.

That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.

Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.

Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:

Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props

At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)

Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?

Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.

Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.

Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.

In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:
Emily7-couldcareless

And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.

I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.

Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral

Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.

doge

I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.

Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:

Emily3-stars

And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.

But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever[1]. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.

Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:

Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT

See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.

Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.

Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:
Emily4-didyou

I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.

And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.

Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.

While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:

Emily5-vulnerable

YOU SEEMED FINE?

BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?

The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.

I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.

And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.

So yeah. No.

[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.

And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist[2].

Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.

Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead

Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.

Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.

Emily8-goodbye

But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.

It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.

Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.

[1] And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea

It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.

[2] And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.

Handling difficult material as a GM: part 2

A few months ago, the ever-fantastic Kate Bullock (who also has a Patreon for her blog that you should check out) said that she wanted to see someone write about this question: “How do I, as a person of privilege, include problematic content in my games safely and inclusively?”

And that is an excellent question! A really big, excellent question! So big that I ended up writing an entire post about player safety in regard to tabletop games and LARPs just to lay the groundwork for this post – because everything that I want to say about how to include problematic content responsibly hinges first on the concept of safety.

So. Let’s take it as a given that you read all of my previous post (if you haven’t, now would be a good time to do so), and move on.

Advice for people making games

I only have one point to make here, but it’s a biggie:

Talk to the people you’re writing about

Because I don’t like repeating myself, I’m going to quote myself from this old-but-still-totally-relevant series I wrote about how to write inclusive settings:

This is probably the scariest part of the process, but it’s also the most important. If you’re going to write about a group of people that you don’t belong to, it is imperative to speak to members of that group. This can be nerve-wracking for those who have privilege, because so often people in positions of privilege are fearful of examining that privilege. But it’s important because without this step, you’re just engaging in more thoughtless cultural appropriation.

So get a second opinion. And more importantly, listen to that opinion. They might tell you something that you don’t want to hear. You need to hear it anyway. Or they might give you the thumbs up. You don’t know until you ask!

If you are writing about people who don’t look like you (and you should be, at least sometimes, because only ever writing about people who look like you is boring as shit), you need to talk to the people whose stories you are going to tell. So if you’re writing a game about women and you’re a man, you need to talk to women. If you’re writing a game about mental illness, but are not yourself mentally ill, you’re going to need consultation from people who do have mental health issues. And if you’re writing a game set in a foreign country that you are not from and are not connected to (ie you’re writing a game set in India and are a white kid from Chicago, to use a hypothetical example), you need to talk to people from that background – after you do your research.

Because that’s the other thing to remember. If you are seeking someone out, you need to remember that they are the ones doing you the favor. Because no person from a marginalized group is OBLIGATED to educate people from outside that group. That’s what the internet is for. Do NOT go to someone and expect them to do all the heavy lifting with regard to teaching you about their culture just so you can do them the “favor” of writing a game about that culture, because that is bad allying. Instead, do your homework. Don’t write your first draft before you’ve done good, solid research. Once a draft is done, highlight areas of possible concern, and only then approach someone about getting an opinion – because handing someone several thousand words and asking for an opinion without any sort of focusing questions is not a good way to earn goodwill.

Lastly, when approaching people, remember that their time is important – you wouldn’t think it wasn’t important if you didn’t want their opinion, after all – and be prepared to offer some kind of compensation in return for their time. If it’s a friend or acquaintance, you can feel free to get creative – “hey, do you think you’d mind taking a look at a draft of a game I’m working on? I’m concerned about [things x, y, and z]. I’d be willing to trade babysitting so you and your partner could have a night out” is something that I would probably not say no to!

However, if no one in your immediate circle of contacts has the background that you need, consider that you may have to pay someone real actual money. Because nothing will get me to delete your email faster than sending me content unsolicited and expecting me to give you an opinion on it. And yeah, it can be scary pouring money – even a little money – into an early game draft when you don’t know what will come of it, and maybe that can be a reminder of why it’s so important to cultivate a social network of diverse, non-homogeneous designers.

That’s not to say that paying people to consult on a game draft can’t have benefits! being prepared to put your money where your mouth is is a great way of making a first impression, and if you are open and receptive to the conversation that results, the chances are pretty good that the consultant will go to bat for you later when it comes to helping promote the finished product.

Advice for people running tabletop games

Tell your players upfront if there are elements of the game that are problematic

Don’t be cute and hide things from your players to give them a more “intense” experience, because that’s a dick move. Tell them up front.

For convention games, this starts with putting a small disclaimer in the description of your game. Ie “this game deals with issues surrounding sexual violence” or “this game deals with bodily autonomy” or “this game deals with toxic masculinity”. When players are looking over the list of games, trying to decide which game they want to play in during a given time slot, that is shit they need to know. However, by the same token, don’t assume that they actually read the description. Maybe there was a scheduling mixup, or maybe a friend dragged them into the game at the last minute. Maybe the game they were scheduled to play got canceled and the organizers just tried to find them something to replace it. Which means you’ll also need to tell the players when they sit down what they’re getting in for.

Providing content warnings about problematic elements in your game isn’t “coddling” your players, or “insulating them from reality”. Providing content warnings lets people prepare themselves so that when the problematic content comes up, it isn’t a horrible surprise.

Of course, providing content warnings means that you need to have enough self-awareness to be aware of the shortcomings of a thing you love; just because you love a game doesn’t mean that it’s good for someone else. Be open about the pitfalls of the game you’re running without apologizing for it or being ashamed of it, and let your players make the decision that is best for them. Speaking from personal experience, a lot of the time I’m a lot more willing to engage with problematic content that gets close to uncomfortable areas for me when it’s labeled as such and disclosed up front, because that shows respect and concern on the part of the GM or facilitator.

Lastly, a lot of LARPs can have big twists or reveals. But if you’re running a LARP with such a twist, it’s still important to find a way to disclose potentially painful themes upfront and let people opt out. Because having triggering content sprung on you as a surprise is doubly awful in a LARP.

But – don’t put up with problematic behavior at the table

It’s important to note that some players will see content warnings as an invitation to be as “dark” and “edgy” as they can, or to treat the problematic content as a joke. If you have a player that is making light of what is meant to be a serious issue, X-card it hard and fast. And if they keep doing it, call them on it, and kick them out if you need to.

It feels shitty, but a bad player can be just as harmful as an irresponsible GM.

Don’t just replicate injustice. Be critical of it.

To use an example that drives me nuts, I hear lots of people say that Game of Thrones is feminist because it has lots of strong female characters. Which. No.

First, simply having strong female characters DOES NOT make something automatically feminist. But even more importantly, just replicating injustice is not the same thing as actually criticizing injustice. Without some sort of change that turns the situation on its head, all that you’re doing is reinforcing toxic social norms that already exist. To return to Game of Thrones, when you have entire plot threads that center on things like rape, sexual exploitation, and white saviors saving the awful brown people from their barbaric culture without any hint of irony or even the thinnest attempt at trope inversion, that is not criticism. That is mindless replication.

An example of a game which does do this well is Dogs in the Vineyard – a game about Mormon gunslinger teenagers in the Old West. You could play it as a mostly vanilla Western if you wanted, but the thing that makes Dogs special is the fact that the text covers gender and racial divisions in Faithful society and how they can lead to injustice – which is why it’s easy to use Dogs to create game content that focuses on social issues.

One of the best bits of GMing I’ve ever done was when I wrote a Dogs town where the heresy was literally feminism. (More specifically, there was a heretical cult of women who believed that women were people who got to do things other than have babies.) I had the cult leader take that feminism to monstrous extremes and left it to the players to decide how the hell they were going to sort everything out, which leads right into:

Related: If you’re going to engage in social commentary via moral dilemma, make it an open ended dilemma

IF you are engaging in social commentary by way of moral dilemma, DO NOT pre-play by deciding which option is the “right” option, because then it’s not a dilemma anymore. What you have is just high-handed preaching, which is boring as shit at best and condescending and insulting at worst. Putting the choice in their hands makes it engaging and thought provoking!

Present a moral dilemma and be prepared for what happens if: 1) your players choose side A 2) your players choose side B or 3) your players try to walk a middle ground, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Advice for people running LARPs

A lot of what I’ve said above applies to running LARPs too. But as facilitating LARPs is a very different beast from GMing tabletop, there are a few specific points to be made. Most importantly,

Remember: victimizers often need as much aftercare as victims, but they might not feel they have permission to say so

Some LARPs, especially Nordic LARPs, cast people in roles that are explicitly roles where they are villains, oppressors, or victimizers – and those can be really hard and emotionally challenging roles to play! This is especially true when what happens in play ends up mirroring a form of oppression that the player of an oppressor character has themselved experience. Often, this can be just as traumatic as playing a character who is themselves the victim.

In writing about my experience of playing Autonomy, the LARP that I wrote about teaching men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then creating a situation where women punish men for their gender for forty minutes, I described it this way:

actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling.

So it’s important to make it clear that players of villain characters will get just as much support and care as players of victim characters. It’s probably best just to state this as a ground rule of the debrief.

During debriefs, make sure everyone gets to talk, and that no one has their experience invalidated by someone else

The group of people that I LARP with have standardized how they run debriefs somewhat to include the following:

  1. Everyone gets up to 3 minutes to talk about how they felt during the game and how they are feeling now; only individual statements, no conversations or responses
  2. People can’t use their 3 minutes to invalidate or argue with someone else’s experience
  3. General conversation happens only after everyone has had a chance to speak, and is highly structured. The moderator enforces turn taking and keeps one person or one group of people (men[1]) from taking over the conversation

Number 2 is more important than you’d think! The worst debrief experience I ever had was after a LARP in which themes of sexism were very prevalent. During the LARP, there was a moment in which two men – one of whom was physically much larger than me – stood over me and shouted at me until I stopped talking. So when it was my 3 minutes, I talked about how threatened I felt, and about how having masculinity intentionally performed at me is something I find very anxiety provoking.

When it was another male player’s turn to talk (this was not one of the two men who had done the shouting), he said that masculinity hadn’t been performed, gender had never been a part of that situation. Meaning, by extension, that my feelings and everything I talked about were all in my head. That they weren’t real.

I. WAS. FURIOUS. I ended up leaving the debrief – the first and only time I have ever done so.

Thankfully, the facilitator was receptive when I told him how I was doing afterward. And conversation with him and his partner, who is the owner of the space and organizes the games that we play there, led to including rule #2 as a default, to avoid future repeats.

If shit gets real, make yourself available for conversation after

Something that I have seen done by facilitators, and something I have done myself, is as simple as handing out cards with your contact info if one of your players feels like they need help processing the experience later, after they have left the game space. That’s not to say that it’s required, but if you feel comfortable at least handing out an email address, it’s something worth considering.

Some of the best, most educational conversations I’ve had – the ones that have opened my eyes to other perspectives or helped me see things in a radically new light – were conversations that happened well after a particular game had ended.

I don’t know how to end this but I think I’ve said enough.

If you made it this far, congratulations. I promise to get back to stuff with lots more pictures after this.

In the mean time, have a kitten in a pocket:

[1] If you feel like you need to argue this point with me, just. Don’t. I will throw science at you and you will lose

Handling difficult material as GM or facilitator: Part 1

Before I get started, a note about my previous post:

Some asshat on the internet[1] wrote a screed about my last post calling me human feces and an actual lizard person. Why? Because I had the nerve to blog about a game that I’m making, with a MALE co-designer, btw, that has feminist themes. And somehow me and my SJWness and my making games about feminism is DESTROYING GAMING and will KILL D&D FOREVER.

Which, look internet MRA gamerbros. Calm your testes, okay? Literally no one is forcing you to think about, buy, or play my game. The existence of my game doesn’t THREATEN ALL OF D&D. Jesus. Calm down, okay? I wish I was that awesome, but I’m not.

calm-your-testes

Also, worth noting that a good half of his screed (when he wasn’t talking about what a pox I am on gaming) was devoted to bitching about how I CAN’T WRITE A GAME ABOUT TOXIC MASCULINITY BECAUSE I’M NOT A MAN. Which, you know, conveniently ignores the fact that I specifically gave credit to my male co-designer (the eminently fantastic Andrew Medeiros) at the end of the first paragraph. Whoops.

ANYWAY. Moving on.

Handling difficult material in game spaces you are responsible for

I write a lot here about how to be a responsible publisher, in terms of creating diverse and inclusive game content that doesn’t fuck up with regards to reductive stereotypes. I also write a fair bit about how to be a good ally, by way of common ally traps and how to avoid them. But a few months ago, a friend pointed out that she wanted to read about how to be a responsible GM – especially when running games for players with marginalizations that she doesn’t share. Between GenCon and being a full time student, I haven’t had as much attention to devote to blogging as I would have liked. But now that I find myself with a bit of breathing room, it’s a good time to look at the issue of safer gaming spaces and how to facilitate those spaces even when you’re handling difficult, intense, or potentially problematic content.

This post expanded a bit beyond what I was expecting, so today focuses more on safety tools and the space itself. Next time I’ll get into a bit more nitty gritty detail about techniques for GMs.

Also, I wasn’t able to work them in to the outline of this post, but Meguey Baker has written pretty extensively about two cultures of safety in play called I Will Not Abandon You and Nobody Gets Hurt. Most of the discussions around this are buried on forums like Story-Games and happened a long time ago, but I would be remiss in not acknowledging Meg’s work, as well as the work of others, in starting this conversation in the first place.

First: Always use safety tools

The three safety tools that I always, always, always use when running games are:

I don’t run games without them anymore; even if a LARP doesn’t mention Cut/Break or The Door is Always Open in the facilitator instructions, I still always introduce it to the players as part of the rules, because that’s how strongly I feel about it.

However, just having safety tools doesn’t actually solve anything. The use of safety tools at the table in convention spaces is getting to be pretty common; at GenCon we had printed X-Cards at every table, the files for which we actually got from Kate Bullock who runs Breakout Con. And every LARP that I’ve ever played at a convention has included Cut/Brake and The Door Is Always Open as part of the instructions on how to play.

And yet, despite the increasing prevalence of safety tools, we haven’t actually solved the issue of player safety. Simply putting a safety tool on the table (either literal or metaphorical) and telling people how it works IS NOT ENOUGH to get someone to use that tool when they need it. Because…

Second: People need to feel they have permission to USE safety tools

One thing I’ve noticed is that how I approach safety tools in games tends to vary widely based on who I’m playing with. For instance, in convention games, I’m far less likely to use safety tools, even when I’m not having a great time or am feeling uncomfortable with content that is coming up. I’ve written previously about an experience that I had running Zombie Cinema at GenCon 2014 for a brunch of bros who made sexism a running joke in the game. And despite introducing the X-Card during the game introduction, and despite that the sexist jokes were really bothering me, I didn’t say anything.

Similarly, also at GenCon in 2014, I played in an Apocalypse World longcon than ran all three nights of the convention. And it was an amazing game, but there was a moment in particular that stood out for me as deeply, starkly uncomfortable. There was this weird psychic contagion, and at one point one of the players failed a roll against an NPC. The GM had made it clear that if this happened, the psychic contagion was going to take control, and after the roll he gave the player a choice: either you’ll have to kill her or have sex with her. And I was really not okay. Because after a previous bad experience at GenCon, even implied possible sexual violence in a roleplaying game in a convention space was something that got close to some ugly emotional scars. But I let it go to see what the player would do, and he chose to kill the NPC, and play moved on and I didn’t end up using the X-Card.

Compare this with my use of the X-Card in campaigns with my local gaming group – the one I’ve been playing with for almost two years now, and you get a very different picture. During a campaign of Urban Shadows, I perma-X-Carded a friend’s demon clown character, who transformed into demon form by ripping off their skin and generally doing a lot of body horror shit. I told that friend they could mime their actions or do sound effects, but not both[2]. Or another time I actually X-carded how a scene had played out because I was having a really rough time with my anxiety and needed the session to end on a positive note.

Both of those instances are “smaller” uses of the X-Card – things that made me feel more comfortable but weren’t things that affected my overall fun or ability to feel emotionally safe. I could have managed just fine with the demon clown descriptions by plugging my ears – it wasn’t something that would ruin my fun completely. Similarly, X-carding how a scene wrapped up at the end of a session wasn’t something I needed to feel safe. But in both instances, I knew that my friends would understand that these were things that would make me feel more comfortable.

The difference between how I approach the X-Card in home games versus how I have approached it at conventions comes down to having a pre-existing relationship and having trust in the GM and the other players. Often, the situations where people need safety tools are not the situations where they feel they have that relationship with someone. When I run a tabletop campaign, I know my players. I know that I can narrate X in a way that will skeeve out player Y, but I also mostly know where to stop.

But I mostly don’t have that kind of relationship with players at con games. So when I introduce safety tools, I do more than explain how it works. I explain why it’s there.

For example. One of my favorite games to run at conventions if I have to do a two-hour slot is The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. The Shab al-Hiri Roach is a game of dark comedy in which you play bad people doing bad things, and transplanting that game into Hogwarts – a setting which canonically includes children, has the potential to cause some bad times. So when I’m introducing the game to folks, my X-Card speech looks a little something like this:

“Because Hogwarts is a setting which canonically includes children, I want to emphasize that we’ll be playing with the X-Card firmly in place. The X-Card is a safety tool that anyone can lift, point to, or tap whenever content comes up that makes them uncomfortable or they’d rather not see, and we’ll edit out that content without any judgement or recrimination. I’ll say right now that I’ll X-Card anything that involves harming children, but the X-Card can be used for anything – big or small.

I say all this not to be a downer, because The X-Card is actually a really important tool to help us have fun. When you’re playing a gonzo silly game at a convention, there’s no way you can know everything that makes the other players uncomfortable. So the X-Card is our safety net, in case something comes up, so that we can put our energy into playing and having a good time and not worrying about something that might come up and ruin our fun.”

Similarly, I was really glad when I ran a session of Unheroes when a player asked during setup if anyone had an issue with him playing very intensely, because he liked high-intensity, high-bleed experiences. I was able to say something like, “that’s a great question! I’m glad to hear you like to play that way but are aware that it might cause some people some issues. Here are some tools we’ll be using to help manage those issues, so you can feel comfortable playing intensely and other people have the tools they need if they start to feel uncomfortable. That way we’ll all be able to have fun together.”

So to break it down, I use language to sell why it’s good to have, if possible I include an example of content that I would use a safety tool for, and I talk about why everyone benefits from the use of safety tools in gaming spaces.

BUT. Even then it’s important not to forget that…

 

Third: The existence of safety tools don’t negate the need to keep an eye out for player safety

In the debrief after the Apocalypse World longcon where that really uncomfortable moment of “kill her or have sex with her” had happened, I talked about how uncomfortable that had been for me and that I had been really close to not being okay. And the GM nodded and said, yeah, I could tell. And I was so, so grateful that he’d picked up on it! Just as I was then really upset with the person who spoke up in response and said that if I hadn’t been okay, it would have been my fault for not using the X-Card.

And that was such a completely bullshit response that I couldn’t even. Because sometimes the situations making people feel unsafe are rooted in real, actual trauma, and one of the responses to trauma that is pretty fucking common is for people to freeze up or shut down. For me, my experience of being sexually assaulted at GenCon made the possibility of narrative sexual violence in a convention space feel very threatening. And luckily, in this instance, the triggering element in the game was something I could see coming, so I could prepare to X-Card it if it got too close. But sometimes triggers come at you hard and sideways, too fast for you to react, and you can find yourself shutting down and unable to use the very tool to get you out of the situation.

Which is why it is SO IMPORTANT as a GM to keep an eye out for this. And I promise you, you’re already better at this than you think.

As GMs/Facilitators, part of learning our craft is learning to recognize when your players are having fun. If you’ve been GMing for any length of time, you know the difference between a good con game and a bad one. When someone asks how your game just went, it’s the difference between “Eh, it was a B- game. Two players really loved it, but the third player really wasn’t feeling it” and “it was totally great! Everyone was super into it! The energy was high and we all had a great time!”

When a player switches from “having fun” to “not”, you should always check in – especially if that transition is sudden or abrupt. The reason could be entirely mundane – their blood sugar could have bottomed out, or they could have a headache coming on, or they might feel they’re not getting enough spotlight. But it could be something bigger.

You don’t need to make a big deal of it. Something as simple as “hey, you got kinda quiet, everything okay?” between scenes can make all the difference.

And that is where I stop for today

All of this was laying the ground work for the question I actually wanted to answer, which is – how do I include problematic content safely and inclusively? So we’ll get that next time.

However, because I don’t want “calm your testes” to be the preview image, have a picture of a baby rabbit:

[1] I won’t provide links, but his title image was a bald eagle in front of an American Flag, and his bio describes himself as a culture warrior. The self-satire, it hurts!

[2] They reminded me recently that I ALSO banned them from describing their actions while they acted them out, and I was like, “what really? I don’t remember that”. And then they started miming pulling the flesh off their face while also describing it until I was like “NOPE NOPE NOW I REMEMBER OKAY STOP YES I SAID THAT”.

How our game about women is inspiring conversations about masculinity

I’ve got a lot of things to catch up on post-GenCon, including assembling notes about my experience as an Industry Insider Featured Presenter so that I can write in detail about that – since it was an amazing experience. But today I wanted to take the time to reflect on some compelling conversations that I’ve had about masculinity as inspired by The Watch – the low-fantasy game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow that I’m currently co-designing with Andrew Medeiros[1].

Explanatory sidebar:

What is The Watch? Well, to go into a bit more detail, here’s how I’ve described it previously:

The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.

That you will defeat the Shadow is never in question. What you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you? On the day of the Shadow’s final defeat, who is it that you will say should have been standing beside you? Which of you will burn bright and fast, and which of you will hunker down and see this thing through to the end?

The Watch is a game that is Powered By The Apocalypse, meaning it uses the Apocalypse World system – albeit with a ton of hacks, modifications, and innovations. It’s currently in beta testing, and Drew and I will be looking to KickStart it in 2017.

[/sidebar]

Between the two of us, we ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch, and I’m pretty excited about the fact that the people who played it were mostly male – by an overwhelming margin. (30 out of 35 total players, if you’re keeping score.) Admittedly, there’s always the potential for things to go a bit sideways when you have mostly men playing all female characters[2] (especially at a con game, where investment tends to be lower), but the guys who played it were super engaged with the premise – which was really gratifying! Especially in light of the difficulty that I’ve had getting men interested in playing The Starlit Kingdom, which is also kind of explicitly about women.

And sure, it would have been nice to have more women at the table. Both of the sessions I ran had five male players, and I always feel more comfortable when I’m not the only woman at the table. But there’s a pretty wonderful thing that happens with The Watch when you have a lot of men at the table because of this lovely little rule called Resist the Shadow.

PCs have to roll to Resist the Shadow “when [they] give the Shadow an opening into [their] heart by engaging in toxic behavior”, which is a reflection of internalized misogyny and the toxic scripts that people of all genders – not just men – internalize. But…

Well. …can you keep a secret, readers? Of course you can. I can trust you.

See, what I never actually say when I run the game is that the Shadow is actually patriarchy. Instead, I do a bit of a shell game when I introduce the game to men at the table – I tell them that the Shadow is toxic masculinity, and that’s why the men in this world are so vulnerable to the Shadow. Because the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence. And all of that is true!

But! Something that I’ve observed through running this blog and having conversations with men in other feminist spaces is that sometimes, it’s easier to get men to engage with conversations about patriarchy through coming at toxic masculinity. There can be a defensive impulse when conversations are framed around patriarchy, an impulse to say “not me – that’s other men”, because it’s hard to admit that a key part of your identity causes you to be complicit in harming others. I find that calling out behavior as “toxic masculinity” can make some men much more receptive, because that is more evocative of how toxic ideas of manhood are personally damaging. In other words, some men are a lot more willing to accept that unconscious attitudes cause you to harm yourself than they are to accept that those same attitudes cause you to harm others[3].

So. When I’m starting the game, I’ll read a few paragraphs of setting introduction, to explain the world and the situation. And then I’ll say to the players something like, “and spoiler alert – the Shadow is toxic masculinity”. People will nod, and we’ll move on and get right into playing, and then I get to sit back and watch for something fucked up and toxic. And when the men outnumber other players at the table, the chances are pretty good that I’ll get to tell someone to Resist the Shadow at least once[4] – which I love.

My favorite example of this from GenCon was an incident that happened in the first session I ran. I had used Shutterfly to print a bunch of photos off of Pinterest for players to pick a character image from at the table. One photo I included in the set was this picture, which I’d intended to set aside for a villainous sorceress – only I forgot and a player selected it for their super weird character. So when I introduced the sorceress character and described her in a way that was very similar – porcelain white skin, white hair – one of the players immediately jumped on it. His character started acting suspicious, then recruited the other PCs into helping him corner the weird PC – whereupon they started trying to interrogate the poor woman.

So I leaned forward and asked, “so just to be clear, you’re getting your other squad mates to help you police her behavior because of how she looks?”. The player in question agreed that was an accurate summary, so I said, “awesome. That’s super toxic. Please roll to Resist the Shadow.” The player looked surprised for a second, then nodded his agreement and rolled the move, and afterward we had a pretty cool conversation about it!

Another notable example happened a couple months ago where I was running (again at a convention) and one PC – played by a guy who looked to be in his early 20s – challenged another PC (played by Drew, actually) to a fight. So they started squaring off against each other, with all kinds of macho posturing for the benefit of the audience of NPCs surrounding them. Again I stepped in before things went any further. “Hey, guys. That’s some macho dick-measuring nonsense you’re engaged in. Roll to Resist the Shadow”.

Again I got surprised looks which were followed by nods of agreement. The rolls happened, and afterward we had a great conversation about macho posturing and about the difference between masculine bonding-through-insults versus bonding through real emotional intimacy. And it was during that conversation that Drew said that this game that we made to tell stories about women has actually been teaching him some great things about what toxic masculinity looks like – which mirrors my experience to a certain extent.

Obviously I won’t ever be able to fully understand what it means to experience toxic masculinity as a man. But through running this game so much and having these conversations, I’m getting a better feel for what it looks like. Which means that as a GM, I’m getting better at using The Watch to prompt those moments of introspection and reflection on patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and how it shapes our interactions. And that’s exciting! It’s a wonderful feeling, as a designer, to be able to run your game in a way that lets people have fun while also learning to see something that is normally unconscious from a different angle.

It’s also a cool feeling when you write a game intended to highlight a given issue, and you end up learning more about that issue than you’d expected. One of the great things about roleplaying game design is that roleplaying games are structured as a conversation. They only work well when everyone takes a turn talking and listening, and when everyone remains open and receptive to the experience and to each other. That kind of openness means that when you play with someone who comes at a familiar issue in a different way, it has the potential to put even concepts that feel like old hat into an interesting new light.

And all of this is just one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be working on this game[5]! I’m also excited about developing a game that requires you to tell stories of heroic military adventure starring women and non-binary people. And I’m excited to be writing a game that encourages queer content! And I’m excited to finally be working on a game that people actually want to play, unlike my weird harsh shit like Autonomy! Seriously. The Watch is already so good, and it’s not even done yet. I can’t wait to see what happens, and what awesome conversations it inspires next.

[1] Who, it should be noted, won a Silver Ennie at GenCon for his work as the co-designer of Urban Shadows! Well done!

[2] Several years ago, I ran a game of Zombie Cinema where some bros were playing women and they were the worst, most reductively stereotyped characters ever, and it was just painful.

[3] And, you know, that’s understandable. Privilege makes us believe that we aren’t complict in that harm, and even when we see the harm it makes us believe that our intentions (I didn’t mean to hurt you) matter more than the end result (I hurt you).

[4] Not because men are clueless or malicious! Simply because men are unaccustomed to doing the sorts of emotional labor around maintaining nontoxic group dynamics that women are commonly socialized into believing that they have to take on by default.

[5] Not to mention that Drew is generally an awesome collaborator who is fun to work with. That’s kinda nice too. I guess.

Project Update: The Watch (freebie)

Hi, folks

I’ve written previously about The Watch – the low-fantasy roleplaying game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow – here on my blog. This past weekend at GenCon, my co-designer Andrew Medeiros and I ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch – and we’re really happy with how it’s shaping up! I plan on writing in more detail about how that went, but in the mean time, I need help from you – my readers!

There’s a limit to how far we can take this on our own. We’re looking for some external playtesting, and we’d like to be able to get feedback by mid-fall so I can look at getting the first draft of the book finished by the end of the year.

If you’d be interested in running either a one-shot, a con game, or a small campaign for some folks and are willing to commit to getting us some playtest feedback by September 30th, then please mosey over and fill out this form so we can get you set up with the latest version of the playtest documents.

Thanks for your time and attention!