State of the Discourse: a survey of marginalized game designers on online discussion space.

In November of 2019, I published a survey and put out a call on Twitter for participants who were marginalized game designers. As someone who used to be very active on Google+ before its demise, I’ve been thinking for much of the last year about the lack of safe spaces for marginalized designers to talk about design without being drowned out, talked over, or actively pushed out by cisgender white men.

Personally, I know that I feel far more isolated from the design community, and that my ability to design games without a community to run designs by has greatly suffered. And while I know better than to assume my experience is universal (I know Google+ wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea), I also know that I am not alone in feeling that way. However, it’s next-to-impossible to talk about solutions without knowing the scope of the problem.

After several months of work (I was doing everything myself and it’s been an… interesting several months), the results have been organized, the data analyzed, and the results written about. The end product is a 28-page report, covering in detail:

  • The demographics of survey respondents
  • Usage of Google+ and commentary on its features
  • Shift over time in channels used to talk about game design online
  • Analysis of responses to sentiment questions
  • Short-answer responses – common themes and notable comments

The link to the full report can be found here! However, because not everyone has the same deep and abiding love of charts and data that I do (and why not???), this post will summarize important portions of the report.

A chart showing responses to one of the survey questions
Seriously, look at this chart. What a great chart. There are so many even better charts in the report that you can see if you download the report.

Open-Ended Commentary

Some of the most valuable feedback I received in the survey was from open-ended questions about:

  • The most-appreciated features of Google+, and what past users of G+ missed most about the platform
  • What solutions or action did respondents feel should be pursued
  • What other information did respondents feel was pertinent

While I won’t quote all of the responses here (I’d really rather you read the entire report), there was a segment of responses that seemed too important not to include in this blog post:


1. Barriers to inclusion

A significant number of short answer responses focus on barriers to feeling included, barriers like tribalism, the presence of abusers and prevalence of harassment, and language and culture barriers:

  • (Tribalism): “I built up quite a bit of scene cred back when I was still passing as your average straight white middle class male, and that’s stood me in good stead since G+ closed down. Still, the fragmentation has been tough – and I’ve already fallen afoul of abusive people setting up small communities on discord etc and using that as an opportunity to groom and abuse others. So even when we’re forming communities of marginalised people there’s an increased safety risk there.”
  • (Tribalism): “The function of lateral violence in keeping marginalized people out of spaces — multiply marginalized people beating each other up or talking past each other without a sense of a larger foe”
  • (Abusers): “My issue is more specific unsafe people in those spaces. I won’t go where they are. I know others feel the same. There will need to be some decent anonymous reporting or something to keep unsafe people out if you actually want the people currently left out by the loud unsafe people to thrive.”
  • (Harassment): “I’m unable to participate in Twitter discourse because of the way Twitter privacy works — silencing the person locking their account rather than allowing them to be seen by others they intentionally @. As someone who is currently in the process of a divorce that involves domestic violence, a temporary restraining order, and a custody battle, I can’t have a public account. This prevents me from participating in discussions or meeting other game designers. I’m also currently unable to publicly name my abusers for legal reasons, and so often can’t ask my online friends and communities to help keep me safe or keep my information and posts out of their hands.”
  • (Language): “there is a language barrier and also a barrier for those of us with social anxiety even in online interactions”


2. Considerations for truly inclusive discussion spaces

A slightly larger number of responses focused on the structures, rules, or considerations needed for an inclusive discussion space. (Most of these comments were longer, so I’ve bolded sections for emphasis, but that emphasis is purely mine):

  • Curation of a small network of semi-public and private spaces where the hyper-privileged are forbidden access, communities focused especially on concept of development and support in addition to being an archive of resources”
  • “More stringent rules against racism, sexism, etc along with clear definitions lay people can understand. Pinned threads highlighting lesser-known things such as alt-right dog-whistles.”
  • “We need a platform and a culture focused on allowing designers to connect in smaller, more intimate groups. The Forge is only monolithic because it was a public forum at a time where knowing about it was unlikely but in retrospect we can look back to the discussions there and the games that came out of it and say “wow, that’s important.” We need a shift in culture away from this idea that “the discourse” encompasses all of the internet and get away from structures that allow takes to go viral as the benefits (reach and exposure) don’t outweigh the flaws (getting dogpiled by hundreds of people who don’t want to engage with the discussion but yell their opinion at a wall). I never broke into Google+’s tabletop space mostly because I had no idea how to get there, and I think that’s the thing that needs to be focused on: we need a structure that directs people into safe and healthy communities, not one that’s solely focused on uplifting individuals
  • “G+ clone with the communities feature working like it used to; but also, let those of us who are willing help moderate/educate the ones doing the shouting down. Marginalized people shouldn’t have to do that labor, but it’d be good to have a community for discussing strategies to teach, since someone’s going to have to. They’re definitely not doing it on their own, and as much as straight up discarding folks is satisfying, except in a few situations (Zak = trash forever, thanks), it doesn’t work well as a long term strategy, and eventually turns on itself.”
  • We can’t go, “oh let’s just set up some rules for everyone to follow”– white people trying to be helpful will weaponise the heck out of those too, and keep pushing people out. There has to be room to both protect people who have been repeatedly hurt by bad actors, and allow people who are in good faith, but aren’t forward in the conversation around these things to get onboarded. I mean, I’m willing to do that kind of work, coz colorism privilege is a thing. But folks need to realise that none of this is a binary situation.”

(Yes I know I bolded pretty much all of that last comment, and that’s not how emphasis should work. But dang it was just so good and so on point, so I stand by it.)


Conclusions Drawn

Again, I won’t quote the entire conclusions section here (read the report!), but the conclusions regarding how marginalized designers exist within communities were too important not to share. (Please keep in mind that all of these conclusions are made based on supporting evidence, which you can see if you… read the report.)

  • Game design discussions are dominated by cishet white men. It’s just the facts, don’t @ me.
  • The common conception that POC are “new” to publishing and design is trash. If a white designer meets a POC designer, odds are good that they have at least as much design experience as you, if not more.
  • Barriers to inclusion force marginalized designers to compromise between safety and openness, and those compromises negatively impact the ability of marginalized designers to make new connections. Further, the impacts of those barriers are experienced more strongly by designers of color than white designers. Additionally, a majority of designers of color say these barriers have hurt their ability to publish games.
  • Nearly half of marginalized designers feel excluded from discussions of game design; designers of color are more likely to feel that way than white designers, and these problems have been persistent over time, and that is a big damn problem.
  • More than half of designers of color feel unsafe in existing communities, but white designers were nearly three times as likely as designers of color to say that communities did NOT feel unsafe, and that is also a problem. It is a problem that so many people feel unsafe, and it is a problem that so many white people are blase to the things that make communities unsafe for people of color.
  • It is bad that so many marginalized people avoid existing communities because of unsafe people. Like, great for the 40% of folks who don’t do this, but damn.
  • People feel unsafe because of tribalism, harassment, and protection of abusers, in addition to language and culture barriers enacted by spaces created and designed for white English-speaking North Americans. 
  • Most marginalized designers still feel it is worth the effort to participate in online discussion communities, and people who consider quitting are more likely to be white. (Should that be surprising to me as a white person? I don’t know how I feel about it. Maybe designers of color are more resigned to bullshit being the price of admission?)


Want to know more? Download the full report!

This post covers only about 20% of the material covered by the full report, which took a very long time to put together. Between designing and writing the survey questions, promoting the survey, organizing and sanitizing data, analyzing the results, and writing the final report, this took at least a week of 8-hour days to complete – which is a pretty huge task. Obviously, this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my generous patrons on Patreon.

If you want to see me take on similar projects in the future, or you want to see me write more content about how we can help communities recover from legacies of hidden abuse, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

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