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.

Support me on Patreon!

Self-Promotion Sidebar: The Watch is live on KickStarter

It is perhaps an indication of how busy I’ve been juggling school and running a KickStarter that I forgot to make a post here linking to the KickStarter – which is an oversight since I posted here several times about The Watch while it was development. So!

The Watch is funding on KickStarter through March 19th!

As for what is The Watch? Well:

The Watch is a tabletop roleplaying game set in a “light fantasy” setting known as The Clanlands. It takes place during a dark and horrific war between the now-united ten clans who live there and an invading force, known only as The Shadow.

The Shadow is a powerful and insidious enemy that is able to enter the minds of its opponents and slowly turn them to its side; twisting them into unnatural foes. For reasons unknown, The Shadow is able to more easily influence the minds of men, and has turned a great deal of the clan’s soldiers against itself.

With most of its fighting force crippled or worse, the clans have joined together and begun enlisting new warriors to defend their homes. Women and non-binary femme people who seem better able to resist The Shadow’s hold have been recruited, trained, promoted, and formed into a new order: The Watch.

In The Watch, you’ll play a group of elite soldiers who are called upon time and time again to defend villages, attack The Shadow’s forces at key locations, scout the enemy’s lines, and much more. Each mission comes with its fair share of costs and compromises and you’ll need to navigate them in order to be ready to heed the next call to action.

It’s in these in-between moments where the rules for The Watch focus themselves: What do you do to unwind from the pressure that threatens to pull you down? Who do you spend what little free time you have with, and why? How will you hold off The Shadow’s influence so that you can see the end of this war? That’s what you’ll have to find out for yourself…

For more information, you can check out the campaign page. You can also join our community over on Google+, if you have any questions for either of us before you back! (We encourage that.) Additionally, I can promise that the finished book will be chock full of instructions and examples, for people new to PBTA roleplaying games or who are unsure what they should be aiming for when running the game. (Because I was the one who wrote the entire book. Phew.)

As of the time of this post, our campaign is at 65% with 24 days to go. I’m not too worried about funding, but I do very much want to start opening up stretch goals, because I am SUPER excited about opening up our exciting stretch goals – which will involve, among other things, expanded content and hiring more art from the fantabulous Claudia Cangini! Seriously, here’s what we hired her to do for the KickStarter page:

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absolutely cannot wait to see what she comes up. I hope you’ll join us in making this project absolutely awesome!

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!

Promotional Sidebar: Princess Charming, Round 2! (freebie)

Two years ago, Josh Roby and I ran a successful Kickstarter to create a series of children’s books called Princess Charming, that featured active, competent princess characters who do more than wait around to get rescued. Thanks to support from more than 300 backers, we raised more than $14,000 to make 6 books featuring two princesses – Kadri and Fayola. And now we have a NEW KickStarter, because we’d like to make MORE books about MORE awesome princesses.

From the KickStarter page:

The third princess of the Charming dynasty is the unstoppable Princess Rowan Charming. Rescued by Fayola along with her mother Imogen, Rowan enjoys a life of safety and security with her two moms. Safe, that is, except when she sneaks off to go adventuring. Which only goes to show that you can take the princess out of the danger, but you can’t take the danger out of the princess!

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Only one thing slows down our Rowan — her friend, Prince Sundara, who insists on coming along. Something about Rowan having only one hand and that he has to protect her. But he only gets in the way! Somehow Rowan has to make the boy understand that he’s not cut out for adventuring… before he gets hurt. …

But we also have stretch goals for two more princesses – Chandra and Nayeli! And we really hope that, since we’ve streamlined how the stretch goals will work to make unlocking subsequent princesses easier, we’ll get to do all three.

At the launch of the project, we’ve kept things simple: you get one book for $10, two books for $20, and so on. When the project funds, you can tell us which books you want: any of the new Princess Charming books that we’ve unlocked, any of Kadri or Fayola’s that rolled out in the last batch, or any combination thereof.

It’s also worth noting that if you’d like to support the project but don’t have any need for children’s books, we’re happy to donate your copies to worthy places like libraries, children’s hospitals, and shelters.  We’ll send you a PDF of the titles, too, just so you’re not completely left out of the swashbuckling princess fun.

I hope that if you have children, or there are children in your life, that you will at least share the link to this campaign. The Kadri and Fayola books made as part of the first campaign are works that I am immensely proud of. Being able to tell the story of Kadri, a gender non-conforming princesses who wants to like “girl things” and “boy things”, and who doesn’t want what she can do to be limited by her gender was immensely satisfying – as this was precisely the sort of story that I could have benefited from as a child! I’m even more proud of being able to tell the story of Fayola, a black trans lesbian, without any aspect of that identity being presented as an obstacle, stumbling block, or flaw – while still showing her as heroic and worth rooting for.

Josh is a wonderful co-creator to have on this project, because both of us are committed to telling stories that don’t ordinarily get told. And both of us are committed to doing the work needed to make sure we get this right.

It will be awesome getting to tell the story of Rowan, a disabled woman raised by two queens who are heroes in their own right, who comes into her own as an adventurer and hero. But I very much hope that we get to write more stories than just Rowan’s, because diversity matters.

So here’s the link again. Thanks to all of you reading for your support.

Followup to my last post

[edited to add final paragraph, noted in italics]

[Edit 2: See end of post for update as of June 29, 2016]

Some of the response to my last post has been supportive, which is nice. But unfortunately, a large quantity has been full of straw-manning, ad hominems, and abusive language. Like the person who commented simply, “Idiot.”. Or the person who told me that I should kill myself with cyanide in a comment that managed to combine homophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, and fatphobia in only four sentences. Impressive.

The remainder of unhelpful responses can be broken down into two camps: 1) I shouldn’t be writing about Orlando because I’m not queer and 2) I’m trivializing the Orlando shooting by trying to talk about games.

In response to the first, I happen to believe that it’s important for non-queer folks to educate other non-queer folks. My unfortunate experience with trying to talk about sexism and misogyny has been that some men will ONLY listen to other men. Some people with privilege will ONLY listen to people with the same privilege. In writing this post, I was conscious about not duplicating things already being said by queer voices, and in my other social media channels I have only been retweeting/posting/sharing things said by others.

I’m not saying that I ally perfectly, because lord knows that I don’t. But I reject the assertion that only people who experience a given marginalization can speak to that marginalization, because in order for change to happen you need people of privilege to stand up to other people of privilege. So, if after trying to strike a balance between boosting the words of queer people and shouting some sense into non-queer people you still don’t think that I have a right to speak, period, because my identity, then I can’t help you because that is something I’m never going to back down from.

In response to the second, this entire blog is written out of a belief that POP CULTURE IS CULTURE and YOU CAN’T SEPARATE THE TWO. If you disagree with that fundamental premise, you disagree with the entire premise of feminist media criticism. I’m not going to spend time and effort on having this argument yet again, on defending the purpose of holding a critical lens to entertainment media to examine what it says about us as pop culture creators and consumers. Because you will never convince me that pop culture criticism is a waste of time, or is “trivializing” other issues, simply because the medium I happen to focus on is games.

All of that said, I’m closing comments on the previous post, and if things get out of hand here I’m going to lock down comments on the entire blog for a while. Doubtless people are going to want to keep shaming me, but I’m not obligated to provide them a space to do it in.

It’s worth noting that throughout ALL of this I HAVE been listening to queer voices and asking for advice in how to proceed, and those voices have been saying a lot of mixed things. There’s a lot of division over this right now and it’s really hard to know how to proceed. In the end, I decided not to delete the post, because I have a policy of not deleting posts. Partly this is for transparency and accountability, although there are MANY other reasons which I won’t go into right now.

Update: June 29, 2016

After continuing to have conversations about this matter, I decided to organize a donation drive to raise money for the GLBT Center of Central Florida – a charity that is providing services directly to Pulse families and survivors. You can read more information about the results of this here.

It’s also worth noting that while I continue to stand by what I wrote and how it was published, what I am not proud of was my response to some of the criticism that was levied. There were some people who were very open and genuine in sharing their pain and distress over what happened, and I responded to them in ways that weren’t acceptable.

I was in a really terrible place and was having to stay on top of deleting lots of horrible shit full of racism, homophobia, and misogyny and had been marinating in that for a few days when I saw these comments, which made it difficult for me separate people from trying to share their pain in a genuine way from people trying to shame me for what I wrote because of my perceived identity. Instead of stepping away to get some space and perspective, I responded from a place of pain, anger, and trauma, and that wasn’t okay. As such, I have taken steps to contact the people involved and make direct apologies. 

Hiatus ending, lots of stuff in progress

Hi, folks!

I’m actually working on the final formatting for a post that will go up in a few minutes, but I wanted to take a moment to address something that I had already apprised my patrons of.

You’ll have noticed that there haven’t been any new posts in the past month. That’s because my life kind of got turned upside down, but in a good way. It turned out that I had the chance to go back to school to upgrade my credentials, something that I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while, but I had to do it starting the January term. As in, right now. So getting all that sorted had to take precedence, which required putting the blog on pause.

I’m happy to say it all worked out. I’ve just finished my second week of classes and I’m happily optimistic about where this will lead. And now that I’m finding my feet, I’m working on getting back into the swing of things blogging-wise. My schedule may end up being less predictable – there will be homework and exams and the like to schedule around. So, for instance, I’m putting up a post today and another on Monday, and that might be more the way things go for a bit. I honestly don’t know! This is a new and weird adventure.

What I do know is that I have LOTS of things I want to write about, and that this blog is my number one priority for freelance scheduling for the forseeable future. And now that the “who the fuck knows what I’ll be doing with myself for the next year and a half” uncertainty of the past month+ has finally been resolved, I can get back to working on plans for providing more and better content for you, my lovely patrons and readers.

Thanks for all of your support, and for sticking with me.