Dangerous Verbiage: Gaming’s ‘Race Problem’.

tumblr_mc433h7HhT1rztdgoo1_1280So I’m going to touch on another taboo topic, because I a) never learn and b) find these kinds of things fascinating c) I think a lot of people are too ready to just freeze with fear and nod along when these subjects come up.

This is prompted by, and in reply to, THIS article over on Tor, about Gencon. So I’m going to structure it as a reply, but I’m also going to go off on tangents.

As has become painfully obvious over the last few years, disclaimers and prefaces and explanations are seemingly needed before touching on sensitive topics. Nobody who wants to take something the wrong way will ever take in the right way, but perhaps one can minimise the damage by taking a bit of time out first to contextualise things.

  • I’m a ‘cishetwhitemale’ which means, according to some people, that my opinion on anything is worthless. If you think that’s true then do us both a favour and skip the fucking article.
  • I’m British, which means my context on matters of race is different to that of the US, as are my experiences. I cannot help but be coloured by that perspective.
  • Understanding a situation doesn’t mean endorsing a situation. Understanding a situation is the only thing that can lead to a useful solution.
  • Not agreeing with you doesn’t make someone ignorant or that they need to be ‘educated’. It’s possible to disagree AND be informed.

As an ethnic minority, I am apprehensive about going to GenCon.

Why? That’s the instant question I find myself asking. While ethnic minorities are scarce in many aspects of nerd and geek culture and many within the broad umbrella of general nerdery are lacking in social schools and sensitivity I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone rejected on the basis of race. If anything – like with gender – people are inclined to be TOO welcoming, even smothering.

For all that GenCon offers, it lacks in minority gamers. Last year was my first GenCon, and as I explored the convention, I saw almost no one who looked like me. By far, the most visible minorities at GenCon were the hired convention hall facilities staff who were setting up, serving, and cleaning up garbage for the predominantly white convention-goers. It was a surreal experience and it felt like I had stepped into an ugly part of a bygone era, one in which whites were waited upon by minority servants.

That seems something of an extreme reaction to me and the implicit assumption in it that this is some sort of ‘plantation wedding‘ is insulting both to the staff and to the attendees. This dichotomy is the result of a huge number of different factors and blaming it on the end result seems simplistic, blind and presumptive.

Gaming has a race problem. For all its creativity and imagination, for all its acceptance of those who find it hard to be themselves in mainstream society, gaming has made little room for people of color.

Is this right? Is this accurate? I don’t think so. The room is there for anyone and everyone to join in the fun of gaming. If that space isn’t being occupied by some people then whose fault is that? Is it anyone’s fault really? Is it gaming’s fault? What is there in gaming that actually excludes anyone? Nothing. It’s a realm of imagination and yes it accepts people of all kinds, sometimes when it shouldn’t.

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that…

Racism is ‘prejudice on the basis of race’. The source can be involuntary (indoctrination, bad experiences and their associations etc) but the act of racism is concious.

Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on.” –Scott Woods, author and poet.

Yeah, I’m never going to agree with a lot of these terms as they’re used in social justice circles, even in terms of race. ‘Privilege’ especially is an insidious, abused term that silences the very kinds of discussions needed to make any sort of progress on social issues. After all, it’s the people with (presumed) power and agency who need to be talked to and won over if you want to make real change. Also, as a liberal lefty I see many of these problems in terms of social class and wealth, rather than race, though the nature of society (US society in particular) makes the two broadly congruous.

More on this later.

I am the first in my family to be born in the United States. The child of immigrants, I struggled between cultures. I was the only non-white kid in the neighborhood and one of only a half-dozen minorities in my high-school. I was an outsider. I found refuge in Dungeons & Dragons in my freshman year. I could escape who I was in those heroic characters and epic stories. I could be someone I was not. I could be strong. I could be fierce.

See? This is gaming’s value as an escape but as an escape that is a social one. It’s refuge in a group – by necessity. It gave you a safe space just a it has for so many others for so many different reasons.

I could be white.

OK, that’s your problem. Not a problem with gaming.

Most games—the genres, the artwork, the characters, the stories—were Eurocentric and white. It was easy, perhaps even expected, to be white when playing a character. I was always Eric, or Gunthar, or Francois; I was never a person of color. My name was never my name. And no one thought it was strange that I played people so different from myself.

Much of the canon of fantasy stems from European myths and European authors. The Greek Myths are probably the archetypical fantasy genre source, followed by Scandinavian, Germanic and Arthurian mythology. Fantasy wargaming and role-playing originated from that culture and so it’s little surprise that gaming started out with those sources. We now have a much more diverse gaming canon though and it can no longer realistically be said to be purely European. Then again, this is causing some issues with suspension of disbelief in pseudomedieval game settings under pressure to be inclusive.

Of course, the audience remains primarily white, educated and (broadly) middle class but that’s – again – down to factors outside of people’s control. More on that in a bit.

It has been a long and complex road to finding myself, and comfort in my own skin and ethnic identity. The first step was simply realizing that white wasn’t the only color of value. It came in drops: a character in a movie or a book that was of my ethnicity, who I could empathize with and imagine myself as. These characters, when they appeared, gave me my own heroes, heroes that were like me.

All well and good, but there’s a couple of issues with this.

Firstly, there’s a catch 22. If representation is that important it not only places a huge value on race which is counter to the idea of eradicating racism, but it also means that by choosing heroes of colour you are alienating your core, white, majority audience. I don’t put that much stock in this idea because it seems like human qualities that transcend melanin content are – and should be – more important.

The other issue is that of tokenism. Some (mostly Guilty White People) are making good money by making ‘socially concious’ game material, good money for the Indie scale anyway and especially off crowdfunding but none of this is making that much of an impact. Possibly because the debate is so charged that it matters too much and nobody can get it ‘right’. Look at 5th Edition D&D, they took a relatively small step and have caught a huge amount of flak over it. As a designer that makes me less inclined to try, especially when my views on free expression and the gap between reality and fantasy don’t seem to be shared by the crowd leading the charge.

Gaming never afforded me those options. I had to force them, going against the pressure to conform. The pressure was so intense that the first time I played a character of my own ethnicity was actually online. Eventually, I did become confident enough to bring non-white characters to the table, but I still sometimes faced puzzled looks, and questions about ‘whether I was trying to make a statement’ when all I wanted was to simply be me.

Was it canon? Were you being the ‘Ninja guy’ by doing this? You know the ninja guy. You’re playing a romantic fantasy game of political and social intrigue set in a royal court inn bronze age Greece, and he… insists on playing a ninja. It’s possible, of course, that you’re playing with arseholes but based on my experience I don’t find that especially convincing.

I don’t think there are official surveys and statistics on the gaming subculture, but perhaps this study on the top 100 domestic grossing films in science-fiction and fantasy is an indication of similar trends in gaming: There are only eight protagonists of color in the top 100 science-fiction and fantasy films. Six are played by Will Smith and one is a cartoon character (Aladdin). None of these protagonists are women of color.

Again, which order are we putting the cart and horse in here? Are there less media because of the audience, or less audience because of the media? A while back I looked at the general stats, outside the genre but in the top TV and films and only looking at ‘significant characters’ and most things were within not too far a distance of the demographic division, save for music where non-whites were over-represented by a significant margin. It seems likely to me that nerd culture’s demographic is more skewed white than the general demographic, so you’d probably expect to see a wider divide.

Things are changing in the world of gaming, but too slowly. The designers are mostly white, especially lead designers and executives. Equally, the key officers of most conventions are almost entirely white. Usually, they are well-meaning people who do not realize how their roles and decisions impact the larger gaming community and its lack of diversity.

The business is small and runs on contacts. People tend to work with people they know and people tend to know people similar to themselves. Cons tend to be run on a volunteer basis and to value experience and recognition. If you’re drawing from a majority white pool – especially from older generations that were less diverse than current nerdery – then it’s little surprise that these people would be the majority involved at this level. To even begin to suggest that this is due to some subconscious racism is, again, to be insulting and may even help make the problem worse by making people resentful and wary, as it has with other SJ issues.

GenCon is emblematic of this problem. Of the twenty-seven Guests of Honor (in various categories), only two are people of color. The judges of the prestigious ENnie Awards for role-playing, hosted at GenCon, have been almost exclusively white since its inception. The same is true for the nominees and winners of the Diana Jones Awards. There may be more efforts to include people of color in gaming artwork, but where are the real life people of color on the grand stage of gaming?

2/27 is roughly 7.5%, assuming your presumptions about people’s racial background is correct. Given the (likely) breakdown of nerd culture on ethnic lines, that doesn’t sound too bad at all to me. Of course, we need proper data and the last time we had anything like good information on gamer demographics was from WotC leading up to D&D3, and that’s ludicrously out of date, so we have to work on shitty assumptions.

Furthermore, GenCon is disturbingly tolerant of deeply offensive material. Shoshana Kessock wrote about her experiences with Nazi cosplay and paraphernalia at Gencon shortly after returning from GenCon 2013, and I had similar encounters. It would be impossible to imagine minority players running around GenCon in t-shirts that read ‘Kill the white man!’, yet the convention welcomes and profits from images of racial hatred. GenCon has weakly worded policies to prevent these horrific violations, but it has failed to enforce its own rules.

The assumption here, again, unfairly being that simply because this stuff is there, and exists that somehow that indicates approval of the Nazis. There are games set in WWII and most often the Nazis are the villains of the piece, they make good baddies. There’s also a fetishistic side to militaria that often shows up in pinup art, an aesthetic that informs many games. Star Wars draws on the fascistic aesthetic for its imperial designs and symbology, even its terminology. Where do you draw the line?

Who would WWII re-enactors fight? Should DUST excise all Nazi iconography from their alternative WWII game? What about Weird War or Achtung Cthulhu? Does that seem fair? We already have a big problem with over-reaching anti-harassment policies how far are we going to extend that? This is edging into denial of history and that can be dangerous.

These are symbols, important symbols. If the color of all the leadership, of all the roles of power and recognition, the entire structure is white, and if this same leadership is tolerant of hate-speech, it gives a clear unspoken signal to the non-white community: You can join us here, but only if you leave your history, your people, and your emotions at the door.

Calling something ‘hate speech’ doesn’t make it so. It’s not like RaHoWa hardbacks are being sold on the main floor. Right?

I’ve been told time and again by gamers, “I don’t see race” as if they were doing me a kindness. This is not enlightenment or progressiveness. It is ignorance. If you do not see race, you do not see me. You do not see my identity, my ethnicity, my history, my people. What you are telling me, when you say “I do not see race,” is that you see everything as the normal default of society: white. In the absence of race and ethnicity, it is only the majority that remains. I am erased.

This is the ultimate goal though, is it not? For race to no longer matter. That’s what the eradication of racism looks like. People being taken on the ‘content of their character’. That’s a good, simple, achievable message and while history is important, people today aren’t responsible for it. By ‘not seeing race’ people are telling you that they see you, the person, the actions, the personality.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many people of color in the community try and submerge their own ethnic identity? They do not wish to stand out or to be recognized. In most societies it is dangerous to be an “other,” and in a subculture as white-dominated as gaming, things feel especially unwelcoming.

femalecaptainamericaAnd yet, time and again from gamers of colour that I know, I hear that the pressure and the problem comes from their own communities. The anti-intellectualism that is rife across races, but especially in inner city schools and especially in the afro community. The anti-white racism that exists and the suspicion of anything seen as ‘white’, which would include nerd stuff. In other communities the dislike of anything ‘frivolous’, such as games, which to many minds appear to serve no ‘useful’ purpose. A lot of this is to do with class, which is congruent but not identical to race.

Too many conversations on race and gaming die before they even start. I have seen more energy, debate, and engagement by gamers on the minutiae of rules and trivia than I have on the weighty topics of race and gaming. Gamers will spend endless days and millions of words fighting over the pros and cons of the Wacky Wand of Welding, but when a person of color brings up issues of race and diversity in the community, too many gamers roll their eyes and say, “Oh not again. Why do they have to be so politically correct? Can’t they just have fun?!”

And they do have a valid point. What is stopping you? Perhaps even more important, what is stopping you from creating something? Stepping up? Getting involved? This is a question I ask myself a great deal when people bring up these issues. If I can’t get it ‘right’ due to my ethnicity, class etc then what’s the point of appealing to me to do these things? If every attempt is met with hostility then why even try? The barrier to entry of making the kinds of games you want to see is very low now, but still mostly what we see are Guilty White People engaging in a much less fun and less creative form of ‘blaxsploitation’.

Listen. The Gaming as Other series is a great place to start. There are a handful of panels at Cons on the topic and I’ll be sitting on two of them at GenCon: “Why is Inclusivity Such a Scary Word?” and “Gaming As Other.” Keep engaging, listening and supporting. We notice your support and it gives us the strength to keep going.

Note: Listening does not entail agreeing and doesn’t mean being silent. It’s just the first step. It’s necessary for listening to occur in both directions and preconceptions of both sides to be questioned. Case in point ‘Why is Inclusivity Such a Scary Word’ betrays a preconception in the questioner. I don’t think ‘inclusivity’ scares anyone, it’s the things done in the name of it – censorship, death threats, boycotts, petitions, hatred and bullying – that scare people.

Hire more people of color and give them agency, visibility, power, responsibility, and credit in a wide variety of meaningful and important areas in your organization. Do not simply hire a token minority. Do not use people of color as a form of marketing.

Who? How? Where? In what capacity?

A lot of my hiring of freelancers is done via the internet via open call, unless I have someone specific in mind. I often don’t have the first beginning of a clue as to what colour they are, their gender, their age, anything. As a result of this merit/availability based policy I’ve ended up working with a lot of people who have turned out to be far, far away from my person demographic position but most have still been white, educated and broadly middle class (in outlook, if not situation).

We can’t all hire in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of prejudices and nor can we hire from a pool that doesn’t exist. Positive discrimination is just going to cause problems as it has elsewhere. The best solution is going to be to hone your craft (art, editing, writing, layout) and put yourself forward or do your own thing, and again, barriers to entry have never been lower. Just be careful you don’t become Christian Rock, or Billy Bragg. Nobody likes being evangelised.

Reach out to minority groups and invite them personally to conventions. Your neighbors, your co-workers, the people at your church, all of them.

Nobody likes being evangelised.

Offer and play games that are actively and intentionally more inclusive.

How is a game of imagination not inclusive?

There is a lot we can do together as a community. Gamers have always prided themselves on being accepting of those outside the mainstream. People of color want to be accepted too. GenCon is the flagship of gaming, and thus is a golden opportunity to start this process. Let’s start to have a conversation about the structures that led to the low number of minorities as Guests of Honor and ENnies judges. Let’s push GenCon to make changes to those structures so that people of color have a seat at the table for those important decisions. For many of us, gaming is not simply a hobby, but a home. Let’s make it both inclusive and diverse.

OK, now’s the time to have the serious conversation. I’ve touched on it a little before but pinning the blame on Gencon, or the nerd population as a whole is getting it backwards. To get what’s going on we need to take a look at WHY people of colour aren’t that well represented and to this hoary old socialist it’s pretty fucking obvious why.

Wealth and class.

That race and poverty are so linked is a damning indictment of ‘trickle down economics’ (it doesn’t trickle down) and the state of social mobility in the west, especially America and the UK (there’s very little). Poverty and city life – both associated with ethnic minorities for these same reasons – are also associated with crime, which leads to a connection between ethnicity and crime in the minds of many which is unfair, but not entirely without statistical basis.

Then there’s cultural issues which I’ve touched on before. We have a general problem with anti-intellectualism and while nerdery is much more accepted than it once was this is still a problem. It’s a problem which, according to the non-white nerds I know  is especially bad in the black community and especially in the african-American community. There’s a hatred of ‘white stuff’, a macho mindset and a rejection of education that just perpetuates victimisation. You see it in the urban poor of all races and cultures, but the pressure seems especially strong here.

  • So, really, what can we do? What can we do that makes an impact?
  • We can’t change government policy to invest more in schools and education, that’s not our responsibility as gamers but as citizens.
  • We can’t drag people out of poverty all by ourselves, that’s not our responsibility as gamers but as citizens.
  • We can’t shift the existing culture of the inner city poor, that’ll take generations of concerted effort.
  • We can’t force people to like what we like.

Original Steampunk 2 by Yaya HanMake inclusive games? Sure, but what do you even mean by inclusive? Would you insert black hobbits? Do you want to shift a creators vision on the basis of your perception of racism, regardless of intent or vision?

Work with people from minorities? Sure. They have to exist first, they have to put themselves forward and – for the foreseeable future – they’re going to be a minority smaller than the overall demographic divisions of our nations. I’m not going to hire someone on the basis of colour, I’m going to hire them on the basis of talent, reliability and price. Colour, gender, sexuality, none of these are of any concern and shouldn’t be a concern of anyone else. I’m fairly certain nobody wants to be hired on the basis of these things either.

I don’t know that there’s a lot else we can do, other than to encourage people who feel marginalised to make their own stuff and to help them do so. The history of trying to do that with other issues hasn’t gone so well though.

Just a suggestion though, don’t start by calling everyone explicitly or implicitly racist, even if you think they are.

Also check THIS out.

3 responses to “Dangerous Verbiage: Gaming’s ‘Race Problem’.

  1. Pingback: The Race Problem in Gaming | Cirsova

  2. Everyone has to play their race card or their gender-queer card anytime they talk about gaming these days D:

    So, as a person of color, I get why white folks are sick of all the whining. Lame-os are expecting that everything will suddenly be better if they write enough Junior undergrad essays on race & queer gaming it will magically make straight-white people give them what they want just to shut them up. Really, there is nothing stopping anyone of any color or gender-whatever from creating whatever content they want to see in gaming or from creating whatever space and enforcing whatever rules for them to game in. But that’s harder than waiting for someone to patronize them.

  3. And maybe he could feel better about himself if the convention temporarily suspended all minority help-staff and replace them with white people for the weekend. Sure it would suck for those minority people who didn’t get paid, but at least this guy wouldn’t feel like people had been brought out of the fields clean up after him.

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