‘No More Gor?’ an Old Interview with John Norman

This interview first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction in 1996. I’ve seen it reproduced elsewhere online, so I think it should be alright to reproduce it here. Norman has since bounced back with several additional books, largely thanks to online fandom and epublishing, as well as advances in small-press technology.

This interview does, however, show that there were issues of censorship and ‘propriety’ even back then. The 90s were a previous apex of political correctness culture, and this was also the same period of hysteria over Mortal Kombat and other computer games.

For me, the Gorean world is purely a fictional one. An interesting imaginary playground annd experimental forum rather than a life philosophy. Norman is an interesting character, a fairly libertarian and sexually imaginative conservative. It’s also eerie how his experiences in the mid nineties seem so very familiar today.

My commentary in italics.

The following interview by David Alexander Smith, entitled…

“No More Gor: A Conversation with John Norman”

…was published in two parts by The New York Review of Science Fiction, part one in Issue #92, Volume 8, No. 8 in April, 1996 (ISSN #1052-9438) and part two in Issue #96, Volume 8, No. 12 in August, 1996 (ISSN #1052-9438).

Introduction to Part 1

A year ago, at Arisia ’95, I was wandering through the dealer’s room, idly checking name tags as one does, when I saw one labeled “John Norman.”

I struck up a conversation, believing I must be mistaken – John Norman was dead, wasn’t he? – only to discover that, yea verily, John Norman was alive and kicking. Later during the convention, he was a participant on my panel, The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov.

Norman proved himself peppery, constructive, and thoughtful. Afterwards we talked a little about his situation.

Was he still publishing? I asked.

No, he said, he had been blacklisted.

You’re kidding, I said.

I’m completely serious, he replied.

After the con ended, I wrote him a letter, and there began a curious correspondence covering half a year. In the course of those letters, we conducted an extended conversation that sent me scurrying back to con dealer’s rooms to secure Gor books, which I then read so as to be able to hold up my half of this delayed, asynchronous dialog.

I mentioned to David Hartwell that I was having trouble reducing the mountain of material thus gathered into publishable form and he, with his flair for the Gordian solution, asked simply, “Why don’t you just cut up the letters and rearrange them into an interview?” I broached this idea with John Norman, who thought it plausible, and then worked with Norman to assemble what follows.


Smith: Forgive my dispassion, but if you have been blacklisted it is hugely ironic: science fiction, the rule-breaking, boundary-stretching genre, the genre which prides itself on individual expression, blacklists a successful author for political incorrectness?

Norman: Oh, there’s no doubt I’ve been blacklisted, both by publishers and at conventions.

(Norman’s commentary throughout this section must have sounded a damn sight more paranoid in the 90s than it does today. It still sounds a little off-base, but I think those who have been genuinely victimised and bullied deserve a little leeway when it comes to justifiable paranoia).

Smith: At conventions?

Norman: I was recently invited to participate in an SF convention and was listed among the invited guests. Subsequently a prominent fantasy feminist told the program committee that she would feel “uncomfortable” if I were at the convention when she was. Accordingly, my name was literally crossed off the ready-to-mail brochures.

Smith: How do you know?

Norman: I got one with my name crossed off the guest list with Magic Marker.

Smith: What did you do?

Norman: I tried to get an explanation. My inquiry was never answered.

Smith: How did you find out what had happened?

Norman: I was told later by outraged fans: another cave-in to political correctness, another victory for the liberal feminist axis and the thought police.

Smith: Being snubbed at conventions, however annoying, is not blacklisting, which occurs only when you cannot publish.

Norman: My agent has combed the woods and told me there is no opportunity to publish my work with any science fiction, fantasy, or mainstream publisher in the United States.

Smith: But why? Apparently the books, if allowed to be published, sell well (in Europe and elsewhere), which suggests that not only political correctness but also editorial elitism (we know what’s best for you) could be at work.

Norman: Tarnsman of Gor was published in late 1966. It has been reprinted 22 times.

Smith: That’s certainly impressive sales, but I see quite a stylistic difference between the early (Ballantine) and later (DAW) books. Even so, the DAW books (starting with Hunters and continuing through Magicians) have each sold at least 50,000 copies; the average is about 125,000 copies.

Norman: I have recently signed contracts for fresh French and German sales, and have recently been published for the first time in Czechoslovakia. There have been recent Spanish and Italian sales. There’s no evidence that my books no longer sell.

Smith: But there have been no Gor novels for five or six years.

Norman: After DAW refused to buy any more Gor books, I sold a three-part Telnarian series to Brian Thomsen of Warner Books. The first book, The Chieftain, had a 67 percent sell-through. The second, The Captain, had a 91 percent sell-through, which is the sort of thing that would make Stephen King rush over to shake your hand.

Smith: Then why aren’t you writing more Telnarian novels?

Norman: Brian Thomsen, my Warner editor for the Telnarian series, was suddenly no longer with Warner Books. He claims this had nothing to do with his willingness to champion my work.

Smith: What happened to the Telnarian series after that?

Norman: Thomsen was replaced by an editor from one of the blacklisting presses, one that explicitly informed my agent they would not consider anything by John Norman. That new editor canceled the series despite its success and without waiting to see how the third book, The King, would do. That way things are made nicely clear.

Smith: Do you have other examples of blacklisting?

Norman: Two full-length feature films have been putatively based on my work: Gor and Gor II: Outlaw of Gor, both by Cannon Films. Ballantine Books refused to do movie tie-ins to either film; they failed even to answer my letters.

(These films are awful and Norman is perhaps better served by not being particularly associated with them).

Smith: Perhaps the letters never arrived.

Norman: The second one was sent registered mail.

Smith: Then how did the movies get made?

Norman: My attorney finessed his way around Ballantine’s rights department and contacted the legal department at Random House. The movies were made by going over the heads of the censors.

Smith: But if the books sell, surely you can find publishers willing to make money on them.

Norman: Unfortunately for me, only about seven or eight publishing houses maintain a mass-market paperback line in sc ience fiction and fantasy; this small, closely-knit group effectively controls the market. With such a group, a blacklist need not be an explicit, formal written or oral agreement subscribed to by a gathered cabal pledged to secrecy. It is an understanding that a certain individual is to be ostracized, excluded, methodologically overlooked or such.

Smith: How would that work?

Norman: All the editors talk to one anothe r. At Arisia ’94 one SF/F editor asserted that editors all know one another and keep in touch, so if anything happens, “in three hours everyone knows about it.”

Smith: Sure, that’s possible, but mere rejection of your work is by itself insufficient – any editor can decl ine any book for any reason. Nor is group rejection – several different editors can decline the same book, and for the same reasons, which may well be expressed in the book itself. Even if the editors discussed your work among themselves, and reached similar conclusions about it, that by itself would not in my opinion be blacklisting, because lemmings do not blacklist. Thus, an industry’s refusal to publish work constitutes blacklisting only if two conditions are true:

  1. Editors are coerced into not publishing (or producing) the work.
  2. If not coerced, they would publish the work.

Norman: Coercion does not seem to be necessary for blacklisting, even though it might obtain.

Smith: Why not?

Norman: Suppose a small set of editors have a particular ideology. Even without coercion, there could be a general understanding that an author who challenges that ideology is not to be published.

(The Internet and social media has made this kind of social-blacklisting process far more obvious and apparent, so he wasn’t wrong).

Smith: But editors are allowed to use their judgment; that’s what they’re paid for.

Norman: Editors have four responsibilities: to their employers, to customers, to art, and to society.

An editor who puts belief ahead of proven commercial investments owes it to his company to make certain they understand he is doing so.

Customers have a right to expect that editors will give them what they want. The customers are quite as serious about their beliefs and values as the editor is in his.

Editors should also keep the art form of the novel healthy and flourishing.

Finally, the editor can help society to be an arid, uniform, intellectually deficient, repressive, emotionally impoverished totalitarianism, or he can help it be a decent place to live, a place that is open, a place that acknowledges and celebrates the individual, that welcomes difference, that accepts controversy, in short, a place where a rational, thinking, feeling being can thrive and rejoice.

Smith: Editors are also responsible if the things they publish are actively harmful.

Norman: Certain things ought not to be done: folks interrupting religious services with profanity, folks advertising bogus stock, folks explaining how to produce poison gases and make bombs, and such. Not everything goes.

But the Gorean books are written against a background of reality, complexity, depth, breadth, history, experience, psychology, ethnology, biology, and sociobiology. As far as I know, they are the most carefully constructed and intricately designed alternate world in the history of science fiction and fantasy. They are healthy, sane, sound, and fun.

(It is clear Norman believes in much, if not all, of the philosophy present in his books and this is what drives – I believe – the excellent worldbuilding to be found therein. One of the stand-out qualities of the Gorean novels is how real, if different, the societies feel – just with slightly different base principles).

Smith: What does your evidence suggest about coercion and publishability?

Norman: I really doubt that the clique of editors who are in a position to decide what you may or may not read would publish me even if they were not coerced. I think it is possible to blacklist without coercion.

Smith: Embarrassment is a powerful form of coercion – indeed, coercion by embarrassment seems an intrinsic element in the attempted enforcement of political correctness. Have editors been embarrassed into refusing to consider your work?

Norman: Individuals in the little club of ideologically uniform editors might fear losing their cozy ensconcement in the personality network. They might not want to be ostracized as politically incorrect, find themselves castigated, have their characters assassinated and so on. Jobs might be lost. Why risk printing something by John Norman? One might shock one’s peers, one might jeopardize one’s spot in the gang.

(Yet again, the Internet and social media have made this process obvious and performative. We now know this is the case).

Smith: It sounds like enough to make anyone paranoid. Is any of this in writing?

Norman: No, there’s no paper trail. To be sure, they could have made the matter more subtle by at least pretending to look at my material. If you want to be a censor, come up with some reason, other than politics, for rejecting it: the book is too long or too short, the plot is too simple or too complex; there are too few characters or there are too many. But I suppose they want me to know unmistakably what they are doing; it’s part of the fun.

Smith: Fun?

Norman: If the individual discriminated against has no idea what’s going on, what fun would that be?

Smith: You think people take pleasure in this?

Norman: I am frequently talked about. For instance, I have either heard or had reported to me many quotes l ike these:

“I am opposed to censorship, but I think everyone ought to get together and agree not to publish John Norman.”

“We are going to squeeze John Norman out.”

“I know the books will make money, but I publish what I like.”

“My press will not propagate the philosophy of John Norman.”

(This should all sound chillingly familiar to everyone, and it absolutely is fun for certain people. They make that clear with their posts).

Smith: That last one is intriguing. If true (and it’s only one person’s quote), it implies that people are objecting not to the books’ literary quality, but rather their philosophical or political contents.

Norman: Is it possible that liberal rhetoric is a hypocritic al facade for thought control in America? Is it possible that liberals, if given the opportunity, will unhesitatingly and consistently impose on others the same restrictions of freedom of speech and thought which they themselves have objected to when applied to themselves?

Smith: No matter how much they try, editors cannot wholly divorce their view of a work from their image of the author. As a test, someone once retyped, and submitted as his own manuscript, the first fifty or so pages of Jerzy Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Painted Bird. Every publisher rejected it, some with caustic comments about its lack of worth. I believe that people’s image of you and your work is acting against its consideration on its own merits.

Norman: Bad-mouthing John Norman is useful as a touchstone of political orthodoxy, rather like telling Ronald Reagan jokes.

(At least at time of writing it seems, Norman was very much a conservative. There’s something amusing in that, the author of notoriously sexual and libertine novels being of the political wing we normally think of as being the po-faced luddites. His ‘enemies’, whatever they call themselves cannot be considered liberal so long as they promoted censorship).

Sex Is Not The Problem

Smith: I think people who have not read your work dislike it because they think it celebrates sadomasochism and violence against or suppression of women.

Norman: The standard criticism of the Gorean books, popular with those who have never read one, is that they are sadomasochistic or such. A sadist is an individual who derives s exual pleasure from the infliction of physical pain on another person, and a masochist is a person who derives sexual pleasure from the receipt of pain at the hands of another. There is not one individual in the Gorean books who meets these criteria.

In fact, sadists and masochists would seem anomalous in a Gorean culture – which does not breed them – a culture in which human nature is honestly fulfilled, rather than thwarted or denied.

(The Gorean novels have a huge following within and around the BDSM community however. This seems anomolous until you understand that Gor is more about dominance and submission than sadism or masochism. I think there are sadists in the books, but these are villains. When a whipping or punishment takes place in the books it is for a transgression – not for the sake of it – and to reinforce the D/S aspect, rather than as an end in itself).

Smith: The novels fall into three basic groups:

  • The six early novels (Tarnsman through Raiders), all published by Ballantine.
  • The two hinge novels (Captive and Hunters), the last Ballantine and the first DAW. Hunters is particularly important.
  • The later novels (all published by DAW).
  • By the way, how many Gor novels are there?

Norman: There are twenty-five books in the series. I stopped work on the twenty-sixth, Witness of Gor, when the blacklisting became clear. There was no point in finishing it.

(Since then Witness has been published, along with Prize of Gor, Kur of Gor, Swordsmen of Gor, Mariners of Gor, Conspirators of Gor, Smugglers of Gor, Rebels of Gor, Plunder of Gor, and Quarry of Gor is due for publication this year. While the Internet has laid open the blacklisting and nepotism of the SF community it has also allowed more people to bypass that gatekeeping).

Smith: Over the course of the novels, your themes seem to change. The early novels are action-oriented male fantasies. Tarl Cabot is strong, fierce, capable, self-contained, brave, just, and shrewd. A civilized man in a barbarian world, he is uniquely capable of mixing justice and equity with iron discipline, and as such he rises rapidly in Gor’s meritocracy of the sword.

Though Cabot is perfectly capable of meeting the Gorean world’s savagery with his own, he generally succeeds because of his kindness toward women (Tarnsman) or his equity toward prisoners (Outlaw) or naval slaves (Raiders).

While the world in these early books is savage, and so are its priest-kings, people, and creatures, your Earthman protagonist is not – and that is the foundation of his success.

In these stories women have at best a peripheral role; the novels concern Cabot’s external struggles, and his internal battles against his own guilt and sense of lost honor.

By the later novels, the themes are almost exclusively the sexual and social relations of men and women, with recurring and comprehensive demonstrations that, at least on Gor, men and women find their spiritual and sexual fulfillment in different ways.

Men are fulfilled by being dominant, strong, unyielding masters. They take pleasure in subjugating women, although once the women have acknowledged men’s superiority, they are protective, just, even loving. They will use force and pain, and more frequently the threat of force or pain, to break women’s independent spirit.

Women are fulfilled by being dominated and overcome. Essential to their nature is that they must accept their slavery. However, acknowledging their physical and social inferiority, and subjecting themselves to the will of a powerful master, actually liberates them sexually, as if their sense of place in society is a barrier blocking them from their true selves.

Norman: The books are written from the point of view that men and women are not identical; they are different in their natures and needs. They are complementary to one another, both wonderful but not in the same ways.

Smith: How do the sexes differ?

Norman: The books celebrate the strength of men, the beauty of women, and the intelligence and nobility of both. Women are presented as being sexually alive, heterosexual creatures, as opposed to Lesbic or bisexual creatures.

Heterosexual women tend to respond sexually to powerful, commanding males; they tend not to respect women-men: accommodating, manipulable weaklings fulfilling the political stereotypes of the desexualized male, robbed of the natural male birthrights pervasive among mammals generally and primates in particular.

(Norman’s later books seem to indicate a bit of a softening in regards to LGBT on Gor. This was something I felt needed expanding upon in the game, as we know these tendencies are natural and consistent across time and culture, in prevalence if not indulgence. There are strong naturalistic arguments to support these underpinnings of Gor, but the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy for a reason also. Still, it all makes for a compelling game world).

Smith: What are those?

Norman: Command, pride, and power.

Smith: In between the Ballantine seven and the DAW seventeen books is Hunters of Gor, the hinge book. I find it remarkable. At first it seems much in the line of its predecessors – after all, it is narrated by Tarl Cabot, and the novel’s outward action involves his quest to find and free Marlenus, Ubar of Ar. Actually, the novel is principally concerned with the constant skirmishes between Cabot and Marlenus’s raiding parties and the misandronous panther girls.

After many encounters, most of which involve the victor staking out the vanquished naked on the ground, the men eventually conquer the women, whereupon a remarkable (to me) transformation occurs. All of the panther girls (except their leader) fling themselves joyfully upon their conquering men, ecstatic at becoming sexual and social slaves, delighted that in overcoming their pose of independence, their captors have genuinely freed them from themselves.

This plot line is qualitatively different from the previous stories, where slavery and sexuality are present but the main story is adventure. The first seven books were published by Ballantine; then with the eighth, Hunters, you started to be published by Don Wollheim at DAW. How did the change come about?

Norman: Betty Ballantine objected to Hunters. We had a signed contract but the book was rejected without explanation. I heard nothing further for some time. Finally I asked. Ian Ballantine, who was rather embarrassed about the whole matter, speculated that Betty’s problem with the text was the fact that the book contained sexual matter as part of the rich background of a barbaric culture.

Smith: So the problem was the sexual content?

Norman: I was told the problem was not sex. I inferred it must be political. Further experiences confirmed this hypothesis.

(Of course, I think we can say now that it was the sex, and the politics of the sex. I think we can also see that problem has gotten worse over time).

Slavery Is Not The Problem

Smith: Though in Hunters both men and women are enslaved, slavery’s depiction, and their reactions to it, differ greatly between the sexes. Cabot is made a slave. He resists violently and it is clear that to keep him a slave would be so humiliating that he would rather die. Being a slave thwarts essential elements in Cabot’s character.

The women, on the other hand, fight slavery but come to understand that it is their highest state. I cannot remember if anyone in Hunters says “Kiss the whip,” but the sentiment, which is echoed frequently in the later novels, aptly expresses the breakthrough moment for the women you depict. Doesn’t that express violence against women?

Norman: The issue is not violence but dominance and strength. Many women respond to strength and force. They like it. They want it. Most women want a man capable of mastering them.

(This is, I think, where we see the division between reality and fantasy. Many people have transgressive fantasies, which sane people understand does not necessarily mean someone wishes to act on them. The bodice-ripper, the rape fantasy, resisting but being overcome. These are common fantasies, despite the taboo, which perhaps explains Gor’s popularity with women).

Smith: As in romance novels?

Norman: The genre is referred to as bodice rippers. At a Lunacon a f ew years ago, I attended a panel on romances. One woman author recounted a criticism she had received from her editrix to the effect that the hero had not raped the heroine. That was supposedly something to be corrected.

Smith: Why?

Norman: I frankly suspect that the matter is biological, and that this does lie somewhere within all women. One supposes that there is a man and a situation in which any woman could be mastered and would respond as a loving slave.

Smith: That’s a broad statement.

Norman: To be sure, it is a universal hypothesis of a semantically non-finite scope, so it is not the sort of thing which could be conclusively tested. But even if it is not a disposition in all women, it is obviously a disposition in a great many of them, in my view the overwhelming majority of women.

(While these may be present in fantasies, I don’t necessarily share Norman’s idea that it is quite so widespread as a real desire. Ideally, I think, we should have a society in which people are free to pursue their own satisfaction via whatever means they choose).

Smith: It sounds like you’re espousing force in sexual relationships.

Norman: Force in itself is not evil. The male sex is naturally dominant, and the female dominance-responsive. This is an overwhelmingly general lesson among mammals and in particular primates. To be sure, it is not absolutely universal. Among hyenas, females tend to be dominant. Oddly enough, they are saturated in the womb with male hormones, which may make the difference. Among elephants and buffalo, the male will often only approach the family group when it wants sex; this means that the oldest healthy female will in effect head the male-absent household.

(As with the dominance/submission versus sadomasochism contrast, I think Norman is contrasting the existence of strength with its exercise. You can want a strong partner, without wanting them to use their strength on you).

Smith: So dominance should be expressed via sexual slavery?

Norman: In the master/slave relationship one has, symbolically and beautifully expressed, a celebration of the glory of nature and the reality of dimorphic sexuality.

Smith: A world where men are on top because they are superior?

Norman: The Gorean point is not that one sex is better than another, but that each is unique. They are equal in value, in merit, but that is about it. The female Gorean slave with her beauty, her skills, her sex, her nature, has considerable power in her way, a point often made in the Gorean books.

Smith: But the women are not in charge.

Norman: Ultimately, of course, the male is the master, and the female is the slave. He and she will have it so.

(There are many women in positions of power throughout the Gorean books and while many are ‘brought low’ – actually liberated – to a state of slavery it doesn’t happen to all. The BDSM community is full of people who seek power there, that they lack in real life, or who choose to surrender power that they do have in their lives).

Smith: And you think women like this?

Norman: The only market research with which I am familiar suggest s that 60 percent of the Gorean readers are women. In any event, they number ministers, psychologists, scientists, paramedics, computer experts, open-minded feminists, and many others among their readership. Many criticisms of the Gorean books come from anti-maleites, penis-envy militants, and such, who are only too eager to impose their views on society.

(Again, I think Norman is entitled to a little parania and bitterness here. Interestingly that 60% is roughly the same to the amount of women who admit to having rape fantasies in psychological studies).

Smith: But women in the Gorean books are generally treated as property or slaves. Many people think that’s anti-female.

Norman: You can’t claim the Gorean books have in it for women, because too many women love them. The Gorean books are written for highly intelligent, highly-sexed individuals, both men and women.

Smith: What do you think women like in the books?

Norman: In their way, they are sensuous romances, and women love romance. Also, many women feel denied, sexually starved, frustrated, in our modern politicized reality, our would- be unisex planet. Contemporary society suppresses fundamental aspects of female sexuality, in particular those having to do with sexual surrender. Women, or some of them at any rate, have nothing against being feminine, sexy, desired, and so on, despite the fact that these properties are not required of dentists or accountants.

(And men want to feel sexy, desired and so on as well – but male sexuality is not just seen as embarassing, but as dangerous).

Smith: And thus, in your view, the world of Gor celebrates humanity’s animal instincts. If that is so, wouldn’t people want to live in it? How many American women do you think would want to live on Gor? None? Some? Most? All?

Norman: If you were to ask the average American woman, “How would you like to be blindfolded and have your hands chained behind your back, and then learn that you belonged to a man?” one might suppose that only a certain percentage of American women would be intrigued and thrilled.

Smith: Most of them would be frightened and horrified.

Norman: The percentage would be far higher if the woman were allowed to name the man, namely a master to whom she knows in her deepest self she could submit and would desire to submit. And if you made the question, “Would you like to be owned by a powerful, handsome sheik, and treasured by him, and ravished frequently as a slave, so that you screamed with pleasure?” you might get an enthusiastic “Yes.”

(I think the success of otherwise excreble novels such as 50 Shades of Grey – and some would argue the Gor series – demonstrate that Norman is broadly correct).

Smith: In defining it that way, you have made it into a fantasy, because the woman has control over the man and has specified the terms of her ravishment. Of course you can do that when you read a book. Do your typical readers, especially your enthusiastic fans, want to experience it in reality?

Norman: One has readers of many sorts and on many levels. If you are asking whether the average reader would wish to experience the Gorean reality, I would not know. Many would be interested in seeing what it was like. Would the average reader like his or her own life to contain more Gorean elements? I think the answer to that would be yes.

(I likely wouldn’t fare well on Gor, but it is not just warriors and the more stereotypically male characteristics. Scribes are a valued caste as much as warriors, and being able to live forever would be great).

The Gorean Philosophy of Sexual Politics

Smith: Well, Hunters is largely a morality play expressing a view of sexual politics. The structure of pursu it, capture, and blessed submission is common throughout literature – indeed, Hunters of Gor is a kind of Genghis Khan Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hunters is a rape romance – it says, in effect, that if a woman will not succumb to her sexuality of her own free will, she must be forced into acknowledging it. Indeed, she subconsciously wants to be forced (as evidenced by the panther girls’ enthusiastic embrace of their masters at novel’s end).

Norman: On Gor men are men and women are women, but the twain meet quite frequently, meaningfully, and excitingly.

Smith: At least in the imagination, as seen in most of the couplings in The Story of O and the fireplace rape scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Norman: I recall Dominique Francon’s fireplace “rape scene” very differently, although a rape interpretation is a common one. It is abetted by Dominique’s claim that she was raped; after all, who would know better than Dominique? On the other hand, one must consider the full background and context. Dominique and Roark are not strangers. Much has passed between them at the quarry where Roark was working. The sparks of desire have been flying like electricity between them. The symbolism of Roark’s masterful and casual handling of the drill piercing solid rock is clear.

Dominique is aroused and Roark, who is highly intelligent and very little socially controlled, is aware of this. Dominique longs for the power of Roark, and to be mastered. Roark is well aware of this. They want each other badly. However, Dominique is unable to bring to conscious acceptance that she, a young, beautiful, brilliant, sophisticated society woman, has met her master in this seemingly careless, vulgar figure of a common laborer.

Smith: So you are saying, in effect, that Dominique subc onsciously wanted to be taken, and in ravishing her, Roark was carrying out her will as well as his?

Norman: Dominique was taken without her explicit consent, but in accord with the depths of her being, with the full acquiescence of every fiber in her body, yielding to him as what she is and knows herself to be, his rightful slave.

Smith: Rand makes a point that Dominique neither cries out nor, when Roark is finished, is she in any hurry to remove the traces of him from her body.

Norman: I think the subtlety in Rand’s part is to belie Dominique’s conscious judgment, and to make it clear in the text that appropriate, perfectly suited lovers have met, wonderfully and explosively.

Smith: At The Fountainhead’s end, of course, Dominique is married to Roark and is proud of him as he stands, phallically, atop the biggest tower in the city.

Norman: Rand’s treatment of sex shows an awareness of power relations and the enhancement of sexuality by their frank admission and celebration. In Atlas Shrugged, even when Dagny Taggart is naked in bed, she wears an iron-link bracelet of Rearden metal like a slave cuff.

(Words do not exist to express the full contempt in which I hold Rand, and her work, so other than this – no comment).

Smith: There is a large difference between power romances, where the heroine succumbs willingly to the hero’s greater strength, and rape romances, where the heroine has to be enslaved and bludgeoned into submitting, only to be liberated later on. While you may take issue with the word rape, your heroes put women in chains, brand them, starve them, and use force to make them succumb to sex. That the women come to enjoy, even to crave, their submission does not change the fact that force was used to obtain it in the first place. I am sure that many women who want to swoon to Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester would also draw the line at using force to procure sex.

Norman: There is very little bludgeoning in the Gorean books. Women slaves are mastered, but there seems to be little physical abuse involved. There is of course the actual control of food and the threat of the whip. That would be normal in a barbaric society.

Smith: In Imaginative Sex (1974) you come out and state explicitly that:

  • Imagination is a component in sex.
  • These should be fantasies.

They depend on, to quote you indirectly, affection and trust between partners. Is Gor your expression of a philosophy of sexual fantasy?

Norman: Fantasy in sexuality allows for a deepening and broadening of sexual relationships and an incredible enrichment of the sexual existence. A sexual life with the imagination left out seems to me to be a sexual life certainly beneath the potential of a rational animal. If imagination is permissible and commendable in life –

Smith: – which is, of course, the essential premise of science fiction and fantasy.

Norman: – then it seems obvious that it should also be permissible and commendable in one’s sexual life.

(The popularity of cosplay erotica and Rule 34 would seem to show this is, indeed, the case. Yet, paradoxically we also see a new puritan morality, especially in the creative subcultures).

Smith: Then I don’t think people are objecting to imagination, or to sexual fantasy – goodness knows, we have enough of that available in science fiction, both in the work and in fandom – but rather to the type of sexual fantasy which dominates your work – namely, male masters dominating female slaves.

Norman: To be sure, not every fantasy appeals to every individual.

Smith: Certainly we have seen an explosion in erotica within science fiction and fantasy. Aside from a whole line of books about vampire sex, there are publishers specializing in erotic SF/F, and of course, the whole phenomenon of slash amateur fiction that combines common SF icons such as Kirk and Spock into sexual fantasies.

Norman: The Gorean books are written in exquisite taste and do not contain explicit sex, by contrast with many feminist works. But I like to think that my work was the seminal pioneer work in the area of SF/F sexual fantasy.

(The Gorean books are certainly not as explicit – for the most part – as they’re expected to be by many people. A big part of the problem does seem to be that the Gorean novels are male-oriented, heterosexual-centred fantasy).

Smith: That’s quite a claim.

Norman: It is a bit like Leif Ericsson and Columbus. Some folks were there first, but I may have been the fellow who first landed there in a historically big way. To be sure, I could be wrong.

Introduction to Part 2

This piece, although presented in the form of an interview, is actually a construction that David Alexander Smith assembled from correspondence between himself and John Norman. In developing the piece, Mr. Norman cooperated with Mr. Smith, whom he respects highly, authorized the use of his correspondence, and received the opportunity to review a portion of the piece before its publication. Nevertheless, its contents and organization, ambiance and possible inferences, are primarily Mr. Smith’s responsibility.

Mr. Norman does not object to the article’s publication, so long as it is clearly understood not to be taken as adequate to or definitive of Mr. Norman’s views.

Smith: Although this is a personal judgment, the later books are to me less interesting than the earlier ones. They are also longer – for instance, Tarnsman (Book 1) is 220 pages of medium-size type, probably about 75,000 words, whereas Hunters (Book 8) is 320 pages of small type (perhaps 150,000 words), Players (Book 20) is 396 pages (about 190,000 words), and Renegades (Book 23) 436 pages (probably just about 200,000 words). Their pace also seems to slow down – conversations become more protracted and often repeat similar themes – and the later books seem to have less description of the setting. These features suggest to me that your readership is narrowing.

(Players is one of my favourites, otherwise I would tend to agree. When doing my research the majority of notes were made from the earlier novels. Some of this is simply down to the fact that the setting has already been established by the time of the later novels).

Norman: Well, my problem has never been with readers. Of my last three published books, The Chieftain had a 67-percent sell-through, and The Captain had a 91-percent sell-through. I have no figures on the last book, The King.

Smith: The early books also have much better, tighter prose. The later books are much more lengthy, and in my opinion would have benefited from tightening. Because of this, and because they focus exclusively on the same recurring theme, they are unlikely to attract new readers. I think this affects their publishability.

Norman: Writing style is a matter of taste. As I have matured as a writer, fire-engine prose seems less attractive to me. English is one of the richest, subtlest, most complex and flexible of all the native languages on the planet. I hope my prose has given the language its due, which it seldom gets from my esteemed colleagues in the genre.

Regardless, my novels are complex, thought-provoking adventure fantasy novels. They are also, in their way, intellectual, psychological, and philosophical novels which seem to me quite innocent.

Smith: As I understand the Hollywood blacklistings, coercion and suppression were present in the McCarthy era. Producers and directors were coerced by the threat of being named co-conspirators before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they rejected works only after learning who wrote them, hence the burgeoning cottage industry in fronts who submitted work they did not write as their own.

Norman: In the Hollywood blacklistings – never proven in writing, so perhaps they never took place – certain authors were denied assignments and employment. Liberals objected vociferously to this sort of thing. One would suppose then that liberals were opposed to blacklisting on principle, regardless of political agendas.

(People on all sides seem fine with censorship, so long as it’s not them being censored).

Gor As a Sexual Fantasy

Smith: A therapist who works with sexually dysfunctional people once told me that essential to the erotic lure of many sex fantasies is their unachievability. The human mind is a complex thing, and people may become aroused by fantasizing about experiencing something which would terrify them if experienced in real life.

Norman: There is a literature on female sexual fantasy and it turns out that many women have rich, lively sexual imaginations – happily for them and their mental health.

Smith: Of course, a rape fantasy cannot harm a woman, whereas a rapist can. Reading about being a slave is a lot more intriguing than actually being a slave.

Norman: Perhaps, but within the privacy of their own relationships, many women do live and love the life of a female slave. These women, who have joyfully relinquished their freedom for the collar or the anklet, who have knelt and kissed the whip, seem to have found the rewards more than adequate recompense.

Smith: Placating the superego through fantasy allows the id free rein, much in the same way that riding a roller-coaster gives the illusion of being near death, without the corresponding risk. Key, though, is that the work is acknowledged (at least by the reader) as fantasy. Do you think the later Gorean books have strong elements of sexual fantasy?

Norman: All the Gorean books have strong elements of sexuality in them. And many psychologists use and recommend sexual fantasy in therapy. Indeed, some defend pornography not only for its obvious, documented value in defusing sexual aggression, but for its liberating roles in freeing the sexual imagination.

Smith: I doubt that you will get universal agreement that pornography reduces sexual aggression.

Norman: The matter is a bit like having safety islands and street lamps. Some folks are going to be hurt by bouncing their cars over safety islands or driving them into street lamps, but, on the whole, the safety islands and street lamps do a great deal more good than harm. For that matter, so do automobiles, yet no one is proposing banning them as expressions of male aggression.

(Again, this is a liberal and libertine position from Mr Norman. It’s also one supported by the evidence so far as we can tell. Part of the reason the new – and old – cultures of repression can be genuinely dangerous).

Smith: Imaginative Sex states that partners should act out their sexual fantasies.

Norman: If one has never owned and mastered a female, one has missed an incredible adventure in masculinity, a uniquely fulfilling experience. Similarly, the woman who has not felt the bonds of a master, who has not felt his collar put on her, who has not knelt, who has not obeyed, who has not yet understood herself as a vulnerable, helpless slave who must and will obey, has not experienced the fullness of her femininity.

Smith: In Imaginative Sex you take pains to emphasize that these fantasies should be handled trustfully and safely.

Norman: In expressing sexual fantasy, there have to be precautions to protect the participants. One would wish to screen out the sadists, for example. Further, given the jealousy and possessiveness of men, the desire to pair bond on the part of most women, and the danger of communicable diseases, I would think that the best way is in couples, and that any sexual congress involved would be private and limited to the master and his particular slave.

(It is peculiar that, in many ways, despite being embraced by the BDSM community, Norman seems to find himself at odds with them in many ways, an uneasy bedfellow).

Gorean and American Society

Smith: Many people who express tolerance over people’s private lives and private fantasies become militant if those philosophies are forcibly imposed on others.

Norman: The philosophies of statism, authoritarianism and collectivism are being imposed forcibly on the American people by the bayonets and guns of the state. I wonder how many people see through the rhetoric of “totalitarian liberalism” and recognize what is being done to them. The country is moving toward fascism, with ever more power being consigned to the omnipresent, paternalistic, later to be omnipotent, state.

The imposition of philosophies is nothing new, or exotic, or remote. To be sure, I, unlike various editors who currently decide what you may and may not read in science fiction, disapprove of the replacement of the individual with the group, of freedom with conformity, of liberated thought with supervised, managed discourse. The current readers of science fiction are political prisoners, and most of them, I suppose, haven’t caught on to that yet. And some of them, I gather, like it. It saves thinking, at any rate.

(We currently seem to live in the worst of both worlds, with the totalitarian mindset ascendent in politics and another totalitarian mindset ascendent in the social sphere).

Smith: Elsewhere you have made the point that Gorean society is decentralized and pluralistic. Would you want a Gorean society actually to be created?

Norman: It seems possible that a Gorean world might be the best possible world empirically, given human realities. It would not be a Utopian world.

Smith: Would you want to live in it?

Norman: It’s very difficult to know if one would want to live in a Gorean society or not without having actually lived in it. Much would depend on the test of life consequences.

Smith: You mean how happy it makes its citizens?

Norman: Most large-scale human cultures have been catastrophic failures in producing human happiness. They have seemed to offer their victims little more than a choice of miseries, irrational isms, or actual social psychoses.

Smith: On Gor, anyone can be a slave, the world as a whole accepts and endorses slavery, and almost all of its cities have some form of female slavery.

Norman: It varies from city to city. In the Gorean world, only one woman in forty is in bondage. And in any case, if I understand the signs aright, most modern people seem to live boring lives. In a Gorean world, whatever one might die of, it would not be boredom.

Smith: The later books repeatedly assert that modern society not only suppresses women’s sexuality, it also functionally castrates men. Whereas you show many Earth women who are liberated by becoming Gorean slaves, you have few (any?) Earthmen who are liberated by becoming Gorean masters. For example, Tarl Cabot is not liberated by becoming a master; he steps into the role with little if any feeling other than his desire to recover his honor.

Norman: It seems pretty clear to me that manhood, virtue and virility, are under an ugly, consistent, and dangerous attack. Perhaps women’s rising longevity advantage is an effect of a pervasive promulgation of a diminishing, life-shortening ethos for men which attempts to twist, distort, and undermine them, to cripple them, to lead them to distrust their sex, to look with apprehension on their most natural urges.

Smith: How would this shorten their life-span?

Norman: It produces anxieties and depressing syndromes of health-threatening elements such as the discomforts of hypocrisy and the proven, deleterious consequences of prolonged mental and physical stress.

Smith: You are saying that Gor is an emotionally healthier society?

Norman: Well, for example, some men in our world seem to want to hurt women. These things are incomprehensible in a Gorean world, but they make some sense in our world, a world in which natural relationships tend to be denied.

Smith: Denied how?

Norman: The male, cheated of his manhood, desires to inflict pain in revenge. The female, cheated of her womanhood, accepts and perhaps even desires pain, perhaps to punish herself for deserting her deepest self.

Smith: And women? Are they more free on Gor?

Norman: Yes, I think women on Gor would be more intellectually free than on Earth. Women here are under attack. They are supposed to forgo themselves and line up behind anti-maleites and Lesbics, espouse a militant hate-founded creed, and conform to generally alien stereotypes.

Smith: Could you expand on that a little?

Norman: Some stereotypical principles of antimenicism are the dehumanization of the fetus; the attempt to diminish and devirilize males; the claimancy of victimhood; the demand for special advancements and privileges, economic and social, for themselves; the belittling of, and holding in contempt of, motherhood and love; careerism vs. family; hostility vs. nurturance; barrenness vs. maternity; the postmodern subordination of truth, objectivity and reason to political ends; the adoption of an adversarial relationship to males, abetted by falsification, slandering, demonizing and attempted demasculinization; the exaltation of a sexist “sisterhood,” the praise of, and espousal of, Lesbic attitudes and agendas; the denunciation of “heterosexism,” i.e., love between men and women; the insistency on vanity and self, on idiosyncratic egocentricity and methodological selfishness; recourse to the state to force the imposition of programs on an unwilling, confused and repulsed community, both male and female, and so on.

(This was 1996 remember. There’s a lot here I couldn’t agree with, but there’s also other elements I recognise, such as the undermining of objectivity and science and the way things have moved beyond demands for equality and into demands for revenge and special privileges).

Smith: And how does all this relate to modern American women?

Norman: Many women want romance in their lives, and with men. They do not find the miniaturized, docile male, the poodle male prescribed by feminism, of much sexual interest. He is a bore and tends to be a lousy lover. By contrast, in the works of John Norman certain women are literally slaves, owned women, and they find their joy and their fulfillment in their condition as uncompromisingly dominated females. They revel in their condition; they would exchange it for nothing; they have tried freedom and found it wanting; they love their masters; they are hot, devoted, and dutiful. They are happy. A literature which does not recognize that such women exist is limited, incomplete and naive.

(Given the multiple horrific revelations about well known male feminsits, this no longer seems quite as implausible. It’s not the open perverts you have to worry about, it’s the ‘allies’).

Smith: A world with slavery.

Norman: As the Gorean culture is richly, vividly, authentically barbaric, slavery exists, as it has throughout human history in one form or another. On Gor it exists honestly, openly, explicitly, not called by other names or hidden under political rhetorics.

Smith: You mean slavery is present now, in America for instance?

Norman: Economically, of course it is. The state can deprive an individual of his property, his freedom and his life. It may limit his thought and control his life as it pleases. The average American works 123 days a year to pay his taxes and the more successful work longer for the state, which harvests the fruits of their labor even more ruthlessly. The First Amendment itself is under attack from the feminist left; if not repealed, it will be reduced or nullified by judicial activism, subjecting it to creative interpretation – falsification to accord with self-serving political goals.

(Again, I repeat, this was in 1996. However I think he’s blinded to the self same problems from the right, not to mention from capitalism itself in the form of Silicon Valley companies).

Smith: Has this reached science fiction?

Norman: Science fiction and fantasy in America are no longer free. If they are to be published, they must be subservient to the liberal-feminist agenda. The feminist prescriptions for and stereotypes of the “good woman” are demeaning , confining, and inhibitive, and irrelevant to the calm world of facts. Feminism represents as much a psychological prison for the woman as did the morality of the Victorian era.

Smith: So you are in essence demanding the freedom as a male writer to celebrate female sexual slavery. There is something incongruous in this.

Norman: I am not demanding freedom but rather calling attention to the fact that it has been denied to me.

Smith: Even if some people find it offensive?

Norman: Not everyone likes my work. That is a problem for anyone who has serious edges, hard surfaces and sharp corners – clear views and something to say. I think the many thousands who do like my work have a right to see it in print, and to enjoy it. The main point is censorship versus freedom. I come down on the freedom side of things. In my view people should try to do what seems fine, and worthwhile, and even great and important to themselves, rather than conform to the preferences and yardsticks of others.

To be sure, this is a recipe for integrity, not success. There is no standard, ideal human being which we should all attempt to emulate. Each human being has a right to exist for his own sake, and as he chooses to exist, subject to certain obvious qualifications having to do with sanity, civility, safety, health and love. My own search for truth in life, and in literature, has led to defeat, to the ashes and desolation of censorship, slander, misrepresentation and blacklisting

Gender and Critics’ Perception of Sexual Writing

Smith: I wonder if what upsets people is not the content of the books so much as their author: after all, you are a man writing in part about the glories of dominating and enslaving women.

Norman: That is an important and interesting strand of the Gorean fabric, but it is only one strand. An entire world is created here, with languages, cultures, artifacts, politics, religion, costuming, cooking, military strategies, weapons, plant life, animal life, complex social arrangements, and so on. Surely that is an incredible achievement. One could gather from your comments that there is nothing in the series but one particular variety of man-woman relationship: that of the virile male master and his lovely slave.

Smith: I highlight it because female sexual slavery seems to me such a prominent element in the novels, and in the reactions they generate. The Gorean novels imply that women want this, whether they know it or not.

Norman: There are plenty of folks, such as Anne Rice, who are writing material which is far more erotic than what I do. Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy is light years beyond anything I would do or even think of doing, yet Ms. Rice is a heroine to many feminists . . . and is published by one of the houses that refuses to so much as look at anything by John Norman. To be sure, there are many spankings and bawling men in that trilogy. My work is short on such sure-fire items. So it looks like politics is the real answer.

Smith: When Susan Palwick, author of Flying in Place, a novel about an abused child’s struggle to cope with her memories of abuse, revealed that she had in fact not been abused as a child, she received angry letters challenging her and claiming that she must have been abused because this could not have been invented. In both cases, critics were challenging the artist’s right to imagine something not directly springing from his or her direct cultural experience, as if personal experience were the only grounds from which fiction ma y spring, and any genuine imagination is poaching. In effect, such critics argue that certain topics are the exclusive province of authors who have lived through them, and other authors should be kept out: a kind of ethnic literary mercantilism.

(An early example of the kinds of demands we see these days that you not write outside your experience, or that you pay sensitivity readers or similar to pre-approve and have editorial control over your work).

Norman: It would require a feminist writer to fantasize men utilizing women for food, like Suzy McKee Charnas in her political tract, Walk to the End of the World. To me that seems sick, ugly and disgusting. Needless to say, the publishing house that published that pathology, and doubtless congratulated themselves on their political relevance in doing so, will not even look at anything by John Norman. My books celebrate virility and femininity. That, it seems, is their crime, and glory.

Smith: On that note, it may be appropriate to end this interview with an excerpt from the end of The King, the last John Norman novel published:

“[Free women] are dangerous, he thought. They have all the power of their freedom, of custom, of rude law protecting them, rendering them invulnerable, permitting them to strive in a thousand sly ways against men, capable of reducing and diminishing men, of denying them, of using their bodies to buy what they wanted, of withholding them for gain, of offering favors for bribes, and all with impunity.

It is pleasant to tame women, to make them obedient, dutiful, passionate slaves, and to drive them to sexual ecstasies a thousand times beyond those attainable by the free woman, perhaps bound hand and foot there, begging for your touch. Yes, women should be slaves; they belong in collars and shackles. And women, interestingly, dream of masters. They long for the chains in which they know themselves rightfully to belong. At the master’s feet is the place of women, and this, deny it and fear it and fight it as they will, in their hearts, they know.”

– Telnarian Histories Book III, The King

#RPG – X-Cards Revisited


“Censorship is telling a man he can’t eat steak, because a baby can’t chew it.”
– Mark Twain

The X-Card is a tool that is supposed to make roleplaying more ‘safe’. I’m not quite sure how sitting around a table rolling dice and talking is supposed to be ‘unsafe’ unless you tread on a D4.  Leaving the base absurdity of the whole idea aside, I want to articulate my problems with them, long form, as it seems that the point is hard to get across on social media.

As with so many things these days, opposition to a concept that people have decided is progressive and inclusive is taken as automagically people hateful, nasty, uncaring or whatever else is the opposite of what people assume the thing they’re trying to impose is. As is also the case with many of these things, my opposition stems from the exact same values they claim they are trying to uphold.

The idea of the X-card is that if the game strays into uncomfortable territory for one of the players, they can play down the X-card and that scene or thread is stopped and the game skips on ahead. This is meant to protect vulnerable players from PTSD, offence, the triggering (used unironically for once) of phobia and so on.

Opposition to this idea is characterised as bullying, mean-spiritedness and so forth.

Alright, let’s engage in a thought experiment to try and demonstrate why this is a bad idea.

Imagine you’re riding a roller coaster, but everyone has access to a button that will immediately stop the roller coaster and bring it gently back to the start. A panic button, if you will. The coaster slowly climbs that first rise and is about to drop when… someone pushes the button. Ruining the experience for everyone on the roller coaster who was up for the ride from the get-go.

That doesn’t work for you? How about this then?

You buy a ticket for a horror movie and enter the theatre. Taking your seat you discover that every seat has been fitted with a button that will skip to the next scene if you find it harrowing. The film starts, the slasher appears behind the first teenage camper, raises his machete and… the film skips over the murder to the next scene, a pair of teenagers sharing a dooby behind the boat sheds. One, squeamish person has ruined the experience of the film for everyone else.

No analogy is perfect, but by transferring the X-card idea to other entertainment experiences, hopefully the absurdity and selfishness of the concept is made more obvious.

The X-card doesn’t prevent bullying, it empowers it. It gives one person at the table the power – albeit only by social convention – to interrupt and spoil the fun of everyone else at the table, and to greatly inconvenience the Games Master.

There are other issues with it too.

Firstly, it’s hard to see where an X-card would ever be used. If you have a regular group then you already know each other’s social, emotional and other boundaries and have negotiated them – probably – for years. In that context an X-card has no role whatsoever.

In convention or store games the use of such a card will be purely disruptive and, by and large, you should know what you’re signing up for when you sign up for a game. If you have arachnophobia then you probably shouldn’t have signed up for a game entitled: The Spawning Caves of the feral miscegenated Neo-Arachnid Variants.

Secondly, gaming is a safe environment, automatically. There’s nothing there that can actually hurt you. It’s all words and numbers, descriptions and choice. While gaming isn’t therapy, it can provide a cathartic environment to live out a variety of fantasies and to face up to and overcome things you find difficult. The avoidance of difficult subjects can entrench and strengthen your issues with them and therapists who do deal with this kind of thing tend to recommend facing it and gradual acclimatisation. If you let a player avoid anything that upsets them or sets off their issues, you’re not doing them any favours – quite the opposite.

Thirdly, the idea of X-cards is part of a general trend to try and homogenise and beat down gaming into some sort of family-friendly, pablumesque milieu where anything irreverent, dangerous, challenging, sexual or violent – anything that could even potentially upset or offend someone is done away with.

X-cards may be limited to certain groups and you might be able to choose to play or not play in a group that does or does not use them, but it’s part of a greater context and continuum of censorship, control and well-meaning interference that now extends all the way from publishing to the table itself.

The responsible thing to do, if you’re someone who has a hard time with certain plots, actions, monsters or whatever else at the table, is to remove yourself from the game at these points – or completely – rather than to selfishly screw it up for everyone else.

The only X-rated cards at the table should be Cthentacle.


Some additional, useful observations from @Haunted_backlog:

1. Give people a system for it and it’ll be more common.

2. Refusing to explain (the problem that made you use an x-card – G) compounds the problem, nobody else knows what to avoid or why.

3. In the absence of a pressing demand or notable benefit, adopting X-cards is a proxy for a group’s overall vulnerability to SJW fatwas, and who knows what it’ll require next. Vegan snacks only? Villains can only be certain races? Sky’s the limit.

#RPG – A Critique of ‘Privilege, Power, & Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial & Gender Identities in TTRPGS

#RPG – Diversity Dungeons RELEASED!

Buy it HERE

Diversity Dungeons : Worldbuilding & Game Design in the Safe Space Age
Much digital ink (and blood) has been spilt taking about diversity representation in tabletop gaming and in every other field of geek and nerd endeavour. Usually these conversations are extremely combative and they tend to end poorly for everyone involved. I’ve been involved in these debates and discussions myself, to my detriment. The position I hold being that free expression and the vision of the author or creator should trump any and all other concerns – including diversity, representation and so on. To my mind the answer is for people to create according to their own conscience, not to be condemned out of hand or for their motivations to be presumed and for diversity of ideas to be the benchmark. I want a world in which Varg Vikernes and David Hill can both make and sell games and I can ignore both of them.

That said, I cannot help but be drawn to controversial topics – that is where the interesting conflicts and stories lie – and there are few topics so controversial as the treatment of ‘minorities’ within media. Here we arrive at a nexus-point between realism, expectation, demands for representation, demands for free expression, historical revisionism, magic, science fiction, truth, ‘is’ and ‘ought’. That makes it interesting, but the battle lines of identarian politics, liberalism, conservatism, the regressive left and cultural libertarianism also make it an area fraught with difficulty and wilful misunderstanding.

There are no good – or at least no satisfactory – answers to a lot of these questions. Perhaps there are just multiple approaches each of which will annoy some group or other. What’s true in all circumstances however is that these controversial topics are interesting, fascinating and important in terms of world, character and scenario building whatever your particular stance.

This booklet intends to examine these issues in and of themselves, outside of the current state of controversy and to ask – rather – how we might better simulate the plight of minority groups, understand them within the context of fictional worlds, make allowances for player-characters who might seek to buck those societal trends or allow characters – through their actions – to affect social change within the game worlds.

#SJWRPG – Class: Social Justice Barbarian


Signature social justice barbarian

Social Justice Barbarians are all about the rrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaage.

Full of snark and nastiness, if they weren’t Social Justice Barbarians they’d just find someone else to bully and pick on. Luckily for them they’ve happened upon the one arena in which it’s socially acceptable to be a total arsehole to people with impunity.

Level 1: +2 Proficiency, Shitfit, Trigger 1, Unarmoured Defence.
Level 2: +2, Shut the Fuck Up.
Level 3: +2, Spittle Attack
Level 4: +2, Ability Score Improvement
Level 5: +3, Extra Attack, Trigger 2.
Level 6: +3, Reason Immunity.
Level 7: +3, Bully.
Level 8: +3, Ability Score Improvement.
Level 9: +4, Sonic Scream.
Level 10: +4, Trigger 3.
Level 11: +4, Unstoppable Shitfit
Level 12: +4, Ability Score Improvement.
Level 13: +5, Super Bully.
Level 14: +5, Trigger 4.
Level 15: +5, Self Righteous Fury.
Level 16: +5, Ability Score Improvement.
Level 17: +6, Ultra Bully.
Level 18: +6, Mighty Stupid.
Level 19: +6, Ability Score Improvement.
Level 20: +6, Trigger 5, Laughing Stock

Class Features

Hit Dice 1d12+Constitution Modifier per level (12+Con modifier at first level).

Proficiencies: Light and medium armour, shields, blockbots.
Weapons: Simple weapons, martial weapons, keyboards, YouTube, Twitter, blogging.
Tools: Yes, yes they are.
Saving Throws: Strength, Constitution.
Skills: Choose two from Animal Handling, Blogging, Athletics, Intimidation, Perception, Survival, Twitter and Vlogging.

Special Abilities

Bully: Anyone lower level, or lower Challenge Rating than your level, you get +1 to hit and +1 damage against. Super Bully increases this to +2, Ultra Bully to +3.

Laughing Stock: Years of losing your temper online have made you a laughing stock, but also given you a thick skin. +4 Con and all damage you take from any source is reduced by one.

Mighty Stupid: Any magic attacks or attempts to use social skills on you fail so long as your Strength is higher than their Intelligence.

Reason Immunity: You cannot be affected be mind-altering magic or effects.

Self Righteous Fury: Your Shitfit now lasts as long as you want it to and while shitfitting you don’t get knocked out until you die.

Shitfit: When triggered (see trigger) you enter a mindless rage. This gives you a bonus of +1 to hit and do damage at level 1, +2 a level 5, +3 at level 10, +4 at level 15 and +5 at level 20. Shitfits last 3 turns.

Shut the Fuck Up: Once per encounter you can bellow at an enemy, making them unable to speak or cast verbal magic.

Spittle Attack: A breath weapon with a 2m cone, you spray anyone in the area with spittle, doing 1d4 damage for every five levels – or part thereof – that you have. Anyone caught in the blast can make a Dexterity saving throw to take half damage. The DC is equal to 8+Proficiency Bonus + Strength Bonus. Usable once per combat encounter.

Sonic Scream: A breath weapon blast with a 10m radius around you, this deafeningly shouted obscenity does 1d6 damage for every four levels – or part thereof – that you have Anyone caught in the blast can make a Constitution saving throw to take half damage. The DC is equal to 8+Proficiency Bonus + Strength Bonus. Usable once per combat encounter.

Trigger: You can only enter a shitfit if you’re triggered. Every few levels you get to choose a new trigger. Triggers might include spiders, thin people, the mention of fruit or being contradicted.

Unarmoured Defence: Works as per normal 5e barbarian ability. This is NOT an excuse for furry bikinis which are bad and wrong.

Unstoppable Shitfit: Your Shitfit now lasts six turns.

#SJWRPG – Traps & Triggers – Character Creation

24f735ff785848948d5b3Traps & Triggers (not to be confused with Tunnels & Trolls) is an RPG based on the system of 5th Edition D&D, but better, because it incorporates Social Justice™ into every single aspect of the game. In order to play you will need a copy of D&D 5th Edition and, more problematically, some friends.

You are a hero of the enlightened and beautiful Bay Queendom. An enlightened and egalitarian land, surrounded by chaotic and evil lands full of monsters, The Chan Fiefdoms. These enemies threaten the glorious Bay Queendom every day.

Character Creation

Step 1: Don’t Choose a race – Race is a social construct and makes no difference to your character. Shortness, pointed ears, beards or immortality are nothing to do with genetics whatsoever.

Step 2: Choose a Class – Classes will be described later.

Step 3: Level – You all start at level 1, though level is explicitly not a measure of a character’s worth. Everyone levels up at the end of a game, no matter how badly they did.

Step 4: Ability Scores – Pick any numbers you like for your abilities, between 3 and 20. You are encouraged, but not forced, to take at least one Ability at a really low score so you can empathise with the differently abled.

Step 5: Describe your Character – Your character can look like anything you want, you can choose any height, weight or anything else you like. You can choose any hair colour at all, blue, aquamarine, navy, anything.

Step 6: Equipment – Start with any and all basic equipment and weapons you want. You also start with a trust fund that gives you 1,000gp at the start of each session.

Step 7: Positive Discrimination – Minority gamers are too rare and must be encouraged to play RPGs, even forced. In order to encourage them to play any player who can identify themselves as a minority receives a +1 (or equivalent) magic item of their choice and an extra 1,000gp each session from their trust fund.

#Gamergate – #Weheart Games too – that’s the point

A response to weheart.github.io – We feel it is the actions of ‘Social Justice Warriors’ who with shaming, mob tactics, blacklisting, mass blocking, insults, harassment, threats and attempts to control games media, production and content who have damaged the gaming community and we’re making a stand against it. Both sides are predominantly left/liberal. We’re just anti-authoritarian and want things to progress naturally.

#Gamergate – Gettin’ Ettin’

horseshitSA Goon, troll, harasser and RPGnet moderator (yeah, I know) Ettin, just published a hit-piece about me on Tumblr (yeah, Tumblr, I know).

All of his accusations and nonsense have been answered before and ‘SA Goon’ should have told you all you need to know. He’s a person who has built up a reputation along with other trolls who have been made RPGnet moderators for hurling abuse at other tabletop gamers and hiding behind the shield of ‘social justice’ – but you know that story.

Here’s the link.

Now, given that I’ve been dealing with this same bullshit for years now, I’d rather not do it again. The refutations remain the same, yet the arguments don’t change, so all I can do is repeat myself ad infinitum. Still, since there are large numbers of new people being introduced to me through this frankly libelous slant I guess I’d better.

As you probably already know, Desborough is an indie tabletop RPG designer who gave an interview about Gamergate to the Escapist recently. They removed it after receiving evidence that he’d harassed people. That should tell you what you need to know, but let’s keep going.

I have not – to my knowledge – harassed anyone but it’s a little hard to tell given that SJWs (yes, I know it’s not a perfect term but it’s what we have to work with) set the bar for harassment so low. Maybe I replied to someone on Twitter, mentioned a troll by name or stare-raped someone by looking at their Imgur, I have no idea. Nor have I been informed why the interview was removed, nor was I warned or consulted or asked to give my side. So basically, I have no idea what’s going on but this would be one of the problems with SJWs. They think accusation is enough.

Nymphology, a joke Dungeons & Dragons supplement about sex magic that uses sexual violence as a punchline.


I’ve talked about this before but the frustation was that I really wanted to come at this book with a more serious examination, but the publisher wanted comedy. I ended up with something that still had undertones of the thought ‘what would the world of sex really be like if magic was real’ along with knob jokes. I do know that some people saw the more serious side and applied it in online roleplay, many of them women.

The Slayer’s Guide To Female Gamers, another joke book about women gamers which mostly repeats the same “females are mysterious and manipulate men with their insidious boobie powers” joke endlessly. (Here’s a sample.)

What people don’t seem to get here is that ‘The Slayer’s Guide to Female Gamers’ wasn’t about women gamers at all, but about the very tired jokes and ‘women as other’ nonsense that has long been (erroneously) passed around geek culture. Women were big buyers of this and the copies I signed were mostly for women. If Suey Park is any measure, these people are tone-deaf to satire.

Hentacle, a card game about tentacle rape

I have no real idea what the objection is here. Tentacle Rape as a genre is ridiculous, I made a ridiculous game about it. Kink shaming? Cultural imperialism against Japan? I don’t really know what his point is here but I’m not going to apologise for people’s kinks or pornography given that – as we’ve established – I’m a free expression advocate.

Privilege Check, another card game about mocking social justice activists and minorities, including body-positive folk and people of color.

Not quite (see satire comment above). Mocking social justice warriors, yes, mocking minorities, no. Again, much like with the other things, I’ve had decent praise from people IN minorities for the game. Mixed race people or people of less obvious ethnic background especially loved the much presented ‘brown person’ card.

Recently, Desborough ran an Indiegogo for Chronicles of Gor, an RPG based on a universe where women are willing sex slaves.

Yes I did.

Gor is hugely popular with a great number of people, many of them women (seriously, check out some of the amazing stuff Second Life people – primarily women – are doing with Gor). It would be a huge disservice to those fans to ‘clean Gor up’ for anyone’s sensibilities, let alone those of the SJW ilk.

Ettin also makes my point for me. It’s fantasy. Not reality. Some people seem to have an issue telling the difference.

As to The Escapist and Macris helping fund me, you can find all the info on that and why it’s not an instance of corruption like the instances gamergate is against HERE.

Desborough explicitly doesn’t describe himself as a feminist because he’s a vocal men’s rights activist. Page through his blog (don’t actually do this) and you’ll find he claims that patriarchy and rape culture don’t exist, calls male feminists “quislings”, and quotes Christina Hoff Sommers. He appeared on al-Jazeera to discuss #NotAllMen and downplays connections between Elliot Rodger and MRAs. He once told someone “at least I haven’t cut my dick off as a sacrifice to Athena”. People accusing him of misogyny are just trolls and social justice warriors, though.

Not exactly. I’m an egalitarian who has been pushed towards the MHRA side of things by – amongst other things – the censorious and authoritarian nature of SJWs. Not to mention their tactic – as we see with Ettin’s post – of smearing people they don’t like. So attacks like this only reaffirm that I have been making the right life choices.

No I don’t believe in patriarchy and when people say it I hear ‘Invisible space lizards’. Patriarchy is a concept associated with radical feminism, and is pretty ‘out there’.

No, I don’t believe we live in a rape culture here in the west. I do, however, believe there are ‘rape subcultures’ (often surrounding sport in the US) and that genuine rape cultures exist in places like Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh. THIS is a rape culture. Our culture condemns rape, imprisons people for rape and even false or unproven accusations have huge social impact for the accused. To describe western nations as rape cultures is, then, laughable.

You may disagree with me on these, but smearing is not putting forth a rational argument or trying to change my mind.

‘Quisling’ is obvious hyperbole and that’s all the reply it deserves.

CH Sommers is ‘based’ and an egalitarian feminist. So why wouldn’t I quote her? She talks sense on some issues and less on others.

Yes, I appeared on Al Jazeera because I’d been active on the hashtag debunking the BS (repeated here) that Elliot Rodger was connected with MRAs or the PUA community. I have my issues with both communities, but I’m not going to stand idly by while they’re smeared with the actions of a murderer, any more than I’m going to stand by now while Gamers are smeared with the actions of sociopathic trolls.

Yes I said that in a fit of anger. Don’t tone police me. 😛

Yes, people accusing me of misogyny are trolls and SJWs. Misogyny is the hatred of women. I do not hate women.

End of.

By “biological realist”, Desborough means “transphobe with a dictionary”. It means he believes trans people aren’t the gender they say they are. Don’t worry, though — while he used to refuse to “indulge” trans people by not misgendering them, these days he’ll magnanimously use proper pronouns while insisting that you’re wrong and “can’t change reality or what I know”.

Nope. I mean biological realist. Let me click my brain over and use SJW terminology for a moment, even though I disagree with it and prefer to use biological terminology.

What it means is that no matter how much I respect your choice and personal feelings to present and live as whatever gender you happen to believe yourself to be, you are not and you never will be the other sex. I feel bad for you, I feel sorry for you, but my empathy and understanding cannot override the facts of the matter.

Nobody is going to be able to persuade me otherwise, any more than they would be able to convince me that gravity is because of goblins.

Accepting you as you want to be, while understanding that the reality of the matter (biologically) is something different should be acceptable, surely?

Desborough really wants people to think he’s got the intellectual high ground. He presents himself as “rational” while comparing his critics to religious extremists, relating everything to his deep and incredibly boring struggle as an atheist. When he wants to defend his rapey RPGs he says “it’s not real”, like everybody didn’t already know that.

If everybody knows that, why do they keep complaining and acting as though it is real? Yes, I compare my critics to religious extremists because, well, see above about biology versus feels.

When he tells trans people that science is on his side, he compares them to creationists. When he describes Goobergate with an analogy, he places himself in a position of authority as a teacher and compares people attacking him to “Nation of Islam extremists”. Even when pretends to engage his critics with a reasonable discussion he can’t resist giving his detractors a silly nickname to imply that he’s the calm and rational one.


What Desborough doesn’t get is that good satire punches up, not down — and if Desborough actually thinks he’s punching up when he takes shots at women and “brown people”, as Jonathan Swift once said: lmao.

What these people don’t get, is satire. Again, reference Suey Park.

When he’s not doing that, Desborough rails against censorship. The most devious form of censorship at all, in fact: Criticism. He’ll tell anyone who will listen (you laugh, but the Escapist did) that he’s constantly being bullied simply for defending his right to free speech, rather than building a career out of demeaning women. Both the Escapist and Goobergate were buttered up with tales of abuse, censorship, and “moral panic” so bad that he struggles to find work; of course it’s all the fault of “the crazies”, and not because he’s the kind of person who wants to make a Gor RPG. To him, freedom of speech means freedom from consequences, and Goobergate is a struggle against moralising censors rather than a hate campaign so ridiculous even the Daily Mail sees it.

I begin to suspect that SJWs have a very different concept of the term ‘censorship’ to that of other people. I think they mean some sort of combination of ‘critical theory’ and ‘literary criticism’ rather than, you know actual, criticism. “The analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.” To me free expression means not being hounded, lambasted on the basis of nothing, silenced by false accusations of harassment and rape apologia… you know, the kind of stuff in Ettin’s post.

Despite railing against harassment when it’s convenient for him, Desborough is incredibly dismissive of threats against women. He posts comics about feminist robots who cry rape and responds to news of women receiving rape and death threats with “Yes, that’s terrible, but can we talk about Goobergate?”. Before Goobergate, when his fans sent a critic rape threats and announced that she didn’t “deserve consent”, his response was to shrug it off with “I’m sure she knows they’re not genuine threats”. (Hot tip: Harassment is awful no matter who is getting it, and Desborough has, but using that as a weapon to encourage women to be silent and demand to talk about what some dweebs think about game journalism instead isn’t the answer.)

I think there’s a big difference between some anonymous twonk on the internet saying something vile and someone who actually has a face, profile, media platform or whatever else and doesn’t feel the need to hide trying to destroy people’s careers and reputations. As someone who has been on the receiving end of threats myself I know that they’re bad, but I also know that they’re spurious. One side (net experienced and not seeking to get mileage out of threats) plays them down or ignores them, the other side plays them up.

Gamergate is not about threats, has received threats, has constantly policed and called out harassment, contacted authorities, helped trace the person making threats to Anita Sarkeesian… yet the false narrative continues to be spread. That’s why I say ‘Yes, threats are awful, but can we talk about Gamergate now?’ We’ve been talking about trolling and women in tech for some time already, Gamergate isn’t even remotely about that… heck, you know what, I’ll let the ladies talk FOR ME.

Before the Escapist removed his article, he went out of his way to list “SJW” designers in the community so goobers could go after them. He also has a list of people who disagree with him that he distributes to his Goobergate followers. This is what happens when you downplay harassment instead of trying to remove it. (If the Escapist removed the article over something else, I’m not aware of it.)

In answer to a question I listed some people and companies as examples that the issue was also deeply rooted in tabletop games. I fail to see what the problem is there, given I get mentioned a great deal, unfairly as a ‘problem person’. I do indeed have a list of people who are ‘crazy SJW idiots’ called ‘Room 101’. It’s people I block but can then use the list to keep an eye on to see what the ‘social justice panic of the day’ is about. I didn’t share it with anyone until nonsense about it being an ‘enemies list’ and me supposedly sharing it began to be put about. So I then shared it. After all, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Desborough once wrote an article titled “In Defence Of Rape”, defending the use of rape as a “fucking awesome” element in fiction. (My understanding is it was a “response” to a much better post by Chuck Wendig.) Rather than break it down, I’m just gonna link to Mightygodking’s response and point out that if you’re going to talk about rape as a plot device, opening with a self-admitted clickbait title and comments about “pompous outrage”, writing asides suggesting evidence of rape culture is “spurious” and comparing people who talk about it to Jack Chick, writing a follow-up post that falsely compares it to murder and tells people to “grow up”, and being James fuckin’ Desborough are all bad ideas.

You could have stopped at ‘defending the use of rape as an element in fiction’, because that’s what it’s about. If you disagree with free expression, you’re my enemy.

That should tell you everything you need to know right there, and oh my god I am so done.

Yes, it should.

As you can clearly see, Ettin’s post is yet another example of the cherry-picking, abuse, harassment and misrepresentation I’ve consistently gotten. You would think this material, much of it rather old, were the only things I’d ever written.

Far from it.

If you feel like being supportive, links to places you can buy my stuff should be in the side bar.

Gamers Aren’t Over

dead_on_computerThis weirdly out of synch article is doing the rounds and has stirred up a lot of the same old vitriol and hate, yet again. Why? Well it all stems from the same ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing I blogged about not so long ago. As I said there, the ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing is almost entirely bullshit, but it has raised some important issues about integrity in games reporting, nepotism and more broadly the relationships between studios, publishers and review sites. The best advice remains ‘listen to fan reviewers’ but that’s difficult if you want to pre-order and get all your extra shinies.

Whether the ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing is bullshit or not (it is) is largely irrelevant to this larger conversation and also irrelevant to the wider conversation about game content, creation and tropes that has been going on for some time now and that is a much more important issue to which this idea of the ‘erasure of gamers’ is a final, ungrateful, kick in the teeth.

Obviously, coming from tabletop gaming I have a slightly different perspective, but computer games are really just going through what we’ve already been through (and continue to go through) only tabletop games are smaller and more vulnerable and – perhaps – even more sensitive to these kinds of attacks.

I’ll be repeating a lot of the same sort of things I’ve said before, but there’s no harm in collating them in a single blog post and updating them.

I also think that this is a good time, not a bad time, to speak up on these things because there is a head of steam and an existing, engaged, public conversation with a relatively high degree of awareness that can’t just be swept under the rug this time.

So let’s deal with some of these things:

  1. Corruption in games journalism.
  2. Social Justice Criticism
  3. Gamers Are Over
  4. Where do we go from here?

Corruption in Games Journalism

Video games journalism has hardly ever been particularly honest. Perhaps in the early days of hand-coding and fanzines things were different and the internet has allowed the bloggers and youtubers to create something more like that where the message can’t necessarily be controlled and you can – perhaps – get a halfway honest opinion out of someone.

Big sites and what remains of games magazines though? As I talked about in the other blog on this subject, if you want free product to review, if you want early previews and information and to get into launch parties etc, you’d better do what you’re told. A friend who used to work in games journalism once reviewed an MMO and gave it an average, not even a bad, score. This caused a series of issues with editors and with the publisher of said game, relations between the site and the company and eventually led to them leaving that job. This is why scores tend to congregate around 7 – as one of the lowest ‘acceptable’ scores.

Smaller studios, foreign ports and indies can’t – usually – have that much pull but issues such as reviewing games you’re funding or those written by people you have personal relationships with are a problem there too. Even if there’s no actual problem it can create the appearance of one.

If you want an imperfect analogy, most games journalism is like Fox News. It’s ‘a news’, not ‘the news’.

Where this starts to get a bit muddied is when it intersects with…

Social Justice Criticism

Gamers have basically been being shat on via dubious, ‘social justice’ based criticism for some years now and the only reason – I think – that there hasn’t been that much of a backlash to it is because the tactic of branding any dissenters as misogynistic trolls is such an effective tactic. This is especially true when there ARE horrible trolls out there (personally I doubt many, if any, actually hate women they just know how to get a rise).

Still, without condoning the nastiness that does go on it is very easy indeed to understand where the resentment and anger comes from. When you’re told you’re evil, toxic, hate women, hate minorities, are shallow and every other horrible accusation in the book – as a community – day after day, week after week, year after year, resentment is bound to build up and it’s bound to explode in the form of anger.

Is there valid criticism to be made? Is there constructive criticism to be made? Absolutely, but we don’t get that. We get hit pieces and hatchet jobs, we get frauds like Anita Sarkeesian being elevated and lionised by an industry that is apparently running scared and unwilling to plant a flag in the ground and say ‘no, we support free expression and we’ll make what we want to’.

And yes, I’m satisfied Sarkeesian is a fraud. There are plenty of exhaustive resources online detailing the hows and whys and I’ve found it sufficient to convince me of the fact. If you want to see things that address her actual videos I recommend Thunderf00t’s series about her on Youtube and you may also wish to back The Sarkeesian Effect (its far from perfect as a project, or in tone, but it’s at least something).

Why get so worked up over the censorship and attacks on gamers and gaming? It’s only games right? It isn’t important, it it? The people attacking it seem to think it is important and to a great many people their safe haven, their escapism, their fantasies, are tremendously important and as a maker of art, games and other creative endeavours its important to me in terms of both livelihood and creative freedom – a basic human right.

From a gamer perspective, Sarkeesian and her ilk just look like yet another Jack Thompson or Patricia Pulling – and there’s really no reason to think they’re not.

Gamers are Over?

People just love their bad statistics and will often quote various spectacular sounding figures, especially when it comes to the gender split, to justify criticising whatever game or product has upset people at the time. Over the last couple of days it’s been talk about a near 50/50 split, or that adult women gamers now outnumber teenage male gamers.

The problem with this is obvious to anyone who has been through this roundabout before. It’s including games like Farmville and Bejewelled, it’s including people who watch Netflix on their Xbox and it’s not reflecting the reality.

What makes a ‘real gamer’? I have no bloody idea really. I guess it’s someone who isn’t just a consumer of games, but a fan. Someone to whom that’s a part of their identity much as you might identify yourself as a punk, a goth or a heavy metal fan. A lot of people look down on what you might call ‘casual gamers’ but I don’t want to do that. It’s great that more people are playing games of all kinds, but the fact that a lot of grannies started playing Wii Sports or that Madge in accounting spends her whole lunchtime matching fruit tells us precisely nothing about how we should approach AAA console titles (which are still predominantly a male audience, generally 3/4 male or more).

I write tabletop role-playing games. What can the popularity of monopoly (an awful, awful game that’s nonetheless hugely popular) really tell me about designing dungeon encounters, combat systems or how to make my – very different – game appeal to a wider audience?

It can’t tell me a damn thing.

The data is bad – and it would be useful to have good data. If we had accurate data from the appropriate genres and subgenres – and we wanted to reach out to a larger female or minority audience – we could do so based on actual data, rather than on hearsay, rumour and opinion. Of the triple A titles, which ones do appeal the most to women, and why? Which ones appeal to racial minorities, and why? ‘50% of women are now gamers’, when you define ‘gamer’ to include people who play Minesweeper on their office PC, it’s effectively meaningless.

Another analogy. What can a successful romantic comedy tell us about how to cast and direct our next blockbuster action movie?

Answer, almost fuck all. What makes a successful romantic comedy is hugely at odds with what makes a successful action flick.

Are ‘gamers’ over? No. No more than comic book fans (as opposed to ‘people who read comic books’) are over, or film buffs are over.  Some people are more than just consumers of a particular form of entertainment, it’s part of their identity and who they are. If ‘gamers’ are anything they’re the fan-leaders, the opinion formers, the motivated consumers that shape and lead and can make or break a game.

They’re not over, they’ve not vanished, they’re still important and trying to erase them or characterise them as trolls is to insult your main fanbase.

Where do we go from here?

The whole ‘Quinnspiracy’ thing might be bullshit, but it has created a large scale public discourse that could become useful, if it’s not derailed in the usual way by painting every critic and concerned gamer as a misogynistic troll. There are real issues that need to be discussed but it needs to be an actual, respectful, thoughtful discussion.

It needs to be a discussion with two sides.

It needs to be a discussion that uses all the facts, not just the convenient (or inconvenient) ones.

Will that happen? I don’t know. I can hope so and – as a hopefully reasonable, intelligent and engaged gamer and game creator – I would like to try and steer things that way.

I guess we’ll see.

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.