This is a lot of interlocking subjects that have been on my mind lately. Strap in, it’s gonna be a long ride and I expect many uncirclings shortly.
The past few weeks, I’ve been chatting via private circles, one-on-one hangouts, whatever with various game designers, high-profile players and other Notables of This Thing of Ours. And a recurring theme, one that’s resonating hard with me is that many of us are feeling silenced about topics we would like to tackle –as game design subjects, and as play topics. We/they are feeling pre-silenced for fear of being skeletonized by social media piranhas in the name of social justice.
And these aren’t Neanderthals! These are sensible, intelligent folks on the correct side of progressive causes. They’re not haters. We’re not haters. No I will not name them; they can name themselves if they want in the comments.
So let me talk examples in, hopefully, heavily coded terms.
There’s one designer who tells me they are being harassed by folks about the subject matter of a game that’s currently in beta. The subject matter is modern and immediate and absolutely has a direct impact on people the designer knows (me too). And this designer is being scolded that the subject matter is inappropriate as a game topic, that it’s being made light of. Note that this is without actually reading the text at all, or experiencing the game. And this designer struggles with proceeding with the design, despite best efforts at solid research and a true desire to understand the topic and make it accessible and meaningful to the audience. But this designer is weighing whether to continue, without even putting it out there to the broader public yet. Is that healthy?
As a follow-up, another designer tells me in hangout that this subject matter would be a no-go for fear of “being thrown under the cultural appropriation bus.” In a similar vein, there are plenty of stories of at-the-table play events finding themselves the subject of scolding and dissection. Players asking “how do I express X culture at my table without being gross?” and then being told “just do your best” and then getting shat on, either via public call-out or in private circles. Constant questioning of motives and secret biases and grumblings about privilege. The eagerness to slag folks for this stuff means we have nice handy shorthand that can be deployed quickly and without much careful thought about accuracy or engagement.
Hell, I’ve got a PbtA design draft I’ve been doodling on in secret for months, a multigenerational take on the history of the American West. It’s a topic I know well, I take seriously, and I’m telling you it would be so good. Will I ever share it? I sure don’t want to, not right now. I’m aghast at mobs getting riled up because the American West was so intensely multicultural and problematic. Can I possibly treat Native Americans and Chinese workers and escaped slaves and all the rest of it sensitively and intelligently? I’d hope so! But fuck if I want to be harassed off the web. So I’m pre-silencing myself. Is that healthy?
Cultural Appropriation as a topic is terrific and difficult. It’s terrific because it’s forcing everyone to take a long, long hard look at their creative output. Are you fetishizing or are you providing meaningful context? Are you scoring points or are you a good ally? Great. All great.
But difficult. God, so difficult.
For me, the word “appropriation” as it is commonly deployed is freighted with the sense that it’s an active verb. That if you fuck up a topic it’s because you fucked it up on purpose. You didn’t just put your ignorance on display, you did it on purpose to profit, and you’re getting away with it because of privilege. There’s no sense, I think, that reasonable people can reasonably disagree about this stuff. Is it appropriation or cultural exchange?
The charge of appropriation often comes with unimpeachable moral authority. And that’s a silencing tactic. The attaboys and points-scoring that follows are definitely silencing.
So what’s the solution? Is there one?
I suspect the only answer is to suck it up, take a chance, let the work speak for itself and prepare to have disagreements. Accept that no creative work, ever, can possibly be absolutely inclusive for everyone everywhere. Hope that your allies will stand with you and not fall into line behind the mob for fear of being mobbed themselves. And not everyone is going to have an appetite for that. “Toughen up/grow a spine/you need thicker skin” is, itself, a privileged thing to say.
What I hate most about this topic is that The Wrong People want to make a similar argument. I have no idea where or how to draw the line. Appropriation is one of those things that I think is different for everyone, and it probably should be: if you’re directly affected by it, your threshold is gonna be way lower than someone whitesplaining that college girls really shouldn’t run around wearing Sioux headdresses. Serious treatment to you might not be serious enough for someone else, and your efforts will be called “trivializing” anyway.
Privilege is not (only) a superpower. It’s (also) a blind spot. Writing about sensitive subjects when you’re not directly impacted by those subjects doesn’t always mean you’re doing it to score points or to fetishize the subject or to make money off it. Maybe the creator is exploring the subject for themselves. Maybe they’re trying their level best to be a good ally, to create an experience that is both engaging and enlightening. Creators can reach out until they’re blue in the face but there’s no way to be sure they got it 100% right.
I guess I would hope that folks try to be careful and thoughtful about deploying these charges. It’s high-powered ammunition.