Appropriation, Social Justice, and Silencing

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.

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0 thoughts on “Appropriation, Social Justice, and Silencing”

  1. I’ve been down this thought path. Self-silencing is actually the worst response because it stifles people while simultaneously making them resentful. Nobody wants either of those things. By thinking about all this, you’re way ahead of most people tackling these themes.

    It turns out there are actually other solutions. For one, run your text by members of the affected culture. Get their feedback and insight. Worried about your portrayal of Native Americans? Seek out someone who is Native American and has knowledge of the period and get their feedback.

  2. And it seems you acknowledge this when you mention creators “reaching out until they’re blue in the face,” but I can’t tell if you meant before or after the fact 🙂 If you’ve reached out and did get actual feedback, I don’t think anyone will mob you for getting details wrong. Again, you’ll be way ahead of the curve.

  3. Which is to say, yes, there are games that I don’t feel comfortable pursuing because I just don’t want to deal with these conversations and it has nothing to do with the merits or lack thereof of the games.

    This is also why I tend to make real-world or slightly alt-real-world games, because I can point to the complexity of human experience and say “this is what you need to know” and not be THE AUTHOR of problematic content.

    I also tend not to publicly discuss, like, anything controversial (game related or not) because I just don’t have it in me to be argued with, which I guess is more of a personal failing than anything else.

  4. Quick addendum: I think there is something to the underlying issue of mob mentality and the expectations we put on each other. But I’m not capable of tackling that well enough.

  5. Also also: I consider myself an ally (perhaps not a great one, but I try) of marginalized groups and peoples and that means often that there is nothing for me to add to conversations, because I am literally the white guy swooping in and what the fuck do I know? Maybe it’s taking “being an ally means not dominating the conversation” too literally.

  6. I think you need to be brave and do it anyway. I think that’s the positive message your theoretical critics would promote, in word and (hopefully) in deed. You might be pleasantly surprised. I know I’ve felt some anxiety about certain projects (and look back on a few others with chagrin) so I feel like I understand where you are coming from.

    Oh! Ole Peder Giæver reminds me that there have been a few people who have been shockingly hostile to me, right out of the gate, with no justification. I just block them.

  7. Something that occurs to me as a possibly useful place to draw the line: if you’re using your sensitivity to become aware of problems, that’s awesome! If you’re using it to condemn other people? Maybe not so awesome.

    Like, consider this different issue for a moment…I think that a lot of people would hold the notion that spousal infidelity is a pretty awful thing. But it doesn’t logically follow that the best response to it is to publicly call out and shame people for it. That’s very much an emotional and cathartic reaction, especially for people who have been hurt by the sin in question.

    (I say “sin” because even though this encompasses secular audiences, the way that appropriation et al gets treated is very similar to the concept of sin, at least as it’s expressed in the Judeo-Christian worldview. And heck, in Christianity you have that story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The best response is one of charity, support, and forgiveness/understanding. Empathy, even.)

    And also yeah, there’s definitely mob mentality issues here. This reminds me that I need to wrap up my Game Chef design that I totally flaked on–it’s inspired by Mafia, which as far as I’m concerned is a depressingly accurate glimpse into Internet culture. (In fact, the most seriously-played Mafia games have incredible parallels with social media flashpoints. I can elaborate if need be.)

  8. The difficulty for me lies in the fact that yes, Andy Hauge​, the best way to deal with these issues is often kindness and empathy, but also minorities are rightfully angry at being shat on in our cultures on a daily basis and I have no right to tell them not to be (and sometimes public shaming really is the right and useful response, but I think moreso toward people who are purposely being assholes and/or pandering to bigots).

  9. This is exacerbated by the internet – before, you could publish your opus, sensitive or otherwise, and it would usually only be seen by a small group of people. Moral panic tended to focus on headliners, not third-tier solo acts.

    Nowadays you can become famous just for being objectionable (as opposed to being objectionable and a good self promoter). The distance between ‘private’ and ‘global’ is much smaller.

    I mention this because I think it’s totally appropriate for, say, a homogeneous group of white guys to experiment with gaming ideas to explore the effects of racism (for their own benefit: role-taking can be very informative).

    It’s quite a different matter to present the resulting game as the definitive word, meant for consumption by everyone. But when my RPG network is this diffuse network of people I’ve mostly never met, it’s impossible to make sure the game always comes with its careful positioning.  (And, as you say, many games get reviews by people who’ve never read them, or who read them with a specific eye to finding objectionable content.)

    A mentor of mine talked about bell-ringers and mud-slingers; if you stand up to proclaim just about anything, you’re going to get hit by something, but it beats sitting quietly if you’ve got something to shout about.

  10. Christian Griffen: Yeah; at the moment, I don’t really have an answer for the dual truths of “some people are rightfully incensed for being mistreated” and “ultimately, slagging people publicly just causes more problems than it solves”.

  11. So unshockingly I have opinions.

    The only one I’ll say, for now, is if you have a game in dev you want chewed on for this stuff, talk to me about it. I’ll chew with the clear goal of helping you do it best, where best is some balance of you, your community, and the larger social context.

    I can also get you in contact with gamers and writers of a lot of different groups who will do the same. Not always gently, but often with your interests as something they’re actually giving a shit about.

    This will not ensure your game won’t fuck up. It will certainly not ensure no one will take a strip out of it. But it can help you think and get enough feedback about it to deal with it as it comes.

    As for the more general subject, you know my opinion. General subjects suck. Only very narrow specifics are worth talking about seriously.

  12. At some point you have to just do the work in good faith and then ask for help making it better, otherwise you wring your hands instead of making games.

  13. So, outside of the game context, this has come up for me a few times.

    A longish example: A friend of mine really likes Mexican Dia de los Muertes imagery, but is not herself connected to any culture that observes that tradition. So, for her birthday — not October 31 – November 2 — she wanted to use that as a costuming theme. She wanted to enjoy the visual styling (and made an incredible costume), and she wanted people at the party to appreciate the transition from life to death that ageing brings. A weird thing to think about at a birthday party, but not entirely inapt.

    So. Clearly that’s not the proper use of someone else’s culture. Clearly my friend had no claim on that culture or its symbols. But, the use wasn’t directly meant to be disrespectful. It potentially could be harmful, I suppose, at the bare minimum because it could be seen as a casual treatment of something that someone else holds sacred. Like, I don’t know, throwing a College of the Cardinals-themed kegger. But it could also be educational, if the participants took the time to educate themselves about the imagery they were using. It could also be sort of “neutral,” if it were a use and appreciation of the artistic value as separate from the belief value.

    And somewhere along that spectrum lies every interaction of any two cultures. Which is where privilege rears its ugly head.

    It’s (apparently) fine for Chet Whitebread to learn a language without acquiring any knowledge of the history of the cultures who that language belongs to. It’s (I think, generally) OK for him to learn to play a cultural musical style. Certain dance styles have their origins in cultural traditions, but are part of the “ballroom dance” canon, so it’s presumably OK for him to learn those as well. But at some point, maybe it’s storytelling from that culture’s perspective; maybe it’s performing a traditional song style; maybe it’s in visual art, he’s going to cross a line.

    My question is: how do we decide what cultural elements are “immune” from appropriation, and who makes the call?

  14. The “who makes the call?” from Adam D’s post also gets complicated, because while the obvious answer is “the group affected”, you sometimes (often?) get contradictory answers from different members of the same group when things are fuzzy.

    (I mean, sure, there’s times when you’re so far over the line that you’re obviously offensive. That doesn’t seem like what we’re talking about.)

  15. Thanks, Andy Hauge, I should have been more clear. You’re spot on. I should have further said: Any one person from “the group affected” may have an opinion, or they may not, and who says that person gets to be the Official Speaker for that group?

  16. I recognise this problem (and I also really want a copy of your game; a sensitive thoughtful take on the history of the American West sound like just my cup of tea).

    I love writing history-themed games, but the fear of getting it wrong or being guilty of appropriation means I mainly stick to European history, though that’s not my only interest. I’m scared to reach further afield. Assuming my situation is fairly typical, this is not a good outcome for widening the variety of RPG settings out there.

  17. Cultural appropriation is hard to deal with! And I know there is a lot of worry that people will get dog piled. That sucks. A few suggestions, if that’s okay?

    1) Look for someone who can speak to the culture or experience you’re writing about. If you’re writing about the American West, make sure to talk to some Natives. It might take some looking around, but it’s worth it and you may be able to friend-of-a-friend them through G+.

    2) If you want someone to look over it generally to reduce likelihood of crappy responses, first, create a smaller G+ circle or email group to let them read over the documents and provide comments. Give them a time window. You would be surprised how many people want to and do offer productive and constructive comments.

    3) To go farther: if you are worried about someone’s reaction, ask them to look over it, or even someone in their kinda-political circles. It’s hard but it can provide a lot of insight, and if you use their feedback, you might be able to use them as an endorsement of your work, which would reduce overall criticism most likely.

    4) If you give me a little time, I will always try to be available to give something at least a quick read. I know I am not an expert, and I know I’m one of those crazy SJWs, but I do care about seeing good games get made and, contrary to popular belief, I really don’t like arguing on the Internet (or IRL).

    🙂

  18. I should add that I’m not trying to say that it isn’t a problem when RPGs in a particular place do such things as portray offensive stereotypes., or otherwise really mess things up.

  19. You mention the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, and I think that’s a really good and valid distinction to make. But here’s the thing: in cultural exchange, both cultures are representing themselves to one another and both are benefiting from it.

    Obviously if you do months of exhaustive research on that’s going to make your product better than if you had done ten minutes of reading on Wikipedia. But even so, at the end of the day you’re going to be Yet Another Dominant Voice talking about something you’re not actually part of. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But it means you’re adding to (oh gods please don’t flay me, you guys, because I’m not up for a flaying today) a system of oppression – specifically cultural imperialism, where subaltern groups don’t get to have their own voices heard.

    Ideal solution: offer to help marginalized people make their voices heard in products by and about themselves. Less-ideal but really good solution: get them involved as co-authors. Least-ideal solution (but still a solution!): try to do the least harm possible while speaking for them, and accept that you’re going to take a lot of criticism.

  20. Not going to say much, but I think on the left you’re seeing the limits of what the language of liberalism (representation, allyship, etc) can achieve. And this is an offshoot of that. We–and this is a general we encompassing most of the non-Marxist left which doesn’t actually include myself, since I’m part of the Marxist left, so it’s more properly a “you”–can’t get past this thing where everyone stops talking because performative necessity demands it.

  21. Brand Robins I may take you up on your offer in the future on a game I need to screw up my courage and finish but would love to get eyes on focused on that you, community, larger social context element.

  22. Maybe! I don’t know if there’s a lot to be said. I think being seen as good rather than being good has become a millstone around the neck of the liberal left. So that leads to a lot of public performance online around being one of the “good ones”, whether that’s a good white person or a good man or whatever.

    And that ends up leading us to a place where we can’t bridge these kinds of gaps in discussion. It leads to a certain paralysis, because instead of trying to do a thing, we’re mostly posing around whether we look the right way doing it.

    Like, if you have a game and you think it would contribute to a conversation, and everyone you trust does, but you can’t release it because either a) you’re worried about looking bad or b) you’re worried about someone looking good at your expense, that’s paralysis. And we have no language for how to bridge that.

  23. Addendum: Lest anyone think this is explicitly about internet shaming, which is in vogue as a way of painting the other left as intolerant or something similar, it’s not that. I love internet shaming.

  24. Brand Robins I agree with that. And I don’t think that’s worthless. I really, truly don’t. But if we’re looking at representation as the end game while, say, Marvel is still stiffing its workers while we don’t arrange a boycott, then that doesn’t seem like the heaviest fire is aimed at the right places.

  25. Brand Robins That reminds me of this: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+AdamDrew/posts/RG7KcLQoPfF?pid=6180021715823381842&oid=115794042160633829509&authkey=CKXYi8aih7_4vwE

    So, for context, that head sculpture is a huge piece of (surprisingly nice) corporate art in front of a skyscraper downtown. The building behind it has a relatively-attractive pattern of diamond lattice all the way up, and at the bottom, the diamonds become triangles. During Calgary Stampede, someone painted Blackfoot Confederacy-style tipis in the triangular spaces.

    Like, I know the building owners/managers approved the painting, but I have no idea who actually applied the painting. And Blackfoot tipi designs are absolutely cultural/intellectual property, with each design being the holding of one specific family or larger extended family unit (a “clan” more or less).

    Did the building management get the permission of the families to depict their cultural symbols? Did they ask? Did the families voluntarily  paint their own symbols? Did the painter research Blackfoot symbols and then paint approximations? Does it matter? Does it make it better or worse if the families were paid to allow it?

    So many questions.

  26. Adam D see, that’s a conversation worth having. Specifics. Also, in that case, specifics that may well be actionable. 

    But I’m already derailing Paul’s thread by marx-baiting Ian. So maybe we should take it to a new thread?

  27. people should know that I stand with The Wrong People, probably.

    In another, messier thread about gatekeepers, I noted that it is a wonderful new time where no-one really has the power to stop you from making the game you want to make, but there is a great deal more widely-distributed power to make you feel bad about a game thing you made.

    That’s just sort of a niche-specific component from this whole new mass discovery that anyone on the internet can basically ruin the day of anyone else that’s regularly on the internet, if they really want to do that.

    I see a lot of frustration about imposter syndrome, self-questioning, fear of scapegoat violence and reactionary lashing out. It’s a shit time to be a creative – at the exact same time when the tools have never been easier and the audience never more accessible, the gulf between potential awesomeness and mass embarrassment can just feel utterly, disillusioningly… Insurmountable.

    And then, yeah… get politics involved, and it’s even messier.

  28. Well, my pal Austin said to me on a podcast we were doing that representation was important because after the mythical revolution you have to be able to see the Other as human. They can’t just be enemies or fellow soldiers, right?

    So I get it. But I also truly don’t think Marvel or WOTC or whoever really give a shit about yielding on representation. It’s no net loss to them once they get over the structural angst over yielding.

    Did you catch this recent story about American Idol pestering this trans musician? The musician keeps telling them now but they keep coming back and asking for an appearance. Well, that’s good, right? It’s representation.

    Except it’s still part of this bullshit machine. And it’s co-opted that identity, monetized it. So that’s a marginal good in service to a much greater evil. And kudos to that musician for recognizing that.

    So, to get back to the performance, it’s easier to picket for representation in comics or games than it is to say no more comics right? And it’s easier, on the other side, for American Idol to ask the trans musician to come in and play to that as proof of bona fides while they’re in service to a music industry which rips its workers off at all levels.

    Now, again. Representation is vital. But it’s part of a tapestry of things involving equality and justice where sometimes it’s the biggest piece, sometimes a much smaller one. But we always treat it like the biggest piece. And, because we do, we let the American Idols of the world harness that instinct for bad ends. I think a world with more women and minority CEOs is okay. I think a world with zero CEOs is better. YMMV

  29. In my opinion, Amandla Stenberg gave us a really good, concise and useful definition of cultural appropriation when she said, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

    Now, she said this in the context of white women appropriating Black hairstyles, but I think it’s much more widely applicable. For my part, I know that it is a definition that has me much less touchy about people using elements from my culture in some cases and more conscious of the reasons that I object when I have an objection that I feel is grounded.

  30. As much as it pains me to say it, I’m with you on this one Paul Beakley.

    I have thoughts on all this, but I am often silent because I know I will tire of the ensuing discussion long before others tire of challenging me about it.

  31. In real life, I’ve often been involved in intersectional, multicultural, and culturally-specific work, usually but not always as the boss’ boss of someone doing the work. I’ve learned that when critical feedback is offered by the community it can be SO TOUGH sometimes to recieve it – even when you have the privilege of some distance. It’s tough to face critics, and usually people have a range of motives for their criticism. It’s always best to assume good intent behind criticism. Whether you agree or not, it’s always better to voice what you heard, voice how people have said an issue affects them. You can always decide later how to respond.

  32. One of the things I find stressful about online discussions around these issues in gaming is that my own expectations are probably pretty singular and weird. If you have been in Marxist-Leninist organizations you have certain assumptions about the discipline that people will bring to these kinds of discussions. For example the ethos of listening and taking seriously others’ criticisms, the ethos of not being timid with comrades (don’t use “it’s kind of problematic” when you mean something else) and the shared understanding of the purpose of the discussion: to change the world. I don’t take any of those for granted in online discussions.

  33. I’m not sure what to say about this, because I feel like I may fundamentally disagree on many of the things you are saying here. My personal feeling is that nobody has the right to produce art or other stuff without being willing to accept criticism and objections from people who feel hurt by that art. I think part of our responsibility as artists and human beings is to be accountable for our actions. The criticism that’s completely unfounded hopefully doesn’t hurt too much because it’s just people jawing at you. But if the criticism does hurt, it might be because there’s some kernel of truth in it: something you should have handled better, some place where you stepped on someone else, some place where you punched down instead of punching up, some point (in some cases) at which you might have decided to drop the project entirely. And none of us are perfect: we’re all gonna make mistakes, and hopefully we learn from them. But I feel like game designers, like anyone else, have to be prepared to accept potentially valid criticism. I don’t think we can ask to be excused from this just because we have the best intentions.

    There are definitely times when I’ve looked at a project and thought very clearly I’m not personally qualified to make this game right now, and there are times when I may never be qualified to make certain games. To me: that’s okay! It would be weird, actually, if I felt that I was an expert in everything and was qualified to say whatever I wanted about whatever I like. Sometimes I feel like people fret about not being able to make certain games and I wonder if maybe they’re just coming to recognize their own limits. But I don’t have the right to decide what anyone else’s limits are. At the end of the day, I feel like we all have to stand by the work that we produce and take the hits that we deserve, shrugging off the hits that we don’t deserve (though it’s not always crystal clear which is which). If you look at your project and are prepared to do that, then by all means put it out there. Or maybe put it out there many times along the way, so you can take your hits and make amends before you spend a bunch of money on a print run.

    Personally, I honestly don’t worry about being criticized for the stuff that I produce – even weird and potentially controversial stuff like my old game about the Angolan Bush War – because I feel like I’m prepared to say, “Yeah, you’re totally right, that part of the game is total bullshit appropriation” or “Yeah, I probably should have handled that better” or “I really appreciate your feedback; are there things that I can do to be clearer about that?” And in my experience, that’s all you have to do: you don’t have to get it right all the time; you just have to (1) give it your best shot, trying to overcome your failings in knowledge and authority, (2) be open to criticism, without making excuses or blaming your critics, and (3) try to make it right or do better the next time. Even with really dumb 101-level crap like the portrayal of Native Americans in The Strange, I haven’t really heard anybody complaining too loudly about it since they tried to make amends.

    But I don’t think anybody gets to avoid facing criticism, and honestly I wouldn’t want anybody to. That’s how we get better at this stuff!

  34. Also, sometimes you have to actually know stuff about what you’re writing about. Not just from Wikipedia or reading a couple of popular books. Sometimes you have to have really studied an issue well, sometimes for years, to have enough of a handle on it to be able to write effectively about it. As an academic, this seems totally normal to me. I could become knowledgable about something else (even something related to what I already study, but a topic I know nothing about, like the Tang Dynasty), but it would take me a while to read up on it, particularly if I had a day-job and family responsibilities. When you see games like Night Witches or World Wide Wrestling, that’s YEARS of experience that went into developing expertise on WWII Soviet history and professional wrestling. I don’t want to use those games to beat other people, but sometimes you can’t fake that stuff or develop expertise quickly or easily. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.

    BUT that only refers to stuff I’m going to publish publicly for money and claim to be an authority on. If I’m running a campaign for my home group or whatever, and I’m the person who knows the most about China of anybody there, I’m totally happy to make stuff up, riffing on what I know about other periods in Chinese history and making semi-informed guesses. But what works for a home campaign isn’t the same standard I would hold for myself if I was commercially publishing a game about some aspect of Chinese history. Maybe we have been trained that just making stuff up about imaginary cultures is okay, but when we want to write semi-serious games about real world stuff, I think we have to hold ourselves to higher standards. But, again, I can’t tell anybody what their standards should be; I just think we-as-creators have to be prepared to stand by what we’ve created and answer for it.

  35. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. A LOT. It’s pretty hard to know how to do it perfectly, but in the end, I think…it’s got to be done, right? So many stories aren’t being told and they deserve to be. Maybe it’s just about doing it as best we can.

  36. We’re listening and summing up the “good-person” rules:

    1) if you’re worried that your work will offend, it probably will.
    2) if you want to get ideas on how to mitigate that, talk to the people you worry about beforehand and try to make it better.
    3) no matter what you do, rest assured that some people will be offended anyhow.
    4) be open to the criticism that WILL come, take notes and think about ways to improve next time.

    …and some guidelines for the “bad-persons”:

    Also remember that sometimes art has to push boundaries. Sometimes art almost has an obligation to be provocative and break new ground in the social context it is trying to reflect… but be aware that you can never do that type of work and still be loved by everyone. For human culture to be complete and “alive” we need the a-holes as well. But you as the artist have to accept those terms if you are to be taken seriously. If you are aiming to provoke, don’t be a sourpuss when you get a reaction and people start hating you. After all, that is what you were aiming for, right?

  37. Let us stipulate that what I’m talking about is not avoiding legitimate criticism. Jesus. That sounds horrible.

    I’m talking about mob justice and unreasonable escalation. I’m talking about the radical misuse of useful concepts. If you don’t accept that this is a thing then maybe this isn’t the thread for you.

    Beyond that clarification I am 100% on the same page as you, J. Walton​​.

  38. Non-disclaimer: This is a little rambling, and it’s definitely pointed. I’m not calling anyone out specifically, but also, if you feel called out, maybe that’s something to look at?

    It’s telling that the vast majority of people in this small-press indie game community are white, mostly men, mostly with above-average education, and many with above-average incomes from their day jobs. As usual, it’s women (also mostly white and above-average educated, incidentally) who are at the forefront of raising social justice issues in our community, because they have been the ones who bear the brunt of bad behavior around gender.

    So, let’s be super clear with ourselves that this community is going to be appropriative in its approach to other identities, because the normative identity in this community is so very homogeneous and privileged.

    And let’s also be super clear that the only reason most of us get to engage in this hobby-cum-industry is because we have a boatload of liberty that whiteness, maleness, education, money, and status afford.
    To be brutally honest, much of the design culture I see is a cadre of dilettantes flattering themselves that they are artists. Most of us are painting by numbers, and the handful of us who are turning out legit art are – wait for it – white men with above-average education and above-average incomes, because they have the time, means, economic safety net, and platform to make a strong play for commercial success.

    We make some good things. We make a lot of stuff that is worthwhile and interesting or at least that is fun. And, communally, we also have very little capacity for insight into the degree of shitty debunked theories we use all the time in games, from sanity points to racial essentialism. We appropriate, because we’re the inheritors of a Victorian imperialist mindset, just like our literary heroes Lovecraft and Howard were.

    And I don’t see any of this changing until educated white men with money step back (or get pushed back) so that other identities gain a collective voice in our community. Our little community is pretty progressive about gender and sexuality, so we already see movement in this area – but not without a fight that is still ongoing. But where are the voices of people of color, people with disabilities, people with less education or less money? Until we start including these voices, we’re basically saying, “Since no one else is writing a game about life in an indigenous culture, there is no one better qualified right now than this white dude.” And that’s fucked.

  39. So that thing that Paul was talking about with unreasonable escalating?

    That doesn’t happen just to white male straight writers.

    Like, fuck, if a First Nations person took a strip out of me for Hope Is the Last Thing, I’d be all like, okay sure sure.

    But this thing, it happens to other folks too. I’ve seen this, and the fear of this, kill creations by the very folks we’re supposed to be supporting.

    Too often intersectionality, which is supposed to be a tool to better understand each other, combines with authenticity urges and status plays to make a place where no one can speak safely except possibly, and even then only maybe, about narrow areas with limited ability to imagine beyond our current cages.

    Or, to be blunt, I as a white guy “expert” on Indian history could probably write an RPG in India. I would possibly take heat for it. Probably some of it would be deserved. Likely some of it wouldn’t. But that’s besides the point that I have had multiple friends of South Asian descent who have started and quit designing those games because they were afraid of the political backlash. 

    The backlash from their own allies. Fuck the racist enemy, they were scared off by other liberals.

  40. Okay, let me further clarify some things I said in the OP. I’m reading charitably here and assuming you did read it, although I feel like it’s going largely ignored.

    That designer whose work is being pre-emptively slagged? My first example? That designer squarely belongs to the culture addressed by the work. And that designer is also getting slagged for not being “X” enough (where X = the culture in question). 

    How is that not fucked up? How is that an okay use of silencing? 

    Further clarification, regarding the “oh just do the homework and engage with the community in question, you’ll be fine” reassurances. I can tell you from personal experience — and this is where the generally young-trending audience here shows itself (challenging games came out prior to 2005, kids!) — that engagement may not be adequate. I’ve done that kind of design work and I’ve gotten cultural representatives involved. Aaaaand other cultural representatives did not feel my efforts were adequate, and two decades later I still get to hear about what a godawful racist I am. And that’s what I’m talking about when I refer to radical misuse of good concepts.

    I had a similar sentiment shared with me in a hangout yesterday: maybe silencing is okay. And I have no idea how to respond to that. I mean, back it up far enough and you’re left with elfgames, pure unthreatening unchallenging fucking fantasy, as the only “okay” subject matter. And, I suppose, games directly derived from one’s personal experience.

    What do you think the audience is for The Paul B Game, anyway? I’ve played it, and I’m here to tell you it’s got a lot of downtime and handling time problems.

    History is off-limits. Societies other than your own are off-limits. Skin color other than your own, strictly off-limits. Religions and other belief systems? Take it all away, someone might get offended, surely there’s someone else better qualified to tackle these subjects, the mob is working exactly as intended.

    So I dunno. Maybe the “silencing is good and necessary to make room for new voices” folks are totally right, that these are the tools available and this is the fight at hand and boo hoo, suck it up cishetwhiteguy your time is up. But I gotta say, that feels perilously close to culture war talk, and I’m generally quite skeptical about that shit when it comes out of the mouths of politicians in the Real World who profit/benefit from drumming up said culture war.

    And that’s my last thought on this subject: Who benefits from promoting the idea that there is a necessary culture war coming/here? I think the answer probably goes beyond social points-scoring for being seen to be on any particular “side.”

  41. And in conclusion: Super interesting thread, everyone! I think I’ve gone far enough down this road. Feel free to reshare and continue in your own spaces, private or public, it’s all good.

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