Table Top Day a Great Success!

Thanks to everyone for coming out on the 5th for an awesome celebration of Table Top Day! As our very first MESSAGE-run event, it was a massive success! We had two dozen attendees and indeed, the majority were women. That was fantastic to see and sign our policy of letting women play for free was a great driving force to encouraging women to come along.

There have been some naysayers about that idea, so it’s great to have proof of concept. Guys, if you feel this is exclusionary, you’ve missed the point that our hobby is already exclusionary and tipping the balance back is part of making things equal. We believe there’s a space for everyone in gaming and in the MESSAGE, but we also believe that we can use financial means to make things roomier.

We’ll be back next year for Table Top Day (which won’t conflict with the Gold Coast Supanova so we should get a huge kick in numbers!) and we also hope to run similar events more frequently throughout the year and eventually, throughout the world as well. If you’d like to host a Gals’ Gamer Night in your local area, just get in touch and we’ll give you all the stuff you need!

This was our very first event though so if you have any ideas about how to make it bigg and better, we’d love to hear from you either by email or in the comments below. Thanks to everyone who joined the new mailing list, we’ll be using that to make sure you don’t have to check your facebook or twitter feeds to keep up with all the MESSAGE news! If you’d like to join the list, just send us an email (we’ll have auto-subscribe features up soon).

Congratulations to Kiku who won our door prize! Thanks again to Ace Comics and Games, who have always got The MESSAGE and were a great support for our event. Thanks also to everyone who came out and helped spread the word, we hope to see you again in the future!

A few pictures of the day are below.

 

Sam steps up against world panic in the disease-busting Pandemic

 

Arran, Murray, Ronnie and Owen build the city of the future in SUBURBIA. Rob looks on, like a hungry Godzilla.

 

These lovely people bought SMALL WORLD immediately afterwards! Powering the industry as well as the hobby.

 

Collaborative games like SHADOWRIFT were the most popular throughout the day!

The MESSAGE Celebrates International Table Top Day!

 

Yes, this Saturday April 5th is International Tabletop Day. This amazing event originated last year from Wil Wheaton’s Origin-Award Winning Youtube show Table Top, and this year will be of course bigger and better. And we could hardly let it go without a MESSAGE event.

We’ll be running games (and handing out MESSAGE badges) at Ace Comics and Games at 478 Ipswich Road, Annerley from 10am until they throw us out. We’ll be (as always) focussing on encouraging women to game so women can play for free all day! Men can join us with a donation to the cause, however large or small. There’ll also be door prizes and free food and hopefully some special events.

Children are welcome although most games will only be suitable for those about ten and up.

Photos and video will be added soon, and be sure to join the ITD community with the hashtag #TableTopDay!

 

The Safety Dance

When I was at school, I was bullied fairly badly. Or to put it another way, I was physically assaulted at a criminal level, on a regular basis.

I mention this because it’s a situation where we had a problem of definitions. Twenty years ago, bullying was an extremely wide term that referred to pretty much anything from shouting out rude names to one inch short of grievous bodily harm. Historical and cultural reasons caused all those things to be bundled under one heading, which greatly impaired the ability to deal with the problem. You can’t solve a problem when it is fact several different problems in disguise.

Nowadays, we are getting much better at separating physical abuse from other aspects of bullying. But when it comes to online “bullying”, we’re facing the same problem – and making the same mistake.

I have been told, for example, that rape threats made against women are just part of online bullying. They are in fact like “pulling pigtails”: men reaching for the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious attack designed to produce the most extreme emotional response in the target. But ultimately such comments are, many believe, just about stirring people up, and just another kind of insult.

But that couldn’t be more wrong, for reasons that deal with fundamental human psychology.

Most of us have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow came up with this idea back in 1943 when he was trying to break down the things that motivated humans to action. He envisaged a pyramid of needs, with basic ones at the bottom (food, shelter, warmth) and at the top, needs to do with our sense of self and self determination. The precise categories and progressive nature of the hierarchy have been disputed but the model remains extremely useful for understanding what kinds of things human need and what can get in the way of getting those things.

The important thing about the Hierarchy is right down the bottom – just above food and water – is safety. After out basic needs of survival, we need to feel that our survival and health isn’t threatened. That our body and our bodily integrity are not at risk, nor is that of our loved ones. That is a deep and fundamental need, and the lack of it is a terrible affliction.

A few levels up the scale are things like esteem, confidence and being respected by others. These are important factors, and play a big role in our well-being, but they are less critical. We can deal more easily with the lack of these things, and rebound and heal more quickly than we can a lack of safety. We can source these things from many more places, with greater ease, than we can source a sense of safety.

Even without trying to rate one as somehow “above” the other, it is easy to see how different the two things are. Perhaps the most telling way we know how different they are is because of what happens when they are threatened. Those who have their self-esteem and confidence attacked typically experience distress, sadness and anger, and in extreme, long-term cases, depression and anxiety as they slowly begin to doubt their sense of self respect.

Those who have their sense of safety attacked, however, typically experience trauma. Trauma has a pathology unlike sadness and anger or even fear. It produces entirely different syndromes in its victims, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Depression, anxiety and low-self esteem only occur as side-effects.

Trauma generally occurs after dramatic events such as a traffic accident or being assaulted, sexually or otherwise. However, it is also well known to occur in victims of stalking. The inescapable presence of the obsessive person erodes any sense of safety. In much the same way, extended internet attacks – hundreds of messages and posts, a common tool of trolls – does the same thing.

Likewise, trauma can occur second-hand. Observing someone being injured or attacked, or having the possibility suggested in other ways can trigger trauma. It doesn’t matter how much the person making the suggestion might be kidding; if someone causes you for a moment to doubt your safety, trauma becomes extremely likely. Especially since all evidence we have suggests that the people who make such threats are often sociopathic, and that rape threats are statistically likely to escalate into a reality.

This also applies to threats of murder and assault. Threatening to find someone and kill them or their loved ones is, psychologically, likely to be just as damaging as an actual attack. The trauma is extremely real, the suffering extremely significant, the effects lasting. Threatening people with rape and murder is a vicious and cruel attack that absolutely can cause lasting harm.

Which is why, by the way, it’s already a crime in most countries, even when done over the internet.

Trauma, also, by the way, often leads to flashbacks caused by triggers. Chances are – given the terrifying statistics – the woman involved has already been raped or assaulted or had a near-miss, laying down such trauma. A trigger brings it all flooding back, making the safety assault even worse. That’s why we don’t make rape jokes either.

This doesn’t make it okay to call everyone a big fat jerk, of course. Abuse is not okay, in any form. The problem is, as I said at the start, we tend to bundle all these things together, when in fact they are very different. They have different outcomes and require different treatments. Yet at the source, we can easily jump between them. A lot of us, when mouthing off, can switch all too easily from “Goddammit you crit-getting jerkface” to “I’m gonna find you and eat your children”. In the heat of the moment, with our game faces on, hyperbole is fun, and funny, when everyone is aware of the hyperbole.

But the internet is not about sitting around with your buddies. It’s a gateway to the whole world, full of strangers. And even high-adrenalin fragging sessions demand a level of politeness a notch or two above what your closest friends can handle.

Outside of those sessions, the standards must be much higher. Social media allows your words to go directly to the ears of whoever you might be cursing out – and the whole world as well. It’s hard to remember, but it’s a fact of modern life. As part of being a citizen of the future, we are going to constantly be aware of what we say and where we say it.

And we need to understand the fundamental difference between attacking someone’s esteem, and attacking their safety. Neither is okay, but the second is not the same as the first. We must never downplay it, or pretend it is all just part of trolling. We need to understand how damaging it can be, and treat it with appropriate severity. We must teach ourselves to instinctively recognise the difference and never cross that line.

Attacking someone’s safety is never, ever okay. And men who get the MESSAGE call men on it when they do it.

What the Anti-Feminists Get Right

“Ain’t nothin’ a man ever did that a woman didn’t make him do or let him do.”

-          Bob Dylan

During the rise of the automobile at the start of the twentieth century, concern was voiced by authorities on high that women might take it upon themselves to travel in a car. Note that I said travel, not drive. This was seen as a key issue of safety. A car was a fast-travelling vehicle that required mechanical aptitude to pilot and attention to be paid to the road. With a woman in the car, a man would quickly – and assuredly – become distracted, and crash the car.

Sadly, despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s, not much has changed. We’re still very much in the grip of this peculiar Victorian view of sexuality. And it’s still extremely internalised in our culture, to the point we don’t even realise it’s purely a construct. Men and women alike, every day, fall into this belief system. Men are pigs, or dogs, and they cannot be calm around the female body. To quote Joss Whedon: “they eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms”. Of course, a lot of men like this model and indulge in it, and are permitted to. Thus male sexuality is culturally accepted, but only of a particular flavour: base, bestial, primal, untamed, uncivilized and uncouth, often uncontrolled and literally uncontrollable, to the point where it is used to justify rape.

Yet like every other difference between the sexes, there’s no evidence of male sexuality being any different to female sexuality. And we know full well how cultural this distortion is, because three centuries previously the view was the opposite: women were considered the wild, primal, demonic creatures who would wallow in sexuality constantly if not restrained by reasoned, ascetic men, who could rise above base instinct.

And we know this is poisonous. To our culture, to shared dialogues, to women – and especially to men. In the end it tends to present men’s sexuality as just as dichotomous as the madonna/whore split for women. Sexual men are lads and bad boys, and asexual men are stout, upright citizens. The division enables all the worst aspects of gender issues, because once a man operates as a sexual being, anything is permitted. He can be as sexist as he likes and as stupid as he likes, free from responsibility because he is under the mystical spell of the female form. The Church of the Holy Breasts absolves you of all sins, up to and including rape.

And indeed, the blame that has been absolved is then placed firmly on females, who have failed to maintain a hold on the leash.

But the (if you’ll permit it) consolation prize for being both the victim and scapegoat of rape culture is the ceding to women of man’s sexual and emotional control. Up to a point, of course – as long as they generally knowing their place – the social relationship can exist where women, according to cliché, hold the leash of their dog-like men. They are the rational, level-headed ones who make the decisions for their uncouth men. And more to the point, since they possess the qualities that turn men mad, they can turn the dogs loose at any moment. That is an enormous amount of power to be explicitly ceded – and as such, it’s an idea that has impeded feminism for centuries. Even Bob Dylan, who was quite the supporter of women’s rights at the time he gave the quote, distanced himself from the movement because in his eyes, everything men do is because of women.

What the anti-feminists of the Mens Rights Associations and Men Going Their Own Way and all their various incarnations get right is that this idea is demeaning and punishing to men, and that men suffer many consequences in a culture with this kind of worship, which defines their manliness and their worth as a human being by their ability to attract and “acquire” or “conquer” women (or – for the good boys – to protect and cherish them).

Of course, what the anti-feminists get wrong is literally everything else: based on a shallow understanding of feminism or bad experiences with an unrepresentative sample, they have decided that feminism wants to remove all of women’s suffering under the patriarchy while keeping all the benefits of ceded power, and to remove all of the benefits of men while keeping all the suffering that ceding power brings.

But as we said in last month’s column, feminism is not the cause of these problems, it is the solution to them – for men as well as for women. But doing so does involve sacrifices of positions and paradigms, which both men and women can and do benefit from. And some of these are deeply culturally and socially ingrained, and in some cases are part of people’s identity and mindset.

These paradigms have many forms. It’s most common face is the one we call benevolent sexism – where preference is shown to the other sex, simply because of their sex. This is not about meting out scales of social justice, but the idea that women need – even deserve – to be protected and kept safe by men. That they are to be adored for their beauty and their muse-like qualities. That they must remain a mystery to preserve that adoration. And inevitably, that some control should – must –  be ceded to them because they are things that are higher than men. We are tough so we can take it, they are gentle so they cannot; but we yield to that gentility. That’s why the maiden is needed to placate the furious dragon.

It’s a romantic sentiment. It appeals to the poets in us, and the warriors. It runs through medieval fiction and the fantasy it inspires. It appeals to the fathers among us, who like to joke about keeping a shotgun handy to protect our daughters. And many of us say: what is the harm in that? Why should we take all of this away? And indeed, inevitably, why is sexism such a big deal when we’re ceding women all this power anyway?

The problem is that the ceding comes from a place of arbitrary difference. Putting women on a pedestal isn’t just a cage for them, it is also one for the men that put them there, and in either case it sends the same message: that we are different. That women are strange and unknowable and just not like men. It’s called othering, and ultimately, it always leads to oppression, because once you turn someone into an alien, it is so much easier to hurt them. As the old saw goes, feminism is the revolutionary idea that women are people – people just like us.

And this is why we don’t like men saying that gaming is a men’s activity, something you go off to do when you want to be manly (when the wife lets you). Or that gaming is a harsh, rough world, and women should “man up” if they want to join. All that does is reinforce the old categories and clichés. It says women are delicate flowers and more importantly it says that men are boors and brutes. And that’s not respectful to men. And you can’t respect women if you don’t respect yourself.

The MESSAGE is not about being a white knight. A white knight suggests a maiden in a tower, waiting to be rescued, which is just another way to separate the genders. We’re not fighting to save women, for two reasons. First because they’re perfectly able to save themselves, and second because this isn’t, ultimately, about women, but men.

The primary defining principle of the MESSAGE is we are for men. This is about men being better men for the benefit of all men. White knights believe that men are brutes and women are maidens, which is bad for men as well as women. If you’ve got the MESSAGE, you believe that not being a douchebag to women is important for purely selfish reasons. It is to make us better and gaming better. We take a stand not because we have to save anybody, but because as men, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of self respect, purely for our own good.

 Because, like L’oreal says, we’re worth it.

Skirting the Issue: Playing Cross-Gender

I know what it’s like to be sold into sex slavery.

Forgive me for my moment of sensationalism: I mean my character does. Or rather did.

During one of my early experiments playing a female, my group sold me as a sex-slave to evil pirates to help arrange an ocean crossing. The reasoning was sound and logical: the pirates in question were known to be ruthless and violent, to have spent a long time away from the comforts of land, and to often take female captives for just such a purpose. Being a trained assassin and clever thief, I might even find a way to take advantage of the situation. Oh yes, it all made sense, and was absolutely appropriate to the story.

But it wasn’t much fun for me.

Admittedly, that group was quite dysfunctional, and members of it were constantly looking for opportunities to rain down peril, pain and uncomfortableness on any of their fellow PCs. Torture, poisoning, betrayal, all had happened before. But it was only once I was playing a female character that I was prostituted.

But it was logical, as I said. And historically appropriate. Women were a commodity in the pseudo-historical setting. My character’s possession of female sexual characteristics made her extremely valuable. The reasoning was sound.

Reasoning can be dangerous like that.

Around the same time I ran another fantasy game where a bunch of young mages had split off from the chief order, and were trying to summon demons. The female player decided to have her female PC infiltrate them, and I, the GM, decided – for the sake of satire, and easy characterisation – that it would be fun to play the young mages as socially-inept nerds who would elevate their new member as a kind of hyper-sexualised sorcerer queen. Again, the reasoning was very sound. Most mages were male in the setting. And their lust for power fit well with a lust for the rewards of power. The satire was cutting, too, and it set a good stage for the player to have some fun with that satire.

Yes, some very good reasons indeed. But in both cases, a terrible mistake. Or really three, in fast sequence. I’m sure you can spot them, but here they are: the primary definition of the character was made to be their gender, and the primary expression of their gender was made to be their sexuality, and the primary expression of that sexuality was through subjugation and control of that sexuality by males.

What’s sad is those three errors are so common, and so constant, that half the time we don’t even notice we’re doing them. We’re getting better, as a culture, at noticing when women are used as plot-devices: when they are the damsel to be rescued, or the loved-one to be “fridged” – better, but not great – but there are plenty of other traps to fall into.

The odds are stacked against us men avoiding these traps, too. We have thousands of years of literature, metaphor, allusion and language encoded into us, and so much of it follows these kinds of patterns. We’re culturally and even biologically programmed to view women through these lenses: as primarily defined by being our biological mates, and as differentiated from us by primary and secondary sexual characteristics. So these are the things we emphasize on the other gender, and we do it unconsciously and instinctively, as a reflection of the culture we inhabit.

Roleplaying and story gaming make it even harder: these are realms where the need for improvisation and shared expression means we constantly have to fall back on genre conventions and broad characterisation to bring ideas to life and communicate them quickly. Cliché is our friend, but cliché is also good friends with prejudice and reactionary ideas.

With such a minefield in front of us, it’s no wonder so many of us abandon playing female characters altogether. Especially if there are female players present – we certainly don’t want to mock someone else’s gender, or be accused of playing it wrongly. Or we might have been taught not to do so, because of an experience with a bad group like the one described above, where it had been made very clear what the consequences are for playing a female. Others may actually believe the lie that all this reinforces: that women are simply too alien, their minds and experiences too different for a man to comprehend, let alone satisfactorily represent in a shared narrative.

I would hope those last people are few, but I also wonder if we’re not making the problem worse by stepping away from the issue. That is, while so many of us are unwilling to risk making a mess of playing a woman, we end up reinforcing the idea that they’re too complicated to understand. Even the idea that they might be played “incorrectly” can play into that belief, if we’re not clear about why things have gone wrong. We find ourselves backed into a corner, stuck between reinforcing sexist ideas about women by falling back on sexist clichés, or reinforcing sexist ideas about women by making them too mysterious to roleplay.

Maybe we just need to calm down a bit. And, to coin a phrase, woman up to the so-called challenge.

We know – or we should know – that women aren’t alien, mysterious beings. They’re humans, just like us. So maybe we should help send that message by not putting so much emphasis on gender. Let it fade into the background a bit more. Make sure that being an elf or a rogue matters a lot more. That doesn’t mean make gender irrelevant or meaningless – it is part of identity and is something to embrace – but to get it onto the gaming table and out of taboo it shouldn’t be a defining feature. Kick rules for it out of systems, minimize emphasis on it in settings and genres, and if your genre can’t handle that, get a new one.

We need to take steps to make it simpler and easier to step in to – or out of – a skirt. Because that helps remind us all that we’re not actually so different. And that helps all of us.

Of course, this assumes you can trust your fellow gamers not to sell you into sex slavery or have you make saves versus period pain. If that happens…then it’s time they got the MESSAGE, and now you have another chance to pass it on.

Stand By Your Mans

Tammy Wynette said “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” But nobody ever wrote a folk song about how hard it is to be a man. Not a straight, white, cisgendered man, anyway.

But it is.

Oppression is never just individual; it is systematic, too. That’s why it makes sense to say that reverse racism and reverse sexism don’t exist. Can an individual woman think men are all pathetic and worthless? Yes. Are there culturally accepted voices that shout these things out into the mainstream? Yes. But is there a deeply entrenched cultural and political dynamic which places all power, wealth, property, freedom and societal control in the hands of women? Is there a memetic belief that men are weak, useless, manipulative, and ultimately participants in and deserving of any and all violence directed towards them, however disproportionate in extent or occurrence?

No. Hell no.

But still, it can be hard to be a man. Especially now, and especially emotionally. The biggest killer of Western men aged 15 to 45 is suicide. The more successful feminism becomes, the more men too want to redefine the constraints on their own gender – and we find it equally hard to do so. Those constraints are loosening and changing, but into a blank page, leaving many confused. Back in 1982, Joe Jackson pointed this out with his incredible song “Real Men”. Yet still we hear the cry about real men. Real men are tough. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t hit women. Just the other day, I was sharing this article that points out why men often fear female work equality: because without a well-defined role as the bread-winner, they feel worthless and ill-defined. Somebody responded “REAL men don’t fear equality”.

Real men aren’t afraid of anything, I’m sure. How dare I suggest otherwise.

Documentary maker Jennifer Newsom is working on a film called The Mask You Live In, tackling this problem: the way the world makes it hard for men to express any emotion, let alone weakness. It is an idea that is actually becoming more and more prominent, and some wonderful health and well-being campaigns are being set up to help deal with these problems.

But there are still things that aren’t being talked about enough, and understood enough. And being excluded from the all the things they are deeply connected to. Men can’t be feminists, I’m often told. At the same time, many young people continue to reject the term feminism because it doesn’t sound like it’s about equality. Feminism is a “women’s issue”, about fixing whatever problem women have. As if whatever these problems might be are as mysterious to us as the female reproductive system was to men of the previous generation. The old waterworks was important for ladies to look after, but not for us men to know of or speak about.

But that presents some kind of fantasy world where women are down in a hole of oppression and men are on level ground and once the women climb up to our level, everything will be alright again. Hell, we’ll even lower a rope, if we’re feeling magnanimous. It doesn’t work like that. Oppression is part of a system, and we men are part of that system. The way to fix the system is to break it apart, maybe even tear it to pieces. And that means things have to change, and change a lot. And that change is going to happen to everyone. You simply cannot change things for women without changing things for men.

It’s not just because women make up over 50% of the population. It’s not just because women are our mothers, our daughters, our wives, girlfriends, employers and employees, our doctors, lawyers and politicians. It’s because how we relate to women is part of how we construct being men. Or at least, it has historically always has been. Changing the role of women changes not just the roles of men, but how we define what that means, and who we are. We can’t talk about feminism without talking about men’s issues – and vice versa.

Nobody likes change, ever. But worse: what we get out of this change might suck. Certainly it will at first. Breaking down the power dynamic means sacrificing that power we enjoy, and the privileges we forget we even have. It might mean, say, finding your favourite game character has been replaced with women. It might mean feeling uncomfortable when all the girls at the Magic table talk about how they never date geeks because they are so ugly. It will certainly leave you feeling very confused about what you can and can’t say on a first date, if not about your sexuality as a whole. I know, I’ve been there.

Ladies will be pulling out the World’s Smallest Violin here but even though these problems are small compared to those suffered by women, and are problems we should welcome as they make things better, they are still problems – and we should talk about them. Because only by talking about them can things get better – for women AND for men.

All of this gets harder when you’re an ally, too. Allies are fighting for all of this to happen, so they really can’t be seen to complain. But allies don’t get cookies for their fight, and they often don’t get invited to the victory parade. When the game store has women-only game nights, the allies don’t get to go no matter how hard they advocated for them. And to get that, along the way, allies have to work hard. Being an ally is not just promising not to be sexist, and making sure you’re never “that guy”. It means challenging sexism every where you see it. It means speaking out even when you’re tired. It means, in some cases, leaving groups you enjoy or not buying products you want. It my case, I’ve lost friends and been asked to leave social groups for being too loud in my barracking.

Our friends, the Men’s Rights Activists, would say we do it all to try to attract women – what’s called White Knighting. And the truth is, it’d be nice if that worked, because who doesn’t want to attract women? But unfortunately, women are human beings who like people based on emotional connections and shared experiences, not because you slew a dragon, metaphorical or otherwise. Of course, we don’t tend to talk about any of this because maybe it would be sexist to even bring it up, assuming we even know how to bring it up, with anyone.

It’s a long list of complaints. But why list them? It doesn’t change the issue. It isn’t going to make us less dedicated to making gaming an open space. The answer is because we need to talk about the things that make it hard, because that’s the only way to get through them. And we want to get through them, because although it may seem, on the surface, that feminism causes a lot of problems for men, we want it anyway, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it also leads to men’s salvation. Feminism is about BOTH genders having a better, kinder, safer, freer space to inhabit.

So if we’re working towards equality, we should be talking about the barriers in our way. And when I say we, I mean men. Without ‘man-splaining’ or taking over, we need to talk to each other about these issues, without being afraid or ashamed. Because they’re our issues. And because we suck at talking to each other.

But to start talking, we need signs of support. And that’s what we’re here for. And by we, I mean the MESSAGE.

I keep coming back to issues facing men because that’s what makes the MESSAGE different from other groups building gamer equality: we’re a group for men, about men, supporting other men, helping other men and leading other men. Because making gaming equal is not an easy task, and being an ally is not an easy job. And because it leads us to a world where things have changed and will change more, and the only way we’re going to be able to deal with that change is by supporting each other.

If you’re a woman, men who’ve got the MESSAGE have got your back in making things better, because we know it sucks. If you’re a man who’s got the MESSAGE, then the rest of us have got YOUR back, because we know it’s hard. And we’re all in this together – men and women, Real or otherwise.

 

A Space For Everyone

As I said in April’s blog, I’ve been wrong before. Many times.

As a young GM, I once put a female gamer’s character in a highly sexualised scenario in a misguided attempt at satire. It was her first night at our table, too. I once argued loud and long against a change of forum moderation policy requested by the women of the forum to curtail certain recurring topics, as they found said topics disturbing and unwelcoming. More than once, I’ve argued for the right to stare and street-harass women, although of course I wasn’t phrasing it like that. More than once, I’ve argued for the right to use certain words, jokes or allusions, in certain contexts, regardless of how hurtful.

Then there’s the less overt mis-steps. There’s me continuing to work for roleplaying games despite their decisions to present some attitudes I found troubling. There’s me staying silent while my old boss goes on sexist rants and unfairly sacks women because I want to keep my job. There’s me being too shy to tell someone I’ve just me that their jokes are out of line. I’ve walked past a lot of bad examples, and as Lieutenant General David Morrison so recently and so eloquently said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

I’m not saying all this to make some forced attempt to humanise myself or to soften my stance. It is simply to reprise the idea that none of us are saints. We’re human beings: complicated combinations of different emotions and beliefs and conceptions, not perfect expressions of our political ideals, however deeply and faithfully we cleave to them.

And social media makes this abundantly clear, because it combines our most casual thoughts with world-wide publishing, and does it so subtly we forget about it all the time. Everything we say on social media is a kind of publishing, to the point where it can be cited in academic literature, but we treat it like shooting the breeze at the bar. As a result, we as a species have gained instantaneous world-wide telepathy, and that has caused a few problems as we have at times revealed more than we might like. This is true both individually (as we mis-text our mothers about our sexual activities) but also collectively, as we now can see exactly what kind of views are out there. Before we could imagine, theoretically, that large selections of the populace were racist or sexist but now we can converse with them almost face to face – and keep their comments locked in amber for all time, in a way the spoken word never can be.

All of this changes our society, and that change is going to cause some birthing pains – again, both collectively and individually. Some harsh lessons will be ecountered – and perhaps some tolerance needed in the face of such unrelenting exposure of ourselves.

That doesn’t absolve us, however, from what we say. We owe it to ourselves to understand the systems in which we operate and the extent our voices can reach and to take those things seriously. We owe it to the world to educate ourselves about what we say and why they can be hurtful. And we owe it to those we hurt to do the right thing after we’ve hurt them: to apologise – apologise properly – and where possible, to make amends.

But we must allow people the space to do those things. And on the internet, with the speed it operates, that requires some patience. When you can complain instantaneously, it can seem criminal that the fix is not equally speedy. In the last month, many people complained to Kickstarter about a book promoting sexual assault among its methods for “picking up” women. But the campaign against the work came in with just two hours to spare, and Kickstarter believed it owed its users a fair hearing. Thoughtfulness should never be a sin, but in this case it meant the judgement came too late. But good things still happened: Kickstarter went the extra yards to apologise and Ken Hoinsky, the writer of the book – in reflection – has expressed concern that his book was viewed that way, and is now working with anti-rape and anti-abuse groups to make the work “acceptable”.

A similar internet storm erupted when webcomic Penny Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik made some transphobic comments on his Twitter feed, after a controversial “anti-politics” seminar appeared on the roster for the convention run under Penny Arcade’s banner. At first he tried to say that his politics shouldn’t be a big deal, which was quite clearly a cop-out, and this was made clear to them when an indie game company made a public statement of boycotting the convention. This led to Mr Krahulik at last understanding that his words represent his company, and might be getting in the way of the good work his company does. So there was finally a proper apology, a reassertion of their welcoming values, and again, a wonderful act of reparation.

Both of these outcomes required time and thoughtfulness. Both of them lead it the “bad guys” turning into the “good guys” only by having the space to do so. It doesn’t always work like that, of course. A lot of times – particularly in the first few exchanges – each side erects walls of belief to protect themselves against the attacks. It is a testament to the maturity of Hoinsky and Krahulik that they were open to self-examination and humble correction. It is also a reminder to us all that those kind of good guy and bad guy divisions don’t always hold water.

At the same time, Fullbright were called out for overreacting to the Penny Arcade comments, for putting up those walls instead of giving Krahulik his “fair go”, and for turning against the large entity of Penny Arcade for the comments of one man. Yet if they had not done so (and done so in a reasoned, open and transparent manner), Penny Arcade and Krahulik might not have got the blow from the clue-hammer they took with such grace and style.

Politics is a harsh game, and everyone’s a critic – and passionately so. Stand for too much and you’re a radical. Stand for too little and you’re a collaborator. We we can get so caught up in fighting the good fight that we can end up dividing the world into good and evil, black and white, which can shut down all discussion. Yet at the same time, there are times when such emotion and belief is warranted, and shying away from it can is disrespectful of those who are really suffering or being oppressed. The issues we address are important, and they deserve passion and powerful voice. And those who feel called to speak strongly are often silenced and oppressed under the guise of the sentiment that their political invective is too harsh or too confronting or simply too extreme.

We do not want to ever silence those voices. But I can sympathise with those who find them so loud they frighten them away from the subject itself. I can understand the attitudes that gave birth to the PAX seminar that suggests that the rise in political awareness has somehow harmed the casual fun of the gaming hobby. I can see, by comparison, that NASCAR fans might be upset if all of a sudden attending every Sunday race day meant pushing past a tide of furious campaigners for electric cars.

And that’s not we want. We won’t surrender our views, but if politics drives people away so strongly, it can’t do any good.

There is a middle ground, however. To fight for gaming to be open and accepting to all without crushing all the fun out of life. Anita Sarkeesian starts her videos about sexism in the game industry by explaining – every single time – that you can recognise problematic messages in a work while still enjoying it. Likewise, I think we can have serious, important conversations about politics without people being afraid we want to take their toys away, or turn every game of Mario into a political lecture.

To achieve that, we may sometimes need a little time and tolerance. For the good guys and the bad guys, but also for the political and the non-political. The MESSAGE supports strong action, and will continue to call out bad behaviour, but we don’t have a magic compass that lets us always know what is right and wrong, or what the best possible response is. We won’t play games of good and evil that make people feel like they can never safely engage. We support people making their own determinations and finding their own path through the jungles of politics, as long as they too, are thoughtful, and listen and engage. We support Fullbright not going to PAX, but we also support those who choose to go and make it inclusive from the inside. Neither is necessarily the wrong call: that we’re having the conversation at all, and people are listening: that’s what matters. That’s what we stand for. Listening to each other, not erecting walls. Letting everyone in, not shutting people out. Speaking out, as loud as we can, but never shouting down.

At times, people may feel we are speaking out so loud it’s annoying, but until our voices can match the overpowering roar of the problematic status quo, we’ll keep doing it. We won’t apologise for that, but we hope those people will show us the same acceptance and tolerance we believe in. Because that’s what we’re fighting for.

The Sign On the Door

Last weekend, the MESSAGE crew were very privileged to be invited to the Lesbian and Trans* Community Group Showcase organized by the great folks at Queensland Association for Healthy Communities. See the photo below!

It was a humbling and inspiring experience to be surrounded by so many people dedicated to improving and enriching their communities. Of course, the MESSAGE itself did not have much to offer, because we’re coming from the opposite side of the equation. The people at Sunday’s event have worked to set up a whole range of wonderful events and groups and activities that are loudly and proudly welcoming of and targetted at those whose genders and sexualities don’t fit the common denominators.

The MESSAGE, rather, targets those of us who are the common denominators, both in society and in gaming: white, straight, cis-gendered men. Chances are, if you’re reading this, that is exactly what you are. I am, too. We’re the people with the privilege. The people who are, it seems, the problem. After all, all these wonderful people are trying to hide from us. They had to go and make special groups to feel safe and welcome, instead of just joining a group of cyclists, or joggers, or ultimate frisbee players, or comic fans. And they had to do that because they have – with good reason – fear of being attacked, humiliated and excluded when they try to join those groups.

That was my Saturday: being surrounded by dozens of people dedicated to providing spaces to get away from people like me. And the fact that that hit home like a hammer is the very definition of privilege. I get to go wherever I want, play whatever game I want, join whatever group I want, turn up at any space I want, without being afraid of being judged for who I am or who I love or the contents of my pants. And let’s be clear about this: in gaming, this is only true if you are a straight, white, cis-gendered man. And it is true for you everywhere. In effect, every game store, club and convention you have ever been has had a sign out front saying “We prefer customers to be straight, white, cis-gendered guys.”

You didn’t see the sign. But it’s there. It is absolutely there. Because everyone who doesn’t fit into those categories noticed the sign and went off to make their own space where the sign wasn’t there. They set up groups for gaming girls, and gaming mothers, and gaymers, and trans gamers and gamers of colour, and disabled gamers, too. There isn’t a game store in my city you can get a wheelchair into.

 Societies, groups and especially commercial entities always tend towards the norm. They always cater for the biggest groups, the general throng, the mean and mode of the population. We can’t change that. We can change attitudes, but that takes time and doesn’t effect the natural tendency of the norm to embrace itself and exclude the different. But what we can do, right now, is be aware that the sign is there. That invisible sign on the door that turns people away. And what we can do is put another sign up instead. A sign that says – and says explicitly – that our stores, our groups, our games, our spaces - are safe. That our gamers are allies. That our groups are welcoming. That we accept everyone.

And it has to be explicit. You don’t get to do nothing and still be the good guy because you know you’re not prejudiced. Because on the outside, you look just the same as everybody else. And nothing you’ve done makes you deserve an assumption of innocence. So you have to wave the flag. Be visible. Wear the t-shirt. Post the sign. Put it in the rules of the club, on the walls of the store, in the ads on the web. Wave the flag high, as high as we can, so everyone can see it, and feel welcome.

The good news is that because we are the people of privilege, we can raise that flag higher than anyone. Because there’s so many of us, we can bombard the world with our acceptance. Because we’re the norm, if we wear our colours, we can paint the hobby a rainbow. But we have to do it. We have to care. We have to wave the flag.

That’s what we’re here, as the MESSAGE, to try to do – to give us all a flag to wave. But it’s up to all of Acronyms, mofo, do you speak them?you to do the waving.

 

Spreading the MESSAGE

 

 

 

Getting It Wrong Is Right

“The thing about feminism is there’s always somebody to tell you you’re doing it wrong” – comic author Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Secret Six)

 This may shock you, but I’ve been wrong some times. Many times, in fact.

Much more often I’ve been called wrong. Being called out for doing things wrong is an occupational hazard for those who launch political campaigns or seek to raise awareness of issues. Every time someone new encounters your idea, there’s a very good chance they’ll be keen to tell you what’s wrong with it. Some of them leave their comments on our Facebook page, where we try to preserve them until they become abusive.

This is, of course, precisely the way it should be. When it comes to crusades, we must follow the lessons of comic books, and be sure to Not Be As Bad As Them. The only way we can be sure of that is to constantly check and evaluate our beliefs, our goals and our practices. It’s also important not to waste our time – or yours – with ideas that aren’t helping. Unquestioning optimism or smug moralising can actively damage a cause far more than apathy.

It’s also a vital part of any philosophy or movement, to ensure it remains relevant and important. An idea as big as feminism, as revolutionary as feminism, as new as feminism must and should be constantly questioned, and analysed and examined. It is such a big, new and revolutionary idea that it certainly cannot be expected to comprise only one idea at all, in fact. It is a large concept that everyone can and should have thoughts about and reactions to, and discussions arising from.

Perhaps the best thing about being called wrong though is it can be the whetstone that sharpens our ideas. That is to say, what matters less is being wrong in the first place, and rather how we respond to it. Twitter has recently exploded into a small firestorm as some radical feminists have been accused of being wrong in their exclusion of transwomen from their movement – to the point where they lost a venue for their 2013 convention to the glee of the anti-feminist Mens’ Rights Activists. Their response in many cases has been to up the ante, and declare transwomen to be the enemy, and even state they are spies of the MRA, keen to practice “corrective rape”.

I must also point out that others provided a more measured response, which in particular talks about how the branding of the entire #radfem movement as being anti-trans has created a huge divide that in the end has just kept women away from important information and shared involvement – to everyone’s detriment. Ultimately, that is the risk here: that adding barriers to who can or can’t be a “good” or “bad” feminist ends up weakening everybody. What’s more, the moment you start erecting walls and saying who can and can’t come into your club, you are definitely heading towards being Just As Bad As Them.

A month earlier over on this side of the pond, Helen Razer, a noted feminist author used her blog to accuse Jenna Price, a noted feminist campaigner of being wrong. This was due to the latter’s “Destroy the Joint” campaign being onanistic and misplaced; a convenient middle-class rage-masturbation aimed at straw men and hollow targets, diverting effort from actually smashing the tools of patriarchy and focussing feminism on the violence of men and the poverty of women. Ms Price responded with an article of her own, providing her smashing the state credentials, and talking about how small social media rage-masturbations are part of a larger tapestry, and that each hollow target called out is a tiny victory if only for the woman marginalised by it.

Both sides made excellent points, and the real glory of this event was in the overall exchange. Ms Price’s thoughtful reply gave her a chance to clarify her position and sharpen her drive. The lively discussion made headlines and prompted discussion around the country, and all discussers were pointed back at Ms Price’s rebuttal, where she made it clearer to everyone – and to a now far wider audience – the goals of Destroy the Joint, and the context it operated within. Not only was the message improved, but it was spread further. Even if it led to a few raised voices on the twittersphere, there could have been no better outcome. Nobody was excluded from anything, and the frank exchange of big ideas left everyone more enlightened.

As I said at the beginning, I get accused of being wrong all the time, in my role of running and promoting the MESSAGE. Every time I introduce it – which is what promoting it involves - somebody will ask about our motives, or our methods, or our goals. Many of them will pick holes in these things, finding what they consider obvious flaws or clear problems (which of course we have not spotted ourselves), sometimes just as idle conversation, other times as philosophical debate, still others as outright attacks. But I welcome them all, because every time I get asked something, I get better at providing the answers. I learn more about why we’re doing the MESSAGE, and how we can make it work. And I learn more about how to explain that to people, and get our message across.

 And sometimes, the wider discussion takes things even further. On one Facebook group, a male member lamented that our ideas – while laudable – were futile, because we were always going to be preaching to the converted: that the “good guys” already knew how to treat women, and the “bad guys” didn’t. This made me realise just how important it was not to divide the world up like that, that this was putting up the same kind of fences of exclusion I desperately wanted to avoid (and I’ll talk more about that in my next blog). I gained a clearer idea of what we needed to do and how do do it. 

In his comment however he didn’t actually use the word “women”. He referred to female players as “gamer girls”. And one of his fellow members spoke up at that point, pointing out how she found the prevalence of that particular infantilising epithet to be demeaning and prejudiced. A brief discussion – including apologies – ensued. And, as they say in family-friendly sitcoms, we all learnt a valuable lesson: that sometimes when you think you’re right, you’re actually wrong.

And I learnt, once again, just how important it is to be told you’re wrong. Because it’s the only way to get it right.

Why Gaming Matters

A friend of mine doing gender studies just handed me a paper to read. It’s entitled “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War” (Carolyn Lewis, Journal of Women’s History Volume 17, Number 4, 2005) and discusses the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of sexual medicine during the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily, it details the popular idea that vaginal orgasm was the key to a healthy marriage and a happy wife, and the role doctors were encouraged to play in helping women achieve that – and not seek sexual pleasure elsewhere. Non-vaginal orgasm was seen as the cause and sympton of unhappy marriages and unhappy women.

It’s all very distressing, but the quote that caught my eye was this one:

Linked to this inappropriate sexual outlets was inappropriate gender role behavior… Symptoms included interest in such activities as playing cards, participating in sports, traveling alone and ‘perhaps even aggressive pursuit of a career.’ (emphasis added)

There’s a lot to unpack already. It’s so easy to forget how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve learnt about sexual health, mental health, gender issues and societal perceptions over the last forty or fifty years. We should never, ever forget that – it’s when we forget things like that that we think movements like feminism are meaningless because we can no longer see what they accomplished, which also helps hide what is still going on, because it lacks context. History is not about understanding the past, but understanding the present.

There is of course a temptation to dismiss the statement’s relevance. After all, that was Another Time, and, as L.P. Hartley said, they do things differently there. We must have Comes So Far. Certainly, fifty years is almost two generations. Those were Baby Boomers, Generation Y is obviously not part of such silliness. But let’s remember that those ideas in that paper weren’t just prevailing views of society, they were accepted medical fact (although the two are intertwined). Before we changed the former, we had to change the latter, which took a generation of its own. To change the latter will take another generation. We are, indeed, now reaching a point where female sexuality is being more openly celebrated in all its forms. Some would say it is being over-celebrated, because our culture prefers to keep women as sexual beings as a way of undermining them; our repsonse to the Purity Myth is to turn women from Virgins who must be Protected into Whores that seduce the purity of men.

The evidence of that comes in the part of the sentence I bolded up there. Way back in the dim distant past, the first sign, the absolute first symptom of a woman who had become dysfunctional, had refused to take obedient, dutiful pleasure in her husband’s penetration, the very first sign that she had risen up against this and rejected, from there, all her duties and responsibilities in society, that giant flashing warning sign that tells you everything is wrong?

Is playing cards.

Think about that. Roll that around your mind for a moment. It’s not the most dramatic sign – travelling alone and having a career were far more dramatic – but it was the first sign. The first one to spring to mind.

There’s an old saw that goes if you list what a society considers a crime, you know what that society does every saturday night. We must assume these symptoms were evident. That women had begun, to the horror of proper society, to the dismay of their authority figures and older generations, to the denigration of their mental health and the order of society, in the face of all these things, that women had begun playing cards.

We tend to minimise hobbies, sports, and leisure. They’re not important, like life and liberty. They’re not food on the table or jobs or the right to vote or marry or have children. Yet if we look at history, we know that these things – the way we spend our free time, the way we play and dance and sing – these things are inseparable from who we are, and play an enormous part in our social and societal make-up. And as such, they play a massive part in revolution and political change. If nothing else, they are the canary in the mine. The thing that tells you change is coming.

The American Civil Rights movement was not won by white teenagers listening to black singers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but that was part of that struggle -  and the authority figures knew it, and feared it because of that. It’s very difficult to make a generation hate the people who write their music. It matters when minorities become visible in art and culture. Children sneaking off to go to “black clubs” was part of that rebellion, of accepting that culture.

Games aren’t culture in the same way, but they are part of those struggles.  Jackie Robinson breaking the “colour barrier” in baseball was a massive event in civil rights. Likewise, women playing cards was an equal act of rebellion as burning bras and coming out of the kitchen. It was taking a stake in a male dominated world. Naturally, the most desirable thing, the first thing women wanted wasn’t work, but play. Fun. Enjoyment. Games. And the moment they wanted that, the gatekeepers knew it was a sign thateverything had already gone wrong. Once they start playing cards, they’ve already changed who they are – who they are supposed to be.

As I said, we like to believe that was All Long Ago. But I look around this hobby, and I’m not so sure. Women are allowed to play games, but they cannot do it without being reminded that these games are our games, men’s games. We were here first, we set the agenda, we are the largest market, and our preferences and tastes matter the most. We have let women in the door, but out of generosity, and we demand they sit up the back of the bus and be quiet – and with the ever-present assumption that it was always our bus to begin with, and always will be.

It is of course, much worse in sports, where women are allowed to play as long as they are almost invisible (how many Australians knew the Women’s World Cup Cricket just finished, with the Australian teaming wining for the sixth time in a row?) or expected to be sexually attractive before they are allowed to play (as with the world-wide promotion of Lingerie Football). But for a lot of men, the same macho parochialism is part of gaming – after all, it has the same drive to win at all costs, the same appeal to violence and strength as chief virtues, the same masculine regalia and if you’ve ever seen a gaming advertisement you know they’ll be yelling at you in a loud voice about how you must deliver the smackdown. The girls can join the Street Fight or the Tomb Raiding, but they have to do it in their lingerie.

So have we really come that far? Or, like the doctors of the 1960s and the society around them, do we still see women playing games as the first and most dangerous threat? Of a the most alarming sign of a woman going beyond her designed role in society? Looks like we still do. And if we’re still fighting that battle, we know that there are other battles still to be fought, because how we spend our leisure is part and parcel of the human experience, and making it equal is part and parcel of the struggle for equality. And it is a battle that canot be ignored.

Jackie Robinson wasn’t Rosa Parks or the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But his success was part of a cultural  and political war, and part of winning that war. You couldn’t pretend that it was okay for black people to vote but not okay for them to play baseball – and working towards both goals helps the other, and strengthens the other. Likewise, you don’t get to say you’re a feminist, that you think women should be allowed to vote and work and have equal rights, and then go home and tell bitches to get off Call of Duty, because hey, it’s only a game.

No, it’s not. Games matter. The fights we fight in gaming MATTER. They are inseparable from political struggles. If women are playing cards, then everything is under attack, they once believed. Now they believe it of video games and board games and wargames and RPGs. But we want those things under attack, on every front, so we must have women playing games, everywhere, freely and visibly and without restraint or disdain. We cannot settle for anything less.