The Indignity of Permission

The savage and cruel attack in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has left so many of us with great holes in our hearts and aching chasms in our souls. None more so, of course, than the friends, family and community of the LGBTQ and Latino populations of that area. Others, though separated by great distance, also weep and stagger, as we feel connected to those communities, to those struggles, or to those we know who are more connected. For me, it was a gnawing sadness but not a keening agony. A world away, and a straight white male, I was mournful but unbowed. Until today, when a sudden fresh wound tore open a gaping sadness and roaring fury within me.

One of my professions is pet-sitter. It’s a small job but an important one; for many people their pets sit only inches below their children and partners in the list of most precious things in the world. Today I began working for a new client leaving his cat behind for a long weekend. As I got ready to begin, I looked through the submitted documentation to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. In the “Notes” section I saw something I had skimmed over originally. It said “Carer must be comfortable caring for a pet of a same-sex couple.”

It was like somebody punched me in the stomach.

I like in Sydney, in the area known as the inner west, which is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the entire country. I had met P: he was in charge of pet wrangling and worked the more forgiving hours. I probably would never have met J or seen the two of them together. I wouldn’t enter any room but the kitchen and the laundry. I would be in and out of their lives in four short days, and stopping on those days for just half an hour to put down food and water for their pet cat.

But there’s always a chance, you see. A slim but non-zero chance. Because people’s lives aren’t invisible. There are photos. Phone calls. Exchanges. The quiet, soft languages of love, a million miles from the big excitement of a wedding or anniversary but with all their own power for their quotidian ubiquity. The very blood and oxygen of what makes love. And if I’d seen those things, there was always a chance. A chance that I might have made a comment. A little snide remark, a rude joke or slightly smug reaction. I might have pursed my lips or made a little tut sound. I might have muttered something under my breath or moved to cover an insulting sticker on my car. I might have done the job then requested not to do it again. Far worse, I could have done the job poorly, in the way that carelessness creeps in when disdain lurks behind.

But even if not that, all those other indignities, all those other insults, those tiresome attacks, the micro-aggressions, they themselves have their own violence and cruelty. An ability to hurt that is a million miles from the terrible violence of a massacre, but with all their own power for their quotidian ubiquity. And seeing it here, in my world, touched me in a way nothing from the Pulse shooting yet had, made all of that death and all that hate so much more real. The totality of that hate was reflected so perfectly in the assuredness that even in this most casual of tasks and briefest of intersections, these clients knew they had to ask permission. To explain. To beg upon the tolerance of others, lest they cause offence. To plead for the right to exist.

It was the final ultimate indignity that tore my nerves to pieces, and I wept.

Why is this here? Why talk of this on a page about making gaming safe for women? Because as more and more voices have called for gaming to be a place that welcomes all, the push back has been strong and violent. And one of the classic distraction tactics has to been to label our efforts as “virtue signalling”, as if we do this work solely to appear saintly to others, to store up social status through meaningless signals, as if the rainbow flag is like a fetish worn to show one is part of the correct and holy tribe. Hand in hand with this is the assertion that such flag-waving and signifying is pointless or unnecessary. After all, the sentiment goes, one should just assume everyone is generally nice and easy going, shouldn’t one? Why bend over backwards to list all the people who are welcome? Why treat women and gay people and other minorities as special? Why give them their own days, their own spaces, their own cons, their own permissions? Isn’t that treating them differently, thus defeating the very intent of equality?

This is the darkest madness, the most insulting vituperation, cloaked in sickly false concern. The ludicrous belief that tolerance is a mainstream value, that the crowd is welcoming.

Because I guarantee you in those such spaces, in the general space of society, at the game store, the game club, the game table – at YOUR table – people have wondered if they needed to ask permission. They may indeed have asked out loud. Because they need to know. They need to know if they can call their partner on the phone, if they can kiss them goodbye at the door, if they can hold hands when they roll a saving throw, if they can laugh about the other stealing the bedclothes or thrill in plans for a weekend away or talk about getting married or having kids or going to the mardi-gras, if they can just do all the tiny things that make up love and life, all so powerful in their quotidian ubiquity…they have thought about all those things and they have wondered…

Will that be okay?

Or will they be met with some pursed lips and shaken heads and little tut noises? Some off-colur jokes or snide remarks or smug reactions? Perhaps somebody might not say anything but might not come back to the table next time. Perhaps words would be spoken between sessions and then the gay person isn’t invited back again. Maybe the campaign dwindles out. People don’t quite meet your eye, don’t smile all the way to their dimples, don’t hug you quite as tightly in the bar after the dungeon crawl. Maybe now you’re forever out because you existed, and you didn’t ask permission to do so.

If you are, like me, a straight white man, you cannot imagine the weariness of having to ask permission to exist. And the reason we fly our flags and raise our voices is not to signal to the tribe that we are saintly, but to remove this last burden. If we say it before they have to ask, we can do one small thing for those who are excluded: we can take away the terrible indignity of having to ask permission.

And this applies to the MESSAGE, because women are kept away by a thousand little attacks just as surely as LGBTQ people, just as surely as people of different races, religions and skin colours. The mainstream is not tolerant; it is a mass of the mode, of the most visible, and if you do not meet the most common configuration you will always fear to exist, and you will, therefore, need to ask permission lest you offend. We cannot always stop the bullets, or the hate. Those feel like vast, intractable things. We can only barely chip away at cruel laws and inhuman separation and incessant harassment and pernicious slander, and that makes us feel weak. We will keep trying to do those things, of course, but there are also small things we can do with great love. If nothing else, let us do the smallest of things, the cheapest of things, that thing that costs nothing at all but for those who fit the mode to swallow their goddamn pride. Let us, for once, then, remove that smallest but most barbed of indignities. Let us make sure that out our tables, our clubs, our stores and our cons, nobody needs to face the indignity of permission.

GX, Crucible, and Shared Goals

I believe activism is a creative act. If not quite the same as creating art, then extremely similar. It involves seeing something in the world that could be better, and stepping up and out with a plan to make it so. It requires an idea, a vision, and the will to explore it and produce it – and most of all, to share it, because it’s nothing until you do.

And like creating art, the moment you start people are going to complain about it or tell you do something else.

And you try to forget those moments. And you hang on to the other ones, where somebody responds. Where they say “I see what you’re going for, and it works.” It speaks to me. It helps me. It matters.

And there are other moments too, when you see someone else stretch towards the same vision. Where you sit with other creators and see how much you share, in your dreams and ideas and goals. Our time at and work with GX Australia was full of these experiences. We got to see people enjoying a safe space and products welcoming to them, and we got to work with people making those spaces and those making those products. Full credit must go to the people running GX for making such a great space and the great people they drew in as promoters and vendors. It was especially good to see scholars and educators present, and young people full of their own dreams and visions wanting to learn.

We were privileged to share our particular slice of booth with Cosm Games and in a moment of serendipity realised they and their game Crucible had more in common with us than we thought. To explain, I’ll hand over to them:

 

Crucible is an upcoming fantasy tabletop RPG from Cosm Games, focusing on themes of morality and diversity and using a unique coin-based system. You can read about the project in more detail at cosmgames.com but, for the purposes of getting the MESSAGE across, we wanted to talk about what we are trying to achieve in terms of creating a broadly accessible gaming space.

Our development team represents a broad spectrum of gender and sexuality, and it is important to us to create a space through our game in which players of all kinds can feelsafe and have fun. For a start, our rulebook uses gender neutral pronouns as default, whether referring to GM, players or in-world characters, so that no one is automatically excluded from any role. Our six different playable species cover a vast array of biological and cultural approaches to gender, sexuality, relationships, family units, ability and personal body image, and the overall culture of the game world accepts the spectrum of these as normal. We want EVERYONE who sits down to play Crucible to find something to identify with in the character options, game world and tone of the book.

When it comes to the issue of sexism within the world of Crucible, we are attempting to take an approach that both creates a safe space for people who experience it and encourages GMs and players to be aware of the issue.

We know that sexual discrimination, abuse and oppression are all too real for a great many people, so we have taken pains to avoid treating these painful issues as mere set dressing for any of our game-world cultures. You won’t find gritty characters with abuse-laden backstories or domestic violence used as a mere plot point. While there is plenty of darkness in the world of Crucible, none of it is explicitly based on sexual exploitation or other forms of gender-based oppression. We don’t want reading our rulebook (let alone playing our game) to be a triggering experience for anyone.

However, as gamers ourselves, we also recognise that simply leaving sexism and other problematic material absent from a game as written does nothing to prevent players and GMs from bringing their own uninformed attitudes to the table. To try to address this, our rulebook includes an extensive section of advice for GMs running Crucible games. We encourage GMs and their gaming groups to start out with a discussion of what level of problematic material they are comfortable exploring in-world, and will provide extensive advice for GMs on running problematic material in a way that is not exploitative and doesn’t risk turning real issues into a joke. We want to make explicit that a good game is one in which everyone feels safe and happy at the gaming table. This doesn’t have to mean total erasure of issues like sexism, but it does mean everyone being aware of each other’s comfort zones and checking their own assumptions about what material is ok. Narrative roleplaying done well, can give players  a huge emotional investment in their characters’ lives; we want to make sure that whatever misfortunes a character has to deal with are ones their player is also willing to take on.

The MESSAGE is about men taking action to end slurs and sexism in gaming. We hope that Crucible will also be a step in the right direction, highlighting the need for discussion about these important issues amongst a gaming group and providing a safe space for tabletop roleplayers of all backgrounds to enjoy their hobby.

 

 

Another Great Go Play Con!

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The calm before the storm

It is always a pleasure to be a sponsor of the amazing Go-Play convention in Brisbane. Not only do they promote our cause, the endless generosity of attendees always helped us raise vast wads of cash in our raffles. This year we broke all previous records by over 30%, putting a huge dent in the fees for keeping this website online!

 

Special thanks must go to the companies that donated raffle prizes. The folks at Storyweaver Games are long time supporters of the MESSAGE and have just launched their amazing new comedy-spy game Deniable, a crazy mix of backstabbing and tradecraft, like Fiasco meets The Prisoner. Check it out now!

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The tiny selection of games provided for Go Play by the Loot Roomers!

And if you’re in Brisbane where the con was held you’ll want to check out the Loot Room the newest and most awesome game café in that fair city (and follow them on FB for more info). Five dollars for all you can play is an amazing deal! With two game cafes and constant free or cheap game events and dozens of game designers, Brisbane is the gamingest city in the world outside of Essen!

Brisbane Stores That Get The MESSAGE!

Brisbane is more than just the original home of The MESSAGE. In fact, Brisbane increasingly becoming one of the biggest centres of table top gaming in Australia, if not the world. And so many of these wonderful game centres have got the MESSAGE!

The Four d4 are a group of gamers who do it all: make a panel show, publish comics, write blogs and travel the country bringing gaming to the world, at conventions and at weekly game sessions at Grill’d burger bar in the Valley and at Chermside. Those happen every Thursday night and are free!

007  Dylan and Ellen of the Four d4 showing how seriously they take gaming.

The Four D4 have just started filming their videos at a new location: the GO Lounge which also happens to be Brisbane’s first fully-dedicated gaming café! Open all weeknights and all day on weekends you can come in and play every game on the shelves for one tiny price!

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Go Lounge is run by the indomitable Cindy Wong!

GO Lounge also sells some games but if you want the fullest range of boardgames available and an awesome space to play them, there’s Good Games in Spring Hill! You can’t play the board games without paying for them but every second Saturday they have casual bring-along board game sessions to enjoy on their many tables in full air-conditioning. They’ve also have sessions of RPGs like GURPS, Pathfinder and 13th Age. You can check their website for event details and you should because you may find the place swarming with players of Magic, Netrunner, Spoils, or Yu-Gi-Oh, or Warhammer, Warmachine or countless others.

Cassie from Good Games Gets The MESSAGE

Cassie is the owner of Good Games and occasionally stands next to weirdos.

Equally popular for wargaming and cardgaming and the madness that is Friday Night Magic is Ace Comics and Games. They have two locations, one in the Queen Street Mall in the heart of Brisbane and the other in Annerley, and even if the first isn’t quite as massive as the second both are fit to burst when it comes to gaming events, and games and geek paraphernalia to sink your budget into.

Pol From Ace Gets The MESSAGECertified MESSAGE-fresh!

Still not enough? Once a month there are all-day gamer events provided by the League of Extraordinary Gamers, now at their new venue at the Woolloongabba Bridge Club! Like the GO Lounge a small fee covers the entire day but you can also sign up and save with a yearly membership! They also have yearly holidays entirely centred around games if you need the 24-hour experience.

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People hard at game at June’s LXG event!

STILL not enough? Then the last Thursday of every month you can head to King George Square for free board games all night! They focus on their giant games like Giant Scrabble, Giant Jenga and Giant Chess but they also have giant boxes of regular-sized board games. Remember to rug up in winter though, as our town square is completely exposed to these cold winter breezes!

There’s actually even more than this in Brisbane – game stores abound and all of them have their own game nights! We had to stop here though because it was taking forever to get them all accredited and we wanted to get this blog post out before Christmas. And that’s the important thing to remember: all the places and events listed here are MESSAGE-certified, dedicated to gaming that is open and inclusive to women and all minorities. And all of them have superb food available in store or just next door, so you can game like a king and eat like one as well! Brisbane is truly a gamer’s paradise!

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.