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.

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