This weekend I was part of an event called Extreme Game Mastery Masterclass, run by my local gaming society: Ministry of Game. The focus was on making table top role-playing games a welcoming, inviting and fun environment for all players. I gave a talk on making games inclusive of diverse identities both in game fiction and in interactions at the table. My talk was well received and so I've decided to post a transcript here on the blog for anybody else interested.
A lot of this I have said around here before but, as always, it's important and worth repeating. Unfortunately I cannot reproduce the slides I used during my talk but you should manage fine without them. They were largely illustrative and following the talk doesn't depend on seeing them.
(Slide 1) I’m going to be talking about Identity Inclusiveness in the game fiction and at the game table. Our identity is defined by many facets ranging from our gender and sexuality to our culture or subculture, our religion and even our health and hobbies. I’m going to focus on a few specific identities or aspects of identity: gender, ethnicity and mental health, but that’s just small selection of the ideas that I’m talking about when I use the word identity.
There’s no denying that certain identities receive greater inclusion or representation in our culture than others.
(Slide 2) If you’re straight, white, and male, you have the privilege of seeing your identity represented in all walks of life and particularly as heroes and as leaders in politics, business, arts and academics. We see this all across the media and fiction we consume. And you might be wondering why that matters. It’s just fiction, right? Nobody takes it that seriously. Well, let me give you some examples that I think most of us can relate to.
(Slide 3, 4, 5) All these examples are representations of nerds and they present our subculture as a joke. That idea of the nerd as a joke has been so persistent in our culture that you can probably think of more characters without much difficulty. It’s been so common in fiction for years that it has taken hold in our cultural psyche and people actually believe that stereotype. Nerds are a joke. They’re awkward losers that you laugh at. And if you’ve ever had a conversation with somebody who watches The Big Bang Theory and isn’t a nerd, and they say something like “Oh, you play Dungeons and Dragons? So you’re just like Sheldon? Bazinga!” then congratulations, you know what it’s like to be stereotyped.
Now, that representation is insulting, but imagine if instead of a joke, nerds were represented as criminals, as violent, as stupid, as weak, or as not even existing. That’s the space in our fiction that some identities exist in, and just like the nerd as a joke, those ideas take hold in the cultural psyche.
(Slide 6) Here’s a more serious example. This is Two-Face, one of many villains in fiction portrayed as having a mental illness. Writers have given Two-Face Schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder and Bipolar as reasons for his villainous behaviour. This idea of mental illness equating to violent behaviour is also common in our culture. We see it not only in fiction, but we see it in news media. Frequently, when some big violent crime is committed, like a mass shooting, commentators like to label the criminal as being mentally ill.
Just this week a story came up on my Facebook feed about a Chinese American woman and a Latin American man being accosted, verbally abused, and assaulted by a white man in a New York restaurant. The woman telling the story, who was a victim in the story, described the assaulter as a Trump supporter. One of the first comments on this story claimed that the event had nothing to do with politics at all and that the assaulter was clearly mentally ill.
The truth is, people with mental illness are not necessarily prone to violence. The truth is, people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than to perpetrate it. And yet, because of this portrayal in media, because when mentally ill people are included, they’re included as dangerous and violent and unpredictable, people genuinely believe that mental illness is the source of violent crime.
Hopefully these examples have made it clear to you why representation matters and why it must be diverse and respectful. This is why fiction matters.
The Game Fiction
(Slide 7) Now that we’ve established that fiction matters, I’d like to talk about how you can run your game to be more inclusive by better representing people in your game.
Earlier this year I heard a story. Somebody was invited to play in a Deadlands campaign. Deadlands, if you don’t know it, is a weird west setting: 1870s, American frontier, monsters, magic, mad science, all the good stuff. Lots of fun. But in this particular game, the GM decided that all the Native American people would be...
(Slide 8) Orks from Warhammer 40k. It would be one thing if the GM decided to just mix genres and worlds and say 40k orks are now in Deadlands, but this GM replaced a nation of people with orks. I can’t tell you what this GM was thinking, but I can tell you why this is a problem. Either we have an uncomfortable likening of the Native Americans plains tribes to orks, or we have an entire nation and ethnicity of people, real people, and multiple cultures that were seen as so inconsequential to the world that they could be removed without hesitation and with minimal change to the world.
This is bad representation.
You can bet that if a player came to that game looking to make friends and have some fun, and they were Native American, that was part of their identity, they wouldn’t have stayed in the game long. By excluding people from your game world, you exclude them in the real world.
When we run or play in a game, we are creating a fictional world just like a movie or a book and, just like other types of fiction, the fiction of our games matters. When we create fiction, when we create these worlds and tell these stories, we create a reflection of our world. The principles and ideas on which we base our games are principles and ideas with real life consequences. What we say about the people in the fiction is what we say about the people in the real world. So when we remove certain people from out fictional world, we’re saying they’re unimportant to the real world. I don’t think any of us intend to say that and I don’t think any of us want to say that. Certainly we, we being Ministry of Game, as an organisation, don’t want to say that.
Fortunately, it’s really easy to not say that. Being inclusive of diverse identities isn’t that hard.
(Slide 9) They key is to make your fiction inclusive. Think about what types of people, what identities are most represented in your game and mix it up. We all have defaults. We all see certain types of people more in the world and we internalise them as the majority and those are the people who show up in our fiction as the majority. Think about who your default majorities are, then add in more ethnicities, more sexualities, more genders. No matter what game you’re playing, you can do this. The next step is to look at your new array of diverse characters and make sure you haven’t used any stereotypes.
Then, once you’ve done all that, do it again. Up the diversity again. If all you’ve done is added one black character or one transgender character to your cast, you haven’t really done much for diversity. Your job isn’t to go down a list and check off one of each minority. That’s a token effort creating token characters and I guarantee you, we can all do better than that.
I already mentioned stereotypes but it’s important so I’ll say it again. Don’t use stereotypes. Whether insulting or complementary, stereotypes need to be avoided. Whether it’s “women can’t drive” or “Japanese people are so polite” a stereotype is still poor representation and that’s not going to make your game more inclusive.
(Slide 10) This is the author John Green. On his YouTube channel, he has repeatedly encouraged his fans to “Imagine others complexly.” This isn’t hard. We imagine complex characters all the time. We create unique individuals with unique identities, backstories, motivations and lives all the time. We’re gamers. That’s just what we do. So do that. We shouldn’t have any difficulty avoiding stereotypes. All you have to do is imagine others complexly. Then you’ll have a rainbow of interesting characters with diverse and unique identities to scatter across your fiction. If you take just one thing from what I’ve said today, take this: Fill your game with diverse, complex characters.
Now, when I’ve said this in the past, I have inevitably got the same question: “How can I possibly tell the stories or portray the lives of people from vastly different walks of life to me? How can I do justice to the experience of being a different ethnicity, or from a different culture, or having a different sexuality?” You might be wondering the same thing. Fortunately, that’s easy to answer. If you can pretend to be a 400-year-old elven wizard without being a 400-year-old elven wizard, you can pretend to be transgender person. You can even make a 400-year-old transgender elven wizard. Do what you’re already doing, and add diversity to that. Don’t get hung up on the idea that you have to tell true to life dramas about minorities.
(Slide 11) Because as good as 12 Years A Slave was, not every story with an ethnically diverse cast needs to be about race relations. Not every story about a minority needs to be about the oppression of minorities. Representation can mean having the same heroes and villains sword fighting over the fate of the world but with more diversity. It’s actually not a big change to make. There’s no reason you can’t be James Bond and be a woman, for example, and leave it at that. There’s no reason you can’t be John McClane and Chinese, doing all the awesome things that John McClane does. In fact, this can be the best and easiest way to be inclusive with your game fiction. People want their unique identities acknowledged, but they don’t necessarily want you to make a big deal about doing it.
That’s not to say you can’t run a game about oppression and race relations and the life experience of being a minority, but you don’t have to.
Identity at the table
(Slide 12) So if you can make your fictional world more diverse in a respectful way, as I’ve described, you’ll have already taken a big step towards making the game, as a whole, more inclusive and more welcoming to players. That’s good because if you aren’t currently playing in a game with somebody of a traditionally under-represented or poorly-represented identity, you almost certainly will one day. If you’re not sure, next time you’re playing or running a game, check and see if there’s any women in the group. You can usually spot them. If so, you have a member of a traditionally under-represented identity in your game already. But while you might be able to pick out a woman playing in your game, or somebody from an ethnic minority, you may not know that you’re playing with somebody who is homosexual or somebody who is Islamic. Identity is invisible. So no matter what the situation is in your gaming group now, or what you think the situation is in your gaming group now, there’s no reason to not start thinking about being inclusive now.
Even just making an effort, a real effort – not a token effort – to say through the fiction “I see you, I acknowledge you exist in this world” can go a long way.
But of course you want to be respectful about it, you don’t want to upset anybody and that can make it awkward when you’re trying to make your game world diverse and your game inclusive but now one of those people you want to include is looking at you…
(Slide 13) and you’re wondering whether it’s black or African American, what’s the correct pronoun for a transgender person, am I bordering a little too close to a stereotype? And your anxieties are justified. Nobody wants to upset their follow players and friends, or say the wrong thing. Fortunately, nobody wants you do that either, and if you’re unsure how to proceed or how to address somebody, you can always ask. People will help you to understand them if you genuinely want to. They want you to understand them. So let them lead you. Be respectful and empathetic. Just talk to them, ask them what they’re comfortable with, learn about them, build a relationship with them. That’s what we’re all about at Ministry of Game. Building relationships.
And don’t let your anxieties trick you into thinking “Hold on, one of the players in this game is Korean. I better not have Korean characters in this game or play a Korean character in case that offends them. I don’t want to come off as doing a racist impression or misappropriating their culture.” It turns out, and I say this from personal experience, people generally appreciate you making an effort to understand them and acknowledge their identity in fiction, and gaming can be a perfect way to do that, so long as you’re being sensitive and respectful and imagining them and your characters as complex and not stereotypes. Or, at the very least, they won’t care unless you’re being offensive.
This is especially true if you’re a player playing outside your identity. I strongly encourage you to do so, at least occasionally, but to be aware that you have a responsibility to be respectful and intelligent about how you do so.
Now, GMs, in addition to doing things right yourself, as the GM, to make your game inclusive of diverse identities, you’ll also have the task of managing your players’ behaviours and stopping them from undoing all your hard work to make an inclusive game.
That might mean you have a player who is overtly racist and wants to play an offensive stereotype or insists the game world match their world view, and all the Aboriginal people in your urban fantasy game must be represented as some negative and offensive stereotype. On the other hand, it might also be somebody who just doesn’t know better. It might be a player who tries to seduce every female NPC in the game and makes objectifying comments, in character or out, about women. Every time you ask them where their character is, they say “I’m at the tavern getting drunk and if there’s any girls there, I want to do them.” And they’ll be doing this without thinking they’re doing anything wrong. That kind of player will drive people out of your game just as fast as an overt bigot no matter how respectful and inclusive you’re being, especially if you don’t say something.
Because not saying something is an implicit consent for them to continue with the excluding behaviour.
Remember, even if it’s just something they’re doing in character, the principles and ideas that come up in the game are real principles and ideas. They have a real impact on real people, especially your players.
As GM, you need to be aware of these behaviours, both overt and subtle, and watch how it’s affecting the other players in the game. Then, you need to stop it before somebody really puts their foot in their mouth, somebody gets upset and suddenly your gaming group is a lot smaller and a lot more uncomfortable to be in. Hopefully a few quiet words to somebody will be enough. Thankfully, most people don’t want to be offensive or exclusive or upset others.
And if you decide to talk to them in private about their behaviour, it’s also super important that you speak to anybody they’ve potentially offended in the group, just to let them know you did notice, you don’t approve and you did take action. That will remind them that you run an inclusive game for everybody.
Other times, though, people will know they’re a bigot and they just won’t care. They don’t care they’re being offensive because, as far as they’re concerned, they’re right and everybody else is wrong. Ministry of Game’s policy of inclusiveness extends to them, too. We don’t want to turn people away. It doesn’t, however, extend to their beliefs.
All people are welcome, but not all ideas are.
If someone is deliberately being overtly offensive, they need to be taken aside and told that: They are welcome, but their behaviour and those ideas are not. If they’re going to stay, if they’re going to be part of the game and the group, their unhelpful opinions on other people need to be packed up for the night. No arguments.
Hopefully you’ve listened to all this and you’ve been thinking “That doesn’t sound hard at all” because it’s actually not that hard. Being inclusive of diverse identities means being aware of them and acknowledging them with respect and sensitivity in your game fiction and in your interactions with them as people at a game table.
Last Minute Thoughts
(Slide 14) Before I finish, I want to go back a bit to when I was talking about 12 Years A Slave and the idea of running a game that deliberately explores complex themes like race and oppression and so on. Those themes aren’t necessary for having a game with diverse characters, but it’s possible to run that game. In fact, in many ways, RPGs are a great environment for exploring those themes and trying out an identity and a life experience different to your own. If that’s what you want to do, as long as you can do it with respect, sensitivity and intelligence, I say go for it.
But also be aware it can be very confronting. Some games that have been designed for these kinds of intense and dramatic stories use a mechanic called The X Card. It is what it says on the box. It’s a piece of paper or card with a big X on it, placed in the centre of the table and any time the game goes in a direction that makes somebody uncomfortable, that person can hold up the card and the game rewinds and you have a more family friendly do-over of the scene. They don’t have to explain why they’re uncomfortable if they don’t want to, you just accept it and you move on. It may happen, it may not but this very simple mechanic is great for making sure everybody at the game table feels respected and making people feel respected is key to inclusivity. It really is brilliant.
Another thing I want to mention: In any game, be it a serious and mature game like I was just talking about or a pulp space adventure or a period detective game or dungeon crawl – they all can include characters who are bigoted. Racist characters are a thing and being inclusive and respectful of diverse identities doesn’t mean your villains can’t be bigots. It doesn’t mean the game world is, in fictional terms, is always inclusive and always friendly. What’s important is you make it clear in the game that their views are not something you outside the game approve of and that you counter balance their bigotry with diverse characters that clash with that idea and disprove it.
It also doesn’t mean that if you introduce, say, an Islamic character, that you must find the worst stereotype applicable and make every Islamic character the opposite of that. That’s just creating a new stereotype. That’s not really diversity. Remember, make all your characters complex people. Even if the players never see the inner complexity, they must believe it’s there. They must know they’re different to others, even to those with similar identities in the fiction. Being inclusive should inform your behaviour and your game and it should encourage you to be more creative, not less. Ideally, being inclusive won’t ever feel like you’re placing creative limits on yourself.
Before I finish, I want to share one more story with you. This story made its rounds on the internet shortly after Guardians of the Galaxy came out. In case you have any doubt about the importance of representation, just listen to this.
“I took my little brother, who falls on the autism spectrum, to see Guardians of the Galaxy and after this scene…
(Slide 15) …he lit up like a Christmas tree and screamed “He’s like me! He can’t do metaphors!” And for the rest of the film, my brother stared at Drax in a state of rapture. So for the last six days I have heard my brother repeatedly quote all of the Drax’ lines from the movie verbatim … and tell everyone he knows that people with autism can be superheroes.”
I don’t think Drax was deliberately written as an autistic character, but that one similarity, that one point of connection, allowed an autistic person to identify with a hero and it positively impacted their entire world view. That’s the difference just one character can make to a member of a traditionally under represented group.
Imagine the difference it would make if everybody, whatever their identity, had hundreds of such characters they could relate to.
(Slide 16) That’s the end of my part. I hope you’ve found it helpful and clear. I believe we’re going to have morning tea in a minute, but before that, does anybody have any questions? I will hopefully have answers.