Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 2

I started Part 1 by mentioning the Backstory podcast by Alex Roberts. Since that one was a minor quibble, I think it only fair that I mention the podcast again in a much more positive light.

If you haven’t heard the episode with Jonaya Kemper, you need to go listen to it either right now or (if you’re not in a podcast-listening space) after you finish this article. You then need to go visit Kemper’s website and read and follow everything she does, because she’s amazing. This interview – and all of Kemper’s work – is a master-class in intersectionality.

That’s important because it is the topic for this part. Here’s a headline:

The Intersectionality Gap in the Game Design Community

Now that I’ve explained what I mean by the Primacy of Personal Experience, I want to examine how it affects all of us, even those who we see (and who see themselves) as doing good work in promoting inclusion and diversity in game design and the gaming community.

You see, it becomes too easy to separate ourselves from the reactionary fringe – those designers, GMs, and players who insist that their horribly misogynistic and bigoted views are legitimate content for their games. It’s too easy for us to talk about how awful that is and rest comfortably in the assurance that we would never do such things. But I’m not even going to talk about those people, because a) they won’t be listening to me anyway and b) I am here to break our own smugness, not foster more of it by condemning the easily-condemned.

Although I’m going to spend some time here referring at least in part to actual events, I will try very hard to avoid being specific in the negative. I’m not here to call out individuals, but rather community habits and behaviors. (I will be specific in the positive, however.)

So before I get started, I have to explain what I mean by an intersectionality “gap,” and perhaps offer some thoughts about why I think it exists.

Reflections from Metatopia

Metatopia is an excellent example of a convention generally doing things right. I won’t say that it’s the most inclusive and respectful gaming convention around, because I occasionally hear about other cons doing amazing things, but it’s up there. In general, people are trying very hard to be sensitive in terms of social engagement, accessibility, content, and so on.

So for me to say that I saw gaps there might seem startling – isn’t this event a bastion of progressiveness, populated by some of the most aware folks in game design? And yes, it is, but…

Our awareness is never perfect.

One awesome thing about Metatopia specifically and the design community in general is how welcoming these spaces have become for differences of gender, gender expression, and sexuality. Attendees at Metatopia – encouraged both by the event staff and by other attendees – are very good about pronouns, gaming safety tools, and content warnings related to these things. It’s very good about these things because these things are important for the attendees. The event attracts people with a veritable rainbow of identities, expressions, and preferences.

Thus our community’s awareness of these issues grows as we include people for whom they are real struggles and real lived experiences. In essence – we do well because we know about it.

The event is slightly less diverse in terms of racial and cultural identities, though it’s trying. The IGDN Scholarship is among the projects that can help, so I always encourage people to support that. The convention is also trying very hard (especially with the help of people like Elsa Sjunneson-Henry) to promote accessibility and fight ableism. In both these areas, you can often see organizers and attendees doing their best to push for parity and acknowledging where there is work yet to do.

That last part is important. We’ll be circling back to it as we get to remedies in future blogs.

The problem is that there are still aspects of these issues – and others that we aren’t even imagining – that this community fails to account for.

For instance – I participated this year in a lovely panel discussion on how to write more inclusive alternate history. I put together a few controversial topics for the panel to weigh in on, and one of them was the idea that there is no such thing as a positive stereotype. I won’t go into all the points on this, but I will say that I am still firmly in the “yes” column on this statement, but not everyone was. As I made my points, though, I did see one audience person nodding along. I had a chance to hang out with this person later, and they agreed with my assessment that positive stereotypes are also destructive. This person is Asian-American, and had grown up with the pervasive but often subtle oppression of the “model minority” that many Asian-Americans experience. But for people whose experiences with stereotype and identity are almost entirely negative, this oppression can be difficult to understand, but it is an important and defining life experience for many people.

So even when a group or individual is trying hard to be inclusive, aware, and respectful, we still miss things. We miss things because we are still filtering them through our own experiences. Even when we have experiences with oppression, we fail to see that someone else might experience oppression in a different way that is equally valid.

That’s the intersectionality gap.

You see, we all have privilege, and we all have struggles. The ways those meet in our own lives is our intersectional identity, but it includes more than we often think. I am ridiculously privileged in most of my outward and inward identities – white, cis, male, heterosexual, married, employed, and more – yet some of my strongest defining personality traits are experiences that other people take for granted. My older brother died when he was 19, and I lost my closest cousin when he and I were both 21. Grief and suffering have provided me with different perspectives on life, work, and creating – perspectives that people who have had the privilege of family stability have trouble understanding. Those experiences don’t erase my privileges, but they are nevertheless a struggle that I have faced (and continue to face).

Because we are so focused on our personal struggles, it is often through that personal lens that we define privilege (i.e. – we define privilege to be the absence of the struggles we experience). We do need to acknowledge those struggles, but we also need to broaden our view and see other struggles as valid. As ridiculous as it might be for me to insert discussions about my brother’s death into every conversation, it would also be incredibly offensive for someone to tell me it shouldn’t matter.

The same is true for everyone’s struggles – if I am to learn from others then I must ask people about their lived experiences rather than telling them what I think they were or should be. But because we often have a narrow and specific list of what we think of as privileges and struggles (defined, as always, by our own experience and awareness), we can miss many important ones that are very real to many people.

A Couple More Examples Before We Go

Before I close this part of the series, I want to offer some specific examples of experiences that we fail to see as defining identity and privilege, especially within the game design community.

A particular area of privilege that conventions like Metatopia often miss is class privilege. Attending conventions can be difficult or even impossible for many people. Even scholarships that help with travel and registration (which are rare anyway) can’t pay for time off work. And then there are people who are trying to make a living in this industry but can’t attend unless their way AND their time is paid. This is something that Tanya DePass of I Need Diverse Games often has to point out in her conversations about her work. Her voice is a very important one in promoting diversity in gaming, but she can’t go everywhere she might like to go. Many conventions end up being more homogeneous in terms of class even as they promote diversity in other ways, and this can lead to assumptions about content and mechanics that may be based on socio-economic status even though we don’t realize it.

(How can assumptions about game mechanics be based on socio-economic status? I’ll go into more detail about that in Part 3.)

Another status-related privilege that shows up quite a bit in the game design community is academic privilege. This is one that frequently affects our online conversations. The people whose voices we raise up often have more extensive higher education backgrounds. They may be professors, PhDs, or just have strong research experience. We are biased towards accepting their words because they seem to be able to back them up with what we think of as evidence. Even right now, you are reading the words of someone with two degrees, one in education. I’m doing my best to be persuasive and explanatory in the way that I know how, but my ideas should not be taken as inherently better than someone without that background, someone who can’t do a multi-part blog series that throws around neurocognitive terms.

We miss a lot of potential experiences because we dismiss those who can’t or don’t phrase their ideas or arguments in ways that we think of as well-supported or “intelligent.” (ugh)

We miss a lot of potential experiences because our spaces don’t include those who struggle with time, finances, or travel-preventing disability.

And there’s so much more. In Part 3, I will offer some specific examples of things that I think we’re missing in gaming and game design because of these and other biases. This will of course be a partial list, because I’m sure that there are things I haven’t thought of. I am hoping to start a discussion, not end it.

Until next time!

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