Art and the Privilege of Community

Have you ever heard someone talking on a podcast about a playgroup or local gaming community and you think, “Wow, that area sure has a lot of great game designers in it?”

That’s no accident. But the causal relationship doesn’t quite go the way we often think it does when we hear these conversations.

It’s not that there is one great game designer who teaches other people around them to design. It’s not even that several great game designers happened by chance to be in the same place at the same time. You see, great game designers are everywhere, but the ones we notice are the ones who have the backing of a social network.

Historical examples, research studies, and anecdotal observations serve to remind us that the success of art is not determined by its quality but by the strength of the community that surrounds it.  This is why “get you a community” is the typical advice people often give to designers and would-be publishers. But that is not as easy for some as it is for others, which can only mean one thing:

Community is privilege.

What’s more, many of the people (at least in the game design world) who enjoy the privilege of community fail to acknowledge it, and this results in acts of silencing and marginalization. I’d like to take some time in this article to explain that and examine what we can do about it.

Privilege Yields Audience

In general, there are two categories of reasons that we talk about intersectional marginalized identities. The first is hostility, whether in the form of subtle microaggressions or more overt verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse. Unfortunately, due to out-group biases and tribalism, this category does exist for the privilege of community. People have a tendency to be passive aggressive or even openly hostile towards those they see as “outside.” It doesn’t often carry all the way to physical abuse, but it can.

But the more insidious category – the one that I want to talk about today – is access. Access is what we most often mean when we talk about privilege in daily life. It’s the observation that straight white dudes (like me) have an easier time being taken seriously in many environments. I have access attached to my privilege, and people without my particular privileges are disadvantaged in seeking that same access. Furthermore, each level of privilege provides a certain amount of access: whiteness provides access even when lessened by gender identity or sexual orientation, maleness provides access even when lessened by race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and so on.

Community also provides access. It provides an inherent audience as well as a sounding board that can repeat messages wider than one person possibly could. For someone trying to distribute and sell creative works, it’s essential. So again, lots of folks will tell you to develop a community, a fan base, but there are several problems with this:

  1. It turns that not all communities are the same.
  2. Not everyone’s ability to develop their place in a community is the same.
  3. Community leaders and communities themselves are agents of exclusion.

Let’s break these down one by one.

Problem 1 – Communities Are Not Equal

Are you familiar with the Algonquin Round Table? It was a group of highly influential New York writers, creators, and intellectuals. They were influential more because they clustered together and amplified each other’s voices than because they held any disproportionate talent. Some individual members were certainly talented, but many of them were simply decent. Most of them would not have been notable at all without their membership, and you probably wouldn’t recognize those names now.

Game design communities are built around three things these days: conventions, podcasts/streams, and participation in online discussions. The most prominent communities are the ones that are strong in all three, because of the feedback loops they create. So, for instance, you probably know about some game designers from Chicago, but not so much as a group. That’s partially because we’re missing the convention element. There are no good gaming cons (for RPGs at least) in the Chicago area. We are always the visitors, never the hosts. And as a result, we often look outside of our own group for online interaction, which further weakens the effectiveness of our local community.

The key here is that sense of feedback amplification. There certainly are well-known game designers from Chicago, but we have less easy access to certain tools than other communities do, so getting out there can take more work. The same is true within specific online communities – some provide more audience and amplification than others, and membership in those is simply more effective than membership than others. There are some online communities that are seen as “the place” for certain types of games and discussions about games. (Consider The Forge at its peak.) And that’s fine, as long as those communities are available to everyone.

What this means is that we can’t just tell people to “find a community.” Any community is better than none, but there’s privilege attached to certain ones. If you have the fortune of being part of a strong community, your voice is elevated above people who are otherwise similar to you. To be clear: if you are a marginalized person for any reason, that certainly impacts your access and audience, but if you are a marginalized person in a strong community, that is an advantage that you have over other similarly marginalized people.

All this means that the solution cannot simply be “find you a community.” If our goal is equity, then those of us in stronger communities must always be looking for ways to include others. Always be asking – how can I include people who are currently on the outside?

We’ll get to that question more in a bit.

Problem 2 – Widely Varying Resources for Community Development

There are many factors that can make it difficult for someone to develop their place in a community, but if we’re talking in terms of privilege, they boil down to two broad categories: class and disability.

In looking at the three vectors of community growth, conventions are probably the most obvious element that is affected by resources. I’ve certainly talked about class as an unseen privilege at conventions, and it is a huge issue. As always, props to IGDN for the Metatopia scholarships, but that kind of action is far too rare.

However, convention accessibility is also an issue in terms of mobility, vision, and auditory disabilities. And even if we can deal with all those, community building at conventions is still inherently social, which makes it difficult for many people with mental illnesses or social anxiety. There ARE ways to support people in all of these areas – but are we doing them?

Podcasts and streams are a little tricky. To one extent, it would be easy to say that they should be reaching out more, but also I do want to acknowledge their limited resources in terms of time, money, and attention. Obviously we can’t get EVERY game designer on a podcast. I wish we could, but I understand the reality. However, this is an area that definitely suffers from the “same five folx” problem. Back in the early days of podcasting, it was the “same five white dudes” problem, but now we’ve got more channels, and there’s some more diversity. However, even when podcasts work to uplift more people, it tends to be the same people. Aiming for representation and hitting tokenism is not great. And I get it – podcasts need to build their audiences too. I’m not sure what the ideal solution is here, but it’s definitely an issue I want to raise.

So online communities are the great equalizing agent, right? Well…no. Unfortunately not. You see, because of the way social media works, people listen to you if they know you, regardless of the quality of what you have to say. You can’t just wade onto most platforms with insightful commentary and have anyone see it. It takes time and attention to build connections. And time and attention are both what? RESOURCES! If you have a job that does not let you sit at a computer or check your phone, you are going to be more limited in your ability to engage with something like Twitter. Any medium where conversations have to be timely is easier for some people than others. And that’s even before considering accessibility questions based on class, visual impairment, or learning disability. Yes, even with the supposedly easy-to-access world of social media, some people do struggle more than others.

With all of these factors, the solution is once again awareness and uplift. Bringing more people to conventions is certainly harder than bringing more people into online communities, but we should be doing both. (And we should be doing something to broaden our podcast representation, but I’m not sure what yet. I’ll let the podcasters hash that one out.)

Problem 3 – Community Gatekeeping

Finally, we come to probably the most contentious problem. I won’t go into detail, but this is an issue that has come to the forefront a couple of times recently in the game design community. And it has not been pretty.

When someone with authority – or even perceived authority – controls the access to a prominent community, that’s gatekeeping. Now, some gatekeeping is useful and necessary. We need to keep toxic people out of our communities, because failing to do so drives more vulnerable people away. Marginalized folx need to have the ability to form safe communities specifically for themselves, because that’s important for their own comfort and community growth. All of that is fine, and that’s not the problem.

The problem is the unintended consequences of in-group bias.

In the examples that I’ve seen recently, the primary disagreement has been between different sets of marginalized people. The initial arguments come up (once again) because of the primacy of different personal experiences, but the defenders of each side showed something different – they divided themselves quite clearly on social community lines. Most people had a reason for defending the person other than “they’re my friend,” but nevertheless almost no one took a side opposing their friends.

This is not an accident. It is how brains work. We make emotional decisions and then build rational arguments to support decisions we’ve already made.

The effect this has on community, however, is that people outside of a given community receive the message loud and clear that you must be part of that group for its members to defend you. They will not defend you no matter how marginalized you are or how reasonable your complaint is – they will find a way to make sure that you are wrong and their members are right. This is particularly bad when the people outside the community are already marginalized and struggling to be heard in multiple aspects of their lives.

This is very difficult to avoid, because in-group bias is deeply ingrained in the human condition. Ideally, the people with authority in a community should be trained to be aware of these issues and how to resolve them. Policies should be regularly checked with the question, “Who are we keeping out?” And, most importantly, members need to call out their leaders for their mistakes every time. This doesn’t have to be hostile or condemning, but it should be clear and public.

The Goal

Ultimately, it is up to each community to decide how and why to bring in new people. But be intentional about it. Be aware of the impact you have on others outside of your community. Maybe even lift up other communities that you are not a member of so that there isn’t just one choice for people trying to find their place.

And most of all – be better to each other. Be more aware and accepting of the people outside. It’s a hard place to be. Let’s try to make it just a little easier.

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