Much of the discourse around modern understandings of gender identity, gender expression, biological assignment, sexual attraction, romantic attraction, et al. revolves around the idea of a spectrum. People may try to represent such spectra as scales, grids, Venn diagrams, or even layer cakes. I hear generally positive things about the Gender Unicorn, but I am also a bit wary because of how often these kinds of things are thrown up on the internet with no research or vetting. (Here’s a hilarious article deconstructing a few such diagrams.)
Yet there is value even in flawed representations because of the conversations they generate. They may need to be improved, but their very existence may inspire someone to improve them. And in the meantime we expand our visual and verbal vocabulary for discussing these important concepts of identity, which is always a positive. I believe that increased vocabulary brings increased clarity of communication and thought.
But there is clarity we’re missing, particularly in the category of gender experience and expression.
It’s another Metatopia-inspired post!
There’s something about the rich offerings at this convention – both in terms of design and discussion – that inspire me to examine gaps of experience and conversation in the overall gaming community. Sometimes, as with last year’s extensive 4–part rant, those gaps are noticeable even at Metatopia itself. This year, I noticed once again that there was something missing in the conversation, and it’s missing everywhere.*
(*Almost everywhere. Brie Sheldon’s fantastic ‘zine Behind the Masc is one of the few exceptions I’ve seen, and very much an inspiration for this post.)
I am skeptical about loyalty. I’m not normally one to inspire it, and when I have given it I have not often received it in turn. It’s important for me to say that because I realize it colors the argument I am about to make:
Loyalty is not an inherently positive character trait.
My last post was a rant, so now we get to the follow-up on how to do better.
Specifically, I want to discuss how we can do better as designers. Private games are private games, and we don’t really need to discuss what you do on your own time with your own friends.
But if you’re designing and publishing or talking about your games on a public platform, then that is my concern. It’s everyone’s concern, because it’s public. What you contribute to gaming is part of the ongoing conversation of who we are as a community.
I’ve been debating with myself how I want to handle this, because what I have to say affects people who are friends of some of my friends. On the one hand, that seems like a place to walk carefully, but on the other hand that’s exactly the problem that perpetuates privilege: not speaking out just because you “know” the people. It perpetuates privilege because it leaves the task of criticizing people to those who are outside the group, people who are inherently less likely to be listened to.
So screw it – I’m going to be blunt.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The gaming community has gotten a little tense lately. I’m not going to talk about that specifically, but I will say that this last section suddenly became extremely relevant in my mind as I watched an entire local gaming community collapse in on itself.
I think the points I’ve tossed around in the previous parts can offer some things to think about, but I want to throw out just a few ideas for positive action in shifting away from focusing on our own personal experiences and growing our empathy as a community.
So…with all that said, what is it we’re missing? What design opportunities is the gaming community currently lacking because of its more subtle and pervasive biases?
In this part, I would like to offer for consideration some themes, concepts, and open-ended questions that I hope may spark discussion and even inspiration in the game design community.
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
This is something I’ve been chewing on for a while, so buckle in – I have a lot of thoughts.
I had planned to start writing about this at some point in the coming weeks or months, but I decided to accelerate that timeline because of a number of things that I witnessed recently – negative responses to an awesome new gaming venture by people I respect greatly, a nice overview of a common gaming question that Phil and Senda did on Panda’s Talking Games, and a recent episode of Backstory, the wonderful podcast by Alex Roberts.
In that episode, both Alex and her interviewee, Jeeyon Shim, were largely enthusiastic about the topics they were there to discuss, but they fell into a common habit among gamers – they defined something they liked as the opposite or absence of something they didn’t like. This is a practice we notice easily in jerks who speak out against something like New Agenda Publishing, but we often don’t see that it can still be a problem in media and discussions that are otherwise positive and progressive. (Sometimes we even cheer along when we agree.)
Yet it is one example of an overall issue that I have observed in gaming specifically and geek culture in general – the Primacy of Personal Experience. Fandom cultures are particularly susceptible to it because they are built on personal preference and enjoyment rather than an external structure or overarching philosophy. It causes problems in every aspect of our interactions: our social engagement, our habits of gameplay (and game selection), our approaches to design, and more. However, it’s not something we can erase or escape. Instead we must become aware of it and find ways to work within it.
Okay, that does it. I’m changing my attitude.
For the past couple of years, I have watched a variety of steampunk settings appear, some for existing systems and a few with their own systems. Each time a new one showed up, I have breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that they were doing the same old ahistorical, pro-colonial claptrap with magic (or sometimes horror) thrown into it, because it meant that Steamscapes remained unique.
But no more.
I am here not only to encourage but to demand more postcolonial steampunk RPGs as soon as possible.