A couple of years ago it was relaunched as Torg Eternity, with new rules and a slightly revised background. The publisher also created a Community Content program, the Infiniverse Exchange, where fans of the game can publish material for it and charge money for them.
Corellon Larethian is the chief deity of the elves in the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons and Dragons. The Forgotten Realms setting was released when I was a teenager, and I have loved it ever since. In a lot of ways, it is the classic RPG fantasy setting, and I like those settings, particularly the elves. I’ve often thought about writing something along those lines, but the question of the Forgotten Realms always came up. Why do it again when it already exists?
I am currently designing a new roleplaying game, with the working title of Universitas Magarum. It is a GM-less, co-operative roleplaying game, and, as one playtest group said, it is sufficiently different from those currently on the market to avoid the question of why you would play this game rather than something else. If you want to do what this game offers, this is your only option.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
In this post, I want to write about practical things that publishers can do to increase diversity among the authors of tabletop role-playing games. I suspect that some, even most, of these points will apply to related fields, but I am writing based on my experience of 14 years as the Line Editor for Ars Magica; these are all things that I have tried, and that are practical. There is a further limitation: these are all ways to reduce the barriers to participation as an author of role-playing games. I am not going to write about positive steps for bringing people in for the simple reason that I didn’t find anything that worked well. I will return to this point at the end.
So, what should publishers do to reduce the barriers to entry for people outside the traditional range of role-playing authors?
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of having diverse characters in fiction, so that everyone has someone to identify with. It is possible, nay, easy, to make this discussion sound really, really stupid.
“I can identify with an immortal, magic-wielding elf in an entirely fictional world, but only if it shares my skin colour and genital configuration!”
Of course, the discussion is not stupid, and the fact that it can made to sound stupid really easily suggests that something important is being missed. In particular, it is not important that characters in fiction are “like you”, in general. What matters, I suggest, is that the characters share features that are central to your sense of your own identity. People have trouble identifying with a character who is not something that they take to be fundamental to their sense of self.
I’ll use myself as an example. When reading the Lord of the Rings, I do not identify with either Boromir or Aragorn, despite the fact that they are the only human beings in the Fellowship. This is because “human” is not a fundamental part of my sense of self; apart from anything else, I am never required to define myself against others who are not human. This seems to be quite general, in that there has been no call for a purge of non-human characters from genre fiction. There is, essentially, no-one who finds a lack of humanity to be an obstacle to identification.
On the other hand, when reading Harry Potter, I do not identify with Harry; I identify with Hermione. Hermione is, essentially, me. There is a scene in the first film, in the potions class, where she is exactly me. Yes, I am male, and not remotely as pretty as Emma Watson (although I can probably stand up to book-Hermione), but neither of those features is particularly important to my sense of identity. I am perfectly happy with being a man (I’m definitely cis), but I have no problem imagining being female. This is not true of all men, however, and it would appear that a lot of women cannot easily imagine themselves being male.
That is not to say that I can identify with anyone. I can’t identify with characters who solve problems through physical force rather than mental power. I identify with Gandalf and Hermione, I play elves but can’t imagine playing dwarves or half-orcs, and I was the Line Editor for Ars Magica, a game that sidelines physical force, for 14 years. The primacy of the mental is a central part of my self-conception, so give me a choice between a straight, white, male barbarian and a queer, black, female sorceress, and I’ll identify with the sorceress. She’s the character who is like me in the only sense that really matters to me.
If we rephrase the initial idea with this in mind, it does not sound stupid at all.
“I can identify with any character, as long as they share the features I regard as essential to my identity!”
This, incidentally, is why nobody gets annoyed about the absence of redheads in all the Star Wars films, as far as I can recall. It is not something that people tend to regard as central to their identity (and if they do, it isn’t something they mention). It’s also why “black Hermione” is a bigger issue than “blue-eyed Harry”; race is often regarded as central to someone’s identity, eye colour almost never.
This might lead us to ask why race, gender, and sexuality are so important to so many people, but only if we have been completely failing to pay any attention to modern Western (particularly US) society. However, they are not the only important features, as I noted in my case, and they are not always important. For example, take a look at Japanese anime. Look at Studio Ghibli films, and note the lack of any consistent differentiation between characters who are supposed to be Japanese, and characters who are supposed to be Western. The “Rose of Versailles”, a classic anime from 40 or so years ago that is currently being rebroadcast, has no Japanese characters at all, because it is set in 18th century France (and the main character is a woman who presents as male). “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, another thirty-year-old anime, has European characters for the European audience, because it was a co-production, but no Japanese characters for the Japanese audience. As far as anime goes, it looks as though racial difference is no barrier at all to identification for most Japanese people.
When it comes to other important features, I suspect that my preference for intellectual characters is rather idiosyncratic, but there is another big category that is often central to people’s self-conception.
For a lot of people, their religion is central to their view of themselves and the world, and they cannot imagine themselves as having another religion, or even imagine a world where their religion, or an analogue, is not true. Again, I speak from personal experience here; back in my teens I had a problem with anything I couldn’t read as Christian or a Christian analogue. I’ve also seen it from the other side; there are people who have a deep problem with the fact that paganism is, in an important sense, fundamentally wrong in Ars Magica (but the Mythic Europe analogue of Christianity, called “Christianity”, is right). These people cannot get into something that violates their worldview.
This is not, I think, any kind of bigotry or narrow-mindedness, any more than women’s problems in sympathising with male characters, or my problems in sympathising with physical characters. It’s not even necessarily impossible for those people to play games without an analogue for their religion; it is just more effort. In fact, I still face a similar situation, in that I find it very difficult to get into worlds where, by design, the actions of my character cannot significantly improve the world. (Horror games, or anything with Cthulhu in it, basically.) I generally play them differently, or make changes. This is more fundamental than a simple preference. I can’t easily see myself in such a world. The idea that I can do something to make the world a better place is, it would seem, a fundamental part of my self-conception. (There is evidence that unjustified optimism makes people more successful, which is good, because I need all the help I can get.)
It seems obvious that we do not want to write games that some people cannot imagine playing, but there is also an obvious problem here. An individual story cannot have a main character that everyone can identify with. Even if we stick to the “standard” categories (male/female, asian/black/hispanic/native american/white, straight/gay/bi, cis/trans), there are 60 possible combinations. You really can’t have more than half-a-dozen central characters in one story, and even in RPGs, where you can have larger casts of NPCs, 60 is going to be more than you have in almost any book, and many entire game lines. And that only gives you one of each, of whom a fair number need to be antagonists, which means that a lot of people are only going to be offered villains to identify with. Even the ones who get a hero only get a single token character. If we add “intellectual/physical/social” as another axis, we need 180 characters, which may be beyond the realistic limits of any roleplaying game, especially as they all need to be central.
The problem is even worse for religions and world views, because it goes beyond issues of practicality. It is simply not possible to write a game of nihilistic horror that provides characters I can identify with. It is not possible to write a world in which Christianity has no true analogue and make it accessible to Christians for whom Christianity is central. On the other hand, if Christianity has a true analogue, then many forms of paganism do not, and some people strongly identify with those. Further, a game that conservative Muslims will find accessible and inclusive must not include positive portrayals of queer characters.
The idea that you can write an “inclusive” game, one that does not exclude anyone, is an illusion. It is not logically possible, and in purely practical terms it is difficult to even get close. When you design your world, or write your novel, you have to choose an audience. A conservative Muslim audience will want something very different from Seattle liberals. You could also choose yourself as the audience, and from a purely creative point of view, that choice has a lot going for it. People outside your audience might not like the game. They might find that the game excludes them. They might even complain about it. Conservative US Christians have a long tradition of complaining about games that did not adopt a Christian worldview. They claimed that they led to devil worship, and tried to get them banned.
This is something that creators should recognise, and actively oppose. If a particular game excludes you, find one that doesn’t. Write your own, if necessary. (This is entirely practical for RPGs, unlike Hollywood movies.) The hobby as a whole should have games for everyone, so it is a problem if no games include women, people of colour, or queer characters. However, no individual game needs to do so. Someone may take the commercial decision to try to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend as few people as possible, but that approach has rarely been consistent with the creation of art worth the effort. (Also, I would note that the so-called SJWs are not doing that; they are creating games in full knowledge that they offend and alienate substantial groups of people, and doing so because they have an artistic and ethical vision that demands it. That approach has a track record of producing great art.)
Once again, this comes down to the need for more diversity among the creators of RPGs, novels, and films. That will naturally lead to diverse games, books, and movies, even though individual works might draw from a limited palette. I really should write something about how I think we can go about increasing that diversity.
Recently, I have come to think that I have been confusing two desirable situations when thinking about tolerance, diversity, and liberty. Here, I will refer to them as “diversity” and “liberalism”, not because I think that is how the words are generally used (I think a lot of people confuse them), but because I think these words fit the respective situations quite well. Both concepts apply primarily to societies, and to individuals insofar as they support that kind of society.
A diverse society is one that approves of a wide variety of people and lifestyles. The opposite of a diverse society is a uniform society, which only approves of a narrow range of people and lifestyles.
A liberal society is one that tolerates people and lifestyles of which it disapproves. The opposite of a liberal society is a repressive society, which attempts to suppress people and lifestyles of which it disapproves.
As should be clear from my choice of labels for the positions, I think that a diverse, liberal society is the best, and that a uniform, repressive society is the worst. However, once written like this, it is also clear that these two labels are, in theory, completely independent. Diversity and uniformity are concerned with the range of things of which a society approves, while liberalism and repression are concerned with its attitude to the things of which it does not approve. Thus, a diverse, repressive society and a uniform, liberal society are both entirely possible. I think merging the two ideas makes it hard to see this; at least, it made it hard for me.
Let us be a bit judgemental. A uniform society is evil, just because it only approves of a limited range of options. Thinking about sexism makes this particularly clear. Being a full-time mother is not a bad choice for a woman. In fact, I would say that it is a very good choice. There is a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved, and such a woman is likely to make a large, positive contribution to the well-being of a number of people, not just her own children. Traditional gender roles are not an evil because they force women to do something bad, because they do not; they are an evil because they say that one good thing is the only thing that women should do. On the other hand, a diverse society is good. It allows people to choose from a wide range of good lives. Women can stay at home and raise their children, or they can become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Naturally, only the extremes are clearly good or evil. A society that gives women a dozen choices is clearly better than one that gives them only one, but not as good as one that gives them a hundred. We might be forced to say that societies in the middle are neutral.
Liberal and repressive societies should be described with different terms, so that we do not reinforce the confusion. A liberal society is chaotic. People are permitted to do things of which society does not approve, so plans for society keep getting disrupted by people doing things that society would prefer them not to. I suspect that it is not possible to produce a beautiful society in a liberal society, because someone will build an ugly house in the middle of your historic area, or insist on wearing hot pink to your goth gathering. On the other hand, a repressive society is lawful, because people only do what they are supposed to do. There may be a wide range of things to choose from within that, if the society is also diverse, but society only permits the options of which it approves. This means that you can have a diverse, yet beautiful, society. There can be many kinds of flowers in the garden, but you exclude the weeds. In a liberal society, almost anything is allowed to grow, so your ability to create any sort of pattern is very limited.
In a liberal society, people are willing to let people do things that they disapprove of, and that they think are bad. As long as they do not cause too much harm to other people, they are left alone, although other people may try to avoid having too much to do with them. Hate speech is a good example in Japan. We recently completed an interview survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki, and the general attitude of the Koreans to hate speech was that they didn’t like it, and would rather it didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t be stopped, because people have various opinions. They just wanted to avoid getting caught up in it. That is a very good example of tolerance in its pure form: they disapprove of something, but do not want to take active steps to stop it, as long as they can stay away from it.
In a repressive society, people are not willing to let people do things that they disapprove of. I could argue that this is an important source of the culture wars in the USA. Neither side is willing to let people do things of which they disapprove (practise homosexuality, or preach orthodox Christianity, depending on which side you mean). It is true that one side is typically called “liberal”, and uses arguments about toleration, but in the terms I’m using here, they are diverse, not liberal. The other side is typically neither diverse nor liberal, however, so if I have to pick one side or the other, it’s easy. However, while the choice between “uniform and repressive” and “diverse and repressive” is indeed easy, neither is my preferred option.
Indeed, if asked to rank “diverse and repressive” and “uniform and liberal”, I would have to say that “uniform and liberal” is better. No matter where your preferences are in relation to wider society, you can at least live according to them in a liberal society, whereas in a diverse and repressive society, you are in trouble if you fall outside the charmed circle of societal approval. A diverse and liberal society is better than both, of course.
The distinction between approval and toleration may not be entirely clear, so let me use homosexual relationships as a concrete example. A society tolerates homosexual relationships if they are legal, and if they are not generally treated as grounds for refusing employment, housing, or services. They are welcomed and approved of if homosexual relationships are portrayed positively in the media, and the law recognises gay marriage. It should be obvious from this why I think a diverse and liberal society is better than a uniform and liberal society; it is clearly much better to be gay in a society that approves of your orientation than in one that simply tolerates it.
This is not to say that diversity and liberalism are easy. Liberalism requires us to tolerate things that do small amounts of damage to other people, on the grounds that the damage is less serious than that inflicted by suppressing the behaviour. However, drawing the line is hard. It is, to me, obvious that we should tolerate comedians who insult, mock, and belittle [insert group name here]. We can disapprove and criticise (remember, that’s what “tolerate” means, as opposed to “welcome”), but we mustn’t try to silence them. On the other hand, if that comedian stands outside a school for children from the target group with a massive sound system every day, that’s much harder. To take a different case, people should certainly be allowed to make the claim that abortion is murder, and strongly criticise anyone who is involved in abortions, but should they be allowed to constantly picket abortion clinics? There has to be a limit, and liberals have always recognised this, but deciding on where the limit has to be is a very hard problem. It is hard to specify the standard by which we should decide, and hard to apply that standard to actual cases. Even worse, the hard cases are common in real life.
Diversity has a very similar problem: drawing the line around the things society approves of. If approving of more things is good, one can always ask why we should stop here, wherever here is. Liberals in the US are typically dismissive of the argument that allowing gay marriage will lead to the acceptance of polygamy and bestiality, but that argument is aimed at this problem. Diversity is good, so we should approve of homosexuality. But then, why shouldn’t we approve of bestiality as well? Diversity is good, right? Indeed, there is a substantial group of people (the poly community) who do think that the next step after allowing gay marriage should be to allow polygamy, because they want legal recognition of their relationships, as well. Should society approve of them? Just as with the line-drawing problem for tolerance, the far extreme is approving of people who rape and murder for fun, so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.
In a diverse and liberal society, this problem is mainly intellectual. People who get put outside the charmed circle can still pursue their lives as they wish to a great extent and campaign for change if they wish, and society asks them to tolerate the unaccepting attitudes of most people, just as most people tolerate their behaviour. Things are not symmetrical, but they are not obviously inconsistent.
However, in a diverse and repressive society, things are harder. There are people who do not approve of the things that society approves of, and society is demanding that they be tolerant. For example, conservative Christians do not approve of homosexual relationships, and society demands that they be tolerant: that they not treat homosexuality as grounds for discrimination in employment, accommodation, or services. However, society itself is not tolerant. It does attempt to repress the things of which it does not approve, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. Conservative Christians agree with society on some of these points; most of them think that sexism and racism are wrong and should be suppressed. On the other hand they, quite reasonably, do not see why they should put up with things that they think are wrong when society as a whole refuses to put up with things that it thinks are wrong. The result is likely to be a culture war.
In the context of roleplaying games, this distinction allows me to articulate exactly why I have a problem with the SJWs. They are pushing, energetically, for a diverse and repressive society. They put a lot of energy into increasing the diversity of RPGs, by actively seeking out authors who are not WhiCH American men, and by increasing the range of characters portrayed (positively) in games. On the other hand, they also put a lot of energy into trying to suppress things that they don’t like, such as chainmail bikinis.
I am entirely, 100%, behind the push for increased diversity. I am also entirely, 100%, opposed to the push to suppress certain games and elements in games. I think it is at least as important to stand up against the repressive side of the campaign as to stand up in support of the diverse side. However, the polarising rhetoric doesn’t leave space for four sides in the battle. This is odd, because roleplayers should have the conceptual tools ready to hand; indeed, I have already introduced them.
Diversity is good, uniformity evil. Repression is lawful, liberty chaotic. The SJWs are Lawful Good. They are paladins, the classic social justice warriors. I am Chaotic Good. I am happy to work with paladins, although I will work to channel their energy into promoting good, rather than law. Sometimes, we will get into arguments. And I think that, sometimes, it is very important to distract the paladin.
At the time of writing, Andy Kitkowski at Kotodama Heavy Industries is running a Kickstarter for the English translation of Shinobgami, a Japanese role-playing game about ninja battles. (You still have time to back it!) In the description, he emphasises that he has recruited a very diverse array of authors, including many from outside the USA, to work on expanding the game. Given that I have previously complained about the interpretation of “diversity” as “multi-colored Americans”, you would think that I’d be over-joyed about this. However, it still made me a bit uncomfortable, and that led me to think about why.
When it comes to writing in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, I am in a privileged position. I have written for just about all of the major companies, been Line Editor for an important RPG (Ars Magica) for 14 years, and won both an ENnie and Origins Award. Nevertheless, I think my concern is based on my experience.
The reason given for increasing the diversity of writers in TRPGs (table-top, as opposed to computers) is that it is good to increase the range of voices in the industry. Nobody is foolish enough to suggest that it will directly improve the overall social position of minorities; indeed, given that TRPG writing is socially and economically marginal, you could argue that minorities should be actively discouraged from getting involved, because it would only reinforce their marginality. However, being hired by a company run by white dudes does not, in fact, let you speak with your own voice in the industry.
This is true even if you are (like me) a white dude. Ten years ago, Green Ronin hired me to work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, so I was very happy to get the job. However, as I worked on it, and read Blue Rose, which Green Ronin released around the same time, I realised that I would much rather have been working on the latter game. The darkness and cynical violence of WFRP was not really the sort of thing I wanted to write, and the much more optimistic and hopeful tone of Blue Rose suited me much better. Nevertheless, I had signed on to write WFRP, so that’s what I did, and it was a very good experience, as well as the realisation of a teenage dream.
Further, a little earlier I became Ars Magica Line Editor, something else I had dreamed of as a teenager. (I have a good record of my teenage dreams coming true; dream medium size!) You might think that, as Line Editor, I would be able to do exactly what I wanted with the game. That was certainly true to a much greater extent than with WFRP. Ars Magica is now a lot closer to the sort of game I really want to write than it was when I started, and it started pretty close. Even so, there is still a gap, and that is one reason why I am retiring as Ars Magica Line Editor, and working on Kannagara. The existence of the game’s history, and the requirements (minimal though they were) imposed by Atlas Games, meant that I couldn’t fully express what I wanted to say.
If this is true for me, someone who is almost as privileged as it is possible to be within the business (I’m only missing “American” to have the full set), then how much more true is it going to be of members of a group that has not had a significant presence in the past? They are presumably going to feel even less able than I was to challenge instructions from editors and publishers and take things in the direction they want.
In other words, if we really want to hear the voices of minorities in the TRPG industry, they need to be running their own companies.
Fortunately, this is a realistic approach. There does seem to be a tendency to assimilate the TRPG and CRPG worlds, but they are completely different. A member of a minority cannot simply found their own development house to produce the next Witcher. It is not practical. In TRPGs, however, anyone can found a publishing house, and put their work on DriveThru. That is enough to become what passes for a success in this business, if your work is good enough.
Thus, we should really be encouraging members of underrepresented groups to start their own companies, and helping them to do so. Hiring them to write our games doesn’t really solve the problem, and that’s what made me uncomfortable about Shinobigami.
However, that doesn’t mean my discomfort was justified. Writing TRPGs is not easy, and publishing them is even harder. Doing it successfully without any experience, or contacts, in the industry might actually be as hard as founding your own triple-A CRPG studio. As an initial stage, we should be helping people from outside the mainstream to get that experience, by hiring them to write our games. The experience of writing things that are not really what they want to say will no doubt help them to work out what they do want to say, just like it helped me. Thus, the conclusion of thinking things through is that Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing exactly the right thing. Translating foreign works is itself a very important way to increase the diversity of voices, and giving a wider range of people that first step up onto the ladder will work the same way in the long term.
Nevertheless, it is only a first step. If we start to think that this solves the problem, then I think we are making a serious mistake. What else should we do?
The first thing is that the industry should be supportive of new publishers. Fortunately, it is. I also see very little evidence of prejudice in the people who are supported, beyond the in-group tendency to support people who have contacts and a track record in the business. That, of course, is why it is important to increase the diversity of the people we are hiring. Furthermore, even if there are people in the industry with prejudices (which, statistically, is very likely), they are not in a position to deny access. A new publisher needs someone to help them, but does not need everyone to help them. Unless a campaign could be mounted to exclude them on the basis of their race, gender, or national origin, the existence of a handful of prejudiced people is unlikely to be an important, practical problem. And I cannot see such a campaign gaining any traction.
I do still have a reason for concern, though. People from historically excluded groups might be worried that they will face a campaign to exclude them because of what they want to say. Consider Tenra Bansho Zero, another Japanese game translated by Kotodama Heavy Industries. The portrayal of Shinto in TBZ is, of course, exaggerated and fictionalised, like everything else in the game. It is, however, an exaggerated and fictionalised version of a widespread misunderstanding of Shinto that its practitioners find deeply irritating, at best, and actively offensive, at worst. (I’m at the “deeply irritated” end of the scale.) This is an accurate translation of the portrayal in Japanese (actually, I’ve just checked the English translation to make sure it is the same, because I’ve only read the Japanese), and thus an accurate portrayal of the voice of the author, but there is a tendency in role-playing to criticise inaccurate and negative portrayals of religions that have not been historically dominant in Anglo-American culture, in quite vociferous terms.
Now imagine a Japanese author who wants to publish a TRPG set in African-American culture. (This is not, in fact, wildly implausible, as I understand it.) Those of us who read both English and Japanese, and are familiar with both Japanese and US culture, know that there is a pleasing symmetry between US portrayals of Japan and Japanese portrayals of the US. The chances that a Japanese TRPG portraying African-American culture would strike African-Americans as a nuanced and accurate depiction are slim to none.
We can consider an even more extreme case. Suppose that a Somalian author writes a game that reinforces traditional gender roles, portrays homosexuality as wrong, and gives mechanical penalties to female characters who have not been subjected to FGM.
In these cases, I think that a campaign could, and probably would, be mounted to exclude these voices on the grounds that “we” (members of the dominant culture) do not like or agree with what they are saying. This campaign would include calls for boycotts, and for the permanent ostracism of the authors, as well as personal attacks on the authors.
Now, people might object that, of course, it’s only when WhiCH (white, cis, heterosexual) men say that sort of thing that we need to get angry, but I don’t think they will. Even so, that is beside the point. Anyone who knows enough about the TRPG industry to have a realistic chance of being a successful publisher also knows about this tendency. They know that its targets are a little hard to predict, but that there are particular groups whom it is very risky to portray in a way that they do not like, and that writing about anything other than what this public regards as “your” culture is dangerous. These people, whom we want to bring new and different voices to our industry, do not have the backing and confidence to take on such a backlash, by definition. If someone has enough confidence to take on a large scale internet backlash, they have enough confidence to break into TRPGs without any help from anyone, with trial and error and sheer dogged persistence. The people whom we ought to be supporting will be intimidated by the possibility of such a reaction to their work.
Right now, I think this is the biggest obstacle to increasing the diversity of voices in TRPGs. A diversity of voices will, naturally, want to say a diversity of things and take diverse positions, but there is a strong movement to only accept new voices if they say what “we” think they should be saying. There are other obstacles, but a wide range of people are working hard to reduce them. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people are actively working to make this obstacle bigger.
There is room for a debate here. Maybe diversity is less important than ensuring ideological correctness. As you might guess from the way I chose to phrase that, I don’t think so. I think that we should be working to make the hobby more tolerant of a diversity of opinions, including opinions that we, personally, find unpleasant and offensive, because people from other cultures are extremely unlikely to share all of our opinions on anything. I do not think that it is obvious how we should respond when we strongly disagree, but I do think it is obvious that we should not respond by threatening boycotts and attempting to exclude people from the market.
My conclusion, then, is that I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about what Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing. It is an essential step in opening up the TRPG hobby and industry to genuinely diverse voices, and when that step has been taken, I think that we already see a lot of the support necessary to make that diversity a reality. However, if we want the hobby to be genuinely inclusive, we need to find a better way to deal with people with whom we strongly disagree.
A month or so ago, I wrote an article saying that I disagreed with OneBookShelf’s decision to start refusing to sell “offensive content”. In the discussion of that on my Facebook page, a number of people expressed incredulity at the idea that anyone might have a right to be sold. That comment thread was not a good place to discuss the issue, and I promised to come back to it. It’s taken some time, but this article will address that question, and related issues, in more detail. Three thousand words of more detail, it turns out.
First, I should sketch out my basic position. I start from the foundations of classical liberalism: freedom and equality. That is, everyone should have as much freedom as possible, and everyone’s freedom is equally important. I believe that the state’s role is to ensure that everyone has as wide a range of opportunities for action as possible. This means that people need to be healthy, educated, financially secure, and living in a peaceful, orderly state with a functioning infrastructure, so the state ends up being quite substantial. In addition, I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. I think that ensuring the freedom of others must be an important part of anyone’s personal ethics, and that someone acting in a way that excessively limits the freedom of others is behaving unethically.
On the other hand, material property is not that significant to me. People only have a right to private property because, on the whole, that maximises their freedom and ability to plan their lives, so there is no problem with taxation to ensure that other people also have that freedom. Conversely, there is no reason to seek material equality, although particularly gross inequality may well limit the freedom of many people, particularly the poor. Thus, I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist, although in practice I think I tend to end up closer to the socialists on economic policy, and closer to the libertarians on social policy.
I don’t claim that this position is obviously right and indisputable, and there are many difficult problems to be solved if it is to be put into practice. However, in this article I’m not going to defend it, and I will do my best not to respond to comments querying it. As I mentioned, this is already 3,000 words long, and it would be far longer if I tried to deal with those issues. What I do plan to do is engage, in detail, with one of the difficult problems: should DriveThruRPG sell products like Tournament of Rapists?
The Right to be Sold
Let me start from the point that raised the most incredulity: the claim that there is something like a right to be sold for publishers of RPG material. No-one commenting on my article thought that the authors of Tournament of Rapists should be legally prevented from writing and publishing it. Some people do, but my commenters were mostly authors and publishers, so they can see the clear threat to freedom of speech involved in going that way. What they could not see was why those considerations obliged DriveThruRPG to sell it.
The discussion did allow me to clarify my own position in my own mind. It is not purely about freedom of expression; it is also about freedom of employment.
First, freedom of expression. Recall that I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. If a certain private entity has an effective monopoly, or even a near-monopoly, on important means of expression, then that private entity acquires obligations to protect freedom of expression, even if it strongly disagrees with some of the content. The same applies to an oligopoly, except in that case the obligation is that they collectively protect freedom of expression. For example, if there are only five major newspapers, but they all have similar circulations, and all can easily be purchased, then as long as any opinion can find a publisher in at least one newspaper, the individual newspapers are free to exclude people with whom they disagree. If, however, all of the publishers disagree with, say, Islam, they do have an obligation to publish Muslim pieces, despite their disagreement. If they do not, Muslims are effectively deprived of freedom of expression.
This is, essentially, the idea that society can silence minorities by depriving them of a platform, and the claim that media outlets have a moral obligation to provide such a platform. I would also say that the state is permitted to force the media outlets to provide a platform.
On this basis, DTRPG probably does not need to sell Tournament of Rapists if Paizo or e23 is happy to do so. Paizo and e23 are not as big as DTRPG, by a large margin, but they are probably still big enough to count as providing a reasonable platform for expression. “Selling from your own website”, however, probably does not. (On the other hand, in table-top roleplaying, publishers have no obligation to publish anything they dislike, because “start your own publisher” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.)
This raises an important point about these rights. The obligations of private entities depend on the scale of their influence. An independent bookshop has no individual obligation to support freedom of speech, because it is clearly possible to sell a book elsewhere. If that independent bookshop develops into a national chain that is the only way to acquire books in most cities, then it acquires obligations to sell anything (through special order, if necessary; they are not obliged to stock everything). Obviously, then, there is an empirical question about just how big and influential an entity is, and this will not always be easy to answer. However, the fact that some moral questions are difficult is not a reason to abandon morality.
Next, freedom of employment. The freedom to choose your own career is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution (Article 22), and it is a fundamental part of any meaningful freedom. It is, however, a difficult freedom to pin down. We cannot sensibly say that I have the right to be a world-famous film star. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to say that I have the right to try to be a film star, to audition for roles at least. It also seems reasonable to criticise the film industry if it simply never hires, say, black people or women to play leading roles. Black people and women also have the right to aim at being film stars. Saying what this means in detail is very hard, so I’m not going to even try to address the general question here. Instead, I want to consider what it means for table-top roleplaying.
First, it is obvious that no-one has anything approaching a right to make a living wage in table-top roleplaying. In our industry, that dizzy height is reserved for the people who achieve major break-out success. Equally, there is no right to a proper job, with medical insurance and a pension. However, no-one should be excluded from being a freelancer, and for historically excluded groups that means that it is a good thing if publishers actively encourage them. One feature of our industry is that most publishers are micro-companies run in their owners’ spare time, and such publishers can compete with the largest companies we have. This is, I think, a very good thing. If a group of conservative Muslims decide that nothing available in roleplaying reflects their experience or the games they want to play, they can start a publishing company and publish the game.
However, they must be able to offer it for sale to the public. We are talking about the right to employment, not the right to a hobby, so new publishers must be able to offer their product to the market. That is the equivalent, in our industry, of applying for a job. Further, you must be able to offer it to most of the market, because otherwise there is no chance at all of making any money. The market is tiny to start with; restricting access to a small fraction of it is effectively a bar.
For electronic products, I believe this means that you must be able to sell on DTRPG. I don’t think Paizo or e23 is large enough (and the numbers I have heard from people who sell on two or more of those sites backs this up). If someone is to have a genuine chance to apply for the job of RPG publisher, they must be able to sell on DTRPG. This only applies to DTRPG, because of its size and dominance. Paizo can refuse anyone it likes, because it is small and largely irrelevant if you aren’t selling Pathfinder products, and not critical even if you are.
An analogous situation to DTRPG refusing to offer something for sale because of its content would be 1950s Hollywood refusing to hire people because they were, say, Communists. It would, effectively, deprive people of the freedom to even attempt a career in a particular field.
To summarise, then, freedom of expression suggests that DTRPG probably, for ethical reasons, offer Tournament of Rapists for sale, while freedom of employment provides an much stronger argument that it is obliged to.
“But what sort of signal does that send to women?” I hear you ask. The signal it ought to send is “Even if you want to write an RPG inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you will be able to offer it for sale on DTRPG. We respect your freedom to try to work in this industry, not matter what you want to write”. The argument that group A can only be welcomed if group B is excluded is one that is frequently used by powerful groups to exclude and oppress minorities, and it is a bad argument. In a free society, you have to accept that you are living with people with whom you strongly disagree, and that you will see evidence of them doing things you disagree with. This is why conservative Christians have to put up with same-sex marriage, and why feminists have to put up with rape fetishists (but not rapists).
The problem that must be taken seriously here is that of “triggering”. For some people, certain themes or images provoke extremely strong negative reactions, and cause significant distress. The correct response to this is not “Free Speech! Get Over It!”. However, the correct response is not easy to determine.
Let us take food allergies as an analogy. I am very aware of the risk of trivialisation here. Food allergies can kill their sufferers, painfully, in a matter of minutes, and interfere significantly with eating, an activity necessary for life. Psychological distress caused by a hobby game product is not even close to being the same level of problem. However, this does mean that a response that is appropriate to food allergies cannot be an inadequate response to triggering, although it could be an over-reaction. If it turns out that food-allergy-like policies could be implemented without imposing excessive burdens, then that’s fine; when we are talking about the risk of harming people, some degree of over-reaction is good, as long as it does not cause other problems.
These days, I suppose most people know how food allergies are dealt with. Food products are clearly labelled with the common allergens that they contain; in Japan, there appears to be a standard set. This does lead to slightly daft situations, such as packets of mixed nuts with “Warning: Contains Nuts” printed on, but “slightly daft” is much better than “accidentally killed someone”. Further, these steps are taken even in cases where there is some doubt about the existence or prevalence of the allergy. For example, it is somewhat controversial as to whether gluten intolerance is actually a thing (although I think the consensus is that it is), and its prevalence is very controversial. Even so, “gluten” is listed, and gluten-free products are available. Even if it is not really a problem, gluten-containing products are still available for the people who want to consume them, so it is reasonable to issue a warning for people who may, genuinely, need to avoid it.
Moreover, I believe that in many cases it is possible to overcome food allergies, and, obviously, a good idea to do so. Nevertheless, this cannot be done instantly, and we have no right to force people to do so. Thus, the information should be made available, and people with allergies should be able to avoid those foods. Obviously, people with very unusual allergies cannot expect everything to be labelled, so they have to ask about ingredients individually.
Note that labelling a product as containing nuts is in no way a judgement of the culinary worth of the product. It is simply a warning so that people who are allergic to nuts can avoid it.
Can a similar approach be taken to roleplaying products? It seems so. DTRPG already has an “adult” filter, although it is applied very inconsistently. (I find it astounding that the Worlds of Darkness are not behind the filter, for example, given that every book includes an explicit “this is mature content” warning, and most books include nudity.) With a bit of thought and research, themes that seem likely to cause serious distress to a large number of people could be filtered out.
The immediately obvious theme is sexual violence. This is distressing to a large number of people, and should clearly be flagged, and people should be able to hide it from themselves. I think this is a very good idea.
Another theme is “nipples”. Sorry, nudity. This is largely a US hang-up, but it is quite an important one there, so people should be able to exclude such products from their searches.
However, there is another important class that seems to get overlooked: phobias. Arachnophobia is not a rare condition, and such people can be triggered by pictures of spiders. It might not be obvious to someone new to the hobby that “City of the Drow” is likely to contain lots of giant spider pictures, so it should be possible to hide spiders. Snakes and blood are also common problems, as I understand it.
More generally, it should be possible to filter out horror games in general. The whole point of horror games is to take disturbing images and work them into the game, because some people enjoy that. However, it is not always obvious from the title that something is horror, and the blurbs themselves are sometimes disturbing, so filtering them from searches should be an easily available option.
It is also an undeniable fact that a large number of people in the US and the rest of the world claim to be deeply offended and upset by portrayals of same-sex sexual relationships. Now, I think that it would be better for them to get over it, but, as with food allergies, that is unlikely to be instant, and we do not get to tell them that they must change. I think it would be wise to include a “LGBT” filter. It could even be made bivalent, so that you could set DTRPG to only show you LGBT products, something that the LGBT community might find useful. In fact, all the filters could be set up like that, to make it clear that this is not a moral judgement.
The filter topics are not obvious, and would require some research. If we use “internet outrage” as our standard (and this is not a bad standard; avoiding internet outrage is a sensible strategy for a company), then sexual violence, nudity, explicit sexual content, and LGBT content are the current leading issues. If we use “clinical prevalence of people who are triggered”, then I have no idea what the list will be, but it could be very different. Research would be necessary. Indeed, it might be a good idea to cover both: internet hot-button issues mainly for PR reasons, and clinically prevalent reasons primarily to protect vulnerable people.
The elephant in the room, as far as RPGs are concerned, is violence. I am sure some people are triggered by violence, but a filter to hide all violent RPGs would leave you with nothing but Golden Sky Stories. (The “spiders” filter would get it, however.) It is true that violence is ubiquitous in US entertainment, but in most fields it is not quite as all-consuming as it is in tabletop RPGs. Even computer games seem to do better in this respect. Still, this is not DTRPG’s problem, and I am exaggerating (very slightly) for rhetorical effect.
It does, however, bring home the point that, if everything that contains a fairly common trigger were placed behind a filter that was on by default, DTRPG would display no products to the casual browser, and that would almost certainly be very bad for business. As this was another objection that was raised to my position, I’d like to conclude by considering it.
The Duty to Go Bankrupt
It was suggested that, if DTRPG were to sell Tournament of Rapists, the backlash would drive them out of business. Can we really require them to do something that will drive them out of business?
In general, the answer is “yes”. If you can only sell cars by adding software to cheat the emissions tests, then you should be driven out of the business of selling cars. Going back to my fundamental position, no-one has the right to a job that requires excessive restrictions on the freedoms of others. However, the answer in this specific case is not obvious. The fact that, sometimes, going out of business is the only ethical option does not mean that it always is.
The filter problem is a good example of this. DTRPG probably would go out of business if the filters were on by default. That means that it is permissible to have them off by default, as long as casual browsers can easily turn them on, and the user interface for doing so is very easy to find. Requiring someone who is triggered by violence to click on a “trigger filters” link and then select “hide violence” is not an unreasonable restriction of freedom, particularly if the alternative is going out of business.
What about the original question? What if the backlash against a product would drive the company out of business?
The first thing to note is that, if this would actually happen, the group threatening the boycott is not a marginalised group; it is the dominant group in the industry. Furthermore, it is a dominant group trying to drive a marginalised group out completely. (If you think the Black Tokyo line is mainstream, you need to learn a bit more about our hobby.) So, the question is, is it ethically permitted to cave in to a dominant group in its attempts to exclude a minority, if the alternative is going out of business?
This is a hard problem. I think you should err on the side of not caving in, because boycotts are almost never as effective as threatened, and we know from history how easy it is to get caught up in persecuting people. In this case, I do not think that the backlash would drive DTRPG out of business, particularly if they were introducing more consistent trigger filters at the same time.
Three thousand words later, where am I? (I would say “where are we?”, but I doubt anyone has read this far.) I still think that DTRPG is making the wrong decision, and that it should be selling offensive content. I also think that it should be working on better filtering for triggering content, so that people can make the site into a safe browsing environment for themselves, without restricting the freedom of others to aim at a career in table-top roleplaying games.
On September 1st, OneBookShelf, the company that runs DriveThruRPG, announced an offensive content policy in reaction to the outrage over a product entitled “Tournament of Rapists”. Steve Wieck, the CEO, published a blog post explaining his decision. It is a thoughtful and serious attempt to wrestle with a difficult issue, and one that recognises the complexity of the situation, particularly the fact that OneBookShelf’s marketplace dominance means that its decision to not sell a product is de facto censorship. Nevertheless, I think he came to the wrong decision. There are several reasons, and I will start from the least serious. (If you haven’t read his blog post, it would be a good idea, because the rest of this post will make little sense without it.)
First, I think it will be very hard to implement the reporting policy. It will have to be limited to genuine accounts, so “genuine accounts” will have to be defined, and there will have to be a way to block people who use it frivolously, so there will need to be a definition of “frivolous reporting”. Neither of these will be easy to determine, let alone code. It will almost certainly have to be limited to people who have bought the product in question, but I doubt that OBS will be in a legal or financial situation to offer refunds. A product that has been challenged and passed will have to be removed from the flagging system, which means that OBS will put a badge of approval on fairly offensive books and high profile books that attracted protest flags, but not on uncontroversial books from small publishers. It’s going to be messy.
Second, the new policy is a PR disaster waiting to happen. If Mr Wieck is serious in his intention to err in the side of permitting books, and I believe him, then at some point he is going to refuse to drop a product that someone in the SJW community has challenged. Now, you and I know that there is a big difference between “This is bad, but not bad enough to justify banning it” and “I am a wholehearted supporter of the ideology expressed in this product”, but do you seriously think that the internet mob is going to respect that distinction? Similarly, it is very likely that he is going to have to exclude someone in the SJW community from the flagging system, because they are flagging too many books that don’t merit censorship. At this point, he is not only Steve Wieck, rape advocate, he is also an agent of white male oppression, silencing the voices of queer women of colour.
If the disaster waits for a month after the implementation of the policy, I will be pleasantly surprised.
Third, this was a major change to fundamental policy made as a snap response to a single crisis. By a roleplayer! All GMs know that it is a really bad idea to make general changes to house rules at the table in response to a problem that has just come up in play. You make a spot ruling to fix that problem, then think about a suitable general response, discuss it with the players, and come back in a week or two with the longterm solution. This principle becomes more important as the decision becomes more important. I realise that the internet feels that taking an hour to respond is a clear sign that you are ignoring their concerns, but the internet is wrong. A couple of days is the right timeframe to make a decision about this case; a month, at least, is an appropriate time frame to make decisions about the longterm policy. These snap decisions are almost always bad, and very often illiberal.
Now, those three reasons are quite important for OBS, but not good enough reasons for me to stick my head above the parapet. That’s reserved for the final reason.
I think it is an unethical decision.
No-one will be surprised to learn that this is a free speech issue. I find it a little difficult to make this point, because I actually agree with the SJWs that this particular product was almost certainly harmful and unethical. I haven’t read it, as it has been censored, but it is in the tentacle porn genre, and what I have seen of that genre convinces me that, in general, it valorises hurtful and harmful attitudes to women, sex, and female sexuality, and I am concerned that it might actually promote them as well. I think it is unethical to make and publish such things.
However, freedom of speech applies to unethical, harmful, and hurtful speech. Indeed, this is exactly the speech it has to apply to. No-one tries to ban speech they think is harmless. The people trying to ban RPGs for being Satanic in the 1980s didn’t sit there thinking “What harmless hobby should we try to ban? My DM killed my thief, so let’s try to ban D&D!”. They (at least most of them) genuinely believed that RPGs were harmful. Yes, there were some bandwagon-riders, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that that’s true of the SJWs. Freedom of speech means protecting people’s right to say things that you believe are wrong, harmful, and pernicious. It also means defending your right to criticise them for being unethical, but you must not silence them, and you must not try to exclude them from the general marketplace, whether of ideas or of products.
Now, that does not mean that you cannot try to create a marketplace or environment where they are not present, but that must be, in an important sense, a marginal environment. Safe spaces are important, but you must not create them by excluding groups from the main space. You can limit certain sorts of behaviour, such as harassment, but speech has to be free. (And yes, I have thought about the distinction, but this is going to be too long anyway, so I’m not going to go into it here.)
I think that preserving this sort of freedom, the freedom to say unethical things, and make hurtful and harmful statements, is an essential part of social justice. That is why I have abbreviated the standard name to “SJW”. The people strongly advocating this censorship are, in this case, fighting against social justice.
Now, there are a lot of points on which I agree with the SJWs, from the judgement that “Tournament of Rapists” is almost certainly harmful and unethical to the need to create societies that are more inclusive of people who are not members of the dominant group. I’m generally in favour of quotas to drive the participation of historically excluded groups, such as women, because waiting for it to happen naturally seems to be far too slow. I would like to work with them on those issues, which is why I have avoided criticising them on the points I don’t agree with in the past. But freedom of speech is too important. If we got everything else and lost freedom of speech, even for rape fetishists, we would not have created a just society. I fear that this will mean I won’t be able to cooperate with them in the future, although I hope I am wrong about that.
I should say that, as ad hominem arguments appear to be de rigueur in this field, that although I am a white, cis, heterosexual man, I live in Japan, so I am not a member of the socially dominant group. I have chaired a meeting attended by several Japanese men (that is, members of the locally dominant group) who had expressed their hostility and intent to confront us online, in advance. The local police thought that their comments made it wise to send a squad of riot police (out of sight) and a couple of plain clothes officers (in the audience) to ensure my safety and that of my colleagues. And I still called on the hostile group to speak, several times, as long as they confined themselves to speaking, even though they were arguing that we, as non-Japanese, should not be allowed to speak out about social issues. When they got a bit too vehement, the police encouraged them to quietly leave the room, and they did. I am fully aware, from personal experience, of what it is like to be a member of a minority and to face hostility from members of the majority, to have members of the majority try to silence you, to face a real risk of violence from them, and to live in a culture in which you are not the norm and do not blend in. I do not take that to be a reason to restrict freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful and harmful the speech, as long as it is restricted to speech.
So, what do I think OBS should do? I think they should rescind the decision. They should say something like “On reflection, we over-reacted to an internet campaign. While we are glad that the publisher chose to withdraw the product in question, and hope that it does not reappear, free speech is an extremely important part of social justice. We will not be implementing any censorship on our sites.”. Yes, this will cause a massive explosion of outrage. As I mentioned earlier, however, I don’t think they can avoid that at this point, and if they take a stand in favour of free speech they can, at least, expect to have allies, and the confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.
But I know that reasonable people sometimes disagree with me, even about ethical issues, and even about important ethical issues. As I said to start with, I think Mr Wieck has thought seriously about the right problems here, and while I think I should publicly disagree with his decision, I don’t think he is a bad person for making it, nor do I plan to boycott OBS over it. I hope he changes his mind, but I hope he changes his mind because he is convinced, not because he has been threatened.
Edit: I have posted a follow-up going into more detail about my ethical position on this, and the reasons for it.
The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.
Letâ€™s take an example Iâ€™m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who donâ€™t know, Iâ€™ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and Iâ€™m in the process of naturalising.)
The important â€œracialâ€ minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are â€œEast Asianâ€. They disappear when â€œracial diversityâ€ is being considered for an RPG. â€œRacial diversityâ€ is used to mean â€œpeople from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhereâ€. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to â€œdiversityâ€.
On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.
The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.
(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but womenâ€™s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of â€œmore inclusive languageâ€.)
I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.
So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be â€œno more Americansâ€. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.