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.
Today, I had a phone call from the Legal Affairs Bureau handling my application for Japanese citizenship. The Ministry of Justice wants me to renounce my UK citizenship, and will send the necessary documents. That means that my application for Japanese citizenship has been successful.
People who have followed my citizenship application process know that we ran into a snag with the paperwork. The Ministry of Justice required proof of citizenship in addition to a passport, but UK embassies recently stopped issuing the letters that they had previously supplied. That meant that I could not supply that particular document, and no-one at the Legal Affairs Bureau in Kawasaki knew what to do, because they were not qualified to change the Ministry’s policy. The decision at that point was to submit the rest of my application, and see what the Ministry of Justice decided.
Asking me to renounce my UK citizenship is the last step of the process. In order to renounce it, I need a document from the Japanese government confirming that they plan to give me Japanese citizenship just as soon as I renounce my UK citizenship. This is because almost all countries try to avoid making anyone stateless, at least for any longer than it takes for the paperwork to go through. Indeed, if, for some reason, the application does not go through within six months, I remain a British citizen, and the language suggests that, legally, I will be considered never to have renounced it.
This indicates that the Ministry of Justice has decided that they do not need any further proof of UK citizenship from me. (Obviously, it will be difficult to get such proof after renouncingâ€¦) From my perspective, that’s a nice decision, because it means that I do not need to spend time and money to get yet another piece of paper. I assume that it’s a generally applicable decision, as well, as I can’t see any reason why I would get special treatment. This is yet another sign of the essentially pragmatic character of the people in charge of citizenship applications here; if a foreign government does not issue a particular document, they do not insist on getting something like it.
Incidentally, it costs Â£223 to renounce UK citizenship. This is better than the US, which charges $2350, but still a bit pricey.
As the application part of my application is now over, I can say that my case worker did not do a home visit, and the contact people I listed have not mentioned being contacted. I did have an interview, at the Legal Affairs Bureau, and my wife was also interviewed, separately. In addition, my income for the most recent month at the time of application was substantially lower than my average income from the previous year (which was on the tax returns I had to submit), and that wasn’t a problem. (My income has gone back up again now; I got more students.)
There is one interesting question that now arises. Yesterday, I applied for my photo ID My Number card, the new standard Japanese government-issued ID (with cute cartoon bunny rabbit). Because it is new, they are issuing it to all 120 million residents at once, so they expect to actually issue the card in March. It is possible that my renunciation and naturalisation will go through before they actually get around to issuing it. Of course, if I become a Japanese citizen then, my name will change, so the card will have to be reissued before it is even issued. However, given what I’ve heard about the time take for renunciation (up to three months) and the final paperwork on citizenship (a few weeks), I rather doubt it. I’ll just have to apply for a reissue quite early on.
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.