Friday, February 20, 2015

Why We All Need Diversity In Gaming (And How You Can Start)

For those who don't know I spent Valentine's Day weekend at Capricon in Chicago. I was selling books, doing readings, sitting on panels, shaking hands, and meeting new people. I met a lot of great folks like Mark Oshiro (whose blog Mark Reads Stuff I mentioned earlier this week), but I was also privileged to make the acquaintance of Tanya DePass. For those of you who don't recognize that name Tanya is responsible for the creation of the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames (and you can find her on Tumblr at Why I Need Diverse Games and on Twitter @cypheroftyr). A vocal critic of the lack of diversity in video games she and the rest of my fellow panelists made a lot of solid points about the media we see and how it influences the stories we tell.

I'm not ashamed to say I felt a little uncomfortable. Not because I was a white guy on a panel about diversity (I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered), but because the conversation was largely centered around video games. With all of the time, money, and sheer code that goes into developing a video game it can add more than a few 0's to the end of a project if you want to offer more character skins, more plotlines, more NPCs, etc. In a tabletop game all it takes is your DM to decide to include a more diverse cast.

So why don't we do more of that?

What Are You Talking About?

What I'm talking about is how companies like Paizo will put in a huge amount of time and effort to craft flavor for games that addresses issues of diversity. If you flip through the books you'll see female characters in real armor instead of chainmail lingerie, you'll see characters of varying ethnicities, and you'll find reams of information about cultures, religions, societal norms, and history. You'll even find transgender characters and gay characters, issues players often bring to the table but that designers and developers don't often take initiative on.

Despite that though a lot of tables have the color and gender spectrum of your average rugby scrum.

Presented without comment.
There are all sorts of reasons we could point out for this. One is that J.R.R. Tolkien is seen as the godfather of high fantasy, and since his books are full of white men that's become the default in many players' minds of what an adventuring party should have. Another justification is that most geeks are white men (they're not, but it's a common perspective), and so that's what they play. They want to have characters they can identify with, and whose stories they can get invested in.

Let's try an experiment though. Play a character outside your comfort zone and see what it does to your gaming experience.

The Time I Played A Different Kind of Barbarian

To help make my point I'm going to tell you a story about my own experience with stepping outside my comfort zone at a gaming table. It isn't pretty, so you might want to brace yourself.

Several years ago a friend of mine was running a sword and sorcery style game using DND 3.5 rules. I decided I wanted to play a barbarian, but I wanted to do something different from the broadsword-wielding Conan knockoff or the greatax-bearing Viking. Then out of nowhere I wondered why it was barbarians were always huge, Germanic characters with flaxen hair and blue eyes... why couldn't they come from another culture entirely?

This was sort of what I had in mind.
I'd like to say that I got out an encyclopedia and did some research on African tribal customs. I'd like to tell you that I researched specific religious beliefs and that I progressed into this concept fully aware I was a white guy planning on putting my voice into an African character. Sadly, that isn't what I did. Maybe it was because I was at a table with a bunch of other white people and I knew no on would call me on things I got wrong. Maybe it was because I was lazy, or because it was just a game and who was going to know or care? Whatever reason it was I began this game with a character that, while there was a good deal of thought put into him, had more than a few stereotypes in his makeup. Some of the dick jokes in particular stand out in my memory.

Something happened the more I played Motumba though (yes, that was the name I gave him). What was a character skin sewn together from what little knowledge I had of tribal culture and totemic religions began to grow organically. The character showed me a different set of cultural norms, and even in my head patiently explained who he really was and what he was doing. He had been a hunter with several wives and many children in his tribe. He'd been set upon by slavers (since we opened with the party being dragged to the auction block), and his goal was to return home to them. I learned that his ritual scarifications had a deeper meaning to him, and that despite his mediocre common he spoke a dozen other languages fluently. I learned he had tolerance for changing ignorance, but none for stupidity. In short the more I stepped into this character's skin the less he became a joke and the more he became someone whose story I was invested in.

What It Made Me See

I had not started that game with the intent of exploring diversity at my gaming table, but the result was that I got tuned in to a frequency I hadn't noticed before. I looked back at the origin of the character and winced at the parody he'd begun as, even though Motumba had grown and matured into a concept I was actually rather proud of. I also realized that there are a lot of gamers who make similar mistakes. Guys who play female characters that look and act like sex objects is a good start. Gamers who think it's funny to make a character flamboyantly gay are another. While it doesn't happen as often today (I hope) tabletop gamers have an unfortunate habit of playing caricatures instead of characters.

But I think that we should put more effort into being less Tolkien.

And what does that mean?
It means that you should stop tromping through the woods every now and again to explore the deserts and jungles of the world. It means we should try playing characters who don't share our political leanings, our religions, our ethnicities, our sexual orientations, or our genders every now and again. By branching out and attempting to see another perspective you will invariably have unique experiences you never would have had with characters you were more comfortable with. Not only that, but you'll be able to see your own actions from a different perspective, which can have a major effect on how you treat other gamers specifically, and people in general.

Reading increases empathy (Scientific American says so), and creating your own stories with a wider array of characters can have very similar effects.

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