Monday, October 8, 2018

Why Are Games So "Politically Correct" Now? (Hint: It's Money)

I know we usually talk about games that involve funny-shaped dice, but I'd like to take a second to talk about a game that involves throwing a weirdly-shaped ball. A game that we're all familiar with, at least in passing, where people can become millionaires if they're good at playing. A game that has been a source of great controversy, not for its inherent violence and massive, wasteful spectacle, but due to one man's protest that started back in 2016.

Don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about.
According to The Undefeated, Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem started back in 2016. In his own words, the quarterback was using his platform and his position to speak out against how black people are treated by police, particularly the fact that so many of them are killed by police officers who never face any consequences for their actions. This protest sparked backlash from a lot of quarters, and support from others, and has raged like an untended wildfire for a number of years now. And the controversy has led to Kaepernick not being picked up to play for any teams, despite general agreement that he's more than good at his job.

Fast-forward to just a little bit ago. Nike, the colossal sportswear corporation named for a goddess of competition and victory, chose Kaepernick to be the face of their recurring "Just Do It" campaign that they've run for years now. The idea behind the campaign is to feature inspirational figures, and by choosing Kaepernick Nike pretty much backed what a lot of detractors refer to as the "SJW horse" in this race.

Why did they do that?

Well, it isn't because Nike is a high-minded entity with a bleeding heart who agrees with the spirit of Kaepernick's protest. Let's not forget that this is a massive corporation who still uses child slave labor to save on production costs while fattening their profit margins on overpriced tee shirts and shoes. Nike is in the business of making money, and its marketing and PR team is tasked with finding every possible way they can make themselves look good, increase their social currency, and keep people buying their products. Their marketing wizards cast the bones, crunched the numbers, and their conclusion was that in order to endear themselves to the younger generations of buyers (the ones that will be making them profits for the coming decades), it was a smarter move to endorse Kaepernick in a showy way than to come down in opposition to his protest, or to ignore him entirely.

And you know something? It worked. While there were viral videos of people burning their shoes or mutilating their shorts (Nike products they'd already paid for, mind you, so it had no effect on the company's bottom line), the real numbers were in their stock price and sales. Nike made huge sales in the immediate aftermath of this decision, and though there were a lot of existing customers who swore never to buy their products again, those customers were replaced several-fold by new ones who swore to buy Nike products today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

What Does This Have To Do With Tabletop Games?

I told you that story to tell you this story.

You see, hardly a day goes by where I don't see at least one gamer shouting in a forum or on social media about how RPG companies are, "ramming political correctness down our throats!" Examples of this typically include having multiple important depictions of non-white, non-male characters, references to a wide variety of sexualities and genders, and generally changing up the white male hero mold that's been standard since Tolkien. This happens in particular when it's announced that Dungeon and Dragons may have elves who can transition their sex, or when Paizo releases an adventure path where there's a sidebar about the half-elf bartender and her wife.

And these frustrations are typically met with a trumpeting war cry, "Who cares about any of this!?"

Aside, you know, from characters who are all about justice and inclusion?
From the perspective of the angry gamer, no one could possibly care. This is all just niche fluff that companies are wasting their time with. However, the real answer to, "Who cares?" is, "All the people invested in these issues, and who make buying decisions because of that."

The truth is that by including these elements that so many gamers object to, RPG companies are making a point to include things that were never previously seen in mainstream games. Things which are often ignored or left out by their competitors. This differentiates them, adds a unique selling point, and it sends up a signal flare to gamers who may have some of these qualities, and who wish they could get more representation in the medium. Gamers who think it's just dandy that lesbian elves can now just exist without being there for titillation, or as a running joke. Gamers who want to see characters who look like them, but who aren't a limited-edition, because-this-isn't-a-fantasy-European-setting option. In short, by including this bigger variety, RPG companies are increasing the size of their audience by increasing their in-game, in-world representation. They open doors to players who may feel unwelcome, and assure them that it's perfectly fine for them to play characters who aren't traditional fantasy mainstays.

Maybe these companies do it because they do, in fact, have a political agenda they're backing. Maybe they do it as a cynical cash-grab because they know it gets them attention and makes them more appealing to a bigger audience, and increases their sales volume. Whatever the reason, though, companies make decisions like this based on ROI; return on investment. Hell, that's one reason I put characters of varying ethnicities, genders, and sexualities in 100 NPCs You Might Meet in a Tavern. Because by explicitly acknowledging these aspects in your game, it both offers representation, and makes the thing you wrote stand out from the pack of competing products.

So if you are one of those gamers who threatens to jump ship, burn your books, or never buy products from a particular company again because too many NPCs were women, were gay, or had a specifically non-Caucasian appearance, remember this; there are plenty of other people who are buying it, otherwise they wouldn't make those decisions. By all means, be bothered by it, but realize that companies generally don't care about a screed left on Facebook. They care about numbers, and as long as your no is worth less than a dozen other people's yes, give me all of it, this direction of being specifically inclusive is not going to change.

And while you're thinking about that, maybe stop for a moment, and ask why you're so bothered by these things. After all, they haven't said you can't play the character you want to, so what's the big deal?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully it gave folks something to think about. If you'd like to see more of my work, then take a look at my Vocal archive, or just click my Gamers profile to see only my tabletop stuff. Or you could head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I'm always working with other gamers to make videos for dungeon masters and players alike!

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  1. While opening new markets is indeed a good thing, and a motivator for some. Others have pointed out that decisions like this tend to flow from a desire of individuals in an Industry to 'educate' what they view as a flawed base, or are directed at markets that the given individual wants even at the cost of his existing market.

    The concept of 'inclusion makes additional markets available' does have a shadow in the not inaccurate phrase of 'go woke, get broke,' where some groups' dedication to a social cause results in them alienating so much of their core group that they end up drying out their own markets. I do recall some scuttlebutt about someone at WoTC indicating they no longer wanted the older fans who weren't dancing to their current thematic tunes.

    Personally, I haven't really been happy with any fluff in pathfinder or D&D post early Second Edition (Primus being killed by Orcus, the weird Hell triumphalism from the end of 2e, 4e Abandoning the great wheel cosmology, etc), and tend to not really worry overly much about what fluffy nonsense the companies are putting in since (thankfully) the companies currently lack the capacity to compel me to tow their philosophical lines at my own table and it doesn't really effect the mechanics of the RPG itself (which is really the primary reason I purchase them).

    Burning your own property out of protest is pretty dumb though. Its like burning down your own neighborhood.

  2. Great post, Neal.

    It's not pie, people. Adding flavor to the game doesn't take your piece away!

  3. You know just maybe the people with the talent needed to make these things happen just may fall in to gender queer/ minority categories, and chose to have content that represents them???

  4. "the white male hero mold that's been standard since FOREVER" Fixed it for you.

    When straight white males complain about representation of minorities in pop-culture or gaming what they are actually petitioning for is more representation of straight white males. In other words they want even more representation in the media in which they've overwhelmingly been over-represented for decades. This is no different than someone eating seven slices of pizza then raging when someone tries to grab that eight slice from them.

  5. According to this logic only women would play RPGs since most games use female pronouns. How could a man relate to it if everything is she/her/hers? I am gay and every PC I have ever made was also, but I do not buy games because they mention gay people. Games are neutral it is how people play them that is not.

  6. If you want sex transitioning elves that only need meditate for a few hours instead of sleep, go for it. In my world they don't do either. If you want to be trans, I offer the Changeling from Eberron.

    1. In a world filled with magic, anyone can be post op trans person. Don't need a fancy shapeshifter race to do. FFS, pathfinder in the ACG introduced a lost cost magic item that changes sex for this purpose