How to Be Inclusive When You’re Afraid of Getting it Wrong.

How to Be Inclusive When You’re Afraid of Getting it Wrong.

On thing I often hear from people when I discuss the diversity and expanding the range of our hobby is :

“Well I’m afraid that I’ll get it wrong, or that I’ll be accused of appropriation.  I’ll get it wrong and then people will call me a racist/sexist/etc.”

I get that fear, but it’s pretty irrational for two reasons:

1) Gaming is just not that diverse.  There aren’t a ton of people from these groups that you’d be hearing from in the first place!  Most PoC I know see media that we think is offensive and we roll our eyes, complain about it to each other, and go about our business.  Who has time to educate and argue with people who are clearly uninterested in learning?  How do I know they are uninterested in learning? Because….

2) Too frequently, criticisms based on culture are treated as invalid.  Less valid than a complaint about mechanics, or a complaint about typos or any number of things. I see publishers savaged for things I consider far less important, but I see publishers bend over backwards to appease these.  It is interesting when you posit that something could be culturally insensitive that the first thing that happens is now someone’s explaining to me how I don’t understand, and they don’t see, and now I’m the asshole trying to explain color to someone who doesn’t see color.  Any complaints go immediately to how the person claiming the offense is actually the one inflicting harm, or is silly or stupid or politically correct ,etc. When this happen I know that it wasn’t a good-faith effort because the person in question is not actually taking in new information.

To be fair, I do see these feared blow-outs on occasion, but almost always these are proxy complaints. By proxy, I mean it’s often people not in the “aggrieved” group making a fuss. I get why that happens but that’s not a reason I’m going to accept for why people otherwise motivated to venture forth and make gaming material with a different perspective and possibly accessible to a new audience. If you can’t hear me explain to you why this thing you did misses the mark without instantly making it about your hurt feelings, I can’t accept that you were ever truly moving beyond your boundaries.

And hey! That’s fine.  Build what you want, but don’t make excuses. Just say you are interested in making other things.  There is a whole list of stuff I’m not interested in making, and I’m not going to apologize for it.  But I’m not going to blame phantom causes for it either.

Still with me?  Are you really interested in expanding your boundaries and making games about other cultures that aren’t just reskins of D&D? Cool.

The first thing we need is humility. You need to accept that you could get it wrong without breaking into cold sweats.  You’d think that as a PoC I would feel more comfortable with the material that I’m working on, but I’ll share a secret with you: I’ve spent most of my life terrified of getting it wrong too!  It’s not been until fairly recently that I have embraced the basic humility that allows me to risk being wrong without taking it personally.  You try to get things right to the best of your ability. Do you flip out at an editor when they correct your grammar, talking about how they can’t call you stupid, some of your best friends are punctuation  etc? Or do you accept that your work needed to be fixed, honestly try to understand, and move on?

Similarly here.  Have humility.  Be an arrogant jerk everywhere else but be humble when your work is assessed culturally.

Next: research!  I think the links I’ve shown and the work we’ve done this month show plenty of ways you can convert a few hours into a productive bit of research for use in your games.  The internet + your public library make this endeavor almost laughably easy, so do that.  Get enough information to learn what actually is there.  Don’t just fit another culture to your own preconceptions.

Last: read Writing the Other.  It’s a great and short read that provides great guidance for when you want to stretch outside of yourself.  This is meant for fiction writing, but it’s a very easy port to game design and GMing.

I know I make it sound easier than it is, but getting to it is not complex.  It’s hard, but not complicated.  Find all the information you can, but accept that you won’t know everything, or that your viewpoint could be obscured by your cultural perceptions.  Expand your boundaries. Have fun!

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10 Responses

  1. Excellent blog. As I wrote Meji my biggest concern was getting it wrong. African American culture is different from Nigerian, Kenyan or any other country’s culture on the African continent. Add to that the fact that I was writing based on pre-colonial African culture and you have even more room for error. But like you stated you just have to do it. You’re going to get something wrong and someone is always going to complain, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to write on the subject. Many times the complaints become a learning experience. So don’t let fear deter you. In the end we’re all making this stuff up.

  2. So I have this idea called Ladies & Stratagems, an anthology of strategy games designed by women. I’d love to see it become a real thing, but I’d hate to be yet another male gatekeeper.

    I experienced this while working with the Prismatic Art Collection. No one called me a gatekeeper, but I got really stressed out approving or critiquing the submissions. It’s tough!

  3. Thank you for breaking some ice on this topic, Quinn. I agree that it’s a vitally important topic to discuss and consider, before, during, and after a work is completed. I absolutely agree that paralyzing fears that thwart new works need to be overcome. We need new works that add great new diversity into the hobby’s vision and make-up.

    When you say that it’s hard but not complicated, though, I want to argue a little. 🙂

    I think it is both hard and complicated—to varying degrees for varying people—because there are a lot of factors, a lot of voices, a lot of ways to be right and to be wrong, all in play in the same issue. I say this as someone who is more worried about this as time goes by, so I’m sort of succumbing to fear when I say this, but I don’t think that makes me inaccurate. I think it means I know the shape of the fear.

    I think it is hard and complicated and essential and necessary to confront and deal with as creators for the sake of combating stagnation in our ideas and for the sake of making our social games as accepting, smart, welcoming, and varied as we can. It is hard and it is worth confronting the hardship, as you said.

    Humility is an important part of accepting any critique and I believe every artist or creator needs to find their balance between confidence and humility. (I struggle at it.) I also think there are a million voices and motives and reasons that can come at a creator, each with a different perspective of how a work “needs to change.” They won’t all be right. Negotiating with a vast and varied audience, navigating critiques, isn’t as simple as just having humility, in my experience. Humility kept me from writing anything that might offend for years; it still slows me down. Humility doesn’t mean rolling over for every critique, right? It means reacting with respect to critics who know more than the artist on the subject. How much humility is enough? How much keeps you from creating at all? It’s a nuanced area that changes from one work to the next, in my experience.

    It is complicated. I think we must accept and celebrate that it’s complicated and prize even more the creators and the creations that embrace the complexity and engage in thoughtful discussion with the audience and work to do good. Saying that it’s simple drives out creators like me who feel like we’re missing something because it looks complicated from here.

    Thanks for the space to explore some of this subject, too. This isn’t something I generally like to talk about on the Internet but love to talk about in person. I need to know more about this.

  4. I should be clear, by the way: When I say “anything that might offend,” I mean even anything that might offend sensibilities that could use some revision. I dwelled in genre adherence rather than trying to expand and redefine genres through more progressive works. I was afraid of anything that might get me negative mail even from people I don’t agree with. A lot of important stuff is off limits to an artist who fears that stuff.

  5. As a (white, male) writer and occasional game designer whose protagonists are rarely white OR male, I found this post, well, liberating. I’ve lived in other cultures, and with the right research I’m pretty comfortable with writing in settings or mindsets that are, say, heavily based on First Nations people, or West Africa, or whatever. I’ve just always worried that I’ll get too comfortable and get it wrong (which you’ve addressed well), or I’ll somehow make it seem like I’m casually appropriating what I like about another culture in order to be fashionable. (And in some markets, it is VERY fashionable. Not all, though. I sent an African-derived pitch to a major gaming magazine last year. “We don’t feel it has the sort of appeal that would reach a majority, or even a significant group of our readers.” They did like one of my pitches, though — one rooted pretty firmly in Eurocentric fantasy.)

    Bottom line? Sometimes I can’t help but say “Who am I to tell that story?” I mean, I was one of the first backers for Farewell to Fear, I’ve been reading this blog and a lot of related ones, and I’ve been writing non-Eurocentric SFF for years, but the feeling still gets to me. It’s not just a race thing or a culture thing — I get the same feeling when I go to write about, say, human trafficking. What right do I have to tell someone else’s story? But those are the things that I want to write about.

    So yeah. This post helped me a good bit. Thanks.

  6. @Milton indeed! In doing something new there is always plenty to be nervous about, but we have to move forward, regardless.

    @Daniel I would love to see Ladies & Stratagems. I think if you’re listening and doing your best to get the perspective of the group you’re working with and not just insert your own, you’re doing fine.

    @Will thanks for posting! We talked about this on twitter, but I want to get this on the blog too. On Humility, I think you need enough to hear the critique, but after that you have to be an artist. You can’t bow to every critique just because, but you have to get out of this mindset that you’ve done a group this great favor just by including them at all so hey, they can’t critique. All too often I’ve witnessed a mindset that forces PoC to just accept what they’re giving without complaint or get nothing at all. It’s a weird version of a white savior complex. Humility is the only answer I have for that. Humility is need even for PoC extending beyond their boundaries culturally as well. You can’t think living in a society where things have been historically and currently stacked makes you the superior human being (though it often provides you with certain insights on the dominant culture). No one’s safe from arrogance. Arrogance to me is the opposite of listening and growth. Arrogance is a large iron door over communication and progress.

    Humility opens those doors.

    For simple versus complicated, I think we’re looking at the process at two different levels. I’m looking at a very high level, here’s the path to walk. I haven’t yet considered the complexities facing us, as I tend to do that more “on-demand” (it makes me more productive than processing complexity up front). I think you are looking right on the road ahead. I don’t mean to trivialize the complex work of game design, but I just accept that as part of the activity itself.

    No for offense, I think we should stop worrying about offense. To build things that don’t offend implies some sort of endpoint. OK, I did this/didn’t do this, no offense, right? Striving for inoffensiveness assumes a monolith group reaction that doesn’t exist. Look at the Volvo Jamaican ad. They polled 100 Jamaicans who were all OK with it. But there are bunch of black people that weren’t OK with it. Over and over people site those 100 Jamaicans (and Jamaican response in general) as if they were meaningful bellwethers for the actual black people in America they were showing it to.

    I get the need to not want negative mail, but don’t you find that people inevitably don’t like something anyway? Doesn’t the negative e-mail just happen? It sucks, but not enough (for me, anyway) to stray from my mission of working with a culture from it’s perspective, not the default one and not mine.

    @John Olfert if we weren’t allowed to write past our boundaries, how could we ever write about anything that wasn’t in our direct experience? It’s just part of creation that we should want to write about ourselves but also people other than ourselves. Just think of how boring fiction would be without that ability.

  7. About humility, I think we mostly agree, Quinn. The thing is, that is exactly the complexity I’m talking about. I’m not talking about game design being complex, I’m talking about art and community being complex. It’s always an ongoing negotiation with the individual audience, the individual readers and viewers and players and so on.

    It’s not like you set your Humility Meter to a nice, mid-range 45-55-point range and then you’re all set to make art, right? It’s not like you have the right amount of humility to change the right stuff and stand by the right stuff. It’s not simple. One work requires a different degree of humility than another. We have different degrees of authority in different areas, and negotiating that with an audience can be tricky.

    Who gets to say, “Your fiction is too fictional?” Who has the authority to tell an artist that their work must change? Who gets to affix the label on the artist that says, “Too arrogant to change the work” or “Too humble to rile or rally,” and where do they get those stickers made?

    The answer, I think, is that everyone gets to put their own sticker on a work and that most people aren’t qualified to speak for many more people than themselves. A thousand—a million!—opinions flying about regarding a specific work? Knowing which confrontations to engage and which to let flit past? Recognizing when a work is done and when it needs to be revised? I think that’s all gloriously complicated. I think it’s good that it’s complicated.

    As I said on Twitter, when you tell me the road is simple and I encounter complexity on that road, I fear that I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong road. So I get that saying it’s simple hopefully encourages people to try and do the right thing and conduct themselves as responsible artists, not deaf to the pains and concerns of their audiences, but I think that calling it simple from such a very high level undercuts what a creator will actually experience on the ground.

    Maybe I’m totally wrong and everything seems complicated to me because I just haven’t found the magical applies-to-everything ratio of humility-to-confidence that makes for responsible artistry.

    The point that I think we agree on, maybe, is that fear must be overcome, good works should be made, and the artist’s ability to be a creative of responsibility and humility doesn’t end whenever he deems the work “finished.” Audiences—which are individuals responding individually, not in groupthink—deserve respect including, but not limited to, acknowledging insight and facts that might have escaped the artist. Am I wrong?

  8. Gah, too late a re-read on my part again. A note on this: “Maybe I’m totally wrong and everything seems complicated to me because I just haven’t found the magical applies-to-everything ratio of humility-to-confidence that makes for responsible artistry.”

    That’s meant to take the piss out of me, not you. I genuinely do mean to say that it’s possible that I just haven’t tapped the golden ratio of humility and hubris yet and that’s why navigating audiences still seems complicated to me. But it still seems complicated to me.

  9. I think we are in a greement, though I think our perspectives –you as a fulltime designer of awesome and me as a part-time creator but lifelong frustrated PoC who has been blessed/cursed with liking this stuff –sepoarates us. For me I’m more about getting over fear and getting to the action and sorting out problems when needed. I acknowledge your need to map it out, but too often for me “mapping it out” has led to not getting it out there.

    I think we can both be “right” (most important thing in the world right ? :)) within our parameters/experiences. I think for designers more “pro” than I the ocmplexity is the big thing that must be talked about first. For me complexity in something that hasn’t really been done is just an obstacle to contemplate overly much. The frustrated fan in me just sees this forward path, and is ready to walk over the hot coals to get there.