He looked like me!
I was at a freshmen in high school attending my first SimCon. There was a session for a game called Cyberpunk 2020. I was mostly playing D&D those days, but hey! we had a bunch of crazy cybernetics and cool looking people. Let’s try it.
I’d never heard of Mike Pondsmith before. I didn’t know anything about R. Talsorian, I didn’t know anything about the cyberpunk genre.
I walked into the room, and ran into my first black GM and first black game designer, who was Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the game!
Now, technically, I had inherited my gaming habit from my brother, but I didn’t get to play when I was little and by the time I started he was long retreated from the hobby. I had a bunch of great friends who I played with, but unfortunately I was going to be the lone weird black kid in my small town who was into “those games”.
So there I was, a little surprised, a little amazed, a little taken aback. I was always the gamemaster in my group, constantly making new adventures and rules tweaks –basically, light game design. It had never occurred to me before this exact moment that game designer was something that I could actually be.
But Mike was there. I didn’t know at the moment that not only was Mr. Pondsmith a game designer, he was a great game designer. At the time, I had to content myself with a really fun game (Mike was a great GM). I played a womanizing corp type who managed to get three numbers during the mission. I was useless in a firefight, but no one really hires the suit for that do they?
Later, I got heavy into Cyberpunk. I bought the book immediately after the game. All of our D&D sessions came to a screeching halt and we were playing Cyberpunk 2020 non-stop. The players died a lot as Cyberpunk is several steps up the lethality ladder from D&D. Not being able to force their way through problems caused players first to be more creative, then later led to more roleplaying.
Throughout this experience I was getting my mind blown open by Neuromancer and other novels. I obsessed over Wired Magazine and fantasized about becoming a hacker one day.
Most importantly, I thought more about game design. I start doing more game design, and when I wasn’t busy pretending to be a character out of the Sprawl, or a refugee from the Hacker Crackdown, I imagined releasing my own games. I built some games here and there, none of which went that far.
I never would have considered it without meeting Mike. Until that game, I never knew that game design was something for me. Not only did I get a great new system to play, I got a mini-vocation.
There was a long gap between high school and adulthood where I figured things out. When I figured things out, I worked really hard, got published in several places, ran a successful and noteworthy blog, and made a lot of great friends.
Gaming is wonderful, but gaming culture can be lonely for a person of color. If you’re deeply involved and committed it can be lonelier still. It can be very,very frustrating. Sometimes things don’t feel fair and when they don’t feel fair you don’t have any metric to know why it’s unfair.
There are many people I can thank for their support and helping me. A lot of people.
But what I wanted to discuss was this few hour encounter with Mike Pondsmith that he won’t remember but which influenced my entire life. It imbued me with a sense of possibility, helped steer me down the road I’m currently on. Since I’m having a lot of fun on this road, and I don’t think I could have gotten on a better one, I’ll say…
Why I needed to discuss this meeting is because of how commonly we hear people invested in the status quo dismiss having representation in the community for people of color. I don’t argue with those people anymore because we’re just never going to agree. Needless to say, I feel that viewpoint is wrong. Having role models and inspirations is important. It’s not only how we make our culture more inclusive, it’s how we maintain industry health and growth.
I think people look at diversity as a charity program, a gaming UNICEF that they may or may not give to when they have some extra money. I understand the prevailing attitudes that drive those thoughts, but I’ll again disagree. I think that inclusion and increased diversity is the way in which we make the industry healthy. I’m not going to spend a lot of time arguing it, really, because it’s then me arguing that people of color have imaginations and an interest in fantasy worlds with someone who argues that believes we should all be “color blind”, which is just another word for status quo.
It’s not worth it anymore. I take the inspiration and creative energy I’ve got and I try to create. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet up with Pondsmith’s accomplishments in gaming, but that is not the point. What matters is that I’m here, that you’re here, that we are all enjoying this time and this hobby and we are welcoming others into this hobby, in ways that the industry has not and will not.