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A Talk About Inclusion In Gaming

Here’s a little spotlight on a great video from the folks at The Dice Tower chatting about inclusion in gaming. It’s a worthwhile subject for discussion and Suzanne Sheldon and Mandi Hutchinson, the video’s hosts, cover it exceptionally well.

The general takeaway starts with good news: the tabletop gaming hobby is getting more inclusive and that’s a good thing. Conventions, for example, are significantly more diverse than they were just a decade ago.

Let me share a little anecdote. Fourteen years ago, I was working at Neutral Ground in New York City, the largest gaming store in the country at the time. Neutral had what was was essentially a gymnasium-sized space in the back of the store for its customers to play games, run tournaments, and socialize. On any given night, there would be 50 to 200 people playing until closing time at 11pm. To my memory, out of all of those gamers, there was normally maybe one girl. There were probably a few more, every so often, along with the occasional random female customer, but in 2002, this giant store had a very small population of women regulars. Flash-forward to 2016, the place where I play now, Next-Gen Games on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles, is packed to the gills with an even split of male and female players. That’s a big change in a short amount of time. It’s positive news.

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How gaming used to be… (also I miss the show Freaks & Geeks)

However, that doesn’t mean all or even most of the work of making our hobby inclusive is done. As the video goes on to discuss, there are steps we can take to keep opening that door allow more diverse groups to partake in the activity we love.

Women, people of color, and other groups still find some friction feeling accepted in the gaming community. Both women in the video share their own stories of this and you should watch to see what they’re talking about.

The main issue with this problem is about the “otherness” these groups feel. For a myriad of reasons, women and minority groups may feel like they are “other” or not a part of or welcome in our flock. Reducing that otherness brings them into the fold and creating that otherness (intentionally or unintentionally) drives them back out.

So what should we do? Or perhaps, I should start with why we should do it?

I hope that the reason why we need to make all feel welcome at our gaming table is pretty obvious, but just in case you need convincing, I’ll say this: whatever it is that fulfills you in this our wonderful hobby should be accessible to everyone.

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Bring everyone to the table.

If you game because it’s fun, because it offers stress relief, or whatever reason you choose, you should make sure that same joy is there for anyone who might want to experience it. No one–you, me, anyone–can “own” that experience. If any of us become even accidental gatekeepers, we are doing something wrong. “Othering” people puts walls between the things we love to do and the people who might love to do it.

Moreover as my friend and game designer Jay Africa once told me:

“Nowadays, gaming also reflects on our society, much as literature and music does. It’s important to reflect all aspects of society, not only because it provides ownership, but also because it allows us to broaden our own horizons. It allows us to expand our cultural awareness in ways that we might not have access to otherwise. It provides us with opportunities to understand one another in potentially active ways, rather than the passive ways in which we absorb text or recordings.”

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Inclusion doesn’t mean adding Vin Diesel to your table, but it doesn’t NOT mean adding him to your table.

So how do we work towards it? Well, Suzanne and Mandi do a lot to explain that in the video. Partially, it’s about treating people equally.

For example, Mandi tells the story of one man at a gaming table who felt the need to explain how the game worked to her every turn, but didn’t explain to any of the other players. This is actually something I struggle with. As someone who is legitimately paid to explain games, I often have to remember to turn that off in casual play so I can let people have their own play experience. I can see how a woman or a person of color might assume I’m judging or “othering” them to the game community because of how I perceive them. So what am I doing about it? I’m working to be better. That’s really what anyone is being asked to do.

Game designers and artists have a role here, too. Diverse characters, especially playable ones, help to show that all are welcome. Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder have both done great jobs of depicting their human characters in a wide spectrum of skin colors, genders, and beyond. Pathfinder even introduced a transgender character as one of their “iconics” in 2014.

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Mandi and Suzanne point out other great examples like Dead of Winter that offer a wide base of playable options. When all types of players can “see themselves,” it chips away at that otherness. Also, as Jay pointed out, this starts to educate and expand the minds for all players. While diverse playable characters are the current trend, that just means we have to keep pushing so it doesn’t fall back into familiar tropes. Designers, you know what to do!

Finally, brick-and-mortar stores, gaming conventions, and tabletop clubs have their part to play. Keeping the doors literally and figuratively open to all people starts with the leaders and organizers of these groups. As Geek & Sundry’s own Teri Litorco wrote in her article for The Mary Sue, establishing and enforcing policies regarding harassment and bullying is an important start. The Dungeons & Dragons’ organized play program Adventurer’s League has some great policies to this effect.

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You don’t need to be leading these groups to do good in these spaces either. Lead by example for your fellow players and engage in conversation with the established leadership about these issues. If they don’t listen, take your business elsewhere. I’ve changed my home comic book store before because the shop regularly treated women customers like they didn’t know their Batmen from their Spider-Men. Being new to comics is okay, but assuming all women are is not. Switching shops gives my money to a more inclusive business.

Thanks to Mandi and Suzanne for making this video and to The Dice Tower for putting it out into the world. Don’t be afraid to check out the work of both these women and Dice Tower as they all have a lot of great gaming content for you to enjoy. Also, thank you for reading, since sometimes these subjects can feel a little heavy. Geek & Sundry and Team Hooman pride themselves on being inclusive and diverse, so every now and again a little check in on those things is necessary.

Tell us how you try and make the hobby more inclusive in the comments, or just why you think its important. Speaking of comments, you might want to skip the ones on that YouTube video. Yikes. 

Image Credits: D&D/Wizards of the Coast, Freaks and Geeks/NBC, Stranger Things/Netflix, and Community/NBC/Amazon

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