Board Game Culture Missing Link …

So, I recently came across a post at the Mary Sue about 3 ways to make gaming culture safer. Note that this is referring to board game culture, not video game culture, although in general it might be hard to tell. At any rate, she starts from an example from 2003 — so, 13 years ago — to show how things are bad now:

In 2003, I was hired as the second woman ever to work for Games Workshop Canada’s retail division. It was a short but very formative stint, a summer job that fostered my deep passion for the tabletop community—and colored my view of it.

I went through the training, learning about the company’s mission (total world domination), the unadvertised policy on shoplifting (prosecute to the fullest extent of the law) and every day lived the ten commandments of retail (ironically enough, modelled after the shopping experience of UK bodycare company The Body Shop.)

Despite all this training, I was unprepared to handle the stalking and harassment I sustained that summer from a particularly unrelentless customer. He would follow me and (without invitation) join me on my lunch break as I sat in the mall food court, follow me to my car when I was done my shift, and inquire when I was working next.

His obsession culminated into him coming into the store one day, and pulling out a camcorder with which he used to record me as I ran a pair of kids through an intro game of Warhammer 40K. The whole thing.

Discombobulated, I hid in the back room, explained to a coworker what was happening, and waited until he came back to tell me it was safe.

I take from that incident a recognition that there are blind spots in our community. If a multi-million dollar, publicly traded company doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy in their training handbook for staff, what’s the chance my Friendly Local Game Store does?

Okay, so even before getting into her actual solutions, there are a number of things to say here:

1) As described, this was a case of actual stalking, and so should have been referred to the police, not to the store’s harassment policy.

2) A small store in general doesn’t need a harassment policy beyond “Don’t tick each other off”, letting the store manager or owner to decide what’s reasonable and what isn’t. About the only other things that might need to be followed are legal requirements … but then the employees would be covered by the law. Sure, having to appeal to the law isn’t ideal, but it at least adds protection. If a store has 5 employees, what in the world is a harassment policy supposed to do that the manager simply resolving disputes won’t?

3) What would the store’s harassment policy, if it had one, have to do with anything here? The stalker was a customer, and harassment policies generally apply to employees. You certainly can’t apply the traditional penalties for harassment — up to and including termination of employment — to a customer. She’d be trying to apply the wrong solution here.

4) All you need when dealing with customers is essentially a policy that says that if you tick off our employees enough, you’ll be barred from the store. And that’s about all you can do here. And it looks like that’s what actually happened here, once she made the problem clear to her co-workers.

So somehow she took away from that incident a recognition that something was required that, well, wouldn’t have actually changed anything.

And we can see this carry on as she talks about her proposed solutions, which I’ll go through one by one. As I do so, keep in mind the problem that she’s trying to solve and think about whether doing that would have any impact or in any way solve that problem.

Normalize the presence of women, people of color, and other minorities in games and in gaming spaces.

Um, is she asserting that the stalking incident happened because she was a minority woman and somehow seen to be exotic? Okay, she talks a lot about “seeing women as prizes”, and board games contributing to that attitude, which arguably might be what happened with her stalker, but that wouldn’t include talking about other minorities, and wouldn’t include “normalizing” them, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s only if the stalking was perpetrated in some way by her being seen as different and exotic — particularly as a Latino — that trying to normalize representations — which she talks about — would help at all … but since in the United States that group is still in the minority, it’s not going to help. And even if you got — in terms of actual players — a 50-50 split male-female, that likely won’t help her getting hit on. It just might not happen as often. Which then leads into her last point about this solution:

And if you’re a gamer, engage with gamers who would be minorities in the gaming community as gamers, not as minorities. I’m always elated to talk about my favorite games or 40K army, and less so about my ethnic heritage. Sure, I’m happy to talk about some awesome depictions of women in gaming, not so much whether or not I’m single or if I have a female relative I could introduce you to. If you witness that kind of behavior, intervene and say, “Dude, how does that matter? Let’s play some games.” It helps remind everyone within earshot that we’re all gamers.

This will carry on into the next two solutions, but board gaming in particular is not just about playing games. It’s also a social activity. And as a social activity, people will do and will expect to do social things. Social things do, in fact, include asking questions about parts of a person’s personal life — sometimes asking if someone is single is, in fact, just curiosity and sometimes just comes up in discussion –, asking someone out, or trying to set them up or get them to set you up with friends. Romantic relationships are a big part of people’s lives, and in a social setting it’s one that will come up over and over again. Also, if someone is proud of and clearly reflects their ethnic heritage, people are going to be curious about it. I’ve had co-workers ask me about my last name, what origin it is, if I speak Polish, and so on and so forth … and I’m pretty much Canadian through and through. This will only come up more in social situations.

If we say that all that matters is playing games and remove the social aspect, board gaming will lose at least one of the big benefits it has … and the only big benefit it has if we exclude RPGs from the discussion. Given that she says this earlier:

Further, what’s the chance that other gamers have encountered gamers like me, and have an understanding of what my day-to-day life is like, and why gaming as an escape is so important to me?

She surely will want to understand and maintain the social aspects that are often an important part of what board gaming is to other people, too.

Create and enforce policies around bullying and harassment, and empower the community you serve to enforce them.

Now, her stalker was a customer of the store she was working at. He was not actually playing in any games she or anyone else was moderating when he was stalking her. How in the world would this do anything to address that problem? She might want to argue that if he was in a gaming group and if restrictions on behaviour were put in place, then he would have learned not to act that way but a) he might not have acted that way in a specific gaming group and b) just because gaming groups enforced standards inside the group doesn’t mean that people will act according to those standards outside of that gaming group. So this would do nothing, in general, to address the example she gives that all decent gamers want addressed and stopped.

Moreover, her view of this is problematic:

Addressing harassment isn’t remotely like a criminal trial. If you articulate clearly the expectations of behavior within your space and someone doesn’t adhere to them, you can remove them. If a business can terminate an individual for not being “the right fit,” so too can you. Consider it a preemptive measure that prevents something from escalating to the point where it may require the involvement of legal authorities. Nobody wants that on their conscience.

First, this contradicts her point above about things just being about the games, unless the behaviour is anything that distracts or detracts from the gaming and nothing more. Second, if one is playing with a group of friends, these formal rules aren’t required, and if one isn’t, then the rules need to be fair and fairly applied. This might indeed mean, then, that if someone says some of the things that she doesn’t like the GM or DM might decide that she’s the one causing the disruption if she complains about it. It’s clear that she assumes that the behavioural rules will just be what she wants, and that then given that people who violate the rules will be kicked out of the group. But different groups may see things differently, and if she advocates for this sort of idea she might find herself the “victim” of these policies.

Now, I agree that if someone doesn’t fit in with the expected behaviour of a gaming group, then that person ought to leave the group. But unless the person is disruptive in general, that choice should be theirs. So if, for example, someone finds themselves in a gaming group that’s generally pretty ribald and they don’t like that, the choice should be theirs as to whether they want to put that aside and keep playing the games, or instead for them to find another group that suits them better. I get the impression that she’d want the GM and DM to eliminate that and kick out anyone who doesn’t agree.

(Note: People will protest here that I’m not addressing explicitly sexist and racist groups. I counter that sometimes what is sexist and racist is subjective, and also that the same rules apply: all of those who are bothered enough by that should leave the group and find/form another one. If most people are bothered by it, the group will collapse and those people won’t be able to join others unless they tamp that down. And, of course, any deliberate sexism and racism aimed at bothering other players is out of bounds in any group, on the basis that no group can survive if members of the group keep trying to hurt other players, which would apply to accusations of sexism and racism, too, if done deliberately to tweak the noses of other players.)

Recognize that treating everyone equitably isn’t just treating everyone the same.

Again, what does this have to do with her stalker? They pretty much should have treated him like they treated any other case: he’s annoying an employee, and should be told to stop.

If you’re facilitating late-night gaming, do you have people who can safely escort gamers to their cars at the end of the night? Not all gamers need that support, but those that do, really do.

But is it the job of a GM/DM to explicitly arrange that for others? If people want or need that, shouldn’t they take responsibility for that? Sure, they can ask the GM/DM to help them arrange it, but what does she expect the GM/DM to do here, beyond asking others in the group that they trust to do it if someone asks?

Similarly, having a zero-tolerance policy for sexist, racist, homophobic or ableist slurs doesn’t affect or benefit everyone equally, but it certainly does make the table a lot more equal.

But should we have a “zero-tolerance policy” for this at all? If someone screws up, they’re out? And is she excluding slurs aimed at white, cis men here?

Again, board gaming is also a social activity, not some kind of formal academic conference. You ought not solve social problems with formal policies. If someone constantly uses terms that offend or hurt someone, the right answer is not “kick them out”, but is instead to talk to them, let them know that it’s a problem, and let them address that. This is especially the case when whether or not something is a slur is often subjective (see the discussion in this recent comment thread at Twenty Sided Tale for an example).

We ought not tailor groups so that only white, cis, straight men can feel comfortable, but we ought not tailor groups to people who are not that group either. We need to see ourselves more as individuals and handle things through normal social channels rather than try to impose policies. After all, if anyone doesn’t like a particular group dynamic, they can always leave and find a new one. And if you argue that I’m missing how important games are to her, let me point out that games might well be that important to the people she wants kicked out, too.

So, her suggestions wouldn’t do anything to address the problem she uses as the example of why there are problems to be addressed, and are bad ideas besides. This, then, is a prime example of a really pernicious form of argumentation: find a problem that people agree is bad and needs to be stopped, and then insist that all sorts of unrelated solutions need to be implemented to solve that problem. If one is not careful, one can be swept up in the zeal to solve the problem and then accept that these solutions — that are mostly just what the person who is complaining about the problem wants to be the case — are necessary to solve the problem. At the end of it all, you end up with a bunch of things that aren’t good and aren’t necessary, and the worst case is that you end up with all of those things and the original problem still existing.

Which is pretty much what we’d end up with if we followed these suggestions.

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