The Content of Our Characters

It’s been a little while — sorry! I had hoped to have written a whole series of posts (languishing in draft stage) right now, but I suddenly got a new job, and while I was adjusting to that, my Kickstarter for Dog Eat Dog wrapped up (with a total of $6,704, woo!). Suffice to say I’ve got a lot on my plate right now! And, of course, in the middle of all that, I got embroiled in a discussion of racism, growing ultimately from the same source that drove me to write Big Chiefs — a perception that some of the entries in Game Chef were appropriating elements of Native American culture without much concern for how that might affect their audience.

I don’t want to write a huge screed about racism in the gaming community — for one thing, I’ve already written like five this week. But here’s a thing. The gaming community — for almost every form of gaming — is predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly hetero, cisgender, etc. etc. ad kyriarchum. Most of the time this passes without notice (except by the queer female gamers of color, etc.). But every so often somebody will ask a question like “How do we attract more women to gaming?”

This is the wrong approach to the problem.

Women aren’t a scarce resource or a prey animal. The majority of people on the planet are women. They have access to the same media, the same conversations, the same decision-making process as men. They’re just making different choices, in the aggregate. Just look at Facebook. Some game designers have negative opinions about social games, sure, but there’s no denying that they have a radically different — and radically more inclusive — demographic than older, more traditional forms of gaming. (Which is one big reason any game designer should be paying attention to them.) So it’s not as if there aren’t as many women out there who enjoy games in the abstract as there are men. It’s the individual examples giving them pause — and the communities built up around those examples.

Cognition is a network process — necessarily, it’s built around pattern recognition, because networks are specialized towards forming unexpected connections. People understand their lives in terms of narratives, because narratives are patterns of human behavior and interaction. So when people see narratives, either in content or discussion of that content, in which people like them are nonexistent, or used only as foils, villains, freaks, or comic relief, they absorb those narratives, and connect them to the content in question. (And to themselves, in the longer term.) When people perceive the mores of a community as requiring them to swallow their hurt or pretend not to be the people they are, they extend those mores to the topics the community is centered around. (And, again, to their own mores.)

Here’s James W. Loewen, from Lies My Teacher Told Me:

Caste minority children — Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics — do worse in all subjects, compared to white or Asian American children, but the gap is largest in social studies. That is because the way American history is taught particularly alienates students of color and children from impoverished families. Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everybody else…Most have-not students do not consciously take offense and do not rebel but are nonetheless subtly put off. It hurts children’s self-image to swallow what their history books teach about the exceptional fairness of America. Black students consider America history, as usually taught, “white” and assimilative, so they resist learning it. This explains why research shows a bigger performance differential between poor and rich students, or black and white students, in history than in other school subjects. Girls also dislike social studies and history even more than boys, probably because women and women’s concerns and perceptions still go underrepresented in history classes. (p. 301-302)

And history is something you have to take in school.

The question to ask isn’t “How do we attract more women (or people of color, or queer people) to gaming?”

It’s “How do we stop driving them away?”

6 thoughts on “The Content of Our Characters

  1. This may be my favorite post ever about this line of thinking. Thank you, both for writing it, and for perhaps permanently reframing the whole topic for me, if not others.

  2. As someone who’s been getting into a number of drawn-out and contentious debates about art in rpgs, I think your final two sentences perfectly summarizes everything that I’ve been trying to convey.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Assembly: No Fear, No Writer’s Block | The Gamer Assembly

  4. In order to answer that we must first answer: How are we driving them away? Is it the stereotype of the smelly, nerdy guy drinking Mountain Dew? If so how do we combat that?

    I’ve seen a major increase in Women gamer’s in the last 15 years. Things like World of Warcraft, Shelly Mazzanoble’s “Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the D&D Game” and D20 Girls have played a roll in this.
    One area of gaming that doesn’t seem to have such unequal proportions of male and females is the LARP community. It might be worth looking at what they do diffrently to not scare away the women.

  5. This post is thought provoking and poignant, thank you for it. I particular appreciated the Loewen quote and the connection formed between that and gaming content because it makes a very good point. As for my input…Firstly, I am a woman. Secondly, I play games. More specifically: I only play “some” games. The games I play are generally more interactive, such as role play, table-top and cooperative LAN types of games. I will agree that many games just seem built for the white, hetero, male customer. Why does a male warrior type character get to have incredible set of armor and amazing melee ability but a female warrior type gets a chainmail bikini/thong thingy? There is a great deal of socio-cultural commentary happening in these games reinforcing hetero white male priviledge, but the white male hetero customer base doesn’t see it for it’s unfairness because it is their culture. Besides, if they were to feel empathetic towards this or argue against a chainmail bikini thong combo on a female warrior that just makes them effeminate or less manly somehow I’m sure. :/

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