Somebody like my friend Mattias

Many of you will by now have read Mattias’ excellent post talking about his experience growing up.

As I was talking with him about it afterwards, we hit on another related topic: what happens when people with that experience of falling in-between society’s accepted definitions are in your gaming group?  Is there anything in particular that you should do?  I have a pretty definite agenda here, so I’ll ask some leading questions; how can you make your games and gaming group more inclusive, and how can you do that while including potentially uncomfortable topics in your games?

I won’t claim to have The Answer.  As a (pretty definitively) white male, I’ve never really faced most of the problems that Mattias brought up.  The world caters to me and my ilk.  When I started college I had almost no concept of any of the experiences that he wrote about in his post.  While I can identify with parts of it if I look deep enough at my own experience, he saw and felt that exclusion of slipping between society’s definitional expectations far more powerfully than I ever did.  But I do hope that I’ve been able to learn a few things that I can share on the topic.

First off, a tip that gets right to the heart of things: if you’re running a game, be sure to make everyone human.  Stereotypes are an excellent way to quickly engage with a character archetype, but they also let you pigeonhole someone (or something) that you don’t want to deal with.  Feel free to use bits and pieces of the imagery of stereotypes, but remember to make the people your players interact with distinct, personal, and real.  This serves several purposes; by utilizing the cues that people often associate with specific stereotypes, you convey a lot of information quickly, but by instead filling out these characters with their own personalities, foibles and desires, you encourage your players to look deeper than the first glance.  Name your NPCs, have other people care about them, or show how sad it is that nearly no one else cares about them, but above all pay attention to the ways people interact with each other in the real world.  Watch, listen to, and read about families, friends, and organizations.  Learn what it takes to convince your players that they are dealing with real people.  And remember that even when people are found in a group together, they are often different from one another despite however much they might share.  The gang that has been harassing your PCs is not monolithic, despite the fact that they’ve mostly been acting in concert.  Real doesn’t mean “nice,” real people are both kind and mean, sane and crazy, sometimes all at the same time.

That tip goes a long way towards making your games more palatable to people who have been mis- or under-represented.  Especially if you include all kinds of different people.  The world is, in fact, a crazily diverse place; you’re missing out on a lot if you simply discard large sections of it without thinking carefully.  A few quick questions that you can ask yourself are:

  • Have I accidentally made this game a sausage fest?  (all characters are male)
  • Have I accidentally whitewashed this game?  (all characters are white, or human in the case of a fantasy game where color doesn’t matter)
  • Have I accidentally given people motivations and personality based solely on their gender and race?

*****

Another way of looking at all of this is to ask the following question: does somebody like my friend Mattias exist in this game?  If not, why the hell not?  I’m not asking you to name someone Mattias in all of your games (I certainly haven’t, that would be very silly and totally unlike me or my friends), I just want you to make sure that the people in your games exist as more than snapshots of society’s expectations.  If your setting calls for one or more of the earlier questions to be purposefully true (maybe you’re playing Call of Cthulhu in 1920’s America and are going for some historical realism, helloooo white patriarchy), don’t shy away from making the people who are there as real and personal as possible.  And remember that most characters will be interacting with people outside of the focused area anyways (who drives the Southern gentleman’s carriage? who cleans your home? who will your investigators ask to learn about all the gossip on so-and-so?), and take those opportunities to make those people real too.

Another tip: play inside your players’ comfort zones and only to push outside them when everyone agrees that pushing comfort zones will be part of the game.  Even if they do agree to that, your players should still be able to call time-out if something gets too intense for them.  These are our games and our friends, not people to be tortured.  That comfort zone advice is best when it comes to disturbing and potentially triggering topics (rape, abuse, racism, etc.), but I do really think that you should try to make NPCs as real as possible regardless of the situation, even when they are the monsters.  Don’t shy away from having the terrible people be likable sometimes.  The exception that proves the rule might be a cinematic action game in which everyone is playing a stereotype, and all that they interact with are stereotypes, but even there you should be careful.

This won’t solve everything.  You’ve also got to be willing to admit when you’ve been an ass, and be willing to learn how not to be an ass.  There’s a whole lot more out there, and some of it is particularly worth reading, but I’ll leave it with this for now:

  • Make people real
  • Negotiate expectations of comfort zones (there’s often more leeway with horror)
  • Learn how not to be an ass

What has your experience with these sorts of things been like?  What else should I have included, what else would you like to see addressed?  Are there any things that you or your acquaintances have done that were especially helpful with addressing inclusion / not being an ass?

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