Thursday, November 13, 2014

Checking My Privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and inclusiveness lately (as in, the last 12-13 months or so), mainly with regard to game design. My rant the other day had an element of this and…well, I’m on a plane heading for Chicago at the moment with shit-for-TV playing instead of Guardians of the Galaxy, so I might as well pound out a blog post on the subject.

[creating games with “adequate diversity” (and with attention to including all sorts of folks) is something of a hot-button topic these days, so I’ll probably take shit from both sides for my reflections on the subject. I’m cool with that]

Gosh, where even to start? I feel challenged to even address the subject of diversity when I come from a place as privileged as I do. I’m white, male, straight, American, non-trans-anything. I’m married with a couple kids. I’m Roman Catholic and even though Catholics sometimes take some heat for their religion, it’s tough to feel marginalized when you’re part of the single largest religion on the planet (at least, if you’re including the “lapsed” and “non-practicing” Cat-Lickers).

I’m about as white-bread normal as they come. I’m a drinker, but a functioning one. I eat meat, but know it’s bad for my cholesterol.  I’m not a porn watcher, but I want it to be accessible (except for my kids). I watch a lot of football. I drive a car and have a bank account. There’s nothing “oppressed” about my life, and (for the most part) the society I live in is one set-up and designed to support me. I may bitch-and-moan when Americans stupidly vote Tea Party Republicans into office, but that’s just a principle thing. I and my family benefit from having a Republican controlled Congress. Paying less taxes just means I’m getting richer…my health care and retirement and whatnot is already paid for, and I live in a nice enough neighborhood of Seattle that if my kids end up going to public school they’ll be in one of the best.

It’s a disgusting abundance of privilege that I have.

[sorry…had to break to eat my cheese blintzes, fresh fruit, and sausage. Oh, and order another complimentary Bloody Mary. Business class, ya’ know?]

I’m not in the top 1% of Americans, probably not even the top 10%, but I’m well above “median income,” and I’ve never really suffered; and hell, there’s no real suffering in sight. I own a nice house, I’ve got no crushing debt (car and student loans were paid off long ago), and while two kids can mean a financial burden, I’m still able to get to a few Seahawks games. Whether or not people of the same sex can marry has no effect on my life; what does matters is if my cable and high speed internet are up-and-running. Regardless of whether or not I “support the troops,” the troops are certainly supporting me and my lifestyle. The fact that I have time and energy to complain about WotC or lack of diversity in films or the weather in Paraguay should tell you that truthfully, I really have no complaints at all.

Thus it’s a challenge for me to have any kind of “cred” when it comes to talking about changing game (design) culture.  I can’t talk from a background of being oppressed or underrepresented or misrepresented because, hey, I belong to the ruling class. And it’s not like I got this through hard work or metaphysical visualization-manifestation. I just happen to be born into the right place at the right time with the “right” gender-color-orientation. Dig?

So why bother? When the best you can be considered is an “ally to the cause” and the worst is some misguided dude with “white knight syndrome,” why the F even bother? Why not just continue to design shit without any secondary agenda? “For my children?” They’re already set on a course for being as privileged as myself (if not more so). Because of my “white guilt?” No: it’s hard to feel guilty about “writing what you know,” even if what you know isn’t incredibly diverse. Because it’s “different” or “novel?” Well, novel ideas are a better way to get on the market than recycled hash, but that’s hardly a reason to make the effort when the hash sells fine.

No. There are a couple-three reasons at work here (for me, anyway):
  • There’s a problem in gaming and I don’t want to be part of the problem. The problem is, there’s a lot of white-male (sometimes juvenile) designers designing games for a white-male (sometimes juvenile) audience…not necessarily on a conscious level, mind, just because that’s what they know. And there are more people out there who game…or who might enjoy games…than just white males of a juvenile persuasion.
  • Growing the hobby (i.e. creating more audience) is something I’m all about. It seems only logical (to me) that making games more inclusive (with inclusive language, concepts, art) are going to make some folks (who might otherwise have been “turned off”) more interested in exploring the hobby. Maybe not, but I don’t need to cater to the die-hard, grognardy, fans. There’s already people (designers/publishers) doing that and keeping those folks involved in the hobby.
  • It’s the Goddamn “right thing to do.” That is to say, it’s not right to be exclusive when it comes to design…not when we live in a world where different cultures and backgrounds are afforded the same opportunity (and thus access) to the same games. If they’re there, why leave them out, or make them feel marginalized?

My wife is originally from Mexico (she’s lived steadily in the US since 1997). In years past, when I asked her to state her race (for example, on a census report) she said “Mexican.” Nowadays, she identifies as a “Latina” but that’s not really a race, either. Technically she is a mestizo, as are the vast majority of native Mexicans: a person of mixed (white) European ancestry and native Mesoamericans (“Indians”). Because nearly all of Mexico is “mestizo” they’ve stopped using the term, thus my wife’s lack of a term for herself. (she has absolutely zero identification with “Native Americans”). My wife is NOT white. Our children are white with dishwater blond hair and green eyes (like their papa), and they’re different enough that my wife has remarked she might be identified as “the help” when she’s out with them.

I asked my wife her opinion about the diversity (or rather, lack of diversity) in film-thang (she doesn’t care about games). She states that it doesn’t bother her and that she doesn’t care. She says she’s always considered it silly that people complain about underrepresentation in film because she “goes to movies to see other people anyway” (whether they’re white, or black, or blue-skinned). It doesn’t matter to her what ethnicity is cast in a film, unless it’s a piece about a particular culture or time period.

What IS of concern to her, and what IS important is the lack of strong female characters in film. Star Wars (for example) has white folks and non-white folks and alien folks…but why are they so over-whelmingly male? A couple bit parts aside, the only female character in the prequel trilogy is Padme, and what purpose does she really serve besides acting as a goal/objective for the (male) protagonists in the first couple films before being relegated to mere “set decoration” in Episode III?

Weak Sauce
So, my (non-white) wife would say lack of diversity/inclusion bothers her more when it’s gender inequality that’s on display. If she were a gamer, I’d imagine the same standard would apply: if she’s pretending to be a wizard or cyber-hacker it doesn’t matter whether she’s white or black or “troll-colored.” The equal representation of male and female (and active, protagonist female) is more important.

All right, this is getting long….maybe I’ll get back to this subject in a "Part 2," but right now I’m getting to land. Later, Gators.

[posted from Chicago O’Hare]


  1. "She says she’s always considered it silly that people complain about underrepresentation in film..."

    I'm with her there. I don't need some token gay character in every story (honestly, forcing it would be annoying and possibly offensive). I'm even cool with a certain degree of homophobia, so long as it doesn't go overboard (that one's a little tough to explain). It's just part of the human condition, and denying it makes everything artificial and reminds me of Equilibrium

    What does bug me is that gay characters are treated as novel or even taboo, and that non-pornographic gay films aren't really mainstream. If I wanna see a romcom at a Regal, it's gotta be Hillary Swank and Gerard Butler. If there's a gay character, they're never one I can actually relate to. I'm fine with watching those sometimes, but it'd be nice to actually have the option to see something like Latter Days

    Audiences are big enough that we don't have to appeal to everyone all the time, and straight white males aren't the only niche group worth appealing to. Make something for them, something for us, and something else we can both enjoy

  2. @ ProfOats:

    Course wouldn't it be refreshing to see a gay action hero? There are plenty of ex-military gay folk (men and women), for example...the usual background for a lot of our cinematic action-types.

    (Hmmm...though I suppose we already have Tango and Cash)

    1. That'd be fine. Can't say I've ever felt a great need for it, since that genre doesn't have much to do with romantic/sexual attraction. My point was just that we don't have to force a gay character into an action film. Let's have a straight one, a gay one, a black one, etc. Probably can't appeal to everyone, of course

      A big part of the problem is actually the concern about offending people, though those people are the majority. Can't have a gay sitcom or else we'll piss off the Christian Right and soccer moms. I'd like to just forget about what people don't like and focus on giving more people what they do like

    2. @ ProfOats:

      I've never been terribly worried about offending the majority. Knowing the majority as I do, we seem to do just fine.
      ; )

      But I see your point.

  3. When my wife (Korean, but also lived in Japan for over a decade) first visited the U.S. with me - actually, the second time, too - she was shocked that there were so many non-white people everywhere.

    After 30 years of watching US TV and movies, she thought the whole country would be as white as my tiny Illinois hometown. Chicago, Savannah, Washington DC and Phoenix blew her mind.

    So in my opinion, more diversity in media of all sorts can only be a positive thing.

    I also agree with ProfessorOats that it has to be natural for the diversity to have the proper effect. Token characters of any sort (race, sex, orientation) tend to exacerbate the problem rather than diminish it, because it's usually painfully obvious that they are the "exception."

    1. @ Lord Gwyd:

      Oh, I agree. I hate "tokenism" (if that's even a word). But being inclusive with regard to sex (when female types are half the population) is probably something that needs a bit more attention.

      BTW: your wife's story? That's pretty funny (even if it's a touch sad).

  4. Just to remind folks through most of history diversity was not natural and was the exception seeing say a a black person, a Moor was unusual enough even for the rich to be used as cool flavor illustration in medieval fight books.

    Even well into 1990's this was the case most places.
    Outside of some highly cosmopolitan cities and border regions diversity was far from common.

    Now certainly diversity in media is useful if anyone wants it, I'm not entirely sure this is the case. media isn't really as "mass" as people think and is made for specific audiences. same with RPG's.

    Also speaking for the US here 25% of the population can't even read and probably more than 2/3 of younger people even of high school age could not understand the 1st edition D&D rules well enough to play them game as many of us did.

    However if someone wants to make a game or get a group together the barriers to entry are so low that anyone who can read and had access to any modern computer and time can make and publish any games they like.

    However complaints if no one in the exiting community wants to play them ought to fall on deaf ears. Its not about privilege but about using our limited recreational time to maximize our own benefit.

  5. I've been the token white guy, gentile, straight, male a number of times in my life aside from being able to talk my way out of a traffic ticket and deflect police without making things worse I have never felt much privilege at having to work for everything. The best way to manage inclusion is to not practice exclusion.

  6. As a straight white 40-something guy, I've always thought I'd like to see more diversity...pretty much everywhere. Romcoms & sitcoms, for example, always have a specific ratio of white/black/asian etc. Toss it out. Have the bbq-ing neighbors be asian. A lesbian couple across the hall. It's always got to be A Thing in media to have diversity, and that's not life. Diversity in life is a gay couple kissing in the background, or a native american doctor, or a female mail carrier. Just, y'know, regular people.