Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Productive Scab-picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming

Preamble -- On Helicopters and Hugos:

Last year, an author named Isabel Fall wrote an amazing milSF story in Clarkesworld magazine, now titled "Helicopter Story," but previously "I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter."

 Fall took a ugly transphobic 'joke' and turned it into an amazing, provocative, and thoughtful story. She also suffered a great deal because of it. People reacted badly to the title - which makes sense, given the incredibly hurtful associations the phrase has. Unfortunately, this also led to Fall receiving a lot of harassment herself. She pulled the story from Clarkesworld about two weeks after it dropped, and was also forced to out herself as being trans, in part of responding to the accusations of transphobia leveled at her.

Helicopter Story is not currently available online anymore, but if that changes, I'll edit in a link here. It recently became a Hugo finalist for best Novelette. (Disclosure here: I'm one of the people who nominated it, and I'm really happy that it's up for a Hugo.)

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Fall's Hugo nomination generated a Twitter thread here from Elizabeth Sandifer: 

One thing that I don’t think has been discussed enough around Isabel Fall or in general is that there are two diametrically opposed visions of how to write queer literature. Let’s call them hugboxing and scab-picking, and do a quick thread...

The basic divide between hugboxing and scab-picking comes in how they engage with queer oppression. Hugboxing imagines its absence, creating safer, better worlds. Scab-picking probes its wounds in deliberately painful and uncomfortable ways. 

This got me thinking about the way that this is treated in the games we create and play. Sandifer's discussion of hugboxing and scab-picking (loaded terms! but ones I'm going to continue with for now) is centered in queer literature, but I think that the two poles have resonance for treatment of other axes of oppression (racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism for example). In games, it's a bit trickier than the binary state that Sandifer proposes -- instead of a single creation being put forth to be taken on its own merits (with an audience able to take or leave it as desired), you're dealing with a shared group interaction, often iterated over multiple instances. People's thresholds and goals are going to vary, both between people and sometimes within the same person from session to session.

I think I fall on the scab-picking side of the spectrum, by and large - but I reiterate that it's a spectrum, and that operating on one side doesn't mean that the other doesn't have very valid outlook and uses. The gaming projects I'm most proud of (Lorn Song of the Bachelor and the forthcoming Haunted West adventure "Home is the Hangman") both fall on the scab-picking side regarding colonialism and racism...but I've veered away from the most recent editions of Paranoia, a game I have significant history with, in part because the decision to rebrand Alpha Complex's enemy du jour from "Communists" to "terrorists" felt a bit too on-the-nose for me, given what it felt like going through high school post 9/11. Everyone's got a different line that they will draw.

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First, some perspectives from other thoughtful folks regarding the valid role of presenting oppression in a gaming context.

Another Twitter thread here from Chris Kutalik (creator of the Hill Cantons and my longtime GM): 

@ChrisKutalik: I sympathize with the motivation, the need for a clean bright shiny place for our brains to go when we roll weird shaped dice. One that doesn’t have women treated as chattel and the layers of racist projection...

 But I also think it’s an ironically reactionary impulse, the need to project heroism and romanticized ideals of stabbing living things with sharp things...I do draw the world of the Hill Cantons in a society I wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—want to live in. A rich one (I hope) with the pervasive weirdness, ugliness that the European medieval world was along with a more complicated society than many give it credit for.

And this discussion from Pam Punzalan (TheDovetailor) and TrooperSJP (Academic Foxhole):

@TheDoveTailor: The Philippines was colonized four times, and has a long history of trans-cultural exchange with upwards of three nations via trade prior to the Spanish coming around. If you're saying we should not deal with colonialism in our stories, you're telling us we have no story.

@AcademicFoxhole: Everytime I hear: No POC wants to read about racism I think: Toni Morrison? Everytime I hear: No woman wants to read about sexual assault I think: Margaret Atwood? No Queer person wants to read about homophobia? Quentin Crisp? There is power in being able to define my own story.

And of course, Zedeck Siew's thread here:

@ZedeckSiew: Firstly: "D&D is colonialist" is similar to "the English language is colonialist".

If your method of decolonising RPGs is to abandon D&D- some folks abandon English; they don't want to work in the language of the coloniser. More power to them!

...[I]t's an error to "decolonise D&D" by scrubbing such content from the game. That feels like erasure; like an unwillingness to face history / context; like a way to appease one's own settler guilt. Remember: if you -white or PoC- live in the West, or in an Asian urban centre (say), you are already complicit in colonialist / capitalist (they are inextricably linked) behaviour.

Removing such stuff from RPGs might let you feel better. But won't change what you are. 

I think it more truthful *and* more useful, to not avert one's eyes from D&D's colonialism.

The fact that going forth into the hinterland to seek treasure and slay monsters is a thing and *fucking fun* tells us valuable things about the shape and psychology of colonialism.  

Finally, a quote from Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound:

Harlem Unbound is built on the concept of tackling issues head-on. Some say Lovecraft was 'of his time,' but we know that his racism was even worse than that... So what does the popularity of his work, built on racism, say about our current society? And, how do you address the popular work which is so tethered to his reprehensible world view? We can't change the past, but we can tear it down and rebuild it into something that focuses on bringing us together. This can only be done by facing ugly truths. 

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So. How do we, as creators, responsibly deal with and tackle those ugly truths Chris mentions? How does one pick at those scabs in a productive manner? A few of my takes:

1. Stay Fluid

As mentioned, people's thresholds and goals re: the level of oppression that they are willing to deal with in gaming are likely to fluctuate. Sure, one can have a Session Zero where some baselines are hashed out, but those can change on even a session-by-session basis. The real-life people around the table come first, and sometimes that means further check-ins or even rerouting session plans because of a spike in player discomfort. Make space for that, and make space for people to voice discomfort.

"The Feral Shore" - section of the HC campaign
where this story went down
Personal example: I had a really bad time with a Hill Cantons game session a few years back, triggered by one player's actions in particular but rooted in discomfort with some of the colonialist facets of play that were being brought to the fore. It's not a thing I would have thought to flag when joining the campaign or even when the domain-game-heavy phase of play began, and I didn't realize how uncomfortable I was feeling or why until I had some time to unpack it afterwards. This led to some tough-but-clear conversations over G+ regarding what each of us was willing to play through and deal with at the table, and how we, as a group, felt comfortable progressing. The individual session was rough, but ultimately led to a better perspective on where we were at as a group. 

Folks may move from being down to pick at scabs to needing to strongly divert away, and back again. Listen to where they're at, and try to accommodate. What that accommodation looks like may vary! If you as GM are preparing a heavy scab-picking session and a player needs something more hugboxy (or vice versa), maybe change the dynamics of the session...OR hold off on the session for a while, or maybe change the player composition for the session so that both parties can get the gaming experience they're seeking. There's no one right answer here, and the answer definitely isn't always "change your intended work." 

Using safety tools may help for this, but those are generally something for after things have gone sideways, not a replacement for fluidity in terms of game approach. Further, not all safety tools are going to match with all tables. Just saying "oh, we have these tools, we're fine" isn't enough; you've got to think about these things before problems occur at the table.

2. Work with Intentionality

"Broken Blade," Evlyn Moreau
One of the critiques often levelled at works reproducing systems of oppression is that it's all fictional - so why include these elements that serve to remind folks of real-world oppression? I think there's certainly some truth to this; our imagined worlds aren't limited by the scars of history, and don't need to go down those paths and recreate those pains in-game. But if one wants to engage with those issues in game, then they are going to have to come up in some form. 

So, if you're going to bring in those elements of oppression into your setting or your game, fine -- but make a deliberate choice to do so. Think about the implications on a societal level, and what dealing with those means for players. Have some thought beyond "oh, things were bad in (Renn Faire Fantasy Times), let's put it in that way, it'll add atmosphere." You're making a conscious choice to include this material in your setting. Is it being presented in a meaningful way? Is there personal experience that you're able to draw on when including this material? 

3. Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

Are you creating material for your home table, or planning on publishing this for others to interact with? If you're tackling material that's outside of your personal experience, have you thought about how you're going to make sure you don't hit some of the pitfalls associated with that? If you're planning on publishing something that's centering on experience outside of your own, are you the right person to be tackling this work? 

And even if you're just focusing on something for your home table, are you sure that your crew is on board with the material you're bringing in? If you can, try to touch base beforehand and make sure folks are on the same page. 

4. Take Your Lumps -- But Know Who's Talking

If you're going to put issues of oppression in your work, you have to be willing to listen, sincerely listen, if and when folks call you out about the treatment of a given issue. And this is hard! It's even harder if someone calls you out in an angry fashion, because it can feel like they're coming after you and your work personally. 

If someone's calling you out? Try to listen. Because that's often someone who legitimately wants to see you do better. And even if you don't agree with their takeaway and you still think you did it right, you might have a better feel for how you want to handle a similar issue in the future. But at the same time, also pay attention to who's critiquing you, and the substance of those critiques. Most are going to be in good faith, but there are folks who thrive on call-outs for Internet clout.* Listen to what people are saying, but don't assume that they're automatically correct. 

Fall's example is on point here. Many of the critiques she faced were good-faith critiques, understandably on edge from the (original) title and the red flags that it raised for people. Some critiques went a hell of a lot further than that. I think that while the critiques may have been made in good faith, the story was legitimate and should not have been pulled; she was right to pen it and publish it. 

* * *

These are not easy things to do. But I think they are necessary if we're going to create thoughtfully. It can feel like a lot - particularly when the context for folks reading this is likely far more towards "RPG as fun group problem-solving game" instead of "RPG as deep raw emotional catharsis" or "RPG as art piece." 

At the same time, I think that even games focused on the fun problem-solving side of things have the potential to tackle painful material in a thoughtful way, whether it's in a satirical or direct format. We can walk and chew gum at the same time here. If the fictional worlds we're envisioning are to have axes of oppression within them, then the least we can do is put time and effort into making sure those worlds are thoughtful and deliberate, that the scab-picking is productive. One of the strengths of the people I hang with has long been the compelling and fascinating settings that folks have put together. I see this as just taking the next logical, necessary step. 

Y'all with me?

(Special thanks to Yoshi and Momatoes for providing feedback on this post.)

*Call-outs can be necessary sometimes! But they can also be a pernicious thing, because you feel like you're doing the righteous thing and you're getting positive attention and reinforcement. If you're going to call someone out on bad behavior, think about it, make sure you know why you're doing it, and make sure you're centering the folks actually harmed by the bad behavior. I've tried to keep this framework in mind, and I think I've done a decent job on this front? But it can be tricky. 


  1. Good post. It's an issue I have thought about a lot ever since I started writing rpg books. Both Weird Adventures and Strange Stars probably have some content that would not be what some people are looking for and I can understand that. Certainly all of it was done deliberately and not for shock value, but if folks want to ignore certain things, I get why.

  2. This is extremely timely for me, thank you. One thing that I wrestle with a lot is the question _are you the right person to do this?_ ...because sometimes nobody else is doing it, and sometimes you may genuinely disagree with a critic about it, but the critique is not really _about the work,_ but _about the author_ and you can’t really do anything about it. Strictly, the accusation “you should not do this, somebody else should” is an ad hominem critique and it suffers from some problems because of that, even if it has some valid substance.

  3. This is a great post. A lot of stuff to chew on here (esp as someone whose got hugbox tendencies)

  4. I deeply enjoyed this post - thanks Allandaros. And thanks for providing some practical tips on how to proceed as a gamer.

  5. More conversation is better than less (or none). Good stuff.