The game development world is changing. And it’s changing for the better.
At PAX Unplugged, held in Philadelphia from December 6-8, developers and fans alike gathered for a weekend of celebrating one of our favorite pastimes: analog board games. The atmosphere at this convention was different from others I’ve been to in the past. The excitement was there, of course, as was the kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling that permeated the Expo Hall, but there was an edge to the proceedings that I haven’t felt before, a conversation that started a few years ago and is turning into one of the most compelling threads in game development today.
For generations, games were seen as something of a “boy’s club,” an industry dominated by white, male players consuming games and media designed by white, male-dominated studios. While there is still much work to be done in this arena, progress is on its way.
In 2019, PAX Unplugged brought a reinforced emphasis to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in games — which initiated conversations in just about every seminar, workshop, and panel discussion I attended.
A panel entitled “Lesbisnakes, Orcs, and Vampires: Who are TTRPGs’ Monsters?” took a closer look at the cultural significance tied to many so-called “traditional” monsters we see in fantasy literature and games, by asking the question. Some of these fantasy tropes–like hulking beasts with identifying physical features, mental illness as a departure from humanity, entire races or nationalities considered “evil,” and other types of “humanity that we don’t know how to deal with”–are so common in games and fiction that players and readers consider them the norm. However, the developers in this panel discussed ways to turn those tropes on their heads, consult with marginalized members of the community, and present a safe space in games where everyone can play.
This theme carried over into other panel discussions, like “Not Having Racism in Your Campaign or Settings, Revisited,” “Beyond Tolkien: Queer & Non-Euro-centric Worldbuilding,” and “Demystifying the Role of Cultural Consultants.”
This last panel featured discussion about cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation in games, a critical topic that has come into play surrounding everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and everything in-between.
But what is so important about these conversations?
It’s important to note here that games culture isn’t going to change overnight. From its start, the games industry has picked up a cadre of problematic behaviors, tropes, and themes.
It’s only in recent years that I myself have felt truly comfortable in the gaming sphere, despite my privilege as a cis-gender, white person. When I first started playing games, I often chose male characters or disguised my identity in online games simply to avoid the ridicule and harassment that came with being a “girl gamer.” The industry has accepted me as a female fan, but it’s still got a lot of work to do to create safe and welcoming spaces for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, transgender and nonbinary individuals, and developers who don’t follow the same structures and demographics of the “good ol’ boys” culture.
The fact that we’re having these conversations at a games convention speak volumes to the progress that is coming. The industry is finally starting to amplify the voices of the people who are working so hard to bring this change about. It’s encouraging to enter a room where not every face looks like mine, where everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is willing to work together to create those safe spaces, have the hard conversations, and put the work in to open up the games industry to everyone.
Games are about fun. They always have been, and they always will be. These new conversations help pave the way for future generations of game designers who will continue to make games fun for everyone, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, nationality, or background.
It’s critical to encourage these conversations in every way that we can. Supporting independent game studios is one way to make a major difference in the industry: many female, LGBTQIA+, transgender, and nonbinary individuals produce games in a freelance capacity, as independent designers, or under the umbrella of “indie” studios. The independent designer’s career path is a difficult one, and often very costly. There is an abundance of talented game designers who could benefit from feminist funding, even if that simply means pledging to an upcoming game on Kickstarter or purchasing a final copy directly from an independent website instead of picking it up at a big-box retail store.
Alternatively, our industry can offer support to the facilitators of these conversations: online and media resources, offline conventions, and nonprofits that seek to put games in hands and bring education to underserved communities around the world.
One of these resources is More Seats at the Table, a bi-monthly newsletter highlighting games from gender-diverse designers.
“What I most appreciate about More Seats at the Table is the blend of new and old content,” writes Fandible’s Angela Craft. “This is a really exciting time in tabletop RPGs, new games with exciting concepts and mechanics are coming out all the time. More Seats at the Table prominently features Kickstarters and newly-released games so you can get in on the ground floor and brag that you played the new-hotness before it was cool. But! Gender-diverse people have been creating games for as long as there’s been a hobby, and didn’t always have the resources to promote them when they were new, so each newsletter also includes games you may never heard of or had a chance to play.”
Funding diverse games isn’t just about creating new and interesting titles. It’s about providing members of underserved communities, particularly women and girls, with opportunities to see themselves in mainstream media, play characters who look and sound and think like they do, and experience the wonder that comes with finding your niche in gaming.
The games industry needs these conversations. Over time, my hope is that these conversations will help us work through issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of marginalization, shifting the culture one conversation at a time. The task isn’t going to be completed overnight, but if we keep talking, developers will keep listening.
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