SUPPORTING INCLUSIVITY IN GAMING

werewolf-coverLast Thursday I received my advance PDF of Mind’s Eye Theatre Werewolf: The Apocalypse, this post was informed by some preliminary reading of that book which made me happy with some of what the writers addressed. The rest of this post will not exclusively be about By Night Studios, but I want to call them out for moving things in the right direction and striving to be one of the more inclusive gaming companies on the market. I think this comes from the form of gaming in question. In some ways, LARP is an atmosphere where inclusivity, and safety, are much more present. You have larger groups, and often groups engaged in physical storytelling.

I got asked the other day what inclusivity in gaming means to me.

Inclusivity means having a game world that reflects reality in its diversity. Inclusivity means an openness to thought, to writing, to characters that walk a spectrum of identities. Inclusivity means a game culture that welcomes players and encourages them to engage in world building in a self-reflective way, but also in a way that acknowledges a plurality of vision about the purpose of gaming. Inclusivity means trying to find a way to engage, support, and empower any player that walks through the door, if their goal is to support the collaborative process.

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Borrowed from Dreadful Games

Storytelling and gaming are essential elements of our being. When I engage in stories that challenge my perceptions, that encourage me to think, to expand, to reflect, that is what I search for. I want everyone to have that chance, to be included if they want to be included. I want anyone that picks up a book I write, or a plays a game I play, to feel like they could make that their core pastime. Collaboration requires maneuvering with, and for people. Inclusivity embraces that challenge with the goal of trying to open the door so that all people, voices, and thoughts are heard, considered, and added to the collective memory, the shared myth.

Inclusivity in gaming is a process that can start from the ground up, or, from the top down. What, in this case, do I mean by top down? I’m talking about from the game company themselves. From choosing writers, to tapping artists, all the way up to developers, a desire for and a strong commitment to inclusivity impacts their games in ways that ripple throughout their fan communities. That isn’t to say the job of inclusivity is only on the developer side, but they have a role to play. (hah, no pun was intended but I’m going to keep it now I’ve noticed it)

Actions both subtle and obvious help to encourage an atmosphere of inclusion in a game. Let’s run through a few of them.

PRONOUN USAGE: White Wolf was one of the first companies to use the female pronoun in their books. This is one of those subtle decisions that can have a huge impact. Having she sets the tone that women, just as much as men, can be the standard gender for roles in the World of Darkness. That was 1991, and a pretty big deal in that day and age. Today using she is less trendsetting, and is still powerful. At the same time, using gender neutral and gender ambiguous pronouns can indicate an attitude of acceptance of all gender identities, both for players and for characters. If reading through a book and a signature character is a 3-dimensional figure who happens to be gender queer as part of their identity, it represents some of the diversity within our world.

SAFETY AND CONSENT RULES/STANDARDS: Consent is an important part of the social contract of gaming. Players consent to sit around your table, or embody characters in LARP, and they need to continually be provided the option to opt-in or out of story elements that could hurt them as players. By Night Studios is doing well in this department, in the MET Vampire book this concept is treated with respect and given decent coverage. In Werewolf? They’ve done even better, pages 19-20 cover several concepts that are essential to supporting player safety and encouraging behavior that ensures it. They discuss Bleed, Personal Responsibility, Sportsmanship, and techniques of storytelling that support player comfort like Fade to Black and Time Stops. For those of us who have been around the LARP world for a while we’ve seen a lot of discussion on these things, and it is essential to have them front in center in a game book.

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Kadira by Bryan Sime: From Ki Khanga

REPRESENTATIVE IMAGES: Recently Wizards of the Coast received some soft praise for having one of their signature characters be a black woman. This is good, and needs to continue. What is also praise worthy is that the character is wearing, basically, sensible armor. There is also the awesome new game, Ki Khanga which is set in a fantasy world based on Africa. Games like this, and games that incorporate honest representation are part of the process to make games more inclusive. Representation matters, just as with gender, characters with similar looks and ethnic identities to players help to give them role models. They also give players with different identities a chance to see awesome characters that do not look like them, which I believe has an impact on how people are seen in one’s day to day life as well.

SUPPORT FOR PLAYERS WITH DISABILITIES: This I feel, is at times the area that we have the most opportunity for growth and development of new strategies for support. One of the concerns I’ve had with the newer White Wolf books is their size. These books are 500, 600, 700 pages long in one volume. I struggle to hold him in my hands and this is due to a very moderate problem with grip, probably caused from my military service. Thankfully I have pdfs and other electronic versions of these books I can read as well, but it would be amazing to have some other technology to support our gamers with other disability concerns. Some of this is built into our new devices, but that only goes so far. I’d like to hear some feedback on what sort of devices, support, or ideas could help in this area.

Here is my take-away. We are doing better as a community, partly due to the benefit of Kickstarter and other forms of crowd-funding that allow for smaller projects to get off the ground. We can do better, though. That should not be taken as a critique, just a fact, we can always do better, we can always work to be compassionate and supportive and inclusive and we should always strive to be so. What games do you think are the most inclusive? How do you ensure a sense of inclusivity in the games you create or the games you play?

Josh is the Admin@KeepontheHeathlands

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of  any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

ONE METHOD TO USE GAMING AS A FORM OF DIALOGUE

One of the goals of Reach-Out Roleplaying Games is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue using gaming as a venue. What exactly do I mean by that though?

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WHAT IS DIALOGUE?

Dialogue is a method of semi-formal to formal discussion surrounding difficult topics. Dialogue is often facilitated by a neutral or semi-neutral party to help the participants in dialogue understand and respect one another. Dialogue is not debate, the goal of the discussion is not for anyone to win or lose, though understanding and perhaps acceptance of another viewpoint is a potential benefit of dialogue. In a lot of ways, dialogue is very similar to table-top gaming already. You have a Game Master who facilitates a world-building discussion and shared story. Dialogue is about understanding each other’s stories, lives, and circumstances.

I was hired to host a dialogue at American University during my first semester of Graduate School, and part of my sales pitch was that I had run so many games over the years. Game Mastering or Storytelling is a really similar skill-set. You have to arbitrate the discussion, you have to give everyone a chance to contribute, and you have to be able to ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of what a person is looking to say. This is part of why I think gaming can be used in a dialogue to deepen that process.

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Dialogue as a process is usually used to deal with heavy issues. For example, dialogue is used to bring Jewish and Muslim families together to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Most games are not overtly designed to talk about heavy ideas, but they can. Imagine getting a group of people from the same conflict above together in a gaming session. Instead of having them discuss the conflict over land that they are familiar with, you could develop a story that shows two groups of fantasy creatures fighting over shared space. You don’t want to be too ham-fisted about that, but if you mirror some elements of the shared experience participants are familiar with, you may be able to open eyes that didn’t see such parallels before.

HOW TO DESIGN A CHRONICLE FOR DIALOGUE PURPOSES

Normally dialogue happens over a series of discussions. Sometimes these are in chunks over a few short days or a weekend, and sometimes they are split over a series of weeks. For example, the dialogue I ran occurred over 7 weeks. This is a good time frame for a 7 game storyline; imagine sessions running for 4-5 hours each week. During a dialogue session, you would create a theme or series of specific questions to ask during that session. For our gaming method, you are replicating a similar process by outlining what sort of events you’d like to have occur in each episode/session/game.

Create 80% complete pre-generated characters. As the game master this gives you some more control over what sort of skills, powers, abilities, or interests each character will have. That allows you to plan the story more effectively. At the same time, you want the players to invest some of themselves into the characters. Depending on the game you are creating this 80/20 rule will look a bit different, but you want to ensure you give the players just enough customization to matter and you don’t want to overwhelm them with a GURPS level character creation either.

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Set a topic, and recruit players that are interested in addressing the topic you are going to use. You want to design your story to address some of the real-world elements you are working into the dialogue. For example, you want to host a dialogue session on racial tension in the United States? Cool, first thing you want to do is recruit players willing to dialogue over this issue, try and create a diverse group, and then incorporate concepts of race relations into your chronicle design. There are a lot of ways to do this. If you are playing a fantasy game, having two actually different game races in conflict may seem a bit too heavy handed. At the same time, discussing tensions between Dwarves and Elves might work perfectly for the story you want to tell. Balance it; find the right elements that fit your goals. The Eberron setting for D&D has some effective interpretations of Goblins as an underprivileged group. Games like Urban Shadows allow for modern fantasy investigations into concepts that would be good to dialogue with as well. The goal here is to address a topic your players want to investigate and weave it into your story.

At the same time as you are designing your chronicle, you would want to plan for and develop a short ground rules and debrief before and after each gaming session. The ground rules let you as the game master/facilitator establish what the group understands about dialogue, gaming, and lets you set some ground rules for how you will interact with one another. No swearing, no shouting, are good examples, as well as dice should be rolled on the table, and perhaps no chips at the table. (That is a mix of dialogue and gaming rules I’ve instituted over the years at different times) From the rules, you have a framework to hold your players accountable during the game and after during the debrief sessions. You may want to either hold the debrief at a different time, or set-aside an hour or two at the end of every game to work through it. This debrief will help the players internalize the concepts they dealt with in-character, it may help them either notice or eliminate negative bleed, or it might help them identify positive bleed. Bleed is a concept normally discussed in LARP, but also can be experienced at the table. Using role-playing as a dialogue method, you’ll likely see more bleed than usual.

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From a gaming perspective you want the sessions to be interesting, engaging, and fun. From the dialogue perspective you want the sessions to be deep, and dive into topics that might be sensitive. This requires you actively engage your players for feedback and approval throughout the session. Every player should know what they are getting into. Trigger warnings are beneficial prior to sessions, as are methods of leaving a scene. There are some methods that are used in Nordic LARPS that could be useful to adopt. Around a table, with smaller groups, it should be easier to do verbal check-ins to ensure that players are comfortable with the game. If not, stop. Consent and collaboration are important to the process.

Sample Questions to Ask During Debrief

How is the game going so far? Do you have any questions?
Do you have questions about how your character is acting in relation to others?
Are you comfortable with the items the story is addressing?

Do you want to discuss any actions taken by a player that occurred in-character?

Is anyone concerned with IC or OOC action taken by anyone?

Are there aspects of the game you want to play more of?

This is an early model of this type of gaming as dialogue model. If you have questions, ideas, suggestions, or would like to provide feedback I am more than open to discussing this idea further.

Josh is the Admin@KeepontheHeathlands, he’s got a degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University. 

3 WAYS TO HELP CREATE AN INCLUSIVE GAMING SPACE AS A GAME MASTER OR STORYTELLER

What do I mean by an inclusive gaming space? An inclusive gaming space is one where your players feel comfortable being there, engaging in the game, and having fun. This doesn’t mean the characters your players are playing always have to be happy. Hell, if we are playing mature higher level deep roleplaying games we know that sometimes our characters misery helps to drive a good story. A good story should not harm or hurt your players though and creating an atmosphere of inclusion at your table means finding ways to embrace diversity and be sensitive to the needs of your players. In the end, it comes down to this: know your players and be respectful to them as human beings. If a joke or a storyline goes too far, stop it, apologize, and debrief as soon as possible. This line will be in different places for different players and we’ll discuss some ways to keep on top of this below.

Set ground rules and follow them: Rules are essential to gaming, right? Every great rules lawyer can fight for hours over obscure rules in the books. Well, setting table rules is no different. These rules should be focused on player actions, words, and feelings, not character actions, words, or feelings. What are some examples of good ground rules? No sex jokes, no out of character comments on race or racism, talk about out of character conflicts as soon as they start, to help work through them, if something occurs in-character that you are uncomfortable with tell everyone (or just the GM) and the scene should end immediately. These rules should be discussed by the players and the storyteller before the game starts. They should be agreed on and added to if needed as well. A good storyteller checks-in with his players constantly to see what their characters are doing and how action is impacting them, a great and inclusive storyteller does the same with the players themselves.

Be Respectful of Everyone’s Background and Identity: Even when you are running a game at a convention or another public forum, you should try and have some understanding of who your players are. Take the time to ask questions, even 2-3 every session about the lives of your players. You aren’t doing this to interrogate them, but to be welcoming and helpful. If you know a player has had a bad week at work, give them a chance to work through some frustrations. If you know a player has experienced something traumatic in their background, be sensitive to stories that might remind them of that trauma and make their experience unpleasant. Again, I’m not saying you need to avoid difficult subjects in your game if that is what works for you and your players. I’m saying know them, be sensitive to them and make sure that the game you are running is the game that they want to play. This can include those that might not be playing, but hanging out around the table as well. You want to make your table a location to encourage the suspension of disbelief and to invigorate the imagination, being disrespectful has the opposite effect to that goal.

Make Your Characters and NPC’s Real: I don’t mean 3D print a model for all of your NPC’s… though if you are inclined in that direction I don’t see anything wrong with it. No, I’m saying make your characters real people; make them multi-dimensional with faults and goals and different identities. If you have an antagonist that is a woman, do not make her a stereotype. If you have an NPC that is trans, make them real, give them hopes and dreams and avoid the obvious jokes you think you might evoke at the table. The more you make your characters real, the more you respect the diversity at your table in every way. If you want to delve into issues of racism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds in your game and your players are interested in doing so as well, do it, but do it with the goal of humanizing all creatures/people/monsters in the game.

Making your gaming table inclusive should not be a chore; it should be something that comes naturally to us. If we can empathize and imagine being magical beings and science fiction heroes, we should be able to imagine how it might be to be treated poorly for our identity in real life. Taking the time to respect and know your players and run the game that they love to play will drive more and more people into this hobby. If you have other suggestions on how to make your gaming table inclusive, please feel free to share them in the comments.

With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind’s Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook, is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game at the moment, and is an advocate for inclusive gaming spaces. He’s also a father and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.