Actually, It’s About Ethics in Media Consumption


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Anyone who has ever been part of a subculture knows the bright red sting of controversy.  Sometimes the controversy is low stakes like the general fan rejection of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Sometimes controversies go to the core of a community’s values like the ongoing controversy about whitewashing in Hollywood, and more specifically, to the likely interests of this blog’s readers, the continuing whitewashing of Asian characters by Marvel comics.

Boycotts

Over the years I’ve seen a number of calls for boycotts over these types of issues, and I’ve wondered how useful this tactic is.  Recently, I’ve heard similar calls within the role-playing community over a variety of events that have been litigated enough in the public square that I’d rather not discuss them here, but I do think it’s worth talking about the broader concept of “boycotting” work, especially work in a tightly integrated media landscape like the role-playing industry.

While many people find the idea of a dramatic boycott satisfying, how we make day to day media consumption choices within our hobby and why those choices may or may not have an impact on the industry has the potential to be a much more productive conversation.  Think of it like going on a binge diet, or trying to make long term adjustments to the way you promote health through food choices.  Binge diets do more harm than good, but holistically training yourself to eat in a healthy manner one step at a time is a path to healthy consumption habits. The same thing applies to the commercial choices we make.

Does that work for RPGs?

Role-playing games are unusual media beasts in a lot of ways.  With the exception of Dungeons and Dragons, which is in the hands of a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro, RPGs are generally produced by small companies, and in many cases aren’t produced by their IP owners.  The majority of new White Wolf games are produced by Onyx Path Studios, or By Night Studios.  Chill is produced under license by Growling Door Games.  Shadowrun is produced under license by Catalyst Studios.  While there are also plenty of titles being produced that aren’t under license, several of the biggest names in RPGs are developed in this manner.  This complicates any situation where you want to use your economic activity to influence the behavior of a corporation, because it often puts you in a position where you may well be punishing a company you feel behaves in an exemplary manner for the behavior of an only vaguely involved IP owner.

So first let’s address the elephant in the room.  Trying to influence companies through consumption patterns gets a really bad rap because in many cases it’s a lost cause. Ethical consumption is all too often reduced to a marketing opportunity.  Free  Range and/or Pasture Raised chicken, Fair Trade Coffee and Chocolate, and any variety of attempts to patronize kinder, gentler, more labor friendly corporations tend to fall apart upon particularly close inspection.  It takes such massive bad press to impact the bottom line of most big companies that being seen as ethical is at best a matter of appearance and branding for most companies. So the question becomes, why bother?

Ethics?

Setting aside the issues with ethical consumption of non-media products, and even ethical consumption of AAA media, the situation is a little bit different in the world of the RPG. No matter what behavior you want to promote in the industry, it’s fair to say our dollars count for a lot more to a company selling a product like Numenera that had a mere 4,658 backers on its original Kickstarter, or even moreso, a game like Chill that had 793 backers on its original Kickstarter, than Kellog or Dell.  Losing a handful of customers hits most RPG producers in a way it just doesn’t hit the other companies we tend to give our money.

The impact of of our economic choices is amplified for those of us who choose to run games, as opposed to just play in them.  I’m going to be dropping cash on Exalted Charm cards in the near future because a close friend of mine chose to run Exalted and I want to have those cards during game. So, he has effectively made a sale for OPP without spending any money by running that game, and some of my fellow players may follow suit once my cards arrive. The question that has been nagging at the back of my mind is, given the influence we have, what choices will have the most positive impact on our hobby, and how should we interact with those who make different decisions?

Making a Difference

The first question is in many ways easier to answer, though it is far from simple.  The most significant way we can make a difference with the gaming money we spend is by focusing on supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.  Unlike consumption of things like food where we may or may not have the economic affluence to afford the most “ethical” options out there, the money we spend on RPGs is by its very nature disposable and we are not lessened by devoting some of that money to more experimental and inclusive media.  That might mean supporting something entirely new but somewhat traditional, like Ehdrighor because it dramatically expands the potential of big book role playing games, it might be supporting something completely experimental like Bluebeard’s Bride, or it might be supporting a company producing for an established product line telling inclusive stories in a more nuanced way than their lines have been known for in the past. Conscious engagement with these choices help us shape the gaming industry we will enjoy in the future, albeit in small ways.

The other question I posed above is a more difficult one to tackle.  In the past couple months I’ve seen several people upset at events in our community make personal decisions about who they would and would not give their money to and then openly shame others for making different choices.  Often those different choices were well thought out, and a reflection of different ethical priorities.  These choices were not based on willful ignorance or ethical laziness, and even if they were I have yet to see shaming someone for not sharing one’s values change a mind or even inspire greater thoughtfulness on an issue.  I feel that as our hobby grows there is a vital place for discussing our values and who we want to be as a community. While we will never be a monolith, that discourse is a vital part the growth of any community, and with events like the inclusion of game writers in the SFWA, and White Wolf pushing to produce more mainstream World of Darkness related media there is no question that we are growing. We can expect to face several of the same problems other fandoms have struggled with as they have moved out of obscurity and farther into the mainstream.  

Balancing Act

As that happens, it is important to engage with other fans who are thinking about these dynamics in good faith in the spirit of discourse, and not as though they are an enemy. Many people make an unfortunately meager livelihood producing the games we all love so much, and part of our ethical calculus should be the collateral damage of saying we’re going to pull back from supporting a given IP owner and every company that licenses from them.  Some people will care more about drawing a line in the sand based on corporate actions, others will care much more deeply about that collateral damage, and neither group is necessarily wrong.  If we choose to try to effect change through the media we consume then we should try to be aware of the good and ill caused by all our choices, and recognize that the choice to try to effect change through consumption is imperfect, and opinions on its validity will vary.  We should all go forth and be ready to be the change we want in the world, but know our view on that process is not a monolith, much like our community.

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

by Lang Schmitt

werewolf-banner

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Early on in the new Werewolf: the Apocalypse BNS book we meet Verity Argyris.  Verity is a young Black Fury historian who’s working to record the oral histories of the Garou, and her observations are scattered throughout the book.

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Page 62

After many pages of meeting Verity through her observations, we learn on page 62 that Verity’s mothers in the Tribe were one of the first to keep male-born children, and that at her Rite of Passage she was proclaimed “not just their daughter, but a sister of the tribe”.  In other words, the text is obliquely saying that Verity is what we’d identify as a trans(*) woman.

 

A Societal Shift

 

I haven’t seen a lot of online discussion of Verity.  (Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.)  While I was searching, though, I found a lot of discussion from several years ago about if a character like Verity could exist among the Black Furies.

A lot of gamers came to the conclusion that she couldn’t.  The Black Furies, they argued, placed too much value on a person’s biology – and Garou would view sex-reassignment hormones or surgery as a tool of the Weaver.  (More on this in a minute.)

Let me be clear:  the first edition of the Black Furies book came out in the early ’90s, when including a radical second-wave feminist group in your fantasy world seemed progressive and forward-thinking.  The Black Furies were based on real-life trans-exclusive Wiccan groups, which emphasize the sacredness of female-bodied biology and experience and reject male-bodied people as equal members.

But the BNS book states:

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Black Fury Tribebook Revised Cover

“[The Black Furies’] viewpoints have evolved, due to their new leadership.

The Age of Apocalypse has shown them that the equality

they seek so viciously is a complex issue, involving more

than just women and children. They realized that their

exclusivity would damn them … Those who

identify as having the hearts women [sic] also received the

blessing of Artemis and have been welcomed to the tribe.

… Despite their newly opened mindset,

there are rumors of a rift between modern and traditional

Furies regarding how lenient and accepting present-day

Black Furies are perceived by other werewolves.” (p. 70-71)

 

Trans-exclusive radical feminist (TERF) groups still exist in real life.  They inspire harsh feelings from trans activists and their allies, who argue that excluding trans women from cis women’s spaces is pointless, and further marginalizes an already marginal population.  Some TERFs and their groups have not moved past their trans-excusionary worldviews – but many are evolving, like the Black Furies are.

Some gamers will cry foul, arguing that it’s a political act to write a world where the Black Furies are beginning to welcome trans women.  But this in-game change is tied to a real-world change, and it would be equally political to not include trans people in an era when we are becoming more visible and accepted.

 

How to Write a Trans Character

I am young and trans.  I am … blessed? … to have come of age at a time when trans people are newly visible in popular culture.

angel-rentSome people would tell you visibility is an unambiguous good.  I’m less certain.  There are a lot of lazily-written trans characters out there.  The Lazily-Written Trans Character is often a conventionally feminine trans woman.  She is non-threatening and non-sexual, although she may be a sex worker.

She is usually tragic in some way.  Often, she dies before the end of the story, to teach our cis protagonists some kind of lesson.  Think of Angel from RENT, or Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club.

To be completely fair, this type of character is far preferable to unsympathetic trans caricatures, who are grotesque, hypersexual, and dangerous.  (Think Buffalo Bill, or the attack ads that air about transphobic bathroom legislation.)  But lazily-written trans characters are toothless, and ancillary to cis characters’ stories.  They’re objects of pity (or vapid inspiration), rather than figures of genuine strength.  They are no one anyone would want to be, or could ever be.

There is tragedy in much of the trans experience – but we are still the heroes of our own stories.  But you wouldn’t know that from looking at these characters.

We are slowly seeing a broadening of the range of trans narratives that exists in mass media, but problematic characterizations remain.  And even as we see more progressive types appear, mass media portrayals of trans still have something pernicious to them:  the most interesting thing about us, in these stories, is that we are trans.  Our narrative arc is our transition.  Without our gender, we would be no one.

We don’t see a whole lot of Verity in the BNS book, past two vigniettes and her own observations.  But she shows herself to be strong, observant, curious, intelligent, and active.  She’s head and shoulders above the passive, pitiable trans “type” who furthers cis narratives.

Critically, she is more than her transition.  There’s plenty of hay to be made about Verity’s gender, in thinkpieces like this, but ultimately her trans-ness is a footnote.  It only comes up obliquely in the previously-mentioned quote, and in passing when she fears rejection from Black Fury elder in the second vignietteIt’s far more vital that she’s gathering information, and serves as our viewpoint character.

gaia

Gaia

I can think of very few trans viewpoint characters in mass media, and even fewer who aren’t shown through the light of their transition.  Verity feels like something genuinely novel.

 

The Real-World Politics of Werewolf

Why does this matter?  Why does W:tA need trans representation?

When I was looking for discussions about trans in W:tA, I found that many anti-trans fans of the game have (or had) a medicalized and pathological view of trans people.  We are out-of-balance, the argument goes.  We are a product of modern medicine, not nature.  No Garou would ever have us (except for maybe Glasswalkers).

I reject this argument out of hand.  The medicalization and pathologicalization of trans is comparatively modern.  Pre-modern cultures often made (and make) a place for trans people:  Romans had galli; Indian society still has hijra; many American Indian cultures have third or fourth genders.  Our position has varied from place to place, and we have often been the first to be marginalized and scapegoated in times of trouble, but we most definitely existed and we were often accepted.

It is we, in our Weaver-ridden society, who want all genders (and all bodies, in the case of intersex people) in two boxes.  In fact, the BNS book gives a clear route for a non-medical transition for trans characters:  the first level Ajaba gift in this system, Mask of Night, which lets characters transform their body to that of the “opposite sex”.  Shun the Weaver’s medicalized works, and embrace the transformation nature offers you!

We are in fact very in-balance.  Thematically, we mesh perfectly with a game about shapeshifting and balance – even as societies, real and fictional, find dynamic points of balance around us as we re-take our place at the table.

This brings me to the biggest reason why I think W:tA needs trans representation.

Many of the gamers I’ve spoken with are a little leery of this game – and to be completely fair, that’s a feeling I share.  W:tA has a troubled legacy, in a lot of ways.  I found that a lot of female and trans gamers perceive W:tA as a “game for bros”.  Despite the game’s best intentions, they argue, W:tA players often create toxically masculine characters, who enact stereotypically masculine power fantasies without consequence.  (This is completely separate from the in-universe transphobia, or “noble savage” stereotyping of Indigenous peoples.)

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Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition

Obviously, this is a generalization.  For any W:tA group I could point to that’s ridden with hyper-masculine power fantasies, I’m sure my readers could find several more that are thoughtful and well-balanced, that draw plenty of female and queer players.

But that’s not really my point:  fairly or not, this is the baggage the game carries with it.  A signature character like Verity isn’t a surefire medicine against W:tA‘s machismo, and I imagine a lot of gaming groups will choose to ignore the changes made to the Black Furies.  But I imagine Verity might take the air out of the sails of a few of the hardcore bros out there, and make Storytellers rethink the feel of the setting.

It takes all kinds to save the world – ranging from the classically masculine fearless and strong, to the classically feminine sensitive and nurturing.  It takes all kinds to build a healthy gaming community, too.

It remains to be seen what Storytellers and players do with BNS’ WerewolfBut I think BNS has taken a potentially polarizing, but critical step toward broadening the game’s world – and making it one female-bodied people and queers are more likely to find friendly to play in.

(*)  For the purposes of this article, I’m using “trans” as an umbrella term that includes anyone who is not cisgender.  “Cisgender” or “cis” means having a gender identity that corresponds with one’s biological sex.  Trans, here, includes people who have taken medical steps to bring their body closer in line with their identity, those who want to take medical steps but have not done so yet, and those who feel no need to do so.  I also mean it to include people who fall outside the gender binary.

 

Lang Schmitt is a transmasculine genderqueer person.  He lives in Madison, WI and makes his living writing.  He currently plays in Underground Theater.  Find him on Facebook, or email him at langschmitt@gmail.com.