On Acceptance (aka my ‘I’m on a PAX Panel’ Self-Promotion Blog) (2014 Edition)

I’ve never considered myself to be an “ally,” though I certainly won’t argue the point if someone declares me to be one. I try to treat people with respect, even when I disagree with them. I don’t randomly insult people out of jest, nor do I willingly allow myself to return a jab with another jab (ED NOTE: anymore). I try not to make people feel bad, despite my copious amounts of snark and a sense of humor that jumps between absurdist and sardonic, but when I do stumble across the line and legitimately upset or offend someone, I apologize, try to make amends, and then work to correct the behavior.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. The person I am today is not the person I was a decade ago, or five years ago, or even a year ago. My “journey,” if you even want to call it that, has been one of incremental change through internal observation, interaction with beautiful party people like you, and a lot of thought on the kind of person I want to be. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

In the not-too-distant future I will be on the “Not My Problem: Why Everyone Has A Role In Promoting Equality” panel at Penny Arcade Expo. I’ll be joining a group of brilliant and insightful minds to have a discussion about the social issues that plague our industry, and how you and I and everyone else can make the culture surrounding video games less toxic and more welcoming. I freely admit that when I was asked to be on a panel to talk about this, of all things, I was equal parts honored and intimidated. On one hand, I was humbled at the notion that somebody I consider to be a peer and a friend saw me as a strong enough “ally” to be a part of a discussion that I know is important to them. On the other hand, I’m somebody who has actively made efforts to avoid diving into this subject, and for years I was able to remain completely silent on the matter.

Which, I realized, made me a part of the problem.

Now, I’ve never been somebody who gets their jollies off on harassing people; I’ve never targeted game developers on social media with snide remarks about how the only thing they should develop is cancer, nor have I ever penned scathing essays on why a particular game sucks and, as penance for the time I invested, the designer and their pregnant wife deserves SIDS. I have never described, in uncomfortable detail, how I wanted a designer or their wife or their parents or their children to be gang raped. I’ve never threatened to firebomb a producer’s home, and I sure as hell have never taken part in flooding a video game studio’s front desk with so many phone calls and threats of violence that they diverted money from development to quietly install bullet-proof windows.

The above examples are real; they actually happened, either to myself, coworkers, friends, or other established names who were vocal about their experiences.

The general philosophy when presented with this kind of online abuse is to ignore it. After all, if you don’t pay them any attention they’ll eventually grow bored and that will be the end of it. But life doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can ignore the person making the threats, but those threats have been made. Those words are festering in your head now, making you second-guess the next time you reach for your phone to check-in at a restaurant, or post a picture of your new car, or tweet.

Those emails, letters, phone calls, and bad Photoshops… they gnaw away at your sense of security and your sense of reason. Those of us who are fortunate to work in this industry see the effects that it has on our friends and our colleagues, and yet we cling on to this idea of ” just ignore it.” We say that to address the harassment is to give the attackers the attention that they so desperately crave. I subscribed to this idea myself, and for years I ignored the hate being slung at the people around me. I believed that it would all blow over; that people would “grow up” and that it would all just sort itself out. So I, like almost everyone else, paid it no mind and continued on with my day as the vitriol and hate swirled around us.

But ignoring something doesn’t magically make it go away. The insults and threats persist, and in our efforts to not acknowledge their existence we’ve inadvertently given the worst elements of “video game culture” carte blanche to act how they please with no fear of repercussions. This needs to change, and the only way it ever will is if we stop “ignoring” it and actively become the change we want to see.

We’ve already started to see this in some parts of the industry. As more women enter game design and game production, and companies like Electronic Arts stand proudly at the forefront of LGBT acceptance, the positive effects are already becoming apparent. Their expertise and their perspectives have contributed to the continued growth and evolution of our medium, allowing for stories to be told that you would have never experienced without their influence. Objectively speaking, there has never been a better time to be a fan of video games, and it is in no small part because of their contributions. Yet, even with these strides being made there is still oh, so much we can still do to make things better.

“But James,” you say, still seething at the notion that somebody would wish SIDS on a person’s unborn child. “How can I help? I’m not a developer!”

Well, the good news is that you’ve taken the first step. If you’re wondering how you can help build an inclusive and welcoming community, you’re already on your way. What you choose to do next depends on you, and what you’re comfortable with. But I’m not going to give you a long list of do’s and don’ts, and I’m not going to tell you that doing one thing is more noble than doing another thing. In all honesty, I’m not in a position to be able to tell you what you should do. I am only qualified to tell you what I try to do.

First, I support them, and I support their accomplishments. One of the easiest and most basic things we can do is highlight the work being done by underrepresented designers, either through sending a message of appreciation over Twitter, or by spreading awareness of their work through social media. Never underestimate the power of a tweet, and never assume for a moment that speaking up won’t go appreciated by the people you’re talking about. Even if they don’t respond to your message or aren’t especially vocal, I promise you that a showing of positivity and support towards them with a tweet, or comment, or email, will go a long way towards reinforcing the knowledge that what they’re doing matters.

Furthermore, I’m not afraid to engage in discussions about their work. Even if I’m not a fan of their product, there is much to be gained and much to be learned from an honest and open discussion. Most designers, like any other creative, will lap up positive criticism. In engaging with the designer, I’m also opening myself up to learning something about the designer or the game that may influence my opinion on it. I may never like the game, but if I go from “why does this exist” to “I get it,” I consider it a net-positive.

Secondly, I listen.

When my friends are being attacked and they need an outlet to express their frustration and their anger and their fear, I shut up and I listen. I may not always agree with every assessment they make, and I may think at times that the way they’re reacting is irrational or only going to make things worse, but I also understand that it’s not me being attacked. I’m not the one being told how they’re going to be stabbed to death at a convention, and I cannot put myself in their shoes. I will never be able to completely understand the abuse that certain groups of people in gaming culture endure on a daily basis, but I want to be able to empathize and do what I can to help those who are.

I also listen to the people slinging the vitriol.

“By Grabthar’s hammer,” I hear you shout. “Are you insane?!”*

The first step towards correcting something is to understand the nature of the problem. Nobody is born misogynist, nor racist, nor homophobic. These are traits that develop over time, either from being taught this behavior at a young age from someone who was taught that behavior at a young age, or by being forged in the fires of life. Sometimes they’re not even that; they’re cries for attention from people who feel honestly slighted, but fear that their viewpoints will be ignored unless they shout as loudly, and as angrily, and be as shocking in their rhetoric as they can. These people are not to be ignored, but engaged. When you sit down with one of them, away from the echo chamber that amplifies the venom and encourages the posturing, and get them to actually open up and speak about what it is that’s fueling their actions, you’ll often find the offending party to be a calm, collected, articulate, and even nice person.

In many instances, these are people who truly do love video games but are swept up in the deindividuation that accompanies the overly-aggressive mob mentality that is often sparked by a select few.

I listen to them, and then I talk to them, directly, about the the effects of their behavior. I explain to them the harm that they’re doing with their actions, and how making death threats are not only illegal, but also an incredibly negative example to set for a medium that is striving to escape its reputation as being “just for children.” I tell them the stories of game developers who left the industry because of this behavior, and sometimes I share with them some of the instances cited above. I try to bridge the mental divide between the screen name that appears on their computer screen, or the disembodied voice they hear on a podcast, and the person that the screen name and the voice are attached to. I will ask them, honestly, if their behavior is something that they would want to display in front of their parents, or if it were the sort of example that they would want to set for their children.

I will ask them these and countless other questions. I will listen to their righteous anger and I will try to understand, objectively, where they are coming from – even though I often do not agree with their views. But one thing I will not do – the one thing that this discussion cannot afford to do – is not take them seriously. I have never and will never outright dismiss their comments, even when I find them reprehensible. Why? Because when you “fight fire with fire,” all you are doing is further entrenching them in their established beliefs. When somebody feels threatened, they double-down and gain a sense of justification in their words and actions.

In my view, if anything I can say to them, even the tiniest nugget, inspires them to stop and think about their actions and the level of importance they place on video games over other endeavors, then all of the effort is worth it.

Of course, there are those individuals out there to whom you simply cannot reason with. Their anger isn’t fueled by disappointment in a video game, or by their opinions being dismissed, or even by a perceived personal slight. To these few, video games have always been and will always remain theirs, and they will violently shun any “outsider.” They look back at the days of Nintendo and SEGA, when video games were a niche – almost underground – subculture, and they will make every effort they can to keep it that way despite the fact that the genie is already out of the bottle. They are, to not mince words, thirty-year-old children who cannot accept that their toys aren’t just theirs anymore. When it comes to this infinitely small subgroup, the only ones who can help them are themselves.

Thirdly, I educate… well, I try to, in any case. I make an effort to share information that I feel is helpful for understanding the larger gaming audience (did you know that adult women now outnumber the coveted “teenage male” demographic?). Not only does this kind of information allow us to learn more about who makes up the gaming audience, but it also highlights the necessity to take them into consideration during the game’s pre-production (where most major decisions on a game’s direction are made).

I also take the initiative to seek out this information for myself, and I encourage all of you to do the same. Look everywhere for information, and don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone to see how others are presenting the same information. Remember: knowledge is power.

Keep in mind that these aren’t the only things you can do, and I’m not saying that they’re the best things you can do. These are only examples of the types of things that I do, and I know that other people approach these issues in different positive and productive ways. This coming Sunday, I’m not only looking forward to delving into these ideas further, but I look forward to hearing what my fellow panelists have to say.

I’m also excited to hear what all of you have to say on the matter, and if you find yourself reading this and are curious about what more you can do, I encourage you to join us on Sunday. If you find yourself reading this and think I’m some overly-sensitive politically correct social justice warrior who is completely out of his skull, I encourage you to join us on Sunday, also.

Panel: Not My Problem: Why Everyone Has A Role In Promoting Equality
When? Sunday, August 31st
Where? Penny Arcade Expo
Specifically Where, Stupid. Oh! The Wyvern Theater
Who? Myself, Brittney Brombacher, Joshua A.C. Newman, Mike Cosimano, Nika Harper, and moderated by Sam Prell
Snacks? Probably not. Sorry.

*Yes, but that’s not relevant to this conversation.