****I wrote this piece for inclusion in Super Heroines, Etc.'s Heroine's Handbook: Inclusive Gaming, which was developed as a resource for those interested in taking on the role of Game Master (or GM) for tabletop roleplaying games with the intention of deliberately creating a more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming space. This article was written with that in mind, so it is geared toward those who are interested in the GMing role, however I hope that anyone might find it useful.
The Heroine's Handbook itself will be available for download for free on the SHE website (www.superheroinesetc.org) in the next couple weeks, so be sure to check it out! (As another little self-shout out, I also created the artwork for the cover, so I hope you enjoy that as well ^^)***
Role playing games are known for their immersive nature and wide number of characters and classes you can choose from. From elves to orcs to cyborgs to werewolves, the genre is built on diversity and choice. That being said diversity around the table has unfortunately not always been quite so inclusive. Many times the demographics of the players tend to lean into more white, hetero, cis, male territory, which - even with a table of wonderful allies - can feel a little daunting it not outright frightening for a new player who doesn’t fit into that particular category. There may be unhealthy stereotypes that come from the GM or players that they don’t even realize, and there have been some games that have been called out for problematic treatment of persons. Being aware of these issues can help to change the rules of the game so that play can be inclusive and welcoming for all.
An term that has gained a lot of popularity among minority advocates in gaming, it refers to the idea that we as a culture fall back onto the ‘status quo’ when something isn’t specifically defined. That main character in a book hasn’t been gendered or given an ethnic background? Most times a reader will automatically assume it is a white male. The same pitfalls happen in role play gaming. While white Americans comprise little under three fourths of the population, they still hold a vast majority of representation in media.
This tends to result in the assumption that many of the RPG worlds our players enter may be primarily white, for example. Not only does this fail to include representation of diversity in the process of gaming making it many times less welcoming or even appealing for minorities, but it also leaves an entire vast, rich, and lush world of variety and possible cultures untapped.
As a GM, it could be intimidating to have non playable characters (NPC) that are of a different representation than you (for example if you are a white hetero female and you want an NPC who is an African queer male). It might also feel daunting to encourage your players to choose characters outside of their comfort zones, however part of creating an inclusive space is designing opportunities for more representation.
ROLE PLAYING AS A TOOL FOR UNDERSTANDING PERSPECTIVE
With the rise in popularity of board and role playing games, there has been a surge in new titles that not only address some of these issues but tackle them head on. For example the game Night Witches in which gamers play female Soviet bomber pilots during WWII. Based on a true regimen of historical women, the game leans into the fact that they had vastly inferior planes than their male counterparts, less supplies, among many other logistical wonders that made their feats truly astounding.
Role playing games are all about that: role playing, so it is a unique opportunity to experience something different than one normally might. The gentleman I purchased my copy of Night Witches from had played it at GenCon and shared how incredibly eye opening it was to experience as a man. That said, of course, there is a not-so-fine-line when it comes to the putting on and taking off of minority identities - spoiler alert don’t do it. For those of us who have identities that have been historically marginalized, it is not a costume nor should it be treated as a novelty. However, in a gaming safe space role playing games can be a valuable tool for players to actually first handedly understand other experiences. And that can be incredibly powerful.
Important notes for engaging in a character outside of your norm:
Treat that character with respect. The GM for the streamed run of Night Witches I participated in did research for the game beforehand and, while most of the streams were fine, did come across one in which at the beginning one player described his character as being ‘hot with a big rack.’ This is a perfect example of not treating that character with respect. In our run, one of the players described her character as having ‘an old Hollywood style glamour.’ Both comment on the character’s appearance, but one is respectful (and extra points for being in the game’s aesthetic) and one is not.
Don’t default into stereotypes. If you are going to play a character with, for example, Asian heritage and you are not of that background, don’t fall into stereotypes when describing or acting as your character. Leading to the next note...
Do some research. If you know you want a certain character to have a certain identity, do some research. Referring back to Night Witches, in preparation for the game I did some research on the actual Night Witches as well as women of the time. What were their lives like? What did they value? What did they wear? If you want the ruler of your kingdom to be a trans woman and you have not had that experience, learn more about that experience. Read articles, blogs, and...
Talk to someone. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn some new perspectives while sharing something you love. If you want to make your ruler a trans woman and have the opportunity to listen to someone’s experiences, do it. A great way to start would be, “Hey, Shannon! I wanted to know if I could talk to you about a game I’m running. I really wanted to have the ruler of the kingdom be a trans woman. I want to do it in a respectful way, so I wanted to know if you would be willing to share some of your experiences with me.” If they say, “No,” respect that! No one has to share anything. But many times people are happy to share experiences, especially if it’s for something fun. As a bonus, this is a good opportunity to even invite someone to play!
IT’S STARTS WITH AN INVITATION
Getting diversity around your table starts with inviting diverse people to come play. If you normally play with the same group of people, that’s totally fine but try inviting two new people who are different from the rest of your group’s demographic. Maybe you can think of a couple people off the top of your head who are expert level gamers that you just haven’t had the chance to play with yet. Perfect! Invite them. Maybe you know a couple people who have never gamed but you think might have fun. Perfect! This is a great opportunity to not only bring diversity to the table but to also introduce something you love to someone new. Explain ahead of time what the game is, how it’s played, the time commitment, and so fourth, and extend an invitation.
An important note in all of this. While bringing diversity to the table is the basis for inclusion and having better representation in gaming, no one is a token. Do not invite someone as ‘your black gaming friend’ or ‘the Asian girl.’ The goal of this is not to have one person of diversity - be it ethnic minority, gender, orientation, religion, background, etc. - to check a box and feel better about having diversity in the group. The goal is to create change in the culture of gaming. To create spaces that not only welcome but actively and deliberately invite people of all identities to share in the things we love so that we can come together as a gaming community.