Diversity & Dragons

I have this t-shirt that just has this pretty plain D&D logo on the front:

I think I actually got it free at GenCon when they announced 4th edition.  Being the actual words written out so clearly it’s pretty recognizable for what it is.  So a few weeks back I was wearing it while Jenn and I were getting breakfast at Dunkin Donuts.  The cashier was a young meek looking Indian girl, and despite being hidden behind huge glasses and a layer of bangs, I could see a certain excited sparkle in her eyes as we placed our order.  

As she took our order she told us effusively how she really wanted to play D&D but never had the chance, and how much she was looking forward to starting college in the fall where they had a real gaming club she could join so she’d get to play.  Groggy as I was and with this sizable chunk of her life story coming out all in one breath, my reaction was as subdued “Cool” as I grabbed my coffee and made way for the next customer.  It was cool though, and I wish I had been more on the ball or the store less crowded and I would have happily nerded out with her.

Cut forward to this evening as Jenn and I are grocery shopping (in the same shopping center as that very Dunkin Donuts) and I happen to be wearing this shirt again.  This time the cashier who I guess to be a similar age, or possibly slightly older than the Dunkin Donuts girl, told us about how she too wanted to play D&D but could never find a group.  Maybe I think she’s older simply because she had a harder punk edge to her look, with a mostly shaved head and a little ink showing, but she went on to say something like “it’s hard to find a cool group that’s, you know, not just a bunch of CIS white boys.”

I knew where she was coming from.  Certainly all of my own gaming groups have had a majority of white male players.  Also we cannot deny that gaming has a certain reputation for attracting people with a kind of 12-year-old boy personality type, regardless of actual physical age. While I’m sure that like all stereotypes there are countless examples that countermand this reputation, it does not make it any less intimidating for an outsider to try and join in without worrying about being judged for not quite fitting in.

What really pained me about this interaction though was the fact that I do pride myself on being pretty plugged in to the gaming scene.  Normally if anyone said “I’d really like to try D&D”, I’d have tons of suggestions on how to get involved.  But when presented with the extra constraint of “and not have to worry about being judged by my gender / sexuality / physical appearance” I found myself nonplussed.  What could I suggest?

There are two gaming stores in town that I’m sure run local events, but they do have that typical creepy basement feel many game stores have, and are usually full of, well, young white males.  Attend a local convention?  Yeah, there’s some diversity there and I know for a fact a lot of very cool gamers.  Also though I’m sure plenty of intolerant jerks that you’ll have to sift through as well.  Never mind that a giant hotel full of strangers well versed in an activity that you’re just trying to learn a little about can be crazy overwhelming.

I was struck dumb.  With Jenn and a couple other cashiers all chatting the conversation quickly moved away from the topic, and we left with our groceries and me not having said a single word about D&D.  It’s stuck in my craw now, and I’m trying to figure out what exactly could I do to help this?  And in fact, I find myself really kind of interested in finding some real practical way of encouraging some more diversity in this hobby I love.  I mean, clearly there are people in my very neighborhood just dying for a helping hand to introduce them to the game.

I could easily find a location to run some kind of intro game.  There are those two gaming stores I mentioned, but there’s also the local library which maybe presents a more neutral ground that’s less intimidating.  Finding something to run is easy.  How to present it strikes me as the hardest part.  How would you market this kind of thing to coax these proto-gamers out into the open?  What words could you put in a flyer or on the internet that would encourage them to see it as a safe place?  Where would you post the information, I mean besides that one shopping center down the road which is apparently a hot-bed for neophyte gamers?

I’ve seen attempts at this kind of thing completely backfire.  I remember Tim Kask ran a game at a local con that was billed as being for “Ladies Only.”  I know in his heart Tim was after the same kind of things I’m talking about here — he just wanted to introduce the game to a wider audience.  He got a lot of backlash on it though, and from all sides.  Perhaps his mistake was doing this at a convention, where presumably most attendees are already pretty comfortable with the hobby as a concept, and much of his target audience perhaps felt the tone a bit patronizing.

I’d love to hear thoughts.  What do you think people of the internet?  How would you go about setting up an introductory event for new players that have perhaps felt excluded from our hobby?  What if anything can you do to encourage a more diverse attendance?

12 thoughts on “Diversity & Dragons

  1. It’s an interesting dilemma, and good on you for thinking about it afterward.

    The first thing that rebounds off me is that it echoes the struggle at our college and many others to give additional help to traditionally less-empowered groups of people in a way that doesn’t generate a backlash. (I’m part of the Achieving the Dream team at our school.) Among the options are to set up a group and do outreach/”marketing” focused on that group of people, without it being formally restricted to anyone in particular. Maybe someone can come up with a name from the group that more subtly suggests its affiliation like, “Everyone Gets a Turn”, IDK.

    Maybe find a person who wants to try co-DMing with you as a first to trying that out? (I’ve been pushing Isabelle to try that sometime but so far no dice.)

    Just some initial brainstorming.

  2. Mmm. While I understand and deplore the at times well deserved “boys’ club” stereotype of the various nerdly activities, I’ve gotta raise an eyebrow at your second encounter’s constraint on who she prefers to test the waters of the hobby with. “I want to find a cool group who’s not just a bunch of CIS white boys”

    If it’s a cool group then what does the composition of it matter? Are you there for the activity or just playing some kind of strange bingo game in your head about who’s attending? And if it’s a not-cool group it’s probably the individuals’ personalities contributing more to the not-coolness than their race, gender, or sexuality. You’re justified in steering clear of those, but the hobby isn’t going to get any more diverse if you pre-segregate yourself from it based on census statistics. It takes all kinds, and if you want more of your particular type then you gotta show up and play with who you find there. Be a pioneer if you have to be, more will follow if you lead the way.

    Secondly, and following on from that point, from what I can tell WotC is happy to sell pallet loads of rulebooks and accessories to anybody with a working credit card. Buy a bunch of funny dice and some books with dragons on the cover and make your own cool group. Gaming is better with friends anyway, and if you choose to only associate with certain sorts of people then you can be as selective as you like about who you pretend to be elves with.

    “This hobby is nothing but CIS white boys and I don’t want to play with a bunch of CIS white boys.” is an ouroboros. Dragons are for fighting, not tail biting. 🙂

    Honestly, I don’t think there’s much strategy needed from us inside the hobby beyond being welcoming and gracious in our ambassadorship of the game. Don’t be the stereotype. Don’t be a jerk. Share the activity for the activity’s sake. The only thing you can really control is how you as an individual treat other individuals, and that’s all that should matter around the gaming table.

  3. It’s easiest to get answers to this from people like me who are in just the wrong demographic. If you happen into either of these people again, and there’s nobody behind you in line, maybe you could ask what they think.

  4. The second case is tough. I’m not sure what I’d have said, either, except a sincere, “Good luck, I hope you find a group you like.” Even outside of gaming, when someone wants A without B, it takes a lot of work to find it for them. That’s a big ask from a stranger. It becomes you becoming a matchmaker for a person you barely know.

    I’d probably just have a go-to answer in the future like, “It’s not hard to learn how to play. Just get the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and maybe the Monster Manual, a pack of D&D dice, and try it out with your friends.” The best way to find a group you are compatible with is to make that group out of your friends. With only a few exceptions, I play with people I was friends with first and then pulled into gaming or found out were also into game. The two exceptions are a new player and his son who we gave a trial session to. That worked out, but only because we liked him as a person as well as a gamer.

    Trying to have an answer to “Here is a safe place to learn to play without the people you don’t want to play with” seems like it would impossible, or at least fraught with difficulty and social landmines. Saying “Learn on your own and play with your friends” is fine. You don’t really need someone else to introduce you. That helps, but the internet is a massive library of resources for learning on your own.

  5. PAul, you missed an important point of what she said, which will respond to what BJ said – the Shaw’s cashier ALSO said that she has basically been glared at and give then silent treatment by these cis white boys until she _left_ when she has tried to play in a game with them. THAT is the problem – it’s not that she’s unwilling to play with the dominant group but they have been so freaking unwelcoming that she’s unwilling to try again.

    And I do NOT blame her. I’m a pretty traditional looking woman – I haven’t been to a con since getting my tattoo, and my hair is generally socially acceptable – and I have gotten that treatment at con games. So I do NOT blame her for not wanting to try to join a bunch of straight white guys again.

    And I TOTALLY DISAGREE with “Honestly, I don’t think there’s much strategy needed from us inside the hobby beyond being welcoming and gracious in our ambassadorship of the game.” (Sorry BJ _ I know where you’re coming from and that you are an awesome, welcoming person, but you are very much an insider so I think your view is clouded). Gaming COMPLETELY feels like an insider, special club – breaking into something like that is intimidating, and even more so when you’re not a member of the majority group. Outreach is 10000% needed, and a safe place to try out the game is necessary.

  6. Unfortunately, I’ve been to too many cons and seen how too many people behave at the table when a minority is present to convince myself that there is nothing to worry about and everyone should just come to the table and have a good time. Even if I did miss that second part the cashier said I think I was already taking that kind of behavior for granted. I’ve heard many other similar stories, and I’ve seen subtler behavior that would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it, but still makes the individual feel just as unwelcome.

    @Dan – I really like your title “Everyone Gets a Turn”. It is really hard to find a way to pitch this as inclusionary rather than exclusionary, but I do think that’s where Tim went wrong. Of course I fear that if I’m too subtle, I’ll just end up with a table totally lacking in the individuals I’m trying to target. And yes, I have been trying to convince Jenn to participate in whatever this is as well. I hadn’t thought of co-DMing.

  7. @Jenn:
    See, that additional context changes everything, and I don’t think what I said doesn’t apply to this situation when I was speaking to the hypothetical gaming insider. “Don’t be the stereotype. Don’t be a jerk.” applies very much here.

    I guess I’ve been very lucky in the circles I move in because who DOES that? I’ve never personally witnessed that kind of behavior and I’d like to think I wouldn’t put up with it if I did. I’ve heard stories from the world of comics fandom of the same thing happening, of girls getting glared out of comic shops as intruders. I’ll also never forget the stories of ill treatment from fellow con goers I heard from a wheelchair bound player in a game I ran at the last GenCon I attended. This is a human being to human being thing, not a gender/ethnicity/sexuality thing. Treat people with kindness. Share the things you love. Why do people gotta be like that? Being an outsider in the mainstream does not entitle you to inflicting your damage on others.

    Back again to the idea of coming up with a strategy to demonstrate inclusiveness, I still think it’s a tall order, because you can’t control the bad experiences someone else might have had in the past. People are gonna bring their baggage with them, and how much must you as the host be made to carry before it becomes more about that than the activity at hand. I still maintain the first step is on an individual level not to add to it. If they’ve been hurt, though, no amount of claims to be “not like those other jerks” may be able to convince them.

  8. @Travis :
    This is a difficult problem.

    I’m just spit balling here, so this might be not a very useful.

    What these young ladies are saying is, “I’m afraid of something.” We might assume we know what it is they are afraid of, but maybe not. It is hard to address a fear without knowing its name. May I suggest to offer to buy them a cuppa and have a conversation at a time of mutual convenience. Get to what they are afraid of and try to address what those fears are. From there, you may be able to formulate an idea about how to offer an intro game.

  9. Where to market is a question I’m not great with, although I’ve had mixed success pulling gaming groups together via something like meetup.com or craigslist.

    I would suggest billing it as “especially designed for inexperienced gamers”, or “welcoming to all, with a focus on those interested in learning more about gaming”. Something along those lines, to encourage those who get nervous thinking they will be the only one who doesn’t already know what’s going on. “Welcoming” is also a pretty frequent term used for being inclusive.

  10. I have two suggestions … one is to run a “girly game” – or a system that is more marketed to young ladies. Something like “Call of Catthulu” (https://nerdybutflirty.com/2013/11/13/call-of-catthulhu-rpg-kickstarter-aka-the-cutest-cthulhu-ever/) would be a great way to attract a crew of gamers who is open minded on the purity of the turf, as it were.

    We took the boys last year to their first ever con, Anonycon (http://anonycon.com/) last year. It was the most gender-accepting con either Adam or I have ever seen. The boys played Call of Catthulu there, and they were the only Y chromosomes at the table! I could wholeheartedly recommend it to a young, colored, non-male person. It was also really pretty affordable.

  11. @BJ: Yup, I’d say you have been pretty lucky in the groups you’ve been a part of, or could we perhaps even say “privileged”? I attend a lot of cons these days (3-4 per year), and with such a large sampling of players the odds are in my favor of seeing bias at work. And it’s not always quite so overt as Jenn describes – there are far more subtle ways of making someone feel unwelcome. Is it on the individual to find a way to join in? Ultimately, yes. But it’s in my power to recognize that I do have privilege and use it to make opportunities for those who do not.

    @Travis: Excellent points, more data gathering is definitely required. While I’m pretty sure I have a good idea here, I am operating on a small amount of data. At minimum I can be more on the ball the next time this comes up and try to engage the individual. That said, I think I can also be more proactive here by making contact with others who have more experience. Jenn suggested I talk to our local YA librarian, which I think is a great idea. I may also make a point of talking to the proprietors of the local gaming stores to get their takes.

    @Alyssa: Yeah, that’s some good word-smithing there. It’s interesting how difficult it is to find inclusive language without it flipping into being exclusive of the opposite group.

    @Brenda: This came up on the Facebook side as well. While I agree that other games may be more approachable, on the marketing side of getting people in the door there’s a lot of cache to the brand “Dungeons & Dragons”. I think it would be a mistake not to leverage that, especially when looking for people with zero real experience.

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