Let’s say you are someone who wants to do things right. You might be a player, a game master, an artist or a game designer; it doesn’t matter. You want to change games for the better. You want to do the right thing! You want to be more inclusive! You want to work against negative stereotypes in games! And fight discrimination! Better games! For everyone! Rawr!!!
Yet, when you try to do it, you realize that it’s pretty hard. Not because you are a bad person, but because you don’t know enough. That can make you afraid to try, because you might get things wrong and offend someone. You might have already made some mistake and been criticized for it, and because of that become scared to try again.
What can go wrong?
Often when things go wrong, it’s because people decide to include something with the best of intentions, but present it in a bad way: there are strong female protagonist, but they are still barbie dolls in chainmail bikinis. There are black characters, but they are magical Negros and the first ones to die in the play examples. There are lesbians, but they are bat-shit crazy and hate all men.
I’m not innocent: we played a campaign set in Africa, and after a while we just gave up, since all sorts of negative tropes and stereotypes about Africa made it into the campaign. Playing it we had to face all the cultural baggage we unconsciously carried with us.
These things are not included because we are evil people, but because they are tropes and images we learn from our surrounding culture, and which we unconsciously include. In order to get out of it, you’ve got to analyze what you do and fight it – and even then you will slip up at times.
How do you get things right?
One way to deal with this would be to learn everything about everything. But that’s also pretty hard.
I’ve an interest in LGBT issues, and even if I know a lot about these things I often run into situations where I realize I don’t know enough. In those situations I have to be really humble in the way I express myself in order to avoid saying something offensive.
There are a lot of things I know far less about. Talking about race issues with people from the US leaves me terrified. I’m a Swede, and I realize that I don’t know much about race issues in Sweden, being very white and from a very white part of Sweden. Race issues in the United States? Yikes. I know so little on that topic that I’m afraid to open my mouth in a discussion of it.
Beside LGBT and race issues, there are hundreds of other important issues, who are all interconnected: sexism, ableism, ageism, islamophobia, cisism, imperialism, and sizeism, to name just a few. Learning everything about everything just isn’t possible, but you should try to learn as much as you can. These are serious issues which affect people’s lives, and you must take them seriously.
However, despite the difficulties, you should try to make games better, more inclusive, to end discrimination, and fight negative stereotypes.
So… How do you get it right?
First off: you won’t, not all of the time. You are going to screw up and offend people, who may get angry and criticize your work. But screwing up doesn’t make you a bad person. You’ve had good intentions, but your presentation has failed. It makes your creation flawed, but you are not your creations.
What’s important is what you do after you’ve screwed up.
The main thing is that you are humble, and that you keep on trying. If you fail in some way or if people criticize your work, be humble, listen to their criticism, and learn from it. It is impossible to know everything, and being human, we all make mistakes. People criticize your work because these things are important to them, and if you listen to their criticism you might learn something that will improve your future work.
Dealing with the response and criticism when you’ve done something offensive
One of my teachers once told me:
“If you have to defend what you have written, then something is wrong. Your work should be able to defend itself. Don’t defend your work.”
There is a lot of truth to that. If you’ve had the best of intentions when creating your work and people perceive it in a different way than you do, you’ve probably failed in communicating them. When you get a reaction – even a negative one – it is very important that you listen to what that person perceived, and that you take their view seriously. Do not tell them what you wanted them to perceive. That is what your work should do.
Respect your critics’ experience. They are not “wrong”. They merely perceived your work in a different way than you do. The moment that you start defending or explaining your work, you will no longer hear the raw impression your work has done, and you will miss out on important feedback.
Listen actively. Ask questions and ask them humbly. “Why did you perceive X as racist?”, “Can you point out what pictures you found problematic?”, “Why do you think this description makes it falls into the negative stereotype?” Listen to the answers until you think you understand, and ask if you understood correctly.
After you’ve done that, you can explain your intentions. Not a second before that. But make sure to just explain. Don’t defend your work. Ask what you can change or what you could have done differently to reach your goal. A person with enough knowledge to criticize your work should also be able to explain what changes they would like to see in order to make things better.
You will be tempted to defend you work, but try not to. Your work should stand on its own merits. Having good intentions is important, but the product of those intentions is what other people will see, and the thing that matters. It’s not what you say – it’s what you do.
Furthermore, not defending your work is an effective tactic when dealing with trolls looking for conflict. By not becoming defensive, you are not feeding them. Put the poison and fire out of your mind, and kill them with kindness and diplomacy.
Throughout the whole process of criticism, it’s important that you are civil. Thank whomever criticized your work for their time and knowledge on the issue, and tell them you will try to improve.
Doing the right thing is hard
Nobody expects you to be perfect. Even if you strive to make games better for everyone, you will make some sort of mistake sooner or later. The reactions that you will face when you do might not always be fair, but they will tell you how other people have perceived your work, and from that you can learn a lot. And screwing up is fine, as long as you willing to listen, be humble, learn from your mistakes, change and try again.
It’s okay get frustrated, sad or angry, because this isn’t an easy fight. No matter what you do you won’t please everyone. Just keep on trying and listening to the advice that you get along the way.
Thanks to Joel Nordström for editing and really useful feedback.