I want to tell you about a time.
Years ago, I was part of a circle of friends. A flexible web of interconnected circles, really. Some of us were more closely connected than others, but when there was a party at Juli and Brian’s house, everyone showed up. At parties like this, of course there were friends form their other circles too, so I got to see all kinds of social interplay. And over time, a few years of these regular gatherings, I noticed a thing. Brian was continually shut down.
He was talked over, ignored, interrupted, and flat-out put down. He always took it in stride, with a hint of a shrug and a hint of a smile, falling quiet or drifting off in to silence when it was clear no-one was paying any attention. Again. He was self-deprecating, and would yield constantly to someone else’s anecdote or comment. If he disagreed, he’d usually just keep it to himself. Brian is a smart man, creative and friendly, skilled in his profession, an enthusiastic outdoors-man and a good friend. He listens deeply, and he has great affection for his friends. They just walked all over him. All the time.
This started to really bug me.
So I thought about what I wanted to see happen differently, and how I could help that happen. I started listening to him, really actively, resisting the micro-cultural currents that tended to drive conversation away from him. We’d be at a party, and everyone would be talking about their cat, or work, or whatever. Brian would start his anecdote, and invariably someone would ask the group something, or bring up some other point, or just talk over him. So I started saying “Hold on, I want to hear what Brian has to say.” If the conversation was veering towards things I knew he was skilled in, I’d turn to him and say “Brian, didn’t you snowshoe Emerald Brook last winter? How bad was the ice damage?” and wait pointedly for his answer. Which was invariably informative and entertaining. He does after all know how to tell a good story, he just didn’t often get a chance.
I did this, really intently, for three years. At every social gathering where Brian and Juli and I happened to be together. I did it in huge groups of 100 people at a festival, and in the car with the three of us on the way home.
And something started to happen. Other people started listening to Brian, too. The micro-culture shifted. Now it’s years later, and when we get together at Juli and Brian’s house, Brian is a full participant. It’s excellent.
I want to tell you about another time.
I was on a panel at PAX East this last March. It was Ben Lehman, Laura Simpson, me, Tracy Hurley, and Dev Purkayastha. We talked about all kinds of stuff, including dealing with sex and gender, playing a character markedly different than oneself, and being women and people of color in gaming. It was a great panel, but the talk afterward was even better! People came up and talked with us individually about what was happening in their lives, at their tables, in their micro-cultures. This story, though, is about two guys with a very specific thing they wanted to address.
These guys (I’ll call them Bob and Mitch) had been gaming with the same group for 15 years. Since they were about 14 years old. Bob described their group as “pretty gonzo”, with lots of mindless killing of orcs, calling things and each other “gay” when they meant to be insulting, talking up the physical details of the female NPCs, being generally sexist and racist and homophobic in their play. I credit Bob with massive courage just in coming up to me and saying “Here’s what my group has been like for the last 15 years.” I said “Ok, so that’s the picture, and you’ve identified it as problematic.” Mitch nodded, and said “Yeah, we’re wondering if you have any advice on how to change that?”
Sure I do! These guys are looking to change their micro-culture. This is a thing that happens when we grow. Not just when we get older, but when we grow. What was satisfying and perhaps age-appropriate for a young teen is not satisfying and or age-appropriate for a 30 year old. (There’s a whole discussion about teen behavior that I’m going to address, but not yet. Bear with me.)
So I said “Yes, this is a thing that happens. We out-grow our old ways of being, even if we still want to hang out with the same friends. This happens gradually, as people’s interests and focus changes, or it can happen quickly. If you’ve been part of a micro-culture that has been full of “rape and pillage” style play, and now someone’s in a relationship with a person they love…” Bob grins and says “I’m getting married in June.” “Right, so your perspective has shifted. And it’s not a mindless part of play anymore, it’s “hey, can we not talk about women like that?”. The other big thing that can make a switch happen fast is if someone in the group becomes a parent…” Bob grins even bigger – “Our baby is due in November.” I nod again, “Right, so you’re looking at a big life shift, and you want to see that reflected in your micro-culture. That’s fine. That’s good. That’s growing.”
Now, to advise Bob and Mitch on how to actually shift their micro-culture, here’s what I told them:
- Know the direction you want to go. In this case, toward a more respectful language and behavior around women, in the gaming micro-culture and in general.
- Have an ally, in the micro-culture ideally, but outside it if you can’t. Bob and Mitch can back each other up, which is great.
- Call people in the micro-culture on the things you want to see shift. This sounds as scary as anything, but it’s not a cry to confrontation and accusation, it’s as simple as not laughing at a joke you find offensive. Then it’s saying “Yeah, not so cool / funny, dude” when someone makes such a comment / tells such a joke. Then it’s talking to the people in the micro-culture privately to say “Hey, I’m done with being a wise-ass kid, y’know? It’s time for me to stop talking like I think women are second-class. Because that’s just crap.” You don’t need to be confrontational, just own your own growth. This can take courage, because some people are really nervous around change, and you might get some push-back. Don’t fall for it.
- Keep at it. It will take time, you might realize that some of the folks you thought were good friends are just people you are in the habit of hanging out with, you might find new folks that you really do want to have around you, and you will feel better about yourself and your micro-culture in the end.
Now, back to the part about teenagers.
When we are teenagers, tons of change is going on in our bodies and brains and our micro-cultures all at once. It’s crazy! Part of why we are dealing with these issues, of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc, as adults is because of what we experienced in our micro-cultures as teens. It’s when we are shaping our ideas about all these things, these intensely important aspects of our identity – how are we going to be in the world? How are we going to treat other people? How do we want other people to see us?
Is it a surprise to anyone that teens talk with more vigor and bravado about sex and violence and bravery and fighting the forces of evil than children or parents? It shouldn’t be. That’s when we are trying to sort ourselves out. When we come to gaming in that space, it’s easy for all that internal tempestuousness to get codified – THIS is how I show I am strong, THIS is how I demonstrate my bravery, HERE is how I want to be seen by people want to impress (either the ones sitting at the table or the ones we wish could see us act so brilliantly), HERE is how I react to things not part of what fits with the micro-culture’s sense of “normal”.
It’s ok. It’s a part of growing. We all have to do it. Then we have to keep doing it. And sometimes that means changing our micro-culture, because what felt powerful and smart when we were 15 does not feel as powerful and smart when we are 30.
And guess what?? Teenagers have changed too! In the broader culture, the chances that someone who was a teen in the last 20 years has encountered positive media and social depictions of women, homosexuals, people of color, transgender people, people of different religious traditions or abilities or socioeconomic backgrounds is HUGE compared to folks who were teens 40 years ago. So the work to change your micro-culture most likely has broader cultural support, which makes the whole thing easier.
Something that is hard is when the micro-culture you have to change is yourself. If you have built a certain role for yourself, people come to expect that role. If you are the person who always has the double entendre ready, it’s eventually difficult to say anything and have people take your words as not intended to have a second angle (<- said from experience! Thank you, 15 year-old me. And thank you 18 year-old me for doing the work to change.) If you have built your self-identity as a racist, it takes masses of commitment and support (points 1 and 2). And so to my last story.
In high school, a boy joined our group on some outing or other. A friend of a regular member, coming on a hike. Andy was a racist skinhead. He had hate-speech tattoos on his hands. He’d been involved in minor hate crimes in another state. He was 16. This was a little extreme for our group, but we were big on getting to know people, and he was a really decent guy on the hike. So when he asked if he could come to the beach next week, the answer was “Sure, be at the UU church at noon.” He became a regular. He hung out, laughed, helped with dishes, dealt with his stuff, and two years later he spoke in meeting about wanting to have the tattoos removed. He had changed his own micro-culture, and was ready to change his body to match. We held car-washes to help raise the money for his laser surgery.
So if you want to see a change in culture, start with your micro-culture. It starts here. It starts with me. It starts with you. It starts now.