• Changing Your Micro-culture

    by  • June 4, 2012 • People & Events • 11 Comments

    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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.



    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.


    11 Responses to Changing Your Micro-culture

    1. avatar
      Melody Haren Anderson
      June 4, 2012 at 16:57

      This really spoke to me, for a number of reasons. Back in high school, I had only one person who I considered a regular friend (and still think they were to this day), while the rest of my micro-culture wasn’t so much a grouping of friends as an alliance of people who either by choice or lack thereof (I and my friend were the only two I would characterize as being a part of the group due to a lack of choice) being outsiders to the normal politics and culture of high school life.

      Danny (not his real name) was a good guy who came from a rough family. He dropped out of high school after repeated name calling, abuse, and “encouragement” by teachers, especially one in particular who I hold no love for. He got a regular set of jobs doing different sorts of construction, but we still hung out.

      While the micro-culture was honestly as sexist as you might expect for the time, I met more than a few of these people shortly after they left high school and they were not the people who I had know in high school. We were an angry group. Angry at the teachers, angry at our parents, angry at our peers. I’d say anger at the whole system at more than a few times, and it came out sometimes in really horrible, even self-destructive ways.

      But… in the end, I think it turned out to be a stepping stone for most of us. We learned to admit that even if we didn’t need friends, we needed allies. We came to realize that there were a number of things to righteously loathe about the way things were, and that if we wanted them to change, we had to start from within first. I’m not saying it was the best, or even a good situation. It wasn’t. It was unhealthy at the time. And I’m not sure if that is very on topic or not, now that I look back, but… hope it is helpful.

      Thumb up Thumb down +3
    2. avatar
      Jason Morningstar
      June 4, 2012 at 18:16

      This is a great article, and our ability to exercise a little gentle power to make positive changes can’t be emphasized enough.

      I have a different take on Bob and Mitch’s (all too common) story and wonder what you think. My first reaction would be to counsel them to start a different group and stick to other kinds of socializing with their gonzo friends. This way everybody gets what they want – the old crew can still be as gonzo as they want, Bob and Mitch, who have developed a distaste for that, can play in a different way, and everybody can still be friends on football night or whatever.

      I recognize on some level this is pretty simple social utilitarianism, and perhaps not practical. It’s certainly a problem that is highly context-dependent.

      Thumb up Thumb down 0
      • avatar
        June 4, 2012 at 21:53

        I think it’s ok for people to say that they aren’t into sexist/racist/homophobic behavior and to try to get their friends to not be that way too, even in gaming groups. Because to be honest, if my “friends” continue to do that, I’m probably not hanging out with them for Monday Night football. Acceptance of hate really bugs me.

        Thumb up Thumb down +4
        • avatar
          Jason Morningstar
          June 5, 2012 at 15:36

          You know, I re-read the essay and Bob and Mitch were specifically asking for advice on changing their existing group. So I apologize; my advice would not address their need.

          Thumb up Thumb down 0
      • avatar
        June 6, 2012 at 10:44

        Yet, at times it not about people being bad people (although I can be) but a destructive social pattern. People sticking to the same behavior they had in the group as 14 year olds, although their values really have changed. They just keep doing the stuff they did as teenagers because it the social pattern of the group.

        Thumb up Thumb down 0
    3. avatar
      June 5, 2012 at 00:19

      Yeah, changing this stuff can be difficult. One tactic I’ve found semi-successful over the years is to start by simply calling it to people’s attention, especially as a joke. Most of the groups of people I play with are a bunch of white straight guys, so this kind of thing comes up from time to time. In one group from a couple years back in particular, there were a lot of rapes, mostly by NPCs of other NPCs but occasionally by PCs of NPCs, in campaigns. It was part of a “gritty” feel everyone wanted (the guys had recently read the Song of Ice and Fire series, then at three books, and were trying to imitate Martin).

      After a while the sexual violence started to seem really gratuitous, so after the first incident in a new campaign I cracked “Well, that’s the first of the mandatory three rapes per campaign”, which isn’t super-witty or anything but started a short discussion about how often it was occurring. That eventually led to it becoming much rarer, especially since I kept a running tally and at one point asserted that we were “running over quota”.

      I think this might’ve worked better than directly confronting them about it would have, since they had previously dismissed a former player’s concerns about this as “wussy” and “crazy”. These were dudes who took roleplaying very seriously, and by asserting that some part of the imagined world couldn’t be taken seriously, I used a trick from formal consensus techniques (asserting shared values) to cut the rape stuff drastically.

      Another thing that tamped it down was we shifted our playing environment to the apartment of one of the PCs who’d been the biggest offender for this stuff. With his girlfriend around (she wasn’t playing, but she would be doing stuff within earshot), the amount of sexual violence went way down because he didn’t want to do that stuff in front of her.

      Thumb up Thumb down +4
    4. avatar
      June 5, 2012 at 23:14

      Well said, Meg. Well said!

      Thumb up Thumb down 0
    5. Pingback: Success and Failure in Role-Playing Games | Take On Rules

    6. Pingback: Weekly Assembly: Now With Product Announcements | The Gamer Assembly

    7. Pingback: Is it possible to change ‘gaming culture’? « Welcome to Spinksville!

    8. Pingback: A Guide for Men with Good Intentions « Dissent of a Woman

    Comments are closed.