Gaming's White Progressive Problem and the Diana Jones Award

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I’ve been angry since I heard the results of the Diana Jones Award at this past Gen Con, and it’s time that I talk about that anger rather than letting it eat away at me in silence. I want to address two arguments against this post right here at the beginning, before I start criticizing too deeply.

  • The ‘Sour Grapes’ defense. ConTessa lost the Diana Jones Award in 2016. We lost to Eric Lang, a person of color who has an entire career of work to celebrate. I am not bitter that we didn’t win. Eric was WAY WAY overdue for his win.

  • The ‘don’t speak for other people’ defense. I am only speaking for myself, and my frustration, disappointment, agitation, irritation, and anger is at white people. People of color shouldn’t be the only ones calling out racism. Fuck, if I had my way, they’d never have to call out racism, ever.

White people should be calling out racism, whether it is in greater society or our smaller communities. White people should be talking to white people about the atrocious things white people do, whether intentional or not. Just like men should be calling out other men on misogyny or transphobia or sexual assault or any number of issues.

I’m a white person, myself, and writing this doesn’t mean I’ve evolved greatly or am immune to the biases I’m pointing out. Every white person came to age in a racist and biased system, whether we realize it or not. We didn’t ask to be made that way. No one is born racist. Some of us grew up with some very specific examples of racism around us, but many, many, many of us were fed a steady diet of ‘don’t be racist’ and ‘don’t see color’, and we genuinely want to do that, whole-heartedly want that to be an option. But it’s not an option, never was. The cards were stacked in our favor long before we were born, which makes our ability to resist implicit bias - to even see implicit bias - compromised at best.

If your response to that last paragraph is to get angry or defensive, take some not-so-gentle advice. Stop reading this and go unpack those feelings. Preferably in the privacy of your own head. Seriously, this isn’t me being flippant. I’ve been there. It helps no one to defend your progressive past. It doesn’t matter how great your parents or school system raised you, if you’re white, and you’ve been out in the world, you’ve benefited from privilege.

Now, let’s go back in time…

It was a couple months before Gen Con. I was in-between surgery and radiation treatment for breast cancer. My friend, and the COO of The ConTessa Foundation, Ariel, came down to visit me so we could chat about ConTessa, and also so I could hang out with someone friendly for a while, as most of my friends are scattered across the country.

She wanted to tell me about Harlem Unbound.

I’d heard of the book, vaguely knew what it was about, but honestly I hadn’t picked it up because Cthulhu was never my thing. Harlem, on the other hand, was a place of mystery and expression I’d only been partially introduced to via Luke Cage. She made me want the book more than anything else, just by looking at the expression on her face as she told me about this book she was very clearly fangirling over (and if any of you know Ariel, you know she doesn’t fangirl).

It was the look on her face that did it for me. I recognized it. I felt it. It was the same look I got on my face the first time Rey fired up her lightsaber, the look I got on my face when the new Ghostbusters came on the screen. Unfettered joy. Joy that, for once in your life, there was a thing about YOU, and this thing was about her. Very clearly.

For once, it wasn’t a white man talking about African American life from a very watered-down white perspective. For once, it had meat. It dug into history we’ve all been denied by our white ancestors. The ones who decided what would go into the history books we were taught from as we grew up. It did something different, and it was more than just a book to her. Clearly, it was a relic. A piece of literature. A portion of her history she got to reclaim. A portion of her history she was clearly hungry to reclaim.

It moved me to be in that room at that moment on that day. To my core. I’ve been fighting with myself for years on how I could best support people of color as a white person. Afraid to look too enthusiastic, afraid to be yet another white person using people of color to prove their progressivism, afraid to stand up to the racism of other white people. Chickenshit. I had the privilege to be afraid, and I leaned on that privilege. A lot.

Ariel’s reaction to Chris Spivey’s work shattered the fear into a billion pieces. I do not possess the ability to understand what it’s like to be a black person in this country. I never will. But, I do  know what it feels like to see yourself represented in places you never were before. I know that rush of emotion, that uplifting joy that feels like it’s pouring out of you, there’s so much. That smile that feels like it’s going to break your face. It’s the look one gets when their daydreams come to life.

Only, there was more there than my limited experience could grasp. This wasn’t just about a wholey fictional place or character. There’s real history, real people, real research woven into the fiction of Harlem Unbound. Ghosts walk the pages, ghosts people tried to erase from history. There’s a lot of power in giving those ghosts new life in this form of fiction and gameplay. They don’t just sit in the dusty past. These ghosts get new stories from new audiences, one hundred years later.

I realized, right then, this was the passion and joy I first envisioned when I started ConTessa. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a game changer, but this is the kind of thing that breaks the dam. The kind of representation that empowers others to create similar things who then empower even more people who then empower even more, and so on and so forth…

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...but somehow or another, white people get in the fucking way and make this process so much harder than it should be.

Ariel left talking about her interview with Chris, one I hope she finishes and posts here, and she left me with a whole new way to empathize and help. That’s an awesome thing games can do, bridge the gap between what we don’t know and what we know. I may not ever experience what she or Chris do on a regular basis, but I can understand it, and I can understand the relief and joy of finding yourself properly represented in your favorite hobby.

As we got closer to Gen Con, I told her I wouldn’t be going to the Diana Jones Award, myself, but I wanted her to go, to represent ConTessa, and meet some industry people. In addition, Harlem Unbound was nominated, I knew Chris would be there, knew Christopher Helton (our Director of Public Relations) could introduce them, and knew these two needed to meet each other in-person so she could fangirl.

I went back to our hotel that night, had a quiet, early evening in preparation for the upcoming chaos, and didn’t think about it again until the next morning, while we were setting up.

“Oh yeah, how’d the DJAs go?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. Helton, who was sitting nearby laughed. I started worrying something terrible happened. “Harlem Unbound didn’t win.” She said.

I blinked. I thought for sure it’d win. Nothing else on that list held a candle to Harlem Unbound. “What? Who won?” Was there some other nominee I didn’t know about?

“Actual Play.”

Actual Play. This is a real accounting of how that went in my brain. Wait, the concept? No, no, is there a podcast called just ‘Actual Play’? It can’t be the concept. Maybe I heard wrong. “What?”

“Actual Play.” Either Helton or her or both of them repeated, giving me that ‘I know what your brain is doing’ look the entire time.

Again, I tried to search in my head for a game or a person or something. “The concept?” I asked, flabbergasted. I must’ve, at some point, seen that in the nominations list, but it seemed like such an odd, odd win. Nomination, maybe, win? The concept?

“Yup.” Came the reply, again I forget from who.

I was utterly bewildered. I blinked. Many times. A concept. A concept won over a book that turned a whole genre on its head. A concept won over a book with some very, VERY important representation. A book that could have - but didn’t - shy away from racism, in fact making it a crucial component of the game. A concept. A concept that’s been around since AT LEAST 2013, when Hangouts first launched, and likely longer.

It wasn’t all bad, though. She got to meet Chris in-person and fangirl, they all had a good time at the party, it just ended on a sour note, so they left early. I don’t think they even made it through the acceptance speeches. Both Helton and Ariel told me they felt the mood shift in the room when the award was given. They weren’t the only ones who thought it was a swing and a miss.

We got busy, and I had to file it to the back of my head, but every time it came back up again, it made me angry. Very angry. This was racism, right? We talked about that a bit. Yes, yes, I wasn’t wrong about that. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this form of racism, but this time it felt a lot more personal. Because I was empathetically tied to it through my friend’s joy. To me, a white enby, it felt like I was getting punched in the stomach.

I can’t even imagine what it must’ve felt like to be Chris. Or Ariel. At that event, having to sit there and try to not react. Then, it got worse, Helton tells me.

Worse? How could it get worse? He shows me a tweet Chris made that night. It got worse in a way that made my stomach lurch into my throat. It was the same feeling I got when, at 12, my best friend’s dad told me the city I lived in had once been a ‘sunset town’. A deep, nauseating revulsion.

Some asshole asked Chris Spivey why he thinks he deserves a seat at the table.

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Even now, nearly three months later, that stops me in my tracks. I don’t even know what to write next. I’ve written and rewritten this paragraph three times, now. I feel helpless, completely fucking helpless. Whoever the fuck said that to Chris, I don’t care if you were drunk, I don’t care if that’s not what you meant, I don’t care how you said it or why you said it. Get the fuck out of my industry. It’s YOU who isn’t welcome at the table.

I spent the rest of the weekend mentioning it every now and again. On Facebook, in person, lots of places. There were three basic reactions.

The first was to wave one’s hands in a defensive gesture while stating they didn’t want to touch that… a very, “I don’t have to deal with this, I don’t want to deal with this, so I’m going to exercise my privilege and pretend it doesn’t exist,” response.

The second was a defense of Actual Play winning. Let me be clear, I’m not pissed off at Actual Play. I mean, first of all, it’s a concept, even if I was pissed off at Actual Play, it wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. But, Actual Play is an innocent party. I’m not accusing Actual Play of being racist. I’m accusing the Diana Jones Committee of making a racist decision. Actual Play is just the bystander awkwardly trying to be happy about their win, even though they know there’s something fucked up about it.

This defense most often came from people who know someone who does an Actual Play show of some sort or is a fan of one of the professional shows. It came with one of two sentiments. The first was the idea that Actual Play shows have brought a lot of people into gaming, part of the criteria of the Diana Jones Award. The other is that many of the professional shows feature diverse casts, so it’s a force of representation.

I don’t deny there’s truth to both of those statements. I’m sure these wildly popular professional shows have brought in new gamers. I’d like to see some proof or numbers of some sort telling us how much of an impact they’ve had because I suspect it’s not as much as people think, but I’m sure the value is not null.

I also won’t deny that many of them cast for diversity, and that functions as a representational force. ConTessa began with Actual Play broadcasts. We were broadcasting online games live in 2013 for the express purpose of increasing diversity through representation. Again, this isn’t a new concept.

So, sure, for longer than five years, people have been producing Actual Play broadcasts that have been increasing representation and bringing new people into gaming. Why this year? Even the big ones have been going on a few years, now.

It’s an amazing coincidence, is it not, that the first year Gen Con starts running their own track of Actual Plays, advertised for all four days all over the stadium we were set up in, Actual Play also wins the Diana Jones Award?

Like Gen Con won it, amazingly, last year, on Gen Con’s 50th anniversary?

It’s hard for me, now, to see the Diana Jones Award as anything but an awkward vessel for extending Gen Con’s marketing presence. An archaic relic of a time before when people actually had to give a shit about the great gatekeepers - Gen Con and Dungeons & Dragons, given out by a committee that seems increasingly more interested in maintaining the status quo than they are about discovering and defending the new. The different. The dam breakers.

This is how awards should be used for in a hobby that’s trying to change. To discover and defend the new, the vulnerable, to take real chances, not safe bets. The Diana Jones Award used to stand for something. Or at least I thought they did. I’m starting to think I was wrong.

Actual Play is not new. Even professional Actual Play is not new. People were already treating the cast of various professional AP shows as celebrities at last year’s Gen Con, standing in lines to get autographs and a chance to meet their favorites. One of my friends even cosplayed one of the characters from her favorite show. And as I’ve said, ConTessa started in 2013, and I was doing APs of my own well before even that.

Actual Play does not need defense or recognition. It’s not in danger of going away anywhere anytime soon, either. It is becoming more and more out of reach for the average gamer to partake in because many shows these days have sets and crews and editors and camera people and sometimes even scripts, but it’s not going anywhere, and if the lines I saw to get autographs from the cast members of some of these shows are any indication, a whole lot of people already know about it.

Harlem Unbound, on the other hand, is new. Nearly everything about it is new. It’s literature. It’s art. It’s unexplored history. It faces racism fully and fiercely. It doesn’t apologize, it doesn’t coddle, it doesn’t conveniently ignore the racist roots of Lovecraft or horror or gaming. It was written, designed, edited, and illustrated by a diverse group of people for a diverse group of people. It’s cretors are under attack, every day, as are all marginalized creators, and not enough people know about the good work done.

Harlem Unbound needed those things, not just because the game deserved the award, which it very much did, but because the bestowing of that award is a reflection of the industry that chooses the winner. And that reflection is very ugly.

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As a white person, I’m furious in all directions. I’m furious that racism is so prevalent in 2018 that I’ve had uber drivers in Indianapolis tell me about the racist gamers they’ve picked up. I’m furious that racism is so prevalent that someone had the unmitigated gall to ask Chris Spivey why he thinks he deserves a seat at the table. I’m furious because white people aren’t furious over all the history about the world we live in our ancestors decided we just didn’t need to know about. I’m furious because I was lied to by books and teachers alike again and again.

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And now that I know what I’ve lost, what we’ve washed away, what is missing, I’m hungry. Harlem Unbound just makes me crave more. More games written by people of color about people of color. More games written by every marginalized, ignored, and silenced group out there. I want to hear the songs that have been denied me, know the people that have been written out of history, forgotten, left behind… because some white ancestor of mine or another decided they weren't important, weren’t even people. Fuck them for deciding for me.

I don’t understand why more white people aren’t incensed over what they’ve lost.

Tolkien-inspired fantasy worlds - the familiar places we set Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder and a whole host of other fantasy games that take up the majority of space in gaming - were created by white men. They are white worlds with occasional dashes of color. They frequently use dark skin to mean ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. Species of humanoids in games are mislabeled as ‘races’, leaving humans white, complete with white culture.

People of color play in our games, and run games for us using our white fantasy world regularly, and they don’t often complain about the racism. Yet, when we finally get something different, something that crosses many lines and is so important it’s part of the syllabus at a HBC, so important it’s won awards outside the gaming industry, we choked.

We gave the award to a concept that’s been around for several years, instead, and called it progressive.

I’m calling the committee out. This is White Progressivism at its WORST. I don’t know if the committee was just too blind to see the impact Harlem Unbound has had on the community and could have with an even broader reach, if they were just plain racist, or if it was just a case of marketing for Gen Con. It’s probably all of those things, unfortunately.

As a result, I will no longer take the DJA seriously. It’s clearly becoming Part of the Problem.

Just to rub it in, Harlem Unbound won awards from IGDN, then went on to win three ENnies, and has been added to the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum in Washington DC, and the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. Did Actual Play get added to any museums lately? I might’ve missed the announcement.

By the way, Ariel’s now writing for Chris Spivey. She speaks about her work with reverence, because she’s resurrecting the dead. Her joy keeps overflowing, and her opportunities keep growing, and I love her for that, my friend the necromancer.

I usually like to end all my writing on some form of optimism, but that seems the incorrect tact this time around. I’m too angry. Too hurt. For the record, this is the fifth time I’ve written this article. Usually, I can write out my anger in the first, but it’s still here, burning hotter than ever.

My goal is to give more people moments like Ariel’s. Moments of inclusion. Moments of radical representation. Moments when they get to uncover something amazing about their own heritage, and, here’s the best part, game with it! Those moments of pure joy need to happen way more often.

I’m no longer afraid to break some white fragility to get there. We need to do better. WAY better. There are many, many people in this industry painting themselves as progressives past racism.

You’re not either of those things.

Time to do some navel gazing.

Time to get better.

Stacy Dellorfano