I have written an FAQ to accompany this piece available here [Two Minutes Hate: FAQ] that addresses my thoughts on Zak’s behavior in our community, clarifications on my thoughts on anger and abuse, and more. I encourage you to read it alongside this post.
My hair is purple. I’ve got a tongue ring. My band practices outside the dorms every night, lousy Pearl Jam covers echoing off nearby buildings. Each morning, I awake with just enough time to walk across campus to the English building. I’m bored with everything: classes, homework, parties, people.
I’m twenty. Insufferably, obnoxiously twenty.
I’m in a post-Civil War English class with my favorite teaching assistant, Kate. Other TAs don’t challenge me or don’t show up prepared. But not Kate. She teaches. She marks up my papers like she actually reads them. I respect the hell out of her.
One day we’re reading poetry by Rudulfo Anaya, a New Mexican poet. The poem is a ghost story: a young man wants to leave home to go find his love, but his parents warn him not to leave at night. He does anyway. Things don’t go well.
Kate asks us for our thoughts.
I raise my hand; she calls on me first. I say I think the poem is about the duality of Hispanic families: Hispanics rely on family for strength and guidance and support… but also hold their children too close. Family, I say, is a double-edged sword.
“Interesting,” she says. “But maybe you should let a Hispanic student speak to that point.”
I feel time slow. Here’s the beat I say something, right? Maybe that would be brave, to say something clever that establishes me as a “real” Hispanic. And Kate would be embarrassed and laugh it off and we’d all move on with our day.
But I don’t feel like a “real” Hispanic in this moment. I feel like a fraud.
I say nothing. A hot flush of shame spreads across my face. I realize that I’m ashamed of pretending to be who I actually am. But I still feel like I got caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I let the rest of the class go on and try to make myself small.
I think later about going to Kate’s office and talking to her, but the words never come to me and I never go. She’s a good teacher, I think, and I’m not really Hispanic anyway.
A few weeks ago, I came across a post (on a now deleted thread) by my friend and colleague, Robert Bohl, that shocked me:
Rob has always struck me as gentle and honest. His game—Misspent Youth—is about standing up for your beliefs in the face of oppression, and we even talked about Magpie acting as his joint publisher when the game is featured on Tabletop. (We were sad when he chose to go with Burning Wheel HQ, but we are excited to see the game thrive!) Rob’s our kind of people.
His post was aimed (unsurprisingly) at Zak S/Smith/Sabbath, a member of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) community who has famously feuded with “story gamers” like Rob in the past. As shocked as I was by the post, I figured that Rob’s temper had just gotten the best of him, given his history with Zak.
But I feel like no one should be treated this way. Not Zak. Not anyone. And the rest of us shouldn’t have to wade through posts like that on public threads, no matter how angry the poster might be. The sheer toxicity of the post made me feel like I should do something.
While I was mulling over how to react, Marissa took the lead. She contacted Rob and let him know that she wasn’t willing to work with him on the upcoming Misspent Youth Kickstarter if he was going to harass people online, that she respected his anger but expected better of him as a community leader. She asked him to retract the post and apologize to Zak.
He stood by the post.
Rob reached out to me. I said I was standing with Marissa, and that I thought the post was beneath him. I told him that until the post came down and he apologized to Zak, that I wasn’t interested in working with him either.
He still stood by the post.
Nothing changed when Brendan talked to Rob about withdrawing from the project as well; Rob’s position had only intensified.
He still stood by the post.
I’m not going to share my private correspondence with Rob, but I broadly understand Rob’s rationale to be:
- He only talks this way to one person (Zak)
- His posts don’t threaten to hurt Zak
- His post was funny
- Zak deserves this kind of treatment
We don’t find any of those claims sufficient. None of them justify harassment.
So… Magpie won’t be lending a hand to the Misspent Youth Kickstarter. We’d love to work with Rob, but our efforts go to people who want to lead with love and kindness, who reject the easy answers like “I only talk like this to people I hate” or “My jokes at someone else’s expense are righteous and funny.”
We think that everyone deserves basic human respect. Everyone.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Rob’s post. The story gamer community—my community: a loose coalition of people that hung around the Forge, posted on Story-Games.com, and now linger in private circles on G+—has regularly betrayed our values when dealing with the OSR community.
But Rob’s post made me realize that I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t look the other way when members of our community give people inside our community a free pass for bad behavior and turn their vitriol and hatred on outsiders like Zak. It saddens and pains me to write this post, but there’s a point at which silence—my silence, our silence—begins to look like we’re condoning terrible behavior that harms people.
I’m a member of this community because I felt it professed my values of tolerance and inclusion, but…
- We betrayed our values when an indie podcast implied that Zak’s group had “D&D brain damage”—they later apologized—and we argued with Zak about how he handled people saying shitty things about him and his loved ones on the internet.
- We betrayed our values when we refused to support Contessa—on the grounds that it wasn’t woke enough to our feminism—even when it became clear that Contessa was training more women to run games than virtually anyone else.
- We betrayed our values when our community leaders shared and reposted an article that falsely claimed that Zak is a false-flag feminist “targeting women and LGBT designers” for exclusion from the roleplaying industry.
- We betrayed our values when leaders in our community walked out of the 2015 ENnies to protest… Zak? It wasn’t clear what they were protesting. But they managed to walk out when Contessa founder Stacy Dellorfano, one of the only women who got on stage during the awards, was giving a speech.
- [Example removed. I clumsily attempted to summarize a post that was shared with many people, but the line is sufficiently blurry that it should have been treated as private.]
- We betrayed our values when we told Kiel Chenier—an LGBT OSR developer who expressed concerns about a Patreon-funded blog post about the Orlando shooting—to “Get fucked” days after the mass-shooting itself.
I’m sure someone could generate a list of OSR “crimes” that prove that it’s actually James Raggi or Stacy D. or Zak who are responsible for this feud… but at this point, it doesn’t matter. We all have to own these mistakes; we all need to acknowledge that there is real pain here that we’ve caused. Nothing they could have done would justify the things we’ve done.
The truth is that the OSR has become a punching bag for our community. Despite the facts, we’ve imagined the OSR as an inversion of ourselves: if we are just and good and feminist and loving and interested in good game design… then the OSR must be the opposite.
But the OSR is just a community filled with people, folks who are trying to do their own thing in their own way, many of them LGBTQ+ or trans people or women. And for them, we’re a terrible storm that occasionally sweeps over their people to ridicule, degrade, and insult them and their version of the hobby.
We’re the villains in their story, like it or not. And like the best villains, we think we’re the heroes.
In 1984, all citizens are summoned once a day to turn their rage onto a film prepared by the oppressors, a “Two Minutes Hate.” They froth at the mouth and scream at Goldstein, the “monster” that leads the opposition against Big Brother, every bit of themselves consumed by hatred… and loyalty to their oppressors.
This incoherent rage reminds me too much of my home state (New Mexico), a place defined by the Spanish colonialism that brutalized the native people for centuries. Power needs enemies; anger needs an outlet. Who better to turn on than people who don’t look like you, think like you, talk like you?
The internet makes this possible like never before. It gives us people to hate and attack and loathe, shadows that flit in front of our screens begging to be struck down. We convince ourselves that there’s so much information available for the world to see that our fury is totally justified. They deserve what’s coming to them, we think. They deserve our hatred.
It’s a Two Minutes Hate… stretched to infinity. Always on. 24/7. Without end.
The truth is that we know as little about the real Zak or Stacy or James as my TA, Kate, knew about the real me: nothing. The people they are, the things they love, the lives they lead? Those things are beyond knowing through the tiny looking glass that is the internet. All we have is shadows of their real selves.
And yet… the people we hate serve a purpose for our community. As long as we have them, we never need to look closely at ourselves. As long as they exist, we never have to answer tough questions about our values. All we have to do is hate. That’s enough to be “good” people. Hate, hate, hate.
In reality, our status as “good” people has much more to do enacting our values than it does with hating the right people. It’s past time for us to move beyond mere representation in our products—putting black superheroes on the cover and enough women in the interior art—and toward a redefinition of the power dynamics of the community, a change that puts women and people of color and LGBT people at the center of the creative process. Hard work, but necessary for us to live up to our stated values.
From where I’m sitting… we’re not doing very well at moving beyond representation.
How do I know? Well, we have a problem when…
- … one of the industry leaders publishes an entire line of supplements authored almost entirely by straight, white men.
- … the Head of Games at Kickstarter gives an interview in which he makes no mention of the work of any woman or minority in an hour-long discussion about game design.
- … another industry leader publishes a game about female pilots in WWII (yay representation!), but decides that their first publication by an outside designer will be a game by another white man.
- … one of the most popular indie Kickstarters of all time presents over $150,000 of stretch goals without a single person of color as a contributor.
- … a systems lead for a major licensed property—taking on an enormous project halfway through development—recruits only relatively inexperienced white men to finish the project.
Oh, yeah. The last one was me. Like I said, this shit is hard.
Many of the creators I listed above are trying to build LGBT leadership or recruit more people of color or train more women as designers. But if we can’t name our failures as a community, then we’re doomed to repeat them, destined to turn our frustration and anger outward instead of doing the work. We have to own our mistakes as much as we celebrate our successes.
And at some point, our collective silence on our failures starts to obscure the real problem: the reality of indie game design is that women and minorities get to be editors, illustrators, and layout staff—they don’t often get to be designers, project leads, or main authors.
For those jobs, it helps to be a white dude.
“What,” you might ask, “does diversity in our industry have to do with the OSR?”
I’m glad you asked.
Humanity has a unique ability to turn hard questions into easier questions to make them solvable. If I ask you “How fast does a dolphin swim?” you might say “I think a dolphin swims faster than a human.” That’s a miraculous answer. You substituted an easier question—“Does a dolphin swim faster than a human?”—in order to answer in a meaningful way.
Unfortunately, we can also use that same trick to turn a hard question (“How do we build real diversity into an inclusive and loving community?”) into an easier question that distracts us from the work at hand.
In this case, we’ve settled on a particularly ugly “easy” question as a community: “Who are our enemies?”
We have a protest ethic without the ethics of protest: we demand everyone be in agreement about what is problematic without reference to power. None of the OSR folks are responsible for our community’s perpetual whiteness and maleness. None of them caused us to struggle to hire women and minorities. We did all that ourselves.
The real tragedy is that the OSR ought to be our social justice allies. I Hit It With My Axe features an incredibly diverse crew of women gamers—LGBT women, disabled women, women of color. When the Escapist hired an openly transphobic writer, Zak and his crew took a stand and quit doing the show with them despite the financial hit. The OSR features artists like Scrap Princess, Gennifer Bone, and Erin Palette that don’t get nearly enough attention from our community, and good work like Contessa—recently nominated for a DJA—thrives off the broad OSR support it receives.
I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that we’re much more comfortable fighting with the OSR than we are holding ourselves accountable—lovingly!—for real progress. They aren’t the enemy. They have never been the enemy.
But it’s easier for us to imagine that Contessa is undermining feminism than it is to publicly ask Evil Hat why so many Fate Worlds are written by white men. It’s easier for us to imagine that the OSR is an army of shadow conservatives than it is to acknowledge that sexism and racism are endemic in our community. It’s easier for us to blame them than to name and own our failures.
There is a particular irony here: we have met the enemy. He is us.
I hope it’s clear that I’m not defending Zak. I understand that members of our community have been wounded and upset by his actions. It’s clear to me that he doesn’t respect our norms of communication, but he seems intent on engaging us in a protracted discourse.
I don’t know how to speak to that, honestly. I do know that continued conflicts with the OSR community aren’t helping us resolve a goddamn thing. Not with Zak, not with Stacy, not with anyone. We betray our own values, avoid doing the real work our community desperately needs, and injure the very people we claim to want to include. Enough.
So here’s my ask, my plea for peace. I want us to get to the point where we can talk to one another, across communities. I want us to be able to have discourse about our differences (and similarities) without one side injuring the other. I want us to be good neighbors, if not collaborators and partners when it suits the work we’re doing.
I don’t know how to get there, but I do know a few steps we could take:
Listen. Take some time to listen to the critiques and complaints of people from the other side of the conflict. It’s so easy for us to demean, diminish, and degrade each other; it’s much harder for us to sit and listen to how the people on the other side of the line view the conflict.
If you care about understanding and compassion, then you have to extend it to those who don’t think like you, act like you, or look like you… even if it tests your patience.
Apologize. Reach out to someone on the other side of this conflict and offer a direct, sincere apology. It costs you nothing, and it’s a sign of good faith that’s hard to match. You don’t need to do it publicly, but it helps us all to see leaders in our community taking steps to honestly and genuinely make amends.
If you care about fighting for justice, then the first step is to get right with the people you’ve wronged… even if they deserved your anger.
Collaborate. Take time in your next project or event to work with someone new—preferably a woman or a person of color. We’re not going to build Rome in a day, but there are real connections that need to be made within and between our communities to build the inclusive, diverse spaces that we want to have.
If you care about building a loving community, then open up your projects to new people and build new relationships that matter… even when it costs you.
These seem like small steps—and we need to do much more—but we have to start somewhere. And if we stop antagonizing each other—stop with the clumsy protests, stop with the shitty G+ threads, stop with the slander that the OSR is a conservative, grognard, neckbeard movement—then maybe in a few months or years we can find some way to talk to one another as equals, to learn from each other’s communities.
Maybe we can have peace.
I’ve come to regret not reaching out to Kate both more and less. I’ve forgiven myself for not saying something to recapture the space… but I’ve also forgiven Kate for overzealously enforcing the identity politics of the classroom. She was trying to do the right thing.
But I regret not talking to her now because I missed an opportunity to help her see that “Latino-ness” isn’t about looking brown. It’s not about being from a particular kind of neighborhood or having an accent or speaking Spanish.
Yo soy Latino.
For all my contradictions and doubts. For all my excuses and avoidance. I am Latino. Maybe if I had talked to Kate, her idea of who gets to be Latino would be broadened, even just a little.
Our idea of the OSR ought to be similarly broadened. And if we can own our role in this conflict, if we can resist the urge to settle on cheap answers, if we can be our best selves… then I think we can do the work of building the community we claim we want.
And if we fail to do that, then we better stop claiming that we want that community at all.
If your response to this post is to write a comment explaining how Zak’s behavior is so uniquely terrible that it demands the kind of behavior I’ve described, please reread the post and reflect on what I’ve said here more fully. This post isn’t about Zak; it’s about us and how we treat people who engage with our community broadly.
Please don’t use this post as an excuse to harass anyone listed above or boycott their work. My goal is to move the conversation forward, not to drag us back to the past or start a new set of flame wars. Please take your time to think through your posts and comments on this subject before you contribute to the conversation.