Greetings, gamer kin!
Today I share with you yet another gaming anecdote from my past, but they can’t all be sunshine and puppies (or even bunnies). This one is actually embarrassing and awkward to recount, but I think it’s also worth sharing, so I’m pulling the trigger. If you’re looking for a chuckle, or some new tool or tip for your GURPS games, you may want to give this one a pass — but I hope you don’t.
Anyway, as I crept about the Internet this morning at 3am, catching up on my daily RPG reading (thank goodness for browser tabs!)…
…I came across a link to an excellent post that really took me back to a game I GMed some years ago. I wish I could say it was so long ago that I could chalk up my missteps to just being a typically narcissistic and unaware “kid”… but not even close.
I was living with friends, a couple, and had GMed a few one-shot games for them and their non-gaming buddies to much success. I, of course, had the time of my life because, duh, I got to GM games! And for newbies! My roomies were able to recapture some of their own gaming nostalgia, and all of the non-gamers trying out a tabletop RPG for the first time loved it (and often asked when we could play again). Good times and fun games all around. So far, so good.
For Halloween of the second year of this, I scheduled a game for my roomies and a new couple they had been dear friends with for years, Maria and Yolanda. It was a horror game, naturally, a delve into a good old-fashioned haunted asylum, and the newcomers were super excited — Maria, especially, had wanted to try “Dungeons & Dragons” for a long time (it was GURPS, but she didn’t care), and nothing makes me happier than giving folks a memorable first introduction to this little hobby that’s meant so much to me.
I disappeared for a few weeks and reemerged with maps, adventure notes, handouts, pre-gen characters, all the usual goodies. The game night approached, I made sure everything was laid out just right, and once everyone arrived and chit-chatted a bit, we moved to the dining room table covered with the tools for our evening’s outing as I gave the typical rundown of what an RPG/GURPS is and how to play it. The front cover of each of the pre-gen characters had no stats or mechanics, just a name, brief background, and a large, color photo.
There were six characters for four players to choose from. Variety, right? When I invited everyone to pick one they thought looked fun, they all started excitedly poring over the characters trying to decide… except Maria. She spent a moment scanning over all the sheets on the table, looked confused, then asked me one of the most simple but reality-changing questions I’ve ever been asked.
“Mook, why are all the characters white?”
Yeah, Mook. Why are all the characters white?
It’s cringe-worthy, and is seared into my brain. Maria is racially Mexican with brown skin. Of the six characters, there were two women, two men, a girl, and a boy. I was aware of gender inequality, gaming-wise, pretty early thanks to one of my formative groups in high school. But now, staring down at those six pre-gen characters, I literally could not believe I had entirely failed to notice for weeks that every single one of them was white. Glaringly white. Like, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber white.
After an awkward pause, we all laughed about it, I apologized (probably too much), they picked the characters they wanted (and penciled in new genders and descriptions as needed), and we all had a fantastic adventure after the bumpy start. I’d honestly be shocked if Maria even remembers that part — on her list of “crap I just have to deal with all day, every day,” I imagine it was, sadly, an inconsequential blip.
But it bothered me, a lot. I had hurt her. Unintentionally, of course. But that fun, open, enthusiastic, and passionate-to-play woman had for weeks been looking forward to finally getting to play a game she really wanted to play, with people she really liked and considered friends, and even there she had to take a moment to yet again make room for herself in an artificially-created sea of white.
I’m an old, cis, white dude. There is no denying that in many ways, I am the “default” character for apathetic creators with no interest in moving beyond their blinders. I can’t even imagine how hurtful, disempowering, and ostracizing it must be to live your life when the overwhelming majority of mainstream heroes and role-models in movies, on TV, in books and comics and games don’t look or sound like you and your family. And in that moment, for that player in that game — I was that creator.
It was a shameful but important moment for me, a true chance to learn and grow. Because it wasn’t some abstract, hypothetical thought exercise about the lack of diversity in media. It was an eager new gamer looking for that same magic of creativity and imagination I’ve always treasured, and her having just one more roadblock put in her way because I didn’t take a half-second to really open my eyes and consider that the world outside my immediate four walls might be much more colorful.
Since that night, I’ve tried even harder to make my games more welcoming and more accepting of anyone who wants to join in. No, “He can cast spells that literally alter the nature of reality, but he can’t be a woman,” or “She can fly and throw cars, but she can’t have a girlfriend.” That is idiocy of the worst kind. A lot of my pre-gen characters these days have no name or gender assigned, because those choices make no mechanical difference and should be up to the player. The truth is, though, I feel like I still get it wrong more than I get it right.
But, I’m trying, and I hope you are too. RPGs are the purest form of escapist entertainment. We can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. Embrace that, and try to stay aware of any hurtful real-world biases that might creep subconsciously into your imaginary play time. Getting rid of them can only lead to more and better games for everyone.
Still sorry, Maria. But, sincerely, thank you for respecting me enough to call me on it. It made a huge difference.
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