Tomorrow I will be attending GenCon, the biggest table-top gaming convention in the United States. Held in Indianapolis, Indiana, it is four fun-filled days in celebration of the art and hobby of role-playing. There is something for everyone there: games, films, seminars, workshops, dancing, music, and parties. It’s an annual event where people from all over the world come to let their hair down and their inner geek out. As a lifelong gamer, I am excited to go to GenCon.
As an ethnic minority, I am apprehensive about going to GenCon.
For all that GenCon offers, it lacks in minority gamers. Last year was my first GenCon, and as I explored the convention, I saw almost no one who looked like me. By far, the most visible minorities at GenCon were the hired convention hall facilities staff who were setting up, serving, and cleaning up garbage for the predominantly white convention-goers. It was a surreal experience and it felt like I had stepped into an ugly part of a bygone era, one in which whites were waited upon by minority servants.
Gaming has a race problem. For all its creativity and imagination, for all its acceptance of those who find it hard to be themselves in mainstream society, gaming has made little room for people of color.
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that…
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on.”
–Scott Woods, author and poet.
I am the first in my family to be born in the United States. The child of immigrants, I struggled between cultures. I was the only non-white kid in the neighborhood and one of only a half-dozen minorities in my high-school. I was an outsider.
I found refuge in Dungeons & Dragons in my freshman year. I could escape who I was in those heroic characters and epic stories. I could be someone I was not. I could be strong. I could be fierce.
I could be white.
As an awkward teen, like other awkward teens, I wanted to be accepted. But acceptance meant something different to me, as perhaps it does to other minority teens. Acceptance meant being white.
The broad acceptance that white people enjoy is the unspoken—but clearly visible—rule of our society, reinforced through a thousand structures and symbols. It pervades everything around us, reminding everyone that white people are the center of the story, no matter what story is being told. As a kid who desperately wanted to belong and fit in, white was the color of god.
Most games—the genres, the artwork, the characters, the stories—were Eurocentric and white. It was easy, perhaps even expected, to be white when playing a character. I was always Eric, or Gunthar, or Francois; I was never a person of color. My name was never my name. And no one thought it was strange that I played people so different from myself.
It has been a long and complex road to finding myself, and comfort in my own skin and ethnic identity. The first step was simply realizing that white wasn’t the only color of value. It came in drops: a character in a movie or a book that was of my ethnicity, who I could empathize with and imagine myself as. These characters, when they appeared, gave me my own heroes, heroes that were like me.
Gaming never afforded me those options. I had to force them, going against the pressure to conform. The pressure was so intense that the first time I played a character of my own ethnicity was actually online. Eventually, I did become confident enough to bring non-white characters to the table, but I still sometimes faced puzzled looks, and questions about ‘whether I was trying to make a statement’ when all I wanted was to simply be me.
I don’t think there are official surveys and statistics on the gaming subculture, but perhaps this study on the top 100 domestic grossing films in science-fiction and fantasy is an indication of similar trends in gaming: There are only eight protagonists of color in the top 100 science-fiction and fantasy films. Six are played by Will Smith and one is a cartoon character (Aladdin). None of these protagonists are women of color.
Things are changing in the world of gaming, but too slowly. The designers are mostly white, especially lead designers and executives. Equally, the key officers of most conventions are almost entirely white. Usually, they are well-meaning people who do not realize how their roles and decisions impact the larger gaming community and its lack of diversity.
GenCon is emblematic of this problem. Of the twenty-seven Guests of Honor (in various categories), only two are people of color. The judges of the prestigious ENnie Awards for role-playing, hosted at GenCon, have been almost exclusively white since its inception. The same is true for the nominees and winners of the Diana Jones Awards. There may be more efforts to include people of color in gaming artwork, but where are the real life people of color on the grand stage of gaming?
Furthermore, GenCon is disturbingly tolerant of deeply offensive material. Shoshana Kessock wrote about her experiences with Nazi cosplay and paraphernalia at Gencon shortly after returning from GenCon 2013, and I had similar encounters. It would be impossible to imagine minority players running around GenCon in t-shirts that read ‘Kill the white man!’, yet the convention welcomes and profits from images of racial hatred. GenCon has weakly worded policies to prevent these horrific violations, but it has failed to enforce its own rules.
These are symbols, important symbols. If the color of all the leadership, of all the roles of power and recognition, the entire structure is white, and if this same leadership is tolerant of hate-speech, it gives a clear unspoken signal to the non-white community: You can join us here, but only if you leave your history, your people, and your emotions at the door.
I’ve been told time and again by gamers, “I don’t see race” as if they were doing me a kindness. This is not enlightenment or progressiveness. It is ignorance. If you do not see race, you do not see me. You do not see my identity, my ethnicity, my history, my people. What you are telling me, when you say “I do not see race,” is that you see everything as the normal default of society: white. In the absence of race and ethnicity, it is only the majority that remains. I am erased.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many people of color in the community try and submerge their own ethnic identity? They do not wish to stand out or to be recognized. In most societies it is dangerous to be an “other,” and in a subculture as white-dominated as gaming, things feel especially unwelcoming.
Too many conversations on race and gaming die before they even start. I have seen more energy, debate, and engagement by gamers on the minutiae of rules and trivia than I have on the weighty topics of race and gaming. Gamers will spend endless days and millions of words fighting over the pros and cons of the Wacky Wand of Welding, but when a person of color brings up issues of race and diversity in the community, too many gamers roll their eyes and say, “Oh not again. Why do they have to be so politically correct? Can’t they just have fun?!”
Despite the apathy and dismissal, I know that there are people who want to work with the minority community to change these realities. I know there are allies and advocates who want to make gaming a different place, one that’s open in new ways to minorities and their communities.
If you’re one of those people, here’s where you can start:
- Listen. The Gaming as Other series is a great place to start. There are a handful of panels at Cons on the topic and I’ll be sitting on two of them at GenCon: “Why is Inclusivity Such a Scary Word?” and “Gaming As Other.” Keep engaging, listening and supporting. We notice your support and it gives us the strength to keep going.
- Hire more people of color and give them agency, visibility, power, responsibility, and credit in a wide variety of meaningful and important areas in your organization. Do not simply hire a token minority. Do not use people of color as a form of marketing.
- Reach out to minority groups and invite them personally to conventions. Your neighbors, your co-workers, the people at your church, all of them.
- Offer and play games that are actively and intentionally more inclusive.
There is a lot we can do together as a community. Gamers have always prided themselves on being accepting of those outside the mainstream. People of color want to be accepted too. GenCon is the flagship of gaming, and thus is a golden opportunity to start this process. Let’s start to have a conversation about the structures that led to the low number of minorities as Guests of Honor and ENnies judges. Let’s push GenCon to make changes to those structures so that people of color have a seat at the table for those important decisions. For many of us, gaming is not simply a hobby, but a home. Let’s make it both inclusive and diverse.
A. A. George is Director of Operations of an international non-profit and a passionate advocate of children’s education; he speaks regularly on the topic at numerous venues, including TEDx. In his spare time, he is a tabletop gaming enthusiast, larp organizer, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner. His talks and panels on gaming and race can be found under the banner of Gaming As Other.