The record 208,000 people—many dressed up as characters from TV shows, comic books, and video games—who poured into Indianapolis last weekend for Gen Con, the 50-year-old annual gaming convention, were there to escape our reality, politics and all.
One of the only references to our current political climate was hidden on the menu of The Flying Cupcake food truck, parked outside the city’s convention center during the four-day extravaganza. In addition to sugary confections like Settlers of Catan, a chocolate cake slathered with peanut butter and Butterfinger bits and named after a German multiplayer board game, customers could bite into a Mike Pence, a “Rainbow confetti cake with vanilla buttercream and topped off with another rainbow! Double rainbow!!”
People flock to Gen Con to imagine and construct other worlds, to play. And play they do—card games, board games, computer and video games, live-action role-playing games, miniatures, and cosplay. This year Gen Con offered 40 hours of cosplay programming alone, including costume contests and workshops devoted to skills like armor building, basic and intermediate foam smithing, and wig care and selection.
One costume contest—dubbed “Crossplay” and emceed by Bloomington, Indiana, drag queen Oriana Perón—was billed as the third annual celebration of “gender expression & diversity.” The contestants included a female Dr. Who pushing her baby in a dalek and a very tall “Harvey Quinn,” carrying an enormous mallet and sporting spiked black gloves, a black and red fishnet top, and a pom-pom hat.
But other events on the Gen Con schedule provided a critical reminder that this kind of attention to inclusivity and representation can be absent from many gaming spaces—not to mention the games themselves—which historically have tended to cater to, and reflect the worldviews, interests, and experiences of white males. Indeed, the experiences of game players and creators of color, women, and those in other marginalized groups make it clear that their fellow players’ desire for escapism often comes at their expense.
“The table is where I want to go to escape reality. Reality’s fucked up,” said Tanya DePass, founder and director of Chicago nonprofit I Need Diverse Games and diversity liaison for GaymerX, at a sparsely attended panel for role players titled Black Knights: Growing RPG Space Among Minorities.
“I’ve already got to worry about police and everything else when I walk out the door. When I am at the table I want to roll dice, role play, do what we’re gonna do, have some drinks and enjoy myself for a few hours. I don’t want to necessarily bring all of this other baggage into the game or the environment.”
But sometimes that’s hard to avoid, DePass says, like when other players make racially or otherwise insensitive—or even outright racist—comments or choices in the game, or when game creators assign stereotypical roles to their female or minority characters.
DePass challenged game developers instead to ask of these characters, “Are they noble, are they the noble savage trope? Are they people who exist purely to show white people that, hey, we’re human, too? Do they speak the King’s language, as it were, or do they speak some odd and exotic language that no one except this one white person who braved the jungle can understand?”
DePass’s fellow panelists—self-described pizza-loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, amateur slug herder, game writer, and itinerant Valkyrie Katherine Cross; game developer Aljernon Bolden; and writer Anna Meade—all warned of games claiming historical accuracy that nonetheless erase people of color and others from their settings.
Cross pointed to British classicist scholar Mary Beard, who took a lot of Twitter heat and hate for having “the audacity to say the obvious truth that there were black people in ancient Rome, often in prominent positions.”
“If you’re talking about historical accuracy,” Cross continued, “you also should think about what elements of history keep being selected because there are a lot of historically accurate stories of non-white female pirates that would make the basis of a fantastic novel series or a fantastic role playing game. Why are we not focusing on those elements of history that are well-documented, that are supremely well-researched, that nevertheless don’t seem to make it into video games and tabletop games?
“The aspects of history [typical of these games] tend to constellate around the same set of relatively narrow themes.”
One organization paying a lot of attention to issues of inclusivity in gaming is ConTessa. Founded nearly five years ago by Stacy Dellorfano to “increase diverse representation in tabletop gaming by running events led entirely by marginalized people, and enjoyed by everyone,” ConTessa runs its own gaming conventions online and also attends conventions across the country, bringing games, seminars, and workshops. Its aim is to “provide open, inclusive, and safe environments that diversify what a leader looks like within our hobby.”
This year at Gen Con, ConTessa not only had a dedicated RPG space on the field at the Colt’s Lucas Oil stadium and Live Action Role Playing space at Union Station, but also hosted a number of events, including a three-hour Women Only System Design Workshop that took small groups of participants through the process of creating their own game. It also hosted a panel designed to help novices get started in tabletop gaming.
At that event, queer feminist gamer and author of The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming, Teri Litorco, advised those assembled “to try everything” until they find a game that resonates with them, noting that because “we play games for shared experiences,” it is also important to enjoy the company of your fellow players.
She and Dellorfano gave the audience tips on finding games to join in your local area and using starter sets to learn the basics. One woman in attendance was looking to get started in role playing games at the convention, but was nervous about how to go about it without feeling self-conscious and in over her head.
“The difficulty that you’re going to run into, and I hate to have to say this,” Dellorfano replied, “is that going into random groups at convention games can be perilous for anybody who is not a straight white guy. You’re going to get talked over, sometimes you’ll end up in a game with that unfortunate rules lawyer, even if it’s a brand new game” where nobody would in fact know the rules all that well.
But Litorco’s overriding message of the day was that you should not be deterred.
“The consummate thing I can say is don’t be afraid to try something and put yourself out there. But don’t be afraid to step away and say, not for me. Don’t feel pressured to like something because you feel like you have to. Ever.”
There’s always another game.