D&D General The Art and the Artist: Discussing Problematic Issues in D&D

I think violence can absolutely be psychological, emotional, and cultural.
but the problem is: that isn’t violence. It may be bad, but it is something else. Blurring the word so it extends to non violent acts definitely makes it harder to combat actual violence (because now you have to explain: no real violence, not figurative).
 

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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
but the problem is: that isn’t violence. It may be bad, but it is something else. Blurring the word so it extends to non violent acts definitely makes it harder to combat actual violence (because now you have to explain: no real violence, not figurative).
You should be careful with that assessment. I'd wager that many survivors of domestic abuse have heard a version of this before.
 

I would argue it’s use is a kind of semantic argument. “This causes harm” is a common refrain of online critiques of RPGs and, I believe, it has a lot more potency than it otherwise would because if the physical and serious connotations it has. If someone clarified, or doesn’t use That kind of phrasing, I tend to be less critical. But I do think “X causes harm” carries a moral weight that “x is upsetting doesn’t” for instance and that ability to capture the intensity if something like physical harm or significant harm and applying to less severe concerns, is why I think it isn’t the best vise of language. My problem with it is it tends to be a conversation stopper. It makes people feel more icky to push back on charges that a book causes harm than to push back on charges a book makes someone uncomfortable

So two things I can think in response. We’ll set aside the word harm for now.

Do you think that one person may find something significantly more upsetting than another person may find it? And by this I mean by an order of magnitude. Like, the word “upsetting” doesn’t really cut the mustard. Do you think that’s possible? That people will have different thresholds for this kind of thing? Different subjective ideas about how bad they may be?

If so, can’t you see why people might balk at the need for another person to come along and tell them that something they’re feeling isn’t harmful but is just upsetting? That it may seem like an attempt to downplay the importance of what they feel.

Second, as far as conversation stoppers go, I’d say the questioning of words that are used is a pretty great example. Now everyone is talking about the definitions and the words rather than the ideas they represent.

So, to bring this back to gaming…do I think that the stuff in Keep on the Borderlands makes Gygax a bad person? No, of course not. He was just ignorant that his view was specific to him and n’t some default general view.

Do I think that Keep on the Borderlands (and other problematic gaming elements) are harmful? Yes. They serve as barriers to the hobby for many people. That harms the hobby. It can also harm people to find examples of this stuff all over. It’s so pervasive, they can’t even get away from it when they play D&D. I think that’s harmful to people who experience it, for sure.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
but the problem is: that isn’t violence. It may be bad, but it is something else. Blurring the word so it extends to non violent acts definitely makes it harder to combat actual violence (because now you have to explain: no real violence, not figurative).
Violence has multiple definitions, most of which are not limited to acts of physical harm. And I absolutely think psychological, emotional, and cultural violence are “real violence.”
 

My initial reaction to the sudden shift toward "making someone uncomfortable" was to be angry. Like, apoplectically, forehead-vein-popping, outraged.

Asking for money makes me uncomfortable. Skiing steep trees makes me uncomfortable. Sprained ankles make me uncomfortable.

Furthermore, the common wisdom is to "lean into discomfort." I need to practice asking for money so that it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I need to work on my tree technique. (Sprained ankles...not so much.)

So to describe what we are talking about...people whose ancestors have suffered, and who themselves still suffer, the consequences of racism/oppression/slavery, seeing the same language and images used for centuries to justify that mistreatment now being used in a lighthearted way in a game to likewise justify the joyful slaughter of fictional characters...it just sort of takes my breath away.

What I was intending to do was try to draw an analogy. "What if you, having suffered X, saw the game full of Y?" And I really struggled to do so, for the simple reason that I'm as privileged as they come. The most suffering I've endured in my life includes getting very gently fired from a job I hated and didn't need, getting rejected by a woman who THANK GOD I didn't marry, and that time the doc didn't cover a large enough area with local anesthetic before putting in stitches. I mean, those are seriously the worst things I've had to suffer. So I genuinely don't know what could possibly be in a game that might cause me emotional pain.

I try to put myself in the shoes of people who have face discrimination on a daily basis, or who are descended from slaves and have no family history predating that, or who try to shut out that memory of sexual assault but can't, or who don't have any relatives because they were all killed by the regime in their home country, or who spent years living in one refugee camp after another....or all of the above.

And, of course, I can't. I can't put myself in their shoes. I just don't have anything in my experience to compare that to. There is nothing in my experience to use as an analogy.

So all I can do is believe them when they say, "This thing causes me pain." And I do; I do believe them. Maybe they're exaggerating. Maybe it's not really that much pain. Maybe it's just the same kind of discomfort I feel about asking for money. I really have no idea. But I choose to believe them because:
1) My life is $%@#ing awesome and I can afford to believe them.
2) All they are asking me to do is make some trivial changes to a make-believe game of elves and dragons.

So maybe, just maybe, the disconnect here is that while I cannot possibly imagine what it's like to be in their shoes, but I choose to believe them, other people who also cannot possibly imagine what it is like to be in their shoes just...simply can't imagine it. That they just simply can't see how words in a game could cause anything more than vague discomfort, and so that's how they interpret it. It's not malice it's just...it's just they don't believe how it could be any worse than anything they could imagine for themselves.

Anyway, that's the most charitable interpretation I can come up with.
 

Representations can be mocking, dehumanizing, and humiliating (blackface vaudeville performances, for example). Representations can also work toward animating violence, which is why wars are typically accompanied by efforts to stereotype and dehumanize an enemy (consider this British WWI poster, as a common example). ("Slow" violence, btw, is not just psychological in this way. It can also refer to the harm caused by environmental pollution or poverty, for example.)

I would agree that dehumanizing, humiliating and mocking depictions can be a problem, and especially so if they are used to encourage violence against a group. I still think we need to be very careful what we label violence. Partly cause stuff like racial violence or violence rooted in religious bigotry are things I have concern about within my own family. And that is also why I think it is important to be very accurate when calling something out. I speak from experience here. You can really diminish your ability to identify something that is genuinely say encouraging violence, if you misinterpret, mislabel or exaggerate something that isn't really meant to be going in that direction. But I don't disagree these things are problems. We may disagree on what instances in game media they are problems, and how much of this is carried over in the DNA of old tropes once they are placed in new contexts. A

The semantics around the term violence are not so interesting to me; if people want to use another term there, that's fine. But there is a tendency to think of things that are physical as more measurable and more real, and to downplay things that are psychological and harder to categorize and measure. I think that's a mistake, and so somewhat the opposite of your concern that using the term "violence" lends certain phenomena an unnecessary sense of urgency or priority. For me it's more often the case that additive psychological/emotional effect of aggression that seems "micro" is often overlooked and downplayed, at great cost to the well being of particular individuals in the long term.

I think there is a debate to be had on things like micro aggressions (and I really don't think this the venue for that debate), but I also think if one is concerned that their impact is downplayed, then using exaggerated language, such as labeling it a type of violence in order to elicit a more emotional response, is going to be counter productive, because it isn't an honest use of language. People will understand it is being used, however laudably, to manipulate their emotions, and then they are more likely to stop listening to you, and more likely to stop taking the issue as seriously because it has been presented to them in a hyperbolic fashion.

In terms of physical and psychological, I just think these things are different, and their relative badness is very much on a case by case basis. But just having experienced both, as bad as pyschological stuff can be, there is something more alarming and more concerning immediately about physical violence to me. Someone gets hit in the had the right way, they can drop dead. People go around shooting each other, you have people dead, immediately. There are shootings where I live and it is a big concern. That doesn't mean psychological issues aren't also a concern, or that psychological issues can't also have deadly outcomes (they certainly can). And obviously physical violence can lead to psychological issues. And it does depend on what we are comparing (if we are talking about a slap to the mouth versus someone having a psychological meltdown or someone becoming suicidal, for example). I just don't think blurring the line between the two is very helpful. Especially if is it just to get people to treat something with the sense of urgency you think it needs (if you think it requires a sense of urgency, by all means advocate for that).
 

Violence has multiple definitions, most of which are not limited to acts of physical harm. And I absolutely think psychological, emotional, and cultural violence are “real violence.”

The primary definition is physical. And I get words have other meanings, and often are used in other contexts because of their power in the primary sense, but here I just think it is very poor augmentation to call something that isn't actual violence, violence. Because like I said, you really do water down the term. People stop listening if you call things that aren't really A, A, simply because A has an emotional intensity to it and a sense of urgency. It is certainly poetic. I understand why it would be useful to describe a persons 'violent ridicule' in the literary sense.
 

So two things I can think in response. We’ll set aside the word harm for now.

Do you think that one person may find something significantly more upsetting than another person may find it? And by this I mean by an order of magnitude. Like, the word “upsetting” doesn’t really cut the mustard. Do you think that’s possible? That people will have different thresholds for this kind of thing? Different subjective ideas about how bad they may be?

If so, can’t you see why people might balk at the need for another person to come along and tell them that something they’re feeling isn’t harmful but is just upsetting? That it may seem like an attempt to downplay the importance of what they feel.

Second, as far as conversation stoppers go, I’d say the questioning of words that are used is a pretty great example. Now everyone is talking about the definitions and the words rather than the ideas they represent.

So, to bring this back to gaming…do I think that the stuff in Keep on the Borderlands makes Gygax a bad person? No, of course not. He was just ignorant that his view was specific to him and n’t some default general view.

Do I think that Keep on the Borderlands (and other problematic gaming elements) are harmful? Yes. They serve as barriers to the hobby for many people. That harms the hobby. It can also harm people to find examples of this stuff all over. It’s so pervasive, they can’t even get away from it when they play D&D. I think that’s harmful to people who experience it, for sure.

Fundamentally Hawkeye, what I am saying is: there is a phrase in the hobby, and that phrase is "This thing causes harm", This is usually followed by some kind of call to action about the thing. I am a let less concerned about lose uses of harm, hurt, etc. And more concerned about this particular use, because it doesn't seem to get a lot of examination when it is used, but it also appears to hold a lot of rhetorical power. I think that is worth commenting on . It isn't the end of the discussion, but it means we should drill down when someone says "This causes harm" and ask what they mean, whether harm is the best term to describe what they are talking about, etc. And this is a phrase I hear and see used all the time, and it very consistently quiets people (so I do think discussing is helpful: but I agree we don't need any more discussion of it than we've had here, it is something of a side point).

I do get there can be problems. But there can also be hysteria around these kinds of issues, and I think people have a tendency to rush towards poorly thought out solutions. I don't think for example, that an old product with content that could be labeled problematic, that is clearly a product of its time, is much of a barrier to the hobby in a real sense anymore. And I think intelligent people can look at these historical products and deduce this for themselves without WOTC telling them what to think of it. Now telling people they aren't welcome, that absolutely hurts the hobby and excludes people. Having racist art certainly would discourage people. But a lot of what we are talking about is much more gray: evil orcs, tropes about barbarians versus people form cities, anachronistic or inaccurate adoption of cultural aesthetics (not mean, mocking, or racist, just anachronistic and inaccurate), plundering a dungeon, etc. And like I have been saying, if you go and talk to people who you are expressing concern about, you get very different opinions on these things. It isn't as cut and dry as I think a lot of these discussions would make it seem.
 

"This causes harm" and ask what they mean, whether harm is the best term to describe what they are talking about, etc. And this is a phrase I hear and see used all the time, and it very consistently quiets people (so I do think discussing is helpful: but I agree we don't need any more discussion of it than we've had here, it is something of a side point).

When I hear someone say something is harmful, I tend to wonder how and why. I don’t worry that they’ve used the word harmful. If I’m confused about its use, asking how and why will remove that confusion.

When someone tells me something is a problem for them, I don’t spend my time trying to explain how it’s not actually a problem, instead I believe them and try to understand. Even if I fail to fully grasp it, I still try to acknowledge it.

And like I have been saying, if you go and talk to people who you are expressing concern about, you get very different opinions on these things. It isn't as cut and dry as I think a lot of these discussions would make it seem.

I agree it is nuanced. One of the reasons I see insistence on consistent wording that aligns with one person’s view to be unhelpful.

I don’t disagree with a lot of what you say here. I don’t know if I quite agree that historical items don’t continue to be a problem….many are foundational to the point that there are still products being made in that mold today. There are still people who deny that any of those early materials could be considered by some problematic. We’ve seen plenty of that here in this thread and in any other that’s similar in content.

And I don’t think that’s what you’re doing, but I think it may be easy for it to seem that way.

One area where I think we likely agree though is rhetoric and overstatement and the like. I wish these conversations could be had without the need to label people so harshly. It’s very easy to label a person as bad because of one thing. It’s easy to label an author or game designer as bad because of a misstep of some sort, and I think we collectively do that too easily. Most people don’t boil down to one thing. We’re all of us both good and bad and discussion would be better off if we all remembered that.
 

MGibster

Legend
When someone tells me something is a problem for them, I don’t spend my time trying to explain how it’s not actually a problem, instead I believe them and try to understand. Even if I fail to fully grasp it, I still try to acknowledge it.

This is wise. If someone says they don't like, are offended, or otherwise bothered by something there's no reason to try to convince them to feel otherwise. But just because someone has a problem with something it doesn't necessarily follow that I have a problem with it. And even when I agree there's a problem, it doesn't necessarily follow that I agree with whatever proposal for change has been suggested.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
My players are my friends and family. If one of them says that she is an arachnophobe, I am not going to use spiders in my adventures. Full stop. I don't need her to explain herself to me, I don't need a note from her doctor, and I certainly don't decide I should "help her get over it." There is no rhetoric, there is no back-and-forth, there is no deep dive into her mental health and justifications. I cross out "Giant Spider" and write "Dire Wolf" in its place, done.

If one of my players is a survivor of sexual abuse, it will never come up in my game. Forever. I don't need her to explain herself, we don't need to talk about it as a group, we don't need to discuss how it might be "unrealistic for the setting and era," or anything of the sort. Her mental wellbeing takes priority over my darling campaign setting. The conversation starts and ends the moment she says "this makes me uncomfortable." She is my friend, not a sociology experiment or political statement.

So if you are a game developer, you expand that into its broadest terms. The people at your table are now the people in your town, the people in your country. Do you care about them any less? Is it really so inconvenient for you, game developer, to consider those in your audience who might be traumatized by what you produce? Of course you can't account for every possible traumatic experience that every person might carry--but you can choose to believe those who speak up about them, and make provisions.
 

If one of my players is a survivor of sexual abuse, it will never come up in my game. Forever. I don't need her to explain herself, we don't need to talk about it as a group, we don't need to discuss how it might be "unrealistic for the setting and era," or anything of the sort. Her mental wellbeing takes priority over my darling campaign setting. The conversation starts and ends the moment she says "this makes me uncomfortable." She is my friend, not a sociology experiment or political statement.

You don’t ask her to quantify the actual harm?
 


MGibster

Legend
So if you are a game developer, you expand that into its broadest terms. The people at your table are now the people in your town, the people in your country. Do you care about them any less? Is it really so inconvenient for you, game developer, to consider those in your audience who might be traumatized by what you produce? Of course you can't account for every possible traumatic experience that every person might carry--but you can choose to believe those who speak up about them, and make provisions.
Yes, I care less about people I might never meet than I do the people I'm gaming with at my table. Don't get me wrong, I harbor goodwill towards people in general so I wish them well. But as a game developer, if I'm working on creating a villainous faction of mind controlling spiders, I'm not going to be the least bit concerned that arachnophobes might have a hard time participating in the game. If someone tells me they suffer from arachnophobia I'm not going to doubt them. But at the same time, I don't feel any obligation to cater to their needs. Maybe the game with a villainous faction of mind controlling spiders isn't the game for them. It's okay to make a game that isn't for everyone. (That's as a game developer. As a GM, I had a player at my table uncomfortable with spiders and when I found out I removed spiders from the game.)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
The primary definition is physical. And I get words have other meanings, and often are used in other contexts because of their power in the primary sense, but here I just think it is very poor augmentation to call something that isn't actual violence, violence. Because like I said, you really do water down the term. People stop listening if you call things that aren't really A, A, simply because A has an emotional intensity to it and a sense of urgency. It is certainly poetic. I understand why it would be useful to describe a persons 'violent ridicule' in the literary sense.
I strongly disagree. Psychological, emotional, and cultural violence are real violence, and quite the contrary from “watering down the term” by describing them as such, you downplay the severity of those forms of violence by refusing to call them what they are.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
No, not really. If a particular topic is making her uncomfortable enough to speak up, that topic goes out the window. We call a break, I make some adjustments, and we move on. I'm not even offended.
Wait.

So you don't spend hours demanding she define spider in all its form and then complain she used the wrong word about how spiders make her feel?

What new spore of madness is this?
 

I strongly disagree. Psychological, emotional, and cultural violence are real violence, and quite the contrary from “watering down the term” by describing them as such, you downplay the severity of those forms of violence by refusing to call them what they are.

I strongly disagree too. This argument just doesn't hold water I think. These things can all be bad, they can also use and include violence. But taking horrible things, that aren't violent, but still horrible, and labeling them violent, seriously clouds these issues.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Yes, I care less about people I might never meet than I do the people I'm gaming with at my table. Don't get me wrong, I harbor goodwill towards people in general so I wish them well. But as a game developer, if I'm working on creating a villainous faction of mind controlling spiders, I'm not going to be the least bit concerned that arachnophobes might have a hard time participating in the game. If someone tells me they suffer from arachnophobia I'm not going to doubt them. But at the same time, I don't feel any obligation to cater to their needs. Maybe the game with a villainous faction of mind controlling spiders isn't the game for them. It's okay to make a game that isn't for everyone. (That's as a game developer. As a GM, I had a player at my table uncomfortable with spiders and when I found out I removed spiders from the game.)
I'm following you, and I agree. Now instead of arachnophobia, how about something a little more closer to the topic at hand. Would you still have that level of concern about a product that reinforces harmful racial stereotypes or misogyny? Would you be just as comfortable with having those elements in your game?

I'd like to think that the answer would be a firm "well of course not" but... well... (gestures at the thread)
 
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Vaalingrade

Legend
I'm following you, and I agree. Now instead of arachnophobia, how about something a little more closer to the topic at hand. Would you still have that level of concern about a product that reinforces harmful racial stereotypes or misogyny? Would you be just as comfortable with having those elements in your game?

I'd like to think that the answer would be a firm "well of course not" but... well... (gestures at the thread)
Well hold on there, friend.

We haven't even started litigating 'reinforces' or 'product'. We'll have to conveniently ignore the racism and misogyny until we settle these important questions.
 

So if you are a game developer, you expand that into its broadest terms. The people at your table are now the people in your town, the people in your country. Do you care about them any less? Is it really so inconvenient for you, game developer, to consider those in your audience who might be traumatized by what you produce? Of course you can't account for every possible traumatic experience that every person might carry--but you can choose to believe those who speak up about them, and make provisions.
Sorry, no... If you start to cater to each and every little group we are reduced to on-disclosed humi oid and non-gluten, soy-free, low-carb, vegan casserole.... There comes a point where a CONSUMER has to take responsibility for their own issues(yes I used issues) and realize no it is NOT my problem. I'm not saying publishers should suddenly fill their pages with misogynistic, homo-phobic, racialy charged, overtly sexual, child stabbing, sheep raping badness... Devil's Advocate... What about those that are offended by your particular cause de' jour? Are their concerns any less than yours?

There was a phrase we used in the military.. Suck it up and drive on. It doesn't mean give-up, neither does it mean don't fight the fight where someone is obviously making a 'trolling', 'inflammatory' or 'charged' statement. (ie making a group of religious crusaders that wear white robes and hoods and set religious iconography on fire as a positive hero group named the Kul Klock Klangs in your new campaign setting is probably NOT very smart, or subtle). What it does mean is that you must take responsibility for your own misery and either get past it or suffer. And if 99% of the people in the world say the sky is blue and you being colorblind say you are offfended because its obviously grey... Suck it up Buttercup, because while I feel sorry for your condition, I'm not going to start calling the sky non-discriminatory shade.
 

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