One of the most frequent questions I get from event organizers is: “My event is full of white dudes. How do I get more (people of color/women/TLGBT folks) to show up?
When I give my standard answer, the organizer in question often complains, “but that sounds like a lot of work.” And it’s true. There is no way around this, kids. It’s hard to change social structures, so fostering inclusivity in gaming is a lot of work.
As game designer and community organizer Mark Diaz Truman told me, “I think the hardest part for dominant groups to grapple with is the fact that homogenous groups tend to stay homogenous. If your core organizing team is white and male, then it’s likely your player base is white and male, and it’s likely to stay that way.” Other people have written more eloquently than I about how such systems perpetuate themselves, so I won’t look at that here.
Just remember: this is among the most meaningful work out there. And taking the first steps is often easier than you’d think. I’m drawing strategies in this post from several places, including:
- My own experience as a woman being included (or not) and my experience as an organizer striving to be inclusive.
- Informal chats with the folks over at Gaming as Other (Mark Diaz Truman, Ajit George, Whitney Beltrán) on Indie+
- Informal chats with feminists, gamers of color and queer activists interested in gaming and related fandoms in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and within the US indie scene.
- Listening to Mattie Brice lecture on this very topic at Different Games, a gaming conference in Brooklyn dedicated to inclusivity in all sorts of games.
The Big Picture
In the long run, diversifying your event has two basic parts: getting people from diverse groups to show up once to check you out, and then retaining them as community members.
Inclusion is sometimes explained as a chicken-or-the-egg kind of issue. Having women present at your event broadcasts to other women that the space is safe/comfortable/interesting for them, and can get you more women participants–in other words, the best way to have more women is to already have more women. This can leave organizers feeling hopeless.
I prefer to think of it as a snowball model. It might take some time to find those first people of color participants and to make them feel welcome, but the math works exponentially. It might take years to go from zero to two, but then once you establish yourself as an inclusive space, it’s easier to go from two to five and it takes less time.
Acquiring a Diverse Community
Some tips on how to get people from marginalized groups to show up to your event at least once.
I cannot emphasize this enough. If you want queer people/people of color/women to show up to your events, you have to invite them. In general, the more personal the invitation, the better.
Initially, I had trouble getting players for the all-women larp Mad About the Boy. Many women I knew didn’t feel comfortable volunteering themselves for the game–even larpers with 15 years of experience were worried about ruining the game for other players. All it took was emailing or speaking with individual women and saying, “I’d love to have you at this event, I think you’d do a wonderful job, and I’d value your presence there.” This generated around a third of the player base.
There are other ways to invite people. You can also put the word out on the street that a particular group is very welcome to the event. Make it a public statement if you like. Partner with diverse groups if you can–for example, if you’re interested in being more inclusive toward queer people, you might consider partnering with a local advocacy group, or promoting your events to them.
Why This Works
Aside from the obvious–people can’t show up to events they don’t know about, invitations telegraph a bunch of motives on behalf of the organizers.
Issuing a statement that you are committed to diversity, working with an advocacy group, putting the word out on the street–regardless of whether they bring in participants—these strategies telegraph that this space is striving to be a safe space. That makes it more welcoming.
I also think of invitations in terms of taking social space. Folks from dominant view points–white, straight, male, or cis–are used to taking up social space and holding the floor, volunteering themselves for leadership roles, etc. Our culture expects it. Women, for example, often get socially punished for the same attitudes on many levels.
The reason individual emails worked to get more players for Mad About the Boy was that instead of forcing these wonderful people to take space, I offered it to them. An invitation is, at core, an offering of space. It reassures people that their presence is not merely tolerated, but actively desired.
Personal invitations through email or coffees, etc. work best because at the same time, no one wants to be invited simply because they fit some sociopolitical category, but because their special personal qualities have been recognized. I don’t want, for example, Avonelle to come to my events because she is a woman–I want here there because she has a wonderful sense of how to include other people, is a committed roleplayer who will prep her character well, and because I like her.
Make It Cheap (Offer stipends and scholarships)
Larps, gaming conventions, and academic conferences can cost a pretty penny between travel, lodging, and event admission. Offering funds can make a huge difference in getting people from marginalized groups to attend your event for several reasons. For starters, if I’m not confident I’ll have fun at your larp, I may be more reluctant to invest my money in showing up once–remove that burden and I’ll be willing to try it and see if I like it.
Secondly, in the US at least, there’s some convergence between issues of race and class thanks, in part, to issues of structural inequality (pay disparities, etc). Relieving some of the financial burden on participants is a corrective measure.
Thirdly, as game critic, designer and activist Mattie Brice pointed out in her talk at Different Games, there is a disproportionate burden on prominent folks from marginalized groups. Let’s say there are five women of color who are prominent in the video game design community. Those women will be asked to speak a lot by various communities. Such speaking gigs can be fun and good for one’s career, of course, but travel and lodging are also expensive and can quickly deplete a tight budget.
Part of the solution, of course, to try to work so that instead of five prominent women of color there are 5,000, but in the meantime, if you want one of the five prominent trans game designers to attend or speak at your event, offering them room and board, or at least free admission to the event helps.
Have a Written Policy That You Don’t Tolerate Racist/Sexist/Ableist/Homophobic Crap
Such a policy communicates to your potential audience that you care about their well-being, and that you are striving to make a community that functions better than the rest of the world we live in. The question about “safe space” is always “safe for whom?” If you want to make it safe for people of color, then you want to make it an unsafe space for racists.
If you want people to come back to your events again and again, it has to be more than simply a policy, though. There should be a mechanism detailing what happens if someone breaks the rules, and you should follow it if something unfortunate happens.
Maintaining a Diverse Community
The second half of building a diverse community is, of course, retaining all the wonderful people you’ve persuaded to show up to your events.
Work to Build a Diverse Organizing Committee
It’s not enough to have a diverse participant base. That diversity should be reflected at every stage of the organizational structure. Basically, we all have subconscious biases, and it’s easy to prefer people who are similar to oneself without thinking about it, which is part of why, for example, the white dude culture of brogrammers in Silicon Valley tends to perpetuate itself. If you want to include people from marginalized groups, then you’ll want their input at an organizational level.
Having women on your organizing staff can make someone like me look at your game and say, “this is a community that seems like it values the input of women.” That might make me more likely to show up. It also gives me options of who to talk to if someone does something creepy to me at your event. I might feel more comfortable talking to a lady (or maybe not! It depends!).
Having a diverse set of life experience on your game designing committee also increases the breadth of life experience you have to draw on when creating the next episode of that awesome campaign larp. It means you have a better chance of catching that veiled racist comment on page 8 of the game book. It means an expanded network that likely includes more lesbians than you’ve met in your life, and someone with skin in the game who will invite them to your event. It means a richer experience for your players, and a more eye opening experience for your organizing committee.
That said, the rainbow utopia doesn’t just imagine itself into existence like the Greek goddess Gaia. It’s easy to agree when everyone shares the same viewpoint, so introducing diversity to your organizing committee can mean revising what it means to lead. As game designer and community organizer Mark Diaz Truman put it, “Of course, this brings up conflicts, right? When you welcome POC [people of color], women, queer organizers, they are going to disagree with you! So there has to be a real commitment to that inclusion at the highest level and real relationships built with in-person or video chat meetings that create a holding environment for the conflict that’s going to come.”
In other words: work hard to strengthen personal relationships, and work hard at developing constructive ways to manage conflict among the team.
Related is the idea of mentoring and grooming people to move up the ranks. No one walks in off the street and says they’re ready to run a larp or write their own freeform scenario. There are many intermediate steps–running small parts of an event first, for example, offering ways to get experience guided by a more masterful hand–co-GMing and co-writing opportunities, for example, or introductory lectures on how to get the basics down.
Invitation is also a powerful tool. Simply saying the words, “I think you’d be great at game mastering/writing/organizing” to someone from a marginalized group can be absolutely magical. Again–this has to do with offering space to people, rather than fostering a culture in which they are expected to take it.
Think Critically About Your Game/Event Design
If you’re casting all the women of color as barbarian princesses, that’s a problem. If you’re only asking women to speak about romance in gaming, that’s a problem. If all relationships in your game are heteronormative relationships and the game is not, itself, about heteronormativity, that’s a problem.
Designing against various -ism tropes (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) is a way bigger topic than I can cover here. But if you’re interested in a few strategies for avoiding racism in game design, I have a post.
Make All New People Welcome/Foster Social Inclusivity
It’s pretty obvious, but bears repeating: if you’re nice to people, they’ll be more likely to come back. This goes for any new participant. Introduce them around, make them feel comfortable, explain the basics about the event to situate them, and be socially inclusive.
One thing I’ve seen work at a variety of cons is a set of informal or explicit social rules. These include things like standing in a horseshoe shape instead of a circle, or always having an open chair in a group that is sitting, to indicate that new people are welcome to join; written rules barring certain oppressive language; rules about always letting a speaker complete their thought before jumping in with a new anecdote, etc.
If you’re running a big event, consider having a lounge for people from marginalized groups where they can go to take a break if they’re being harassed. I realize this sounds like “separate but equal” to a lot of people, but I’ve heard lots of positive feedback about rooms like these used at conventions. Likewise, having a quiet room for overstimulated introverts–or anyone else who needs to get away from the lights and constant background noise, can also be nice.
Think about access for all of your participants. Something as simple as putting an “all gender” bathroom sign on one of the loos can go a long way toward including people from every point along the gender spectrum. Structural inclusivity also includes things like wheelchair ramps.
According to Elsa Sjunneson-Henry‘s talk about accessibility in larp at Living Games, if you have players who are disabled in a way that might be relevant to your event, ask them what you can do to increase their comfort and how they’d like you to handle things. Sometimes, people don’t want to disclose their disability to a large group, and so obviously don’t do that. On the other hand, it can make sense for a player who is, say, sight impaired and easily startled by people coming up behind them, to choose to tell the group to not do that thing. Don’t assume–ask.
Have additional strategies for inclusion? Post them in the comments.
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