You know that old saw that says, “If you assume you make an ass out of you and me” right? Tired and lame as that saying may be, it still tends to ring true.
I get caught up in my own assumptions and biases all the time. And I’m often guilty of letting those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is never more true than when I’m making choices about what roleplaying games I want to play, and which people I want to play them with.
If you’ve been listening to my squawking recently you’re probably aware that I’m trying to commit myself to the idea of becoming a better, more welcoming, more collaborative player. I want to encourage a wider diversity of humans to come to the table to play, I want to help make them feel welcome and safe when they get there, and I want to help them express and enjoy themselves freely once the game has begun. It’s pretty much Decent Human Being 101, but in our current play cultures, basic human decency often gets trumped by lesser considerations.
For most of us hetero white males, those lesser considerations usually involve a set of assumptions and biases born from Privilege and from the traditional view of “Gamer Culture*” cherished by so many.
So in order to grow toward my goals as a player and decent human being, I need to check my assumptions.
Here’s the thing I’m discovering, though – my assumptions seem to follow a different pattern than the Stereotypical Gamer Dude. My assumptions, in fact, are mostly directed at the Stereotypical Gamer Dude.
When I am seeking a group to play with, I want at least one woman in the group. Ideally, there will also be someone who’s skin tone and/or cultural heritage are not like mine. If one or both of these things are not true, then I assume that I’m not going to have as much fun at that table as I want. Now to be clear, I don’t think my desire to have diversity at my table is the problem. But to assume that things are going to be boring and typical just because it’s a table full of white guys? Yeah, that’s a problem.
This situation was driven home for me at GenCon a few weeks ago. During one of the Games on Demand slots on Saturday, my new pal Derrick Kapchinsky and I were hoping to get into a Monsterhearts session that Jeromy Hastings was running. Jeromy’s table filled up before our boarding passes were called, but eventually we got into a Monsterhearts game in the overflow room that Trevis Martin was going to run.
And here’s how it went:
So I’m sitting there with Derrick and Trevis and yeah, all three of us are white males. I’m talking about how it is my first-ever game of Monsterhearts, even though I’d played many sessions of other games that used the Apocalypse World engine. We’re chatting about AW, and playing out high-school angsty relationship stuff, when they walk in – two dudes. And in this case I mean Dudes, in that I immediately profile them as typical Dudebros. Two young white geeky-looking guys with most of the stereotypical trappings. They sit at our table, say “hi” in that sort of way that geeky convention-going guys say when they don’t know each other, and then one of them places his large print of a painting of Danaerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones on the empty seat next to him, which happens to be the seat directly opposite me. So I’ve got two young greasy dudes with con-funk sitting next to me and a large painting of the sexified nubile face of the Mother of Dragons staring right at me for the whole session.
And I am making ALL KINDS of assumptions.
Then Trevis asks the guys if they’ve ever played Monsterhearts or any other *World game before, and no, they haven’t. They play D&D, Warhammer, Pathfinder. They’d heard of Dungeon World but never played it, but they wanted to play something and so they chose Monsterhearts because it was available.
And I’m sitting there making A WHOLE SHITLOAD of assumptions.
Trevis, to his credit, explains the themes and basic conceit of Monsterhearts to them, like you’ve gotta do with anyone who doesn’t know what they might be in for, and he asks if they’re cool with that kind of thing. Yep. They’re willing to try it.
Then Trevis explains the X-card concept, and they’re nodding and everything seems fine and dandy, except I’m staring down at the table trying to avoid the languishing gaze of the Danaerys painting and I’m TOTALLY MAKING ASSUMPTIONS.
Next, we’re getting an overview of the scenario Trevis will be facilitating, which is a special thing that Monsterhearts author Avery McDaldno has written for one-shots and conventions. Derrick chooses his character, and there are three left to dole out between me and the two dudes. The three characters are two girls and a guy. I hold back because I’m ASSUMING that those guys probably don’t want to play girl characters, even though one of them will have to, but I want to let them make their choices and then I’ll take the one that remains.
They each choose a girl character.
And of course, I’m sitting there … yeah. ASSUMPTIONS.
Because yeah, two greasy D&D dudes who, by appearances, are barely out of high school themselves, are TOTALLY going to be able to play high-school girls with a sense of authenticity and without pulling out all the shitty stereotypes that most such guys I’d played with often used when playing female characters. Yeah, right.
To be honest, it’s fair to suggest that if I was thinking all this stuff at that point, I should have excused myself from the game. But I wanted to play with Derrick. I wanted to try Monsterhearts. I didn’t want to be a dick, even though I was already being one in my head.
So I stuck around, tried to shut my inner-assumer up, and played.
And my assumptions and I got totally schooled.
The two dudes not only took well to the Monsterhearts rules and the overall thematics, they ended up doing a totally fine job playing female characters with honesty and sincerity. In fact, I’ve got to admit that they both did a much better job authentically playing their characters than the knuckleheaded 40-something who was sitting in my chair did at playing a high-school aged boy. I haven’t felt so personally disconnected from a character in a long time. I couldn’t get a handle on the guy without resorting to my own worn-out stereotypes of what a punk-loner 16-year-old witch who watched his mom eat the mailman for breakfast would act like.
That wasn’t the system, it wasn’t Trevis’ facilitating, it wasn’t the other players. It wasn’t even the painting of Dany. None of that got in my way or hindered my experience. I hindered my own experience. Me and my damn assumptions.
So, although I’ve no doubt that I’ve got a lot of growing to do in the area of being more welcoming and collaborative in playing with women and people of color, it turns out that I’ve ALSO got to get my assumptions and biases in check when it comes to guys who I identify as potential Dudebros, too. My “Mister Enlightened Progressive Story-Player” persona needs to chill the hell out and do some growing, too.
* a term that needs to die. And, if recent events are a good indicator, it IS dying. But not before it screams, yells, wails, and lashes out at everything around it, apparently.