As we commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, I wanted to talk about walls in tabletop gaming and look at what walls there still are that might stop people from enjoying the hobby or becoming a part of our growing community. I don’t proclaim to be able to tear down all the walls that still exist, but hopefully my thoughts will start a constructive discussion and help move us forward in some way. Maybe we can look back in 30 years and see the positive things that have happened and evaluate what else needs to be done.
Let me start by saying that I think overall our hobby and community are positive places to be and that tabletop games have helped a lot of people in a lot of amazing ways. Just watch the amazing YouTube series Starting Roll and you will find a lot of examples where the hobby has provided a safe space or somehow offered support to help people through tough times and come out stronger. I also find tabletop games a way of spending time where I don’t have to worry about anything. I can switch off for a few hours and immerse myself in another world and spend time with friends. The escapism element of playing games is important to me and many other people. It can have a hugely positive effect on mental health, which is something I have heard many people talk about. Gaming events are also ways of making new friends in a relatively easy way. You already share the same hobby and interests, so if you can find games that you all like to play, then you’re onto a winner. I found this myself at the Gaming Rules meet-up at this year’s Essen Spiel. It was so much fun having people join me and play games with me. In fact, games create a focus that allows people to come together and not feel pressured to talk about their worries or problems. Ann Jones of Cards or Die explained this so wonderfully in a recent episode of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast. You can be part of a regular therapy group where you can spend a couple of hours playing games, and if you feel comfortable you can talk about your problems, but equally you can just enjoy playing games. Of course, nothing is ever just positive. There have been plenty of occasions where individuals or groups of people have had very negative experiences. The many reports of sexual attacks by industry figures who abuse their position of power clearly show that our community is not immune to problems that face society as a whole. So even though I said above that I think that the community as a whole is safe, there is still a lot that needs to be done. There are also many reports of people having been abused verbally in a sexist, racist or other ways, which is unacceptable and again reflects the state of society as a whole unfortunately. All of this needs to be confronted and dealt with in a robust way, and luckily more and more exhibitions and events are starting to implement clear rules about this sort of behaviour and will eject and ban people not respecting those rules. It would be a shame if we were heading into a future where we use positive discrimination to create a safe space for groups of people. I don’t want us to be segregated into smaller groups, but instead I want us to find a way of allowing everyone to mix in a safe and respectful way. The more we can work together, and the fewer walls there are, the better. Don’t get me wrong though. I do see that certain formats for events make sense and do have their place to bring people into the community. Women-only tabletop games events and conferences, for example, are very popular and highlight the lack of women designers, developers, illustrators, artists, publishers and other roles that our industry desperately needs. I would say that these exclusive events already have had a positive impact, with more women designers successfully getting their games published, and I hope they will continue to do so. There are other groups of people who also need this positive focus to encourage a more varied community where there is a greater mix of ideas, experiences, skills, emotions and everything else that makes our hobby a more positive and exciting place to be. What is great, is that designers and publishers are starting to head in the right direction. Important things such as using a neutral pronoun, i.e. “they”, in rulebooks and everywhere else is becoming more and more commonplace. Yes, it’s still not everywhere, but it’s much better than it used to be. Colour blindness is also much more of a consideration in games, but there are still many more things that our industry needs to take more care over. Having Catherine Stippell consider blindness and making a game that uses it as a key mechanism in the game is great. Seeing Stephanie Jessup make game tutorial videos for the deaf and hard of hearing is another amazing example of how our industry is moving forward. Yet, there is a lot more to be done and it will take a long time to be standard across the industry. We’re still behind when it comes to gender identity, mental health, physical disabilities and other areas, just like the rest of society. As I said at the beginning, I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have no answers. I only know that we can move things forward and we all can do our own bit to make our community a more inclusive and safer space. Let’s be respectful to everyone and try to be understanding. None of know what someone else might be going through. They might be putting on a brave face or they might just want to spend some time where they don’t have to worry about anything. Try and help people in whatever way they need, but ask them if you’re not sure rather than assume something. Unless you have personal experience with something, you will probably be surprised to find what someone needs help with and what they don’t. Be open to offer help and invite people to ask for help, and the rest will come naturally. Our hobby is about having fun. So let’s do what we can to make it happen. If you like this article, please like it and subscribe to this blog or the podcast. It would help me a great deal. It would be even better if you also tell your friends about them. 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