Though I started this piece before reading Anthony the Silver’s post on good, bad, and ugly fandoms, I feel that my topic is relevant. For those in the tabletop gaming community, especially those who have been involved for a few decades, change is not always a welcome thing. Nostalgia for the days of youth, or those “golden days” when everything was ideal is a common human trait, and is something that each person needs to confront in their own lives.
I bring up nostalgia because it plays a big part in the issue I discuss. For those in the Old School Rules (OSR) community of Dungeons & Dragons, the name Gygax has significant potency. Having works going back to systems, methods, or evoking the feel of a Gygax-style game can be a big draw for those in the OSR community.
So, with this basic context, imagine if you heard that the company that created the original games was back, and that one of the sons of Gygax was involved. It would be exciting for some. But, that excitement is dealt a blow with this:
This is a link to a link of an interview with Ernest Gygax, Jr. (hereafter referred to as EGJr). The forum post includes a transcription of the interview. Regardless, the content of the interview is what is the focus here.
However, here’s a brief summary for the TL;DR crowd:
- EGJr notes that the company he’s a part of claimed the lapsed TSR trademark.
- EGJr discusses the legal issues regarding the IP still held in his late father’s estate, and the challenges that persist due to his father’s widow.
- EGJr claims a lot of veteran talent is interested if not on board with this new endeavor (disputed).
- EGJr compares the companies that have the D&D as “corporate raiders,” and then made an equivalency of that to stereotypical depictions of violent raids attributed to American Indians.
- EGJr claims that Wizards of the Coast is distancing itself from the origins of the game in a disparaging manner, and that he responds in kind on the matter. Uses “pack of lemmings” to describe the new, current fan base of the game.
- EGJr criticizes the crowdfunding process (not a controversial element, but one that reflects a lack of knowledge or awareness on the realities of the process, which could be the same fundamental issue underlying his stances on the controversial topics).
- Further review of social media of EGJr and his associates shows conservative stances on “culture war” issues like gender identity and the like.
Now, the drama that unfolded after the interview is a typical online meltdown, with distancing by prominent individuals in the OSR movement, revelations and accusations, etc. To boil it down, someone with a less-than-stellar reputation grabbed a unregistered trademark and tried to make it into a money-making venture, relying on the old company name, alleged associations of several individuals from the heyday (which was proven false), and teasing a future product that has a story of its own. There’s even more recent changes and drama, which is questionable considering the history of one of the folks involved, but that’s another story. It’s an unsightly mess that grows uglier over time. Yet it is the content of the interview that I want to focus on, because it’s a sample of a common problem faced in multiple forms of media, even our popular media: the ever changing status quo.
I want to start by saying that determining intentional harm versus unintentional harm can be clear as crystal or maddeningly murky, depending on any number of factors. Add on to this the simple fact that contemporary media is made for a contemporary audience, and things get really tricky. Something that wasn’t recognized as being questionable or harmful in the past can be found so by future audiences. A prime example of this is the character of Apu in The Simpsons. I do not think that the character was made with malicious intent, but a malign undercurrent did exist which those whom Apu was depicted to represent sensed.
The opinions expressed by EGJr are things, like Apu, which some may be tempted to defend as “a product of his time,” though the attitudes expressed by other notable members of the gaming community refute this sort of excuse. They show growth, change, and a good dose of humility, unlike the “this is how it was and should still be” attitude that often backs outdated views. I do not know EGJr, and thus cannot accurately assess if his comments from the interview, or any posts thereafter, are genuine facets of his character, words spoken in poor choice, some sharp carnival bark to bring in the crowds, or whatever. But, needless to say, the damage is done.
However, the flip side of this is the degree of reaction expressed by, for lack of a better term, opponents of the opinions that EGJr expressed. The response of some industry veterans against EGJr was made necessary by painting all gaming veterans in such harsh broad strokes. If you will, it was fighting fire with fire, and not regarding who got burned in the process. This is a dangerous and counterproductive action that only serves to amplify divisions instead of diminish them.
Otherization is harmful. The changes that are being implemented in games and other media are attempts to address past and present actions and decisions that had actual impacts on people frequently cast in the role of the Other. However, it is a flawed facet of human nature to view and treat people as Others, and those who advocate change to end it for themselves or other communities should not Otherize those they find themselves in opposition with.
I say this because even the woke youth of today will be the old out-of-touch codgers of tomorrow, just as yesterday’s Hippies turned into today’s Boomers. Every young generation thinks they can make a change that will last. And some do, in some form or fashion. But every generation will also be castigated on their shortcomings and hypocrisies by subsequent generations, and those criticisms can overshadow the progress and good achieved, much less taken for granted now.
A lot of the source material that inspired gaming itself doesn’t age well. Shining a light on the creatives behind those inspirational works can be disturbing; merely look at H.P. Lovecraft as an example. But the flaw in some critiques is that it views the works meant for the audience of yesteryear through the lenses and values of today. And, in this era of technology, I would argue that being so fierce and vitriolic in “calling out” others will not serve anyone well in the future, because the grand context of growth, change, education, and everything else that accounts for a changed viewpoint may not be recorded as much as the vitriol is.
By no means am I advocating not calling someone out. What I am advocating is being mindful of how you do it. If you will, call out that other person the way you would like to be called out.
This is not a new struggle. This appears when edits are suggested to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to remove offensive terms, or when tackling the character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. However, do not treat these examples as equivalent to the current issue regarding Confederate statues, for that is bluntly disingenuous of the actual history of when those things were installed and what was going on in the USA. The use of statuary to codify and reinforce social power dynamics has been blatantly evident since before the Pharaohs.
But it also boils down to how we humans can instinctively view and react to things: in a binary, good/bad, either/or sort of way. It denies the possibility of both, or all of the above: it struggles with paradox. It strips out complexity and uncertainty and the “fear” of making a poor choice if it can be crammed into a schema that we abide by but reality does not. We deal with this complexity in our creative endeavors, both lauded canonical works of art and the modern media of today. The Star Wars franchise, especially the material provided via the CGI animated shows like Clone Wars, Rebels, and Bad Batch addresses this: former enemies becoming allies, former heroes now doing horrible things in the name of stability and peace, flawed heroes, consequences of good and bad actions, falls from grace, redemption, etc.
Maintaining old binary worldview narratives due to nostalgia denies this level of complexity and richness, and thus a sense of life to it all. It’s fine if that’s the sort of entertainment you’re in the mood for or like to regularly consume. However, it’s not okay to disparage others for the sake of them being Other. It’s hard to remember that in fandoms, much less in real life.