Sometimes, It is the Little Things

Hi, 'all.  I'm back from my summer blogging vacation--a few weeks off to charge the batteries and refocus.  Content should be back to original levels in the next couple of weeks.

Deep down, I am a massive geek.  I know and accept that part of myself.  In fact, I've come to embrace it--ultimately, geekdom is about imagination, and imagination is how you expand your mind and your horizons.  I will defend geekdom to the death.

There are many flavors of geekdom--video game geeks, Star War geeks, Star Trek geeks, other sci-fi geeks, anime geeks, etc.  I like many of those things, but my preferred form of geekdom is Tabletop Role-Playing Games.  The most famous Tabletop RPG, and the one that got me interested in the genre in 4th grade, is Dungeons & Dragons.  D&D, for those not familiar, was invented in the middle 70s as a way to tell fantasy stories modeled on books such as The Lord of the Rings.  In the 80s, folks thought that D&D led to Satan worship and suicide, culminating in a movie that I am sure Tom Hanks would love to delete from our collective memories.  In the 90s, when I was playing, it was mostly ignored.  Now, with the Hobbit in theaters and Game of Thrones on HBO and World of Warcraft on computers, I would not be shocked if D&D has a bit of a resurgence.  Everyone likes fantasy stories now, it seems.

I don't play RPGs regularly, but every once in a while I get the itch and I peak my head in to see what is going on in that world.  The big news recently is that D&D is in the process of coming out with a new, 5th edition of the game.  Reviews have been quite positive, particularly in light of the negative reception the previous edition received.  I bit the bullet and bought the 5th edition Players Handbook, and it seems to be less complicated than the previous two editions, which (to me) is a good thing.

But there is another story circulating with regard to this new edition, one that has nothing to do with dungeons or dragons.  On page 33 of the free "player's basic" version of the rules (available here) is the following statement in the paragraph discussing picking your character's sex:

"You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide."

It is my understanding, in reading some of the reactions to this online, that some of the language here is not perfect--"hermaphrodite" is not considered appropriate, nor is the construction "man trapped in a woman's body."  Nevertheless, "the Paragraph" (as it has become known) is clearly an attempt to encourage people to play LGBT characters, and by extension provide a welcoming environment for LGBT players.  Indeed, the creators of 5th edition have clearly stated that this was their intention.  As it turns out, 5th Edition is a little late to the party on this score. The publishers of the Pathfinder game (which is derived from, and is the primary competitor to, D&D) have been promoting LGBT characters for some time in their stories, and encouraging LGBT gamers to come and play their game.

No one will mistake this for Stonewall, and I am not claiming otherwise.  But this strikes me that this is one of those small, but important, signs that the culture has really changed in the area of gay rights.

The change represented by these kinds of statements represent a change in who "the market" is for things in the mainstream culture.  No doubt, there have been LGBT people playing, and buying, Tabletop RPGs from the beginning, so in that sense they have always been part of "the market."  But the market is also the people who influence those people who buy Tabletop RPGs, even if they would never roll up a character themselves.  Hobbies, especially niche hobbies, need to be sensitive to how they are perceived in the broader culture.

Publishers of D&D in the 80s and 90s had to be concerned about what certain segments of the religious right thought about their games.  My friends and I were banned from playing D&D at lunch because the principal though it was of the devil.  In 1989, the writers of 2nd Edition Player's Handbook (the one I learned to play on) changed the words "demon" and "devil" (given to creatures that were bad guys you were supposed to fight) to some silly expy, as a way to counter the accusation that D&D encouraged you to worship Satan.  If the 5th Edition paragraph had been put in the 2nd Edition PHB , it would have caused the religious folks who had a bee in their bonnet about D&D to lose their minds.  Imagine what would have happened if the critics could argue that it encouraged you to worship Satan and catch the gay?  Books would have been burned in the streets.  Like it or not, that was part of the market.  Even if the folks who wrote the 2nd Edition Players Handbook were entirely in support of gay rights in 1989, they could not have made the same statement their 2014 counterparts did.

I am sure you could find some religious folks in 2014 who would still argue that D&D is Satanic--they freaked out about Harry Potter, remember.  But the difference is that, now, the market has changed.  The market now includes people, both LGBT and non-LGBT, who care about the portrayal of LGBT characters and the status of LGBT players.  The truth is that they count more than the folks freaking out about the presence of magic spells.  And not because they have the ear of the media or "cultural elites," because no one in the media and few "cultural elites" care about Tabletop RPGs.  They count more because there are more of them than the religious crazies.  It's as simple as that.

The most common argument one hears to dismiss gay rights is that it is really a product of a small set of elites, attending snooty schools, living in coastal cities, and using their disproportionate influence in the media to make their ideas seem more pervasive than they actually are.  "Real people," according to this view, don't hold these progressive views on gay rights.  This argument is the most common one because, if it were true, it would be the most powerful.  People who read the New Yorker are a small segment of the population, and don't reflect the tastes and values of the broader culture.

Stuff like the 5th Edition Paragraph shows that this argument is wishful thinking.  The gay rights "market" isn't just at Harvard or in New York City--it is also in the geeky world of Tabletop RPGs.


On a different, but related, note, there was something else in the 5th Edition designer interviews that I thought was interesting.  They made a point of noting that they brought in a female art team to supervise the new Players Handbook.  That too is a big change, as D&D art was often very sexist and stupid.  For example, here is the cover art on the first D&D computer game that I ever played.

Let's put aside the practical objection that putting a large slit in your armor in the middle of your chest would seem to be an, um, questionable military decision.  It doesn't take a women's studies degree to view a piece of art like this as the crassest kind of adolescent male fan-service, and one guaranteed to turn-off a large swath of potential female players.

For 5th Edition, you get art like this:

Women wearing regular, realistic clothes--how about that?  Pathfinder meanwhile has used art like this:
Which is, basically, what you would imagine a real woman wearing a real suit of armor would look like.  It seems like women are part of "the market" as well, now.

Anyway, it's the little things that make a difference.  It makes me want to roll up a character again.


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