Making Normal

I’ve been thinking a lot about normal.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about normalcy, intersectionality, representation, mediocrity, names, branding, a Games Studies academic book, and what it’s like to leave a cult.

The usual, really.

In Ready Player 2, Shira Chess talks about the idea of designed identity, which is an idea she explores in that book about what it’s like to have the characteristics of who you are – your identity – shaped by market forces that are designed to tell you what you are, then tell you that people like you should be buying their stuff. It’s not a subtle thing if you look at advertising; the gender binary is a construct but it’s a construct advertisers believe in extremely hard. The book does a lot with examples to demonstrate that a lot of what we think of as being normal, for lack of any better word, is made up not of some sort of cultural fluid finding a natural mean but is as much a matter of advertisers constructing a vision of your reality that they can use to sell you things.

I’ve talked about advertisers attempts to organise themselves into your normal, and how that’s one of the only effective models of ‘subliminal’ advertising, where if a company can make itself so much part of your world you stop paying attention to it, you tend to think of it as a convenient option. This is part of how you shape a normal, and that normal has to not be revolutionary. It has to not be uncomfortable.

If the normal they present to you is too different to what you can experience, then the illusion breaks and you start seeing them faking normal. This is why when adults try to be cool to kids it’s so jarring and it clearly stands out as ‘wrong.’ Kids can compare whether or not the adults fit into their normal and they can tell it’s just not congruent. On the other hand, Fox news viewers don’t interact with any of the sectors of society Fox demonises, so they don’t have to have their vision of normal disturbed by finding out that for example, black people aren’t all faking it about the whole racism thing.

Back in April I partook in a twitter promotional meme which was about getting tabletop gamers to talk to one another about their work and connect. It was about showing people a bit of who you were, and there were some questions about things I personally consider fraught to discuss. Particularly, there were two questions, one phrased as How are your games dismantling colonialism and How are your game mechanics and characters intersectional.

These questions made me leery at the time because I am extremely reluctant to point at my own work and say ‘this is me, doing the moral good.’ It’s a byproduct, I feel, sometimes, of my fundamentalist cult upbringing, where I just don’t feel it’s ever my place to pass judgment on my behaviour, but to instead act as best I can and let other people judge me. I know that that’s atypical; I know that, because when I emerged from the cult and started to deal with people who had never been in that environment, people are all-too-willing to assert their own moral rightness and describe their moral quality as if I can take them as character witnesses to themselves. Which seems weird to me, but I can tell that what they’re doing is pretty normal, because I see it all the time, and I see other people accepting it.

This isn’t to rubbish on the question, or anyone who could answer it, by the way. I am speaking for me, and for my unwillingness to tell people ‘I am dismantling colonialism by giving the empires in my game spaces silly names.’ I mean, I could make that argument, and thanks to this degree, I could make that argument seem very convincing, but I don’t think I should make it, anyway.

Still, this got me thinking about normalisation and representation and intersectionality in games, and how normal works. Particularly because part of building normal is about making sure that things that should be normal are presented as normal. I don’t think the normal we have right now is good; it was constructed with a lot of uncriticised bigotry in it, and there was a period of great gatekeeping (which hasn’t ended), and branding and marketing feeding into that gatekeeping replicated all the same marginalisations. Normal, as it is, right now, sucks. There is stuff that pushes against this normal, but mostly, tabletop gaming still has a normal that sucks.

Now I don’t like this normal, but how do I change it? There’s a strictly structuralist vision of culture, with fences and boundaries, that presents the idea that only people More Marginalised than I (or more obviously marginalised than I) should be allowed to present things that break from this normal. Now, I have a host of reasons for disagreeing with this position, but my biggest one is that if we demand the marginalised solve everything themselves, we’re asking the people with the least resources to do the most work, which is an asshole move.

What instead, I want to do, is I want to make the new normal. Which means for the most part, doing a lot of stuff that seems very boring and ordinary. It’s going to be a normal where it is unremarkable to see black heroes and unimportant that there are non-cis heroes. It’s going to be about people who presented with an issue controversial in our modern world will be confused as it’s a non-issue. It’s going to be about watching how other, more obviously marginalised people represent their ideas in games, and then, taking the lead from them, put their stuff in my games, too, not because I want their kudos or credit, but because I want their stuff to be part of the normal.

This raises the question of appropriation, which is I feel overapplied and wielded mostly as a cudgel in media purity crusades, for which I have no time. Nonetheless, it absolutely is a potential concern in this specific place: if someone shows me a way to represent blackness in their games that isn’t something like Pathfinder’s ‘spooky black man,’ for example, then I’d like to use it, but I don’t want to be seen as being the person responsible for the conception of the idea.

The other, more sinister thing is, that this raises the spectre of sourcing. Tabletop games have a fabulously litigious history, mostly tied to a period of time when TSR was suing itself on a near constant basis (not kidding), White Wolf was suing people (and being sued in return), freelancers were suing publishers for non-payment (a problem that has, I’m sure, gone away), brands were suing to avoid association, and TSR, again, was suing consumers for talking about their game on the internet (again, not kidding). It is naturally very easy for game makers to be a bit careful about mentioning products in their work, let alone pointing to the work of other designers and say ‘I got this idea from their work.’

Imagine that, imagine if your game book didn’t just have a reading list for possible game type inspirations, but had setting reading lists of the works not of established big names like videogames and movies, but direct links to the works of other creators, saying ‘I got this idea from reading this person’s work.’ Imagine if that was acceptable.

Imagine if it was encouraged.

I try to be very open about the engines and inspirations for my games, partly to resist fear, and partly to ensure purchasers have a clear vision of what they’re getting. If you like Machi Koro but want it in a smaller box and full of hot boys, I’d rather you know that Cafe Romantica plays a lot like Machi Koro than pretend I’d never heard of it and moved on. I think this is a good model for being honest with consumers, to at least be clear about my inspiration.

Still, there’s the other side of sourcing, which is what if I say ‘I got this idea from that developer’ and they hate what I did with it? What if someone wants to smack their words out of my mouth? What if by reimplementing someone else’s ideas in my game space, they feel I’ve made it racist? What if building with the normal they want me to shape, they see that as conceptual colonialism? What if I’ve done a perfectly fine job of bringing their work forward, but they don’t like some other element of the work and therefore don’t want them associated? Did I make a perfectly good reimplementation of an Afrofuturist society but I put it in a game that uses dicepools, and the creator of that society just hates dicepools? That’s as much a legitimate reason to not want to be sourced and you’d want to respect that.

Payment springs to mind, but I can’t afford to pay myself for my work, and I also don’t want to tell anyone I mentor that this project that formerly had no startup costs now has startup costs if they want to Not Be A Racist. If I’m trying to put tools in the hands of marginalised people it seems a bit rude to then follow that up with ‘and now you need to pay money if you want to do this and be a good person.’

I don’t have a good answer for these problems. Peer review is a system that’s been mostly about just sourcing things carefully and it’s done a decent job of it for three centuries. But it’s also been mostly at the behest of and through the time investment of, the richest and most privileged people across a handful of empires. On the other hand, it has worked out such that I was able to drop a source in the top of this article and you probably didn’t think anything of it.

Still, it is how I’d rather proceed, in this poorest quarter of the smallest eighth of a niche creative space where what I really want to work on is building a different vision of normal.