The N-Word in Gaming. Yeah, I Went There.
Okay readers, today's post is a little bit more serious than usual and a topic that I have been brewing upon for ages. In recent posts, I've written a lot of lofty thoughts about racism and how to equip my daughter with the tools she will need. And then I just finished reading Between the World and Me, a masterpiece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that was like leaping into the TARDIS and reliving one of my previous regenerations. I won't delve into how amazing the book is, as there are gillions of reviews out there. Just know that I believe it should be mandatory reading for everyone, placed into school curriculum, and used to combat those attempting to whitewash American history.
I have spent a lot of time running games (over 30 years, yikes), and have played with a number of white male gamers. When I have encountered more diverse gamers (being PoC, women or LGBT), it has almost been like two Highlanders seeing each other and suddenly Queen is playing in the background. Often those encounters involve some serious sizing up of each other, trying to decide how this other gamer will shake out (but that is a future blog post).
An experience I'd rather not live through again . . .
I want to take a little interweb space to recount one particular encounter of mine from about eight years ago. I recount it as one example of how I have heard the N-word used while gaming. I was running Dawn of Defiance (for the first time of four tries) for a group of gamers I had assembled from over the net. The party had about seven players, one of which was a couple. The session had been long, heated and had not gone in the party's favor for a number of reasons: bad planning, horrible dice rolls and trying to meta game the scenario instead of just playing. After a lengthy six-hour session on a hot July day, I called it.
I said my usually bit about hoping everyone had a good time and asking for feedback on the session. A couple of people asked questions or complained about needing to buy new dice; the couple did not say anything. I'm of the mind that gaming is a collaborative thing and helping people understand builds a solid foundation, and I really appreciate it when people participate fully. A few more questions later, people were packing up and I stepped out the room to grab a book for a player. When I came back in, out of view, it happened.
The husband of couple turned to his wife and said "Can you believe that cheating nigger?" That was really the last word I heard for a few moments, as a burning rage overtook me for the next few moments. A million ideas rolled through my brain about what I could do. More than anything, I wanted to toss this guy out of the window, after he came into my home, disrespected me and insulted me with an accusation of cheating.
Lucky-for-him, my cool (that thing that is so essential for African Americans to master in order to deal with life) came back to me. I know that I can't lose my cool; as a PoC, I don't have that privilege. If I made a scene, what happens next. A fight? The total disbanding of a group I worked to assemble? My arrest for putting a jackass in his place?
Instead, I saw everyone out, bid them farewell, and held my tongue (and my fists). What would you have done? Did I do the right thing? I still wonder to this day. What I did was contact him offline and let him know that what I heard his unacceptable and disrespectful and that they were not welcomed back. I may have also included a few other respectful and measured comments to end it.
The N-word . . . so much power in just a simple word. Some black people have tried to take ownership of it but in my opinion, that is just falsely empowering people to say it while hurting a race of people trapped under it.
Can I use the N-word in my game?
Short answer? No.
It is never okay for a non-black GM to use it and even black GMs should be wary of it. Wait? What? It's just a game . . . are possibly the thoughts going through your mind.
Let's assume that everyone who would want to say the word in the game is not racist or bigoted (that laughing you hear is my internal cynic). Even if all of that remains true, what does using the word really bring to a scene? Is it impact or shock your looking for? If so, that can be conveyed by the actions of your antagonist.
For instance, let's say you are running an 1850s Call of Cthulhu game set in the deep South. The racist plantation owner in reality would likely use the word but could just as easily call black people slaves, colored or other still insulting words. The horror and intensity will come from his action, through violence like whipping or having dogs chase the black investigators. Using actions to portray the plantation owner's racism (rather than words, and more specifically the N-word), provides a strong alternative that allows the GM to use third-person to illustrate the scene.
Both approaches generate tension, but being action-oriented allows focus on the tension within game. The small group of players that are assembled need to feel comfortable with each other and the GM. By using the N-word, the GM automatically creates a divide in a room. I continue to look for ways to create a more inclusive space for my gamers, and recently discovered the X-Card. I plan to add it to my games, and hope it will make it easier for people to communicate their level of comfort during the game.
The flip side of that coin, is that I do fervently believe the N-word should be used in other forms of media, such as a television and films. Of course, this can be a fine line to tread, but eliminating the word from all media has the potential to erase the truth. The N-word has power due to the ties of slavery, oppression and hatred. By totally ignoring it, we would disrespect those of us that came before and endured it. I see a key difference in other media: the setting is not nearly as intimate, and a live person is not using it to address someone in the room personally.
This is the first post in what I hope will be a series of posts about the power of language and racism in gaming. Until then, just don't use the N-word. Cool?