The tabletop hobby is growing rapidly. Every year we see more and more people around the world sit round a table. They come together to chuck dice, deal cards and explore this wonderful pastime that I, and you, love.
As the audience grows, so does its diversity. Keep in mind that I am a very typical white, cishet, male gamer. We see people with increasingly diverse backgrounds start to pickup games we love and fall down the rabbit hole of boardgames, cardgames, and tabletop RPGs.
Sometimes though, their reaction is the opposite of what we hope for. These new voices reach out to question the status quo, joining voices that have been present for years doing the same. They question how people, politics, genders, and sexualities are portrayed in the world of tabletop gaming. They are right to do so.
It’s not nice when you or something you love is criticised. When you feel passionately about a game, publisher, or whatever you want to defend it from criticism. It can feel like a personal attack. You go on the defensive, get angry. Most importantly, you stop listening. You become afraid that the thing you love will be taken away. That it will get ‘cancelled’.
The concept of ‘getting cancelled’ or ‘cancel culture’ has become a pervasive idea in politics and culture across the world. Merriam-Webster traces the term back to twitter round the time revelations around the behaviour of celebrities like Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. were coming to light. The idea of calling people out for terrible behaviour of course has existed since terrible behaviour has. For all of time pretty much. You could even call it criticism.
Over the last decade the idea of cancelling someone has become co-opted by the right wing of politics. This especially seems to be the case in the American politics. During the confirmation of Joe Biden, several Republican senators questioned the democratic process and failed to admonish those who had attacked the Capitol.
One of those was Senator Hawley. He had a book deal with Simon & Schuster. That contract had a morality clause in it that Simon & Schuster considered violated by his actions, or lack of them. Senator Hawley said he had been a victim of ‘cancel culture’. He said this in several national newspapers and news channels. In reality he breached a a contract and the publisher decided they didn’t want anything to do with him. It was business.
What is happening here? The far right are taking a term that was originally meant to express criticism of figures we once admired and using it as a hammer to smash any hint of criticism of them or their positions.
This has spilled over into gaming in general and over the last year we have seen it come up many times in the tabletop community. Most recently this has been in the context of comments by Phil Eklund, Daniele Tascini and other controversies involving prominent designers and critics.
Are these figures getting cancelled? No. They are not. They have expressed opinions and acted in ways that the community has collectively found unpalatable, to put it mildly. The community has expressed its opinion and said these actions and opinions are not acceptable. That’s criticism.
Aren’t we suppressing their voice? I’m no constitutional lawyer, but let’s talk about free speech for a moment. The First Amendment, which comes up a lot in these conversations, protects you from the government suppressing your voice. It does not mean that people have to listen to you. Free speech means you can say whatever you want. It also means I can call you out. That’s not cancellation. That’s me disagreeing with you.
The world of tabletop gaming is growing and with that will come more criticism of the way we talk about games, the politics of games, and what their designs say about the human condition. It will be painful, and we, I include myself here, may get defensive about things we thought were OK. It’s a good thing. We should lift up diverse voices so that their criticism can be heard and their games played. The hobby will grow and be better for it. Those in a position of influence must stand up for voices old and new that are calling out behaviour that has never been acceptable, but has long been tolerated. If we don't, then maybe we don't deserve to be in those privileged positions in the first place.