Wide Awake: The New Gate Keepers of Gaming

This is a big year for me. This is the year I stop being a lot of things to Toronto Area Gamers (and Fan Expo) and hand my keys over to younger, more diverse people. It's the year I let go of some reins, really focus on what I want to do, and decide where that leaves me. It's the year I recognize that stagnation in power seats is not good, and that I'm part of that problem. It's the year I acknowledge that term limits are a super good thing.

It's also the year I spent crying the most. Everyone I knew had a tale to tell, a trauma to unpack with me, and another person to throw shit at. I listened to the stories. I took note. I nodded and agreed and began to realize that most of the community hates someone else in the community and it's all clear as mud. It was heartbreaking to see the amount of ostracism and hate happening between people I knew had similar core values and beliefs, but weren't able to step back to see a bigger picture because hurt keeps us very, very present.

The word Gatekeeper was one that kept filtering through my ears to talk about other community members. Hell, I've used it. It's generally a negative word, the kind of word we use to describe older, white men who cling to power by pushing away change and progress for the sake of their comfort and how it's always been done. Even this week, as I watch a Gatekeeper lash out at me and another woman for calling his convention sexist (we're to blame, y'know, for his con's problems), I realize the problem of using Gatekeeper in such a specific way.

Because of the very nature of gaming, with so many silos on one big farm, there are a lot of doors. Call them doors, call them gates, call them whatever you want. The point stands that there are a lot of places one could want to enter. For me to grab my toys off of the Indie table, and walk over to the OSR silo, I could draw a lot of hate. Not just from the OSR community, parts of which hate me, but from my own Indie and Story community, whom seem to inherently hate the OSR and trad community, but not always. Just sometimes. When it suits them.

This whole idea of crossing gates and borders to be able to play and know a multitude of people is entirely imaginary. We're gamers. We love to play pretend. While entire swaths of us will decry the imaginary borders of nationalism, we will simultaneously hold up the even more imaginary boundaries of gaming silos.

Not only will we build them and hold them up. We'll defend them to our dying breaths.

These invisible walls become defining features of our communities. Within the community, we have additional gates and gated communities. I've heard stories of Gatekeeping from all of the realms. Why do I hear them? Because our communities are just full of rumours and hearsay and whisper networks and back channel chats.

As I sat with my partner watching a documentary on Mister Roger's Neighborhood, my heart swelled and I realized this is what I wanted to be doing. Not in the sense of making a kids television program, but in asking people, universally, to love better and be neighbours with each other. I want to encourage that love and compassion that our communities seem to be desperately missing, or at best, only turn inwardly.

Can you call yourself compassionate when it only extends to the people you like? Is it compassion when we refuse to turn our criticism inwards? When we silence those taking us to task? Is it still compassion when those you Other are not given it?

It isn't. 

While I understand compassion cannot be limitless, it can have far reaching limits that involve trying to step back from ourselves to see overall bigger pictures. If we are capable of stepping back from our gaming style, to see gaming as a whole, and to see each of the communities within it as part of something larger, we'll get somewhere. We cannot only extend our kindness to our friends and then wonder at the cruelty of the rest of the world. These asynchronous activities are killing us.

I'm just as guilty as the next person. I'm fiercely protective of those communities I call my own. Whenever Toronto Area Gamers, Breakout, or the Gauntlet gets shit on, I'm usually one of the first to engage the Momma Bear defences and walk in to the fight. It took me a considerable amount of time and heavy conversations to try to stop only seeing the walls around my city.

My partner is playing Fallout 4. He's unstoppable. Walks into a Supermutant settlement and just destroys everything in sight. I remember doing the same. Walking around killing ghouls and supermutants and never blinking. Until I met Strong. He's a supermutant who is seeking the Milk of Human Kindness. You and me both, Strong.

The more I listen to people I love talk about other communities, the more my heart hurts. I feel like I'm listening to some random NPCs in Fallout bitch about ghouls, claiming they're horrible terrifying monsters that will steal your children and murder them or eat them or something. Even though ghouls are just... trying to be people too. We've built up other communities to be the boogeymen. And why? Because they like other games than us and because they have shitty community members.

I've heard people want to banish someone from their presence and groups because they were associated with the OSR community. I've listened to people hate on Story Games because they're not real games and people who design them aren't real game designers. I've heard arguments from every camp about who's the most toxic and why and who's the most abusive. I've watched all of us erect our walls around our cities and hope the ghouls and supermutants don't get in.

We keep forgetting about the supermutant who's looking for human kindness. For every shitty community member, there's a tonne more who are lovely, wonderful human beings just wanting to game and have a community to call their own. If we are incapable of seeing beyond the loudest, most toxic members of any community, we can't say we have compassion. Or that we are striving to make our communities better. We are perpetuating Othering.

Weirdly enough, we use this excuse of "they have a ghoul in their midst!" to justify our hate. This justification then bleeds into why we also think they're all evil. Which makes us good. Which means we don't need to look inward for problems. So we never do. We don't examine our own racist, sexist, ableist, or queerphobic and transphobic tendencies, because, well, we're not that guy, right? So weird.

Even more weird, we keep ignoring the walls around our communities. Especially the gate part. We are happy to celebrate our community leaders we think are doing it well. And to call everyone we think isn't doing it well a Gatekeeper. It's a term we love to toss around. Yet until we remove all these walls to keep out mythical evil from other types of games, we're going to need some gatekeepers.

These gatekeepers have one hell of a job ahead of them. They have to be inclusive, value safety and diversity, not be straight white men (or if they are they better be one hell of an ally), and they can't fuck up. They also can't be friends with people whose walls don't match. Nor can they call out bad behaviour unless they convince a bunch of those same straight white men allies that the person deserves it. They can't believe in rehabilitation or second chances or restorative justice because Safety means no conflicts. They must keep everyone out that anyone with a loud enough voice finds Unsafe.

It's a really big fucking job and the people who do it, and do it well, can't walk away clean. We just can't.

We can't be challenged, either. Any community leader worth their salt at being a keeper of good spaces ends up with a fair bit of power behind them. Not enough to protect themselves from serious harassment (enough to get serious harassment though), but enough power that fucking with them or their friends can get you banned and ostracized from the spaces you were once part of. They close the gate. Lock it.

They gatekeep.

These new gatekeepers are our community leaders. They are making decisions on your behalf, they are deciding who gets to come in and who doesn't, and who gets to be treated with respect and who, often, doesn't. They get to decide if a rumour is true or a lie. They get to decide who is worth protecting. They get to decide what morals and ethics their community will have. And if you want in to that walled city made of bricks they've chosen, sometimes unintentionally, you will drink the water.

When I was training a group of young folks to take over my position in Toronto Area Gamers, as soon as I made them admin, I said "Welcome to being a Gatekeeper." I've been so fully cognizant of my power in the last year that I've made it my mission to give these keys away. As well intentioned and loving as I am, the more power I gather, the more I have the ability to do awful things. And the more I can make a decision in good faith that absolutely ruins someone. My younglings won't have the reputation to do this for awhile. But they do now have the ability to decide who gets to be in our community and doesn't.

I've heard so many whispers about people in our community who are doing what they think is best and their best is keeping others out they don't like. As a community organizer, I understand the impulse. I've been working hard in the last five years to end my perpetual habit of just kicking people out and starting to engage meaningful conversations and doing the work to help rehab reportedly problematic people. It's the long hard road but I've chosen it. I guess I'm trying to find and live human kindness.

I understand why other people don't. It's so much easier to just remove bad apples, pat your hurt people on the hand, and go on. We're so busy as leaders that we get regularly drowned in a lot of trauma and stress. We are fixing your problems to the best of our ability all the time. And sometimes, the easy fix is to just say fuck it, hit the eject button, and be done with it. But kicking everyone out you don't like and just creating an echo chamber of followers isn't making the world better, either.

It does make small spaces that all agree with their community leader better for the select sacred few deemed good. Until you've fucked up and suddenly you're on the outside of the rules. Then you're ostracized from a place you felt safe and loved in. I'm fortunate, this hasn't happened to me, but I've done it to people. And I've seen it happen again and again. I've loved people who have become the shining examples of what not to be. I've treasured them. I've challenged my beliefs and the way I run my community to wonder at these behaviours.

To be a community organizer, and to be held responsible to the beliefs most of us "good ones" are somewhat sharing, means we shouldn't keep holding on to the power we've collected. It is our ultimate responsibility to be the example of what others should be, to carve out safe spaces, and then teach other people to take them over. If we cling to this power too long, we become unstoppable. We become the person people are actually afraid to talk about because we could ruin their gaming career.

Recently someone said they couldn't afford to be on the outs with me. They didn't mean as my friend. They meant as a designer in the Canadian side of things. They meant I could socially ruin them. It hurt. It hurt so fucking much to hear that someone I loved was afraid of being on the outs with me because I held that much power. It was a really jarring moment. I had seen how people had treated talking about other powerful community organizers. That moment when you realize you're the villain? That.

So I started to look around me to see who I could teach to be me. People with less privilege than me. The people I had made this space for to begin with. I found them. I am mentoring them. I'm giving them my power. I'm delegating, stepping back, trusting, and next year? Next year I won't be involved unless they need me. Next year I'll be in charge of less and they'll have all the keys and may keep all my bricks or knock some out.

If they're brave they'll blow down the walls and say "this is bullshit, Kate. This imaginary wall? It's gotta go."

 God, I hope they're brave.

Our responsibility to the minorities we're making spaces for is to give them the space. We can't remain in power. If we keep staying in power and not handing parts of our power away we become what we were the response to. We won't be the keepers of safe spaces. We'll be the new gatekepeers. Different faces (slightly, let's be real, most of us are white), but doing the same shit just to different people. Fuck, we already do it now. Why should the future be any different?

We need to acknowledge we're gatekeepers. That we have power. And that we're using that power to disclaim compassion in favour of punitive behaviour. Not only that, but that most of us are white and we need to deal with the inherent racist bullshit in our communities, not by being the wielders of power, but by giving our power seats away to people of colour and other minorities so that they can take what we've made and make it fucking better.

We have no right to keep this much social cred. We have no right to cry out for better in other gated communities when our own are so full of bullshit. We, as the leaders of these gaming communities, need to step up, do better, and most importantly: step down. Stop holding on to what you've built. Build other people up and give them the chance to make it better without you being the one who gets the credit for it.

Stop decrying other communities. Decry certain individuals if you have to, but don't let it make you the good guys and them the bad. Let's own our shit and work desperately hard to ask people to be our neighbours instead of our enemies. Let us love with compassion and extend our hearts to help build each other up and lend a hand against the -isms that are in all of our silos. Let's acknowledge that throughout all of our communities are gunners who just wanna shoot at us for no goddamn reason, whether we're a ghoul, supermutant, synth, or a member of the brotherhood of steel.

Imagine the possibilities if we just stopped hating each other and turned our critical eyes inward to the problems in our own communities, asked for help when we needed it, and lended support. Imagine if we could just... not have walls? If we could walk through them and enter any gaming space with a promise of safety, inclusion, and welcome? What a world that would be.

So, won't you be my neighbour?