The TTRPG Industry: Can We Survive It?

I remember my second American gaming convention. A friend of mine had really wanted to go and needed someone who could be a support person. So he brought me with him. He was mostly excited to meet all of the indie designers he had spoken to on Story Games. And so I met them too.

This was the convention I met industry people I didn't even know were industry people. I played Fiasco for the first time with the creator. I played Penny For My Thoughts, Tales of the Fisherman's Wife, Annalise, and My Life With Master. I was in some weird Starpower game in the basement with a bunch of industry insiders run by Luke Crane. I only knew my friend and I was isolated.

I had been running events and games for the local gaming group I was an admin of, Toronto Area Gamers. I was younger then, maybe 21 or 22. I was full of anger and pain from an abusive relationship and was stumbling into my next one after having been raped that summer. I had an idea for a game and a lot of attitude and a vague sense of feminism with no grounding in what it meant. I was volatile, exhausted, and on the knife's edge of trauma.

I got asked if my boyfriend brought me when I was sitting by myself. I played a game of Misspent Youth and listened to an industry professional trash another industry professional. I mentioned I wanted to make a game and had three industry professionals who were all men spend the next hour giving me advice and talking over me. I supported my friend who got into an argument with an industry professional over story integrity and felt like he was about to be attacked on Story Games. 

I went home from the con deciding I didn't want to be a game designer. I had found the whole experience sickening and I couldn't believe I was entertaining the idea of entering that world where people spoke so terribly to and about each other at tables with people they didn't know. I had played great games but I had also felt the pressure of being a woman in that world and after coming away from so much abuse I wasn't ready to endure more systemic sexism. 

So I faded into the background. Some designers connected with me. I watched and just played games and stopped engaging in the design space. I abandoned Story Games so they could argue with each other. I had spent two years in the industry and had felt how terrible it was and bailed. 

Honestly, as I look back on that young woman's interpretation of events, part of me wants to tell her: "You were right, kid. We shoulda stayed home."

I'm 33, almost 34 now, and the journey to be who I am has been a long road. I'm so many things now. I'm a con organizer of Breakout Gaming Convention. I'm the President of the IGDN. I'm one of the organizers of the Gauntlet. I'm the convention game room coordinator for Magpie Games. I'm one of the partners of Unicorn Motorcycle Games. I'm a safety and game development editor and consultant. I'm a community organizer. I'm a consultant for inclusion and community organizing. I'm a designer. I'm a freelancer. I'm a podcaster. I'm a blogger. I'm a project manager. 

I'm so many things. So many of them are different depending on how you know me. What you hired me for. What drew you to my doorstep to begin with. I look at that paragraph and every bio I write and wonder "Who are you?" 

On paper, I sound impressive. Organized, capable, and busy as fuck. I have a lot of power, in a lot of those titles, and despite it I almost always feel in danger. Every time my Twitter explodes or my Facebook or the slack or a discord or my email or basecamp... it could be the time that I get chased out of the industry. 

It could be the time when I'm the target next. And let's be real, I've faced doxxing and online harassment before. From the faceless internet trolls I endured phone calls and emails, mass comments on blog posts. From 4chan I had my community website crashed and multiple emails. There have been threats. There have been police. There have been promises of revenge. 

Trolls, though? They don't scare me. You scare me. Our industry terrifies me. 

I sat at my computer a few weeks ago and watched one of the most giving, compassionate, and kind human beings be told he wasn't Black enough or traumatized enough to write a game about trauma. I've sat at my computer and watched white women and men demand more from PoC whose apologies weren't good enough or sincere enough or wordy enough. I've witnessed a WoC leave the industry because a PoC she was friends with wasn't liked enough.

I've listened to my friend tell me he was suicidal because he didn't apologize or take ownership enough of a misstep. 

I have seen my friend be silenced when she was facing a harasser of the highest degree. I have seen a friend be told she was a liar because her abuser used other women to silence her. I have seen a woman receive hundreds of death threats because of calling out a convention for sexism. I have seen people I once called friends use violent language when talking about me when I misstepped. 

The cruelest things I have witnessed in this industry haven't been at the hands of the anonymous. It has been at our own hands. It has been friend against friend. Professional against professional. The most terrible things I have watched have been the ones we perpetuated, created, and nurtured.

And for what? To express a hot take on Twitter? To get enough likes? To make sure our opinion was heard by as many people as possible? What's the actual point of it? What is the goal? What is the aim?

Because we know for a fact that a hot take on the internet can lead to dog-piling in seconds. It can lead to wilder and wilder statements, from "I don't like this game" to "this game is shit" to "Fuck this game" to "fuck the designer" to "the designer made an awful game" to "the designer is an awful person" in a matter of minutes. The escalation of violence in these trends cannot be ignored.

Because it's ostracizing people.

It's silencing people.

It's killing people. 

If our goal as an industry is to do better, shouldn't we start with each other? Shouldn't the fundamentals of our belief systems create accountability in our behaviours? Shouldn't we be responsible for the internet trash fires we start and we fan and we encourage? Shouldn't we stop shooting from the hip and take a minute to ask what the fuck we're doing?

We don't, though. Just like when I sat at that table years ago and listened to a game designer tear down another designer without flinching, we're tearing each other down without thinking on the internet and then acting surprised when it results in actual harm. 

Hell, I've done it. I've been someone decrying another human publicly. I've subtweeted and encouraged hate campaigns against people I thought deserved it. I stopped seeing them as a human being and just saw them as a problem. I asked my friends for help. I dehumanized them. I called in reinforcements and I tore them down. I believed they deserved it.

I look back at that behaviour and I feel guilty for what I've perpetuated. I hope you do, too. I hope, more than anything, we will look at what we are doing and we will demand better from each other and stop perpetuating actions that lead to things like online harassment, cyber bullying, character assassination, and violent threats. 

I hope we've learned because my heart can't keep taking this. This industry lives hate, breathes righteous vindication, and feasts on harm and abuse. I didn't know how much the industry would cost me individually to be part of it. I also didn't know that I had signed up for an industry that would try to kill me.

Over the last year I have sat on call after call with people I love, people I didn't know, and people who reached out to me to talk about the toll on their health from being a part of the TTRPG Industry and part of the story game/indie community. From suicidal ideation to PTSD to depression to anxiety to burnout, I've heard and been witness to serious struggles as a result of the TTRPG Industry. Most commonly, from the very real online harassment being a member of the TTRPG Industry opens us up to.

Today a friend spoke to me saying she couldn't believe how strong I was. That most people would've crumbled under the pressure I've been under because of industry bullshit. It hurt my heart to hear because for all the strength it appears I have, it did break me.

It's still breaking me.

My newest thing in the last year, when things started getting more and more cruel in the online space, is to burst into tears randomly. I spent most of Dreamation this year hiding in a hotel room, sobbing, trembling, and finding it impossible to move forward despite it being my favourite convention.

I didn't play games. I didn't hang out with my friends. I barely managed to come down during the evening bar scene. I sat in the hotel room trying to pretend to be brave, running out of air, and clinging to the best human I know.

I still burst out crying randomly now. I won't even feel sad or worried or afraid or angry. I'll just sit down and suddenly feel tears. I even do the dishes now when I'm crying. It's become my body's way of telling me I'm too stressed. That the enormous pressure I feel from being part of this industry is too much. I have these crying fits every three months or so.

Not a week goes by where there isn't a new tragedy unfolding online. Our cruelty doesn't end, it seems. We whitewash identities of those we swear we protect. We abandon women to their abusers. We demand more and move goalposts for PoC. We damage the reputations of people we don't agree with. And for what?

The Hot Take has become the newest trend in abuse. Within the industry, on projects or words we don't know the intention of or haven't engaged with, we don't even bother to find out more. We assume that the intention is bad and we assume our opinion is important and factual.

Recently, a list of LGBTQ industry folks was published. I made a Tweet saying they had missed a bunch of folks on someone else's Tweet that had said they added "bad" people to the list. This Tweet I made was screen shot and used as a weapon against the folks behind this list.

I hadn't wanted anyone to attack them. I think the list is a good thing. I think it's important we raise up the voices of our marginalized folks. But my intention didn't matter. Someone else found a way to weaponize my words.

And someone else messaged me to scold me for not knowing that my words carried weight. Despite the fact that I had in fact been talking to one of the list curators and having a discussion on community accountability and ostracism, and despite the fact that I wasn't calling out the list as bad, it didn't matter.

I had done everything as correctly as I could AFTER I made the Tweet. The right order would have been to talk to them first, to reach out with my concerns, rather than assume bad intention and poor execution. When I found out trash people had used my Tweet as ammunition in a war I didn't even know about, I sent a message to the people working on the list to offer an apology and any restorative actions I could make.

Because I believe fully in restoration and accountability.

While I do believe adamantly that intentions matter, the end result was that people trying to do good work were harassed, and regardless of the fact that I had only a peripheral role to play, I still had a role. Even thoughtful criticism or an off-hand comment can be used to destroy marginalized people attempting to claw out space for themselves and others.

We must be mindful of what we say, how we say it, and if we bothered to find out more information before we post anything. Had I bothered to do a bit more looking, I would've found out that it was an opt-in list, with a form to fill out. It would've taken me a few seconds longer, but I didn't bother. I made an assumption and it hurt people.

The fact that online harassment is seen as a normal, acceptable, and inevitable part of the TTRPG Industry breaks my heart. I held conversation after conversation with industry folks at Origins about the harm and damage the online space is causing. We all agreed it was terrible but inevitably there were no solutions, no answers, no ways forward.

According to some online think tanks, the only way to create a safer online environment is to remove the public facing side of it. To be rid of things like Twitter and Facebook. To instead turn to things like Slack or Discord and create walled, private spaces. Which we have in gaming. Which are, invariably, toxic places and echo chambers that create animosity between communities and eventually turn to Twitter to tear each other down.

In my mind, this isn't a solution, so much as more of the problem.

While these individual communities should hold each other accountable and do their best to support members in healing and meeting their needs, too often they become spaces of "us vs them" and promote the idea that outsiders are less valuable and less human. This is easily demonstrated by the way they attack people on Twitter, tearing one person down (often a marginalized person), because they perceive this person to be terrible.

A healthy community would instead ask what happened and investigate to find the truth of the matter. I don't know how many times I've entered into a conflict, asked a lot of questions, and then found out that what was happening wasn't the statement of harm being claimed, but rather a conflict that was overblown and escalated. 

If we have individual healthy communities that are supporting but also being compassionately critical of each other, we have healthier individuals who are engaging in the online space. When we assume the best of intentions, ask clarifying questions, don't use evaluation in our statements, and do our best to engage in conflict thoughtfully rather than escalate, we could have healthy communities. We could have healthier individuals. And we could exist together online.

But we don't. We have unhealthy communities promoting ostracism, shunning, abuse, harassment, dog piling, and character assassination. We should know where this road leads but we don't seem to, despite all the evidence.

We know online harassment leads to suicide. It leads to self harm. It leads to trauma. It leads to PTSD. It leads to unhealthy people isolated and alone. And we are actively and knowingly participating in this behaviour.

Beyond the fact that we're leaving scars on our friends and our communities, we're also being scarred. Those scars bleed and we leave blood wherever we go, hurting other people because we don't have the resources to get the help we need. We are a community and industry of wounded people who are wounding each other because it turns out trauma makes you hurt people.

This is the hardest part of the gauntlet that is the TTRPG Industry.

Because beyond this soul sucking bullshit we call community, there's the reality that we're broke and poor and paid next to nothing to produce the art that we love. There's no money in the industry, and what is there is hard to find and even harder to keep. We live and work in a hobby industry that pays us shit for too much work.

There are so many costs, too. To make it work you have to go to conventions and hustle and promote and sell the game. You have to exist online and do podcasts and talk to everyone. You have to get so much art and so much editing and so much quality paper to be considered good enough. The war of excellence is on. Even an ashcan has to be beautiful.

Every convention is a trap, a chance to see people you used to trust or love or call friend. A chance to run into your abuser or cry in the corner after someone hurt you in a larp. It's a chance to meet the best and the brightest and feel inadequate. But they're also the best, most loving places if you ignore all the racism and sexism and ableism and transphobia and queerphobia. If you can get past how many times someone is called a racial slur.

The -isms of the industry are an on going issue that we won't ever solve because we're too busy chasing out marginalized people to actually protect them.

We used to fight for each other. Now we hunt each other.

Can we survive this? Is it worth enduring? Is my therapy cost worth it? Is my declining mental health worth being here? Are my suicidal friends worth it?

We are human beings. Whether you're an industry insider or an avid follower on the internet, you're a human being who deserves to be treated like a human. This industry won't treat you like one. There will be brief, beautiful, shining moments of connection and brilliance. But there will be so many moments of heart break, despair, and sadness.

I dare all of us to act like human beings on the internet, like we would act in person if we were sharing a space together. Short of chasing Nazis out of the convention space, we'd have conversations. We'd listen. Or we'd stay in our corner and not interact with someone we didn't like. We wouldn't get a group of friends and start yelling slurs at them or devaluing them as human beings like a Greek chorus gone awry.

Let's act like humans with humanity. Treat each other like human beings. Be compassionate, exercise our empathy skill, and try kindness instead of cruelty. Take ownership of ours fucks ups, believe in best intentions, hold conversations and discussions, try restoration, express our needs without slamming someone for not meeting them, and cope with our trauma in healthier ways.

It's a tall order, but I've seen some of the best of humanity in gaming. We've played some of the best humanity. We create games about being the heroes. We create mechanics for conflict resolution regularly. And yet we can't have normal conflict without people getting hurt.

We're not going to save the world by hurting each other. We're going to save it by being an army of brilliant, compassionate, badass human beings who support, love, and nurture each other.

Let's stop being violent and start being loving.