We geeks are just better at being good people.
We're better than the jocks, the cheerleaders, the socs, the hierarchically and socially mundane. We transcend bigotry. If you like dwarves — who, after all, are clearly Scottish or something — and Minbari and so forth, how could we be preoccupied with silly pigmentation issues? How could we, who cheer when Éowyn slew the Witch-King of Angmar, doubt that women can do anything?
Or so the legend goes.
Years ago there was a game shop called The Last Grenadier in Burbank. north of Los Angeles. It was old-school gaming: dingy, cavernous, overpriced, a favored hangout for gamers of all sorts. I shopped there as a kid when the game Twilight 2000 referred to a dark future, not to an increasingly dim past.
The summer of 1991 I was back from college, waiting for law school to start, and working. Most of my high school friends were gone. Evenings and weekends loomed empty. I was more self-confident and independent than I was in high school, but let's face it: I wouldn't be hitting the bar scene. So I decided to go to some at the events at the Grenadier that got people together to form gaming groups. What better way to meet people and get back into a favorite hobby?
After a couple of events I fell in with a small group of other young adults who lived not far from me. We were similar in age — very early 20s — and similar in hobbies — video games and tabletop games and geek culture — so what could other differences matter? We started a group playing Dungeons & Dragons (second edition, introduced in 1989, still somewhat old-school) — young men, a couple of women occasionally, with free evenings and weekends. That led to more hanging out — meals, rented VHS tapes1, and so forth.
I had been parts of gaming groups growing up, and those groups were like many staffed by teen boys — raucous, overcaffeinated, cheerfully profane, immature in a polite-to-grown-ups sort of way. This was — different.
I'm a little slow on the uptake. So it took me a while to notice. I noticed that a couple of the guys would mutter and curse at the screen on the Star Trek movies we watched when a black character appeared. I noticed "Jew" used as a verb or adjective. I noticed jokes about Orks being on welfare and robbing liquor stores. I noticed that the D&D campaign seemed portrayed rather explicitly as a struggle of white humans and elves against a dark horde of black people and their inhuman allies. I noticed that the DM and players liked to talk about rape a lot — and in a sort of triumphalist "these are the spoils of war" type of way and not in a sort of real-war-is-ugly-not-heroic sort of way, either. One of the women joked along. Another stayed silent. That one dropped out eventually.
What did I do? Not much. I told myself that if I didn't like it I was just being politically correct. I told myself that I was being a snob — I lived in an expensive neighborhood and was about to go to Harvard and these guys were mostly in blue-collar jobs with some community college in a more working-class neighborhood. In an effort not to be classist, I persuaded myself that working class people must just talk that way about Jews and blacks and Asians and rape and so forth and I'm prejudiced if I'm not down with it. (Going to college in the late 1980s was excellent preparation for thinking about people that way, as was growing up in a neighborhood with no working-class people.)
I'd like to say that I noped right out of there with reasonable speed. But I didn't. I just ghosted them. I went off to law school at the end of the summer and never talked to any of them ever again. I didn't see any of them again until the late 1990s, when one was a peripheral witness in a civil rights cased I prosecuted involving some tweaker skinhead wannabees harassing a multi-racial family.
I cut off contact because they creeped me out — because some of them were starting to get an edge when they asked why I didn't laugh at a joke (I still remember some of those jokes, and no, I won't repeat them) or when they incorporated more and more racial imagery into gameplay, or when they became comfortable enough with me (or, more likely indifferent enough to my presence) that they started to talk about how Hispanics destroyed the neighborhood and Armenians couldn't be trusted and Asians were all cheaters and there should be neighborhoods just for white people, decent people, or maybe an entire state or region or something, and about how they were looking into groups of white people who felt the same way. I didn't say anything when they made one of the women in the group increasingly, visibly uncomfortable until she left, or when they made passive-aggressive increasingly open comments about race to the one Latino in the group until he left, or when they talked shit about people I knew and liked. Why not? Part of it was I was still growing out of shyness and geekery into self-confidence. Part of it was that I didn't have so many friends that it was easy to give up some. Part of it was that I accepted geek social fallacies, among them "there's no such thing as bad ideas" and "it's wrong to shun a group" and "don't be judgmental" or "there's something wrong with you if you can't get along with everyone." People take advantage of those fallacies to an incoherent and internally inconsistent extent, which is how folks convince themselves that it's judgmental and therefore morally blameworthy to think less of someone just because that person thinks that non-whites are inherently inferior.
Maybe these guys are still playing D&D, still making jokes about blacks and Orks having the same game stats, still making tables to roll for how many rapeable women are captured in the siege of a village. Or maybe not. I don't begrudge them entry into my hobby. I believe, adamantly, that the government should not punish them for their speech or beliefs. I don't dream about tracking them down and getting them fired from their jobs or shunned from their social circles. I remember some of their names but I wouldn't dream of naming them. I don't even wish that I had told them off: that would have been about me, not about them, and wouldn't have changed them.2 I do, however, genuinely wish that I'd gotten the hell out of that group much sooner. I wish I hadn't tried to convince myself that you can't expect any better from people who don't work in an office — Christ, what an asshole. I wish that I'd contacted the people who left the group and told them that they were cool and I enjoyed gaming with them and I hoped they found a group that wasn't full of racist creeper dipshits.
That's my experience. So, when people tell stories about encountering bigots and creepers and gropers and various other elements in the gaming community, my reaction isn't to assume they are lying.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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