This is a LRP article about President-Elect Donald Trump. It’s also about why we argued about blacking up to play drow. It’s really about why a bunch of LRP communities have constant flame-wars about politics these days and what we do about that. Trust me these things are linked. Lets start with Trump.
In case you’re unaware, something extraordinary has happened in America. The Democratic party chose the second most unpopular candidate in electoral history as their nominee. She was widely expected to win despite many many flaws – because she was running against the most unpopular presidential nominee ever. A racist, sexist, lying bigot with no redeeming features that around 70% of Americans hated and felt was manifestly unsuitable to be President. Americans hate Donald Trump almost as much as many of the rest of us do – and yet he won. That in itself is extraordinary.
There’s lots of analysis about why he won; there are socio-economic factors, the failure of globalisation to produce tangible benefits for white working class voters. There are electoral college factors – Hillary won the popular vote and still lost because she lost the rustbelt states after utterly ignoring the voters who lived there. But one of the important reasons that she lost is that a large number of Republican voters who hated Donald Trump and thought he was appalling voted for him anyway – an effect that social observers call the rise of partisanship.
Partisanship is the idea that people become fixated on the political perspective of their party and unable to consider ideas that come from outside that group. Basically if you’re a Republican you vote Republican and you only listen to Republicans. In Britain if you’re a Labour voter – you vote Labour. There are lots of fascinating indicators that partisanship is on the rise and the Americans have a unique way of measuring it; vote splitting. In America when they vote for a president they vote separately and independently for a senator, a representative, various legislation, and some other positions as well. Historically there used to be significant amounts of ballot-splitting: Americans might vote for a Republican for President but nominate a Democrat for senator if they thought those candidates were strong. That ‘splitting’ has reduced markedly over time and now the majority of Americans pick a party and just tick their way down the ballot slip. They have become partisan.
Lots of people lament this change but I’ve seen relatively little explanation for why it might be happening. I think one clue can be found in another measure of partisanship – inter-party marriages. In three key states that they looked at, Five-Thirty-Eight (a well respected American political statistics website) found that rates of inter-party marriage (that is a Republican voter marrying a Democrat voter) were about double the rate of inter-racial marriage (although both were extremely low). From the opening paragraph of the article: ‘Researchers have found that [people of opposing political ideology] avoid dating one another, desire not to live near one another and disapprove of the idea that their offspring would marry someone outside their party.’
That last line really resonates for me. I’m not bigoted – some of my friends vote Conservative – but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.
I think identity is a pretty profound thing. It is your sense of who you are, of what you are is important to your sense of well-being.
My contention is that political identity is close to being as strong as racial identity. I think identity is a pretty profound thing. It is your sense of who you are, of what you are is important to your sense of well-being. And it’s really important in how we treat others; we habitually favour people who share our identity over those who clearly do not. This aspect of human socialization is a key aspect of various bigotries but the obvious ones are racism and religious intolerance. For many of us, our politics has become our identity.
Why might that be? Well one reason might be that we’ve had at least two decades of educating ourselves that racial, religious and sexual discrimination are irrational. Of course racism still exists, but individuals who openly argue for it are rare. Openly racist statements receive wide-spread social disapproval. Lots of us are trying really hard not to be racist anymore but political discrimination, the idea that people who vote for the other party are bad people, isn’t irrational! They hold bad views, they’re wrong on…. everything! So it’s rational to dislike them.
Nature abhors a vacuum and if we work hard to try and stop ‘othering’ people based on their race, maybe we just left a gap for a different identity label to fill. Conservative really is the new black.
But I think there is another important factor. The two big political issues of my childhood were the Poll Tax and the miners strike. There were major political protests, there were riots. These were huge issues that divided the country. But if you think about the way they divided people, the politics was economic. The Poll Tax was ultimately about your preferred form of taxation, whether you wanted flat taxes or redistributive taxes. The miners strike was very personal for the miners but for everyone else it was a conflict about resources, how we employ people, where we get our energy from, and how we handle union-labour relations. They were big political issues about work and society and economics. What they weren’t about was you.
Some of the big issues of modern politics are very different. If you’re American right now, one significant issue is where you stand on transgender bathroom access. That feels initially like a social issue, but the debate really comes down to how you feel about transgender individuals. Black Lives Matter, another major protest movement happening in America right now really hinges on how you feel about race. There are big economic issues still being fought over here in the UK, and Brexit is a great example. But even so, how much of the Brexit vote came down to British vs European identity and immigration and how much of it was based on the advantages of access to the European market vs the inability to negotiate our own trade deals?
The political fight is about what you say and do.
In fact a lot of the political fights that I see these days come down to issues of language and how we treat each other. We passed the abolition of slavery act in 1833 and we passed equal voting rights for women in 1928. The big political issues of what the basic laws should be were settled a long time ago. But racism and sexism still exist and the modern focus has shifted from how society treats people to how you treat people. People will examine the language that you use and call you out if they feel it is prejudicial against groups perceived to need protection. A lot of modern politics is not about whether or not gay people can serve in the army, it’s now about how you treat gays. The political fight is about what you say and do.
I think when the politics becomes personal in this way then it’s not surprising that people become more partisan. When the argument is not about what laws society passes but instead about how you act then I’m not surprised that people’s identity becomes more tightly entwined with their views. You’re literally arguing about who you are as a person and how you should behave.
Where is the relevance of any of this to LRP? We recently experienced ‘Drowgate.’ I have seen relatively little active racial discrimination in our hobby (although sadly I can’t say none), but it’s impossible to conceive of an active LRP society or organization that publicly said ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ as the potentially apocryphal signs of the post-war era supposedly did. I contest that there is less overt racism in LRP than in society at large and yet we totally lost our shit over whether or not it was ok for LRPers to paint their face black to play Drow.
The arguments for and against Drow turn on offence – how and when causing offence is acceptable. There were historical elements, blackface does not have an endearing history, but at its core this was a political argument about how you should act when you LRP. A lot of the flames roared with accusations of white privilege. Just about the only thing we could all agree on was that the other side were very clearly in the minority and that they were ruining the hobby. It was not the hobby’s finest hour.
In most towns in Britain you can find Labour and Conservative clubs. These are social rooms and bodies that exist to ensure that you can meet up with friends without the terrible risk of running into a member of the other party or a view that disagrees with your own. There is a time and a place for politics, and for many people that time and place is not when they’re socializing. Politics is divisive by its nature so we often exclude it from our social activities precisely so that we can enjoy ourselves without falling out. That actually makes a lot of sense. If you don’t actively enjoy political debate then it’s not unreasonable to ask to be allowed to enjoy your social free time without having to engage in arguments.
That kind of unspoken agreement survived for a long time in LRP. Live roleplayers don’t come together to share political views, we come together to dress up as elves and goblins and cast spells at each other. Why risk falling out with each other over opposing views of how to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict when we’re here to slay imaginary monsters? Lets just get on with the adventure! It’s not that people on the internet were any better behaved in the past; Godwin’s law was invented because when people of different political views get together then hyperbole and flames quickly followed. But it didn’t happen so much in LRP.
Not that we didn’t have our arguments of course. I can remember tearing into Ian Andrews about his views on the role of story vs players in LRP two decades ago. But at the end of it I like to think both of us had more respect for the other, not less. Because our arguments were esoteric, they were external. They were about how to create great LRP games and how to structure plot. They weren’t about each other. They weren’t about how we act and treat people. They were structural, not personal.
The fact that a lot of modern politics is personal has two striking consequences. The first, as I’ve already claimed, is a rise in partisanship. We feel more closely allied with our political beliefs than ever before. They have come to define a core part of our identity and so we instinctively react negatively to people who don’t share those views.
Politics now is personal. It’s about how people act when we socialize.
But worse for us as LRPers, our games are all about creating or recreating worlds. It has become increasingly difficult to avoid political issues about the representation and language around race, gender and sexuality. We turn up with different views on how to handle issues like blackface, gendered language, homophobic language. We have different views on causing and taking offence, on safe spaces and so on. This is all personal. Politics now is personal. It’s about how people act when we socialize. Since LRP is the ultimate social hobby it is increasingly difficult for us to separate the politics from the LRP.
We’re not the only people with this problem — #gamergate happened for a reason. Gamers get together, they play big social online games together. They have a community discussing games. Politics happened… bam! The world lost it’s shit.
My point really is simply that I don’t think that the arguments in our hobby are going to go away. I think the debates in our hobby are going to get more political not less. The LRP game I’m involved with, Empire, publicly takes a stance on some of these issues so it is always going to have a high level of debate associated with that. But I think the hobby in general is going to face these challenges for years to come. Politics is personal now, so it is so much harder to just not talk about it. ‘It’ keeps coming up – it’s bound to when the way you speak and the language you use is a political statement.
I’ve been trying to write this article for a while now. I wrote half an article on ‘Drowgate’ when it happened and then abandoned it. I’ve been toying with the themes on and off for a while. I’m interested in them for two reasons. The first is that I love politics. I like politics a lot more than I like LRP. The second is that I earn my living from LRP so my livelihood depends in part on my players getting on with each other. That gives me two very conflicting feelings. In the 90s I sometimes got bored talking about LRP and wanted to talk politics with my friends. Now I try and discourage anyone discussing it, because it always ends so badly. But what I really want is for those discussions to be less heated, more thoughtful and more productive.
And I thought of all of that when I read this article on Vox this morning. It’s an article about a study about how to tackle bigotry in America and the article looks at that study in light of the recent Presidential election. At it’s core it expresses an idea I think is both incredibly valuable and incredibly relevant to how our hobby tackles these kind of political issues. It’s a great article and I recommend you read it but for the hard of clicking I’ll summarize:
Basically what the study finds is that calling people racist does not make them less racist. If anything it has the opposite effect. Calling people homophobic doesn’t make someone less prejudiced about sexuality. Calling people misogynists doesn’t make them less sexist. In fact it probably makes them more sexist. ‘What’s more, accusations of racism can cause white Americans to become incredibly defensive to the point that they might reinforce white supremacy.’ If you’re a liberal prone to throwing those kinds of labels at people perhaps think about the fact that this research suggests that calling people racist makes them more racist. Is that the outcome we wanted?
The research that Vox cherry picks which supports my own preconceptions suggests that the way to persuade people is through empathy. Effective debate, communication that actually challenges preconceptions and changes minds, requires two things. The first is that you try to empathize with the person you’re talking to. That you try to imagine how they think and feel about the issues being discussed. The second thing is to try to get them to empathize with the subject. To imagine how they would feel in that situation. The research suggests that these approaches are much more successful at changing views and my experience is that they’re also much less likely to leave us hating each other.
The last part is the real key. If I’m right and these political arguments aren’t going away anytime soon then we’d all benefit from being more civil about them. We can’t agree on the issues and the principles but it would help to try and remember that these are political issues. That people disagree and that being wrong doesn’t make someone a bad person. We can all strive to be less partisan. If someone in the ultra-conservative American commentariat at Redstate can attempt it, then so can we.
Many thanks to Kol Ford for pointing out that the Guardian article No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, No Proof’ has been subsequently refuted. You can read more about it here: