Note: No fancy tools for this one. A write-up.
Earlier this week, female gamer and Tumblr user Latining published a harrowing post titled “Tabletop Gaming Has a White Male Terrorism Problem.”The post describes in graphic detail the harassment and outright sexual assault the author experienced in gaming stores and conventions, and the general apathy and hostility other members of the game community and law enforcement showed when she tried to report it. Sexual harassment and assault, she writes, are tabletop gaming’s “white male terrorism problem.”
The post exploded within the gaming community. It was retweeted by feminist gamer and developer Brianna Wu, debated on BoardGameGeek, and picked up on reddit.
It prompted soul-searching, rebuttals, and support.
While the original author’s claims are being debated in the wider world, she is right about one thing: this isn’t the first time misogyny has reared its head in nerd culture (yep, each of those words goes to a different link) or in nerd spaces.
So the question is: why is this still happening, and how have people taken action?
Jessamyn West, formerly a head moderator at the comment community MetaFilter, suggested a solution: “Some initial work at creating practical and enforceable ground rules can keep every contentious discussion from turning into a first-principles slugfest.”
Jessamyn has years of experience in community management, and knows that rules matter. They send a signal and they set a standard. Many groups – conventions, Meetups, stores, movements and forums – basically any space where people gather and interact – have adopted codes of conduct. And you can adopt one too, even if your space is just six people who get together to play games every Friday night.
Bad Codes of Conduct are fusty bits of bureaucratic language that no one ever reads, handed down from one generation of bosses to another with little feedback from a community. Kind of like Terms of Service, if TOS were even less cool. The worst codes of conduct are those are those that are never enforced, because lack of enforcement “sends the message that the values in the code of conduct aren’t actually important or respected in your community.”
But at their best, Codes of Conduct can provide a space for a community to gather, share experiences, and discuss how they want to govern themselves. They can turn good intentions into a system, and open space for dialogue.
If the word “code” sounds too authoritarian, you can opt for something like “Community guidelines” or “Our Principles” or even something like “What We Can and Can’t Do Here.”
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, a good code of conduct includes the following:
- Specific descriptions of common but unacceptable behavior (sexist jokes, etc.)
- Reporting instructions with contact information
- Information about how it may be enforced
- A clear demarcation between unacceptable behaviour (which may be reported per the reporting instructions and may have severe consequences for the perpetrator) and community guidelines such as general disagreement resolution.
Geek Feminism also includes a list of links to organizations that have adopted codes of conduct, and an evaluation of these codes.
I’ll add my own two cents:
A code of conduct should send a strong signal about how you want people in your group to treat each other. It sends that signal to those who might abuse the space, but it especially sends a message to members of marginalized groups who might otherwise be wary because they are used to being unwelcome or unprotected. The folks at Cosplay is Not Consent link to a photo of the Jekyll Comic Con’s “Respect Thy Fellow Cosplayer” policy. Is the policy perfect? No. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s there, and the organizers put thought and energy into crafting it, and its existence signals that they’re (hopefully!) not going to ignore complaints or reports of inappropriate behavior.
But a good code of conduct goes a step further. It answers practical, thorny questions. How does your group feel about anonymity? And if you allow it, how do you signal it? What about confidentiality? If someone faces a threat, what phone number should they call? What person – in a position of authority – can they talk to? It forces your group to construct a pipeline of responsibility, rather than just trusting to people’s hazy good intentions. Any space, no matter how small or informal, can benefit from having policies around these questions.
It provides an opportunity for your community to debate and discuss how you feel about norms. If you have an old code of conduct that was written years ago, maybe it’s time to pull it out and have a discussion about it. A good code should evolve with its community, and be open to feedback. It should be something that the people in your space buy into.
Finally, at least according to the team at the Ada Initiative, it should get specific: “The major weapon of harassers is arguing whether something is actually harassing. It is difficult to enforce a CoC if you have to have a month long nasty argument about whether it was violated. It burns out people like you.” A good code of conduct saves you – a person who wants to have a good time in your space – from tedious discussions. You can just point at it and say, ‘this is how we work.’
If you need guidance on how to word your code, here’s some free language courtesy of Geek Feminism.
In reading the responses to the original Tumblr post, I was struck by one from gamer Samwise Seven RPG, who said “In all honesty, I tend to stay away from gender and race topics when they concern the role playing game community. My internal dialogue tends to be: can’t we just play elf games and get along while we forget the real world and all of its miseries.”
If only everyone could.