Dungeons & Dragons, Inclusivity, and Toxic Fandom

The month of June is LGBT+ Pride Month, a cause that Dungeons & Dragons owner & publisher Wizards of the Coast has embraced. They’ve sold rainbow ampersand T-shirts to raise money for charity and marched in Seattle’s Pride Parades. They’ve worked towards better representative of women and people of colour in the art of the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as depictions of strong female characters and same-sex relationships in the text.

And yet, every time the topic of representation and inclusiveness is raised, there is pushback from a segment of the audience. This is paired with a dismissal of the newer fans, who may have discovered D&D through games streamed online on platforms such as YouTube or Twitch. There’s a lot of fans engaging in gatekeeping: deciding who has access to the community/ fandom.

The Rise of Toxic Fandom

The problem of toxic fandom and fans in general has been highlighted with the response to The Last Jedi and recent Star Wars films.

For much of nerd culture, fandom has included elements of tribalism. Us vs them. You were either a fan or you were part of “the other”, and fans of a franchise or genre were decidedly not mainstream. Star Trek and Doctor Who were never a huge worldwide commercial hits, to say nothing of science fiction and fantasy. There were a rare few breakouts, like Lord of the Rings, but these were still limited in their appeal and audience.

There’s a strong sense of ownership among fandoms. Without the fans, the franchises really did live or die; everyone is familiar with how fan-led write-in campaigns saved Star Trek from cancellation and led to its revival. Repeatedly. Passionate fans tend to get protective of their franchises. Which makes sense: the fandom is something they’re deeply emotionally invested in. You get defensive about things you love, be it the appearance of your child or your favourite TV show. On paper there is a world of difference between someone saying you have an ugly-ass baby and commenting your most beloved TV show is trashy overwritten dialogue porn, but the emotional response to both stimuli is just as real. Getting defensive over a franchise isn’t any sillier than championing a sports team, and anyone who has seen a riot of football fans (soccer or gridiron) knows how high tensions can get between people who love virtually the same thing.

Star Wars really exemplifies the ownership of the franchise. The influence of fandom subtly changed with Star Wars, which was a “nerd film” but achieved staggering mainstream acceptance, ushering in a new wave of science fiction cinema. Suddenly, there was a difference between types of fan: there were fans and hardcore fans. You have the casual fans who like Star Wars and have seen every movie, and then you have the dedicated fans who also read the novels, comic books, and magazines. Fans who own the Ewok films. People who willingly watched the holiday special. These are the fans who invested extra time and money into their fandom.

However, unlike prior fandoms where the dedicated fans largely sustain the franchise and are the target audience, the hardcore Star Wars fans are a much smaller percentage of the overall fanbase. Which causes tension that is exemplified by another term used to describe dedicated fans: “real fans”. This implies the other fans are not real fans, creating the misconception casual fans aren’t actually fans, being non-fans who just happened to see the movies. And as more fandoms with large mainstream appeal have emerged, this has become more common. There are increasing numbers of superhero fans who have never touched a comic book. Or Transformer fans who only watched the recent movies & ’80s cartoon and didn’t engage in the franchise in-between.

As hardcore fans shrink as a relative audience, their money becomes less necessary. This leads to potential disconnects between desire for mainstream appeal and audience growth and including fanservice for the self proclaimed “true fans”. The franchise no longer needs to cater to their vision or conception what what it should be… if they ever did. But as these fans invested financially and temporally into the franchise, they want a return on their investment: the want the franchise to give back. And when this doesn’t happen, it usually results in complaints that the franchise is being ruined. Transformer fans are particularly mocking of hyperbolic concerns over the future of their franchise (which has also managed to endure not one, but five Michael Bay movies). Regardless, this disparity between what the franchise is and what it could be/ should be can leave fans feeling alienated by something they loved. Rejected. Which, again, sounds silly on paper. Someone being “dumped” by Star Wars or Transformers. But emotional investment is emotional investment regardless of the recipient; to the recipient there might be little emotional difference between a franchise no longer being something they love and a friendship ending because the friends grew in different directions. This is admittedly kinda weird… but alternative—general apathy—isn’t particularly appealing or desirable either.

The Hipster’s Paradox

There’s a bittersweet aspect to something you love being loved by others.

Sharing something you love carries with it inherent feelings of jealousy. Jealousy and envy are ugly emotions, but they’re as valid and natural as happiness or anger. Animals feel jealousy and possessiveness. The trick is controlling your jealousy like you control any other emotion. You CANNOT help feeling jealous (non-verbal children only a year old feel jealousy), but you can choose not to act possessively.

I like describing the sharing of fandom as “the hipster’s paradox“: liking something… before it was cool.

It’s simple. You discover a band. They’re small and relatively unknown. You like their music and they’re playing small bars and clubs with an intimate feel. You can get right up and close and potentially buy them a drink afterwards. The band is accessible. They’re yours.

Then the band is discovered. They become more popular. It’s harder to buy tickets, which are also more expensive. Venues become more crowded and then larger. You have less access to the band and it’s less enjoyable to watch them live. They might adjust their sound or there might be a tonal shift in their new songs.

In terms of numbers, more fans is better. More people are enjoying the band, and the band gets to share their music with a wider audience. Simply put, more people are happy. But in the process something ineffable has been lost, and the band is no longer what they were, so it’s coming at the cost of your happiness. And while you have the point of pride that you were there at the beginning, nobody really cares.

Without being asked, you have been forced to sacrifice something that brought you joy. Which is difficult to accept at the best of times, but can be all the more challenging if the new audience isn’t like you in appearance or attitude, making it harder to see yourself in them or identify with that group. You want to be happy for the band’s success, but you can’t help feeling sorrow for how things have changed.

I use music as it’s a convenient example, but it can apply to any form of fandom.

Culture Shift

Seemingly unrelated to hipsters is the ongoing cultural shift over what is acceptable, unacceptable, and expected of society and its members. But like the Hipster’s Paradox, there’s a strong vein of selfishness in this.

This relates to acceptability in the content the language we use, the representation of groups in the media, and the assumed audience of certain media. Video games are a huge tension point in particular, but television, novels, comic books, movies, and advertising also also being discussed.

Now, I say “shift” but a better term would be “surge” or “spike”. This isn’t a sudden and new phenomena. It happens repeatedly: there’s a sudden surge of social progress followed by a pause as the prevailing cultures and attitudes shift that’s followed by another surge after things have settled. And there’s always pushback as people dislike change, dislike reevaluating their values, and are reluctant to alter their lives for other people.

People will point to the Internet and platforms like Twitter as the cause of the current culture war and the reaction to things which were previously acceptable. And Twitter and Facebook are certainly exerting some influence. And it’s likely allowing a small minority of malcontents and trolls to seem larger while also giving them direct access to people they dislike.

But the current rebellion against “PC culture” isn’t remotely new. The term “Political Correctness is 30 years old! And you don’t have to look far back to see similar pushback against changing societal mores. For example, on Prime Video I recently watched a George Carlin HBO special  from 1990, which begins with a segment on “bad language” and teases feminists. A deep cut reference might be something like the film PCU whose tagline is “Flunk ’em if they can’t take a joke” and skewers a campus divided into protest groups, which reads as decidedly modern for a film released before most current college freshmen were born.

What’s happening now is largely the same thing that happened a generation ago. People are being told how they act isn’t appropriate and rather than engaging in introspective personal change it’s easier to accuse the people asking for the change of being unreasonable. Nobody likes being told that what they’re doing is wrong, because that means questioning their past actions and reevaluating their self identity. Discovering you were a bad guy all along can cause a pretty severe identity crisis.

This also invokes the backfire effect, which is related to Confirmation Bias. When people are told they are wrong, even if presented with evidence, people reject the evidence and double down on their mistaken beliefs.

Privilege—both male and white—comes into play as well. Life isn’t easy for anyone. Everyone has emotional hurdles, baggage, and problems they have overcome. The problem with privilege is it’s largely invisible and implies people haven’t suffered, their problems aren’t too bad, or that they received assistance in dealing with their problems. But reminding people that they had invisible help feels like minimising their problems or their ability to counter their problems. Having overcome a seemingly insurmountably hurdle is an accomplishment, and being told you had a societal boost diminishes that. Which, again, pushes people towards that identity crisis. And it makes people feel guilty for thinking they really suffered when others suffered far, far worse. And people will go to great lengths to escape feelings of guilt, including denial. 

For example, I had a crappy time in junior high and experienced some pretty harsh bullying paired with a less than happy homelife. But I never went hungry. I received a good education. I was never beaten by my parents or sexually assaulted. I was never treated as inferior because of my gender. I never felt like an impostor in my body or questioned whom I found attractive. I was raised in a safe country and never had to fear for my life. It’s hard to reconcile the seeming contradiction of the traumas I suffered at age twelve with my life of relative luxury and comfort. Accepting how amazingly lucky I was in my life diminishes my accomplishments… especially when people have succeeded far more than me despite not having my advantages.

As the saying goes, it’s hard to acknowledge white privilege when you’ve accomplished so little…

What Does This Have to Do With D&D?

The pushback towards inclusivity and discomfort from social progress is heavily focused on video games and movies. But Dungeons & Dragons is also experiencing some audience dissatisfaction and protest. Which is a large issue touching on all of the above points.

For the past couple decades, D&D has been a largely greying hobby. Following its peak in the 1980s, the game had a few small spikes in its audience but was largely shrinking in relevance and interest, its potential audience being subsumed by fantasy videogames.

With the recent launch of 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast made a decided effort to release a fairly nostalgia heavy edition of the game designed to appeal to the core D&D audience. The hardcore fans of all previous editions, specifically ones who felt disenfranchised by the prior edition, which had been purposely designed to invoke feelings of video games and appeal to new players. 5e was the fan’s edition, and previews of Player’s Handbook  content was featured on D&D mainstays, such as ENWorld, and even the webcomics d20monkey

However, at the same time, the company also made a purposeful attempt at inclusion and diversity. The art featured more people of colour and women in reasonable armour, responding to criticisms of 4th Edition while also acknowledging the casual sexism of the 1970s and ’80s was not longer remotely acceptable. The PHB also included references to being able to play characters of any gender. So while the game was designed for the traditional audience the message was clear: anyone and everyone was welcome to play D&D.

From a business perspective this makes sense: you cannot make a succeed by alienating your core audience, but neither can you increase sales without growing your audience. And you grow your audience by expanding into groups that were previously not fans/ consumers. Unsurprisingly, the progressive values of Wizards of the Coast have not been entirely welcomed by the more socially conservative demographics. Older fans who are simply more set in their ways, as well as those reacting to the aforementioned surge of Political Correctness.

However, social conservatism is not the sole reason for negative reactions, as a reluctance to “share” the game is also at work. Women and people of colour have always played D&D, but the traditional audience has been white males, who are reluctant to surrender their monopoly of the hobby and no longer be the most sought after audience and preferred demographic. Which makes them feel like they’re losing something, and being forced to share their game. And if they enjoy cheesecake art, they are kind of losing something. And these feelings have only grown as 5th Edition has become more and more popular.

There has also always been a generational schism among D&D fans. The old school gamers and the new school. The gamers who proudly proclaim that they got started with the White Box or the Red Box, and who played AD&D 1st Edition and those young whippersnappers who started with 2nd Edition. Those who proclaimed that Dragonlance has ruined D&D (forever!). This discomfort in a new generation of players is wrapped up in many layers: change being disliked, reluctance of having to learn all new rules, the unpleasantness of needing to buy new books, and even plain ol’ habit. Plus, as new players join the game, they also tend to approach it differently, not having the same assumptions of play as the old wargamers did or the fans not raised in a world with Lord of the Rings films. New players tend to do things differently, and might not have the same reverence for the past. It’s easier to dismiss them as not “true fans”. Imply that a certain level of knowledge (such as experience with the Tomb of Horrors, or awareness of the head of Vecna and the “dread gazebo”) is required to be a real D&D fan. Because these new players simply have not invested the same amount of time or money into the hobby.

This generation gap has only grown more pronounced with 5e, with new players raised in a post-World of Warcraft world (where MMOs are no longer the ‘big’ games), in the current era of social media, Twitch, and streamed online games. New players are not only young enough to be the children of the old guard…. but their grandchildren! New players are coming into D&D with very different influences and gaming heroes, whose experiences and expectations are wholly different. And it’s becoming harder and harder for established players—be it for 10 years or for 40—are having a harder time seeing themselves in this new audience. And worst of all… there’s a lot of them.

D&D is more popular than it has been anytime since the 1980s. Perhaps more popular and successful than ever before. And there are millions of new players. It’s harder and harder to reach out to the creatives behind the game or be noticed for your work. These new players not only become a major target audience, but also shift the focus of advertising and the content of products. Books are designed with new players in mind and new products are announced and previewed in platforms like Twitter and Twitch rather than traditional locations, like convention panels and ENWorld. And despite being the D&D news source, for the longest time ENworld didn’t report on Critical Role, and didn’t preview Matt Colville’s Kickstarter (or Colville in general) until it was already well on its way to shattering records. It’s easy for many established gamers to look at the state of the hobby and muse that it doesn’t resemble “their” D&D. And, again, not see the themselves or identify with the new crop of gamers, or feel out of touch or even alienated by a hobby they love. Which is, understandably, upsetting.

Moving Forward

I’m not a good person to talk about how to handle problematic players. I don’t disengage well, and easily take troll bait. I like to think individuals can be reasonable, and believe if I can make a convincing argument they’ll realise they’re wrong and accept diversity and representation in the hobby.

It never works out that way. Again, the backfire effect at work…

This is complicated, not just being a game but a game that is very easy to pour your heart and soul into. By the very nature of D&D, you put yourself into the game, which can leave you somewhat emotionally compromised and overexposed. Really, the best thing is to just be patient and make your case, then letting people think on the point for a time. Not being overly confrontation can help: pushing people prompts them to push back, while being calm and forgiving gives them room to response positively rather than causing an instinctive defensive reaction. Everyone progresses at their own rate and you can’t accelerate personal growth. And, as always, we shouldn’t expect perfection and should be forgiving of mistakes… provided they’re paired with honest attempts at atonement.

Given it’s relatively small fan base, D&D is in a position to be more progressive than the rest of society. It can serve as an example of acceptance and inclusion, of a fanbase willing to let go of its baggage and embrace their shared love of pretending to be magical elves.