Inappropriate Content?

Yet another big controversy has erupted in the tabletop RPG world after One Book Shelf (which owns the downloads sites RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) pulled a provocatively-titled small-press game suppliment its virtual shelves following a Twitter campaign.

It’s opened a massive can of worms.

One Book Shelf have now announced a new policy for reporting offensive content. The precise details are vague at the moment, but there are suggestions that there’s going to be “report as offensive” button which will cause automatic suspension of the reported product pending review. Some game publishers, most notably James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and The RPG Pundit have raised very serious concerns over how this might work in practice, and have threatened to pull all their products from the site should a single one of their titles be suspended under this new system. They express a strong concern that their own products may well be targetted.

It’s near to impossible to tell whether their fears are justified or not.

I would certainly advocate no suspension of any product without human intervention under any circumstances, because such a process would be far too vulnerable to abuse. The ugly “PunditGate” saga remains a faultline in the community a year on, and the past behaviour of some of the personalities involved more or less guarantees bad things will happen unless active steps are taken to prevent it.

At least some of these people have an overtly authoritarian agenda combined with axes to grind against specific game designers and publishers, and can’t be trusted not to misuse any “report as offensive” button to pursue long-running personal feuds, or to report anything that fails absurdly strict purity tests. The “everything is problematic” crowd have very broad definitions of racism and sexism, and there is a very loud faction of them with the RPG community. Give them the power to disappear publications they don’t like, and it will have a chilling effect on the hobby as a whole.

In the world of self-publishing there are all sorts of issues of quality control and gatekeeping. If a line needs to be drawn somewhere over what content is beyond the pale, it matters who gets to draw than line. Twitter mobs with torches and pitchforks don’t always make the best judges. But are ill-conceived  technical solutions which could cause as many problems as they solve any better? It’s really a social problem.

I don’t want an RPG hobby that’s awash with overtly racist and misogynistic games. But I don’t want an RPG hobby where are small but vocal minority have the power to veto on what anyone else can publish.

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8 Responses to Inappropriate Content?

  1. Drraagh says:

    My big concern when the complaining first happened and people were threatening to pull their products from the site unless the offending product was removed was that if the company bends to this, where does it stop? Ignoring the content of the product being complained against, was this going to be big names squelching indie publications. Anytime people tried to talk about how unfair that was, people would sy ‘But the product they’re getting rid of is offensive’, but isn’t that how 1984 and other opressive regimes happened? Declaring anything the main group didn’t agree with as offensive and needing to be removed?

    I’m not trying to be extremist by calling oppressive regimes and parallels to 1984, but that was my initial thought, because once precident is set it can be used as a means for future actions.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I completely agree that publishers pressurising distributors into pulling other publishers sets a dangerous precedent. The publisher in question is run by a superb game designer who has come up with one of the best new game engines for years, which makes his public pro-censorship stance very disappointing.

    I think it’s a bit of what I’ll call “Safe space scope creep”. It’s perfectly valid to make a particular convention, the community around a specific game, or all the works of a specific publisher into a safe space. Trying to make part of the public square into a safe space is a different matter, since a safe space is defined by what it excludes.

  3. David Meadows says:

    If it is *truely* offensive content, there are hate-speech laws (in the UK and I assume in most other civilized countries) to stop it being published. If it’s simply “I don’t like this content”, then don’t buy it but don’t impose your own values on other people (by all means try to educate them, but don’t dictate what they can and can’t buy).

    Seems simple to me.

  4. From the way that they describe what they’re planning to do, it doesn’t actually sound super-dangerous, though. They’re saying that their default position is to not ban things, and they’re still not planning to review things before they go live. Getting things vexatiously suspended seems like it’d be a possibility, but once something’s been suspended, reviewed, and considered OK, it doesn’t seem like there’d be a lot that someone could do further.

  5. John P. says:

    It might work better if the reporting button didn’t actually take the product off sale pending review but flagged it as needing review and explaining why. Then it could stay on sale until the review decided whther to uphold the complaint or not. It wouldn’t stop anyone with an agenda from gratuitously reporting stuff but it would be quickly evident to the reviewer that someone was crying wolf too often.

  6. Tim Hall says:

    Can’t have that. Far too sensible and pragmatic. It will never do!

  7. Colum Paget says:

    I assume that the unnamed publication behind all this is “Tournament of rapists”? To me this actually seems like deliberate provocation intended to raise someone’s profile. They couldn’t have not known that this content would cause outrage. This looks to me like a deliberate effort at feminist-baiting to get their name in the news.

    The issue of what’s appropriate is a complex one. The subject here: rape, is something that more people than you’d think have had to live through, and I can see that they don’t want to be reminded of that.

    But once we apply that standard, won’t we have to apply it to everything? Most crime drama is about murder. Why are we okay with murder? There’s people out there who’ve had loved ones murdered, why do they have to put up with being ‘triggered’?

    And the argument that such publications normalize such behavior, that they’re part of ‘rape culture’, seems disproved to me. We can all play any number of video-games where we get to kill out fellow human beings (and other species) en masse. Do we live in a ‘murder culture’? No. The reason is that the law and moral norms prohibit murder regardless of what appears in fiction and entertainment. Similarly ‘rape culture’ is an issue of a country’s legal/moral system, not its entertainment. A country could outright ban all forms of entertainment, and still have a rape culture, if the legal/moral structures allow this behavior (as in many cultures and subcultures, they do).

    Still, I can see that many people don’t want this kind of thing in their fiction feed. But then what does one say about religious types who don’t want gay material in their fiction? And how do we deal with stuff like requires_hate’s “strident critique”? (which was worse in my opinion, because it targeted actual individuals (obviously, I’m a dog in this race and make no claim to objectivity)). I do think the RH issue is slightly different, because it had consequences for individuals, but it still comes under the ‘I don’t want to have to see this stuff’ rubric. Interestingly, most of the “everything is problematic” crowd had no problem with this until they realized she was targetting women and PoC as well as white men, which tells you all you need to know about them and their moral consistency. It also raises the issue that, when people put in place systems to handle ‘inappropriate content’, they tend to wind up biased and hypocritical. The people driving this will want to control all manner of things in media, down to chain-mail bikinis, while preserving the right of people like requires_hate to call for actual individuals to be raped and murdered. I wonder how many of the people in the outrage mob over this RPG game were laughing when RH was saying people should be raped to death by dogs?

    Clearly, someone’s going to have to do something. ‘Free speech’ has always been a myth, and it’s going to become more of a myth in the future, whether we like that or not. The answer, I think, is a better system of rating and isolating types of media, so as only the people who want to be exposed to it are. This is ‘balkanization’ again, and it will have some ugly results, but I think it’s the only solution that will keep everyone happy. The alternative will likely be blanket censorship, as the ‘censor this filth!’ crowd will not stop once they’ve gotten going, look at how much strife there is in SF&F over minor infractions of their law. The solution will be to create walled gardens where they are not welcome, and are forcefully shown the door if they try to break in. Some of these walled gardens are going to be festering cesspits, but that’s most of the internet anyways: twitter is a cesspit of man-hating lefties, reddit seems to be more a cesspit of misogyny. This is the way things are going, and we’d do better to guide the flow of events to the best result we can get, instead of trying to hold back the tide. We simply can’t continue to have communities where the likes of Vox Day, Requires Hate, John Wright, Kameron Hurley, KT Bradford, etc, etc, all rub shoulders. We can’t continue to have communities were people making rape jokes bump up against those making castration jokes, or where one lot of tweeting #KillAllFeminists, and another bunch are tweeting #KillAllMen. All these people behave like children, and need to be treated as such, segregated for their own safety.

    # The “everything is problematic” crowd have very broad definitions of racism
    # and sexism, and there is a very loud faction of them with the RPG community.
    # Give them the power to disappear publications they don’t like, and it will have
    # a chilling effect on the hobby as a whole.

    They’re having a chilling effect on society right now. This is Mary Whitehouse back, looking younger and hipper, with a degree in gender studies. The thing that interests me most is the utter refusal of most people to admit it’s happening. People get hounded out of jobs, publications get pulled or shut down, people walk away from their artistic endevours, but everyone you speak to claims “Oh, they’re just a tiny fraction with no real power”.

  8. Colum Paget says:

    # It might work better if the reporting button didn’t actually take the product off sale
    # pending review but flagged it as needing review and explaining why.

    But what’s the issue here? Is it “I don’t want to be exposed to this stuff” or is it “I don’t want YOU to have access to it”. The former position I have a lot of sympathy for. The later: not so much. Solutions like ‘report abuse’ tend to control what everyone has access too, instead of protecting those who do not want to be exposed to certain material. I see the problem with a lot of this stuff being that it’s projected into the public sphere. If it was kept behind some kind of walled garden, so that people who didn’t want to have to see it didn’t have to, then that would solve the major issue for me.

    Of course, there’s people who want to control what the rest of us read/write, listen to or look at, and there always will be. We need to distinguish between what they’re doing, and the valid objection that people should not have to be constantly assaulted by stuff that offends them. The two things are not equivalent.