Think Out Loud

What diversity looks like in tabletop roleplaying games in East Portland

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Nov. 29, 2022 6:02 p.m. Updated: Dec. 1, 2022 9:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 29

Players pull out their dice in preparation for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The game use various dice rolls to move the story forward and determine if an action succeeds or fails.

Players pull out their dice in preparation for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The game use various dice rolls to move the story forward and determine if an action succeeds or fails.

Hanin Najjar / OPB

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This spring, a new brewery dedicated to tabletop roleplaying games will be coming to East Portland. TPK Brewing is queer and BIPOC women-owned, with a goal to create an inclusive space and promote diversity in Portland’s gaming and brewery culture. With the growing popularity of TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, how have these games changed over the years, and what does diversity and representation look like now? Dana Ebert is the creative director for TPK Brewing. Amanda Cote is an assistant professor of media studies and game studies at the University of Oregon. They join us to help answer these questions and more.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. A new brewery dedicated to tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), think games like Dungeons & Dragons, will be coming to East Portland this spring. TPK Brewery is majority queer and BIPOC women-owned. Their goal is to create an inclusive space that promotes diversity in both Portland’s gaming and brewing worlds. Dana Ebert is the creative director for TPK Brewing. Amanda Cote is an assistant professor of media studies and game studies at the University of Oregon. They join us now to talk about gaming and identity. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Amanda Cote: Thanks for having us.

Dana Ebert: Absolutely

Miller: Dana. I thought we could start, a little bit in the past, with your own gaming history. When did you start playing tabletop role-playing games?

Ebert: I started playing TTRPGs almost 30 years ago when my brother and I discovered, tucked away in a closet, an old tomb mould Dungeons & Dragons basic set from the eighties. We taught ourselves the rules, and honestly I’ve been hooked ever since.

Miller: Why? What hooked you at the beginning?

Ebert: What hooked me at the beginning was that storytelling is such a powerful medium for self discovery. It’s also really exciting to take part in it as a group, in a community, and it’s just one of my favorite kinds of writing.

Miller: I think we’re already mixing so many different aspects of the way you experience these games because you talk about storytelling and writing. But we’re also talking about games here. So I feel like we should get over some of the basics of what this means. How does a game like Dungeons & Dragons actually work?

Ebert: Oftentimes, in a game like Dungeons & Dragons, there is one person that is sort of the primary storyteller and each other person at the table plays a single character. It’s a way of creating a story as a group, facilitated by usually dice to model some amount of randomness.

Miller: And is that the way you think about it, that you’re creating a story as a group as opposed to playing a game together or competing against each other in a world?

Ebert: You’re definitely not competing against each other. Even the person that plays the monsters, they’re ultimately trying to help the other players tell their heroic story that they want to tell. I think of it very much in terms of storytelling because that is the lens that I approach it from. Other people sometimes bring other perspectives into the hobby.

Miller: But for you, it’s story first?

Ebert: Yes. I’ve always been a writer at heart and I bring that with me into lots of things that I do.

Miller: Amanda Cote. How did you get into studying games academically, and I should say both video games–which you’ve written a book about and have studied—and also, more recently, these kinds of tabletop role-playing games?

Cote: In many ways. It was an accident. I was an overall media studies major as an undergrad, so that encompasses everything from newspapers to film and television. My undergrad major was competitive. You had to apply to get in, you had to write an essay about some kind of media phenomenon and critically assess it and I could not think of a topic. So I was asking my friends, what are you writing about? And they were all writing about film and television and no questions about film or television were really sticking out to me. But I was playing World of Warcraft at the time and one day I logged in and the game was simultaneously hosting both a Chinese New Year event and a Valentine’s Day event and I thought that that was a really interesting crossover of different holidays and different cultures. So I ended up writing about how online gaming could be a space for greater international interaction. And the more I dug into that topic and other topics related to games, the more I realized that there were really interesting questions about what games meant, what kinds of cultural impacts they could have and what kind of communities they could build. And so I set out to answer a lot of those questions, first in the video gaming space and then as you said, more recently in tabletop gaming.

Miller: That is the academic version of this, which is the question I had asked you, but I’m wondering about the personal one as well because, as you noted, it almost seems like a kind of synergy you were looking for something that was understudied. You needed to do so and you had some of your own personal experience with this one game with World of Warcraft. What have games meant to you personally?

Cote: Yes, I do sometimes joke that I also came to this career path a little bit out of spite, which some people say is not a legitimate way to choose a career, but it’s worked out.

Miller: Whatever gets you up.

Cote: Exactly. So I have played games my whole life. My family had a Sega genesis, my neighbors had a Nintendo entertainment system and so we traded back and forth between houses depending on what we wanted to play. But as I got older, I ran into more and more situations where I was marked as unusual or out of place for playing games. Times in college where I’d look around the room and realize I was the only woman playing a game of Halo. When I picked up World of Warcraft, my college roommate kind of looked at me confused and said, “you’re too pretty to play World of Warcraft,” which I guess is a compliment but felt very backhanded and really reinforced a lot of stereotypes around gamers. So that question of why am I not seen as a game player and how did this stereotype get built? And what kind of impacts is it having? That’s also been part of my motivation all along.

Miller: You interviewed dozens of women who, like you, played video games, and those interviews were, if I’m not mistaken, in the early 2010s. Then you later followed up with them, which we can talk about. What were some of the early themes that emerged?

Cote: I spoke specifically to women who identified themselves as gamers and that’s actually a very specific group because of these stereotypes we have about games. Because games have for a really long time been represented in media and in popular culture as a hobby more for men and boys than for women and girls, a lot of women, a lot of LGBT players, for instance, will not actually take on the gamer identity. So, I was speaking to a very specific subset of the population, people who had invested a lot of time and energy into gameplay to the extent that they did identify as gamers despite this barrier.

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Miller: Just to be clear, that wouldn’t include people of whatever gender or identity or racial group, who maybe like to play video games of various kinds, but wouldn’t call themselves gamers. You were interested in the ‘name gamer?’

Cote: Yes. I was interested in the people who had really committed to games as part of who they were to the extent that they were willing to fight their way through these barriers to take on that identity. And what I found is they got a lot out of their game play. As Dana pointed out, storytelling was a huge part of what people were interested in—the ability to play through a story or a character that was unlike themselves to experience an environment that they couldn’t experience in the real world. Things like socialization, relaxation, escapism, those were all big benefits that they found in gaming. Unfortunately, defining oneself as a gamer when you don’t fit the stereotypical identity of such can be a challenge. And so my participants also told me a lot about both obvious instances of sexism that they ran into—times when people told them to go back to the kitchen and make me a sandwich or told them girls don’t play games and questioned their presence in gaming communities. And they also told me a lot more kinds of what I call inferentially sexist elements, things that don’t necessarily look exclusionary on the surface, but rest on a lot of gendered assumptions. Many female gamers, for instance, are treated with surprise or people might offer them extra attention or help for being unique. And this might look like a good thing. But it continually marks them as people who don’t belong, as unusual or other in gaming spaces.

Miller: You then interviewed many of these same women, something like five years later. What had changed?

Cote: Yes, I followed up with them about five years later and the big thing that stood out to me was that they all still identified as gamers and they all still played a lot of games, but they had mostly shifted from playing video games, especially online video games, and picked up Dungeons & Dragons. About three quarters of the women I spoke with had not played Dungeons & Dragons at our first interview and started playing it by the second interview. Some of them even got very involved in it, becoming dungeon masters running multiple sessions of D&D per week was a very sharp change between the first interview and the second.

Miller: How do you explain that?

Cote: The way they expressed it to me is that Dungeons & Dragons offered them many of those same benefits that they found previously in video gaming—storytelling, socialization, the ability to explore a new world and take on different character roles. But previously they had played a lot of games online, and in doing so, constantly had to prepare for the possibility of harassment, the possibility of running into another player who didn’t want them there and would often express that quite viciously. In Dungeons & Dragons, they had a little bit more control over who they played with. They could find a welcoming community and go into a game session knowing that it would be positive and that if something negative happened, they could talk that out with other players and come to a solution for the future. So Dungeons & Dragons offered them all these same benefits that they had previously found in video games, but it required a lot less preparation and work for them to play safely.

Miller: Dana Ebert, I’m curious what this sounds like to you? As somebody who did play and has loved tabletop role-player games for decades now, what do you make of people who have come to these games relatively recently as a kind of refuge from online games?

Ebert: That absolutely makes sense to me as I hear it. Shifts in the medium of tabletop role-playing have followed shifts in the community and more people are playing now than ever before. More games are being published than ever before. And we’re seeing a push to make gaming more inclusive. Large publishers are starting to diversify their pools of content creators and artists and because of that, we’re seeing more diverse and inclusive artwork and more situations where People of Color are being invited to tell their own stories and participate equally in world building.

Miller: So has Dungeons & Dragons, for example, maybe one of the most famous of these games, changed over the course of the decades?

Ebert: Dungeons & Dragons is certainly starting to. They’ve made some good and some controversial moves this year in their communities in terms of a Dungeons & Dragons-like game. I would say that Pathfinder by Paizo, which is another Renton-based company, is really leading the charge in major publishers promoting diverse content.

Miller: You’ve actually written for that company?

Ebert: I was going to say, full transparency, I’m best known for the work that I’ve done for the Pathfinder Lost Omens product line.

Miller: I appreciate that transparency, but it makes you also a good person to talk about this. What does it mean for a fantasy game, that has all kinds of made up creatures and fantasy-based settings, to be inclusive?

Ebert: First and foremost, when I’m designing content, I always try to be aware of my own biases and I try to be thoughtful about the kinds of characters that may inadvertently be excluding or using as a trope. You could say that I enjoy subverting expectations. Just as a kind of a fun example, we recently, for TPK [Brewing], ran several ads on social media to promote our crowdfunding campaign and one of them was an animated campaign trailer featuring a character called the Ash Bringer. In addition to being a powerful warrior in plate armor and all the normal things that you expect, she’s also a woman in her sixties with gray hair. And despite our overall ad engagement skewing make and people in their twenties and thirties, that ad overperformed with women over 50 and it shows that finding representation in the media is meaningful for everyone. And for example, older women in fantasy shouldn’t always be witches, just like non-binary or gender fluid characters shouldn’t always be robots or aliens. Whenever I design a character, I try to ask myself, “am I making fantasy a bigger place for our community?”

Miller: Amanda Cote, I’m glad that Dana mentioned age there because it seems like one of many versions of human difference. I’m wondering how represented older people are in general in these gaming worlds?

Cote: Older people are very underrepresented in the gaming world in both video games and tabletop games. And in part, I think it’s because it’s harder for us to wrap our head around why an older person would go adventuring. All of these stories are based on a person suddenly having to go adventuring and we think of older people as perhaps more established with more responsibilities that would lock them in place. It also has to do with how games have traditionally been marketed to young adolescent audiences.

This is unfortunately a little bit shortsighted though because tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons have been around since introduced in the seventies. Other games predate it. Video games have been around that long as well. And so we’re actually seeing the gaming audience age up and we’re not seeing games necessarily respond to that or take it into account. And this is a potential loss of audiences. So more representation of older players would invite those players back in [by] saying “we still care about your experiences.” It would allow us to tell a few more stories and it would overall help keep people invested in gaming spaces rather than making them start to feel like they don’t belong as they age up.

Miller: It also seems like it’s a way for companies to make more money if they have more consumers. Did video game companies learn lessons from the exodus of some players from video games to role-playing games? Are they changing as a result?

Cote: That’s a very good question. I’m not 100% sure. I think that there are a few ways that game companies could respond. One of the reasons that many of the women I spoke to left video gaming for tabletop gaming, it was both the desire for safer environments, but also it was because they had less time. Keeping up really high skill levels or maintaining other strategies that let them handle harassment when they were video gaming, these types of strategies became much more difficult as they had other life responsibilities, more intense jobs, families, children, etcetera. And so tabletop gaming didn’t require that same kind of psychological preparation and that level of energy and investment. Tabletop gaming, it was easier for them to kind of slot in and fit play sessions in their day to day life. So I think there’s a lot that video gaming could learn from tabletop on that front. How do you make games lower cost for players to get into or get out of? How do you make games that meet player needs without requiring them to spend 70 to 100 hours of play time to get there? This is a question that the industry is dealing with right now, but I’m not sure they fully solved it.

Miller: Dana Ebert, what are you most excited about in the brewery that you and your two co-founders are hoping to start or to open in the spring?

Ebert: Right, you’d probably hear a different response from each of us, but as the person in charge of the gaming side, I’m really excited about our flagship campaign which is called The Layfarers Chronicle, where we are going to invite multiple groups of players to explore our original fantasy setting of Val Rufina simultaneously. And unlike other large scale league-style games, having game masters on our staff will ensure that we can personalize each player’s experience and allow them to make impactful decisions in their story,

Miller: Dana Ebert and Amanda Cote, thanks very much.

Cote: Thanks for having us.

Ebert: Thank you so much.

Miller: Dana Ebert is the creative director for TPK Brewing, which is slated to open in Southeast Portland in the Spring. Amanda Cote is an assistant professor of media studies and game studies at the University of Oregon.

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