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Be conscious: Combat "smiling monsters" and other things that make players and GMs uncomfortable


Edited 1463214058
Roll20's Code of Conduct and Terms of Use make it pretty clear that the site doesn't tolerate player mistreatment, but sometimes serious things might go unreported or questionable behavior might go unchecked. I've been in a few games (not recently) where I ultimately had to tell a GM or a player that I felt that something they said was over the line. In light of an article that I recently read, I thought that I should put make this post to bring awareness to people about "identifying smiling monsters" and paying attention to the comfort levels of fellow gamers, because we - gamers - are the solution to these problems. No code of conduct or reporting/flagging feature can make gaming a place where people feel like they will be respected. via Ken Burnside "Smiling Monsters" are people who are practiced at planning and acting on ways of harassing gamers and getting away with it - especially gamers who are women, and especially for engaging in sexual harassment. Ken provides the following bullet points for how to identify and deal with these "smiling monsters". ASK women about their experiences in gaming. A large chunk of the problem’s persistence is that a woman who gets offended/hit on/etc. and leaves doesn’t actually cause the majority of sensible male gamers to DO ANYTHING. “Oh, yeah, Stephanie…nobody’s seen her in two weeks? I guess she got a new job or something and didn’t tell us.” Smiling monsters rely on your not following up with their victims to get the space they need to operate. LISTEN to what they say. Remember, they’re feeling isolated, and they feel like nobody will believe them over the other men at the table. Don’t accuse them of exaggerating. Don’t “put them in the witness box” — just listen. It won’t be comfortable. Time and time again, I’ve been told that the single most valuable thing I ever did was listen, so that she didn’t feel she was facing this alone. As a guy, it’s REALLY hard to believe that _just_ listening is that helpful, but it’s observably true. WATCH for signs of discomfort. Women take up different body language when they feel threatened. They close their bodies off; they cross their arms in front of their chest as if they expect to get hit. They move to a chair on the other side of the table to get away from someone. They lean away from someone at a table to maximize the space between them or to preserve their personal space. These are all cues. If you see these signs, go back to “ASK” — you can ask “Are you OK?” If someone is getting close to a woman showing these body language cues, ask him “Hey, wait a minute. Do you know her?” PAY ATTENTION to what other people are saying. We get it. Guys in the gaming hobby treat it like an old boy’s club, or chatter in the gym locker room. They can talk about whatever they feel like! They can crack rape jokes. They can crack blonde jokes. They can make disturbing comments. The uncomfortable woman probably won’t make a confrontation, because she’s unsure if she’s got any support in the room at all. That’s your job. Let her know that she’s NOT ALONE in thinking this is unacceptable behavior. LOOK FOR ESCALATIONS . A lot of guys think that bawdy humor is “just part of gaming.” It absolutely can be with a group of people who know each other well. Unfortunately, at conventions and in game stores, bawdy humor is used by smiling monsters as a way to “gain permission” to do more. The pattern looks like this: Tell an edgy joke, see if anyone looks nervous before they laugh. Wait for people to calm down a bit, and tell a slightly more sexual joke. Repeat, and each repetition, escalate to more sexually explicit humor. Try touching a shoulder to “reassure.” Smiling monsters take laughing at raunchy jokes as evidence that they’re concealed by the social contract. They also get a thrill out of pushing the boundary of the social contract; it’s how they “win the game” in their head. COMMUNICATE with someone who looks uncomfortable. Don’t let them wander off feeling like nobody cares. Ask simple things like “Are you OK?” and listen to what’s said. If they need to go to convention security, get them to convention security. If they just want to leave, separate them from the people harassing them and let them leave on their own, or ask the harasser to leave. It’s the person who’s made uncomfortable’s choice about who leaves the situation, not yours. CALL PEOPLE OUT on bad manners. Explain that bad manners have consequences. Explain that this is a public space, and they can either conform to the expected standards of behavior or they can leave. Or you can threaten to leave — this is a pedal democracy; people show their displeasure by leaving. I’ve told gaming tables “You can have me playing, or your rape jokes. Choose now.” KEEP AN EYE OUT for smiling monsters. Once you learn to spot them, they’re easy to recognize. They don’t make eye contact with other men or figures of authority, until they’re confronted. They tend to have head gestures (nodding or shaking their head) that are completely opposite of what their words are saying. They’re not prepared for follow-up questions. They get nervous when you talk to their prey, and start edging away. They escalate on raunchy humor, like what’s described above. They have a habit of boldly invading the personal space of anyone female, in ways that they wouldn’t do to a man. Of course, it's up to every gaming group and every person who is upset to decide if something was an awkward mis-step, over the line but not malicious, or something that should be reported to Roll20 staff. The intent of the above isn't to call for hypervigilance, but a call for gamers to openly discuss what they're comfortable with, and keep checking in with each other. If one person in a group of six feels uncomfortable with something, it needs to never happen again. If one person in a group of six feels isolated and harassed, they might only speak up about it if someone privately asks about their comfort level. I'm a heterosexual white guy in his 30s, and there have been times where I haven't reported someone for harassment (against me) on other websites because I was worried that staff would brush me off and the automatic "report" notification against the problem user would be assumed to be from me and would lead to a backlash from a clique. It only makes sense that someone who has a (real or perceived) status fo minority would be hesitant to report harassment if thy felt that no one would back them up. And more importantly, they might decide that something doesn't rise tot he level of making an official report, but be too afraid to speak up about being uncomfortable with it. You don't want one of your players (or your GM) to play with you while feeling uncomfortable, right? That, fundamentally, is what this is about. GMs, also review your answers to this checklist with regard to your game: 1. Are women portrayed solely as romantic objects, or damsels to be rescued? 2. Are women only portrayed as “dead motivators in refrigerators”? 3. How many female NPCs are there? How many male? Does that ratio need adjusting? 4. Do as many female NPCs have roles as authorities as male NPCs? Is the number of villains balanced between genders? 5. Do any women between the ages of 28 and 65 appear in your world AT ALL? 6. Do any of your women NOT look like they could model fashion in Milan or Paris? 7. Are older women only portrayed as the “kind elderly advisor” or the “evil elderly witch”? Of course, for some games, it will make sense for some of these questions to be non-issues (e.g. due to setting or character types). These are just questions to remind good people to think about their game setup. I hadn't thought about what the ratio of men to women were in the mid-level positions of power in my own game world, though I'd ensured balance at the highest levels. As it turned out, I had unconsciously put more men in middle-level positions of power, and more women in lower-level positions of power. I'm by no means sexist, and this list isn't about accusing anyone of being sexist. It's about being conscious of what we are doing, because we're surrounded by a culture that influences us with predominantly displayed archetypes. For anyone who wants to read the full blog post, this is the link for the commentary about sexual harassment and related issues. While those of us who don't play with webcams on (or those of us who only use text) might both feel safer and have a harder time detecting how other people are feeling, we still need to be asking, listening, and reacting. It's wrong to police others' fun and game choices; I'm not advocating for that. It's necessary, and right , to make sure that all of our players (and GMs/DMs/etc) are not only having fun, but feeling comfortable with the interactions between people (and characters) both in-game and out-of-game.
I've been playing since 1979, and I recently had an issue crop up in a game that I run (first time the issue has ever come up in any of my games); I ended up having to boot a player and come up with a policy.  This seems to have resolved the issue in my game.