A cautionary note: if the names in this post aren’t familiar to you, exercise some care when googling. Both Mandy and Zak are current or former sex workers. I’m not entirely sure which tense it is and frankly it’s not relevant enough to what I have to say for me to research their respective employment statuses. Odds are good any search results of their names will include some NSFW material. (That said, Jesus has given us Christians a very clear picture of how to behave with sex workers: treat them with kindness and don’t take advantage of their sex work services.) On a personal note, a lot of things about this whole story are making my skin crawl. This is a deeply uncomfortable post to write, so please give me grace with regards to awkward word choices or the occasional non sequitur. -Peter
As I type this, certain segments of the tabletop RPG industry are essentially on fire. Late last night, a statement from Mandy Morbid and two other women was released detailing a long period of abuse, harassment, and manipulation at the hands of Zak Smith, better known as Zak Sabbath in the industry. Content warnings for basically everything. Seriously, that statement is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in ages, but I’m going to link it anyway much like I did with the stories that prompted another post about harassment I wrote. That said, it’s not a fun read. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t exactly new information, but rather sufficient “critical mass” of credible accusations where it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to ignore it any more.
Mercifully, as you’d expect, we’re not tied to this individual or his projects. Jenny in particular hadn’t even heard of the guy. However, this is going to have some far-reaching effects in the industry. Several big names (notably including Kenneth Hite) have come out with apologies for associating with Zak S and/or statements condemning him or distancing themselves from him. I would imagine in the weeks and months to come, we’re going to see lots more of that.
I’m not going to spend a lot of words on the gory details of that specific story, however. If you want to know more, as I said earlier, social media is lit up like a burning fireworks factory about it right now. I want to talk about some more practical stuff.
So you probably already know the first thing I’m going to say: people are more important than games, and that’s true on both the professional and playing sides of the equation. Zak S got away with being awful for a long time because people liked the content he made. He’s won multiple Ennies. Apparently a lot of people think he’s talented. None of that matters if he’s actively harming people, and that goes for other game creators too.
The thing is, Zak isn’t anywhere near the only bad actor in the industry. The LARP community has a term for folks like him: “missing stair.” The short version is that a “missing stair” is a person who is known to be bad or even dangerous but gets a pass due to to status, longevity, or prestige of some kind. People “manage” them rather than dealing with the problem.
With that in mind:
- Obviously don’t let this be you. Treat people with respect and dignity. Don’t exploit, manipulate, abuse, or harass them. If you’ve done those things in the past or covered for those who did, apologize and seek to atone. Sometimes relationships are destroyed by our sinfulness and we have to accept it. Sometimes amends can be made. You have to be ready for either outcome if you’re the wrongdoer.
- Keep an eye out for bad behavior and especially do your best to make sure conventions and game stores do the same. There’s a whole sticky situation around this with GaryCon this year. That could be an entire separate blog post, but for now this will have to suffice: if you decide to go someplace with a bit of a controversial reputation, make sure you’re safe and if at all possible, be a force that makes others around you safer. We have friends from Innroads going to GaryCon this year and so is Derek White. I feel pretty confident saying they’ll be a force for good.
- Try, really hard, not to be skeptical as a knee-jerk reaction to the accounts of people who have survived abuse. People have been using prestige within communities as a shield for bad behavior for as long as we’ve had communities. It happens in gaming and it happens in the church, and most of the time, accusations aren’t fabricated.
- Do your best to support good actors, not bad ones. There are some really great people in the games industry. A lot of them, in fact. Channel your support toward them, not the people who have hurt others.
- Though this is culturally-unpopular advice, we as Christians are called to forgive. However, there needs to be repentance on the part of the offender, and in some cases, an individual may be deemed too great of a risk for full inclusion in the community as a whole. There can be forgiveness and healing, but things can never be as they once were.
- Continue to make sure the spaces you have influence over – your gaming table, your church, clubs you lead, organizations you volunteer with, and so on – remain safe and beneficial places. Be especially aware of how anyone on the “outside” is treated. New people, folks from unfamiliar demographics, and the vulnerable in particular tend to be the preferred targets of bad actors. Be vigilant.
The gaming industry and games as a hobby still have a long way to go, but I’m confident that those of you reading this are among the good ones. This world and our hobby are full of the broken and wounded. Let’s be about the business of restoration.
Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash