James Desborough runs Postmortem Studios and is a self-employed games designer. This month Desborough finds himself in a whirlwind of attention when a petition against him urged Mongoose Publishing to drop his work. That petition used to be available here but now redirects here and has transformed into a petition to Steve Jackson Games to drop Desborough. The switch is likely to be due to Mongoose, after an initial period of sarcastically swatting the attention down, decided to discontinue all of the books they publish in which Desborough had contributed. There is now a petition to Mongoose to persuade them to carry on supporting the British writer.
At the heart of the issue is the claim that James Desborough’s roleplaying products are hateful, violent and misogynistic or whether his writings use widely accepted literary devices, have sometimes been part of tongue-in-cheeky dark comedy or should be protected by freedom of speech rights.
This has been a heated debate with voices raised in anger across the gaming net. It was with careful thought that Geek Native approached James and offered him the chance to do a Q&A. It was with careful thought, and days of deliberation, that Desborough accepted. From the outset it was understood that the Q&A would not be a soap box for grandstanding or an attack – but to be a method, away from the heat of debate, to cut away from of the hyperbole and clutter.
Q. You have written “The Slayer’s Guide to Female Gamers”, ”Sex, Dice and Gamer Chicks” and “Macho Women with Guns” for Mongoose Publishing. What was the pitch for each book? For example, was the Slayer’s Guide supposed to be humorous and Macho Women with Guns supposed to be sexier?
The Slayer’s Guide to Female Gamers was a follow up to the previous Slayer’s Guide to Rules Lawyers. Mongoose were doing a line of comedy book at the time including Slayer’s Guide to Games Masters by Jonny Nexus. It was simply a follow on from that. It’s about ten years ago now so it’s a hard thing to remember precisely but I think we bandied around a few titles and I settled on that one and the way I’d go about writing it.
Sex, Dice & Gamer chicks is a compilation of the aforementioned comedy Slayer’s Guides with a few extra bits. It hasn’t sold that well because it’s obvious that it’s a compilation. Sex, Dice & Gamer Chicks wasn’t even the title I wanted. I called it ‘Origins of the Specious’ but that was deemed too clever.
Macho Women With Guns was a d20 version of the BTRC classic. I tried to turn a slightly glorified board game of the time into a full on, silly RPG using d20 modern. My remit was to update and make a twisted kind of sense of the originals (Macho Women With Guns, Renegade Nuns on Wheels & Batwinged Bimbos from hell). I was quite heavily edited on that one but not for sexual content, but rather political. I had used it to have a go at the Bush administration in much the same way as the original had a dig at Reagan.
The remit in all of them is to ‘be funny’ and the same is true of Nymphology and Quintessential Temptress. Though I think in Temptress my frustration at not being able to tackle the topic seriously shows through a bit.
Q. The petition against quotes you writing “rape is fucking awesome” in a blog post you titled In Defence of Rape but the full quote is “Rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element, one of many.” Do you feel misquoted? Do you now regret that sentence or even the title of the blog post?
Of course I feel misquoted, and misunderstood. I also tend to the thought that the people misunderstanding are doing so wilfully.
If I had titled the blog differently it would probably have gone unnoticed. I don’t think the post or the full and correct title are really controversial at all. If nothing else a lot of people have followed the link to the article and then ignored its content. Which is a shame.
I stand by the blog, it’s something that needed to be said. One side of the argument has controlled the debate in the ‘public square’ for too long across games, films, TV and literature and the blog was written as a counterpoint to the kind of kneejerk reactions and absolutism we’ve been seeing. That it became a target for those same problems… well, let’s just say the irony hasn’t escaped me.
Q. Do you feel singled out or unfairly set upon by these petitions and recent attention around some of your games and books? Why do you think you have been so central to recent debates?
I have a past with some internet warriors so there’s a small group always looking for some opportunity to trash what I do. When there are controversies I get involved and I have strong opinions that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about. I am vocal and public while at the same time being a small publisher and freelancer. An easy target. I’m not talking about some grand conspiracy but there are certain people who seem to hate me enough to dredge through anything I have done – or ever will do – for things that can be taken in a bad way and using that to give me a kicking.
It’s flattering in a way.
Q. Do you accept that rape will always be a deeply unpleasant and unwelcome subject for some people?
Never said otherwise.
Q. You produce the game Hentacle – a portmanteau of hentai and tentacle. Isn’t this just a game about monster rape?
‘Just’? No. It’s also about the stereotyping and fetishisation of Japanese popular culture and western misconceptions. It’s also about puns and it’s also pornography. Most things I write or work on I put layers into.
It may be controversial to some but so long as all parties involved are consenting (a drawing does not have the capacity or need to give consent) I think pretty much anything should be allowed to go. Take the Swedish manga translator tried for ‘child porn’ over some lolli manga (BBC) or Max Hardcore (Boing Boing) for example. I might find what they do personally distasteful but nobody is being hurt, everyone involved is consenting and in the manga case they’re just drawings. Same with Hentacle.
I enjoy playing with tropes and stereotypes. It can be playing with fire but the target is usually something more subtle and less obvious than what these people are reacting to.
Q. Kickstarter recently cancelled funding for a game called Tentacle Bento after complaints but The Smut Peddler Pre-Order Project successfully funded ($83,100). Is this another example of people being genuinely upset by some tentacle games? Or just inconsistent censorship?
A little of both?
Tentacle Bento is decidedly vanilla compared to Hentacle and Cthentacle. It’s entirely suggestive and non-graphic though it also cashes in on the gigglesome sex puns in the same way as I have. Kickstarter has a review process and TB was even chosen as one of their publicly acknowledged campaigns. Its censorship was wrong and a kneejerk reaction to an internet mob who, again, didn’t bother to learn anything about what they were fighting. I gave a considerable amount of money from Hentacle/Cthentacle sales and out of my own pocket to help Tentacle Bento as a result.
Q. How much of this is a cultural problem? It’s hard to imagine Tentacle Bento being banned in Japan but easy to see it causing a stir in the United Arab Emirates? Is there a UK / US divide when it comes to your games or even your presentation style?
Absolutely and I tend to write in a more conversational and informal style which means a lot of that comes through. My personal sense of humour stems greatly from many key British sources, some of which have been controversial. Rik Mayall & Adrian Edmondson, Chris Morris, Monty Python – of course, Spike Milligan. A combination of the surreal, bad puns, exaggeration and dick jokes.
The UK culture around swearing, ‘joshing’ and humour is a lot more forgiving whereas I find the US culture to be much more literal. It’s a stereotype but a lot of yanks do genuinely seem to have issues with irony, sarcasm and subtext. The best illustration of this difference I can think of is the scene in the pub in Shaun of the Dead: “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?” Completely unremarkable, just a little bit funny, in the UK. Beyond the pale – it seems – in the US. Which is a pity as it’s a great swear word.
Q. On The RPG Site a member writing under the alias of The Traveller notes;
“Other well respected works also incorporate rape, Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrere for one, whereby Lucrere becomes a political symbol.
Was this guy being dickish in his handling of what is a very powerful and evocative as well as sensitive area? Yes, I would say so. I woudn’t include rape in an RPG any more than I’d include graphic descriptions of baby eating. It may happen in a gritty world, but my players don’t need their faces rubbed in it. I don’t think it has a place in gaming.”
The sentiment of their comment is echoed elsewhere. Is there a chance you have been too bullish in some of your forum responses? Could you have handled concerns and complaints better?
My initial reaction was one of disbelief that anyone would think these things that the critics have been saying because it all stems from an apparent unwillingness, or inability, to read or to differentiate reality from fantasy. One of my coping mechanisms is humour – part of the reason I make fun of difficult topics. So the first few shots saw me react with sarcasm and humour which, of course, only further enraged people taking everything seriously. When they persisted I switched to intellectualisation and examination but people are arguing on a basis of emotion, so that doesn’t work either and can seem arrogant.
Once these kinds of accusations etc are made, you can’t really ‘win’ people over. They’re not amenable to reason, or the truth.
Q. On reflection; is this a debate that goes beyond logic and reason because it will always come down to powerful emotional responses?
I hope not. We need to talk about this stuff but the conversation needs to be something more than wild accusations and mouth-breathing trolls exploiting a chance to start some drama.
Q. Many people have expressed an opinion on the drama you find yourself in the centre of. Are you surprised by the level of engagement? At the time of writing; some 168 (out a goal of 200) have signed the Steve Jackson petition against you but 285 (out of a goal of 500) have signed the Mongoose petition in your favour. Are you surprised by the signatures coming to your defence? What does it mean to you?
I think we just hit 300 which has been heartening. To have virtually double the support of the other petition in a matter of two days, rather than a week. That’s encouraging to me that there are people that place free expression importantly in the hobby.
I am very surprised by the level of engagement but I just wish more people involved were being thoughtful and thinking about the issues rather than simply reacting.
For me it has held me together to get such an outpouring of support and given me hope that there are enough people willing and able to read and also willing and able to engage in these debates sensibly.
Q. Some of gamers on your side of the debate, some of the gamers rallying to fend off what they see as unwanted censorship, have been quite vocal and sometimes quite aggressive. Has this been necessary in order to balance the debate or has it been unhelpful?
The attacks against me have been quite aggressive and have included threats of violence and even rape. The public commentary by the people ‘opposing’ me has also been aggressive and hurtful. I think this kind of counter-reaction to that is normal and predictable. A lot of gamers are very protective of gaming and of liberal and libertine values – such as free expression. Nobody wants another Pat Pulling.
Q. Is this debate really about free speech? Or is that just a wrapper for the underlining issue whether that’s business sense, personal tastes, sexism or gaming?
It’s really about free speech. The opposition likes to say it’s not about censorship but they are cutting their definition of censorship too thinly. They don’t want to be associated with the term, I get it, but that is what they’re trying to do. Silence forms of expression. If we went along with their viewpoint there’d be no Thomas Covenant, no Robin Hobb books, no Handmaid’s Tale. We have a dangerous environment brewing across ‘geek media’ of all kinds where social censorship is being levelled at products, sight unseen or without appreciation for the nature of the product or its audience. The risks to free expression are huge.
Q. Lastly, what do you think the industry should do to move on and learn from this drama? Or will this be an everlasting debate where no balance or common ground can be found.
I think people who lambaste and complain should, instead ‘make good art’. If you don’t like the way a game, book, comic – or whatever – is done then make your own like Machine Age Productions do. We’re losing sight of the fact that not every cultural item needs to be for everyone and that difficult topics should be free to be examined (whether well or badly, which is subjective) by anyone.
Above all I think this needs to be a two-way conversation. At the moment the ‘this is bad and wrong’ crowd dominate the discussion because nobody wants to be taken as, for example, supporting rape just because they criticise a particular stance these people take or disagree about a specific claim or interpretation. I think we need to step up and be willing to take some flak for protecting the things we like.
People being people though, somebody will always take it too far.