Last year, Monte Cook Games published an RPG called The Strange that involved otherworldly “recursions” based on the fiction of our own Earth. In August of last year, we heard from someone who had concerns about a small section of the game, a recursion called the Thunder Plains. We attempted to engage with that person to understand the concerns, but by January, the person ultimately became abusive, and communications broke down.

Recently, this same individual wrote a petition on change.org.

(Link: https://www.change.org/p/monte-cool-games-we-the-undersigned-demand-immediate-removal-of-thunder-plains-and-all-related-content-from-all-monte-cook-games-publications-current-and-future-and-request-an-immediate-public-apology-for-harm-done-regardless-of-supposed-intent-fro)

The petition did not get much support. We felt personally blindsided and hurt by the libelous portrayal of our company and our employees within the text, but we knew the impact of the petition on our business would be negligible.

Still, we were worried that there was an issue here we just weren’t seeing. We recognized that as non-Native people and as the creators whose intent might not have been well communicated, we might be blind to a valid concern.

This wasn’t a money or even a PR issue. There wasn’t enough support for the petition to put “pressure” on us, and in fact the majority of people that we heard from, privately and publicly, Native and non-Native, said that we really didn’t need to do anything.

So this was not a business question, but an ethical one.

Some called for an immediate response from us, but at that point, our voices were the least important. We needed to listen, not talk. Change.org does not allow for discussion of any kind, so we made as transparent a post as we could on our Facebook page. Because many people have a problem with Facebook (and in particular its backward policies on Native names) we made a post on our Google+ page at the same time. We included a link to the petition. These posts got a lot of comments.

We appreciated the initial, reasonable conversation and exchange of views, but eventually things got vitriolic, both in the comments of our posts and in particular elsewhere on the Internet. There were lies, name-calling, and harassment, and ultimately people got involved whose only apparent agenda was to rile up anger. But despite all that noise, we heard some well-reasoned and clearly sincere voices too.

And these were voices, we knew, that didn’t often get listened to.

We spoke privately and in person with a variety of Native people about cultural appropriation in gaming and other media, about their hopes for the future of gaming, and in particular about our game. We asked them, “Is Thunder Plains problematic?”

The answer was complicated.   

Our major concerns were these:

1. The Thunder Plains material could be easily misunderstood and misconstrued. The people we spoke to made it clear that while charges of racism were overblown, and the respectful intent was clear, Thunder Plains got some facts wrong—alterations that could be seen as slights, not creative license. It fell into the traps of stereotypes and generalities, grouping together peoples, customs, and myths that were not and are not uniform. RPG writers do that all the time, because we have only a few paragraphs to describe what is sometimes an entirely new fictional world. But in this case, that sort of brevity and generalization is the sort of treatment Native people and myth always get in fiction, so to many it just seemed like more of that same problematic treatment.

2. But simply removing Thunder Plains created other problems. When Bruce, the Thunder Plains designer, wrote the material he did so intentionally because Native people were under-represented and as someone who grew up among the Sioux and Lakota, and has Native family members, he wanted to include them and do so with sensitivity and respect. Our intention was one of inclusion. Simply cutting Thunder Plains would mean less of a Native presence in RPGs, and many people we talked to—particularly Native people—did not want to see that happen.

3. We strongly, STRONGLY believe in freedom of expression and abhor censorship of any kind. But if you write something and it turns out it doesn’t convey what you wanted to say, questioning that isn’t censorship. It’s clarity.

Still, we were worried about suggesting that angry harassment is a valid way to enact change. It is not. We strongly reject harassment of any kind and apologize to any of those who have been harassed for speaking up for us. We also apologize to any of our detractors who may have been harassed by those seeking to support us.

We considered taking no action, in no small part because it would present a strong message that harassment campaigns don’t work. But we knew that wouldn't be the right choice. We needed to honor those quiet, respectful voices more than we needed to quell the loud ones.

We have decided to replace the current Thunder Plains material in The Strange with a different Native American themed recursion. We will create this recursion alongside the Native writers with whom we’re already talking. Future printings will contain the new material, and the PDF versions will be altered with a free electronic update. The recursion will also be available to everyone as a free ebook.

There’s a risk here that some people will see this as capitulation—that we’re “giving in” to harassment. Or that the harassers will see ANY Native recursion as offensive, and continue their campaign. But so many Native American gamers asked us to keep a presence on our pages. So rather than delete and back away, we're going to move forward. We're going to learn, and create. We hope our response will encourage more Native designers, writers, and artists—as well as those of other minority groups and cultures—to play RPGs and work on games. 

We cannot stress enough that we are doing this because we were moved by the thoughtful voices we heard, willing to engage with us in conversation. Could we have ignored this issue? Yes. Could we have written a lengthy defense of our creation and our intentions that would have satisfied 99% of the people out there? Yes. Could we have spent our time fighting the petition’s libelous language? Yes.

But instead, we thought, why not just listen to that unheard 1% instead? Not the vitriolic nothing-is-ever-good-enough 1%, but the ones who just quietly wish someone would look at things from their point of view once in a while?

This is a small gesture, but at this time, it’s what we can do to say to those people that someone’s listening.

Is this the right answer? We don’t know. But we believe in positive change. Change doesn’t always just mean “change the world.” Sometimes it means “change yourself.” And sometimes it just means “change who gets listened to.”

This doesn’t mean that every time someone has a gripe with our books we’ll make a change. Quite the opposite: We’re taking this action because sincere people connected with us and maintained a civil discussion with reasonable points of view.

Isn’t that, in the end, the way we all wished things worked every time?
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