Offensive Content, Censorship, & Market Forces

It’s rare that I feel like I have anything I feel like commenting about concerning tabletop roleplaying games these days. Not that I’m not involved in the hobby, quite the contrary, I’m actively playing and running games. I just feel like I don’t have much more to contribute to the conversation on the web. However, I’m still friends with people in the industry and I happened to see some developments over the weekend concerning offensive material listed on DriveThruRPG.com. Rape was a central theme of the product and I’ll leave it at that.

Immediately two sides formed and there was much frothing at the mouth.

However, there is a lot of nuance to the issue and I that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Offensive Content

What is and what isn’t offensive is subjective. My general feeling about the state of being offended is similar to how I feel about the color of people’s socks. I don’t give a damn. You’re offended, so what, congratulations. No one has a right to not be offended and frankly people need to learn to be more selective in what they allow to take up residence in mental space. That is not to say that there are wrongs that need righted, injustices brought to justice, and undue burdens to be lifted. I just don’t care about people being offended…. that’s completely the responsibility of the offended, not the offender. So keep your emotions in check, or don’t, I don’t care as long as you keep the tears out of my beer.

Censorship vs. Freedom of Speech

Governments, businesses, other organizations, and individuals engage in all manner of censorship. Private sector censoring of content on their own channels does not infringe on anyone’s First Amendment right to free speech (obviously, I’m writing from an American perspective). Now if they all of the sudden made it criminal to write fiction about a topic, then that would be an infringement. This also means that the private sector is free to not censor anything that is legal.

Now there are broader conversations to be had about ISPs and net neutrality in the context of freedom of speech, or businesses licensed to serve the public in the context of discriminatory practices, but this is not that blog. However in the scope of this blog, I honestly do not have an issue with private sector censorship. Businesses, organizations, and individuals should be free to create and sell (and not create/sell) whatever sorts of content they like. I am also a strong opponent of criminalizing thoughts… no matter what, people should be able to say, write, draw, dramatize whatever they like as long as no one is actually harmed in the creation of the product. No thought crime, please.

Market Forces

Even though I support the right of a business to peddle offensive content, I also support the right of the consumer to vote with her wallet and organize boycotts. People should definitely stop being offended and start being proactive. You don’t like that OneBookShelf isn’t as strong an ally of inclusive gaming as you would like? Be vocal. Contact customer service. Shop elsewhere (though, considering their market share, that may be difficult). Become the competitor that espouses the values you hold dear. It would behoove you to be civil and calm about it, but go ahead and be as nasty as you like… just know you’re a hypocrite if you’re spewing obscenities about offensive content. Just keep it safe & legal (no threats of violence).

Anna Lappe once said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” This is the great aegis to the freedom of expression and it imposes a kind of social justice upon creative works without actually infringing on anyone’s freedom of expression. We as consumers can pressure the market to bend to our will and if not embrace our values, at least cater to them, by simply not supported those businesses that do not meet our expectations. Even marginalized groups can usually have enough sway to at least bring about thriving niche markets.

Important OBS Details

There are, however, things that you probably need to understand to be informed. OBS has created a platform that automates much of the publishing a product to their store. There isn’t a vetting process a product needs to go through, and there are advantages to this. It keeps costs down…. ’cause we have a culture that doesn’t consider digital products worth as much as physical ones (I’m just stating the facts, not making a claim of right or wrong). It also allows a publisher to pretty much publish anything on the site.

OBS also has the lion’s share of the market. It’s the lifeblood of small press (and marginalized) publishers. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions) made some great points on Twitter about how his livelihood is tied to OBS and about how this issue is a difficult one to deal with for them that he curated on Storify (cementing my belief that Twitter is not the place to have intelligent debate). Even Jessica Price, a standard bearer in the recent (current?) campaign to convince OBS to drop the product, has recommended OBS as a tool to help marginalized content creators get eyes on their stuff.

Changes made to the OBS could help audit new content, but it could also introduce new barriers for everyone. Such barriers are not limited to time and cost of publishing, but also introduce new gatekeepers that could prevent otherwise fine content from seeing any kind of market penetration. I’m not saying the risks outweigh the benefits, I’m just stating there are consequences.

OBS Alternatives?

So where to go if you don’t want to support OneBookShelf? There aren’t many alternatives, but there are a few:

I wonder what the market is for a retailer that explicitly caters to marginalized  gamers? Or how about one that specializes in offensive material?

My Point?

Do I have one? I guess I’m saying that things are working about how I expect them to. I think the hobby needs to be more inclusive and this particular instance of tripe isn’t the sort of product I want to see. I want to see more women (and more of everyone else: LGBT, POC, etc.) gaming and that means we need products that include these people and that doesn’t exploit or demean them. I also think people are free to write whatever they like but consumers are also free to not buy it and pressure retailers to not offer it and yet retailers are free to ignore the pressure for as long as their profit margin allows.

Thus things are happening just like they should. Since I starting writing this, OBS did ask the publisher to remove the content, and it was removed. I also understand that OBS chief, Steve Wieck, will be addressing the issue from their side of things in a blog post sometime in the near future. Either way, it is a difficult decision on the part of the business since no matter how it played out someone would not be happy. I think removing the content is the best choice, but there is that fear that once you censor one thing (though this is not first product to be pulled from OBS), now you’ve opened the metaphorical floodgates for the demand to censor anything. But that is the price one pays if you want to turn a profit in the digital tabletop game publishing market.

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