Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Offensive foul

Well, the internet is up in arms once again, or at least the RPG-playing and blogging sectors of it are.  This time it's over a certain controversial product and online RPG store Drive Thru RPG's reaction to the outraged demands of a (probably small) segment of its target customer base.

Are you offended by stuff?  Good, I say, with complete sincerity.  That means you have sensibilities, and you have standards.  There's a lot of rude, nasty, ugly stuff out there, and if you're not offended by some of it, I have to think you're either lying or you have something seriously out-of-whack inside your brain.  I certainly found the product in question to be offensive, too.  Based on the little I saw of it, I wouldn't buy it.  You couldn't even pay me enough to take a copy, unless I could immediately toss the misbegotten thing in the trash and keep the cash.

You want to speak out and let others know that you find something offensive and why?  Bravo!  A robust conversation is always a good thing.  Tell us what affronts your sense of justice or trips your squick alarm, or just makes you uncomfortable.  Blog it, write reviews, whatever.  There are people out there who might appreciate your perspective, or even change their minds because of it.  Sometimes offensive material shakes up moribund patterns of thought, disrupts complacency, and raises important issues.  Other times, it's just vile and vulgar.  Talking about it helps us figure out which, and plot new intellectual and artistic courses. 

You want to silence those who offend you so there's no chance that anyone else will be offended by it ever again?  Nope, you just lost me.  I don't have much respect for people who want to stamp out offensive material, even if they are technically within their rights to organize boycotts and such. 

To be clear, DTRPG has the absolute right to decide what it will and won't sell through its website, and what types of expression it will and won't provide a forum.  As a business, it has a vested interest in defusing a situation which might lead to its losing some of its revenues.  Sometimes, picking and choosing what products have a place on your shelves, digital or actual, is entirely appropriate, for a variety of reasons.

I think DTRPG caved all too readily on this one, though, and that's a shame, because it's a slippery slope from there.  It only emboldens the folks who believe it's their right to silence whatever they don't like, and I hardly need to point out that almost everything under the sun offends someone.  I suspect that there would be pretty broad agreement that the product in question this time was at least seriously pushing the envelope, if not way over the line of bad taste, but what about the next time?  What won't be pulled if a vocal minority of strident voices are raised in threats to boycott DTRPG - and by what standard will that decision be made?

DTRPG has apparently prided itself on providing a venue for the sale of just about anything RPG-related, so long as it's not outright illegal.  It would have been perfectly respectable too, of course, if it had a policy of screening content and refusing to host some, based either on objective criteria or the subjective sensibilities of its proprietors.  Most businesses regularly discriminate based on all sorts of considerations, including cost, quality, and brand identity.  Toys R Us doesn't sell sex toys. Time magazine doesn't publish hardcore porn.  You probably won't find Hot Pockets and Cheez Whiz at Whole Foods.  DTRPG could behave similarly if it wanted to.  But DTRPG based its brand identity to a great extent on being an open market for RPG creators, and it should have been prepared to hold the line against a very predictable backlash when it eventually occurred.

Where DTRPG went wrong, in my opinion, is not in the act of exercising executive control over what it sells, per se, but in giving in to threats.  It made a decision it had every right to make, but for the wrong reasons.  "Take this smut down (from the adult section of the site, no less!), or I'm NEVER buying anything from your store again!" cried the outraged, and DTRPG meekly and apologetically complied.

Small wonder, I suppose, that people on the opposite side of the fence are responding with threats of their own.  One well-known game designer has gone on the record threatening that if DTRPG pulls any of his works, or those of any of his friends, he'll take his ball and go home, regardless of the monetary losses he or anyone else might suffer as a result.  Yes, refuse to sell your PG-13 stuff through any venue that won't also take your XXX.  That'll show 'em.  Of course it's within his rights to do so, but it seems more than a bit petulant to me.

Despite vociferous cries of "Censorship!" this isn't it.  Censorship applies to state suppression of speech, not someone declining to furnish you a forum in which to speak.  Nonetheless, using badgering and bullying tactics to get a business or individual to bar certain viewpoints strikes me as dirty and cheap.  So does using similar tactics to compel it to rescind that decision - however much you or I or anyone else thinks that decision was a mistake. 

Others are loudly complaining about what the vagaries of the whole situation mean for creators hopeful of selling their products on DTRPG.  Will it have a chilling effect, particulary on edgy content?  That, at least, is a conversation that seems to be worth having, but ultimately not a very compelling argument.  I'd like to know when any creator has ever been absolutely assured of shelf space to sell his work.  In the past, that's been far more of an issue than it is today.  Writers had little choice but to submit their work to numerous publishers, enduring seemingly endless rejection letters, and maybe, if they were lucky, finding one who saw potential in their work and was willing to take a chance on it.  So far as I know, that didn't do much to stifle the dreams of aspiring novelists, playwrights, and journalists.  Writers write, and artists make art, whether or not they have a guarantee that anyone's going to see it. 

But with the rise of the internet, those concerns are rapidly becoming irrelevant.  Barriers to entry into the business of selling images and written content are at an all-time low.  Any fool with a little know-how can open up a digital storefront at minimal cost, and if DTRPG starts restricting certain kinds of content, no doubt one or more alternative venues will pop up.  In fact, a spate of competing online RPG and book stores might be the best thing that could come out of this whole ruckus. 

In the final analysis, this is one of those stories without a hero.  There's not even really a right or wrong side to it; everybody raises some good points, but nobody comes out smelling like roses - not the righteously offended mob calling for removal of the product, not the people on the other side crying censorship and making counter-threats, and not DTRPG, caught between them and timidly trying to straddle the fence with a "solution" that's more likely to escalate the hostilities than facilitate a detente.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Odd. I got the notification in my email, but the comment didn't appear here. I assumed you must have changed your mind and deleted it. Feel free to repost, if you still have the text saved or care to reconstruct it.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.