At DriveThruRPG, we see a huge variety of content published and sold on our marketplaces. Something not broadly known to visitors on DriveThru is that we entrust most publishers to upload their new releases and activate them for sale without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the title before it goes public. The fact we have no oversight over our website is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Over fourteen years of operations, with tens of thousands of roleplaying titles activated, thousands of RPG creators have demonstrated that this trust-based system works quite well; we’re very big, mmmkay, this totally irrelevant point is very relevant, it doesn’t just boil down to ‘no-one’s ever complained before, it’s really important that you know we’re some kind of mega operation here the vast majority of publishers will not upload things I personally find offensive content and make it public on DriveThruRPG. Ours is a wonderful hobby. For straight, white, cis dudes.
Because this system has worked so well for so long, over a huge volume of products, we have had no need to create a content guideline for what we will not sell on DriveThruRPG due to its offensive nature. We’ve benefited from and really enjoyed the old boys club that is gaming, and safely insulated from the actual consequences of ‘offensive-ness’ by our privilege, we have basically ignored the need to be at all pro-active in weeding out sexism, racism, homophobia, and plain appalling shit.
Further, in the case of roleplaying games, especially new games put out by independent creators or new companies, our marketplaces are a key distribution channel. If we were to ban an RPG product, the de facto I do not really understand what this means, but Latin does make me feel clever and kind of superior result is very much like censorship. Oh wow. We are so important as a website mega publisher thingy that if we were not to sell appalling shit those games would NOT EXIST and all those independent creators would DIE OF STARVATION and gaming art would be ruined forevs oh no! *hand to forehead* That fact causes me grave concern, for if we were to create a content guideline that all publishers on our store must follow, and then ban titles that do not meet those guidelines, then we would be running a responsible website where we understand that giving people a platform to express their views in the form of games is a business choice that we make and not a moral fucking imperative playing dictator with the RPG art form srsly? and that is a role I am acutely uncomfortable playing.
Having grown up in the U.S. Bible Belt, where attempts to ban books from school and public libraries were common, and given my various experiences with distribution channels as a publisher at White Wolf in the early 90s, I have had a lot of firsthand encounters with attempts to ban content. This is all irrelevant bullshit. Books subject to censorship in the bible belt mean that children in schools don’t get to learn about sex, abortion, abuse, evolution and science, (ok also imaginary wizards but hey those are some good stories). Bans are often for books that are written by or contain actual human real portrayals of LGBTQ people, people of colour, women, or anyone that contradicts a dogmatic and inflexible view of the way things should be as presented by a church that is at its heart a socio-political organisation with a vested interest in keeping a population under control. I am taking the actual struggles faced by people to get access to books that are often vital for education, defining themselves, feeling ok about their sexuality, gender etc, and using them in a piss-poor attempt to make myself feel like there are no nuances in this argument at all, and I am basically a worthless piece of human garbage for this.
There is, however, a growing problem we face as a marketplace. A few RPG creators have designed content in the recent past that people have viewed as disturbing, distasteful, or depraved. For example, we recently — and understandably — notice I didn’t say ‘rightly.’ You aren’t meant to notice this, and I am hoping the word ‘understandably’ gives off this vibe whilst still patronising people who were upset, harmed, marginalised by this received a lot of criticism for selling an RPG supplement entitled "Tournament of Rapists."
I'll say a few words about that product and then move on to the broader topic of how we will handle offensive content on DriveThruRPG.
Hearing the title “Tournament of Rapists,” one is naturally repulsed. Not I am naturally repulsed. Because I’m not. Some people might be repulsed. Sometimes the purpose of art is to make us feel revulsion, though, so we shouldn't judge a book by its title alone. Those people are oversensitive to react to a title involving rapists, and also let me once again demonstrate my lofty understanding of the way art is basically anything that produces a reaction. It’s meant to be repulsive and that makes everything fine. Calm down. The proper reaction to that title is to read all the upsetting stuff in more detail, duh. In this case, though, reading the brief cover copy or product description the author entered on DriveThruRPG to explain the contents of the book does nothing but amplify that revulsion and call into question if the subject matter is being treated at all appropriately. Because a. there is an appropriate way to treat rape in rpgs and b. a book called ‘tournament of rapists’ is likely to be treating the subject in said appropriate way. So, naturally, people asked us various versions of the question, "How on earth can you have that for sale on your marketplace for even one minute?"
The answer is this:
1. As I mentioned above, this product was uploaded and activated by the author. No one at DriveThru pre-screened the book. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT WE DON’T LOOK AT WHAT WE’RE SELLING.
2. When we were first alerted to the offensive nature of the book, I used administrator privileges teehee I am an administrator to download and skim through a copy of the book. At its core, the book was an adventure supplement where the goal of characters was to stop demonic entities who were perpetrating sexual violence and murder. The rapists were clearly the villains to be stopped, something that I believe many critics of the book could not have known from the book's title and vague description. Oh, well that’s ok then. As long as we’re making the point that the rapists are bad people. Wait, not people, demons. Because demons rape people. I’m not going to speculate on how you stop them, but I doubt it’s a well-considered programme of societal education and change from the ground up, tackling how demons feel sexually entitled to the people they rape, challenging rape culture among demons, and promoting the idea of healthy demon-human relationships. I mean, it could be, but I doubt it.
Still, other aspects of the book, such as its title and description and some of its content, were written in a way that were not well-considered treatments of the subject of sexual violence YA THINK?. I personally found the book offensive, hahaha, no I didn’t but as I’ve noted, I am not comfortable letting my viewpoint serve as the gate-keeping standard. Except by refusing to actually look at any of the content on my site or take any responsibility for producing it, FOR WHICH I PRESUMABLY GET PAID, I actually am letting my viewpoint serve as the standard, which is that of a straight white cis dude whose privilege nicely insulates him from the fucking consequences of shit like this.
Again, 1) rapists were villains in the book BAD GUYS THEY WERE BAD GUYS because all rapists are demon bad guys who you can’t stop except by killing and they never get to make a choice or think about their actions SO THAT’S ALL OK and 2) I chose to accept offensive content over becoming a de facto censor. I do not understand how censorship works or what it is. In doing so, I made the mistake of not suspending the title from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher. Basically I am too damn reasonable for my own good.
3. Another factor that weighed on my decision was the fact that, when uploading and activating the title, the author flagged the title as adult content. Books with the adult flag do not show up on our marketplace to visitors. A user must be logged in to a customer account on our site and have changed the default "no" adult filter to "yes" before she can see adult flagged titles anywhere on site. If you want to see grown up things, those things gonna include rape. Watcho gonna do? You’ve basically said it’s fine by ticking that box, and there’s no difference between any kind of adult content. And for the record, "adult" in this context refers to more than just sexual content; like rape, which is definitely about sexual content it means any kind of content with material that requires adult discernment.
My philosophy has been individual choice, not my choice. Except that that is a choice I myself have made. My expectation has been that gamers who choose deliberately to see adult titles have the mental faculties to decide if a title they see is appropriate or not. They do. Which is why a bunch of them pointed out that this shit is not appropriate.
Therefore, I let the title remain active for sale while I reached out to the publisher to discuss the title.
4. The publisher was on vacation, so we did not catch up with one another by phone until near the end of the weekend. We had a professional dialogue about the book, the type of dialogue where people listen to each other and try to understand where each other is coming from and work toward constructive outcomes. Unlike all those crazy feminists, who basically just shout at men, claw their eyes out and cover them in menstrual blood. The publisher then discussed the book with the author, and they decided to withdraw the book from sale. This shit went through THREE PEOPLE to get to my site, and none of them so much as brought up the issue that ‘tournament of rapists’ might be a whole bunch of offensive, harmful appalling wank. In my opinion, having real dialogue and expecting the best, not the worst, in other people leads to better outcomes. Unrelenting anger and the desire to punish divides and polarizes people, as can be seen from some social media discourse on games today. TONE POLICE TONE POLICE PAAAAAAARP.
To the broader issue of the content we will sell on DriveThruRPG going forward, it is time we change the approach we have used for the past fourteen years. This most recent incident has shown me that our previous approach worked only because publishers in the past simply hadn’t uploaded such offensive content. However, that approach carried us too far in the wrong direction.
It's time for us to have a policy on rejecting offensive content. I understand that many feel this is too long in coming, that our prior non-policy of “censorship is unacceptable" I have not so much as LOOKED UP THE MEANING OF THE WORD on Wikipedia, much less examined any kind of nuanced view on whether not mindlessly spouting out everything I touch is or is not censorship was tantamount to shirking our responsibility to help keep ahahahaha. Keep. Ahahahaha. the RPG hobby inclusive. I am solely responsible for the prior policy, not the other staff at OneBookShelf. I accept that criticism and apologize for not being a better steward.
What should our new content policy be?
Some people believe there are bright line rules that, when crossed, make a title something our RPG hobby is better without. As I recently and profoundly failed to explain on Twitter, I do not agree there are such bright line rules, or at least not nearly enough bright line rules to serve as a guide. What follows is going to be really, quite incredibly badly thought through, and is going to piss a lot of people off.
In first drafting this blog post, I made a fuller explanation with examples of why I don’t think bright line rules work for deciding what content is offensive or not. I removed all of that because I don’t want my intentions in doing so to be misinterpreted again. They wouldn’t be, they would be correctly interpreted as me not having a fucking clue what I’m on about, and being unwilling to do anything other than pay lip service to the harm I (and people like me) are causing to others Suffice to say that the U.S. Supreme Court could not create bright line rules for what constituted pornography (leading to the famous statement, "I'll know it when I see it."), and similarly I don’t think we can create such rules for offensive content. I haven’t bothered to look up any case-law following this, even though I think that citing case-law basically makes me clever and win, because if I had I would have noticed that several judgments further refine the rules for considering something pornography with criteria like ‘anything patently offensive, appealing to prurient interest, and of no redeeming social value.’ You know, like this game. The judgment of the court in Miller vs California in nineteen seventy-fucking-three actually does go on to set out ‘bright-line’ rules for legislating what constitutes obscenity, which are still in use under the ‘ Miller test’ today. I am a massive fucking hypocritical bell-end.
I also think the more exacting we make the guidelines, the more fine points we include on content treatment, the more the guideline risks becoming shackles for the rpg art form Because ‘no games about rape’ is pretty tricky, guys. What if someone wants to make, like, a really arty game about rape? and the more bad actors will attempt to game the fine points of the policy.
Amazon's policy on offensive content is incredibly short:
“Offensive Content: What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”
The problem here is that such a statement gives little guidance to publishers and authors, and thus Amazon's rulings on banning books seem rather arbitrary. We’re better than Amazon because we do rape books. Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban." Yes. Yes they will. And this would be a bad thing because?
To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." I am not prepared to research any content policies, listen to people affected by said policies, or take any time out of my busy white dude schedule to even consider the fact that people have thought about this before me, so Imma just let this slide – ALL HAIL THE ALMIGHTY ME. A work often has to be considered as a gestalt I do not understand what this word means. And I think I’m too clever to use words like ‘whole’ to make things more accessible to know if it is offensive or not.
So, going forward, our offensive content policy is simply going to be this:
Offensive Content: We'll know pretend not to understand it when we white straight cis dudes see have it pointed out to us it.
I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. You know, like I definitely wasn’t before. I will tend to err toward including content, surprise! even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues like ones what women care about, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously. Like how ‘tournament of rapists’ could have if only they used more Latin words.
Any title in which racial violence, rape, torture, or a similar subject is treated as a central feature will naturally be subjected to increased scrutiny. Except that I’m not going to scrutinise anything until someone complains about it so this is essentially meaningless.
Everyone draws their own line on what is offensive differently, and all these topics are just a matter of ‘offense,’ with no real effects in the actual world, because I live in a tiny bubble where the way that people see me doesn’t have to affect my life in any meaningful way so I understand that any judgment OneBookShelf makes will always have someone who disagrees is actually affected by and gets harmed by on a day to day basis with it. But fuck ‘em.
A few final topics:
1. We will continue to be reactive, not proactive, on judging new title releases. Historically, 99.99% of publishers' content has been inoffensive. I understand neither statistics, nor history. Being able to activate their own titles for sale with our marketplace tools gives publishers additional control over their release marketing timing and generally gets RPG products to market more quickly. We will not constrain those 99.99% by introducing a required step where OneBookShelf staff reviews every title before it goes public just so that we can catch the .01%. As I said before, no scrutiny. Literally no change to our policies at all.
Such a review process would also add a large expense to our operations, I would have to hire real thinking people who could actually look at stuff, which I am not prepared to do which translates eventually to higher prices for customers.
What we will do, though, is code more customer-facing options to allow customers to report potentially offensive content to us. We’ll stick in a report button, that should keep you whining bastards happy. That way, customers can help us identify the offensive .01% of titles that much faster. And if no one reports anything, we don’t have to do anything. If a reported title looks questionable, I, in the form of the ultimate white straight cis dude will decide if anything is questionable then we will suspend it from sale while we review its content internally, and we will speak with its publisher to determine the fate of the title on our marketplace. Our default will be to suspend titles rather than our prior default of letting titles stay public.
To be clear, we need to code, test, and deploy this new reporting feature. It is not live now. And we’ll do this, like, whenever. I’m pretty sure that’s hard to do on a website, like set up a form you can email someone through. That’s hard, yeh? Website guys?
2. Once the reporting feature is live, we will review titles already on the marketplace that are reported by customers. There will be no "grandfathering in" of past content. Where we find things I randomly define as offensive content on site, even if we have permitted it in the past under our prior policy, we will remove it. We are no longer a wide-open marketplace, and some publishers may need to find a different place to sell some of their content (or all of it, if they decide to leave DriveThru entirely). I will pretend to think that these publishers include publishers of rape games, instead of publishers with a fucking conscience who don’t want to be associated with our bullshit. (Hey James Wallis, good call btw. Please don’t go back on your decision following this bullshit fauxpology from the website. It is bullshit and means nothing).
3. I doubt the industry will see the “Tournament of Rapists” title again, See, self-regulation totally works! but if the publisher decides to make changes to the product and wishes to sell it on DriveThru again, it will then be subject to this new offensive content policy. We are actually going to let the actual product back on our actual fucking site if they come up with some better blurbs and point out that rape is bad, like that is actually what we are fucking saying. Even I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.
4. We will be reviewing the use of our adult flag, including what content we expect to carry that flag and how we communicate the use of that flag to publishers and customers. I have no real understanding of the difference between reasonable adult content that we restrict because it could be misinterpreted by people below a certain age (contains sex, swearing, drug use, etc) and products where rape is a regular plot point and background dressing.
I appreciate all of our customers and publishers who were patient while we sorted these issues out but not you bastards who called us out and who gave us the benefit of the doubt as human beings trying to do the best thing. Aren’t we all just humans? Like, I don’t see colour, why does everyone keep trying to tell me I’m a racist? Like everyone, we sometimes make mistakes along the way. And then choose not to listen to anyone’s criticism or change our views appreciably in any way, because you know what? We don’t have to. We’ve got the power here, and we’ll always have the power. Gaming is FOR straight, white cis dudes, and it is my god-given fucking RIGHT to play games about rape as long as they are categorised under the special rape filter.
Steve 'white dude' Wieck
OneBookShelf / DriveThruRPG