Part 1: Cornerstones
The concept of community is ever-evolving. With the influx of technology and the change in the ways we interact, this discussion is relevant today more than ever. What is equally true is that we carefully construct the communities around us, because in most cases, we need them to survive. They are places where we can form our ideas and dreams. Places we can go for advice and support. People we can look to when we are feeling conflicted. We can rely on our community members to challenge us, support us, love us. When these spaces are safe, they help us to flourish and achieve our goals. And when they are toxic, they severely limit our human potential. Annie remembers first joining the Dwarf Fortress family, and how it wasn’t the complexity of the game that really fascinated her, but rather the massive fan base that really took her breath away.
“I remember when I was first starting to date Zach and he told me about Bay 12 games, so I googled him. I was just so fascinated about how they had cultivated this community that not just supported them, but actually really loved them and cared about them. People believed in this project and showed their commitment in a way that was totally foreign to me. I grew up in a really small community, where if you go back 7 or 8 generations, we are all basically related to the same 14 people. So, I had never really understood what it meant to build something like that, because my group, for better or worse, came pre-installed long before I was ever born. It was amazing to watch. It continues to be amazing to watch.”
The commitment of the Dwarf Fortress fan base is undeniable and they show it in a myriad of ways on a daily basis. In 2016, fans organized a special Dwarf Fortress award ceremony, coined Dwarf Moot. Completely driven by their love for the game and the gratitude of the space that these brothers had created, fans took it upon themselves to secure funding, find a venue, make t-shirts, arrange catering and 3-D print a trophy. Annie talks about that day,
“It was really so fun to watch unfold. I was in total disbelief. Dozens of people showed up and I kind of just hung out in the back, watching them answer their questions. And then when their talk was over, they were just swarmed by fans, asking them to sign their t-shirts, I think one guy even asked Tarn to sign his ARM. And I couldn’t even make my way up to the front. It was this huge crowd.”
But celebrations and meetups aren’t the only ways that everyone shows up to support Bay 12. Before Dwarf Fortress was even an idea, the forums were prominent on the Bay 12 website. The boys have been pretty open minded about how these spaces operate. “Basically, you can’t be an asshole,” Zach always says. And what is defined as being an asshole is not up for debate. On the forums, overt and chronic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism or any other other aggressive, exclusionary behavior earns you a ban. “We used to just ban with one word: ‘bigot,’” Zach says. “We’ve started to realize that maybe it was more complicated than that, and actually a lot of thought goes into who gets to stay and who needs to leave on the forums.”
It’s painfully obvious that the boys value the forum community as much as anyone else. “It’s helped us through some really rough times,” Annie says. “We are pretty private people, it’s only been recently that we really started to share our struggles with the public. But it always helped to know that we had this wall of people behind us that wanted the same kind of world we did. They missed us when we were gone and were there to celebrate when big things happened. When we got married, we only briefly mentioned it on the website, and a whole thread started in the forum, wishing us well. Some of my own family didn’t even do that.”
The Adams brothers are going to be the first to tell you that they aren’t activists. They are political in the way most exceptionally thoughtful people are, but it’s certainly not something they are trying to push onto others. (Quite the opposite actually — you’d be hard pressed to find two people that value critical thinking more than these guys.) However, people should be careful to not conflate this with some kind of tolerance fallacy. For them, it comes down to a choice of what to tolerate and what not to. And for the Bay 12 family, including its various moderators, language and behavior that makes others feel unsafe is unequivocally going to catch you underneath a ban hammer.
Bay 12 isn’t shy about this. In a series of recent tweets, the idea of trans dwarves came up. Dwarf Fortress famously has no use for gender roles, and already has homosexual dwarves, so for Zach and Tarn, this wasn’t an unreasonable addition. Nor would it be difficult for them to include from a programming sense. The response varied from grateful to hateful, and some were quick to label the boys social justice warriors, liberal sycophants and even too talented for their own good (thanks, I guess?). Other comments quickly became violent in nature.
(Editor’s Note: In solidarity with our trans relatives, we have chosen not to include tweets advocating violence in this piece. Transgender individuals experience violence (including homicide) at a much higher rate, lack equal protection under the law regarding employment and are disproportionately represented in individuals who are experiencing homelessness. These factors are amplified when individuals also identify as a person of color. There are many ways you can stand up for our brothers, sisters and relatives. Please visit The National Center for Transgender Equality for more information https://transequality.org/ )
The drive behind Dwarf Fortress is not a social justice agenda, but rather it strives for ultra realism and representation. The representation of transgender and gender non-conforming people is especially salient in the work Annie does to end violence against women.
“I grew up in an indigenous community and in these traditions, trans people, or probably what would be considered as non-binary or genderqueer today, were highly revered. We often thought of them as spiritual leaders, and at the very least we believed that they were sent to us so that we could learn from them. They would care for the children or be given other very important tasks. So to see someone advocate violence against or separation from my relative, it is physically painful for me to watch. And the link between violence against trans people and violence against women is undoubtedly the same. There is so much they can teach us, if we would only create the place to listen and learn. I’m proud that Bay 12 can be part of that larger conversation and that Zach and Tarn are willing to take a stance on it.”
Trans people exist, despite any assertions to the contrary, and are deserving of safety, security, protection and a place in the world. One day they may find their place in fortress as well.
In a world that is seemingly full of toxicity, Dwarf Fortress tries to be the antithesis of that. You aren’t going to find debates about who is or isn’t a real gamer, dehumanizing conversations about personal identity, threats or any other efforts to exclude people. Some could argue, illogically, that this excludes people who have divergent ideas about race, gender, sexuality, national origin or that it promotes a culture of censorship. But the priority has been, and always will be, the safety and support of the community members. The boys, the moderators and the entire Dwarf Fortress family works hard to set this example. Losing might be fun, but when we choose to fight toxicity by providing a healthy space for people to learn and grow; everybody wins.
Kate has done her own research on how online communities can create safe places for people to play games. A person’s mental health is intrinsically linked with the communities they interact with, both online and offline. If you’re encountering hate language and threats against your person every time you interact with a community, that’s going to hurt your mental health. There have been some grassroots groups working within the gaming community to help people with mental health concerns. Take This, Anxiety Gaming, and CheckPoint are a few examples. Whether you are an autistic child or an adult with bipolar disorder, or any of the other myriad wonderful expressions of being human, you deserve to be able to play and have fun. This is a lot easier to do if you can feel safe while you’re doing it. Again, there are things you can do to help make our little part of the internet a safer place for everyone.
First, please, keep up the awesome work as a community. We love and appreciate all the support and kind words. By demonstrating good community citizenship, you are showing others what is okay behavior and what isn’t. Plus, it’s literally the highlight of our day!
Second, please, please, do not feed the trolls. This, of course, has a caveat. If you see toxic behavior, do shut it down, and consider reporting it to the platform for abuse. We all know what toxic behavior looks like — this isn’t someone who just disagrees with you — this is the kind of language that makes people (usually the targets of this toxic behavior) feel unsafe. Silence is complicity, so if you are in a position to be able to call someone out on their bullsh*t, then please do. But engaging in unending, unresolvable rage-filled arguments is counter-productive and not making a space safer. So, do your best — we believe in you and thank you for your labor.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health concerns, there are many resources available. For more information check out: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/
Annie Forsman-Adams is a student, educator and indigenous activist. Her work focuses on ending violence against indigenous women and understanding the intersection of race, gender, criminology and criminal justice. She became a member of the Dwarf Fortress family when she met Zach in 2013, and since then has become a vocal supporter for visibility and inclusivity within the gaming world. You can find her on twitter (@theothertuklus) where she shares what life is like inside Bay 12 games (and a whole lot of animal pictures).
Kate Ringland is an avid gamer and disability advocate. Having earned her PhD in Informatics from the University of California, Irvine, her research lies at the intersection of disability, games, and technology. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University designing technology to support individuals with depression and anxiety. You can find more about her at her website: https://kateringland.com or follow her on twitter @liltove.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Sev Ringland for his copy-editing!