Shattered Glass On a Parquet Floor: Representation Burnout and Games

It was like a record scratch.

Reaching up to my necklace, I was greeted with jagged hints of glass where there once used to be a vial quarter filled with meteorites given to me by a dear friend. This necklace symbolized a rooting to my truest self when I felt as if I had strayed too far off the path. And now…it was just gone.

Suddenly I remembered that the pressure I was under was enormous. In just a few days an entire castle would be there to play a larp I had helped write, I had two major freelance jobs going, boxes and boxes of emails, and I was still reeling from dealing with several back channels and whisper networks. I felt lost, unmoored, and like I needed to escape.

Immediately, I took what was left of necklace off and excused myself abruptly from a full dinner table filled with chatter. The conversation was too loud, and the voices too merry. Everything became too much. Didn’t anyone know how hard it was for me to breathe? To survive? Months and years of trying to hold back the feelings that constant disrespect, microaggressions, and too much lip service became a tidal wave. I felt alone, and unable to talk to anyone who would actually understand, because no one would understand. I was the only Black woman there. Allies were not enough. I wanted nothing more than to hop in a cab to the nearest airport and head straight home. Instead, I sat in my room and cried.

And suddenly while mourning myself, I remembered how the necklace must have broken, and how exactly I got to that point.

We Aren’t Armies of One.

After 2 years of writing a thesis, intensive travel to conventions, larps, and conferences, and educating people on panels and keynotes about ethnicity and play making, not to mention building a budding narrative design career, I was exhausted. Not by the work of writing, but by the work of representing.

I realized that I was dangerously in need of a break from all of the issues I had been dealing with in games. From drowface and death threats[1], to sexual misconduct allegations that I often got to hear first hand only to be told there was nothing to be done about them, to instances of lateral violence and predatory behavior.

And it just was too much for one person to take on.

The never-ending tiredness of being one of the only Black people in the room, became too much. I was suffering from what Martha Tesema calls Representation Burnout. Representation burnout is: “that feeling of exhaustion that comes from being the only person of a particular identity in an environment.”

When you’re the only one in the room, there is pressure on you to perform (Be 2x as good!), or if you’re fighting for inclusion in the games sphere, it can be hard to tag someone in because there so few backups.

People of Color, let alone Black people, let alone Black people of American descent aren’t always visible in the games community, and engaging in the greater international larp community? Cue Tumbleweeds. That’s a lot of pressure, a lot of work, and a lot of feeling like I am obligated to do everything to make the space safer for those like me.

I was TIRED, but I felt like I didn’t have the right to be tired or to take a break even when it was suggested. I had to push on, even if I was tired.

In the gaming space this is what it might look like:

I am going to Generic Convention. I may be the only Black woman there. If there’s a panel about “Inclusion in Games” that’s 99% white men, do I :
A. Drink red wine at the bar with my friends. I am exhausted. Someone else can help today.
B. Go to the panel and continually quote Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, giving my all in the sincere belief things will change. Answer all the questions even when they make me uncomfortable.
C. Go to the panel and continually quote Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, giving my all in the sincere belief things will change, while wishing my friend at the bar will bring me red wine [3].

The option is C, folks. If I am the only one around to “do the work” as we so call it in radical spaces, then that is what I will do. Without question, it must be done. However, there’s something missing.

I know my work has an impact on others in the gaming sphere, but what I keep forgetting is that my work has an impact on me.

And to be honest, it’s time to acknowledge that marginalized voices can suffer from being the sole representation of their marginalized ethnicity, sexuality or gender expression. Sometimes the ask is too great for us.

We do sensitivity reading for free, go to conventions and sit on panel, after panel which often become “Please tell me I’m not a racist” therapy hour, and sometimes have to pay for our own tickets, transport, and hotel to boot! We are asked to be consultants on games and when we give our expert opinions, we are told that problematic issues can’t be changed “just yet”. Our names give projects credibility, but we aren’t being paid well, acknowledged, or even understanding how much the work takes from us.

We give and give and give, because we feel we must. Our resources are drained, our mental health is drained, but we feel like we just. can’t. stop. We take terribly paid assignments because we are consistently trying to: “Put our foot in the door,” and “Have a seat at the table“.

Like Tiana Clark mentions in her article about Black Burnout[2], we are often not taking breaks because we believe that what we are doing is not enough. We don’t feel entitled to take a break.

I felt ungrateful for being tired. After all, how many people in our industry can say they’ve traveled to multiple countries extensively to learn how different cultures participate in larps? Yet, what I needed to know was that my fortunes do not negate the fact that I deserve to be a human being with human needs.

We’re trying just so damn hard to change the world and break the glass ceiling, but what does breaking the ceiling matter if all the glass cuts us up as it falls?

So, what do we do about Representation Burnout in games? Well, I have some ideas.

What You Can Do to Support Yourself

Say No, even when it hurts.

Once, I was so excited to keynote a convention, and share with the community, that I didn’t notice I had been booked to be on so many panels talking about marginalized issues that I literally had NO time to take a break. The entire convention was me working, and I paid to be there. While, I’d still go to the convention, I certainly would have just said no to the level of work they expected me to do. It was unfair, and unfortunate because I didn’t get to talk to people that would have helped restore me. It’s okay to say “absolutely not” to projects that don’t pay you what you’re worth, to conventions who expect you to do more than they would ask any one else. If you say no, there will be more opportunities, and if someone is a racist on the internet you don’t have to solve it.

GHOST SOCIAL MEDIA

That’s right. Just…leave. You don’t need that constant barrage of bullshit all the time. If you need to talk to friends, selectively turn on a messenger app and tell people to *gasp* call you. I turned off Facebook as a present to myself for Black History Month. What better way to celebrate the achievement of Black folk than to make sure I don’t end up exhausting myself to the point where I’m crying in a shower while listening to Bjork’s, “It’s Not Up To You”?

Tell Your Allies to Deal With It.
When too many White European men stepped in to tell me that I, personally me, was a cultural imperialist because I was born in the United States and therefore could not speak on inclusion issues in the Nordic larp sphere because they had to listen to Rihanna[5], I decided I needed a fucking break and asked no one to tag me into some stuff for a while. One of my favorite people in the world then spent a few hours literally repeating messages like, “She, has asked you not to tag her into this. STOP.”

When you’re low on spoons and you got a real true blue ally? Tell them to do the work on your behalf, and then go take a nap and look at goth cat memes.

Tag In.

At this point in my career, I have a con crew. One of my favorite tag team partners is James Mendez Hodes. We worked on 7th Sea Stuff together, but beyond that I have had many lovely conversations and side eye glances at people while in his presence. I know that if I need some help, I can ask him to fill in and vice versa.

When you ask for help from other members of your community who struggle with the same issue, you bond with them, and also get a break. You can do the same for them when you feel better. It allows both of you to suplex inequality.

Make Your Own Games

Seriously. Take time to make your own work, for you. If you’re a narrative designer write a world for yourself. Use your gifts and talents for you. Stop making things for others and start making things for you while you take a break. Design a game for your friends. Your family. Your community. If you’re still on that freelance hustle or 9-5, carve out at least an hour a day *just* for your own ideas. It really does make a difference.

Understand Your Self Worth

You are only a human with a finite span of life. Do not waste your time believing that you alone must do this. You don’t. You don’t owe the ancestors your burnout. You owe them your success, your thriving life, your beautiful happiness. Burnout is not a Scout badge.

Ask for fair wages, ask for people to step back, and understand you are worth so much more not burned out, than burned out. Trust me.

What Allies Worth Their Salt Can Do

Listen without blame.

One of the worst things you can ask a marginalized person when they talk about their issues around their marginalization is to ask them questions like, “Is it really about (insert marginalization here)?” “Are you sure? Could it actually be about ____?” You’re placing blame or suspicion on them when they are often being radically honest and open with you. It isn’t your job to try and shift the blame somewhere else because it makes you uncomfortable. Just listen, and stay in your lane unless otherwise asked.

Don’t Pity Us. Learn some empathy.


“Goodness. I hate that the world is hurting you. Hugs.” Look. If you’re my friend and ally you better hate the way the world treats me. I expect that as a condition of friendship. You don’t need to tell me this every single time I mention an issue. This is pity, and I need action, not pity. Whenever you’re thinking of a great way to express that you have my back is to actually work to change things and perhaps a genuine, “Solidarity.”

Don’t tag me unless you know I want to be tagged.

Don’t tag people into threads, tweets, comments, or any internet shitstorm. Just don’t. We may not want to jump in. We may not need that today. Or we may not actually agree that something is offensive or requires our opinion. Unless we call, do not tag us. This puts the onus on us to take action when we may need a break from the action, or it can point problematic people in our direction.
If you see others tagging us in? Say, “please don’t tag them into these issues when they have asked not to be.”

Learn When To Get on the Horse and Ride.
So you talk a big game about being an ally? Well, learn when it’s time to ride for your community. Don’t just secretly whisper, stand firm when shit hits the fan and protect people with the privilege you have. In her Nordic Larp talk, “White Knighting”, designer Aina SkjĂžnsfjell explains how sometimes we really really need allies to occasionally get on that horse and joust for the team.[7] While we don’t give out cookies, we are really grateful to not have to speak up constantly. Sometimes we’re fucking tired and burned out, so you can speak out. Don’t speak over us, but if we’re not around or tired ride for us. Stand up for us. Don’t just pay us lip service. The work can’t be done just by us.

Be grateful for gentle and friend to friend call outs.

Do you know how hard it is to call out people you love? When I stopped deciding that I wanted to put White hetero-normative feelings first as I had been conditioned to do, I realized it meant I’d have to tell some friends that they were being bad friends to me. This led to me losing an entire friendsgroup. I’m not sad about it anymore, but I was for a long time.

If a friend come to you and says, that you are harboring some nonsense and want to talk about the friendship, the first thing is to listen. Try not to get defensive. Understand that in order to survive we rightfully should cut those ties that feel like they are damaging. However, if we are coming to you to talk and heal? Understand that is a gift.

Support Us

This one is easy. Open that wallet. Buy us a Ko-Fi. Buy us lunch. Send us a postcard in the mail. Retweet our Patreon. Become a patron. Get us gigs. Capitalism sucks, so help us survive in it.

But you must go beyond this. To truly help, you must…

Liberate Yourself.
The great educator Paulo Freire, in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed sates, “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”

This essentially means that we all have a job to do. We the marginalized must make you aware of your biases and privileges, but you also have to work. You have to educate yourself. You have to learn and do better. We cannot continue to do all the work in these spaces.

Pick up a book, read an article, and investigate yourself.

Picking Up the Shards

After realizing I needed a break from dealing with fighting oppression in game spaces, I suddenly remembered where the necklace broke.

On a parquet floor in a castle two days before I myself broke into peices, wedding goers thrashed to music made by a DJ whose set brought them in hordes to writhe in shouted happiness. I was exhausted, a wreck, and feeling as if I didn’t even belong among the merry. But dance floors are made of magic, and I had waited all night for this specific set. I needed so badly to feel my own feelings, and be called to the dance. Ignoring all those around me, I moved selfishly. I danced for myself to the music and noted that this was the first time in a long time, I felt utterly free.

And that is how the necklace broke. To the beat of music, snatching freedom from bpms, I allowed myself to dash off the path and for the glass to smash against me. I paid a price for that dance and freedom, but I don’t regret it.

I don’t have to hold up the sky.

Footnotes.

  1. Obviously if I had an autobiography there would been an entire chapter titled The Worst Campaign: Drowface and Deaththreats.
  2. This article is specifically catered to the Black American space. It’s important that we note this, because while it does have amazing advice that resonates, not all Black experiences are the same globally and within the US.
  3. This actually happened. The conversation was slightly more nuanced, and we talked through it, but I still have a thesis and a half for anyone who tries that shit again. It has to do with the Black body being packaged and sold for White consumption and how one Black woman’s access to wealth does not mean I am suddenly invalid. *boop*
  4. Preferably an Argentinean Malbec, which can retail for like $3 USD. Or I will take box wine, cause I am not that picky.
  5. If you would like to know how small the demographic for Black women in the Nordic scene is, when she points out the number and says, “Oh, there she is!” It’s me.
  6. To be fair, the glass was also only a quarter full, so the rest of that glorious gift remains on my altar next to bone dice, volcanic ash, and a raven puppet.
  7. No one likes being talked over and erased, but if occasionally you can pull a Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale and knock another fucker off a horse, we’d be pleased.