Dungeons & Dragons & Identity: How the DMsGuild Empowered Equality

The following is based on ongoing unpublished research conducted by the author. Names and any other identifiable specifics have been changed in accordance with wishes of the participants.

It’s the greatest role-playing game on Earth, or at least that’s the tag line. And, there is a lot to be said to justify that statement. Dungeons & Dragons was, arguably, the first ever RPG and has time and time again shown its ability to stay relevant, innovative, and engaging to new players.

One of the most troubling, long-dark corners of Dungeons & Dragons has not been the dank and dusty dungeons full of skeletons and other monsters. Rather, it has been the deeply ingrained and problematic representations of race, culture, and gender throughout the history of D&D. And, while systematic change takes time, in its few short years of existence, we can already see how the democratization of content creation through the DMsGuild.com online marketplace for D&D content has made great headway towards changing D&D forever.

What is the DMsGuild

For those not in the know, the DMsGuild is the official marketplace for homebrewed D&D content online. Because D&D uses the “open gaming license”, players can legally create content using the lore, rules, mechanics, and even settings of D&D. Though creators can sell their content in many places, theDMsGuild is the largest, most successful, and only officially supported marketplace for doing so.

It is also an absolute monster of a marketplace with hundreds of new content submissions weekly. 

Democratization of content and purchasing power

What makes DMsGuild powerful in a cultural sense is that it opens a floodgate. Artists, writers, and other creators once had to spend months or even years getting into the “in” crowd for D&D, if they wanted to publish. This meant traveling to conferences (which costs money and time off work) and ingratiating yourself with the fairly homogenous white-cis-het-male creator cirlce. Even then, the creator could spend months selling their product at conferences and paying hefty fees.

The DMsGuild, however, is entirely online and mostly anonymous. There are no gatekeepers, save those that check content to make sure it does not infringe on any copyright or blatantly violent content rules. 

This open gate has allowed creators from across the world to share their content and, by doing so, their own identity and voice, into the D&D world. The DMsGuild opend a veritable floodgate. And, the gatekeepers that had so long caused D&D to be a white male power fantasy made way for queer writers, artists of color, and creators from across the world, with strong opinions on cultural representation.

The new content meant that a whole new generation of players who, once alienated by the homogeneity, could feel welcome, as well.

Supporting Communities in the DMsGuild

One of the most exciting outcomes of the DMsGuild has been the supportive spaces for creators that have sprung up around it. Discord servers, facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and everything in between serve as meeting grounds for creators. These public spaces make explicit and public the conversations around identity and equality both in the creator community and the resulting creations. 

That part is unsurprising, as we have seen time and time again that social media communities have the power to unseat disenfranchising practices.

What is a surprise, is how adamant traditionally dominant members of creator communities have been in supporting the new voices in their space. Established creators and community members have uplifted, not pushed down these voices. 

Identities of members

By working within these groups, we have found that creators tend to fall into one of six identities on a spectrum. The spectrum includes three simple binaries: Dominant vs Non-dominant,Community member vs Isolationist, and Established vs New creators

Defining these groups is an exercise in great detail, but, in the simplest of terms, we saw “dominant” as encompassing people who fit into socially dominant categories such as white, highly educated, economically privileged, male, and hetero. We saw non-dominant as being gender non-binary, queer, non-white, having a language other than English as a first (because D&D is published in English), and having limited access to internet or computer resources.

New creators were those who had been creating for less than two years. An interesting and surprising category was the isolationists vs community members. All participants were at least mildly active members of online creator communities. However, the isolationists expressed deep social disconnect from the community at large, seeing it purely as a professional group from which they could find freelance work or contract out to other freelancers. 

Relationships

One of the most exciting aspects of our research has been understanding how these groups of people worked, or did not work, together. 

Most surprisingly, was the relationship between new, non-dominant creators and the dominant, established creators. The established dominant creators were primarily well funded white male creators using D&D freelancing as a profitable hobby. They had largely moved on from writing and focused on producing, contracting out writing to others.

What surprised our research team was both how explicitly and excitedly this group supported their own disempowerment within the community. The dominant creators saw their own style of writing as fading and archaic. They recognized that they trapped themselves in a style of creation that had evolved little in 30 years. And, for the most part, they saw the introduction of new voices as a positive change for D&D as an art and community.

On multiple occasions, creators from all groups discussed how the most established community members would “refuse to hire anyone that looked the same as them,” meaning that they would not hire other white men to write. Those dominant creators often claimed that the new voices simply made better content and brought innovation to a stale art form. However, they just as often claimed that the new creators deserved a chance that had been withheld for nearly 50 years as white straight males dominated the creator community.

Below, we have tried to model some core understanding of what community members get out of and put into the community.

The resulting community uplifts and empowers creators. All the while, those that uplift new creators slowly erode their own dominance over the group. It is brilliant and beautiful and uncanny to see such levels of collaboration in a culture so often associated with toxicity and hate.

Conclusions

Time will tell how D&D grows over the next few years. For now, though, we have evidence that change is in the air. The marketplace now openly hosts queer, non-binary, or stereotype-challening content that. A few short years ago, the overly represented homegeneous player base would have scoffed at and derided this work. Of course, now we know that player base isn’t nearly as homogeneous as once assumed. 

The community itself remains a place of great value, both implicitly and as a source of learning for those who study such places of learning. The community upends established models of both community of practice and affinity space. It throws to the wind models of how dominant and non-dominant voices interact. And, atop all of this, it serves as a hub for learning and engaging with a skill-based community that encourages development of highly technical and creative skills.

About the Author

Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.

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