CW: This post references a game that has been criticized for promoting power imbalances in sexual relationships and pedophilia. While I do not discuss the game's content in any detail, the post does include links to Twitter threads which talk about the game. The post is also fundamentally tied to those topics as I process the situation below and it may be upsetting to read.
Before last night I never saw or read Hot Guys Making Out. The title made it clear the game wasn't for me (I don't play romance TTRPGs). After reading the game, all the Twitter threads I can find, and past discussions/comments, there is a lot to unpack.
1. Impact Over Intent
Reading the game, I see why some people never read it as a minor-adult relationship and I see why others did. Reading the designer's comments back in 2013, I can see how they didn't intend it to create the coercive adult-minor dynamic people are pointing out. I actually had to read the game multiples time because the description some people gave, about how clearly this was promoting a pedophiliac abusive dynamic, wasn't as clear in the game's text.
But most important, this is a prime example of impact being more important than intent. Can I see the designer's intent/perspective in the text? Yes. Can I see how it caused the impact of being triggering, seen as promoting grooming and abuse, causing people to feel gross or traumatized, like this is exploitive, and all the other criticisms people voiced? 100% yes.
The voices of those upset, hurt, disgusted, feeling unsafe are incredibly important. Their reactions are 100% valid. The impact is harmful and triggering and even if the text did not intend that, even if other people had positive experiences with it, that impact matters. And the way the game is written is responsible for that.
2. Recreating Problems in Genre and Marketing
The game passes on historical problems in the genre it emulates. Bri already wrote a thread on this so I'll just link to it.
And this takes me to the art/illustrations. Reading the text, I can see how so many people didn't have a problem with the written content. Looking at the art? Not so much. The art is clearly tapping into certain yaoi tropes. Which from a marketing perspective makes sense if you want to capture that audience/highlight some of the game's inspiration. But the art also portrays the two characters in a way that reads as adult-child.
This comes up in a lot of games I've seen: maybe the game's intent wasn't problematic, but the unquestioned leaning into marketing touchstones of problematic source material impacts how people interpret and react to the game. It contributes to the harmful impact. And it seems like the art is part of the game that most clearly should have raised red flags...but because of comfort with a genre as "just being that way" somehow slipped past.
3. Silencing of Criticism and "Indie Darlings"
Part of what concerns me about the conversation is how many people stated either a) they have raised these concerns before and been ignored, or b) felt unsafe raising these concerns because of the praise/"darling" status around the game.
I wasn't around to see those discussions—and I also don't think that matters when multiple people have made similar statements. We need to do better when people raise concerns about traumatizing material. And we need to do better in making it clear those criticisms are welcome and should be safe to make.
There is an uncomfortable cult of personality trend in indie TTRPG design. There is a power differential between the indie "darlings" and other folks, and this cult of personality feeling amplifies that power imbalance. I don't have a proposed solution right now except to call it out.
It's easy for designers to see themselves as just a small designer/not super successful/just another fan of the genre...but that ignores the social power and dynamics. That ignores the responsibility that comes with having a platform in this scene. And that increases the chance that vulnerable people will be hurt and be silenced.
Looking at some of the people who endorsed this game, I can see why many felt the pressure of that power imbalance and remained silent.
4. Historical context of the game's dynamics
Some people have brought up the historical tendency of many gay teens having sexual experiences with adult men. I want to acknowledge this point while also acknowledging I'm not the person to have or contribute to that conversation. Erika makes a good point about the separation between the value of that conversation and how the game does or doesn't contribute to it.
5. The "Twitter Mob"
Some people have voiced problems with the way concerns about this game have spread across Twitter. This is another complex issue of its own. So a few brief points, recognizing this could be it's own entire topic:
a) those who have been triggered by this material should not be tone-policed. They are hurt, upset, and considering the concerns around being ignored by people with more social power, I imagine there is also fear about speaking up. Tone policing is a gross power move.
b) those who join the developing conversation, and are not reacting out of a place of personal hurt, could do a better job of considering their own impact. At the bare minimum, use content warnings.* Don't threaten, pressure, or curse out people who are not responsible for the content. Realize some people need time to catch up, process, manage their own emotions, etc. Social media can collapse our sense of time; a few hours is not very long for most people. Don't try to coerce others' reactions. (*I include myself in this criticism with some retweets I made last night).
c) we need to do our best not to automatically pass on information or exaggerate it. There were a few specific threads I found myself wondering if the people had read the game in question. And this isn't something unique to this situation; I know countless times people have endorsed/retweeted blog articles by me when I know for a fact they haven't read them. Automatic spreading of information like that is disturbing. Part of the problem with HGMO is the number of people who promoted it without reading it; recreating that problem in the criticism isn't helpful either.
d) the line between people who are hurt/triggered and those who aren't isn't clear cut. The anger and how people engage isn't clear cut. So refocusing on how destructive or "mob like" the response is feels patronizing and dismissive.
6. Trauma in Games
I'm not ready to fully engage with this right now but I want to acknowledge it.
People making games may have personal experience with trauma. People making games sometimes want to explore that trauma; people making games sometimes are and sometimes aren't aware of how that is shaping their own perspective.
People playing games may have personal experience with trauma. People may want to explore that trauma in play, or they may not want to, and it may shape how they react to game material in ways they are and are not aware of.
The TTRPG scene seems really poorly equipped to explore and discuss when these realities collide. I've seen something trauma-related flare up at least every 2-3 months over the past year.
Safety tools are a positive step, but they are often reactive to the play-situation. They don't really address how trauma affects design and people's reaction to a game's core premise. TTRPGs rely on relationships and relationship dynamics in ways other media (e.g. boardgames) often don't. So they are especially vulnerable to posttraumatic dynamics.
We need better mentorship, trauma consulting, and editing for designers. We need better content warning for players. We need a lot that doesn't exist consistently right now.
7. What Now?
P.H. Lee acknowledged the concerns and stated they would be making changes. Will these changes make the already-existing hurt vanish? No. Will these changes be sufficient for the game to be free of future triggering/hurtful impact? Impossible to say until the changes have actually been made.
I can appreciate that the initial statement of proposed edits may not seem like enough; I can also appreciate that the statement was made relatively quickly by Lee and the edits may change as they continue to process the concerns and how they want to incorporate them.
Am I personally at this moment blocking/cutting off all contact with Lee? No. They've acknowledged a problem and have stated at this time they want to work on it. I want to encourage people to acknowledge and address mistakes. Cutting them off right now doens't feel like the best way for me to encourage that process.
I recognize this can be taken as a "what-about-ism" attitude by some, but I have seen so much hurtful, thoughtless shit in the TTRPG industry by so many people that has remained unacknowledged by those people, that continues to be defended by them and many of the people in the scene, seeing someone at least state they want to improve is encouraging. It is not as common as it should be.
So I'm in a wait and see stance. Acknowledgment is encouraging; action will matter the most.
That said, I support people setting their boundaries and taking the actions they consider necessary. No one is obligated to give Lee another chance; no one is obligated to like or support me or my response; and at the end of the day, I care more about people taking care of themselves. And only each individual knows what is best for them and their situation.
Nov 24: After reading a second game by the same designer, which explicitly includes pedophilia, the acknowledgment so far is inadequate. The other game must also be addressed. Context here
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.