OneBookShelf (the purveyors of online gaming retail websites such as DnDClassics, DriveThruRPG, DriveThruCards, and RPGNow, among others) decided to ban a game by Postmortem Studios (run by James Desborough) entitled Gamergate: The Card Game. It has also apparently been banned by Warehouse23, which is run by Steve Jackson Games.
In the wake of this decision and the resulting controversy, I reached out to OneBookShelf CEO Steve Wieck and asked if he would consent to answer some questions on the controversy.
Mr. Wieck was gracious enough to do so (although several of my follow-up questions went unanswered as he understandably didn't want to take the whole weekend on the subject), and I present the email interview below. Follow-up questions are presented in the order they were asked and answered. The questions that were not answered are not given below; if he should subsequently answer them, I will happily update the interview accordingly.
It should be noted that the hard copy version of the game in question is still available for sale via The Game Crafter, and a print-and-play version is available from Gumroad. I myself have not seen the game yet, but a copy is winging its way to me even as I type this. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that I sell products through the various OneBookShelf sites myself, and have consistently recommended them highly at conventions and online.
Q: Given that the various OneBookShelf websites sell a great many things that many people find objectionable, including games that feature child rape, misogyny, and Holocaust themes, not to mention another game based on GamerGate (that has since been pulled by the publisher for reasons unknown), what was it about Desborough's Gamergate The Card Game specifically that warranted its being pulled from your websites when all those other games remain?
A: Any artistic work, including games, can deal with objectionable material but not be objectionable itself. You can have movies like Schindler's List that deal with the Holocaust, but are not morally objectionable movies. Likewise you can have works that deal with objectionable material in a way that does not seem appropriate. We felt that the Gamergate card game fell into this latter category. I am certain that others would differ on that opinion, and I don't think its fruitful to try to dissect the game into minutia.
Q: Do you have any plans to review those questionable products that are still for sale on your sites?
Q: What or who brought Mr. Desborough's game to your attention?
A: Who didn't? What your readers may not realize is that publishers who use our marketplaces are able to set-up titles on our marketplace and activate them for sale. No one at OneBookShelf / DriveThru reviews the titles before they are live for sale or automatically fed to our Twitter new release feed. After this title went live we started to get a lot of complaints through our customer service contact page and social media channels. We then took an initial look at the title and decided to take it off the marketplace while we reviewed it in more detail.
Q: At what level in your company was the decision made to pull the game from your sites? Were you involved in the decision directly?
A: The decision to ban the title was made during a group meeting through robust debate. As CEO, the responsibility for the decision is mine.
Q: Did anyone from your company review the contents of the game itself prior to its being pulled from your sites? Or was it pulled based on the topic alone?
A: I reviewed the contents prior to the title being suspended for further review. Part of what we have discussed at OneBookShelf is a different process to handle this should a similar situation ever arise again. We will probably opt to leave the title viewable by the public, but not for sale, rather than pulling the title completely from public view. This would allow people to discuss the title on site should they be so inclined. It also makes it more clear that we are reviewing the title, not that the title has been pulled, or pulled permanently, off the site.
Q: Mr. Desborough is well-known for producing games that push the envelope of what is considered acceptable in certain quarters, and for being not Politically Correct. Do you have any plans to review his other products current for sale, or future products such as the upcoming Gor RPG?
A: Many of Mr. Desborough's other games have already received numerous complaints, especially when they first went on sale on our marketplaces. In those cases we reviewed the titles and left them for sale. Those titles remain on sale today. We have no plans to review them again. I can safely say that carrying Mr. Desborough's titles at all has cost us more than they will ever make us in sales, but such is the cost of keeping an open marketplace, or now mostly-open marketplace for those who would split hairs.
While the Gor fiction series is criticized for being misogynistic, it does not have real world violence associated to it. As a game based on a work of fiction, it is difficult to imagine not allowing the Gor RPG on our marketplace. As I've said before OneBookShelf staff liking or agreeing with a title's contents is not a prerequisite for our carrying it on our marketplaces.
Q: The decision to pull the Gamergate card game has been criticized in some quarters for being arbitrary, since it wasn't based on any set of guidelines. Will there be a set of guidelines forthcoming that publishers can turn to to determine in advance if their games will be deemed too offensive? If not, do you think there will be a "chilling effect" as publishers decide to self-censor and avoid controversial topics rather than risk having their products removed from the sites?
A: As we had never before banned a game for its content in this way, we previously had no need for such a guideline. After we made the decision on this title, we discussed whether we should set such a guideline. We discussed the US Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart wrote the famous quote "I'll know it when I see it". I don't think that line was meant to be glib or authoritarianly arrogant. I think it simply and candidly acknowledged the extreme difficulty inherent in writing a guideline that defines when material crosses a threshold into being objectionable. In 13 years of operation and tens of thousands of titles, we've only ever found one title to cross that line for us. As you have noted, it's not for lack of content on site that some might find objectionable. We have managed to keep an open marketplace. We therefore did not think it was an efficient use of our time to attempt to define a content guideline when much wiser people like Justice Stewart had already tacitly acknowledged that a similar task was too difficult for them to accomplish.
I think self-censoring would be silly and self-defeating.
Q: Did you offer Mr. Desborough any opportunity to appeal your decision?
Q: As you made plain in your statement, almost none of the people complaining about it had enough time to actually receive a copy of it and examine the contents for themselves. Did you get similar subject-based complaints to the other Gamergate-based game from Machine Age Productions that was also announced on your Twitter feed? If not, how do you account for the discrepancy?
A: We were not aware of the Machine Age title until it was brought to our attention. The Twitter feed is automated and we do not review titles from established publishers before they go public on the marketplace. I don't know why we did not receive complaints or notices around that title. I have not read or reviewed that title.
Q: Can you foresee a circumstance when the Desborough Gamergate card game would be allowed back on your sites? At what point does enough time pass to make such a thing no longer "too current"?
A: I would like to review the game again in a few years' time.
Q: Your use of the quote from Justice Stewart is well taken, but I hope you'll admit that it does open the question up to a great deal of subjectivity and uncertainty, which can be the kiss of death for a business trying to plan for the future. Now that the precedent has been set, can you offer any assurances to publishers using your service that other products, perhaps next time an RPG or fiction product, won't be taken down because "you knew it when you saw it" even if the designer might not have seen it?
Fast forward to mid 1990's when Vampire was taking off. The hobby game distribution channels in the USA were still mostly made up of hobby/craft/model train stores that had expanded to offer D&D and these other weird games. TSR was purging D&D of demons and devils. Meanwhile we had the audacity to include the word "fuck" in character dialogue in a vampire supplement we published at White Wolf. This nearly got the title banned from some hobby retail chains and from one of the major distributors at the time.
These and other cases in my professional life have led me to have a severe loathing for banning or censorship.
RPG publishers tend to be good at probability math (except maybe those diceless game designers anyway...) I think before publishers worry about this they can look at the odds and calculate that we've banned one title out of the tens of thousands that we have accepted for sale and then decide from there if this is worth their time and energy to worry about.