Change Doesn’t Happen from Within

Content Warning: this post contains references to racism and abuse in the workplace.

Things have been not so great with Wizards of the Coast in recent days. There’s a lot occurring in that space that is leading some of the player base to call for a boycott of all WotC properties (D&D and M:tG in particular). I’m not going to rehash a lot of that here, because it is a lot to take in, but know that there are plenty of threads about it over on Twitter if you have the time and inclination to look into. I do believe that we have an ethical responsibility to see how our corporate overlords are actually behaving before we give them more money. While humans rely upon food, water, oxygen, and some other necessities to survive, the Corporation is fueled by money.

Before getting overly concerned about what happens to D&D if WotC collapses and Hasbro inevitably drops them and sells off the properties piece-by-piece, just know that D&D will more than likely outlive WotC, just like it outlived TSR. Some of you may not realize for the first half of its existence, D&D was owned by a company named TSR, which was founded by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye back in 1973. Although D&D was TSR’s first game, it wouldn’t be their last. TSR would produce role-playing games for various genres: westerns, sci-fi, super-heroes, and mobsters. After Don Kaye’s death in 1975, the company was reorganized into TSR Hobbies, Inc. Then in 1983 it was reorganized again, this time with the flagship being simplified down to just TSR, Inc. All was not well with the owners of TSR, Inc., and the privately held company wound up with a majority of the shares going to Lorraine Williams in the mid 1980s. Gygax would follow suit and sell his shares to Williams as well. Under Williams’ leadership, TSR would appear to prosper. 2nd Edition AD&D would produce a wide array of new settings, and for fans, the future looked bright. Things weren’t actually so peachy behind the scenes. Williams mismanaged TSR to the point that it was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1997, when the company sold out to WotC for $25 million (reportedly enough to cover the remaining debt that TSR owed to Random House publishing).

The point of all that history is that D&D effectively died in 1997. The idea of a mid-sized “family” company effectively vanished when Williams took the helm, attempting to turn TSR into something huge. She failed. Although some of the TSR staff would make the change to WotC, there was a massive cultural shift about to occur. When you are working for a privately owned company like TSR, you know who your boss is. At first, it was Gary Gygax, and then Lorraine Williams. There is still a degree of accountability when you are operating a business on that level. When you work for a large corporation, things get muddied.

This is where changing the system from the inside gets impossible. Ultimately, corporations operate with one motive, and one motive only: to maximize the profits of the shareholders.

You may be saying, “But doing things the morally/ethically correct way will increase profit!”

The Board of Directors over at Hasbro doesn’t care. They are not paying attention to the corner of Twitter that is calling for boycotts. Right now, D&D has had its most profitable year ever, and WotC continues to be a good investment for Hasbro. To the Board, everything is going great. That means they are not going to call for a personnel change or a change in HR. The only way they are going to think about changing things within WotC (and D&D in particular) is if another company is impacting their own profits by doing things ethically; or if there are lawsuits.

To make a corporation change, you have to hit them in the only place it will hurt, and that is their profit margin.

“So what can I do?”

You can stop giving that corporation your money. I know, your $500 a year towards their products is just a drop in the bucket, but it doesn’t stop there. Stop playing their games on your streams. Stop producing podcasts centered around their product. All of that is free advertising. Want to know how WotC has turned D&D from a niche hobby into the massive profit machine it is? Look no further than all the free advertising that people are giving them, and not giving other games. I guarantee that if certain big name streamers had been playing another game instead, that game would be having a massive influx of players. So, stop playing their game to an audience.

Stop producing content for their game.

This is the most difficult. Because this means money to you. And when ethics starts to impact your own earnings, suddenly your ethics become a bit fuzzy.

“They say they are going to do better! They are better than they used to be, right?”

What content producers need to realize is that Hasbro could decide to pull the plug on the current iteration of the game whenever they choose. A new edition makes all of that content you’ve been creating and your income relying on basically vanish (at least the revenue stream from it). Because the corporation doesn’t care about you. All of that hard work and effort you have put into all of that content that you effectively then handed to WotC? Gone. Because they know that a new crop of content creators will come along with the next iteration, and they will use them up as well. I’m not talking about content made by employees of WotC (that’s literally your job), or even freelancers (you are under contract to produce, so once again, your job). I’m talking about all the independents producing content on their own for DM’s Guild.

TSR didn’t crumble because of change from within. Back in the 1990s there were plenty of people already complaining about issues with D&D. The bioessentialism issue was well known. The fact that the writers and design staff were almost all white dudes was also not an unknown factor. None of the people raising these complaints had a seat at the table when it was a privately owned company, at a time when those concerns from within might have produced change.

Now the only “change” that will occur will be performative window-dressing.

If you are a marginalized creator whose on fire, maybe they will offer you a position, where you will immediately be tokenized in the way that corporations do. You will be told to talk less and to smile more (yes, I just watched Hamilton with about half of the rest of the U.S. population). Don’t complain. Don’t raise issues at the big table. Come in, punch the clock, let them wheel you out when the sabers start rattling about issues of representation in the game.

Or, don’t give them another ounce of your time, talent, and money.

Walk away. Support other game companies that don’t have the same issues. Better yet, make your own.

Make a space where people are welcome. Not just at the gaming table, but in the studio.

WotC is not going to change. Are you okay with that?

[Edit: I sent a letter to Hasbro asking that they investigate their subsidiary and address the current issues in leadership at WotC, and that until such time I will not be spending more money on their product or associated products. It is unlikely that anything will come of that letter, but if others were to start sending letters, it may result in some kind of action. The older generation of corporate execs and board members don’t really keep an eye on Twitter or other social media. To be honest, the younger ones probably don’t either.]

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