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Roll20 is Clueless about Social Justice

Roll20 is Clueless about Social Justice published on 11 Comments on Roll20 is Clueless about Social Justice

Roll20 has made some awful mistakes and I think that they’re worth exploring.

The clusterfuck of mismanaging their social media aside (seriously don’t do what they did), I want to talk about how they treated YouTuber DawnforgeCast, specifically when the incredibly lifelike NolanT said words to the effect of “we don’t need more white guys.”

I assume they have done this not out of some weird self-hatred, but rather from some misplaced sense of social justice and inclusion. It’s the only assumption that I think makes sense. And if I’m right, Roll20 has completely misunderstood inclusion.

There are doubtless some folk out there who are chuckling about all this. After all, a bunch of white dudes suddenly have ruffled feathers (and I won’t say we don’t need our feathers ruffled) because they couldn’t have something. But I don’t think Roll20 put out an applaudable message, even if it is an deeply layered and ironic one. I think Roll20 is being racist, but not for the reasons you might think.

I use the word “racism” to always mean systemic racism. When I mean something else, I tend to just say “bigot.” Or “asshole.” I’m clever that way. White people in the US can’t really be targeted by systemic racism. They can be targeted by bigotry. And by assholes. Roll20 has managed to be all three of those things.

Roll20’s racism against other groups is implicit in their message to DawnforgeCast. If they don’t need more white guys, that means that they do perceive some need for people of color. In what capacity? Certainly not as a player base, because while DawnforgeCast is a white dude, his viewers almost certainly include other groups. It’s pretty easy to infer, I think, that Roll20 only cares about people of color if they can exploit them for brand imaging. “We don’t want our brand image to have nothing but white people” is probably a smart idea, but it’s phrased badly and that bad phrasing is indicative of bad thinking. Inclusivity isn’t about chasing white dudes out of the hobby (though a certain kind of snow-flake will be self-excising when enough minorities come in); it’s about making minorities who are interested in the hobby feel welcome and to have spaces where they can enjoy it.

NolanT’s recent actions are just another boring manifestation of systemic racism from a white dude, who, I fucking promise, thinks he’s ‘woke.’ If Roll20 wants to be more inclusive, they should hire some people of color, reach out to non-white gamers and not spend energy worrying about whether DawnforgeCast is too white for their brand image. But that will never happen, because their corporate policies do not see humanity (and that’s evinced by how they treat users on forums they control.) They do not understand the benefits of going out of the way to include minorities (new ideas, new people, new friends) nor do they exhibit an understanding of why representation is important (seeing ourselves in a positive position that might otherwise have seemed impossible).

The point of inclusion is not to try to dictate who minorities are and aren’t. It’s to try to make society safe for as many people as possible. The point of representation isn’t to lie about how many people exist in a hobby, it’s to let minorities know that they’re welcome in that hobby. If NolanT’s goal was to make Roll20 a safe space, his reaction to DawnforgeCast needed to be, “okay, if this event is worth our time, can we also organize one that is representative of more groups?” If the event wasn’t worth their time, they needed say that. Politely. Instead, what they said amounted to “you aren’t worth our time because you’re the wrong color. The right colored people are worth our time because we could exploit that in a developing market.”

NolanT’s reaction was rooted in negativity and hostility  — exclusion at the cost of inclusion, and in a space where resources besides time were effectively infinite, which makes his messaging puzzling from a standpoint of profitability as well as social justice. His reaction shows that Roll20 as a corporate entity does not see its customer base as players, or even as people, but rather solely as means of generating profit. The type of social justice NolanT was trying to advance by giving DawnforgeCast the boot lives in the same cynical spirit that Nike had when making Colin Kaepernick their sponsor while donating money to the same groups that hate him. You can’t have social justice or inclusion if the bottom line is more important than people, and all that Roll20 has done is give a nice, easy strawman to people who hate the idea inclusivity and who want to chase off new players and new ideas.

So yeah, I suppose count Thieves Can’t among the groups that will no longer be using Roll20’s services.

I’m hemming and hawing between GM Forge and Fantasy Grounds. Help me decide in the comments.


For what little it’s worth, I’d recommend being real careful about how much trust you extend to the youtuber in question. It wouldn’t at all shock me that the guy running roll20 is this sort of dirty word do-gooder, but Andrew is not in a position that he should be casting stones at anyone.

Oh? Why do you say that?

I don’t how much of the evidence remains these days, but back when people started to realize that DMs might possibly be able to make some money out of youtube, he made some dummy accounts to go troll other DMs and push exposure to his channel. After he was caught out, he posted an apology video and admitted to doing this.

He _sounds_ terribly sincere but he always sounds terribly sincere…it is one of his great gifts. I have a great deal of difficulty putting any faith in anything he says at this point, though, and would simply urge caution before jumping on any sort of bandwagon he’s driving.

I have to fundamentally disagree that white people *cannot* be the target of systematic racism in the US; that seems more an article of faith than one of fact. Mainstream systems are surely biased towards white people, sure, but once you go sufficiently far into leftist spaces, say the university admissions system, systematic anti-white bias seems entirely plausible. Just because it’s, similarly to roll20, probably done for cynical political reasons rather than a genuine understanding of value of diversity doesn’t mean it’s not racist. In fact, it might well be also racist against black people in different ways. That said. the fact that there’s little systemic racism against white people seems to be more a product of historical cultural power dynamics and economics than some sort of inherent fact that systems cannot be anti-white.

I sort of feel like roll20 would almost be better off if they straight up went max cynicism and said they need black people for marketing reasons. I think people, even on the left, already expect companies to be amoral profit maximizers anyways and thus would possibly be more understanding of that motive if it were made plain. Iunno. Like this, it just seems like they tried to play SJ and flubbed their roll, which makes them look bad to both sides.

Also, this may be relevant.

I’m going to challenge your assumptions.

First — a small one. No one whose thoughts are well respected in leftist or progressive circles thinks that white skin is the intrinsic reason for systemic racism. As you say, cultural power dynamics and economics are powering white supremacist vehicles, behaviors, and policies. Most white people aren’t bigoted. But all white people benefit from racism, whether they want this to be true or not. That’s uncomfortable to hear, but it’s also an unavoidable truth. Someone with power upholding a system that was taught to them can be completely unbigoted and perpetuating some regulation or fee or thought that is intrinsically pro-white or intrinsically anti-everyone else and they can do this without ever having a bigoted thought cross their mind. Remember that people are still alive who grew up being not allowed to marry inter-racially, vote, or attend white schools. Systems change the slowest of all other aspects of human culture, and our systems in the US were originally constructed around monied white land owners – the same group that is still benefiting primarily from those systems.

Second — I hold two degrees and have taught English and Communication at the collegiate level. I’m intimately familiar with university culture, and I assure you that the college admissions system is neither anti-white nor is it leftist.

I’m a leftist, so I will recognize things that are leftist – for instance, KU has a union for its student teachers, and this union organizes for higher wages. That’s pretty left. There aren’t ballbats and cat ears, but it’s left. The admissions system, however, is not leftist. If anything, administrators tend toward no ideology at all or else tend to lean right (with the exact center being a point where capitalism is no longer the dominant ideology.)

A lot of professors are leftists – of sorts – because while we may not be comrades, and we don’t have time, incentive, or power to fight against the loss of institutional power that’s creeping through US universities, some of us have definitely found that Marxism is an effective critical lens, especially in the humanities. In general, I’ll say that leftist professors are going to good on theory and eh on praxis.

But also a lot of professors aren’t leftist – it turns out that there are other valuable critical lenses in the world — and one of values of college is the broad spectrum of thought that students are exposed to. I’ve met plenty of conservative professors, libertarian professors, and I’d say the majority I’ve met are some brand of liberal. This might be a lesser challenge to one of your assumptions if you had previously thought that leftism was an aspect of liberalism; the two ideologies are diametrically opposed to one another.

So if the administrators aren’t leftist, and the professors are mostly not leftist, what makes university leftist? The answer, I think, is that it’s one of the few spaces that tolerates leftism, and people think that this means that the space is necessarily leftist itself. It’s simply not a true assumption – at least not in the US.

In fact, if we look at how absurdly expensive college has become (liquify a college textbook and it’s more expensive by gallon than oil), it’s clear that the only people who can afford to go are either privileged in some way (their family can take on some debt) or are willing to bet their future against the cost of attendance (so teenagers who overestimate their chances at a middle-class life. Student loans aren’t predatory though, it’s fine, nothing to see here.) That doesn’t attract leftists – but crippling debt and an exposure to Marxist thinking can certainly create a lot of leftists in a hurry, and I think we’re also seeing that. Crippling debt, I think, is a naturally radicalizing condition.

Anyway, university isn’t a leftist space. University is a space that tolerates leftism.

Now, looking back at university admission systems — are they anti-white?

The employees are mostly white. The bosses – deans, chairs, presidents, and other administrators — are mostly white. And the students that come in are mostly white. That smells as about as anti-white as college tuition fees smell leftist – so not at all. But maybe there is some intrinsic anti-white bias. Let’s suppose that the admissions system will look at a white 4.0 student and a Hispanic 4.0 student and accept one but not the other.

Eh… no. If they accept the Hispanic student at all, they’re going to accept both of the 4.0 students and cut out other students who perform worse… but probably not enough of those. They’re more likely to accept probably drop-outs and simply jam a few more students into every class and cram a few more sections into every under-paid adjunct’s schedule than they are to tell a bunch of white, underperforming high school grads that they should go be an electrician or a plumber and maybe give up on being a lawyer or a professional artist (cough). So that’s anti-white. But it’s also anti-everyone else, and to a degree, bigots within the system might accidentally insulate some person of color from debt, if that person bounces off the admission system and then goes to a trade school and learns to weld. That’s a pretty unlikely scenario in my opinion, though, so let’s just call the admission system anti-student, because it’s definitely flawed in the favor of… where does all that money go anyway? oh. Wealthy white land owners.

University isn’t an anti-white space. It’s increasingly an anti-student space.

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.


“I sort of feel like roll20 would almost be better off if they straight up went max cynicism and said they need black people for marketing reasons.”

It worked for Nike. Zing!

“I think people, even on the left, already expect companies to be amoral profit maximizers anyways and thus would possibly be more understanding of that motive if it were made plain.”

Third assumption I’m going to challenge: leftism is not some haven for people of color. Progressives and anti-racists are definitely marrying leftist ideas, but I promise you that you’re going to find plenty of leftists who are, in one way or another, bigots.

But yes, I expect corporations to be amoral profit maximizers and so should you.

“Also, this may be relevant.”

It’s definitely and interesting article. I’m on the fence about how relevant it is.

Polyarmory is a subculture and gaming is a subculture, so I guess there’s connective tissue there, but I think there’s a LOT of contextual difference between the gaming subculture reaching out and saying “hey, people of color are welcome here” and the polyamorous subculture reaching out and doing the same thing, since fetishes don’t matter in gaming but they REALLY matter in sex (and unless porn hub has changed since two hours ago, racial fetishism is definitely a thing).

I think, though, that what matters in the gaming subculture is that we ensure that our media outlets have honest, transparent intentions and that within our subculture we are making sure that we’re doing our best not to chase people off.

“I use the word “racism” to always mean systemic racism. When I mean something else, I tend to just say “bigot.” Or “asshole.” I’m clever that way. White people in the US can’t really be targeted by systemic racism. They can be targeted by bigotry.”

(Definition of racism
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3 : racial prejudice or discrimination)

According to you, the first and third definitions in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary don’t exist because they say nothing about systems or power. Do you not understand that most words have multiple meanings and that refusing to recognize that is regressive?

Did you not know that dictionary definitions, when there is more than one definition for a single word, is usually ordered by frequency of use? By choosing to pretend the first definition of Racism doesn’t exist, you are saying the most commonly used version of the word is unimportant.

I’m sorry but the fact is undeniable, NolanT said something very racist. Does this alone make him racist, no, stupid things get said occasionally. However, considering this is not the first time he has said something anti-white, we may have to consider the possibility that he is racist against white people.

I am half white[European mutt] and half Asian [Chinese, and Huns from the step] I got a lot of serious hate, and for the first seven years of my life, physical abuse, from members of my Asian relatives simply for the horrible crime of being born half WHITE.
However you slice it, racism is simply racism, be if for corporate gains, some perversion of “social justice”, or just simple hatred for someones genetics.
As someone who’s dealt with racism towards white people for a big chunk of my life, and someone who has gone out of her way to promote what I originally saw as a fantastic website for table top roleplay gaming, this honestly hurts me very deeply.
Not more importantly, but to some significance, it puts a spot of somewhat unpleasant work in front of me.
I absolutely refuse to continue supporting the site after this.
Which means I now have to change all my roll 20 specific art support, and resource dump groups to general online tabletop gaming, and change up the descriptions of 200+ pieces of art I personally posted up for people to use in roll 20.
But hey, whats one more white persons support, right?

I’m very sorry you experienced that. 🙁

I’m offended at Roll20’s little stunt too. They made zero staffing changes as a result, so their corporate policy is obstensibly unchanged.

There are plenty of other options for us to DM online, but I still haven’t had the time I want to explore them. Definitely let me know what site you settle on. I’m very interested in alternatives.

As far as a system to replace roll20, I can say from personal experience that if you’re looking for an immediate buy-and-use application and if you don’t really care about the availability of any kind of scripted automation and don’t mind your customization capability being limited by the , FG is probably your best bet.

If you’re like me, and would much rather have a system that will do boring repetitive things for you (line-of-sight, automated traps, etc.) that provides a fairly easy-to-use web interface for players, while being willing to accept a still-very-developmental product, GMForge is the better option, hands-down.

(If you’re looking for something that provides robust automation, handles line-of-sight and vision reasonably well, and is 100% open-source, I’d direct you towards MapTool, as long as you can live with the fact that anyone not on the host’s LAN, including people on a VPN, is entirely unable to connect reliably due to the structuring of the Java-based communications protocols…)

Of those three, GMForge seems best positioned to eventually, one day, provide a full-spectrum suite of tools that can do, or be made to do with some additional JavaScript coding, whatever you want.

Full disclosure: I have used all of the VTT options covered (including roll20, as well as some others); I am currently using GMForge, and I hope to continue to be an active participant in the GMForge development community going forward. (Shameless self-promotion: I’ve published a mod for GMForge, for the Pathfinder RPG, that integrates support for pulling characters from HeroLab portfolios and updating GMForge based on saved changes to the portfolios during live play.)

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