Derailing and How to Stop It
You’re having what was a productive conversation about some inclusivity-related game topic (harassment, representation, recruiting more women). And hundreds of posts later, you’re exhausted and bow out of what has become a flamewar, feeling frustrated and perhaps vaguely confused about how what started out as a problem-solving convo became an endless circular argument about whether sexism is real.
Your conversation got derailed.
This sort of thing happens every time we try to talk about inclusivity, about getting more women/non-binary people, POC, etc. (I’m going to use “women” here as shorthand because it’s the context for this convo, but the same holds true for other marginalized groups) working in games, featured in games, and playing games. Every. Single. Time. (For that matter, it also happens in conversations about harassment, and other gender issues.)
And the thing is, it’s so normalized, that people often don’t even question it. They treat these sort of tactics as legitimate.
What do I mean by “derailing”? Well, every time conversations about, for example, increasing diversity in games happen, people try to turn the conversation to:
- Arguing about whether it’s actually important to get more women into games (just hire the best candidate! gender shouldn’t matter!)
- Complaining about how taking any steps to do outreach/encourage women to apply is unfair to men
- Playing Devil’s Advocate
- Quibbling over whether sexism is real
- Just changing the subject entirely
- Nitpicking data
- Turning the discussion to a tone critique (the people talking about it are too angry or too vehement!)
- And much, much more!
If it’s about harassment, it’ll be whether things were actually harassment, whether false claims about harassment are made, whether women are too sensitive, whether it’s unfair to men to call it harassment, etc. It happens so often that we have a bingo card for it:
But shouldn’t we be having these conversations?
The problem here isn’t that these sort of discussions are happening. It’s that they're different discussions, and that the people who start them are insisting on having them instead of the discussions about, in this example, how to get more women into games. They’re attempting to force the people trying to discuss how to solve that problem to run down endless rabbit holes and jump through endless hoops before they can have the original conversation (which, ultimately, will never happen if they get their way).
“How do we ensure that attempts to recruit more women into games aren’t unfairly disadvantaging men?” is a legitimate discussion. It's related to the discussion of how to get more women into games. It’s a discussion that, as part of a larger conversation about making games more inclusive, we should have.
But it’s not the same discussion as strategies for outreach to women.
Is it intentional?
I don’t think that the people who do this are consciously thinking “How can I shut this conversation down?” But I do think they’re uncomfortable with the original conversation and want it to go away.
They get angry if they’re told to make the topic they’re trying to shift the discussion to into a separate discussion.
This is especially apparent when the discussion is taking place in a forum thread: being told to start a new thread makes them furious. They rant about censorship (even though they’re not actually being told they can’t have the conversation, just that they can’t use it to shout down people who are trying to have a different conversation).
If they genuinely just wanted to have a conversation about, say, ensuring that hiring practices are fair to men, I don’t see why making it a separate discussion thread would be an issue, any more than it is any other time a topic splits. But you don’t usually see this sort of anger in response to new threads being made about subjects that don’t touch on inclusivity.
While it’s not as obvious in discussions that take place in other mediums, it still happens in pretty much the same manner. Once you’re aware of this sort of derailing, you start to see it crop up in every discussion about inclusivity.
So, what do we do about it?
Refuse to let it happen: don’t get drawn away from the original topic, and don’t engage with would-be derailers unless they’re staying on the actual topic (which isn’t to say you can’t engage with them in a separate discussion on the topic they’re trying to switch to – just don’t do so in place of the original discussion).
Call it out so other people realize what’s happening: point out that an attempt to shift the topic is happening, and that while it may be related, it’s interfering with attempts to have the original discussion. Suggest that they start a new discussion (in parallel to, not in place of) the discussion that’s already happening.
And then, again, stop engaging with them on the new topic unless you’re doing so in a separate discussion.
But isn’t it natural for discussions to wander?
Sure. But discussions wandering naturally is different from the sort of overwhelming, continual, vehement sidetracking that happens every time people attempt to have productive conversations on increasing diversity in games. (Heck, for an extreme example, spend some time looking at the discussions gamergaters are having on 8chan for an example of people who are very aware of what they’re doing, and are strategizing about doing it deliberately.)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with having these other conversations. There is something wrong when people insist on having them over and instead of conversations about ways to fix problems.
If you want to engage on these topics, go ahead! Just be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t drown out attempts to have the original conversation.