Social Justice Warrior developer Eric Ford Internet Sit-down



There are very few issues around which everyone in the world can agree. The more personal a topic becomes the less likely that one will concede their vested interest in the name of polite debate and mature discourse.

Introduce the optimistic Eric Ford A.K.A Nonadecimal who gives humanity more credit than most. I spoke with him about a recent project he launched called Social Justice Warriors, a project which seemed to elicit a lot of feedback from several communities. Not only were gamers engaged, but other indirect groups as well. One of his original goals was to shine a light on those that operate in the figurative shadows of ignorance and the faceless void we call the Internet. His aim is admirable and regardless of whether or not it will ultimately affect change he has my utmost respect for being brave enough to try.

Warriors, Come Out and Play

For those unfamiliar with the genesis of the game, please introduce Social Justice Warriors.

An image was circulating on Twitter of "social justice warrior" video game journalists ), urging people to avoid them. A lot of the devs and game journalists got pretty worked up about the people as well as the label. While I had never heard the phrase before, it was apparent it was being used in a dismissive way to try to silence these people. Considering how silly those words sound as a negative label, I was inspired to make a game about it using real warriors. Warriors of the Dungeons and Dragons variety, that is.

Social Justice Warriors by Nonadecimal

Social Justice Warriors by Nonadecimal

Was the motivation, then, to try and portray these warriors in a positive light?

From there I tried to balance the expected qualities of a fantasy RPG with the real-life elements of social media discussions about these social issues. The goal wasn't to cast any group of people in a positive or negative light, just to frame how actual online discussions play out within the context of traditional RPG mechanics.

I noticed that each class applied to a specific type of real-life social justice warrior affecting the medium, methodology and message.

They weren't paired specifically to people who are labeled as a "social justice warrior", just to different social media spheres. I don't have any experience with being called a SJW or any of the people who have been labeled that way. I think that helped contribute to the impartiality of the game.

Would it be fair to say you tried to observe and report?

Sure. Everybody has seen discussions about race or gender equality at some point in their forays into the Internet. I've seen it in the comments sections of all sorts of YouTube videos and news articles.

YouTube comments are hellacious.

Right. So I think that's something everyone can relate to. The game wasn't made just for the people at the heart of these discussions, but for people on the periphery of them. I tried my best to frame everything so that it was accessible to lots of people, regardless of their stance on social issues or how they've been labeled by online communities.

One thing that seems constant is that, even when the discussion is about mundane topics, people still respond out of kind. That is to say, a conversation about sandwiches can easily turn into someone making death threats.

Sadly, that can be true.

What this tells me is that it isn't the issue that's important but how people think of the act of debating.

I think a lot of the extreme response to the game has just come from the game's title.

It is a pretty loaded term for some. And that speaks to what kind of assumptions they make coming into the conversation.

People saw the title and projected their own social stance onto it. So a lot of the discussion about the game ended up being about whether it was an anti-SJW game or a pro-SJW game. With the people who actually played it in the middle saying "I don't know who this game is making fun of," which is good because I wasn't trying to make fun of a specific group of people with this game.

People had the expectation that it had to have some for of judgement, though. That something can't be impartial and has to have an agenda.

Yeah, because the phrase is so charged, people assume that only someone with an emotional attachment to it would make that game.

Games Against Humanity

Do you think that this was an effective way to hold the mirror up to those who SJW was meant to engage? Or did they largely not get it?

It's hard to tell. It's only been out for a couple weeks and it's been hard to process all the comments and posts all over the internet. I think people forget that these terms like "social justice warrior" and "troll" are just reactionary labels. Any one of us could get called those things and it could stick or not stick. I've been called a SJW now just for making this game.

While troll is universally negative, people may not want to consider their own behavior to see why it is that they receive these labels, let alone attempt to identify with them.

Well, that was a goal of the game. Just to make people reflect on how they interact with people online and how other people might react to it. Also for outsiders to reflect on how they view people from the periphery who are getting labeled in these discussions. Which was the point of that journalist image. I haven't read many of those sites or journalists but the image was meant to encourage me to ignore them on the basis of that negative label.

Granted, there isn't anything empirical in that image and is most likely highly subjective, in SJW both sides of a conversation have reputation meters, could that give some validity to the image?

To me, it seems like online reputations are as much about what other people say about you as they are about what you say.

In some cases, it seems that video game sites need to have volatile headlines to get that click for whatever piece they are presenting.  Moreover, negative game reviews seem to fall from the sky and, like most criticism, are not always about making a productive argument and considering something on the whole. It's more about the reviewer appearing smart and just not being very nice.

Oh true. I don't read many game reviews. I have more faith in personal recommendations.

As for explicitly negative reviews, I don't know if I can assume that a journalist had those intentions though, just because the article is negative. Video games are a subjective experience so each person that plays it will get different things out of it. Some reviewers are going to hate a beloved game just because it doesn't fulfill their expectations or it's not a genre they typically enjoy. I think that's why sites like Metacritic have become more trusted recently because you get a sense of what every reviewer thinks, not just one.  I take the same approach I take with online news: I search a topic and open 4 or 5 articles from different sites. They all say different things and depending how politically charged the issue is, might spin it one way or the other.  I assume I can trust the information that is common to all of them.

Not everyone is so diligent when researching something.

I wouldn't recommend relying on a single news agency to tell you everything about the world. There was that guy who ran a personal experiment last year and only watched Fox News for at least a month to figure out what was going on in the world.

He was pretty shocked when he ended and discovered all the things he didn't know had been happening. But he realized that based on what he did and didn't know during the period, it made sense why people would have certain opinions about the world. I think it's very important for everybody to put the effort in to educate themselves about current events and areas of human progress, like the sciences

I can very much relate to this point. There are too few critical thinkers in the world. It seems to ask a lot of people to strive for that.

Social Justice Warriors argument facepalm.

Social Justice Warriors argument facepalm.

As far as that relates to Social Justice Warriors, I think a lot of the disagreements can be born from that ignorance. That was why I named most of the troll attacks for types of fallacious arguments. I wanted to show that the people themselves are not necessarily bad, as the "troll" label would suggest, but that their views come from a lack of knowledge about the world or other people. There's some troll quotes in the game along the lines of "There aren't any successful females in this industry because I've never seen one." Or "There is no problem with racism in the world because I've never encountered it in my daily life."

What's unfortunate is that people actually use these lines. A disappointing reality.

Yes, all the lines in the game actually are based on things people have said. I spent a lot of time during development Googling for articles that would have these kinds of discussions in the comments. So I can at least say it's an authentic portrayal of online exchanges.

There were a lot of comments like what you described on the Greenlight page. Lots of "Go back to Tumblr" comments, for example. No substance.

Comments having less to do with the game and more about attacking you.

Right, rather than a critique of the game.

There is a very pervasive issue where people are unable to differentiate between someone and something they did/made. People feel comfortable conflating these two distinct things.

Yes, we're as a species very focused about how things make us feel personally. Not good at recognizing that some things were not made for us specifically but may have value for different groups of people.

You address this in SJW where a troll takes to a forum where a close-knit group is discussing an issue important to them.

Some of the people close to SJW issues reacted negatively to my game, saying that it doesn't provide any value (to them). But they neglected to consider that there are people out there who have never thought about these issues in-depth like they have or may not even be aware of these heated conflicts. A simple game like this can expose people to it and make them consider their potential reactions before they're in the moment. Like considering how to confront someone who has made an inflammatory post in a comments section. For a lot of people, the first reaction might be to attack them back.

And take an issue personally. Instead of being rational and open-minded.

Right. Or maybe even deciding that it isn't worth the time it would take to engage that negative person. Or the cost to their patience and sanity. I don't propose any solutions within the game, I just wanted to get people thinking and talking and see what conclusions they reached on their own.

A Glimmer of Hope

So there are several layers of failure: people reacting emotionally rather than rationally, and not being willing to take the time to complete a teachable moment.

I mean, some people that you interact with are not necessarily going to be receptive to teaching either.

Which is a point I'd like to discuss. You give people a lot of credit assuming that their intention is to be a participant yielding equal time and consideration. That is rarely the way it is.

The game was just designed as a thought experiment that sweeps away a lot of the ambiguity of real life and presents the warrior as someone with perfectly good intentions and the troll as someone who is acting out of ignorance. The conclusions about how we act in an ideal situation like that and the outcomes those actions can produce are still valid in the real world.

I completely agree that this introspection is useful to everyone involved with any discussion.

This is just my personal view outside of the game, but I think that the time spent interacting with just a small handful of individuals in these closed online arenas could be better spent working on positive activism. Instead of focusing on the people who already have a very polarized opinion about a social issue, we could be working to educate those who haven't made up their minds yet. I know there are some working toward that goal already, but I think all of us could be doing more to help than just talking about it online, myself included.

Sometimes it's the only way someone can engage an issue, be that learning or discussing.

True, but sometimes it seems like the only people talking are the ones at either extreme. Like I mentioned earlier, I haven't quite processed the game's reception yet. There's been such a huge number of threads about it over the 2 weeks. Some on 4chan and Something Awful and r/TumblrInAction. I try to keep finding all of them and reading but it's a lot to take in.

I don't know if you read the blog post I wrote recently, but at the end I promised a follow-up talking about how the game's been received and it has yet to be delivered. It's all been so overwhelming and I've been avoiding going back through to look at all the comments again in order to write about them.

I can say that for all the negative comments in public places, I've received several lengthy emails from players who connected with the game's message and seemed to have developed new insights into their relationship with these issues.

A part of me wants those comments to stand on their own without you addressing them.

That's a good point. I feel the same way, like they just reinforce the points I've already said with the game itself and how closely they sometimes resemble the things people say in the game.

Life imitating art and all that.

Life imitating art imitating life. It gets confusing.

I think it's beautiful that one of  the points you're making is that different communities engage with this piece, some entrenched, some not, but that conversation is highly fragmented.

In terms of the reception?

Yes, for you to find bits of the conversation is a large task and develop a cohesive vantage point.

Yeah, each community has interpreted the game differently and had different things to say about it. Sometimes I see moderate traffic coming to my site from behind password protected forums and sites which makes me wonder what they were saying. For example, I got some hits from a TV Tropes link that's since disappeared. I'll never know what statement someone was making with their edit to whatever page it was.

The dichotomy of the Internet: ephemeral and permanent.

For me, the game was an experiment in itself to see how people would react to it. It was very uncertain throughout development. I just had to hope that people would see the things in it that I did.

A gamble, to be sure.

Definitely a gamble. Ultimately, I'm happy with how it turned out and I'm still glad I made the game.

More information can be found on the Social Justice Warriors website. Eric Ford can be found on Twitter as well as his website.

Don't forget all of the other Here Are Words interviews.