Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

My year of doing terrifying things for diversity and inclusion

Yuna Wong joked on a CNA Talks podcast about the value of drawing fire to raise awareness of a problem. Boy howdy, have I been drawing fire in 2020. And it’s terrifying. And I think it’s taken for granted that I take it on the chin for the good of the wargaming community—a collective sigh of relief that someone’s doing the hard stuff so the rest of us can remain at safe distance, and cheer that it’s done without having to feel uncomfortable. So let’s talk about that.

1. Some things I have done this year that scared the pants off me:

Becoming an editor at PAXsims

In the mid-2000s an internet stalker phoned up people me-adjacent on the internet to harass me by-proxy. Since then I’ve had almost zero internet presence to keep it from happening again. Agreeing to put my name and face on the internet was a non-trivial decision (you’ll notice my e-mail address is not included in my bio). Every single time I post there’s a panicked thought, what if this is the one—what if this is how they find me again. And that’s on top of all the normal publishing/presentation catastrophising that everyone does: what if I say something stupid, what if I get it wrong, omg everyone is watching. It doesn’t help that posting about D&I inevitably means the trolls come out to complain that you’re doing it wrong when you’re doing it exactly right. 

Podcasts & YouTubes

Paul Strong and I did an LGBT History Month presentation on Queeroes: LGBT and gender non-conformity in the military. It came down to Paul didn’t want to speak for the LGBT community as a straight person, and nobody else was willing to co-present, so if I didn’t it wouldn’t happen. It’s one thing to give a queer rights presentation in person where you can be pretty sure the only people showing up have an interest in the subject. Putting it on YouTube—? Never read the comments section, just don’t do it. Wowsers. I had to leave my house for a walk I felt so uncomfortable after it went up, braced for the inevitable outrage: how dare I say Churchill was queer (true fact: he had sex with a man to see what it felt like…straight men tend not to do that), keep your sexuality out of wargaming, etc etc. Genuinely terrified for 24hrs over this, and definitely only agreed to do it because I don’t have to see or deal with the abusive commentards on YouTube.

Diversity card deck

This was horrid in so many ways: inevitably there were trolls who felt the need to complain loudly and incredibly childishly that the diversity in wargaming survey wasn’t in the least bit interested in their experiences. Trolling is an act of violence; the purpose is to demean and belittle and intimidate. It’s intended to frighten. And it’s pretty horrid to deal with it alone in lockdown, without other people around to drown out the trickle of rubbish with the overwhelming decency of the wargaming community.

Then there were the straight-up awful things people told me about. I was unprepared for the volume: well over 300 submissions in two weeks, from a small small proportion of the wargaming and NatSec community. I was unprepared for the level of fear in those submissions: the people who phoned me because they were worried putting it in writing would be traceable back to them. I was unprepared for the dehumanisation of women and minorities on display. I was unprepared to hear the worst stuff that didn’t make it into the deck because the victims were too identifiable: they were people I work with doing things I have done. My entire career I’ve been reassuring myself I’m safe in situations where I don’t feel confident or entirely welcome, and holy cow it’s literally not been safe to be a woman at work at times. That was shocking—frightening—to think it could have been me. And a kind of awful, scary, relief to see other women reporting the same kind of bullying, intimidation, and humiliation I’ve experienced.

The final terrifying was reporting back on all of this, braced for the backlash all the vignettes alluded to: that when you speak up about D&I you become the problem. I was expecting denial and gaslighting and anger in response. It didn’t come, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t frightening waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Pull your socks up on D&I.”

Actual words I used, briefing a cohort of very senior types. They’d agreed to play my serious game about dyslexia, they hadn’t agreed for me to cut it short to make room for a frank conversation about the diversity card deck and the Derby House Principles. I literally told people 6 grades above me they were doing it wrong and needed to act like leaders and I was absolutely bricking it. The 24hrs before and during and afterwards was I’m going to be fired on repeat. I do not like standing up to authority. I find it insanely difficult to be that assertive, mostly because I’ve been on the receiving end of some Really Bad Behaviour for plain existing as a woman in technology. I only did it this time because it was a virtual meeting and if any of the worst imaginings in my head happened, I could drop the call and not be frozen in the room while they yelled at me. (I’ve had meetings like that, for smaller perceived infractions.) 

Why did I do these objectively frightening things? Because look around: who else is doing this stuff? When is it going to get better for women and minority wargamers if I don’t do something? Privilege is the freedom not to care about D&I: to know your voice, your views, your needs—people like you—will be represented even if you don’t show up, even if you hide at the back and say nothing because you don’t want to play big. Women and minorities don’t get that choice.

I’ve been trying to have the same slippery conversation all year. It goes like this:

  • There’s the bar for human neutral wargamers: do your job, do it good, get a gold star, congratulations.
  • And then there’s the bar for being a woman, queer, disabled, or BAME/BIPOC, where you have to do twice as much work for half the credit with less support and not complain lest you be accused of demanding special treatment or taking up the space of a more-deserving straight white non-disabled man.
  • And then there’s the bar for being the voice of D&I, where you have to do all of the above so you can defend your right to take up space at all, and on top of that do what the actual leaders—the wargaming royalty, the industry and academia and government seniors and executives—are not doing. All of them grades and grades and grades above your paygrade. You have to start all the really difficult conversations, provide moral leadership and deal with opposition to that leadership (bigotry, gaslighting from unthinking “allies”, concern-trolling on behalf of hypothetical victims, cultural lethargy and inertia, demands that you be endlessly patient and compassionate towards people who don’t treat you with respect or dignity in return)—and you have to do all this without authority.

It’s exhausting and so bruising. And when I say it’s a lot to ask, people shrug: then step back, look after yourself. But women and minorities don’t get to opt out.

We don’t get that choice.

The truth is I don’t want to be the leader. I never did. I don’t even want to be an editor at PAXsims. When Rex asked me to help write the Derby House Principles my first thought was you know that women and minorities are going to take all the backlash, and I don’t need that in my life. On a daily basis I’m putting up with crap because of this. I have experienced more directed-at-me or my actions homophobia since May than I have my whole life. Why is that ok? And before you shrug it off as a few bad apples and the trolls bleating as they’re shown the door—why is it ok that the whole of wargaming culture leaves me to be the leader and have the moral courage to say it’s not ok? Why are so many wargamers so ok—silently complicit—with queerbashing and racism and misogynism that the majority of voices saying enough and taking action for D&I are not white, are women, are queer, are disabled?

2. It’s time to have an uncomfortable conversation.

There’s a game that so beautifully articulates this slippery conversation that I haven’t stopped thinking about it—and haven’t been able to stop seeing it everywhere I look.

It’s an RPG called Dog Eat Dog by Liam Burke.

The setup is simple:

One person plays as the European colonial occupation of a pacific island, all of them. Everyone else plays as individual natives. There’s money: the natives each get a little, the occupation gets a lot. Players take turns setting a scene—the scene includes your character, and others you invite by consent…apart from the occupation who can crash a scene any time they like, and compel anyone to join a scene regardless of consent. And when there’s conflict over what happens next, control of the scene goes to whoever rolls highest—unless someone objects, and then the occupation take control no matter who did the objecting. Are you seeing the pattern here?

After every scene there is judgement: the occupation pays players for each rule they followed, and fines them for each they didn’t. Then the natives come up with a new rule based on what was just rewarded or punished in the scene. When the game starts there is only one rule: 

The natives are inferior to the occupation.

That’s it. You have to follow this rule at all times.

The game ends when one side is out of money: if the natives run out of money that means all their leaders are dead and the culture has been suppressed. If the occupation run out of money that means the natives have been assimilated into the occupation’s society and granted autonomy…at the low low cost of their culture and dignity.

What this game does is perfectly capture the power dynamic involved in discrimination: the natives can’t win. The occupation has all the power to decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and is incentivised to use that power to take what they want without repercussions. They don’t even write the rules that the natives get tied up in trying to follow. The game presents you with a wildly unfair system and asks you to live within it as best you can—and it never ends well for the natives. You can’t cheat by trying to be nice: even a benevolent occupation is disastrous.

It is a stunningly good game. 

A central conceit is inventing the native and occupying cultures during the game, which means there’s no historical/cultural knowledge barrier to entry—the game feels capital T true without being factual, which helps to provide a little distance from the true-to-life icky things the game is going to make you do. It feels horrible to kill natives because it is horrible and we should not feel ok about slavery and genocide and colonialism.

I’m working on a project to use this game to get straight white non-disabled men of influence to start conversations about discrimination. We’ve been playing different scenarios: same rules, but as well as occupation vs natives we’re playing ableist society vs the disability community, and heteronormative society vs the LGBT community and holy cow I can’t stop thinking about Rule One.

I can’t stop seeing it as the slippery sauce at the heart of every bad-faith engagement I’ve had on D&I issues. The same dynamic in trolls who say something offensive and then hit back with their right to equality and to be treated with respect and dignity when they’re criticised for it—asserting that their equality and respect and dignity is more important than that of the people they offended in the first place.

In the knee-jerk “straight white men have diversity too!” insistence that the diversity of straight white men is more important than any other kind of diversity.

In the reflexive “not all [men/straight/white/non-disabled people]” response which, regardless of intention, is keeping the interests and comfort of straight white non-disabled men front-and-centre in the conversation about the concerns of women and minorities—asserting that the comfort of said straight white non-disabled men is more important.

And the more I look the more I find it in my own unquestioned thinking: I have internalised Rule One. I’m not in the closet, but there are so many situations where I don’t even think I’m allowed to take up space. 

A certain kind of person harrumphs loudly that LGBT issues are not relevant here and I just keep my mouth shut and keep my sexuality from offending their sensibilities in literally every work situation that’s not people I consider friends or a D&I conversation.

I don’t hide my disability but it is still difficult to say I am bad at these things and not feel shame, like it’s something I have to make up for—that I’m less-than because of it.

3. The system.

The genius of Dog Eat Dog is how it traps you in the system.

The occupation presents you with an impossible situation: in one game the character Mark danced with his same-sex partner on the street which upset the occupation’s sensibilities and they demanded that behaviour stop—stop flaunting your sexuality. Never mind the opposite-sex couples also dancing at the street party, never mind the not-actually-harming-anyone of it. You can see this is wrong. Every fibre of your being is this isn’t right and wanting to protest and demand—expect—the right to take up the same space as consenting hetero couples. And Rule One stops you speaking out because you’re wrong no matter how you phrase it, how reasonably and rationally and gently and empathically and not-aggressively, no-one’s-asking-straight-people-to-do-this-just-stop-policing-consenting-adults-who-aren’t-hurting-anyone you put the case across. 

Rule One ties you up in knots, second-guessing everything you say and do because it might upset them. Because they have the power to decide everything, to hold you to a completely different standard of behaviour and gaslight you about how that’s really not the case at all.

Rule One means they never even have to use mean words or physical aggression for it to be intimidation. They can smile and say it nicely and it’s still a threat, it’s still an act of violence upon your person.

Rule One makes you blame the victim: if Mark had been less provocative we wouldn’t be having this argument, if he’d been more discrete, if he’d kept his sexuality to himself in a “family-friendly” environment—as if there was a right way for Mark to be when his expectation of equality is the problem. The same dynamic is at work when we blame victims of rape instead of the rapists, and when we decry taking the knee as disrespectful: there is never a right way to protest injustice. The injustice is the victim-blaming insistence that you’re wrong to say it’s wrong.

So Mark learns that Rule Two is hide your sexuality—but who defines what’s acceptably hidden? The next turn Mark was in trouble for sitting in a pub with a man who wasn’t his boyfriend or love interest, just drinking with a mate, because prove to me it’s not homosexual—justify your right to exist in this public space. The same way black people’s existence in white spaces is aggressively policed. The same way that disabled peoples’ human rights are treated like an inconvenience to society. It’s all Rule One.

The system has its own priorities and they’re not yours if you’re a minority.

That’s how you can spend two years fighting for simple reasonable adjustments—just a screen-reader, it’s not rocket science—and lose them when the OS gets upgraded and have to start the whole bureaucratic mess over. And you’re doing it wrong to fail to deliver on your work in the meantime, hidden behind the gaslighty we won’t hold it against you but you literally can’t meet stretching objectives to qualify for performance-related pay or promotion. And your thinking goes am I not doing enough, to be worth supporting? Am I not good enough? Is all this Derby House Principles work and my technical ability not enough? Am I just a burden?

You internalise this. You internalise how you’re expected to give and not receive and not complain about it and in the end you stop even questioning the unfairness and you understand: this is all I’m worth.

(And I know this is a thousandth of the crap that BAME/BIPOC people get, and they can’t hide and opt out by passing as/being assumed straight or non-disabled.)

4. How hard it is to be a leader when you feel that. 

It’s hard. Trolls want you to sit down and shut up. Unthinking people who like to argue for the sake of arguing can’t see that when you do that about D&I it’s indistinguishable from bigotry and trolling. The peanut gallery wants you to know how you should be doing more and better and not that way—without doing any of these hard things themselves. 

And the vast majority of decent human beings say nothing.

That’s no big deal, surely? If they’re not actively against D&I they must be for it! Let me tell you a true story:

This summer, for the first time in my life, I heard a straight person value the experience of a queer person for being queer

  • not look at that great thing they did, I guess it’s ok they’re queer too,
  • not I don’t see/think of you as queer (sexuality is not relevant here),
  • not consenting adults can have rights as long as they don’t upset others by exercising those rights.

Genuinely, the only positive-about-queer-people-being-queer that I’ve witnessed first-hand in 40 years has come from the LGBT community. Straight people have been more concerned with how upset they are about a queer person coming out or LGBT rights.

Imagine living your whole life being quietly told through action, inaction, what’s said and what’s not said, that a fundamental part of you—that you didn’t choose—has no value to the rest of society. At best is for ignoring and looking away from.

Rhetorical question: do you value queer people for being queer or just for all the ways they’re exactly like straight people and ignore the rest?

Rule One doesn’t care if you’re nice to people, if you personally treat everyone equally.

You have to understand how Rule One impacts the people in the system: how they’re forced to create and follow these rules and then get blamed for following these rules—for lacking confidence, for not putting themselves forward, for not elbowing their way to the front, for not playing big, for not feeling like they’re allowed to take up space.

People think I’m brave and courageous for doing this Derby House stuff and the truth is I feel so small and ill-equipped for the task and afraid. I don’t want to be the leader.

My whole career I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that my sexuality is not relevant, is not appropriate, has nothing to do with work and I should keep it to myself outside the company of other queers. Sometimes it’s been blatant. Sometimes it’s been a smile and a change of subject. More often than not it’s silence, that only queer people talk about queer issues—the same way white people looked awkwardly at each other and said nothing in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and waited for BAME/BIPOC folks to do all the talking, all the leading, all the fixing.

I’ve been cautious even bringing LGBT issues up in Derby House Principles conversations. I’ve been pointing to a dead lesbian in the history books to say look, we’ve always existed in wargaming, we’ve always been good at it instead of saying, look: I’m here and unapologetic—if you have a problem with that it’s yours to deal with, because I’ve internalised Rule One: your sex life has nothing to do with the workplace. But it’s got nothing to do with my sex life; it’s only ever been policing my right to exist at all as a lesbian. Straight people can talk about their parents or spouse or kids and there’s no STOP TALKING ABOUT SEX even though it’s undeniably happened.

I think people imagine that now there’s same-sex marriage equality has been achieved. I know everyone who played the Dog Eat Dog LGBT scenario looked at Rule One and was uncomfortable: I don’t think that, it’s not true. But really? Really is that the case?

“In Britain, legally speaking and medically speaking, you’re in a horrible situation. Trans adults here — we don’t have the same legal and bodily autonomy that other people do. If a woman goes through menopause and wants hormone replacement therapy, she can get it from a general practitioner. If I [a trans woman] want the same drugs, I have to wait to see a specialist and be diagnosed with a mental illness. If a cis person in the UK wants to get married, you need some ID. A cis woman can show her passport, and that’s enough. My new passport says F, but if I want to get married, I need to ask permission from the gender recognition panel to give me a gender recognition certificate. And it is notoriously difficult to get them to say yes.

Even as an adult, we do not have bodily or legal autonomy in the way that other people do. When we say we want informed consent [a system by which trans people can be prescribed hormones by self-identifying as trans], it’s painted as this radical thing. But it’s what everyone else in Britain already enjoys.”


Which is really no different to the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Australia who had the only say in who could marry whom, and ran the residential schools designed to educate the Indian out of the child, or the legislation of womens’ bodies—it’s all the same. It’s all Rule One.

“women have no value in relation to the fetuses in their wombs, though about half of those fetuses will turn into women who will, in turn, be assessed as having no value in relation to the next potential generation of fetuses. Women may be worthless containers of containers of containers of things of value, namely men. Embryonic men. Or perhaps children have value until they turn out to be women. I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me how these people think.”

Rebecca Solnit

And it’s the most relevant thing in the world to wargaming, because if you’re coming to the table within a system that holds the women or the queer or BAME/BIPOC or disabled players inferior, that’s going to affect who gets a say, whose ideas are listened to, whose opinions are given weight, whose insight matters. And if you’re coming to the game within a system that holds African or South American or Middle Eastern or Asian or refugee populations inferior to the western world, that’s going to affect what it’s ok to do and let be done to them in the game, the analysis, the policy, and ultimately in the real world to real human beings. 

We already made that mistake in Iraq.

5. So where do we go from here?

2020 is the year wargaming opened its eyes to diversity and inclusion.

2021 has to be the year you all play Dog Eat Dog and dismantle the system. Have a conversation about how hard it is to live in that system as a minority, how much effort is wasted managing the emotions of the occupying group. Turn awareness into meaningful action that understands the playing field is not level and just saying I’m nice to everyone or I’m going to treat everyone equally is only perpetuating a system designed to advantage the confidence of mediocre white men.

Honestly consider how Rule One informs your thinking and assumptions towards others and yourself. It’s not enough to just think you don’t follow Rule One, you have to tell people—straight white non-disabled men as much as women and BAME/BIPOC and queer and disabled wargamers. You actually have to show with your actions that you do value women and minority wargamers. You have to say the words. And not just once. And not just in safe spaces where nobody difficult can overhear you.

Dog Eat Dog by Liam Burke is available from DriveThruRPG.

You can read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.

6 responses to “My year of doing terrifying things for diversity and inclusion

  1. Mark 06/01/2021 at 6:48 am

    I played Dog eat Dog, and it was possibly the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done. The hideous creeping realisation as the rules go from ‘remember you’re inferior’ to quickly cover ‘hide who you are’ and ‘take the first offer they give you’, and downwards… and how none of it required anything really definable as cruel, vindictive or prejudiced.

    Sally, you’re a legend. Especially when every time you do something, someone says ‘you’re unfairly generalising’, or accuses you of racism or sexism!

  2. Joann Robertson 06/01/2021 at 4:49 am

    Brilliant, you have done a brave and proper thing, I salute you.

    Will be playing dog eat dog with my team.

  3. paulpuk 05/01/2021 at 10:00 am

    When we quote Sun Tzu we tend use his writings to justify deepening our understanding of potential adversaries. People tend to miss the second fundamental objective…
    “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
    Sun Tzu (see also Laozi, Plato and Jane Austin on self-knowledge) understood that we always need to recognize and understand the dynamics of our own society in addition to attempting to understand those we may find ourselves opposing (or influencing).
    In this author’s view, Sally is right to highlight key social dynamics that negatively influence our thinking and exclude those who can make a valuable contribution to both wargaming and analysis. We can only understand the world if we fully acknowledge our weaknesses and address the structural issues that created them.
    Cardinal Richelieu ruthlessly exposed this issue in his Political Testament (chapter IX).
    In a discussion where Jane Austin, Sun Tzu and Cardinal Richelieu are in general agreement with Sally, we should perhaps pay attention!

  4. Sally Davis 02/01/2021 at 8:15 pm

    Or, Mark, you could be a grown-up and recognise that:
    a) commandos chose to opt-in to a higher bar, to be the best-of-the-best knowing what they’re taking on, knowing they can stop if they find they don’t like it after all, knowing literally nobody demeans them or implies they’re just asking for special treatment for belonging to that group. Nobody is raped, or denied their legal/bodily autonomy against their will for being a commando.
    b) insisting the not-focus on the diversity of straight white men is “behaviour we are trying to avoid” and doing D&I wrong is misogynism 101, so take it somewhere else.

  5. Mark Jones Jr. 02/01/2021 at 7:43 pm

    I was listening to the biography of a special operations air commando today, and he observed, “The bar felt higher for us as Air Force, because we didn’t want the other operators to think we were weak.”

    I share this in response to your comment that starts with: “There’s the bar for human neutral wargamers: do your job, do it good, get a gold star, congratulations.”

    Your comment and the one after it both seem like broad and sweeping generalizations. Broad, sweeping generalizations seem like the kind of behavior that we are trying to avoid in this context.
    Furthermore, the quote above suggests a counter-example, one that is not related to biological sex or sexual behavior.

  6. Jay Sorensen 31/12/2020 at 7:29 pm

    Sally, I think this may be the most important essay I’ve read all year. Thank you for your honesty.

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