The Giant Robot of Offense is a framework for creating content which won’t harm people. I use it for role-playing games, but it applies to any media which generate participatory elements (including cosplay and fanfiction). Think of your creation as a giant badass anime robot you’re building. Here’s how to make media, and/or build a robot, which won’t harm anyone except for bad guys in giant rubber suits.
When I sensitivity-read something—actually, check that, when I read, play, or watch literally anything these days—I evaluate it in terms of how well it hits these three escalating tiers of not ruining anyone’s actual life. My job as a content creator, or as an editor or developer or consultant helping someone else with their work, is to aim as high in the third tier as possible. If I miss, I’ll still hopefully be close.
Form the Legs: Good Intentions
No one cares about your good intentions. They care about what you say and what you do. If you make something harmful, even if you intended the exact opposite, people will get harmed. At best, the fact that you didn’t mean to harm them gives you the beginning of a decent apology. It’s like Jay Smooth says in the most important video on YouTube: “When somebody picks my pocket, I’m not gonna be chasing him down so I can figure out whether he feels like he’s a thief deep down in his heart. I’m gonna be chasing him down so I can get my wallet back. I don’t care what he is, but I need to hold him accountable for what he did.”
Having good intentions and nothing else is like having only the legs of a giant robot: on their own, with nothing else to hold them together, they’ll probably just fall over and crush things. Still, you need strong legs to support the rest of your robot, and you need good intentions to create positive media. Just don’t stop here.
Form Arms and Body: I Didn’t Use This to Hurt People
This second tier is where most people stop. At this tier, your work does not, in and of itself, harm anyone. Someone who consumes your media thoughtfully and in its entirety will understand you are not particularly homophobic or racist or whatever, and that while systemic oppression may feature in your media, you don’t condone it.
Sounds pretty good, right?
It is. It’s pretty good. Your robot has legs, arms, and a torso. It’s recognizable as a giant robot. It might even be able to stomp around and punch a monster or two. But it has no head. If you rest on your laurels here, and someone ill-intentioned or even clueless gets control of it while you’re distracted signing autographs or something, they might put a head on it which will take it in a bad direction. If I make something which doesn’t necessarily hurt people, but which is easy for others to use to hurt people, I feel like there’s blood on my hands.
Form the Head: No One Else Can Use This to Hurt People
At this tier, no one can misinterpret your work, take it out of context, or repurpose it to support evil ends. When you send your creation off into the wild and other people cosplay as it, run their own games based on it, or craft derivative works based on it, they also won’t make things, inadvertently or otherwise, which hurt people. You have a complete, battle-ready robot, powerful and invincible,
… wait … isn’t this impossible? Am I really asking you to create work that controls the behavior of random people on the Internet who get their hands on it? Work which some random Pepe-headed gremlin from the depths of 4chan cannot twist into a villainous meme?
No, I can’t control legions of others’ behavior. I can still make it difficult for them to misuse my creations. Game designers have a special responsibility to aim for this tier since audience participation, as it were, is such a big part of our hobby.
I know I’ll fail. I still try. You should, too.
An Example from Gaming
My favorite example of Tier II: Legs, Arms, and Body is the Imperium of Man in Games Workshop’s science fiction setting, Warhammer 40,000. WH40K started out as a tabletop wargame, but has since spawned novels, comics, tabletop role-playing games, video games, and for all I know probably a ballet, an evening wear line, several oratorios, a dating app, and a celebrity cookbook. 40K is a dark setting without many good guys, but one of the dominant factions—and the source of many players’ armies, roleplaying characters, and cosplays—is the Imperium of Man, a theocratic fascist space empire.
Most 40K material describing the Imperium attempts to portray its xenophobia, totalitarianism, religious intolerance, etc. with satire. I would assume most 40K fans understand that; when I was thirteen and playing with toy space marines, I thought I did, anyway. Nevertheless, legions of right-wingers on the Internet use the Imperium’s imagery, characters, and words to express their own hatred for anyone different. Legions more of “apolitical” nerds screw around with the same imagery because they think it’s cute or funny, and I’m left wondering which is which. Every time I go to a big gaming convention, I see cosplayers dressed as Imperial commissars (yeah, they’re actually called that) with uniforms straight out of canon, obviously inspired by Hugo Boss’s SS uniforms and their Soviet equivalents.
I think Games Workshop is trying, or was trying at some point. I don’t know how hard they’re trying. I don’t think their setting says fascism is good—although they definitely seem to think fascism is cool, which is bad enough. Charitably: arm, leg, leg, arm. No head.
Some of my upcoming posts will provide more examples and make reference to this idea; it features in the Game Design Trash Fire Makeovers workshop I’ve started running at conventions. I hope the Giant Robot model helps you talk about media and creativity, and evaluate your own work and others’ critically and clearly.