Interview: Clio Yun-su Davis and RPG Convention Racism

I’m back from Dreamation. It went well, really, but damn was there a lot of racism. My hero Clio Yun-su Davis graciously agreed to talk with me about their intense, exhausting experiences with racism at this convention and elsewhere. Content warnings: racism, elder abuse.

A note on language: Clio and I are both hapa. We sometimes use descriptors like “half [whatever ethnicity]” when talking casually amongst ourselves. I’d caution those of you who are not multiracial to avoid such terms because, out of context of their reclamation by multiracial individuals, they sometimes imply some of us are less [whatever ethnicity] than others. So if you’re describing my ethnicity, you can say “Mendez is Filipino and white” instead of “Mendez is half Filipino and half white.” Too close to “half devil and half child” for comfort, right?

Clio Yun-su Davis, wearing glasses and a red patterned shawl.

Clio Yun-su Davis, wearing glasses and a red patterned shawl.


So, we're just gonna have a conversation and I'll bold some of it so it looks all professional.

Haha okay sounds good. I promise not to communicate 100% in emojis.

Hi Clio! Thank you for taking time to talk to me. Would you like to introduce yourself to all five of my readership?

Sure! I'm a game designer and writer who works on live-action role-playing games, tabletop role-playing games, interactive fiction projects, and then some tie-in fiction for RPGs. A lot of my work focuses on grief, existential dread, and/or Asian and Asian-American experiences.

Damn. Those are some of my favorite things. How has the community in general reacted to the Asian themes in your games?

Overall, from what I've seen, really well! I was definitely nervous when I started to venture into that territory in a not so subtle way, but the response has been generally very positive and encouraging. The first game that I put out there that was undeniably Asian was The Long Drive Back from Busan, my freeform LARP for the Golden Cobra Challenge. “Busan” is about a struggling k-pop boy group trying to get their act together so their careers can survive their current lull, and all the players play Korean characters.

And LDBfB actually won a Golden Cobra that year, right?

Oh right, it did! It won Best Game That Incorporates Meaningful, Non-Romantic Relationships. That was in 2017.

Can you say that again but like in all caps

Type the whole thing in caps?

Yeah. Like, pretend you're shouting it at someone from childhood you want revenge on. Whose memory you get to erase afterward.

OH RIGHT, IT DID! IT WON BEST GAME THAT INCORPORATES MEANINGFUL, NON-ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS.

Sweet. I think it's really important for my readers to hear about that game in case they missed the link to it that's included in most of my articles, several of my tweets, and tbh a significant fraction of my in-person conversations. Have you ever gotten any professional pushback against making games tied to these identities?

Fairly recently in a semi-professional context, I had someone ask whether I could make the characters in a game I was working on not explicitly Korean.

hahahahahahahahahaha that's still funny even though we spent literally the entire weekend joking about it

It's like, one of my favorite inside jokes now. Essentially I was asked if that part was important and if I could remove that detail. I explained it was important to the game and then someone else who was acting as a sort of adviser said they didn't think it needed to be removed, and that was that. Plus, I wasn't going to change that part. It was always a part of the game from the initial pitch and pushback generally makes me more stubborn when it comes to stuff like this.

Was the adviser white?

Yes. Both of those people were white.

Cool, I look forward to the Oscar-winning film about this incident.

Haha I look forward to my character being the sidekick to the white heroes who the plot revolves around. And I'll go ahead and congratulate Scarlett Johansson on her Oscar for playing me now.

She was so brave. So speaking of this past weekend, what were you up to that gave us the opportunity to review this joke?

I was GMing a few games, one of which was my Kids on Bikes adventure module called “No Such Place As Koreatown.”

Where at?

Dreamation, over in Morristown, New Jersey. It was the first time I've GMed a tabletop game there.

Dreamation is in the Double Exposure series of conventions that take place in the Hyatt Regency Morristown. Had you been to these conventions before?

This was my third year attending and my second year running any games. Last year I ran “The Long Drive Back from Busan,” and that went really really well even though I was nervous. I'm always a little nervous facilitating games, and that anxiety increases when it's a game I wrote. I know a lot of the people who write and run LARPs there, but compared to the community as a whole I feel like that's a relatively small group. There are a lot of people who only play tabletop games and don't touch the LARPs.

Would you call these conventions ethnically diverse?

Hmm, I feel like in comparison to some other conventions yes, but if I go wandering around I do feel like I sometimes look around and it's all white people.

I feel similarly; the Double Exposure conventions look diverse to me until I bring a friend of color for the first time and they're all, "damn this is a lot of white people."

I think we also have a mini-community within the larger community that is comparatively diverse, so that's a different experience from someone who is just coming in for the first time.

Do you feel like other forms of diversity—gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, age, etc.—do better there?

I do see a lot of people wearing rainbow stickers and shirts there, and that's always comforting to an extent. I think personally I've found there are more queer and genderqueer people for me to connect with than there are other people of color. I'm queer and genderfluid, so that's something I'm kind of always actively aware of in a community as well.

Well, that's definitely important—and more than I can say for, for example, Origins or Gen Con. So, it's Friday afternoon, 2pm. You're nervous and you got this Kids on Bikes game about Koreatown—what's the pitch for this game?

“The year is 1999, and something weird is going on in Fairdale, Virginia, a town commonly referred to as Koreatown despite the pushback from many of Fairdale's white residents. There are rumors that the nearby military base is responsible for the recent power outages, and evidence that something has escaped the base only to wreak havoc across Fairdale. When a group of local kids and teenagers witnesses a supernatural event that could lead them to the source of the recent disturbances, they must band together to investigate the mystery without being caught by military personnel, otherworldly creatures, and most importantly, their parents.”

Based on this description I would guess that the game has something to do with Korean culture or identity.

Yeah maybe just a little bit, haha. I always try to signal that pretty clearly so people can self-select. It's literally in the title.

Yeah, you would think that it would be impossible to sign up for this game without noticing something Korean is going on. What were the player demographics?

All the players were men, and as far as I could tell they were all white.

Whenever that happens to me I always feel a little uneasy.

Yeah, I was already nervous when I saw that it was almost all strangers who had signed up and all men. I tend not to sign up for games if it looks like I'm going to be the only person of color or the only person who isn't a dude, unless a friend is running it.

Have you had negative experiences in that situation before?

In wider contexts, yeah, I've been the only person of color in a group of white men in school situations and in professional situations and the amount of times I have to brace myself for incoming shitty comments tends to be high more often than not. Most of the time I don't think they even realize that what they're saying is offensive. Sometimes they do and they get a kick out of it.

Goddamn. Would it be okay if I asked you to share one of those incidents? I'm asking because I need to know for the screenplay.

In a grad school class there was a debate about whether someone was trying to belittle basically all Chinese people in order to play white savior. This debate lasted over a long span of time, and if I was in a group of people that was more diverse, the white students who thought there was nothing wrong with trying to play white savior would keep their thoughts to themselves for the most part. But when I was the only person of color in a group of white people, they'd start to say how we were overreacting. Then later I even found out someone had questioned my right to comment on the experience of Asian people because they didn't think I was Asian. So I don't know what I heard because people actually thought I wasn't Korean.

Because they d …

For some context for people who don't know me, I'm half Korean, so it's not always obvious what my ethnicity is upon first glance. As a kid I was a lot more obviously Asian-looking, I guess. But I still apparently look Asian enough for people to single me out about it, but white enough that people question my right to speak about my experience as an Asian person. Best of both worlds, haha.

I have a European Jewish dad and a mestiza Filipina mom, so I know that feel really well. I looked extremely Asian as a little kid and these days I hear a lot of Asian jokes from crowds which think I'm white.

Yep. I've also gotten "I thought you were just a weird-looking white person."

In those terms?

Those exact words.

I figured as much. So, all these bad experiences are flashing before your mind's eye as you start explaining your game. What was the next moment that your White Nonsense Alert Level went up?

The sad thing is that I had a moment of relief at the beginning when I was going through my "how to play Korean when you're not Korean" talk.

I wish to treasure this tragic moment.

I was explaining that the players shouldn't worry too much about proving their characters are Korean, and that their being Korean would be explored through their relationships with the setting in this particular game. And I told them not to put on an accent, and they all laughed, and I was like "Oh good, we're on the same page." Little did I know that only minutes later I would hate everything.

So, Kids on Bikes is a game that's modeled off of all those movies, shows, and comic books about kids in the 80s going on adventures on their bikes.

Right–it's often described as Stranger Things or Goonies-themed, yeah?

Yeah, it's very Stranger Things. There's almost always a sci-fi or horror-themed threat. And characters all get strengths and flaws, so for this module I have some specific additional strengths and flaws for characters who are Korean and characters who aren't, since the whole thing takes place in Koreatown.

So that's pretty cool—you're one of the only designers brave enough to write explicit cultural signifiers into a game. Can you give an example of one of these?

It's something I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about with people because I want to make sure I do a good job considering how badly these things can go. So, one strength for a Korean character is: “Trot Singer: Your voice is perfect for singing old-fashioned Korean songs (trot music), and you have several committed to memory. If you can find a way to break into song, many Koreans forty and older will be completely transfixed and delighted. If you happen to run into a ghost that lived any time between 1910 and 1980, they may very well be transfixed as well.”

One flaw is: “Barely a Word: You speak English fluently, but can only speak and understand a few basic words of Korean. Communicating with people who mainly speak Korean is a clumsy challenge, but people often expect you to know the language.”

One strength for characters who aren't Korean is: “Fellow Immigrant: You or your parent(s) immigrated here from another country and have a good understanding of how these kinds of communities function. You may spend one Adversity Token to reroll for Charm or Brains when in Koreatown.”

And then a potential flaw is: “Picky Eater: It’s not because of any dietary restrictions, you just don’t like spicy food or food that smells a certain way. You can only eat the blandest food and are visibly uncomfortable when around aromatic food. Some people may be offended by this or make fun of you.” Given obviously, you can be Korean and be a picky eater in real life, as anyone who has met anyone in my family would know, but I was trying to highlight the whole thing about smelly food comments. That's something that has caused a lot of personal pain for my entire life, and you'll hear the same from a lot of Asian people living in the U.S.

That is so ill.

Shortly after I explained that at least half the characters had to be Korean because it's better if the people saving a place are from that culture, I get the first "Oh shit" moment. So I had just handed out the sheets with the Korean and not-Korean specific strengths and flaws, and a player asks me "This is going to go both ways, right?"

nope.gif

… then proceeded to explain that Asian people can be rude to white people too.

Oh my God. Hold on stop the interview. Turn off the camera. Turn on the camera first so we can turn it off. We need to know: how can Asian people be rude to white people? I thought we were polite and courteous and honorable all the time.

My honor doesn't allow me to ever be rude, I'll have you know. I'm too busy practicing the rites.

You can't see it but I'm bowing.

God, and the thing is I'm pretty sure my problem players at the table wouldn't know that was a joke.

What kind of voice did he say it in? Did he sound hurt, patronizing, dead serious, all of the above?

Dead serious.

And, uh, dare I ask what indignities Asians have visited upon this man?

He explained to me that he has lived in a town with a lot of Chinese residents and that they yell at him for no reason. They get mad at him even though he hasn't done anything.

I cannot imagine why any Asian would ever get angry at this man.

And that they moved here willingly so why are they mad.

Oh my god I forgot that part

Yep, haha.

I am so disgusted that I can't even maintain the fiction that I haven't heard the answers to these questions before.

My response to this was to try to briefly explain systemic racism and oppression but he wasn't having it, though he did stop trying to convince me. And I had at least one other player at the table nodding along with my explanation.

Can you quickly go over what those are?

… I'm not serious, if some reader has gotten here without knowing what those are they have Bigger Problems Than We Can Fix

Hahaha I was getting ready.

You have already explained that difference 100% more times than you need to this month.But I'm assuming you went over the difference between prejudice and systemic racism? and, like, why immigrants of color might feel resentful of certain white men?

I tried to keep my explanation brief because 1) I wasn't there to educate him on this and 2) I wanted the other players to be able to play the game eventually. I essentially explained that that "rudeness" could be attributed to people having to live in a racist society, and that Fairdale, the town in my adventure, is based off of Annandale, a real city in Virginia, and that the description I wrote was historically accurate. That the white residents were being terrible to the Korean immigrants simply for existing there and trying to make lives for themselves.

That definitely sounds like the best choice under the kind of time pressure you were feeling. I'm also just impressed by how pure the racism you were experiencing was. Like, this is a perfect microcosm of how racism happens: some Asians are mean to me, therefore reverse racism is real.

I could have gone more into "let me educate you" mode but I could tell I would just experience more pushback, like this guy had made up his mind. It reminded me of the Liam Neeson situation a little. Like a person who was Black did this thing and then he felt he needed to go out and exact vengeance on any Black person.

Like he was ready to turtle up, double down on what he was saying?

Yeah, like he was either going to just block out whatever I was saying or tell me I just don't get it. And maybe if I had someone backing me up then it would have been easier, but I was pretty alone.

Ugh. I was two tables over having a nice time playing Sexy Dungeon World.

I longingly glanced at that table a few times. The thing is, I had run this adventure for a group of all white players before and it went SO WELL. They really enjoyed the setting, they played respectfully and engaged with the content, they connected with their characters and the culture. They had fun. I left that game feeling great. I knew obviously that isn't guaranteed to happen every time, but at least I know it's not that the game document like, encourages people to be shitty. Or that my GMing style universally brings that out in people.

As race in gaming goes, what you've already told me is legendary and groundbreaking. I hope my five readers understand by this point in the interview that this not even slightly an exaggeration. So there you are trying to disengage from this guy's textbook prejudices. Did anyone chime in in your favor? Did it get any better from then on?

I got a few subtle nods during my systemic oppression talk, then another player commented when that guy was gone about his presence being unfortunate. I don't remember the exact words. No one actively said anything to help me out, but at least seeing the nods helped me feel a little better. But at the same time, I was in GM mode, and when that happens I feel responsible for everything that happens at the table. If things are going wrong, it feels like my responsibility to course correct somehow even if people are actively fighting against it.

was it because you come from a collectivist society

… OK sorry I'll stop, i've just been noticing that's everyone's favorite Asians 101 Fact in gaming.

Oh interesting. Looking back, I do wonder if the players saw my abridged name and thought "Oh, it's a white person, I can play this." I was listed as "Clio Davis" and not "Clio Yun-su Davis" which is my full name and the name I have on all my games.

I was wondering that too. I get the same thing—my name sounds, if anything, Sephardic Jewish, which is the kind of Jewish I am not.

I did get the dreaded question during the break. From a different player than the "reverse racism is real" guy. The "What are you?" question.

Tell me about that. As I recall, he literally said "What are you?" which is generally accepted to be the worst version of all the bad versions of that question.

Yep. It was "So, what are you?"

I appreciate how that phrasing combines confusion, objectification, and racism in one package that is most acutely directed at multiracial feminine people.

I was just like "Of course this is fucking happening right now." We had been playing for a little bit, things were getting frustrating, and a player asked for a break. I was already exhausted because two of the players were trying to steer the game in a frustrating direction, so I just answered the question. And the questions that came afterwards about, like, where I was born, where my parents were from, etc. “Do I speak Korean” was one of them.

What was your reaction? I almost never have the emotional wherewithal to call someone out on that, or the probable "oh yeah I love Filipino food" that comes after it.

I just answered the questions in short and straightforward answers. I still had over two hours to go with this group of people. There were things happening in the game that were upsetting too.

What were those?

There was a non-player character, an older woman whose daughter had gone missing ten years prior. She still put up missing person posters around town, and the town kind of collectively took care of her because she lived on her own and had a traumatic experience.

That is a big PoC mood. White people get found.

Yeah, and like, I made it clear that this is a vulnerable older woman who has been through some shit. They followed her home and saw that someone was living in the house with her. The summary of the story is basically, she claims that it's her niece, but it's pretty obviously not her niece. It's someone who looks like her missing daughter, except she hasn't aged at all. And this is where things go badly. Again. One player decides to steal this woman's car keys from out of her hand and force his way inside her house under the guise of helping her.

Oh hell no. I'm not gonna ask you to go into personal details, but is this a personal subject for you?

It is, I have very strong feelings about elderly people of color. I'm a caregiver for my grandmother who has dementia. I'm okay with people knowing all this, it's a part of life and it's a common thing. But old, vulnerable people of color—that's a sore spot for me.

Rightfully so. And here's this guy … like, his character isn't even trying to deceive her, just overwhelming her physically and doing some crimes?

He was playing a girl, which I've seen men do before sometimes in order to get away with doing bad shit. Like I am all for people playing genders that are different from their own, but sometimes when a cis dude plays a woman or anyone who isn't a man, it's as a shield. This player had his character force his way into the house by stealing her keys, then refused to leave when she asked kindly, then more forcefully. It was under the guise of “Oh we’re just trying to help her with her groceries.” He tried to force his way up the stairs physically while she was blocking his way. He and the reverse racism guy talked about slashing her tires so she couldn't leave, then decided on deflating them instead. I pointed out this is vandalism. Mr Reverse Racism argued that it wasn't because they didn't slash them. The guy who forced his way into the house stole her keys so they could get back in whenever they wanted. Then I had the police show up.

They proceeded to throw a rock through her window—I don't remember the exact reasoning for that. Oh, and the thing about that is they convinced one of the other players to do it. So even one of the players I thought was trying to actually play the game as something other than a harassment simulator conceded to this.

At the beginning of the game, I explained that we were using the X card, and we put down some veils. After the break, I added a line, and that was elder abuse. The guy who was harassing and physically pushing around that character then proceeded to explain to me that he wasn't going to actually abuse her. The other guy tried to be like "Is she really elderly?" I had to respond by pointing out they were physically doing things to this characters with force: they had harassed her and deflated her tires, vandalized her house. And at the end of the game, that one guy kept asking for reassurance that really I knew he wasn't going to escalate to elder abuse.

Asking for reassurance, though … it's like white confessional time at panels but even worse.

Yeah, it's very similar except it's personal. Like, "You think I did this thing to you but I didn't, please tell me you understand that I didn't." It's like gaslighting.

Without even the decency to try to deceive you.

White confessional time tends to be "Give me your stamp of approval for this thing you haven't actually seen," and reassurance time is more "You saw this thing and now tell me it wasn't bad." I have questions about the whole thing I'm not sure I want answers to. Mainly, why did these people sign up for my game? One guy wasn't comfortable playing a Korean character, and you don't have to (though half the characters do have to be Korean), but then I have to wonder why he wanted to play this game in the first place. The other guy was using his character's multiracial identity as an excuse to be shitty. He joked that his harassment of the older woman was that his character didn't "understand the customs" because she was half Korean, half German. And here I am thinking that not harassing older women was a universal custom.

[staring in multiracial]

I still feel a little violated by the whole thing, like I shared this world that is very personal with these people and they used it as a vehicle to be shitty. One of the other players apologized to me afterwards for not saying anything while this was going down. I think we were all a little stunned and overwhelmed, and in the moment it's not always clear how you should react. I know I was personally worried about escalating things because it would likely result in people getting defensive and not listening, or a full out argument.

Have you ever had the experience of someone pushing back against a safety mechanism like your elder abuse line before?

Never to that extent, no. I've had people kind of forget but then remember and apologize. I've never had people argue that the line wasn't actually near being crossed, even though they were clearly threatening this woman by explaining to me that they could get back into the house, that the locks I had described weren't strong enough, etc. And yeah, they had weird narrative excuses like being convinced that she had abducted a kid who looked like her daughter, but come on.

Their behavior parallels actual abusive derailment in depressing but eminently recognizable ways.

Yeah, that was definitely on my mind. I ended up steering the game pretty far away from the Korean content after that, and made it much more about this sketchy military base so they'd be interacting with white characters.

So I think a lot of people of color reading the interview right now recognize that moment, when they tried to introduce a signifier from their culture—a name that was hard to pronounce, a tradition, something like that—and it immediately became a weapon to use against them.

It often takes the form of becoming the butt of a joke.

I know it has for me, several times. So, I remember you texting me at half past four, with an hour and a half of game left, that this was going on and you were gonna try to end it early. I texted back and asked if you needed an exit but by the time you saw it, it was too late.

Yeah, I wasn't looking at my phone much after the break.

The thing I spent the rest of the weekend wondering was: what would a helpful response to your alarm have been?

I've been thinking about that too, and talking about it with people. It's one of those situations that isn't at "call security" level, so I was at a loss for what a good way to get out of the situation would be … without having to explain the details of what was going on, at least. I was hesitant to just outright end the game because of some kind of GM guilt. I felt that I had offered to run this game, and at least two players had signed up to actually play that game. And again, I didn't want to start a whole confrontation where I get accused of overreacting. In an ideal situation where resources weren't a problem, I could have had an additional person at that table with me from fairly early on, as soon as I saw a problem. It's harder to bulldoze over two people. But in a situation where you signal the alarm later on, I'm still not entirely sure what the ideal exit strategy is. One thought I had was that during the break, I could have just packed my stuff up and left and asked someone else to go back and tell my players the game was over.

That would have been totally justified, but the guilt …. Do you feel like you would have felt more confident, even if it might not have changed any of your actions, if one more person of color had just been … there?

Oh yeah, 100%. One of the main problems was that I felt very alone, and Mr Reverse Racism had referred to the other players and himself as "us" in a way that felt like it was pitting them as white people against people of color. A lot of white men have friends and even partners who are people of color and that makes them think they are automatically incapable of being truly racist.  At the same time, I wouldn't want another PoC player to have to suffer through that. If I had had a white man who was a friend at the table and who wasn't afraid to call people out on their bullshit, that would have been ideal. Because white men listen to other white men.

What makes the difference between a helpful white man and a white savior?

That line definitely can be a fine one, and different people will have different answers for that. For me, a helpful white man reinforces and affirms what a person of color is saying if there is pushback. A white savior makes it about them. Helpful white people help to take the burden off the shoulders of PoC when it comes to having to educate other white people.

Can someone make it about them without intending to?

Oh yeah, totally. In the moment it can be hard to tell what side of the line you're on too. If the options are "Do nothing" or "Maybe come off as a white savior" though, I prefer the latter. If I had to choose one thing that makes the difference, I'd say it's the need for praise. If a white person can do that work without needing praise for it, chances are they're at low risk for being a white savior. If they're looking for praise afterwards or during, then it gets risky.

For real. Do you think convention planners might have any power to plan games such that helpful individuals end up in high-risk games?

I do. If there were a safety team with people trained to help reinforce safety mechanics and address problematic players, GMs who know they are running a game that has potentially sensitive material could ask for someone to be present ahead of time. And if something goes bad by surprise, it would be helpful to have a number to text or call. Something short of "get security to kick this person out."

Like, a friendly/helpful presence who doesn't read as Con Law Enforcement™?

Yeah, exactly. In some larps, I've asked for a safety team member to be present during scenes that could be particularly intense. These are large-scale larps I'm talking about, and that's obviously different from a con, but that's the kind of safety team that I'd find helpful at a con. At the same time, I know that work is exhausting.

Damn, can there be an app for this already?

Uber for safety teams. I was also lucky in that I had a lot of very supportive friends who helped me out after this happened. I had a bit of a breakdown in the lobby after this happened, and I'm hesitant to even mention that because I know so many people would file that under "overreacting person of color" again. But none of this happens in a vacuum. It's not like something like this happens and it's the only time we've faced racism. It's another rock stacked on top of all the other rocks that are weighing you down. This rock happened to be the one that pushed me over my breaking point.

Clio, thank you so much for the time and vulnerability that you've shown through the course of this interview. What's the next awesome thing you're working on?

Other than Battle of the Boy Bands, a card game about building and making boy bands compete, I'm super excited about my interactive fiction game The Fog Knows Your Name, which I'm writing for Choice of Games. It's approximately a million words long and one day will be finished, I swear.

That's what's up. Watch for Clio's work to hit the Internet soon(ish).