Gary Winston, antagonist of the movie Antitrust, is often quoted as saying, “This business is binary, you’re a one or a zero. Alive or dead.” So is the way of computers and information technology. So too is the world of hacking. White Hats and Black Hats. Diametrically opposed forces at odds with each other. The classic fight of good versus evil.

The concept of black and white dualism is nothing new. White and black have been used to symbolize good and evil for millennia, especially within western culture. In film, it became shorthand to use black and white hats in the Western genre of film to designate the villains from the heroes.

Perhaps because much of the internet was, and still is, the wild west, the terms white and black hat became ubiquitous as ways of describing good versus evil hackers. There are other terms for this concept in the world of hacking, such as red and blue teams, but nothing gets near the publicity and media attention as white and black hats.

It wasn’t always like this, though. Hackers, while often portrayed as nefarious and scary by the media, are anything but. In fact, the official definition of hacker is far from the malicious, and instead simply refers to an individual “who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.” A “cracker” is the more official term for someone who breaks into computers they are not supposed to have access to. Crackers do not have to have intimate knowledge of a system to gain access to it, and often know little or nothing about how the tools and exploits they use work.

This distinction is what drove me to create a game about hacking. Real hacking.

Unfortunately, almost no one outside the tech industry uses the term cracker. White Hat and Black hat are what are in most common use, so we’re kind of stuck with them for better or for worse.

My opinion leans towards “for worse.” I find very little endearing about the wild west. I hate that “hacker” has become synonymous with malicious computer use. I hate the idea that “white hats” are heroes, saving the damsel in distress. It’s not about saving anyone or anything. It’s about knowledge and understanding, and unfortunately besides “hacker” there’s no good term that is as catchy and sensational as “white hat.”

I also find that the use of wild west imagery to refer to hacking hurts the inclusivity of the industry. The western genre is full of racism and sexism. While some of this is a product of the time the movies were made, I don’t feel that’s an excuse to further perpetuate the themes they address. Stories that center around white men saving the day from nefarious people of color and women relegated to damsels and prizes to be won are the norm. Touting the internet as the wild west can create this image of machismo that turns women away from the industry. 

Yet here I am, a transgender woman in her mid thirties making a game titled White Hat. The wild west is a trope that even I cannot avoid. Perhaps outspoken individuals such as myself can eventually change the industry. It’s something that’s slowly happening in the movie industry. Just like we desperately need these voices in the movie industry, we need them in the tech and board game industries as well.

So rather than shun away from the use of terms that I find problematic, I embrace them and do my best to shed light on the past, while attempting to open the future up for the betterment of everyone. My vision for White Hat is one of inclusivity. I want to showcase women, people of color, and members of the 2SLGBTIA+ community in my games, especially in one such as this that is a theme often written off as not appealing to those groups.

Women are hackers. Transgender people are hackers. Gay and lesbian and bi people are hackers. People of color are hackers. Anyone can be a hacker. I want the game’s design, be it art or mechanical, to be as inclusive as possible. I want to showcase people from all walks of life.

It’s hard though. Way harder than I thought.

White Hat is a heavy Euro. Mechanically speaking it’s an abstract game that features a lot of pushing cubes and placing meeples. There is nothing inherently exclusive about it, and yet the theme is one that might turn away a portion of the audience I want to attract. So, what can be done about it? What can I do to make sure my game screams inclusivity the way that I want it to?

A while back I posted on one of the most popular game design groups on Facebook with that very question. Some of the answers I got were helpful, others made me rethink my assumptions about the game and the tech industry, while others were far more problematic than I expected.

A significant number of responses said that I should retheme it to be something more inclusive, but despite being an abstract Euro game, so much of the mechanics are tied up in the theme that I can’t change it without fundamentally changing the game I created.

Another group of responses said to include player characters, which while difficult for a worker placement game, isn’t out of the question. Unfortunately that depends heavily on the artwork commissioned for the final product, and it’s hard to say how much say I’ll have if I find a publisher.

The vast majority of people told me to not bother, and that was incredibly disheartening. I was told that depictions of characters that aren’t the average for the theme can alienate the assumed cisgender straight white male in my audience. 

I was told to make the alpha-male the bad guy, and that each player should be a member of a marginalized group fighting oppression in the industry. I was told to include their struggles and to use the game to teach players what it is like being a minority. I don’t like this response though, because sometimes marginalized peoples don’t want to revel in their struggles. They don’t want to be reminded of their marginalized status. They want to be normalized. I also don’t like the idea that marginalized people are defined by their struggles.

The vast majority of responses came down to, essentially, not bothering. I was told that I should make a game that everyone will want to play. I dislike this, because of course I am making a game that everyone could want to play. That’s the goal of any designer. It’s like saying to make a game that’s fun. Games generally already do that by default.

Lastly, came the problematic replies. I was told to include features for women, such as a menstrual calendar app. I was told to include a testosterone/estrogen patch that improves creativity. I was told that queer people don’t like games which traditional goals, such as winning the game, but rather purely story centric. 

This infuriated me more than any of the other responses. It’s written so heavily from the perspective of a cisgender straight white male that it’s obvious they have no idea what marginalized people actually want. Sure, a lot of queer and marginalized folks make and play games outside of the normal perview of the typical, assumed, straight white male audience of gaming. I suspect that the reason this is a seeming commonly held belief is because a lot of the well known and obviously queer themed games are famous because they are outside the norm, and that games made by marginalized groups that are more traditional often don’t get the same publicity as something that so obviously stands out.

In the end, I want White Hat to provide an experience for everyone. I want everyone to feel welcomed and included. I don’t want to make someone uncomfortable or feel like they’re left out. White Hat is a game for everyone, but it is especially for those that would normally be pushed out of the gaming space. Hopefully if and when it gets published and gains finalized artwork it will shine the way I envision.

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1 Comment

Daniel Drake · May 25, 2020 at 7:11 pm

It seems like you have a strong idea. Anyone that says “don’t bother” doesn’t matter; what I’ve seen is intriguing and looks both simple but complex enough to give players some satisfying crunch.

I think you were smart to lean into the “white hat” lingo. Right off the bat I could guess the premise. Language is a funny thing like that. Words stick and take root.

For me personally, what would make this concept just *chef’s kiss* is if somehow the act of playing it widened my knowledge of both the process and the history of so-called “hacker culture”. I love to learn about things I’m not particularly familiar with and this is one of those things. I think games have an interesting capacity for immersive learning, indirectly leaving players with more knowledge about the world than when they started. Not sure how much of that is expressed through the concept/rulebook/art yet.

I hope to play it sometime.

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