Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Kind People Make Spaces Safe

 I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.”

Ray Bradbury

The library where I grew up; not my
current public library....
Every few months something inspires me to consider the issue of safe spaces, specifically public libraries as safe spaces. It’s become one of those perennial issues emerging in discussions about our society as a whole and our smaller communities of gamers. Paramount among these prompts was Wil Wheaton’s moving keynote speech at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival, The library is a safe place,” about how books and his local library helped him find his way through his difficult childhood. It’s long but worth reading. Go and read it now...I’ll wait. I gleaned other tidbits from my social media feeds demonstrating how public libraries offer a place where the homeless, out-of-work, and troubled can find refuge, however temporary. The main event, however, was closer to home; this past spring our local public library hosted a convention celebrating graphic novels, movies, even games with fandom followings. After some reflection on all these perspectives I reached a realization. As merely places filled with books and other media to engage our interests and momentarily distract us from our real-life woes, public libraries fulfill only part of their role; what brings the safe place to life is the confluence of the media and caring people in one location. People matter. They make the difference in how we experience places and events...for good or ill. I regret that, while games might serve as one aspect helping to make libraries a refuge, exclusive game spaces do not always make for safe spaces...people, civility, and kindness make the difference.

I’ve long sought refuge in libraries, public, academic, and private. I regret librarians have rarely made me feel comfortable there – quite the opposite (and I’ll not elaborate) – but I realize my experience is more the exception than the rule. Quite possibly it’s why I find more refuge in my personal library than anywhere else. Years ago a librarian made me feel quite unwelcome at the local library soon after my arrival at my new home in central Virginia. But, thankfully, the local public library has changed. Some of the supportive librarians are still there running programs for the youngest visitors. Others have moved on, with newer personnel bringing fresh ideas and attitudes. The recent fandom convention proved that. One of the library board members who knows of my involvement with the adventure gaming hobby invited me to participate early on; I volunteered to give a talk about finding games to indulge one’s fandom interests as well as run a demonstration miniatures wargame pitting orcs against Rohirrim in a Middle-earth battle using Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant rules. Both went extremely well, overcoming my generalized anxieties about the event and the library itself. I was glad to meet and chat with the librarian who organized the event, who emphasized his view of the library – and fandom media – as a safe space for everyone. It helped me realize such a refuge goes beyond just a place, or the media it houses, and depends on caring, supportive people.

Games and the spaces where we play them may not seem as welcoming on the surface as a public library with its study rooms, comfy chairs, and stacks where we can disappear on our various solitary quests for material. Someone can easily find a book, pick it up, and peruse it on their own without ever having to interact with anyone (though the interaction can help). Games, however, have a few barriers that might discourage some folks, especially those who are socially inhibited. Unlike books, most games involve interacting with other people. Anxiety about approaching a crowd of strangers may discourage engaging with a group of gamers. And they’re not just people playing a game. They’re part of a “club” whose members are, to varying degrees, familiar with the intricate workings of the game rules...yet another barrier to potential newcomers. Although board game popularity initiated by titles like Settlers of Catan have brought more people into the hobby, many can feel intimidated by more detailed and sometimes less regimented forms of play. For instance, one participant in my library wargame noted they were more used to moving game pieces around according to spaces printed on the play surface rather than freely measuring distances for movement and ranged combat. Newcomers to roleplaying games sometimes require some corollaries to more traditional board games, like miniatures for pieces and battle maps for boards.

I’ve focused on running adventure games for kids and newcomers for a while, often in different settings. Part of the challenge comes in choosing or adapting rules that are easy to learn and intuitive to use. For public games I always try projecting a welcoming attitude so folks know they can join in, watch, or simply pass on by. I try encouraging a hospitable atmosphere with players already engaged at the table so they’re sensitive to easing others into a new game experience. Gamers are people; they come with their own idiosyncrasies, behaviors, and varying levels of socialization. We’re not always the most welcoming, accepting, or tolerant of folks, especially when focused on the minutia of our hobby. A long time ago (okay, 2011) I wrote about gamers serving as ambassadors for the hobby. It’s important to make a positive impression not only of the games we play but of ourselves as an extension of and in fact an integral part of the adventure gaming experience.

I’d really like to say the adventure gaming hobby is also a safe place where everyone can find refuge; I’m sad that it isn’t always true. Sure, for some of us games offer an escape, sometimes on our own, other times with friends or even like-minded strangers (whom we hope will become gaming friends). But the adventure gaming hobby is really more of an insulated, exclusive club that only recently – since the turn of the century and the popularization of board games and geek culture – has tried opening itself up to outsiders. Like many communities in society, your mileage may vary. Some groups foster a welcoming atmosphere; others bask in the hobby’s insular “secret knowledge” of rules minutia inadvertently keeping out those unwilling to fully immerse themselves in a game’s particular culture. Both must overcome people’s natural temerity when trying to make new friends or merge with a new social group. Humans tend to cluster within familiar, safe groups they already knew – possibly a vestige of some primeval survival instinct – but this subconscious behavior can sometimes exclude others or mute our courage to reach out beyond our safe group.

Alas, while I’ve seen positive gaming programs in libraries and elsewhere, gaming by itself, especially in its own space at conventions, is not always an escapist refuge for everyone, particularly those outside the hobby community. Certainly some folks find solace there, a place to immerse themselves in a world other than their own where the cares of life aren’t so oppressive. But it’s also a space where some folks, in pursuit of their hobby, intentionally or inadvertently do not always foster a welcoming atmosphere.

Libraries and the people there – staffers and considerate patrons – can serve as examples of folks cultivating successful safe spaces; they can also inspire us to try creating welcoming, supportive communities for the other pursuits we enjoy, like gaming. A library’s role as a safe community, a supportive shelter for those who need it, challenges us to strive not only to create more safe havens but, at the very least, to become sensitive of people’s vulnerabilities and try in our own ways to help them feel comfortable and safe around us. It’s not always easy to do. We’re not always conscious of it. And goodness knows I’ve not always been aware of or sensitive to it myself. Humans are far from perfect; but we can seek to improve ourselves and, hopefully, improve the lives of others. In his essay Wheaton ends with a list of things he strives to do on purpose. The final one resonates as advice to those seeking to create safe spaces and an overall good rule of thumb for being decent humans: Always choose to be kind.” Kindness in the library helped Wil Wheaton. Kindness at the gaming table might slowly transform the adventure gaming hobby into a safer, more welcoming space. And kindness might help make our society better for everyone, especially those in need.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”



  1. Kindness and compassion for someone wanting to learn something new (we were all novices once)...yeah, those are probably the right watch-words for creating a truly inclusive hobby.

    1. *ahem*

      "Inclusive AND welcoming," I should have said.


We welcome civil discussion and polite engagement. We reserve the right to remove comments that do not respect others in this regard.