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Tabletop Gaming’s Anti-Israel Meltdown: The Strange Tale of Waffles and Syrup

When the CEO of a boardgame awards show boasted publicly that she’d be disqualifying all nominees who ‘identify as Zionists,’ her event was quickly dropped from North America’s biggest game convention.

· 12 min read
A woman and two men on stage in front of a poster at the GRIT awards.
A 2023 photo featuring Ivy B (centre), the founder and CEO of the Creator Recognition in Tabletop Role-Playing Games Awards (CRIT).

Five years ago, I gave a TEDx Talk in Toronto titled, Political Correctness Works for No One. I didn’t promote it too heavily at the time—not only because I felt the points I offered weren’t exactly groundbreaking, but also because I was status-conscious of the fact that TEDx is the junior-varsity spin-off of the more illustrious TED Talk franchise. (When people ask whether I’ve ever given a TED Talk, my stock self-deprecating response is “Um, not x-actly.”)

But there was one point I made in the TEDx Talk that seemed to resonate heavily with many viewers, some of whom still email me to this day about it: Having worked at both a conservative newspaper and a progressive magazine in my pre-Quillette years, I’d observed that the self-censorship and mobbing that goes along with so-called “woke” ideology does far more damage to leftist social, cultural, and professional ecosystems than to their right-wing counterparts—since progressive institutions are the ones that demand doctrinal purity from their constituents.

Since that speech, I’ve observed countless case studies that illustrate this principle, featuring vicious squabbles within hyper-progressive theatres, comedy clubs, art magazines, movie festivals, rape-crisis centres, LGBT activist groups, political parties, and academic departments. These tend to be milieus where progressives enjoy strong supermajorities, and overtly conservative viewpoints are pretty much non-existent. In this kind of environment, enforcers are free to focus their inquisitorial energies on fellow travellers who push back even marginally on contentious issues such as anti-racism, trans rights, or (more recently) Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

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Since coming to Quillette in 2017, I’ve mostly been a bystander to these squabbles, often playing them for laughs on social media when things get particularly farcical. But there does remain at least one milieu in which I come up against this phenomenon on an up-close-and-personal basis: the hopelessly subcultural nerd-run world of boardgaming (or, as it’s more formally known, “tabletop gaming”).

Regular Quillette readers will know that boardgames account for a large portion of my recreational time. I co-authored a book on the subject in 2019, and regularly traipse to tournaments in Canada, the United States, and Scandinavia.

As anyone who’s taken up boardgaming in any serious way has learned, this isn’t really a single hobby, but rather a constellation of thousands of genre-specific micro-hobbies, each of which features its own dominant personalities, Kickstarter economies, and social-media clubhouses.

So, for instance, if you attend the upcoming Gen Con event in Indianapolis—North America’s biggest tabletop gaming convention—you’ll observe tens of thousands of gamers scatter to dozens of different rooms, each catering to its own gaming sub-niche—such as Magic: The Gathering, “Train Gamers,” and Warhammer. Since different games tend to attract different demographics, as you go from one space to another, you’ll often observe striking differences in age, sex, dress, gender presentation—and, unfortunately, politics.

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While most of us play games precisely because they allow us to escape political controversies, some gaming subcultures have become increasingly dominated by cliques of progressive ideological enforcers, who roam message boards in search of anyone whose heterodox views might make them feel “unsafe.” This problem has become especially acute in the game category known as “role-playing,” which was originally popularised in the 1970s thanks to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

These games, more recently dubbed TTRPGs (for “Tabletop Role-Playing Games”), put players into the shoes of imaginary alter-egos who navigate fictional sword-and-sorcery worlds as warriors, magicians, and thieves. In many cases, these alter-egos are not as “alter” as you might imagine, however, as many younger gamers now curate their dungeon-scapes so as to therapeutically “affirm” players’ real-life identities and political beliefs.

As a result, the people self-selecting into the role-playing niche increasingly consist of wounded souls seeking—and, in some cases, demanding—recognition of their intersecting anxieties and (claimed) oppressions.


Im sorry

♬ original sound - Rowan Zeoli

In a recent Autostraddle article, for instance, Rowan Zeoli—an avid gaming enthusiast, journalist, trans woman, and (self-appointed) political hall monitor within the role-playing community—wrote about a D&D session custom-designed for “my boyfriend, Max… the day after he got top surgery [i.e., breast removal]”: 

While it might seem like an inopportune time to introduce him to tabletop role playing games, my reasoning was based on a non-insignificant amount of scientific research about the therapeutic potential of TTRPGs [tabletop role-playing games]. I wanted him to spend the days after this momentous, transformative moment feeling like a hero. I wanted him to live in a world where his gender was nothing less than euphoric in every moment. Between our shared imagination and a series of dice rolls, this silly, beautiful, magic game enabled that.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to play role-playing games, and everyone should be free to choose their own style—including a style that presents the game experience as a vessel for psycho-political healing and self-validation. But as with many other insular art-house subcultures that have been colonised by the social-justice movement, gaming’s freewheeling oddball ethos of live-and-let-live has increasingly given way to one of rigid conformity, social-media surveillance, and, when heresies are deemed to have occurred, mobbing and excommunication.

Indeed, the politics of the role-playing-game community have now become so puritanical that some employers in the sector no longer even bother using euphemisms when enforcing discriminatory hiring criteria. One full-time professional who spoke to me on background, for instance, told me that during a recent job interview, she was instructed that successful applicants would be required to formally pledge that they weren’t supporters of Donald Trump.

A promotional graphic for The Second Stranger, an online show produced by the Transplanar role-playing game. The production is billed as “a fantastical story that focuses on queer love, is helmed by [people of colour], features noncolonial and antiorientalist worldbuilding, and is run ENTIRELY by transgender people.”

The list of punishable offences in this world now includes not only racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and Trumpism, but also Zionism. Connie Chang (“they/he/she, threading queer drama w/ black-hearted apocalyptica”), the influential creative director of a popular noncolonial, anti-orientalist “all-transgender, people of color-led dark fantasy TTRPG channel” called Transplanar, has denounced Zionism as “a colonial, ethnonationalist, imperial project founded in white supremacy, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.” The above-referenced Rowan Zeoli, who operates a social-justice gaming-themed publication called Rascal, goes further, referring to support for the Jewish state as “a plague on all of our souls.”

Other feared social-justice level bosses within this space include Dillin (also self-described as “Superdillin”), Hamnah, and Nala J. Wu (aka “Jae”), an illustrator, diversity consultant, and sensitivity reader who self-identifies as a neurodivergent, Queer, non-binary, non-white they/them. As readers might have by now inferred, the well-known personalities in this sector often go by one-word names or pseudonyms, self-describe with exotic, overlapping gender identifiers, and almost invariably lay claim to one or more flavours of mental fragility.

A Tweet from Hamnah, denouncing “the breakfast gang”—a reference to WafflesMapleSyrup.

Another alpha member of the commissar clique is “Ivy B,” the “demi bisexual Goth Nerd” serving as CEO of the Creator Recognition In TTRPG (CRIT) Awards—whose (ostensible) mission is “to celebrate and recognize the contributions and achievements of our [TTRPG] community in a way that is inclusive, diverse, and represents the values of our community.”

This year’s CRIT awards ceremony was supposed to have been a glitzy affair staged at Gen Con. But as you can tell from my choice of phrasing, that event isn’t going to happen, largely thanks to Ivy B’s self-destructive campaign to shame a gaming studio calledWafflesMapleSyrup.”

This is a company that Zeoli has denounced in Rascal as a threat to the “safety” of the community, due to “the studio head’s insistence that anti-Zionism equated to antisemitism.”

In the same article, Zeoli also added, approvingly, that WafflesMapleSyrup had been “publicly ostracized from the online TTRPG… community,” and (much less approvingly) that “Zionism is a neocolonial settler project to create a Judeosupremecist ethnostate.” 

Ivy B.

WafflesMapleSyrup produces content known as “Actual Play” (AP)—filmed gaming sessions that are broadcast on Twitch, YouTube, and other platforms. The corporate name derives from the romantically conjoined man and woman—“Waffles” and “Syrup,” respectively—who created the studio four years ago, and who continue to produce AP videos with a variety of paid cast members (i.e., game players who appear on camera). As you might imagine, this is not an enormously lucrative business model, but it’s one that allows Waffles and Syrup to spend their lives doing what they love.

Syrup, who also goes by Ada, is unusual (by TTRPG standards, at least) to such extent that she has not only outed herself as a Zionist, but an actual Israeli. Perhaps more controversially, she’s publicly condemned the 7 October 2023 Hamas terrorist attacks—a gesture generally seen as unpardonably Zionistic by the hobby’s most active social-justice enthusiasts.

A promotional photo relating to a WafflesMapleSyrup broadcast on Twitch, featuring Waffles (aka Stefan), second from left; and Syrup (aka Ada), centre.

As a result, WafflesMapleSyrup was targeted with a low-simmer cancel campaign in late 2023 and early 2024. At first, Syrup seems to have tried to ignore her critics. But by May 2024, she apparently felt obliged to speak out publicly, as it had become obvious that the whisper campaign wouldn’t end until she and Waffles had been driven out of the industry entirely.

In a lengthy essay, Syrup described the shunning and bullying she’d endured, disavowed a long list of thoughtcrimes she’d been accused of, and set out her views on Israel in (what I see as) a sensible and humane way.

“We [meaning both Waffles and Syrup] support a free Palestine and we support the safety of the Jewish people,” she wrote. “We will continue to be here, we will continue to curate a safe community for our Jewish friends, our Palestinian friends, and all those who wish for peace.”

Alas, as anyone who’s studied the dynamics of these cancel campaigns might have predicted, this plea for reason only made the mob more febrile. A designer and performer who goes by “Zoelle,” for instance, responded by telling Syrup that the only way for her to properly repent would be to explicitly call for the destruction of her own country: “If you cannot confidently say that Isreal DOES NOT & SHOULD NOT have a right exist, then you’re too close to supporting Zionism and you’re giving leeway to atrocities.”

Excerpted portions of a Google Docs essay published in May by Syrup, defending herself from attacks by anti-Zionists within the TTRPG community.

The next public stage of the drama came a month later, on 14 June, when Ivy B announced the list of nominees for the 2024 CRIT Awards. Needless to say, neither Waffles nor Syrup made an appearance. But the list did include a gamer (or “cast member”) who’d appeared on a WafflesMapleSyrup broadcast. And while there was no suggestion that this gamer personally harboured Zionist tendencies, the affiliation with WafflesMapleSyrup provoked outrage from TTRPG’s social-justice Greek chorus—on the apparent basis that even mere adjacency to Zionism “plagued” the community’s collective soul almost as much as Zionism itself. Within hours, Ivy had discreetly purged this gamer’s name from her nomination list.

But then Ivy badly overplayed her hand: In a bid to justify the decision retroactively, she hastily added a new subsection to the CRIT Awards’ “Code of Conduct,” which reads as follows: “Individuals who identify as Zionists, promote Zionist material, or engage in activities that without a doubt support Zionism are not eligible for nomination.”

Then she went on Twitter to brag about it.

Needless to say, Ivy’s Tweet was greeted rapturously by the TTRPG community (or, at least, those members of the community who felt at liberty to speak their minds publicly). But she’d forgotten that not everyone at Gen Con—including the convention’s corporate-minded organisers—embraces her brand of radicalised politics.

Within days, the CRIT Awards were facing what Ivy later described as an “emergency” situation. Which is to say that the wider, saner world outside the TTRPG fishbowl began reporting on her new policy—and dragging Gen Con into their posts as collateral damage.

Ivy remained unmoved, basking in her newfound status as TTRPG’s preeminent anti-Zionist, until (by her own oddly precise report) 12:52 pm on 24 June, when someone at Gen Con laid down the law, and reportedly provided Ivy with two “options”—which, from what I can tell (based on Ivy’s cryptic reports), seem to have been: (a) dropping the anti-Zionism loyalty oath, or (b) dropping out of Gen Con altogether. Having backed herself into a rhetorical corner, Ivy was forced to go with the latter option, as she sheepishly announced later that day. (Gen Con itself has not commented publicly on the matter.)

What’s particularly shocking about all this is that Waffles and Syrup, far from being right-wing reactionaries, basically come off as card-carrying progressives when it comes to every imaginable issue that doesn’t involve Israel. Waffles boasts that his company “champions inclusivity, reflecting the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam.” His bio has him as a survivor of “severe mental health issues, including suicide[al ideation],” who is “on a journey of discovery with Autism”—and, oh yes, a “he/they.”

Syrup, meanwhile, is a “she/they,” a person of colour, bisexual, and descended from Holocaust survivors. She reports having been targeted by antisemitism, and writes that she’s relied on the boardgaming community to “gain the confidence to start my own mental health journey, and [get] diagnosed with ADHD and Anxiety.” Her only deviations from progressive orthodoxy, as far as I can tell, are that she wants Hamas to give back the surviving hostages seized on 7 October 2023; and that she doesn’t think of Israel (nor her Israeli friends and relatives) as “a plague” to be exterminated.

And she’s not backing down. In fact, the donation page on the WafflesMapleSyrup website now explicitly calls out the antisemitism they’ve observed (and endured) within the TTRPG community; and describes the need for “a safe space for Jewish gamers and storytellers.”

In light of all this, I will let readers decide for themselves if they think Ivy and her CRIT Awards co-staffers deserve our sympathy now that they, too, have felt the sting of cancellation.

One last thing I should mention is that the 2024 CRIT awards are still going forward, even if there won’t be any kind of Gen Con ceremony. And everyone reading this can vote on the winners at this URL. The site’s worth a visit, if only for the inspiring description of Ivy’s “vision” contained in the final paragraph.

“We believe in treating each other with respect, kindness, and understanding,” she tells us. “Our goal is to create an uplifting community where everyone feels valued, welcomed, and free to be themselves.”

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