INTRODUCTION

The genesis of this blog came from an article that I wrote for See Page XX examining prevalence of sexist depictions of women in different areas of gaming. Before you read anything else here, you should really go read the article. (Yes it’s important enough to link twice.) If you find yourself wanting to argue with the article, please read this post here elucidating common arguments against my findings and clarifying some points regarding my criteria and methods.

My goal is to make this a place you can point people to regarding specific issues pertaining to sexism in gaming.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, welcome! If you don’t want to read chronologically, consider checking out this guide on how to use this blog. If you’re a feminist or ally looking for a specific post to use as a reference, then visit this guide here.

On #GamerGate and the impossibility of “just making games”

Hey, folks. So you’ll notice that there haven’t been any freebie linkspams for… a while. And that’s pretty much a direct result of #GamerGate, because everything that I would link to could be summarized as TL;DR HUMANS ARE AWFUL. Not to mention that it is not possible to put enough trigger warnings on even the not-terrible coverage of GG issues.

I’ve also been having a hard time finding the bandwidth to write here, despite the abundance of topics that I want to write about. I have friends that I want to interview about their positive work in games, there’s more analysis I want to do of the changing trends in Magic: The Gathering art direction, I’d like to noodle about some thoughts inspired by recent game projects on the intersection between social justice and game design. I mean, I have a fucking Patreon – you’d think it would be easier to find space to write here when I am literally getting paid to blog about the things that I am passionate about.

But friends, it’s been so hard.

We get told “just make games” or “just make art” like it’s supposed to be some kind of panacea. Like “just making games” will enable me to rise above the bullshit and transcend the awful with sheer awesome. And honestly, I would love, LOVE for that to be the solution. Nothing would please me more than being able to post a clever “haters gonna hate” meme and move on with my life.

But how can I “just make games” for a hobby that wants me to stop existing?

How can I “just make games” when “just making games” requires me to engage with a community that I don’t want my daughter to be a part of, and that I will do my best to hide her from when she is old enough to venture into online spaces. (Which, thankfully, is many years away yet.)

How can I “just make games” when hate and terror campaigns created to scare women out of gaming are triggering my anxiety and making it hard for me to just function day-to-day, let alone “just make games”.

For those of you who have never had to deal with anxiety, it’s fucking exhausting. And GG makes it literally impossible to know where the line is between “shut up brain, you’re being stupid again” and reasonable fucking caution.

Is enabling 2-factor authentication on my accounts needless paranoia, or reasonable caution? Who the fuck knows? When a co-worker discovered my blog, was I being an over-reacting paranoid weirdo when I asked him not to link it to a bunch of trolls? Or was I justified? Fuck if I know! When my name pops up on a forum that is well-known as a haven for misogynist tabletop gamers and I am called an “extremist”, am I making mountains out of molehills when that site’s presence in my blog’s referral links for the last month causes a vague, generalized dread whenever I check my site stats? Or is this something that I need to worry about?

I DON’T FUCKING KNOW ANYMORE.

People who say “it’s just on the internet” are not only completely out of touch with the reality of how modern life works, but they’re ignoring the real mental health consequences of these cyber harassment mobs. You don’t have to be directly targeted by them, either. Just the knowledge that they exist is a visceral threat. And when these mobs attack women that you respect, admire, and look up to – there’s a certain sense of inevitability. If I continue to walk down this path, it’s hard not to believe that this is what the future holds for me.

That is terrifying.

And it keeps me from doing the fucking work that needs to get done in order to “just make games”.

I have a KickStarter I need to be promoting more. That I’m proud of! Because it’s fucking awesome! And I have done some promotion work, but I’ve been chasing after “safe” audiences, because it’s not as worry-inducing as chasing potentially-hostile promotion sources for an explicitly social-justice-oriented game product, and hoping that the stats on funding and KickStarter are accurate and that momentum will get me over my funding goal.

I have things I want to blog about for an audience that has proven its interest and its willingness to support me with actual electronic moneyz, and lately I find myself writing out of a sense of obligation rather than real passion or excitement.

The fear, the anxiety, the need to detox and spend time doing and thinking about things that aren’t games – it all gets in the way of “just making games”.

And to those who say that I’m overreacting, that it’s all in my head, that it’s not a big deal, that “no one’s died yet” – that’s bullshit. At least one trans game dev, Kate von Roeder has committed suicide[1], and a mass shooting threat has forced Anita Sarkeesian to cancel a talk when the local law enforcement was unwilling to prevent attendees from bringing concealed weapons.

Let’s not forget that it was only several months ago that the Isla Vista shooter went on a killing spree after months of escalating online rhetoric about how much he despised and wanted to kill women. And it was nearly twenty-five years ago that the Montreal massacre resulted in the deaths of fourteen female engineering students at the hands of a man who blamed feminists for ruining his life.

So yeah, people have died. And more people might die. And that’s what every woman who works in games and is vocal about feminist issues deals with. The knowledge that speaking out comes with consequences, and it is impossible to know how steep those consequences will be.

So where does that leave me? For now, I’m still here. I’m still making games. I’m still blogging. My anxiety means that I’m not able to sustain the level of output that I know I’m capable of when I’m feeling well and am not having active symptoms, but I’m in the process of getting help and am trying not to beat myself up too much. I’m forcing myself to engage in self-care and am doing what I can.

Maybe some day we’ll be at a point where I can “just make games”. But that’s not a future I see arriving any time soon.

[1] I’ve heard reports of a second trans dev committing suicide, but the Google search results are too toxic for me to face today. So I guess it’s a good thing I’m just a blogger and not a real journalist or something.

Crowdfunding platforms: why I use KickStarter and why you should too

[In the interest of transparency, I’ll disclose that I’m currently running a campaign on KickStarter; I also sort-of-know two people who work for KickStarter, so, you know, #corruption or #ethics or whatever[1].]

[ETA: The officer who murdered Michael Brown was Daren Wilson, not Darren Watts. I am a tremendous moron, and that mistake has been corrected. I deeply apologize for the confusion.]

One of the biggest and, to my mind, best changes to alter the indie tabletop publishing landscape in the last few years is the advent of crowdfunding. Prior to things like KickStarter, publishing even small book projects required a substantial investment, one that might not pay off for the first few months of a new project. That privileged people with the ability to tie up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in dead-tree books for months at a time until they saw a profit.

True story, the first edition of Thou Art But A Warrior that I published cost me about $400 for the initial print run, and I did everything myself. EVERYTHING. Writing, art, layout (that was a mistake – I’m terrible at layout), the only things I had to pay for were printing and shipping. I had a pretty successful debut at GenCon in 2008, for indie values of success that is, but even so it took two and a half months to earn back my investment and start making “profits”, as it were.

Luckily, I could afford to do that. When I published the first edition of TABAW, I was a DINK[2] living in an apartment with no significant ongoing expenses. I had the financial ability to write off that $400 knowing that it would come out in the wash. Eventually. Probably.

Now obviously, that sort of publishing landscape is going to privilege a certain class of creator, and serve as a bar to entry to other classes of creators.

So KickStarter was revolutionary, in that it allowed designers to make games without the painful initial investment. It also took away the financial worries behind publishing a new project. Was this going to be a flop? What if no one bought it? What would you do with 200 copies of a game no one wanted? With KickStarter-style crowdfunding, you can know if your project isn’t commercially viable before sinking massive funds into it, which again is a huge, huge deal for people who want to make games but can’t afford to waste money on a failure[3].

(Sidebar: Patreon has been even more revolutionary in lowering the barrier to publishing paid content, because the ability to get funding on an ongoing basis for creating a stream of content is really just the best and so much less stressful than project-based platforms like KickStarter. And I think it’s not a coincidence that I’m seeing more women and PoC and queer designers putting out work since Patreon became a thing, but that is maybe a post for another time.)

The success of KickStarter has spawned a legion of crowdfunding platforms, however some of KickStarter’s biggest competitors have not adhered to KickStarter’s high ethical standards. So since ethics in gaming seems to be “a thing” right now, I thought I’d provide a publisher’s-eye view of the ethical concerns behind my decision to switch to KickStarter for my most recent crowdfunding campaign.

The ethical quandaries inherent in running a crowdfunding platform

The thing about KickStarter and other crowdfunding platforms is that they make money on each campaign that funds successfully. So as a business, it’s in their best interest to see lots of campaigns funding successfully so as to make lots of money. However, the fact that KickStarter and similar funding platforms are what is enabling the projects being funded to exist adds an interesting ethical wrinkle. KickStarter is not itself a publisher or creator, but it profits from the works that are created through their campaigns.

Ergo, there’s a balance that has to be struck when considering projects – where does a crowdfunding platform draw the line of content they won’t publish, or do they even draw one at all? Being willing to deny or shut down campaigns for projects that are harmful in some fashion also means turning down potential income.

So how do different crowdfunding companies balance these two concerns?  I’m not going to look at every crowdfunding company, because that would be insane. But I thought it would be worth comparing KickStarter and IndieGoGo – the two most popular sites for crowdfunding games right now.

KickStarter

Until very recently[4], KickStarter’s campaigns were 100% curated – meaning that they had to approve every campaign before it was allowed to go live. So a lot of the worst (ie offensive/harmful) campaigns were simply not allowed to fund on KickStarter.

Even when something truly awful managed to get through the approval process, KickStarter has been willing to shutdown harmful campaigns in clear violation of their ToS, such as in the case of Tentacle Bento – a truly awful game about aliens abducting school girls and sexually assaulting them. Thankfully, KickStarter stepped in and shut that one down. (Though it didn’t stop the game from being produced, depressingly.)

But even more tellingly, KickStarter is also able to admit when they get something wrong. Take this example of a campaign for a PUA manual that instructed men in how to get around clear refusals in order to coerce women to sleep with them. This repugnant manual was at the very least advocating sexual harassment, and at the worst advocating sexual assault. KickStarter staff were alerted to the campaign and were faced with making a decision a mere two hours before the funding deadline and they decided to not shut down the campaign.

However, in the wake of that campaign they repented and wrote this blog post called “We Were Wrong” in which they explained the motives behind their decision and how they got it wrong. They then pledged to donate $25,000 – which was more than the offensive campaign raised in the first place – to RAINN.

Which, you know, kudos. They took it on the chin, admitted they got it wrong, and took action as a result. Which is more than can be said for…

IndieGoGo

IndieGoGo’s main selling features as a competitor of KickStarter were that they didn’t curate campaigns and that creators have the option to run “flexible funding campaigns”, which means you can choose to keep all of the money you raise even your campaign fails (though the fees for this type of campaign are higher than the all-or-nothing campaigns). And in theory, the lack of curation isn’t a terrible thing, so long as they’re willing to enforce their own ToS, which prohibits: “Bullying, harassing, obscene or pornographic items, sexually oriented or explicit materials or services”.

The problem is that they’re willing to let pretty much anything fly, ToS be damned, because sweet sweet filthy lucre. Take, for example, the case of Tentacle Grape Soda – a truly repugnant campaign for rape-joke-themed grape soda. (Yes really)

Here is a copy of what I sent to IndieGoGo staff when I reported the campaign:

This item promotes rape and sexual harassment through the trivialization of rape. They have a disclaimer at the bottom saying that they don’t support rape, but this is belied by the following:

* their artwork depicts a woman about to be raped by a tentacle in a rather playful light
* the campaign creators FREELY ACKNOWLEDGE that the name of their product is a play on “tentacle rape”
* the campaign includes unused label designs that show women in mild to extreme distress about their impending tentacle rape
* this alternate art is being sold as a premium reward level, allowing the creators to profit off of a graphic depiction of a woman clearly in distress
* their reward levels include not-at-all-veiled rape jokes, such as the $25 Get Graped level or the $6000 A Ton of Grape level.
* the promo descriptions of their reward levels imply that women enjoy and actually look for rape, such as: “$25 – Get Graped – We all know why you’re here and what you really want…”

These are the sort of rape jokes that normalize rape culture and promote the harassment of women. Simply saying “we don’t support rape” DOES NOT obviate the fact that this campaign is seeking to profit on rape jokes at the expense of survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – which continue to be a HUGE problem in the geek community these campaign contributors claim to represent.

There are only 10 days left. Please act quickly to remove this campaign and send the message that Indiegogo will not support creators that promote rape and sexual violence, even as a joke.

Unfortunately, what I got back was a whole lot of boiler plate weasel words. And sure enough, not only did IndieGoGo not remove the campaign, THEY FEATURED IT ON THE FRONT PAGE TWO DAYS LATER. So not only was IndieGoGo NOT willing to enforce their own ToS, but they were totally okay with officially endorsing a rape-joke-themed-product! WOO! RAPE JOKE SODA! DRINK UP EVERYONE!

But, guys, guys! It’s okay, because Tentacle Grape Soda totally does not support rape:

Tentacle Grape Soda does not support rape

Rape is a serious subject. The makers of Tentacle Grape (Cosplay Deviants, LLC) do not, in any way, shape, or form condone the despicable act of violence towards women. While we are open minded about the nature of sexual relationships and respect the variety of ways that people choose to express these things, we do not (and never have) supported the idea of unwilling participation… the difference between fantasy and flagrant violence.

That said, Tentacle Grape is a play on the phrase “tentacle rape” – a staple in popular Japanese animated pornography aka “hentai.” The facts are these:

  • The drink is a parody of a parody. (A play on words based on a fictional animated sexual cliché.)
  • The drink doesn’t promote an act of violence – it mainstreams a phrase that already exists in a popular adult subculture.
  • It’s a cartoon image. No actual schoolgirls were assaulted, hurt or violated in the creation of the soft drink. In fact our Mascot Murasaki is quite happy in ALL images of her and her tentacle companion.
  • There have not been, to date, any reported cases of tentacles raping women that we know of. *

While we respect (and agree with) the firm stance opposing sexual violence, we feel strongly that Tentacle Grape soda does not condone this unspeakable act.

*We reserve the right to revoke this bullet point in the event of an impending alien invasion… just in case

Oh, yes, of course. Us awful feminists are just being hysterical and over-sensitive again for thinking that rape jokes – even tentacle rape jokes – shouldn’t fucking be mainstreamed.

And of course the campaign succeeded +$8000 and I hated life and was totally not surprised when I found out later that they’d initially tried to fund on KickStarter, only KickStarter didn’t approve the campaign and they noped on over to IndieGoGo, because IGG is awful. The end.

All of which is why I switched to using KickStarter for my most recent campaign, because seriously. Fuck those guys.

But hey, at least IndieGoGo isn’t GoFundMe

As bad as IGG is, at least it can’t compete with GoFundMe for the crown of The Biggest Asshoe of Crowdfunding Sites. Because GoFundMe, among many other dubious decisions lately, has the distinction of hosting a campaign to give money to Daren Wilson – the #Ferguson cop that murdered Michael Brown. And not only did they not shut the campaign down, but they actually issued a Cease and Desist to Color Lines – an advocacy organization that was pressuring GoFundMe to honor their own fucking ToS and shut down the campaign.

So congratulations, IndieGoGo! You may be willing to profit off of the sale of products that normalize rape jokes and perpetuate rape culture, but at least you’re not literally profiting from the murder of children.

[1] It astounds me that #GamerGate is still a thing. STILL. Like, Jesus. Don’t any of them actually, you know, play games?

[2] Dual Income, No Kids

[3] Although no negative judgement on publishers that prefer and can afford to avoid the crowdfunding model of publishing. It is time-consuming and STRESSFUL, and certainly not how I would like to put out major projects if I had another choice.

[4] That has since changed, owing to the growth of the platform and number of campaigns. It’s too early as of yet to say if this will have an effect on the quality of campaigns on the site.

Self-promotion sidebar: The Ruined Empire is on KickStarter!

Hi, folks! So I haven’t been managing to post freebies very much lately. Some of that has been that I’ve been reluctant to clutter this blog with the toxic negativity of #GamerGate, but another factor was that I was busy putting the finishing touches on a KickStarter campaign. Which launched today!

The Ruined Empire – a system neutral campaign setting and sourcebook. This book will contain: an original Final Fantasy-inspired setting, expanded commentary on Japanese cultural references, campaign hooks and ideas, as well as system suggestions and two custom hacks. Plus, I’m hiring Claudia Cangini and Brennan Reece to make this book SO. DAMN. PRETTY. Seriously, I’m so excited.

Is this the book for you? Well, ask yourself:

Do you like gonzo anime? Do you wish your tabletop experience had more cyborgs? Did you ever wish you could play a game where PCs could be ninjas, wizards, and mecha? Then this is totally the sourcebook for you.

OR

Do you like social justice?: Did you ever want to play in a setting that is social-justice focused, that critically examines imperialism, income inequality, and human trafficking? (And really, who hasn’t?) Cool, ’cause I’ve totally got you covered.

The Ruined Empire was originally supposed to be a supplement for Tenra Bansho Zero, but when that fell through Andy Kitkowski (the guy who translated Tenra into English and ran the English language KickStarter) was kind enough to let me publish on my own. (Plus he answered a ton of questions and really this couldn’t have happened without him.)

If you’d like to read more about the setting and my thought process at the time I wrote it, you can read about my thoughts on the game this setting was originally written for, as well as an interview with Andy Kitkowski providing some really interesting cultural context and behind-the-scenes perspective.

Lastly, here is an overview of the setting, just to whet your whistle:

 

Once the land held many nations, but recent decades have seen two great empires arise, each locked in a struggle to the death for supremacy. In the east lies the Imperial Dynasty of Azumi, the Iron Empire. Expanding ever westward, it absorbs all nations that lie in its path as it hungrily devours the resources of the land to fuel the engines of industry. In the west lies the Jahga Republic of Enlightened Peoples. Expanding eastward, it seeks to bring civilization and self-determination to nations that have not yet embraced the principles of enlightened rule that govern their empire. As it stands, only a handful of resisting nations remain even nominally independent, forming a scant buffer between these two implacably expanding forces.

On Jahga’s doorstep lies the Rinden Kingdom, a provincial monarchy devoted mostly to farms and herd land. Fiercely jealous of its independence, its citizens struggle against an occupying force they have no hope of defeating. The Jahgan Republic’s occupational forces crack down harshly on the rebels whenever they can, frustrated by the resistance of Rinden’s citizens to the improvements that the republic has brought to the small, backward nation. The rebellion, however, seems undaunted in the face of monolithic opposition.

To the Kingdom of Rinden’s east, in the shadow of the Imperial Dynasty of Azumi, lies the Independent State of Horom. Horom is a wealthy trading nation, with cosmopolitan cities full of wonders from all over the world. Nominally ruled by the Grand Council of trade guilds that have ordered affairs in the small nation, the truth is that the Grand Council has no real authority. The Imperial Dynasty is the real power responsible for the day-to-day rule of Horom, with the Grand Council paying handsomely to be permitted to retain the illusion of sovereignty. In this way, the Grand Council retains its dignity and Azumi reaps considerable sums in wealth and resources as tribute.

To the south of Rinden and Horom, bordering both Jahga and Azumi, lies the ruined nation of the Dangoro Trading State. It was here that the armies of the two great empires met for the first time. It was a conflict great and terrible, one that eclipsed in scale anything yet seen in the land. In the end, the cities of Dangoro were left in smoking ruins. Its rulers were dead, its people scattered, either fleeing to the wilderness or to Rinden or Horom as refugees, and only a handful of her citizens remained. The great armies have since retreated, not wanting to spill further blood over a useless wasteland. The land is no longer known as Dangoro, for the people of the region now call it Nil, the Desecrated Lands. The Shinto priesthood has searched for anyone even marginally qualified to rule that would be willing to take on the rule of Nil, but as yet their search has been in vain.

M:TG – Khans art is great… when it remembers that women exist [LONG]

Recently, I got a chance to attend a local pre-release tournament event for the latest Magic: The Gathering expansion – the Khans of Tarkir. And it was… an interesting experience. One I definitely felt was worth blogging about, in light of the fact that I do know people who are trying to get more women into playing M:TG. But also, I felt like it was time to revisit the art in this newest set and see how it breaks down, since it was my feeling that the art for Khans was “better” than art I’ve seen on previous sets.

First: my experience of the pre-release event

I’ve only attended one other pre-release event; it was for Theros last year. That event was in a game store, which was, frankly, terrible. There were 30 people crammed into the back of the store, which was insanely cramped and dimly lit. There was one other woman there, but she was on the opposite end of the room. And of the guys who were there, it was obvious that a large percentage of them were of the awkward persuasion[1].

Ugh.

But this time, we were both able to go to an event at a local university. Brightly lit classrooms, very spacious, absolutely not confining. Much better right?

Well… it was better in that I didn’t feel any of the low-level threat that I did at my first pre-release. But it was still decidedly uncomfortable walking into the room to realize that the only reason there would be another woman participating is because we came together. Said woman was a friend who has many, many more years experience playing Magic than me, but still – I would have been all alone if we hadn’t picked up the phone and been like, “hey, want to come to a pre-release with us”? And that’s really not a cool feeling.

So combine that with the fact that I was obviously there as a female S.O. to my male husband, and I felt a lot of pressure to do well, which unfortunately didn’t happen. I got very unlucky in that I didn’t have great cards to work with (the good stuff I got wasn’t in the colors I’d registered for), plus I’ll cop to making some mistakes. (It was my second ever tournament, and I’ve only been playing for a year.)

Now factor that in with the fact that I’m a very competitive person who really doesn’t enjoy losing. So my overall poor performance sucked from that standpoint, but also because by not doing well I became That Woman who only does geek things because her husband is doing them and generally sucks. (Stereotype threat is real, and it is zero fun.) And to add insult to injury, the very art on the cards reminded me that this game that I was spending money to play wasn’t for me. So overall, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Which makes it too bad that there aren’t any chapters of the Lady Planeswalker Society anywhere close to where I live, because until the demographics of typical M:TG events change, I doubt I would go to another singles tournament. (I haven’t ruled out the idea of doing 2-headed Giant with my husband.) And yes, I’m fully aware that not going to Magic tournaments because there are no women is a self-reinforcing problem. I get that! But folks, Magic is an expensive hobby, and you can’t force people to spend a lot of time and money on something they don’t even enjoy “because inclusion”. I wish I had ideas on how to fix the gender imbalance, but for now all I have is a big fat shrug. (And the planeswalker my husband pulled in that tournament. Lucky bastard.)

On to the numbers

Veterans of my blog will be familiar with how I do these posts. New readers, the tl;dr is that I look at an entire set of artwork for a given game product and count figures with discernable gender as well as look at a list of set criteria: actively posed versus neutral, fully-clothed figures, and suggestively attired figures. (If you want definitions of these criteria, you can see the original article that I wrote for See Page XX that was the genesis of this blog, examining sexist trends in official game art across all areas of gaming.)

Before breaking down the numbers, my sense of the artwork from Khans of Tarkir was that it did much better than previous sets with the portrayals of women that it did have, it did worse at actually including female characters at all. (Depressingly, those impressions are pretty much borne out if you compare the numbers that I got with the numbers I gathered when I did a breakdown of the M11 core set.)

discernable gender

Only 18% of the figures for which I could discern gender were female! Yikes!

Now things do look a little more encouraging once you actually look at the number breakdown:

Detailed breakdown

Given that women comprise 18% of all figures counted, they’re actually slightly overperforming with regard to active poses. Similarly, they are overperforming when it comes to fully clothed figures, as compared to their male counterparts. And holy cats, suddenly it’s the men who are all sexay instead of the women?

Well… no. Not so much.

Bring in the caveats!

So before we get any further, it’s worth mentioning that out of all of the artwork in Khans, only THREE CHARACTERS are depicted as being both non-human and female. THREE: a female djinn depicted on Riverwheel Aerialists (remember her, because we’re coming back to her in a bit) , the naga Sidisi the Brood Tyrant, and the naga shown on Kheru Spellsnatcher (we’ll revisit her as well).

This becomes significant, because this set featured a much higher percentage of non-human sentient characters, owing to the fact that there are goblins, orcs, djinn, efreet, bird people, dog people, and nagas in addition to vanilla humans in the set’s artwork. The orcs are pretty clearly depicted as male – that one is easy. But the djinn and the efreet are much more ambiguous. I would have been totally willing to believe in them as androgynous races were it not for the lone female djinn – which makes me think that the artists were handed specs that only specified race and not gender and simply defaulted to male, because male is always the default.

As for the bird people and the dog people, an argument could be made that they should be counted as ungendered, since they’re clearly non-humanoid characters. And in general I would agree, except that M:TG artists have had no problem ridiculously gendering inappropriate things in the past by putting tits on things that should not have tits like lions or trees. (And those aren’t even the worst examples I’ve seen – just the worst examples I can remember card names for.)

Furthermore, a depressingly large number of the small number of female figures that were included were depicted as the Smurfettes in a group of otherwise all-male characters:

Smurfettes

Jeskai Ascendency

The Ascendancies (each of the five clans had an Ascendancy card) were particularly bad for this, as they each had large groups of figures, with ooooone woman and the rest dudes. It’s like someone on the art team was giving art revision notes that said “needs women” and the artists changed one figure in each drawing. Which only serves to emphasize even more what an afterthought the inclusion of women is.

Depressing.

Also important to consider is the issue of the seeming saturation of suggestively attired male figures. As I’ve blogged about before, the phenomenon of pantsless/shirtless male figures in fantasy art is something that consistently throws off the results I get when doing these counts. Very often, “primitive”, “savage”, or “bestial” characters will be drawn as either shirtless or pantsless as a shorthand for conveying either non-human or non-civilized status.

So here is an example of some of the male figures that were counted as suggestively attired:

sexy not sexy

So sure the first is a beefy guy showing a lot of pecs punching a bear(!)[2]. But we also have flying bird man with leg-wraps-instead-of-pants, and goblins with no pants, because seriously when do goblins ever wear pants[3]?

The other important thing to mention is that the consistency with which I applied this standard led to some ludicrous results. For example, all of this art was counted as containing suggestively attired male figures:

zombies

The criteria was clear – they have clearly discernable gender (or at least secondary sex characteristics consistent with gender in cis people; I’m not going to try to determine the cis-ness of zombies because that way lies madness). Plus none of them are wearing shirts or pants. So despite the fact that none of them are depicted in any way close to even resembling attractiveness, they are counted as suggestively attired. For that matter, the zombie figure on Dutiful Return is counted as suggestive, despite being called out on the card as being furniture. (I only counted it once.)

In fact, here is the only male figure I saw that I would call actually suggestive, because yum:

Jeskai Student

He’s muscular without being a ridiculous power fantasy or engaging in ridiculously cartoonish violence (ie punching a bear in the face), and his shirtlessness isn’t being used to comment on a “savage”, “bestial”, or “uncivilized” nature. He’s just a super pretty dude practicing some awesome kung fu and being super hawt.

But even then – even then – there is a clear difference in how Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is portrayed from this female naga:

Kheru-Spellsnatcher-Khans-of-Tarkir-Spoiler

I totally eyerolled when I first saw this card, because this is textbook boobs-and-butt… applied to a snake. I had to look pretty closely to verify that she does not, in fact, have boobs[4], but the artist still managed to suggest them with the angle of the straps on her chest. Also, she’s got serious snakespine, so it’s a good thing she is in fact a snake, because that’s pretty much the only way that degree of spine bend would be possible. Lastly, check out how she doesn’t have legs but the line of her belly scales, or whatever you’d call them, still implies a thigh and crotch.

[sigh]

Issues of ridiculous objectification of snake-women aside, there’s also the problem that the Kheru Spellsnatcher isn’t actually doing anything. Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is practicing some awesome kung fu, while Kheru Spellsnatcher is just like OH HAI ISN’T THIS A PRETTY LIGHT HOW U DOIN’.

Thankfully, the Kheru Spellsnatcher is the only piece of art that I whole-heartedly disapprove of. And there is art that I really, really like in this set! Certainly, this set has done a lot to address my previous complaint that fully-clothed women don’t get to be awesome, because here are a bunch of fully-clothed ladies being completely awesome.

awesome ladies

The first two images are of Narset, whom I might add is one of the mythic rares in the set and either totally rules or totally sucks depending on if it was you that pulled her or the other guy. (I’ve seen her in action and she’s just wrong, folks.) But generally, this set was great for pictures of awesome ladies doing awesome martial arts, of which I am always a fan. Particularly I am always a fan of ass-kicking-grandmothers and think this set could have used 2000% more characters like the Jeskai Elder, because ass-kicking grandmothers make anything better. The end.

There were also women getting to do ridiculously gonzo fantasy awesome things, which has definitely not been the case in previous sets:

moar awesome ladies

Check out the Tuskguard Captain being all HOW DO YOU LIKE MY SWEET-ASS RIDE BTW IT IS A MASTODON. Or the Abzan Guide being all DO NOT MESS WITH ME I CAN RIDE A GIRAFFE. And sure, the Chief of the Edge isn’t so much gonzo, but she sure looks like she’s about 2 seconds from ending a dude.

So it’s great to see art like this, because it shows that Wizards has made strides in how they portray women in the last few years. But looking at other products, like D&D – which is also produced by Wizards - it’s also clear that they could do so much better.

[1] Seriously I can’t emphasize how much I hate most game stores. They are not welcoming for many women, and often when I enter one I have dudes literally stop and stare at me.

[2] This, incidentally, is my new favorite card ever and will henceforth be referred to as “Bear Punch”

[3] The answer is never

[4] Thank god! Wizards is finally cracking down on putting breasts on reptiles!

The real truth of #GamerGate

[Written in the style of Mallory Ortberg, who is awesome]

Your bunkmates are already fast asleep when you fall wearily onto the hard mattress; it’s been a long, tiring day of back-breaking labor in the camps.  Tired as you are, however, your thoughts are unsettled and sleep seems elusive.

Once, years ago, you would have felt anger about the accident of birth that forced you into this state, but now you accept your fate. You are but a man, and the strength of men exists to serve the greater good. Or at least that’s what they tell you, and who are you to question them?

At last you decide that sleep will not come and reach under your mattress, pulling out the small handheld hidden there. Pulling your blanket over your head to hide the glow of the screen, you turn it on, eagerly waiting to resume from where you left off. But the screen barely has time to flash HITMAN 37 before you hear a tremendous crash as the door to your dormitory is kicked off its hinges. “WE’VE FOUND HIM,” someone shouts.

No time to hide the evidence – the blanket is suddenly yanked from your head and you find two large Gaming Police officers standing over you, your terrified expression reflected back at you in their mirrored sunglasses.

The first officer snatches the handheld away from you and pops out the disc. “Code 37 – no female protagonist,” she grunts, snapping the disc in half in her fist.

The second officer flashes her badge – GAME POLICE: FEMINIST CRITIC, and your heart sinks. Being apprehended by the Gaming Police was bad enough, but that they have a Game Critic with them? This is bad, very bad. The Critic grabs you by the collar, half-choking you as she pulls you to your feet. “Playing games after curfew, huh? Well guess what, bub?” She pulls you closer and the light glints coldly off her earrings. “Games are for women.”

You feel the cold metal of handcuffs snap around your wrists. “We’re taking you in,” the first officer says coldly.

You pray that she only means you’ll be going to a reeducation center, but then she holds a retinal scanner up to your face and it immediately sounds an alarm. “Repeat offender,” it squeals.

You look back to your bunkmates, but none of them will meet your gaze. “You know what that means,” the Critic growls. “Time to go.”

You’re stuffed in the back of a small transport that is packed with other terrified men. Nothing is said by anyone as you are driven out of the camps and into the capitol city itself. Any other time, you would have gasped – while living in the camps, you never would have imagined that such grandeur was possible. But you keep silent, not wanting to make things worse for yourself than they already are.

At last you stop and are unloaded in front of what can only be the palace. It is a place you have heard of but never seen, a place designed to strike fear into the hearts of men.

You stand before the Gamer Gate – which stands open before you. Constructed entirely of bone, it gleams coldly white under the floodlights that illuminate the palace exterior. Lining the walkway to the palace steps are the dread female warriors, said to be able to strike any man dead where he stands with a single glance – the Social Justice Warriors. And there in formation behind them are their male honor guard, the White Knights, proudly bearing the black, white, and red banner of the Feminist Gynocracy.

The Critic and the Gamer Police march you, along with their other captives, up the steps of the palace and into a great hall. At one end of the great hall stands a throne of skulls, upon which sits a woman, who proudly wears the womb-shaped badge of a Game Journalist. Stunned, you find her both beautiful and terrible to behold.

You are thrown to the floor in front of the throne. The skulls leer at you mockingly as the Game Journalist considers your fate. “And just who are you?”

“A gamer,” you whisper. You had intended it as a statement of defiance, but your voice sounds small and frightened. You clear your throat and try again. “A gamer! I am. I am a gamer.”

The Game Journalist smiles, a terrible rictus to match the throne on which she sits. “Too bad for you. Gamers are over.” She snaps her fingers, pointing at the captain of her guard. “Execute him! Add his skull to my throne!”

“Wait!” From the shadows behind the throne steps a third woman who wears the robes of a Game Developer. “You may yet be spared, if…” She smiles like the cat that got into the cream. “…you consent to become my lover and say good things about my latest game.”

You draw back, horrified. “Never!”

A murmur passes through the ranks of the assembled Social Justice Warriors. “He does not consent,” The Critic says sternly.

“It is our highest law,” the Game Developer agrees sadly.

The Game Journalist sits back on her throne. “Then flay him alive and add his bones to the Gate.”

You can only scream in horror as the White Knights step forward to take you away.

fin

D&D 5E: Why so many wimmenz??

I’ve actually avoided writing about the new edition of D&D, even though I have a lot of positive feelings toward it, mostly because of having my name tied to the shitstorm that was Consultancygate – despite never actually saying anything publicly about Consultancygate. (Other than referencing that it was a thing that was stupid. Go ahead and google if you need to. I’ll wait.)

But now that’s died down, albeit mostly because a bunch of shitstains succeeded in creating an even bigger and more embarrassing faux-“scandal” that’s currently being used to harass women and “SJWs” in gaming (ie #GamerGate or #GamerGhazi or #notyourshield or #SockPuppetGate or #WhateverTheFuckTheyreCallingItNow), I figured now would be a good time to write about my impressions of the new edition.

Or, wait, no. Scratch that. What I meant was that some butthead said some wrongheaded stuff about the art direction and I felt compelled to lay a smackdown[1]:

tweet

This quote is taken from an RPGnet thread, which has since been locked (thankfully) (@tablehop is not the butthead being referenced, I am saying the opposite of that)

UGH WIMMENZ WHY DOES THE NEW D&D HAVE SO MANY OF THEM THEY ARE OBJECTIVELY TERRIBLE AMIRITE AND ALSO BROWN PEOPLE DON’T RUIN MY FANTASY ABOUT MAGIC AND DRAGONS WITH BROWN WOMEN WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU

Jesus, internet. Could you maybe try to be less awful some time?

So here we go. Because it’s a thing worth saying, here are some reasons why D&D 5E is great and is totally a thing that tabletop gaming needed. (Spoilers: it’s the art)

Guys the art is so good I just can’t even

In the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that D&D really doesn’t mesh with my play preferences[2], and although I do own the PHB 3E and 4E, I will not be purchasing 5E. But this is the first time that I’m actually sad about that, because YOOUUU GUYYYYYSSSS. LOOK AT THE ART YOU GUYS:

full-pages

These are taken from different spreads

WUT. Fully-clothed, actively posed, heroic looking women? Brown people? Heroic looking brown women? NO BOOBPLATE??? [swoon]

illos

From LEFT to RIGHT: art for the Soldier, the Hermit, the Paladin, and the Tiefling

CHECK IT OUT, A HALF-ORC PALADIN. This is something I never expected to see! The treatment of race in the Forgotten Realms setting has always been… problematic at best. Orcs and half-orcs have always been depicted with traits that read as a very thinly veiled analogue for blackness. So to see Paladins, who are the literal embodiment of good, being represented by a righteous-as-fuck looking half-orc? That’s revolutionary!

Also, taking a step back, look at the characters being depicted here. These characters all come from obviously distinct cultures. So not only do we have group portraits that include a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but we also have PoC adventurers who come from obviously non-white cultures, rather than being rolled into some White Fantasy Crypto-European culture.

Which is really just the best, because yay social justice! But also because White Fantasy Crypto-Europe has gotten boring as shit. So the fact that WoTC has taken effort to portray a variety of cultures that go beyond different flavors of white people is amazing, because it’s new and exciting.

And to anyone who is complaining that not-sexualized women are so booooring, I submit the following as evidence:

photo-331

Illustration: the Bard, from the PHB

BEST. BARD. EVER.

Seriously, look at that cocky smile. Look at that badass outfit. LOOK AT THE GUITAR. How could you not want to play David Bowie with pointy ears? What is wrong with you? Are you some kind of terrorist? Some kind of awful, freedom-hating anti-Elf-Bowie terrorist?

Seriously, though, look at the image on the title page – the very first piece of art you see when you crack the book:

PH Teaser 1

Holy crap! That is one seriously heroic-looking black guy, beating the ever-loving shit out of a group of goblins! And we’re not talking “slightly tan skintone” black guy, either. Rather, this is a very-dark North-African-looking guy looking totally heroic and not-at-all like a villain, which is just really refreshing. Because all-too-often in fantasy artwork, people with this sort of skin tone are depicted as either 1) not focal or 2) evil. (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, THE DROW.)

But awesome depictions of PoC aren’t just limited to men. Nope! There are plenty of badass PoC ladies too:

WoC

That’s right! The iconic human is a black woman! A badass, fighter-y black woman to boot. I guess you could say that makes her a social justice warrior?[3]

Now all of this isn’t to say that there aren’t still things that could use improvement. For instance:

starter1a

…it’d be nice if this group shot included some non-white folks. (Although I’ll admit that the old elf guy reads as white to me, but his skintone is also a bit ambiguous?) But even saying that directed at one illustration feels like nitpicking; there’s a good mix of gender and ages depicted and no ridiculous boobplate, and the rest of the book is obviously making a clear statement that THIS WORLD IS INCLUSIVE DAMMIT.

Why we’re winning the culture war (in which I drop names)

To see this kind of dedicated effort to Not Failing At Art from what is arguably the flagship product of tabletop gaming is just the best. It feels like a vindication of everything that I’ve been doing here. And in some ways, it sort of is.

I’ve posted earlier about how I got a chance to have lunch with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls at this year’s GenCon:

Mike was very open about the difficulties that he’s faced in trying to push inclusivity in the game products he’s worked on. He talked about how he’d been assuming diversity of representation was the default, only to realize later that there were many others who had assumed the opposite, who feared they might face consequences if they pushed their content “too far”. And now he’s working to actively make D&D products more inclusive going forward (something which I will write about in further detail later).

Another topic of conversation that we talked a fair bit about was how they’ve been trying to solve the problem of diverse art by creating a list of fictional cultures inspired by real-world counterparts and then making that part of the specs handed out to the artists. Instead of asking an artist to give them an illustration of a “human warrior”, they are asking for a “human warrior from [Fictional Culture]” to ensure that the art that is handed in isn’t mostly just white folks.

It also sounds like they’re making a point of cracking down on ridiculously gratuitous sexualization when initial art drafts come in. Without going into potentially incriminating detail, Mike Mearls did tell us a pretty funny story about rejecting a piece of artwork that had humanoid breasts on a non-mammalian fantasy creature – which is heartening to hear! (One of my greatest disappointments regarding 4E was that female dragonborn were described textually as not being visually different from male dragonborn, only ALL THE DAMN ART gave them boobs. All of it.)

So to bring this back to Hates Women and Brown People in D&D Guy… Sorry, random awful person on the internet, but this bygone era that you long for, in which women and brown people are either objectified or ignored in D&D? That ship has sailed, and it’s not too likely to return. And frankly, I can only believe that that is a good thing.

[1] Don’t get me wrong, GG is still a total fucking shit show and anyone who seriously tries to advocate for it as a “real issue” after 3+ weeks of abuse that has actually driven women out of the industry is going to land themselves straight on my block list.

[2] I’ve played a fair amount of 3E and 4E, and a lot of 3.5E. But now if I’m going to play “killing things and taking their stuff” games, I’m much more likely to play Dungeon World or Descent.

[3] I’ll be here all week.

Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[NOTE: I'm just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]

I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”

And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.

Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever

So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?

Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The[1].

So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.

Lightning_LR_screenshot

Fetish messiah ftw

And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:

Ark_screenshot

Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.

REASONS.

So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:

saving souls

Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:

photo 2 - Copy

But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.

Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…I think you probably get the idea by now.

So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.

And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.

So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.

So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.

Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!

Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:

* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)

* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)

* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)

* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)

So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…

 

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