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.

Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Race Edition [Part 3][Many images]

This post is part 3 in a series of posts looking at how not to fail at writing inclusive settings. Part 1 sets out general guidelines of how not to fail. Part 2 expands on terrible stereotypes centered around gender and sexuality.

As mentioned in my previous post, I had a lot of help putting the outline of this series together. Thanks again to: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Scott, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. Also worth noting that TV Tropes was used heavily as a resource when assembling the outline for these posts.]


 

Monolithic POC[1]

So much of the awful racism that you see in games comes back to this. White people do not have a monopoly on individuality. Humans are complicated and messy and weird, no matter what race you are born into. But all too often, games are incredibly reductive in their handling of race. All orcs are ugly savages. All elves are graceful nature-lovers. Are dwarves are socially inept and greedy.

But wundergeek! You’re talking about fantasy! And everyone knows that orcs and dwarves and elves aren’t real. So what’s the harm?

The harm is that it can tend to reinforce patterns of thinking that dehumanize people of color. When all of your gaming campaigns turn out to be White People’s Murder Adventures In the Land of the Evil Darkies, that’s not exactly contributing to a healthy outlook on race and racial diversity.

Of course, in addition to being just plain harmful, the sheer lack of exceptions when it comes to fantasy races is also astoundingly lazy writing. If you’re relying on tired storytelling techniques that paint all members of Group X as being the same, the stories that you will find yourself limited to will involve cardboard cutouts instead of living, breathing characters. As such, your story will be less compelling.

Subfail: This group of POC is 100% EVIL (ie the Drow)

But wundergeek! They aren’t ALL evil! What about Drizzt[2]? HUH?!?!?? He’s a Drow and he’s totally not evil!

One exception does not automatically make your group diverse.

Quite often, a character like Drizzt serves as the exception that proves the rule. Because you are getting an “insider’s perspective”, the reader is given to understand that all of those nasty Drow/orcs/trolls/whatever really are super evil. And it’s totally okay! It’s not like it’s stereotyping, because the Reformed Outcast of an Evil Race is telling us that it’s not. And why is he an outcast? Because he’s good and noble and valorous and compassionate, unlike all those other members of his Evil Race.

Look. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have analogues of non-white cultures in your fantasy settings. In fact, I’d say that it’s something fantasy needs more of! But have those analogs be groups of real people, with good people and bad people and lazy people and everything in between.

Monochromatic “casting”

You see it in television all the time – shows that feature exclusively white main characters, with minority characters being limited to incidental, minor, or supporting roles. The same thing happens quite often in games. Take, for example, Dungeons and Dragons. While the 4th Edition books have made small strides – they are demonstrably more diverse than previous editions – the heroes depicted are overwhelmingly white.

Obviously, this is shitty for all the same reasons that having your cast be all-male is. It devalues the importance of stories that reflect non-white characters and plays into cultural narratives of the inferiority of non-whites.[4]

As the gaming audience grows more diverse (and consequently less white and male), game companies have grown (begrudgingly, sometimes) more aware of the need to at least pay lip service to diversity with the characters in their games. Unfortunately, much of the time the diversity is just that – lip service – with token minority characters included so that developers can say that their characters aren’t exclusively white.

Even worse is when you have developers who treat LGBT minorities as checking two diversity boxes. If your attitude toward diversity can be described as – “I’ll include a gay latina! Then all of my diversity boxes are checked and the rest of my characters can be straight white dudes! Diversity win!”

…then fuck you.

Mighty Whitey

Please, for the love of god, if you are writing a game scenario, please do not have it revolve around having a white character (or a character who reads as white, or is an obvious analog for whiteness) save a group of backwards non-white characters (or characters who read as non-white, or who are obvious analogs of non-whiteness). The “white man swoops in to save the poor benighted non-whites from all their problems” story is one that has been repeated quite often in our culture and is, frankly, offensive.

[taken from Feminist Disney, here.]

Let me frame it in terms of personal experience. Quite often when I talk about feminism with regards to gaming, I am informed by thoughtless dudebros that I am doing feminism wrong, and that clearly all of my problems with sexism in gaming would be solved! if I only were to do [X], where [X] = write my own games, draw my own art, stop talking about sexism, choose not to be offended, don’t seek out offensive material, etc etc etc. And you know what? It PISSES. ME. OFF.

Do you really think, random dude-type person, that you know my lived experience better than I do? That you understand the experience of sexism so well that you can tell me how to solve sexism in my daily life? Let me assure you, Mr. Dudebro, that anything you can spout off of the top of your head, I have already thought of. And this solution that you want to share with me out of the generousness of your heart is not helpful.

Yeah, that’s how that kind of story can come off to people who aren’t white dude gamers. Except WORSE! Because that neglects the fact that the narrative of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems” completely ignores the crucial fact that we live in a society that has been institutionally designed to facilitate the economic success of whites and to prevent the economic success of non-whites. So when you write stories that revolve around thinly-veiled analogs of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems”, you’re erasing the fact that many of the problems faced by real-world minorities were originally caused by white people, and are still perpetuated by white people. Which is a dick move[5].

Too Brown/Not Too Brown (ie Using Real World Racial Traits to Differentiate Your Fantasy Races)

The typical handling of fantasy races is shitty in a lot of ways, but one of the most cringe-inducing is the seemingly-requisite description of racial characteristics. A lot of the descriptions hinge on the stereotype of black features as being “coarse” and “ugly” while white European features are “fine” and “pretty”. So when you have evil races that are dark-skinned and ugly, their features are described as “coarse” and “harsh” and “brutish”. Contrast this with “pretty” evil races like the Drow** who are described as being beautiful with dark skin and “fine” features. Because even in a universe with magic and dragons, the only standard of beauty that matters is a European standard of beauty. FUUUUUUUUCK.


(I know this might seem monotonous to keep picking on the Drow, but it would be pretty much impossible to write anything that would be a bigger shitpile of privilege, entitlement, and awful sexist and racist stereotypes than the Drow. …please don’t take that as a challenge.)

Try letting your art do the heavy lifting of description for you. And if you must write something descriptive, avoid language that falls into the aforementioned stereotypes.

Even better – you know what would be awesome? Write your racial descriptions from the point of view of a member of that race, not from the point of view of some omniscient European observer. Have a troll describe what is beautiful to trolls. Have an orc describe what is beautiful to orcs. That would be awesome.

So basically, if you’re going to write a fantasy race and have what differentiates them from other races be a characteristic that is usually ascribed to an ethnically distinct group of people in real life? DON’T DO THAT.

Sub-Fail: Superior Species with Real World Racial Traits

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! Because, shit. Superhumans are the best! There’s a reason I’ve played an elf in nearly 100% of the D&D games I’ve ever played, because why would I be a boring-ass human when I could be a goddamn elf? However, you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft:

Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.

Subfail: Evil halfbreeds (Miscegenation! OH NO!)

You know what’s also terrible? Always having mixed-race characters be evil, even when those races are made up. I’M LOOKING AT YOU SEYMOUR GUADO. That’s some seriously messed up racial purity nonsense, okay? So don’t do that.

Misogyinist/Other-ist Furriners

So, at the risk of stating the obvious – the society we live in is pretty sexist.

I KNOW, RIGHT??

And yet something that a lot of game writers love to seem to do (that is, when they’re not applying SEXISM BECAUSE HISTORY to eveeerrryyyythinnnngggg) is to have the good and just and awesome white society that is egalitarian and not at all oppressive that clashes with a society of evil darkies that totally hate women because they are unenlightened savages.

And. Um. Yuck.

Firstly,  this has some pretty horrifying white supremacy implications – you’re pretty much saying that non-white cultures can’t treat their people properly because they’re either less evolved or less human, which should be gross for reasons that are self-evident if you have even the smallest modicum of human decency. But second – and here’s where I know that I’ve turned into a parent – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Look. Society sucks for everyone. EVERYONE. But you know what sucks more? When artists create work that only perpetuates the ugly stereotype that people of color come from cultures that are morally and intellectually bankrupt. That not only erases all of the harm that white people have done to create and perpetuate systematic oppression against people of color, it adds a healthy dose of “well you deserved it anyway”, which is a nice bit of shit icing on that particular turd cake.

Exoticisation

Look, I’m going to be short and to the point here because Tassja of Irresistible Revolution covered this better than I ever could. EXOTIC IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.

Are you writing about a POC culture (or a culture that reads as POC, or a culture that is an obvious analogue for POC) in a way that makes them “exotic”? Well don’t. It’s a shitty thing to do. Exotifying a culture takes away it’s humanity. If you want to write about a culture that is not your own, write about that culture as a group of people with merits and flaws and traditions and weird hangups. Write about a group of PEOPLE. Not a bunch of brightly colored cardboard cutouts.

Subfail: Sexy “Gypsies”

The Roma are a real-life group of people who still face real-life oppression today. Do a little Googling and you’ll dig up more than you ever wanted to read about the horrific treatment of the Roma by EU countries, particularly France and Hungary.

When the only “gypsies” that appear in games are SEXY “gypsies”, that only dehumanizes real-life Roma and erases the violence that Roma face on a daily basis. Also? It’s a tired fucking stereotype, so don’t use it.

Subfail: Hordes

A lot of fantasy fiction has hordes as the generic force that must be opposed – an implacable IMPOSSIBLY LARGE army that’s, you know, evil and stuff because they’re foreign and they’re an army. The thing is, a lot of how these fantasy hordes get written about is pretty much the same way that people write about the Mongol hordes.

Now let’s face it, the Mongols were pretty much the bad-assestest of all invading armies from history, so they do make a pretty good historical model for an antagonistic invading force. And they also make great villains! What with their lack of bathing and overcoming enemies through sheer force of numbers and their rampant misogyny… oh. Wait. No. That’s not the mongols, that’s racist stereotyping.

Guys, the Mongols were actual super, super awesome. As in were ruled by badass lady Mongols, invented an efficient postal system, were masters of tactics, and created a Pax Mongolica. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s just a few of the awesome-tastic things they did. So if you’re going to have an antagonistic invading horde, why not have it be an army of foreigners who are just better than you. Better tactics, better technology, better society – more tolerant and progressive. And then have a campaign about trying to repel that force while some of your own people say, wait we like those guys better. That would be pretty damn sweet, now that I think about it.

But please, no more cardboard cutout unwashed barbarian raping hordes please.

Subfail: The Noble Savage

Are you writing a game with a group of primitive Natives who have a simple-but-beautiful culture and a connection to nature and they are beautiful and irresistible despite their primitive nature? Congratulations, you’ve just written a group of noble savages, which is really, really terrible. Bonus points for being screwed up if their connection to nature gives them magic powers (TENRA BANSHO ZERO) because now you’ve just given them oppression superpowers. (It’s totes okay that we oppressed you because you got superpowers out of the deal so shut up.)

Look, the myth of the noble savage is exactly how the stories of real-life Native peoples are subverted and/or erased. It’s a way of saying it’s okay that we destroyed their culture and committed genocide, because, you know, they’re a bunch of damn savages. And the noble part? That might have been something that originated from a sense of guilt about the horrible stuff we did to native peoples. But more probably it came about as a result of companies commodifying the image of the “Indian brave” as a brand to be sold. And it’s hard to sell something if it’s not seen as laudable in some way.

If you want to have a group of Native people or a group that reads as an analogue for Native peoples, cool! But find a way to turn the trope on its head. PLEASE.

[1] People Of Color

[2] Drizzt is a Drow ranger from Forgotten Realms who turns against his people because he doesn’t want to murder a beautiful white girl. …no, really. I wish I was making that up. (And then he winds up murdering her anyway later. Only it’s okay because he really didn’t want to, and he feels really bad about it.[3]

[3] Furthermore (just to pile a little hate on Drizzt), it’s worth noting that Drizzt is a man who comes from an Evil Matriarchy. Because obviously the Evil Evil Wimminz in power aren’t capable of reforming because they are wimminz. (Yes I just footnoted a footnote. Shut up.)

[4] Think I’m exaggerating? Listen to any Republican talk about crime and watch them immediately start using racially coded language. OH YEAH I JUST WENT THERE.

[5]

How to get sexually assaulted at a gaming convention [TW]

[The last part of my series on writing inclusive games is still in progress! Have no fear. But in the mean time, it’s spring, that wonderful time of year when a geek woman like me begins to think of conventions, and by extension convention harassment. Be warned that I will mod comments on this post with extreme prejudice and without fucking mercy.]

Decide mostly on a whim to go to a large gaming convention in a nearby city with your husband and a male friend from your gaming group because you like games and it sounds fun.

Lurk nervously around a game designer you desperately want to talk to while he runs a demo, clutching a manila envelope while you feel stupid for being such a fangirl. Feel bad that you are making your husband and friend wait for this. Talk with another game designer at the booth while you wait, who drags you over to the game designer you’re here to fangirl over after you drop a reference to a fan animation you made. Feel simultaneously embarrassed and thrilled when he interrupts his demo to enthuse about the fan animation and exclaims happily about the fanart you give him.

Have your luggage stolen from the sketchy motel you stayed in outside the downtown area to save money. End up crashing (along with husband and the friend) with friends of your friend (all male) for a few hours before driving back home the next day, two days on your convention badges unused.

Have your father get diagnosed with incurable cancer while applying to move to Canada. Move to Canada anyway.

Express a desire to attend the convention next year, despite the much-increased distance. When your husband decides to pass, buy a badge anyway.

Email the friends of the friend who let you crash on their floor after last year’s luggage heist. Be angry when they won’t let you buy into their room because you’re a woman. Make lots of half-jokes about cooties.

Angrily post on the gaming forum that you’re looking to buy a spot in a room with people who don’t mind girl-cooties. Find a spot in a not-outrageously-priced downtown hotel with four men, two of whom are moderate-level Big Names in the indie tabletop scene. Feel nothing other than relief that you’ll have a place to stay.

Arrive after 11 hours of driving. Sleep in a (king) bed (at opposite ends) with a man you have never previously met or spoken to. Afterwards, say truthfully that your only complaint was your bed-mate’s unbelievably potent snoring.

Make lots of new friends, play lots of games, talk to a lot of game designers. Resolve to come back the next year.

Win a setting design contest on the gaming forum. Turn it into a hack of a popular game by the game designer (not the one you fangirled at, the other one) you met at your first time at the big convention. Playtest, develop, and publish it. Insist that you’re not actually a game designer.

Spend two consecutive years pitching your game as a publisher at the big convention. In your second year of doing this, manage not to punch a smug male game design celebrity when he tells you that he thinks it’s so cute that women are designing games now. Feel disgusted that you actually give him money for a copy of the game that made him famous even after that.

Continue attending the big gaming convention. Each year you attend, reconnect with friends you made in previous years.

Become friends with the game designer who you’ve never stopped being a fangirl for. Develop a habit of always going for lunch together the years when he attends.

Make new connections each year and stay in contact after you go back home. Look forward each year to seeing this group of friends you only see at the big game convention. Begin to describe them as your tribe. Etch the spaces of the convention deep in your subconscious, to the point where walking into the convention center feels like home.

Become part of a vibrant community of artists and game designers who are passionate about games. Learn to call yourself a game designer, if grudgingly. No longer feel self-conscious that you have so many friends who are game designers and publishers.

Meet someone new. When they ask how many years you’ve been coming to the big gaming convention, look embarrassed when you realize that you don’t know. Five? Six? Maybe?

Share rooms with men you have never met in person previous to the convention every year you attend the convention. Continue not to think this is weird. This is part of convention life. Explain to friends who are concerned for you that you have a black belt and could snap pretty much any of those nerds in half whenever you feel like it anyway.

Start a blog about sexism in gaming. Expect it to have a very small following, if any. Be flabbergasted when you start getting thousands of views each month. Try to understand why so many people think your loudmouth opinions about gaming are worth reading.

Have another lunch “date” with the game designer you are a fangirl of. Confess that you and your husband want to try to start a family in the next year or so. Be surprised when he asks if he can hug you, feel genuinely happy afterward.

Meet (for the first time, in meatspace anyway) a game figure who is Kind Of A Big Deal. Don’t think anything of it, because you know lots of them now. He is charming and friendly, just like many of your game industry friends. After that year’s convention, add him to the mental file of “guys who mostly get it”, sub-filed under “not creepy mouthbreathers”, sub-filed under “safe to be around”. Completely fail to recognize that this mental filing system exists at all.

Get blindsided by losing your job – the first (and only) job you’ve ever enjoyed – because someone framed you for a mistake you didn’t make.

Be angry when a friend’s wedding is scheduled for the same weekend as the big convention. Make arrangements to attend the big convention for a day, sleep on the floor of a male friend’s room, and leave the next day for the wedding. Grumble about the sacrifice you are making.

Go home to visit the family. Go back to Canada. Come back the next day because your father has been admitted to hospital for the last time. Stay for several weeks while your father dies. Help arrange his funeral. Say nothing to anyone online but “family emergency”. After returning home, swear that you are going to the big game convention come hell or high water, even if you are broke. You don’t care what it takes.

It is six weeks after the funeral. Show up for the convention, then find out the wedding is canceled. Be glad when the friend you were crashing with for one night agrees to let you buy into the room so you can stay for the entire convention.

Be pleased to see Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when you run into him again. Think nothing of it when he puts his arm around you. It’s the big game convention – everyone is friendly here. This is nothing unusual.

Try too hard to have fun. Mostly succeed.

Make the standard complaints about the discomfort of sleeping on floors. Don’t be surprised when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to help you make arrangements that are more comfortable – that’s what people do here. Fail to think it is weird even when he keeps offering even after you refuse the first few times. Tell yourself that he is a friend who is trying to help.

Finally accede to his suggestion to switch rooms. Continue to think that this is a benign offer.

Discover that the promised bed is not empty as promised. Tell yourself that your discomfort is unfounded. You’ve always been fine before.

Tell yourself that you’re not concerned when he says “don’t freak out”.

Manage to fall asleep.

Become physically confined.

Feign sleep, maintaining exhausting hyper-vigilant awareness of exactly what is and is not being touched. At no point realize that you have the power to say no or to stop this in any way.

Lose track of time.

Wait to hear signs of life outside the room. Pretend to wake up and want to get an early start.

Emerge from the bathroom fully dressed. Manage to claim believably that you don’t want to waste time cuddling when there’s so much to do in so little time. Don’t cringe when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure chuckles and says “how practical of you”.

Intentionally get separated in the breakfast line, only to have him pull you over to be introduced to a woman who is really, really cool. Eat breakfast with the two of them. Pretend nothing is wrong. Manage not to act relieved when he leaves for an early panel.

Go back upstairs. Furtively move all of your stuff back to the room you were originally staying in.

Play lots of games with cool new woman throughout the day and enjoy them thoroughly. Succeed in not spending a single moment of the day alone.

Go through the usual song and dance of figuring out where to go for dinner and who to go with. Be unhappy when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to join your group in going out for dinner.

Panic.

Realize that you are not okay.

Pull aside the male friend with whom you are staying. Tell him that you need Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure to not come with you to dinner. Dither over male friend making a scene before giving him permission to say something.

End up sitting on the stairs in a different room with male artist friend of the male friend you are staying with, (unknown to you before this year) who is a super nice guy. Try to hide the fact that you are shaking. Fail. Cry. Hate yourself for crying. Cry anyway.

Talk with male artist friend-of-friend about art as he flips through his sketch book. Be grateful when he pointedly doesn’t ask any questions about what is going on and is very sweet and gentle about the whole thing. Wonder if he knows who this is about. Suspect that he does know but refuse to ask. Become friends with male artist friend-of-friend afterward. Never speak of that exchange again.

Leave with group of people for dinner. Be relieved that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure is not coming along.

Trail behind on the way to the restaurant. Tell male friend you are staying with the details of what happened. Hate that you are upset about something that sounds so stupid and petty. Be surprised when male friend expresses disgust, says something to the effect that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure just wanted to touch a pretty woman. Allow yourself to realize for the first time that what happened was sexual and was not okay.

Rejoin the group at the restaurant. Be grateful when male artist shows you pictures of his then-toddler and talks about happy things. Try your best to be charming and not weird. Be convinced that you are failing. Drink.

Go to bed early (midnight) to avoid running into Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure at the usual after-hours gathering, even though you never go to bed early. Refuse to talk to Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when he relays a request to talk through male friend you are staying with. Drive home the next afternoon without talking to him.

Stop to have dinner with family on the way home. Talk vaguely about having a good time. You don’t know if you are lying.

Tell your husband about what happened. Flail for words to describe what happened. Cry.

Decide that you are going to blog about what happened. Be angry that you can’t ever say who it was. No one will believe that he would do something like that. Know in your soul that naming him would be the same as exile from this community that you’ve built a place for yourself in. Know that you are not capable of dealing with that kind of fallout. Know that you are not able to find out the hard way who will side with you and who will not and not have it destroy you.

Argue with your husband about whether you should blog about the incident. He only wants you to be safe, you are determined not to be silent. Tearfully convince him that you are right. Blog about it with all identifying details omitted. Hate yourself for being a coward.

Have a complete fucking meltdown about losing your job, losing your father, and being sexually assaulted within three months. Yell at a friend. Subsequently feel both terrible and completely justified. Try to apologize only to realize that you’re being weird and creepy about it. Never mention the incident to that friend again.

Become obsessed of the definition of harassment versus assault. Reluctantly decide to call it assault, even though you weren’t raped – mostly because of the physical confinement. Continually minimize your own trauma by telling yourself it wasn’t that bad.

Have panic attacks whenever his name comes up in your gaming-related social media streams, which is often. Learn to look like you are being productive while you are, in fact, doing your best not to hyperventilate.

Get pregnant. Cry. Have more panic attacks. Cry.

Worry that your silence will make you culpable the next time he does something.

Get therapy. Get your shit together. Finally accept that you didn’t say no because your entire life you have been socialized not to.

Become an advocate of anti-harassment policies. Help implement three in one year.

Finally contact him through email. Find out that he has been in therapy, that what happened in that hotel room put him in a downward spiral he is still picking up the pieces from. Derive absolutely no satisfaction from this. Fail to feel anything other than relief that he won’t hurt anyone else.

Return to the big convention after a year off (you were too pregnant to attend the year before). Maintain a constant low-level of your physical surroundings and threat possibilities. Regret that this is your reality now.

Have a great time. Make plans to come back next year.

[You might have guessed by this point that this is more than just a hypothetical piece. I’ve thought many times about telling the story of my experience with sexual assault at a gaming convention, but I wrestled with the fact that I could never manage to wrestle it into a tidy narrative. There were too many caveats, too many “this is what I’d always done”s. This is as close as I can come to making it feel like a story, and even then it is still messy. Trauma is a weird thing. Everything I wrote here feels germane to me, even though some of it (my father’s illness, the job) probably seems irrelevant to readers who aren’t me.

I also wanted to wait enough time that the details of this particular convention would blur from memory. Despite that this experience traumatized me, I have never wanted to punish my attacker. What I wanted was a conversation and acknowledgement of that harm, and assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, which has happened. Writing this piece wasn’t about revenge. It’s about telling my story - a story that I kept silent because I was afraid people would tell me I was to blame for what happened. It’s about me saying that I was not able to say no because the sum of my experience up to that moment in time was me being taught not to say no. And it’s about me saying that the only people responsible for sexual harassment and assault are the attackers, not the victims.]

Tired Friday hodge-podge: transparency, status report, and a bit of self-promotion

Hey, folks! Just a freebie here to address a few things that I wanted to give some attention to.

Transparency: My Patreon numbers so far

So far, I’ve been super pleased with how well Patreon has worked for me! Blogging is something I’m passionate about, and being able to do it without having to worry that I’m “stealing” time and creative bandwidth from projects I could get paid for is a god-send. One of the unfortunate realities of not living in a hippie utopia like Scandinavia is that I have to hustle to make my dollars count, especially with a toddler in the house[1]. So Patreon is great in that it gives me the freedom to allocate my mental bandwidth more to my liking.

The patron-supported relaunch only happened six weeks ago, so I only have a month and a half of posts and two payouts (Patreon processes pledges and issues payment the first week of each month for the previous month) as data points. But here are some preliminary numbers and my initial thoughts. (I should state the obvious here – I love spreadsheets. Like, unhealthily.[2])

month Paid posts amount pledged (processed) amount received total fees (credit card + Patreon fees)  
February 3 204.5 182.64 21.86 11.97%
March 6 482.40 432.98 47.42 10.95%

 

February
Post topic Total # Patrons # Pledging Patrons # Patrons Gained
Deep Down 17 17 7
Last of Us: women 24 25 1
Last of Us: Joel 25 23 1
TOTAL
March
Difficulty of satire 26 26 2
Male protag bingo 28 27 0
Jonboy anatomy 28 28 1
Backlash 29 29 10
Circle of Hands 39 34 1
How not to fail pt 1 40 27 0

I didn’t start tracking patron numbers and levels until recently, so I think I missed out on some good data. But an interesting picture is emerging so far. My initial thoughts?

The most positive features result in an unpredictable revenue stream. The ability to initially pledge at one amount and adjust later is great, because it lets people feel in control of the amount they want to spend as a patron and thus actually attracts patrons. But sometimes it can result in weirdness.

Like, there’s an interesting thing that happens where people pledge very highly to start with and then adjust downward later. It’s actually a positive thing, because every time I got a backer pledging at a high amount per post they actually messaged me to say “hey, I really want to support what you’re doing, but won’t pledge at this rate forever because of budget reasons”. And that is GREAT for me as a creator. Really, really great! But it has resulted in a couple weird downward dips. So I was appreciative that these patrons warned me in advance, because otherwise I would have been stressing about WHAT DID I DOOOOOOO.

Monthly caps, similarly, result in an unpredictability of revenue stream. And again, monthly caps are something I totally support! They’re a tool to help people feel confident that they won’t pay more than they want to, which is ultimately good for me. But it means that there’s a weird thing where a spike of new patrons in the second half of a month seems like a good thing, because they’re coming in fresh with no monthly caps that have been hit. But that’s a phenomenon where I feel like I need a lot more data points before I can analyze properly.

Hate spikes are actually pretty awesome. In advertising, there’s the idea that there’s no such thing as negative attention. Well, in social justice blogging circles that tends to be emphatically untrue. Hate-spikes like the one J Scott Campbell and his ilk sent my way are frightening, time-consuming, and mentally exhausting to deal with. When I was blogging for free, I would pretty much say I’d rather have a dearth of traffic than a massive hate-spike. And yet…

While the hate-spike was three of the un-funnest (yes it’s a word, shut up) days I’ve had in a long time, it also had a very concrete monetary benefit as it directly resulted in 10 new patrons. That’s almost a quarter of the patrons that I have now! As they say, the best revenge is living well. And I can’t think of a better “fuck you” than “I’m going to convert your hate directly into money”.

That said, I’m not about to go taunting Reddit or anything because I’m not stupid.

Status report! Posts requiring in-depth reporting.

I’ve mentioned previously that I was working on some posts (series of posts? not sure yet) about sex workers in games and disability in games. (Two SEPARATE topics, mind.) Work on these posts proceeds slowly – I’m still assembling an outline of how I’ll tackle this and the research needed is… daunting. The research file (a word doc where I dump links, quotes, and images) I have for disability in games is up above 10,000 words, with no sense of order emerging yet.

So if you’ve said to yourself, hey! I wonder what’s up with those posts… Working on it! But it’s a big task.

Self promotion! Our KickStarter funded the initial goal!

You guys! I’m so excited! Last night we hit our initial goal, which means the first series about Princess Kadri will definitely be happening!

Also, this week we started revealing the other princesses in the series that we are unlocking as stretch goals. Here is the lineup we have planned.

I desperately hope to be able to do ALL of them, because they are JUST. SO. AWESOME. Fayola is a trans princess who falls in love with the queen of another kingdom after she saves her and her daughter from a vicious ogre. Rowan just wants to go have adventures and gets tired of having to deal with an irritating prince who thinks she can’t because she only has one hand. Chandra is a princess AND sea captain who is pretty much a pirate princess. A PIRATE PRINCESS. WHAT I CAN’T EVEN. And Nayeli is a diplomat and fashionista who uses diplomacy to stop a war, because what’s the point of defining awesome as “things that aren’t traditionally girly”? Screw that. Girly and awesome are not mutually exclusive.

So yeah. Pleased as punch, and I hope our momentum continues so I get to do more awesome books about awesome princesses.

[1]Toddlers are EXPENSIVE. It costs a lot of money to feed them, and even more money to pay people to make sure that they don’t kill themselves while you’re off earning money to keep the lights on. Sometimes I’m kind of amazed that we’ve survived this long as a species, because. Man. Toddlers.

[2] (I don’t know why I think this is hilarious. It just is.)

Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Gender and Sexuality [Part 2]

[A brief note before I start: this particular post has been many, many months in the making. I used TV Tropes extensively in putting together the outline for what I wanted to talk about. Thanks also to the following for their contributions and suggestions: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Scott, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. You were enormously helpful.

This was turning into a loooooong post, so I wound up splitting this into parts. This post will tackle awful gender and sexuality-related stereotypes. The next post will look at awful racist stereotypes, since that's probably going to wind up being as long as this already-extensive post. Also, a brief technical note - the new WordPress.com interface SUPER HATES captions. Sorry for the resulting ugly.

Part 1 of this series can be found here. Part 3 is now up and can be found here.] 

When you’re looking to write inclusive game material, actively avoiding offensive stereotypes is pretty much one of the most important things you can do, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s important for anyone looking to create a product with a broad appeal. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that when I see games that are riddled with sexist stereotypes, I almost always dismiss that game as “not for me”. There are exceptions, true. (I’m looking at you, BioWare!) But the exceptions have to be particularly exceptional in other areas. For the most part, games that are blatantly sexist are games that I don’t buy.

Secondly, it’s important for anyone looking to improve their craft as a writer. Stereotypes are easier than taking the time to craft a well-rounded, nuanced view of something (a person, a group of people, a society, etc). But that’s what makes stereotypes lazy writing. Anyone can mash a bunch of stereotypes together into an unoriginal pastiche. The writers who stand out are those who bring something new and different into their writing. Lastly, avoiding stereotypes is important simply from the angle of not being a shitty human being. Do you want to write a setting riddled with offensive stereotypes and hide behind “creative license”? (If you know, if you answered yes, then perhaps you’re not the target audience for this…) You could do that! After all, there’s certainly many game writers and developers out there who have blazed that trail for you. But consider that using harmful stereotypes of marginalized groups perpetuates cultural narratives that continue to damage members of those groups. But, wundergeek! How do I know what stereotypes to avoid? This stuff is hard, and I might be using something that I’m not even aware is a stereotype! Well, fictional internet writer. I’ve put together a collection just for you of shitty stereotypes to avoid in your game writing. All of these are stereotypes that are pretty common (and by pretty common I mean, I see them so often it makes me want to flip tables) in the game world, and all of these are troublesome. This isn’t intended to be a substitute for getting second opinions from people who don’t share your privilege (BECAUSE YOU SHOULD ALWAYS DO THAT), but it’s a good place to start. I will warn you now, this list is looooooong. SO. LONG. Because, surprise surprise, there are a lot of shitty stereotypes that are common in gaming. (Say it isn’t so!) So grab a drink (I’m partial to margaritas) and let’s get started.

Gender Fail

Men are from Mars, women are from venus

Please, unless it is your intent to write something that is truly subversive with regard to commonly held gender roles, avoid falling into the trap of writing men and woman as being completely different species that are incapable of relating to one another. And even then, consider that the likelihood of actually succeeding in your work being read the way you want it to is vanishingly small. That well has been poisoned. You see this in pop culture all the time: women want romance while men only want sex, women want to talk about their feelings while men pretend not to have any, men are perverts and women are prudes. This stereotype is incredibly gender essentialist and doesn’t do justice to just how varied a spectrum gender really is. Subtype: Men are generic, women are special How many games have you played where the NPCs wandering around are all or mostly male? For that matter, how many games have you played where the cast of characters is entirely male except for “the chick”? Can we all agree that the implications of this kind of thing are creepy and horrible? If women are 50% of the population, why would you make a world in which almost none of the people who actually get to be in public doing things are women? That is some creepy awfulness right there, so please. Just don’t.

Straw feminists

Straw feminists (so named because they are a common subset of the straw man) are stereotyped, two-dimensional characters that exist to mock feminists and feminist ideals. Straw feminists are usually depicted as rabidly man-hating, to the extent that they want to overthrow patriarchal society and establish a fascist male dictatorship in its place. Also, very often they are lesbians, because nothing says misandry like lesbianism AMIRITE LAYDEEZ?

[I will never get tired of blogging this panel from the Hark! A Vagrant! about straw feminists. Kate Beaton is brilliant, the end.]

This is a stereotype that is more commonly used than you’d think in gaming. Take, for example, Purna from Dead Island, who had a skill that let her do increased damage… only to men. And let’s not forget the shitstorm that erupted when it was revealed that this skill was called “Feminist Whore” in a test build. Charming.

Or how about the Drow? They tick pretty much every straw feminist box and still have plenty of fail left over. The Drow are a matriarchal society (check) that hate men (check) and enforce the status of men as second class citizens (check). Naturally, because they are ostensibly a “feminist” culture, they are all evil. Really evil. Like worshipping an evil spider god evil. (Check, check, and check.) Oh, and let’s not forget that despite the fact that they hate men, they still all dress sexy…. for men? Because the only matriarchy worth writing about is a sexy matriarchy? And all of this isn’t even touching on the race fail wrapped up in the Drow. (We’ll come back to that.) So don’t ever write the Drow. Or anything like the Drow. Basically, if anything you’ve written looks even a little bit like the Drow, nuke it and start over.

Femininity is Evil

This is one of the most over-used stereotypes in gaming. Fantasy games are especially guilty of this, but non-fantasy games use this stereotype heavily as well. It’s rooted deeply in the patriarchal belief that female sexuality is evil. Any woman who is not pure and virginal is necessarily dirty and evil. The idea that femininity is itself evil is just a logical (if depressing) extension of that assumption. So women who show any hint of sexuality are evil, and women in general are evil, and men who are gender-nonconforming with feminine traits are especially evil. Because, you know, cooties. You can see this at work when you see evil eunuchs (a man without a penis? EVIL!), or super-beautiful women being sneaky (because super-beautiful = super-feminine = sneaky. EVIL!), or queens who are always evil (a woman in charge? EVIL!). And let’s not forget the “femme fatale” – a stereotype with many of it’s own sub-cliches, all of which I wish would die in a fire. Like the sexy evil sorceress, or the sexy evil queen, or the sexy thief, or the sexy spy. All of these are characters who use sex to get what they want, which of course makes them evil. Because, as we know, women who have sex are evil, and women who have lots of sex are really evil. And women who have lots of sex and ENJOY it? Well shit. They might as well be Satan. /headdesk The most screwed up example of this, however, is the vagina dentata stereotype – the most extreme extension of “the female is more deadly than the male”: monsters who literally consume their prey with their evil evil ladybits. (Fair warning, that link is pretty gross.)

Women as property

[TV Tropes calls this stereotype “Entitled to Have You”, but I’m not a fan of the gender-neutral phrasing as this is a heavily gendered stereotype that almost 100% applies to women.] All too often in games, women get to be plot devices, not people. And sometimes, even when they are depicted as people, they’re people without any real agency or freedom. There are many ways that this stereotype gets written into games, like the MacGuffin Girl – the woman who is herself the goal that must be attained. Or the female love interest who is nothing more than an extension of the hero because her most defining trait is being “owned” by the hero. And especially the “woman as standard hero reward” that you see in just about everything. One of the many reasons I have always hated Princess Peach is that she manages to hit all three of these.

Congratulations! You have just saved the village /castle/ kingdom/ nation / planet / galaxy / universe! Here is a beautiful woman as your reward! It’s like a slot machine that dispenses women, only more fucked up.

If you’re going to write a romance in your game, make it between two people with feelings, desires, and agency. Don’t write a romance between a male hero and a woman-shaped object. And if your hero hooks up at the end of the story, make it the result of a developing relationship between two characters, not as an auto-reward for saving the day. That kind of “insert coin, receive woman” plot device is kind of horrifying.

Women are only important because of their relationships with men

This is technically a subset of the “woman as property” stereotype, but is so unbelievably, massively endemic that it deserves to be expanded upon. All too often, female characters are depicted as only being significant to the story in so far as they are important to the story’s lead male characters. This has a whole host of problematic implications (women aren’t “real” people, women can’t be heroes, the only people whose stories matter are men, just to name a few. And the outcomes that this sort of thinking leads to are even worse. Starting with the least awful, when your writing adheres to this stereotype, you’re going to wind up with a cast of characters that is overwhelmingly male. Any women present are likely to be either a “lone macho chick” (the only woman on a team of men who is competent by completely divorcing herself from traditional femininity), a “team mom” (the female member of the team who coddles male egos and devotes herself to their best interests), or a “Smurfette” (a character who serves no purpose other than decoration). This sort of thing is both awful and stupefyingly boring. If your game’s story is nothing more than The Masculine Adventures of Manly Men, I’m going to find something else to play, because been there, done that. Despite that Gears of War is a game I’d probably enjoy in terms of gameplay, I’m not ever going to play it. When I want to play a fun third-person tactical shooter, I’ll load up Mass Effect instead and enjoy killing things in the face with my awesome LadyShepard. Of course, the much more awful cousin of the Smurfette is the “disposable female”, or – as Gail Simone has popularized the concept – “women in refrigerators”. All too often, the few female characters that exist are written out of the story – killed, brainwashed, maimed, etc – for the sake of giving a male character “tragic motivation” to come after the villain and emerge triumphant. See Kerrigan in StarCraft II, Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, Marian in Double Dragon II… Actually, you know what, just go watch the second installment in the Tropes Versus Women series by Anita Sarkeesian[1].

Women are passive/men are active

While all games tend to fail at this, fantasy games tend to fail especially hard because of the stereotypes that have long been held about magic, magic users, and who gets to participate in the action of a story. All too often in fantasy games, the heavily armored melee fighters are big, manly men and the magic-users are frail, delicate (usually scantily-clad) women – the underlying assumption being that the men are the ones putting themselves directly in danger while the women are slinging spells from a position of safety. Which sucks, because on its face the concept of magic-users is awesome – someone who uses arcane arts to bend reality to their will. But the execution almost always leaves something to be desired. An interesting subfail of this stereotype often pops up in those fantasy settings that mix magic and technology together. All too often, you wind up with your magical nature-loving people and your scientific technology-loving people, and never the twain shall meet. And because magic = female and nature = magic, then nature = female. Sometimes this extends to nature = passive, but most of the time you just wind up with nature = sexy. See, for instance, Dragon Age: Origins when the spirit of the forest is a hyper-sexy green lady with no clothes. (Because the physical manifestation of a forest is obviously going to be a sexay naked human. OF COURSE.) Or every irritating piece of druid or ranger art ever that shows them with no damn clothes while posing next to a large, intimidating animal. Or Final Fantasy XII, who went one step further and made their nature lovers both sexy and passive; the viera are a race of lingerie-wearing bunny girls who lounge around in the forest and don’t ever leave or do anything interesting ever. Wanting to actually DO SHIT is, you know, evil and foreign and stuff, so the magical bunny women actually excommunicate anyone who ever leaves the forest, no matter the reason. And yes, Final Fantasy XII also has the Jahara, who are a race of shamanistic male nature lovers. But the Jahara, notably, are fully clothed and are minor characters in a story about the struggle against the evil techno-empire ruled by manly men. (And yes, the techno-empire turns out to be manipulated by weirdo god-like spirits, and then the main villain turns into a robo-angel and… you know what, even by the standards of Final Fantasy, FFXII’s story was pretty goddamn gibberish, so let’s not go too deep with our analysis here.)

Sexism because history

This trope is mostly applicable to fantasy games, which are almost universally set in various incarnations of white crypto-Europe. What happens frequently such games is that the writers fall into the trap of assuming that naturally a crypto-European setting would be sexist because history was also sexist. You know, because it’s not like historians have actively ignored and/or erased the contributions of anyone who wasn’t a white dude for centuries. This leads to female characters who, by and large, stay in the kitchen and pursue only acceptable feminine goals (finding a man, having a baby, marrying some man that is not this other man that other people want her to marry, etc etc). You know, because history! Meanwhile, the heroes of these stories are always white men, because history! Sometimes a writer might make transparent attempts to somewhat circumvent this by having an Atypical Awesome Lady Character – otherwise known as the chick to whom all that awful sexism doesn’t apply because she is just SO. VERY. AWESOME. Unlike all those other awful girly girls who clearly would be able to rise above all that nasty sexism if they just tried harder.

[Taken from Hey, Khaleesi]

Ugh.

The glaring hole in this sort of logic is that why should fantasy settings necessarily include sexism? If your setting includes dragons, wizards, demons, fantastical beasts, other planes of existence that routinely intrude on our own, and a pantheon of deities who routinely empower servants with supernatural powers, clearly we’re already talking about a universe vastly different from our own. (Either that, or history is actually way more awesome than I was led to believe.) Also, it’s pretty nonsensical to argue that gender equality in a fantasy setting would be “unrealistic”, because honestly. DRAGONS.

Gratuitous sexualization

The most obvious stereotype and most pervasive stereotype of all. It is the low-hanging fruit of how not to fail, and yet almost no one seems interested in even attempting not to do this. Stupid chainmail bikini art in game books, lingerie ninja characters in video games, female characters whose sole purpose is as an object of sexual desire for a male audience… People. PEOPLE. This isn’t rocket science. Women are people. Not collections of sexy ladybits. People. Not only that, but they come in all shapes and sizes and races. There are tall women and short women and fat women and thin women. There are young women and middle-aged women and old women. So represent that diversity! Even if your female characters get to wear clothes, are they all under 30 and built like supermodels? If so, you still fail.

Queerphobia and Cissexism

[Before I continue, you’ll notice that this section is shorter than the previous. That’s not because it’s less important! It’s because a lot of homophobic tropes overlap heavily with your more “traditional” sexism. The one’s I’m calling out here go above and beyond the garden-level sexism and veer into heterosexism and cissexism. However, pretty much everything in the previous sections can apply to queer and non-binary characters as well.]

Gay (and/or trans) people are evil

Thankfully, due to changing attitudes with regard to marriage equality, this stereotype is less prevalent than it once once. But game culture is not exactly a terribly enlightened place, and there’s still an awful lot of this one out there. And often when you see an Evil Gay Villain in a game, that character will be the only gay character depicted. I don’t need to explain why that’s awful do I? That it’s bad to have your only representative of an already marginalized group be evil? Because this is the sort of thing that you see in “real life” all the time by certain groups – the insistence that all gay/queer people are promiscuous and evil people who want to either molest your children or make them gay/queer. So by using this stereotype, you’re simultaneously reinforcing harmful cultural narratives and writing an unoriginal character. Hooray!

Alexia/Alfred Ashford from Resident Evil

Does this dress make me look evil?

There’s a watered down version of this that is also pretty common – that of the male evil cross-dresser. Of course anyone who doesn’t adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity gots to be evil! Because cooties? This stereotype manages to not only be sexist and homophobic, but transphobic as well. If you’re after checking as many “awful human being” boxes as possible, then by all means pack your cast with evil cross-dressers. Otherwise, please for the love of god can we let this stereotype die already?

Making excuses for gay

Game companies are getting better about representing gay characters in their games that aren’t Evil Gays, but an awful lot of the time there seems to be an impulse to need to be able to rationalize the gay. Gay characters aren’t allowed to just be gay and have it not be a big deal. It has to be explained somehow to make it more palatable for your typical dudebro audience. The Asari from Mass Effect are the perfect example of having your lesbians and eating them too[2]. They’re a race of totally hawt lady space elves that are totally lesbians. Oh, except for how they’re not supposed to mate with each other because stigma. But they can mate with women from other species, so lesbians! Oh, but they also mate with men from other species, and they could theoretically mate with intelligent squid-things too. But when you go to a club, all the hawt lady space elves are all dancing sexy with each other! And there are totally cut scenes of an Asari bumping female uglies with LadyShep, so… Lesbians, brah!

not-lesbiansLook, it just gets tiresome, okay? If you want gay characters, just let them be gay and move on with your life for gods sake.

No happy endings

So you’ve written a gay character that isn’t evil, that isn’t the lone gay character in a cast of straight characters, that gets to have an on-screen romance. Awesome. Now how can you heighten the tension in your story? By killing the gay love interest?

*bzz* WRONG!

Now you’re just using the disposable woman stereotype and slotting in “gay” instead of “woman”. (Unless we’re talking about killing a gay woman, in which case you’re actually doubling down on your awful.)

For whatever reason, gay characters rarely get to have happy endings. Either they or their love interest gets killed or otherwise removed from the story, or their relationship falls apart, or they find true love and happiness with the opposite-sex partner they were clearly meant to be with all along. Too many times, gay characters in relationships have a giant narrative target painted on their chests.

And honestly, I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I game is to escape my real-world stressors for a while. So how much would it suck to sit down to play a game and have to choose between either not being represented or being represented but never getting to have a happy ending. LGBT people have to put up with enough bullshit in their daily lives already. How about we let them have the occasional story where the gay characters get to be not evil, gay, and still in a happy relationship at the end of the story, huh? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Erasure of nominally “invisible” populations

As much as there are some pretty awful portrayals of gay characters, the fact remains that remains that representations of gay characters are increasing in games. Which is great! Unfortunately, however, there is no commensurate increase in representation of characters that are trans, bi, poly, what have you.

And if you’re not sure how to write a good trans character, for example, one thing you can try is writing the character as a man (since men are who we’re conditioned to see as protagonists) and later going back and changing the character. It’s an excellent way to turn what would normally be a traditional character type into something new and compelling. For instance, Fang in Final Fantasy XIII was originally written as a man and later switched to a woman, and she remains one of my favorite female characters I’ve yet encountered in gaming.

And that’s all for now. Next time: awful race stereotypes to avoid

—- [1] And then watch the rest of it. [2] See what I did there?

How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings [Part 1]

[ETA: This is a three part post! Part 2, offensive gender and sexuality stereotypes, is here. Part 3, offensive race stereotypes, is here.]

So let’s say that you’re a writer looking to do some game writing. Maybe you’ve got a game you’re looking to design, or a setting or piece of game fiction to write, or an adventure to create and you’ve decided that you want your next project to not fail at being inclusive. (Hooray!) But how exactly do you go about doing that?

Inclusive game writing is something that takes practice, and sadly you’ll probably never get it one hundred percent right (almost everyone has some sort of privilege). But it’s a habit that can be developed over time and mostly boils down to simply checking your privilege while you create.

Oh god. There it is! I said it!

A lot of people freak out when they hear that phrase, but do try not to get your knickers in a twist about this. When I say “check your privilege”, I simply mean that you need to be aware of the ways in which you benefit from the unconscious assumptions that come packaged with living in our society. All of us have privilege of some sort. All that I am saying is a moderate level of self-awareness is beneficial when you’re trying to avoid creating work that is shitty toward your fellow human beings.

With that said, here are some basic ground rules:

1) Cultural Appropriation is bad

There can be a tendency in game design to look to real world cultures for inspiration. That’s all well and good! But if you’re going to use a real world culture as the basis of a game or game setting, what have you, it’s important to do your homework; half an hour on Wikipedia cherry-picking the stuff you think is “awesome” isn’t going to cut it. And it’s especially important that your use of a particular culture doesn’t bring with it any unfortunate implications when paired with the other game elements.

Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. [FOOTNOTE: Really, even just the title should be a giant red flag] Going Native: Warpath is a minis war game in which players have armies that are based on real-life native and aboriginal cultures which has been written and developed by (of course) a white dude.

Because nothing says “sorry for that one time we committed genocide against your people and then forced the survivors into institutionalized poverty” like casual cultural appropriation. Bonus points for managing to convey the added baggage of “well killing your people wasn’t as bad as it could have been since you were already doing it to yourselves”.

Now does that mean you shouldn’t attempt to portray cultures aren’t white and European for fear of getting something wrong? Absolutely not! Gaming is full of white crypto-European settings, which not only erases the importance of non-white cultures but is also hella boring to boot. (Seriously. I am just so. Damn. Tired. Of white crypto-Europe.) Just don’t do things like setting out to write a game and then making it about Natives (or Japan, or any other culture that’s not yours) simply because it’s “cool” without ever stepping back to critically examine the implications of your creative decisions. You’re not going to catch everything, but even a modicum of critical thinking will weed out the really awful stuff.

 2) Don’t erase marginalized groups

One of the problems with the culture we live in is that it conditions us to want to tell the stories of white het cis men at the expense of… pretty much anybody else. Even when this imbalance is remarked upon, it’s often explained away by saying that white het cis men are more “relateable” and “universal” than other groups.

…yeah.

This is bad from a creative standpoint because it can cost you a potential audience; those of us who are not white het cis men (ie, most of us) get pretty sick of not seeing ourselves well represented. Honestly, if I encounter a piece of media in a genre that I enjoy that is well reviewed and features a not-fail-worthy female protagonist, I’m probably going to throw at least a few bucks at the creator because it doesn’t happen all that often. It’s also bad from a ‘shitty human being’ standpoint because you’re helping to reinforce the cultural narrative of the supremacy of the white het cismale, which sucks.

Include members of marginalized groups in your settings. Include women, and LGBT, and people of color, and the disabled because their stories also have value. And absolutely don’t write about a real period from history and erase a group of traditionally marginalized people. This kind of revisionist history is especially damaging.

That’s how you wind up with games like Into the Far West – a game that mashes up Wild West and Wuxia tropes and which doesn’t include Native people at all. Which is awful, because our culture has been erasing the history of Native peoples for centuries. And we’re not just talking about stupid bullshit like casting a white woman to play Tiger Lily here. (Although that is indeed stupid and bullshit.)

We’re talking about killing people, taking their land, forbidding them to practice their culture or speak their language, taking children away from their families, abusing and murdering those children, segregating the survivors of that abuse, and perpetuating systems of government that allow for unfettered violence – physical, sexual, economic, you name it – against their modern descendents.

2a) Don’t combine #1 and #2

This is depressingly common.

Simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen was Scarlet Heroes. I came across it when it was linked by someone on my Google+ as a project with “cool Asian flair”, a phrase which never fails to set off alarm bells. Sure enough, when I check out the KickStarter, there are no characters in the preview artwork that I would peg as definitely Asian and only two non-focal figures that I would peg as maaaaaaaybe Asian. But there are a whole lot of white people in traditional Asian outfits!

And then of course there’s the boobs. So many boobs. So very many boobs. Because, you know, boobs sell games, doncha know. (/HEADDESK)

Most egregious, however, is the image of a white-seeming (at least to me) daimyo-type guy in a Throne of Asianness +1 (seriously, it’s like the illustrator kept looking at the chair and was like NEEDS MOAR ASIAN) who is watching WHITE WOMEN BELLY DANCE in clearly Middle-Eastern belly dance costumes. Because, you know, belly dance has become popular in China in the last decade, so good enough, you know?

Jesus. When are publishers going to stop throwing together stupid pastiches of awful Asian stereotypes for a quick buck and marketing as “cool Asian flair”? This is fucking awful.

Of course, the cherry on top of this fail-cake is that this is the same publisher behind Spears of the Dawn – which was actually something that looked like it was done pretty well. Spears of the Dawn is an African-themed game, and the preview art features people who don’t look gratuitously sexualized and who actually look African. So it’s a little hard to understand what the hell happened with this one.

3) Don’t reinforce stereotypes of marginalized groups

When representing members of marginalized groups, don’t let yourself be drawn into portraying them as nothing more than a flat stereotype. Make sure to portray them in ways that contravene existing stereotypes.

This one is HUGE. So huge, in fact, that I’m going to come back to this point in a bit.

4) Don’t include -isms in historical settings “because history”

When you’re writing a historical setting, don’t fall into using -isms and using history as a justification. A lot of what you might know as the “established facts” of history are, in fact, heavily biased. History is written by the victor, and as demonstrated by the white-centric patriarchal nature of our Western society, white men are the clear victors. A lot of what we think of as history is the recorded experience of white men, whereas the experiences and stories of women, non-whites, LGBT, etc were either not recorded or actively removed from history books.

Most people tend to think of medieval Europe in terms of the “Dark Ages”. But the narrative of the Dark Ages belies the fact that there was a thriving Muslim empire on the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain). Muslim Iberia was a highly cosmopolitan society full of art, beauty, and scholarship. Scholars from the Middle East, Africa, and China came to be part of the cultural flowering that happened there. But despite that Islamic rule in Iberia persisted several centuries, their story is ignored and erased. And that’s just one example!

The truth of the matter is that history was far more diverse than most history books would have you believe. Fantasy settings based in medieval Europe are almost always depicted as being overwhelmingly white, but medieval Europe was actually much more racially diverse. Similarly, despite what history books would have you believe, women did have important roles to play in society, and not everyone was heterosexual. (Seriously, gay people didn’t just pop out of a hole in the ground fifty years ago, people.)

History is not an excuse to make your setting revolve around the stories of white het cismen. Ditto for crypto-historical fantasy settings. Calling it “fantasy” doesn’t absolve you either.

5) Write fantasy settings that aren’t based in crypto-Europe

It has always baffled me that with the wealth of time periods and cultures available to use as inspiration for fantasy settings, fantasy as a genre seems stuck in medieval crypto-Europe. Yes, admittedly, it’s a time period that we’re all familiar with. But fantasy based in medieval Europe is so omnipresent that it’s pretty much impossible to do anything with such a setting that would make it stand out from the crowd.

Instead, do some reading about non-European history. You’re bound to find something that would make an interesting jumping-off point for a setting. (Remembering, of course, to keep #1-3 in mind.)

6) Over-represent if you feel comfortable with that (optional)

To use an example from my gaming life: there are several writers I enjoy who make a point of including LGBT characters in everything that they write. Sometimes you hear the counter-argument that such authors inevitably wind up over-representing LGBT people when compared to their percentage of the total population. But that’s really not such a bad thing when you consider just how invisible LGBT people are in gaming and in the media in general.

This isn’t a commandment to write only characters that represent marginalized groups. But certainly, don’t get bogged down in worrying that you’re including “too many” minority characters.

7) Write a first draft, then look for where you failed (Hint: you did.)

You’ve finished your first draft! Hooray! Now set it aside for a day or so so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look for the places where you failed. Because the odds are pretty damn good that you did. And that’s okay! Everybody fails. What’s important is where you go after that initial failure.

For instance, despite the fact that I blog about feminist issues in game design on a regular basis, I still catch myself unintentionally writing sexism into my settings. When I was writing the Ruined Empire campaign setting for Tenra Bansho Zero, I did a first pass of writing NPCs, assigning gender mostly at random. When I came back to look at what I had written, I realized that I had written all the passive, diplomatic characters as female and all of the powerful warriors as male.

Whoops.

Or how about the time when I was proposing a setting based around a village that was being harassed by bandits, and my initial draft contained the note that the bandits were demanding a tribute of the village’s young women? …Yeah. That’s why it’s important to keep a critical eye on your work, because no matter how “aware” and “enlightened” you may be, you will still make mistakes.

Fear not. A lot of the time, the awful things that slip through will be minor and easily fixable without “ruining” the core of your idea. That’s the thing about using -isms in your work. So often, falling back on stereotypes is actually lazy writing. A lot of the time, eliminating stereotyped representations from your work will actually make your work stronger.

8) GET A SECOND OPINION

This is probably the scariest part of the process, but it’s also the most important. If you’re going to write about a group of people that you don’t belong to, it is imperative to speak to members of that group. This can be nerve-wracking for those who have privilege, because so often people in positions of privilege are fearful of examining that privilege. But it’s important because without this step, you’re just engaging in more thoughtless cultural appropriation.

So get a second opinion. And more importantly, listen to that opinion. They might tell you something that you don’t want to hear. You need to hear it anyway. Or they might give you the thumbs up. You don’t know until you ask!

9) If someone from the group you’re writing about says you screwed up, LISTEN

Back to Into the Far West for a second. Back when the KickStarter was still running, blogger Bankuei wrote about how messed up it was to write a game about the Old West that completely erased native peoples. So what did Gareth Skarka, the game’s author do? Say – hey, you’re right, maybe I need to consider re-working my idea? Or double down on the douchery and try to start a public witch hunt against Bankuei?

If you guessed B, you’re (sadly) correct. Gareth really went for the gold, too, saying things like CHARACTER ASSASSINATION and LIBEL and complaining about his FEEEEEEEEELINGS. Because, shit. He wrote something that had genocidal implications, but criticizing it made him FEEL BAD so clearly Bankuei was the villain in this scenario!


Next time: Offensive stereotypes to avoid

A conversation with Ron Edwards about Circle of Hands and rape [LONG]

[Trigger warnings: talk of rape and sexual abuse]

Circle of Hands is a game by Ron Edwards that is currently being crowdfunded on KickStarter. Ron describes it as a “stark, mud-and-dung Iron Age fantasy role-playing game”. On it’s face, when I first read about it it looked like another OSR-style (Old School Revival) game, which isn’t my thing. But then other people in my gaming circles on Google+ started talking quietly about their concerns regarding Circle of Hands and the matter-of-fact way that the setting document (linked from the Kickstarter) presented brutality towards women.

I knew this was something that I wanted to blog about, because the lazy reliance of game writers and developers on rape as a device in games is something that I really, really, really hate. (The link is a VERY LONG piece that I wrote providing a non-exhaustive catalog of gross examples of rape in games and other geek media. Be warned, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.)

But instead of firing off a quick angry post, I wanted to at least try to have a conversation with Ron first. I’ve had occasion to talk with Ron in meatspace a fair bit at GenCon the past <mumble> years – we’ve shared dinner and played games together. And after the recent awfulness here, I really didn’t want to have another conversation about something important devolve into internet poo-flinging.

Thankfully, Ron was game and we had what felt like (to me) a pretty good conversation. He consented to me posting it publicly, so here it is, lightly trimmed and formatted for ease of reading.


 

My first email to Ron

1) The lack of warning about rape on the KickStarter page itself

It really, REALLY bothers me that rape is a serious thing that seriously happens in this world and that there is NO mention of it on the KickStarter page. Like, when I first saw the KSer page I was like, oh, an OSR-style game. Okay. And you know, OSR isn’t my bag but I can see why people like it, so I moved on with my life. So I’m really concerned that there are going to be people who back this expecting some good old-fashioned OSR-style murder-hoboing and wind up getting completely blind-sided by the rape.

Whatever your stance on rape as setting, I think it’s our responsibility as artists to make art that doesn’t harm our audience. And the way that rape is discussed in your setting, very unapologetic, very matter-of-fact, is potentially incredibly triggering. I know that it was minorly triggering for me – I didn’t have a panic attack the way I used to, but it did get my heart racing and make me very twitchy in that “fight or flight” way for a few minutes. So I really hope that you would revise your KSer to say that this is a part of the setting, and that you’d tell your backers as well.

Honestly, the types of people who are attracted to this sort of game? I really don’t think it would hurt you in the least. But again, I come back to my firm belief that artists should not harm their audience. That DOESN’T mean you can’t create difficult work! I am totally not saying no artist should write about rape ever! It DOES means that you have to give people who would be harmed by our work the ability to know that and to self-select themselves OUT of your audience.

2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game

The people I know who have backed it have all been white or white-passing cismen. The people I know who have (quietly) been talking about having a visceral aversion-reaction have been almost entirely women (with one guy), covering a range of gender identities, expressions, and sexualities. And that’s where I really start to have problems, because the people who have a problem with it are too afraid to speak up because they don’t to waste energy on a conversation where white cis dudes are defending rape as setting, because it’s just too close to our lived reality where white cis dudes defend and excuse rape in real life.

But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. And of course, the problem with a meta-pattern like this is that there’s no ONE person you can point out as being misogynist. But the pattern still exists and we shouldn’t ignore that. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say “well sexism is over”, because as the last three days have proved, it’s really, REALLY not.

3) The defense of rape

The other thing that is deeply emotional for me is this – why are so many game writers who are white cismen SO COMMITTED to defending rape? Take, for example, James “Grim” Desborough who is so committed to rape as setting that he wrote an article called “In Defense of Rape” and actually advocates against convention harassment policies. Or the writer of Cthulutech, who when he was asked why Cthulutech had so much rape said that it “only” had 6 pages about rape. SIX PAGES?? That is a WEIRD and CREEPY level of thought to put into rape, for reals.

This isn’t to say that you are a weird and creepy misogynist like James Desborough!! But again, it’s hard to ignore the meta-pattern. Why is it that the creators who want to write this into their games and who are defensive about rape as setting all happen to be people with the most privilege in our society? And if it were just one or two media properties, it would be like, okay whatever. But when you see it again, and again, and again. It’s like – why are there so many white male creators who want to tell stories where women get raped? Why do so many creators want THAT to be the story that gets told?

This isn’t just true of games, either. This is true of pretty much every medium ever, but ESPECIALLY geek media. (Seriously. I wrote a seriously long post about it here on GaW.

3a) Women need stories in which they don’t get raped

To paraphrase Jessica Hammer, our society believes that the only stories that we can tell about women revolve around their vaginas. And thus, any tragedies that happen to women are vagina tragedies. We need to change the cultural narrative surrounding women, that female characters exist to serve as sexual rewards for proper (read: male) heroes and to get raped.

Again, it’s a matter of meta-patterns. Can I point to Circle of Hands and say that THIS. THIS GAME. THIS GAME IS WHY RAPE CULTURE EXISTS. No, of course not. That would be ludicrous. But can I say that it fits into a pattern of media properties in which many stories about women can feature rape, or the threat of rape? Yes.

4) A false version of history

So much of the defense of these types of fantasy settings revolve around history, but that is a false version of history. The history that we have learned is a history that has actively erased the stories, accomplishments, and contributions of women and people of color. (That’s what Thou Art But A Warrior is about! The tragedy of a great society that will not only be destroyed but ERASED because they are not white.) This idea that women in history existed only to have babies, make textiles, and get raped and that they only started doing important things in the last century or so is completely false. And yet when people try to highlight this fact, they get told that they are ignorant and uneducated.

5) This other section on gender and sexuality

It doesn’t do anything to alleviate my discomfort, I’m afraid. The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are exceptional. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and problematic for me.

Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can think they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped and a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

This has gotten kind of rambly, so here’s where I’ll stop.


 

Ron’s initial response

*1)* *The lack of warning about rape on the KickStarter page itself*

In line with my above comment about the artist guy, my response is “YES.” You are right and I will get on this, today or ASAP.

Minor idea:

… It DOES means that you have to give people who would be harmed by our work the ability to know that and to self-select themselves OUT of your audience.

True! And as well, I hope, to see it as a reaching-out with/for trust and to go there with me on that basis, on a self-selected basis just as you say. The rest of my responses are pretty much all about this.

*2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game*

I see what you are saying. I’d like for the work eventually to be understood as NOT defending and excusing rape in real life, and I think that an initial fear that it is, is unavoidable. I neither laud nor lament my situation as a white cis-male – that doesn’t mean I am sneakily pro-rape like  the guys you describe. But I do understand that genuine suspicion would fall on me about that, and that trust will not be automatic.

On the plus side, you’ve reached out to me with some hope for it, and so have a couple of other people. With any luck, and with an eye on the manuscript as it develops from anyone who wants to, the game might earn a place as “that thing by the white cisguy which goes there, which is scary, but it actually goes where it should.”

Having just published Shahida without being Arab or Jewish, and having received surprised joy about it from Lebanese readers and radical rabbis, among others, I think I’ve managed some pretty tough stuff to date, in terms of triggers and emotional risk.

But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

I think you’ve answered this, and I agree with you: the reasons for suspicion and fear are real, and no one is going to put themselves out there as a target for hordes of abuse from privileged fuckheads. I accept that. If the game is to overcome this barrier, then I think an initial period of such suspicion is unavoidable. I am willing for whatever success it achieves (the above-mentioned “it goes where it should”) to be a long-term goal. After all, the available manuscript is the rawest possible, completely initial rough draft. It’s freely available, not just to backers, for a reason beyond mere system playtesting – because I want exactly these issues to be dealt with transparently. Or transparently on my part, it’s OK for people to stay private.

And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. …

Ooooh, OK, deep breath. No, Circle of Hands is not part of that phenomenon. It is the anti-Game of Thrones RPG, just like Sorcerer was the anti-White Wolf RPG. Sorcerer went through two minutes of initial reactions of “Oh, a Mage knock-off,” and then such talk instantly evaporated as soon as anyone read past the first page. I expect that to
happen here, because it will be utterly, frighteningly apparent. I think it already is in the playtest draft, and will become even more so.

I fucking hate Game of Thrones, for several reasons, not least of which corresponds exactly what you said about that guy’s lame-ass picture. And the rape stuff, just as you say.

All that said, I accept that fear of Circle of Hands being part of that phenomenon is a legitimate fear. I intend to accept that fear as a part of a process of contact, to whomever is willing, with sensitivity to their histories, and without resentment of those who are not.

We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say “well sexism is over”, because as the last three days have proved, it’s really, REALLY not.

Not in that camp even a little bit.

*3) The defense of rape*

I’m in complete agreement with everything you’ve written in this part.

This isn’t to say that you are a weird and creepy misogynist like James Desborough!! But again, it’s hard to ignore the meta-pattern.

Agreed. And which I intend to break, most harshly, in my small corner of publishing and in my small corner of the library of gaming. Can I? I don’t know. With help, perhaps.

You don’t have to convince me it’s a problem. I’m there.

*3a) Women need stories in which they don’t get raped*
*4) A false version of history*

My response to these isn’t called for without some feedback about my statements made above. I will only say that Circle of Hands is not the “game where player-characters get raped because realism.” Fear that it might be? Sure. Verdict that it is? I ask for a look at it past the fear, and help with its final form. That’s exactly what you’re providing
already, which I appreciate and am not asking for anything more.

*5) This other section on gender and sexuality*

Your comments here let me know the writing needs to be sterner and more explicit. Just as you asked me not to read your post defensively, I ask the same here. I’m not arguing against your feelings.

… The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are *exceptional*. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and problematic for me.

It says the opposite: that exceptionalism is the mistaken perception of the society around them, and not the reality at all. I understand that you didn’t see this there, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this.

Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can *think* they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

Again, it says the opposite: that men *think* they’re in control of women’s sexuality, but they’re not. I understand that you didn’t see this there either, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this too.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped *and* a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

I think this one might wait for further dialogue. Briefly, the setting is not offering the “way I think it ought to be.” This is an illustration of the problem: that social justice does not exist and that the setting doesn’t feature solutions. Frankly, I think modern life isn’t much better, and my fantasy setting calls that shit out. Or it should, in its final
form.

Thanks again!


 

Back to me! I say more stuff

*2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game*

I see what you are saying. I’d like for the work eventually to be understood as NOT defending and excusing rape in real life, and I think that an initial fear that it is, is unavoidable. I neither laud nor lament my situation as a white cis-male – that doesn’t mean I am sneakily pro-rape like  the guys you describe. But I do understand that genuine suspicion would fall on me about that, and that trust will not be automatic.

It’s always tricky pointing out this sort of thing, so I appreciate that you follow the distinction I’m trying to make. Shit like this was why I stopped posting on Story-Games, because every time I tried to say something like “notice how the only people who are talking in this thread about sexism in games are white dudes? Again?”, I got shouted down by a hoard of dudes – each of whom was offended that I was calling THEM PERSONALLY sexist. Which. Augh. No.
Meta-patterns are useful things that shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they mirror the dominant power structure of our society. Sure it’s almost always hard to zoom in and get an accurate picture of things, but that doesn’t obviate their usefulness.
Anyway. I’ll say to you what I always say. Get pre-readers who aren’t white cishet dudes, as many of them as you can. Especially with the nature of the material your game is supposed to handle. Get people who belong to groups who live with the daily reality of sexual and physical violence to read this over so that you can make sure what people here is what you actually want to say and not something else entirely. Because if you want to do a thing that handles this kind of material, you have to try REALLY REALLY HARD to make sure your work differentiates itself from the toxic background radiation of rape culture that pervades geek culture.
But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

I think you’ve answered this, and I agree with you: the reasons for suspicion and fear are real, and no one is going to put themselves out there as a target for hordes of abuse from privileged fuckheads. I accept that. If the game is to overcome this barrier, then I think an initial period of such suspicion is unavoidable. I am willing for whatever success it achieves (the above-mentioned “it goes where it should”) to be a long-term goal. After all, the available manuscript is the rawest possible, completely initial rough draft. It’s freely available, not just to backers, for a reason beyond mere system playtesting – because I want exactly these issues to be dealt with transparently. Or transparently on my part, it’s OK for people to stay private.

Another thing that’s come to my attention (please don’t ask me to name names) is that there are fans of yours who are aggressively attacking people who express trepidation over Circle of Hands with all the usual attacks. STFU, rape because history, ignorant bitch, blah blah blah. And you know what, I recognize that you personally are not saying this stuff. But I hope you’d consider saying something specially pointed at your fans/supporters?
Because this is a thing that I see kind of often with popular white male creators (or at least this is the group I have observed it most prominently with) – they attract a certain sort of overly zealous (usually male) fan as part of their overall audience that personally identifies with their work, and who interprets any criticism of this thing that they love as an attack against them. There are different ways you can respond to that as a creator.
The worst are people like James Desborough and J Scott Campbell who link their fanbase to the criticism and get them all riled up so that their fanbase will go harass the person that is criticizing them and they get to keep their hands clean, so to speak. That’s pretty fucking awful. Then you’ve got a middle ground of creators like Joss Whedon who are mostly oblivious to this effect and don’t do anything to perpetuate this kind of fan-perpetuated-awful, but don’t do anything to prevent it either. The last are creators like Scalzi, who are aware of this sort of bullshit and tell people to cut it out.
As, arguably, one of the founders of the indie-design movement and a very large name in indie design, I hope that you would say something publicly about people using your name to attack people who feel threatened by this earliest draft of your work.
And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. …
Ooooh, OK, deep breath. No, Circle of Hands is not part of that phenomenon. It is the anti-Game of Thrones RPG, just like Sorcerer was the anti-White Wolf RPG. Sorcerer went through two minutes of initial reactions of “Oh, a Mage knock-off,” and then such talk instantly evaporated as soon as anyone read past the first page. I expect that to happen here, because it will be utterly, frighteningly apparent. I think it already is in the playtest draft, and will become even more so.
I fucking hate Game of Thrones, for several reasons, not least of which corresponds exactly what you said about that guy’s lame-ass picture. And the rape stuff, just as you say. All that said, I accept that fear of Circle of Hands being part of that phenomenon is a legitimate fear. I intend to accept that fear as a part of a process of contact, to whomever is willing, with sensitivity to their histories, and without resentment of those who are not.
Okay. Cool! I like to hear you say that, because Game of Thrones is seriously just the worst. But here’s the thing – I didn’t get that vibe at all. And neither did anyone else that I’ve talked to who shared my discomfort.
So this comes back to my “differentiating your work from toxic background radiation” point. It might be worth identifying what about the current draft makes it read that way and actively undermining that? Hell, even adding a section about “this isn’t a love letter to GoT and here’s why it’s the worst ugh seriously” or something to that effect would be helpful. (Although I’m sure you could word that more intelligently that I can while uncaffeinated on a busy Monday morning.)
GoT is kind of The Hotness when it comes to Fantasy right now, and anything that is a “harsher” and “realistic” take on Fantasy is automatically going to get compared to GoT, whether you like it or not.
…The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are *exceptional*. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and  problematic for me.
It says the opposite: that exceptionalism is the mistaken perception of the society around them, and not the reality at all. I understand that you didn’t see this there, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this.
Great.
Again (coming back to a common theme), part of the baggage that can’t be escaped is the number of games I’ve played/read that SAY women are equals, but then proceed to treat them in ways where they are exclusively sexualized, deprotagonized, and fridged. So when I read that section, what read to me as equivocating came off as the usual equality lipservice that happens in most fantasy games. (IE, the original Baldur’s Gate where the gender selection screen at character creation proclaims that women are equal to men, only the programmers didn’t include a single romance option for women in the first game.)
Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can *think* they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really  controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

Again, it says the opposite: that men *think* they’re in control of women’s sexuality, but they’re not. I understand that you didn’t see this there either, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this too.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped *and* a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

I think this one might wait for further dialogue. Briefly, the setting is not offering the “way I think it ought to be.” This is an illustration of the problem: that social justice does not exist and that the setting doesn’t feature solutions. Frankly, I think modern life isn’t much better, and my fantasy setting calls that shit out. Or it should, in its final form.

This is the part that gives me the biggest heebie jeebies, I think. The “there is no social justice”. You’ve done a good job of explaining your intentions, which is great. But there’s a long, long, long history of white-dude creators who have come before you and profoundly fucked up the “social justice is dead” thing in Fantasy. Execution will be everything here.

Ron’s final (brief) response

Get pre-readers who aren’t white cishet dudes, as many of them as you can. … Because if you want to do a thing that handles this kind of material, you have to try REALLY REALLY HARD to make sure your work differentiates itself from the toxic background radiation of rape culture that pervades geek culture.

Agreed and already in progress.

… is that there are fans of yours who are aggressively attacking people who express trepidation over Circle of Hands with all the usual attacks. STFU, rape because history, ignorant bitch, blah blah blah. And you know what, I recognize that you personally are not saying this stuff. But I hope you’d consider saying something specially pointed at your
fans/supporters?

Gaahhhhh … argh, even if someone did want to stand up and fight about any aspect of this discussion, can’t people see that doing this is toxic to the game’s promotion? I’m not impaired or feeble or whatever, I can converse about this without cheerleaders, and the whole thing can stand or fall on the merits I and the decently-concerned people bring to it. Right? (that’s rhetorical) Can’t they see that there is NO BENEFIT to this behavior? Gah!

So yeah. I think I should post about this, although obviously I can’t make people do this-or-that thing, or not do it. But I can be pissed that they’re dumb enough!!

white male comics creators

I’ve been reading comics, close to comics pros, and been smirched in comics fandom for long enough to know exactly what you mean.

As, arguably, one of the founders of the indie-design movement and a very large name in indie design, I hope that you would say something publicly about people using your name to attack people who feel threatened by this earliest draft of your work.

Without doubt. Don’t even need the advice. Gah!

Okay. Cool! I like to hear you say that, because Game of Thrones is seriously just the worst.

Plus being as stupid as a mineral of low worth. Oh, look, NO plot whatsoever! Also unacceptable.

As I seem unable to avoid in my game texts, I’m already drafting a literature & cinema review that’s relevant to the game, and Game of Thrones will figure in it as the negative example – so, yes, already planned, and has been from the start.

I appreciate your kind words about how I’m trying to position the game relative to it (well, to all sorts of things).

This is the part that gives me the biggest heebie jeebies, I think. The “there is no social justice”. You’ve done a good job of explaining your intentions, which is great. But there’s a long, long, long history of white-dude creators who have come before you and profoundly fucked up the “social justice is dead” thing in Fantasy. Execution will be everything here.

It’s an interesting dynamic in play, because the characters don’t have much concept of social justice, but they’ve just seen some, and fought for it, and wouldn’t be in the Circle without it, so it’s as if the players’ more sophisticated sense of this can breathe the rougher, tougher air of fighting for it with raw conviction but no rhetoric. I’d appreciate a critical reading on a later draft, if you’re willing.

… Is it alright if I blog some or all of this conversation (including your response to my response, if you care to make one) publicly? I think there’s some good stuff here.

Absolutely. I’m good with any of the conversation or the whole thing being posted publicly. I’ll link to your discussion of it as well.


Concluding thoughts

I was trepidatious about how this would turn out. There have been times in the past when I’ve tried to reach out to male creators in the indie tabletop scene about something that bothers me and been rudely slapped down by defensive dudes with no intention to really consider that they might be doing or saying something problematic. And given Ron Edward’s status in the community, the idea of trying to start a conversation about “hey, this thing you’re making really bothers me” was definitely daunting. So the fact that a civil conversation was had is a relief.

Do I agree with everything that Ron is saying? No. And I’m still not likely to ever play Circle of Hands. But it’s nice to know that my concerns were heard and taken seriously, and I can be hopeful that the final version will be something that is ultimately not harmful. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

[Sidebar] My newest project!

So I’m going to take a moment to post a freebie about my KickStarter that just launched today. Those of you who follow me on other social media streams will know that I’ve been working these past few months on something I was jokingly referring to as the SEKKRIT PRINCESS PROJECT. Well, I’m pleased as punch to announce that the Princess Charming Kickstarter just launched today.

What is Princess Charming? Well, my co-creator – Josh Roby - and I are working to make a series of children’s books about awesome princesses. From the KickStarter:

The Princess Needs a Makeover

The goal of this project is to create princess stories with characters who are brave, capable, and, in a word, awesome.  Princesses who are more than a ball gown and a pair of lips waiting for True Love’s Kiss.

Princesses who don’t all look the same, who come in different shapes, sizes, and colors—just like our kids and the world they live in.

Princesses who go on their own adventures.  The boys might come along, too, but only if they can keep up!

Princesses who our kids can look up to and aspire to be like.

These are books for everyone who is tired of princesses that are thin, white, straight, and utterly utterly passive. We’re working hard to create stories that don’t fit gender stereotypes, and which have a diversity of representation.

These will be books that I will be excited to read to my daughter, because we’re aiming to create princesses that can subvert the toxic princess trope by actually being positive role models.

If you’d like to see some samples of what the art will be like, here are all the preview images that we posted leading up the launch:

 

If you have children in your life – of ANY gender – who like princesses, I hope you’ll consider supporting us – or at least helping us spread the word. I’m very passionate about this project and want to help make it as awesome as it deserves to be.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 191 other followers