INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

On forgiveness, and the messiness of who gets to access it

In my last post, I talked about the need to remove predators from communities, and how everyone benefits when predators are removed from community spaces. However, talking about removing people from communities ignores the important second half of the equation – how do people who have been removed from communities access forgiveness? What standards do we use for judging when forgiveness is warranted? And how do we reintegrate formerly harmful people?

But all of that is putting the cart before the horse. So before we get into any of that, let’s start with:

Abusers hurt people, so why should we forgive them?

When we talk about abusers, we commonly talk about them in black-and-white terms. We call them monsters, and use language that denies their personhood. And some of this, especially coming from victims of abuse is understandable! When people are hurt, the last thing they should be asked to do is center the feelings of the person who hurt them!

HOWEVER.

Speaking about abusers only as Monsters With No Humanity has two equally disastrous consequences:

First: The belief that only monsters can be abusers makes it far more difficult for people to believe survivors when they come forward with their stories, because people can’t reconcile the good they know of someone with the allegations of abuse. People are more inclined to believe their own personal experiences, so when presented with conflicting information, people often choose to believe that the person accused of abuse has done good things instead of believing that they abused someone. They end up saying things like, “well that person has done Thing X which has resulted in Benefit Y for [myself / a group of people / our community], so clearly they can’t be an abuser”. When the reality is that they both have done good things and have abused someone.

Second: The belief that only monsters can be abusers doesn’t acknowledge the messy reality of mental illness and trauma. Mental illness and/or trauma can cause people to become abusive – not because they want to hurt people, but because being abusive is the only way they can feel safe and in control of their environment. This creates situations that are messy when trying to assess culpability, because the reality is that things are almost never as straightforward as we would want them to be.

Our community traumatizes people. Full stop. It replicates patterns of abuse that follow the dominant white supremacist patriarchal narrative, and the people who are most often harmed are people from marginalized groups. As members of the community, we are at least partially culpable for the trauma that our community inflicts on others. And while it is never okay to behave abusively, how do we as a community sit in judgement of someone who is abusive because of harms that we have inflicted on them?

The messy reality of trauma is that people who are abused often react by being abusive in return. But should someone who is being abusive as a response to inciting incidents of abuse bear the full responsibility of the harm they are committing? And what do we do when there is a situation where two people with incompatible mental illness and trauma abuse each other? How, then, do we assign blame and decide who is culpable and who is not?

Before you answer that question, let me tell you a story.

I am not a monster, but I have abused people (and now don’t)

I sometimes joke about Pokemon-ing my way through the DSM, but the painful reality is that I have a lot of mental illness and trauma. My depression predates my involvement in games, but I developed anxiety and cPTSD as a response to the harassment and abuse I got for being a Woman-Appearing-Person With Opinions About Games On The Internet. And while I’d like to tell you that I dealt with the emergence of my anxiety and cPTSD in a healthy and responsible manner, that would be a lie.

I grew up in the Midwest, which means my family never talked about difficult emotions, no matter how bad things got. (And I had a pretty traumatic childhood, so things got really bad.) So when I first developed anxiety, I was completely emotionally illiterate. All I knew is that I was having too many feelings, but I couldn’t tell you what the feelings were or why I was having them. And cPTSD just made the whole thing worse, because it gave my anxiety the keys to the USE ONLY IN CASE OF BEARS panic button. I was miserable, not just emotionally but physically. I was trapped in an endless feedback loop that made me feel like I had the flu, only it never went away.

Unfortunately, getting treatment for severe mental illness is not fast. It took several attempts to find a medication that worked for me (one of the first ones I tried actually GAVE me panic attacks, which… you know… not helpful). It also took time to find a therapist who could help me and not tell me inane shit like ‘stay off the internet’ or ‘be tolerant of misogynists’. It took most of a year to get medication that worked and get enough therapy in me that I wasn’t actively in severe distress every single day.

And during that time, I abused people.

I won’t share details, not because I’m keeping secrets but because these are stories that ultimately aren’t mine to share. But the truth of the matter is that when I was rock-bottom and effectively untreated, I became emotionally abusive, because the things that my anxiety demanded that I do in order to feel even somewhat safe and secure were toxic. And sometimes I was able to fight down those impulses, but sometimes I wasn’t – because when you live with that kind of misery, misery that permeates ever cell of your being both emotionally and physically, you reach a point where you are willing to do whatever your anxiety demands in order to alleviate the pain, if only for a little while.

Importantly, I’m not that person anymore. I have medication that works. I’ve done, if not quite All The Therapy, then certainly a large portion of it. I’ve done EMDR to reduce my panic attacks. And I practice self-awareness with the zeal of a recovering addict, because I know that my mental illness makes me want to abuse people when I am unwell, and that impulse will never go away. However, while I accept responsibility for the harm that I caused, I also acknowledge that I was not fully culpable, because my abuse stemmed from my illness, which I have worked incredibly hard to address.

So. That’s my story. If you’ve gotten this far and believe that my past abuse means that I am not entitled to further empathy, then. Well. Here’s where we part ways.

However, if you would agree that I don’t deserve to be permanently exiled from the community for the sake of harm that I caused when I was ill and untreated, then let’s move on to:

The problem of forgiveness is that only people with the most privilege and status get to access it

To continue with the personal example, my abusive behavior wasn’t just in person. There was stuff I said online that I’m not proud of, things I would dearly love to address and make right – except I can’t. Because I’ve learned from painful experience that trying to talk about what happened only earns me more abuse. So I have to live with the fact that there is a not-insignificant chunk of our community that sees me as a Toxic Person. Hell, there’s a major TTRPG publisher that to this day names me on their company website as a Major Problem in our community because of the things that I said. (Again, things that I said because I was ill. Because I was not dealing well with being abused. And, non-trivially, because I was wrestling with internalized homophobia and accepting myself as queer and non-binary.)

I’m not the same person I was then! And yet, this very visible indictment from a major player in our community is going to hang over my head forever.

Contrast this with the experience of industry luminaries, usually white dudes, who do harmful things. All they have to do is issue an apology that sounds even halfway sincere and they are lionized for how brave and wonderful they are for being accountable. When you have power, privilege, and status, forgiveness is always accessible, even without a formal apology – because if enough time passes, a luminary’s fans will always be keen to tell you that you shouldn’t hold mistakes over someone’s head forever.

And yet, that is exactly what happens with marginalized people.

So what happens is the only people who can access forgiveness and restorative justice are the people who don’t need it. Which means that marginalized and other lower-status members of the community are one mistake away from being exiled forever.

And if that sounds like hyperbole, trust me. It’s not. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make it clear to a Formerly Harmful Person that they are not welcome and never will be welcome in the very same space where they themselves are ignoring someone known to be harmful, but who has too much social currency or status for them to do anything about. Because it’s an easy win. Because it makes them feel better about ignoring the person they know is harmful. And, going back to the points at the beginning, because when someone becomes An Abuser, they are A Monster Forever and are No Longer Worthy of Empathy Or Inclusion No Matter How Much Work They’ve Done Or What They’ve Done To Be Accountable.

So. Obviously, that’s really shitty right? Shitting on people who have Done The Goddamn Work to make space for People With Status Who Continue To Be Harmful is obviously bad and wrong, and we shouldn’t do it, RIGHT? So. You know. What do we do about it?

Let people who were harmful reintegrate with the community when they can demonstrate that they’ve done the work

Forget status. Forget privilege. Forget power. There are people with all of those things who have been given community forgiveness who frankly don’t deserve it, and many others who do deserve it but can’t get it because they lack status, privilege, and power.

Instead, look at the person’s record, what they did in the past and what they have done since then to become someone who isn’t harmful. Have they acknowledged that they harmed people? Have they apologized? Have they done anything to address the harm they created? Have they gotten treatment or support in addressing the cause of their harmful behavior? Most importantly: what have they done to ensure that they will no longer be harmful in that way again?

Sometimes, the remediating action is immediate and profound, and the Formerly Harmful Person can be reintegrated right away. Frex, the dude who sexually assaulted me at GenCon in 2011 – his apology was immediate and sincere. He changed the circumstances that reinforced attitudes that caused the abuse, changed how he participates in games events, and immediately went into therapy. I’ve never named him because I am satisfied with his response and don’t feel that it would be just to punish him further.

Sometimes the desire for remediation is sincere, but the capacity to Not Be Harmful is something that needs to be worked toward. This is frequently the case with people who become harmful because of mental illness and trauma. In this instance, we need to have empathy for the person and make clear that space will be held for them when they can rejoin in a healthy way, but we also need to give that person support in getting to that place. It’s not enough to say ‘come back when you’re healthy’ without providing support in becoming healthy, because otherwise you’re just kicking people out for being mentally ill.

Sometimes a Harmful Person will say that they are sincere about wanting remediation and reform, but use their status as a Person In Recovery as a shield to further harm people. These people are Real Actual Predators and actually do need to be exiled forever. Patterns of behavior speak louder than words, and forgiveness and reintegration should never be done on the backs of victims.

(And sometimes a person who has harmed others isn’t sorry and are definitely going to do it again. Fuck those people. Those aren’t the people we’re talking about here, and they can get into the goddamn sea.)

Of course, what that remediation and reintegration will look like is a huge fucking question that, frankly, I’m not qualified to address. But, as someone who has done Not All But Certainly A Lot Of The Therapy, something I am qualified to address is black-and-white thinking that causes harmful outcomes. So! Let’s end with a bit of homework.

Homework: Reflections on black-and-white thinking about forgiveness

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like it if you spent some time reflecting on these questions:

  1. In what ways have I demonstrated forgiveness to people with status who have harmed others and who have not demonstrated sincere contrition or shown that they are working to prevent further similar harm?
  2. In what ways have I shamed lower-status community members who have harmed others without acknowledging their humanity or considering how their circumstances may have changed?
  3. Have I done anything to support people who harm others because of mental illness and trauma through the process of recovery and reintegration? If yes, could I have done more? If no, why not?

If these reflections prompt answers that you are unhappy with, remember to acknowledge that we are all works in progress, and holding ourselves to unattainable standards is actively detrimental to the process of becoming better people. Instead, have compassion for yourself while also acknowledging where there is room for improvement and what you can do to address that going forward. The path to forgiving others starts with forgiving ourselves.

GenCon 2019, learned community helplessness, and the benefits of actually banning predators

Important Preamble

Despite the fact that I have been attending GenCon every year for around fourteen years, I hadn’t planned on attending GenCon this year, and was sort of shocked when things ended up such that I was able to go. See, about four or five years ago was when Z, my long-time harasser and a huge part of why I shut this blog down in 2016, began attending GenCon. And despite being a known serial harasser who oozed toxicity and had been responsible for harassing dozens of people out of the games industry and community, for more than a decade people just sort of shrugged their shoulders and enabled his abuse by saying things like “you have to separate art from artist” or “removing Z would be censorship”.

That is, if they didn’t outright deny the reality of those who spoke publicly about Z’s abuse – a feat which required no small amount of mental gymnastics, given that even the people I met who described Z as a friend would always begin their descriptions of him as “sure, he’s an asshole, but…”

Anyway. So Z started going to GenCon, and worse than that, he started winning LOTS of Ennies for his games. (Ennies are like the oscars of TTRPGs, with everything that implies about awards handed out by a community of mostly old white dudes.) I started having panic attacks in the lead up to GenCon, panic attacks that got worse every year. In 2018 Z was nominated for (and won) four Ennies, and I had two weeks of devastating panic attacks leading up to the convention that only partially abated when I promised myself that 2018 would be my last year. I love GenCon more than I can possibly articulate, but the thing that I loved was harming me, and I needed to not repeat the mistakes I made in 2016 by continuing on a course of action that was harming me because of a misguided need to “win”.

So 2018 was the year I said goodbye GenCon.

From 2018: Goodbye you weird fucking UFO-thing. I don’t know why I love you, but I do.

Because it was going to be my last year, I made lunch and dinner appointments with various movers and shakers in the TTRPG industry outside of my usual circles and I told them my story. I told them about how I was being forced out of a community space that I loved because of someone who everyone knew was toxic and bad for the community. And universally, the reaction from the influencers I talked with was sympathetic but bewildered refusal to actually do anything or take a stand.

You see, my story was so sad, so sad. And obviously I didn’t deserve any of what happened to me, and clearly I shouldn’t be punished for my abuser’s actions. It’s just too bad that absolutely. Nothing. Could. Be. Done. Because what could possibly be done about someone like Z? What action could possibly be taken to protect the people he victimized in order to make them feel safe in existing in this community space? What a mystery. What a complete and total mystery. Truly a mystery for the ages that may never be solved.

…if I sound salty about it, it’s because I am.

But then February happened – and four brave women who should not have had to retraumatize themselves in public for us to do something bravely spoke out with credible accusations of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape. And finally. FINALLY. Z was canceled.

So, GenCon 2019 was back in the cards.

At the convention

Coming back after I thought I had said goodbye to GenCon forever was a wild ride. It was a bit embarrassing running into people that I had told about my situation last year, assuming that I wasn’t ever going to meet them again – especially those who weren’t familiar with everything that had happened with Z in February. I was a goddamn mess in 2018, and I even complained to (a really super nice and super decent) publisher from Korea who I met for all of five minutes last year – which made it all the more mortifying when he saw me this year and remembered who I was and was really very nice.

Social awkwardness aside, however, this year was an overwhelmingly positive and recharging experience, untainted by fear, anxiety, trauma, or panic attacks. Not having to worry about Z completely transformed how I experienced GenCon!

In previous years, I spent lots of time and energy making plans for how to avoid the places Z would be, and emergency plans for what to do if I ran into him. I made sure I had refills of my emergency meds for panic attacks. I made lists of names of friends, phone numbers, and where they could be found at the convention if something happened and I needed to be around someone safe. I made maps of the dealer’s room with the booth Z was working at so that I knew which section of the dealer’s room to avoid. All of this was important to help me deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that the idea of being in the same spaces as Z caused, and I got used to anxiety and panic attacks being part of my GenCon prep.

This year, the convention snuck up on me! I’d gotten so used to panic attacks being my “it’s time to think about GenCon GM prep” alarm that I didn’t do any of my prep until about two days before I left for the convention. Neither did I have a single panic attack, although I still had the usual anxiety dreams about forgetting to run my games and getting kicked out of the convention. (Anxiety is a cruel mistress.) And at the con the vibe was so relentlessly, uniformly excited and positive, without the usual undercurrent of simmering resentment about our community’s enabling of known abusers.

…seriously, the number of years I’ve gone to the Diana Jones Awards only to have 50% or greater of my conversations there be about how bullshit it was that Z had been nominated for so many Ennies… The dude occupied a lot of mental real estate!

But none of that was clear until Sunday of the convention, and a pithy observation made by a dear friend who happens to be a cishet white guy over lunch. He quipped that it was great that ‘the toxic cloud had lifted’, and that everyone he talked to had been having an equally positive experience of the convention. The metaphor was so striking, because it precisely described my experience. It highlighted the emotional reality of something that I had always known intellectually: when you remove predators from your community, the entire community benefits.

So why? WHY did it take so long for the community to act when the benefits were so clear and so widespread?

The learned helplessness inherent in “there’s nothing to be done”

There has been a lot of ink spilled about the problem of Geek Social Fallacies in geekdom, the first of which is that “ostracizers are evil”. And of course, the Geek Social Fallacies are still very endemic in gaming spaces. It creates a reluctance to remove people from communities, even for the best of reasons – because excluding people makes you a bad person. So the focus shifts from removing bad actors to reducing conflict, with the rationalization that conflict is the real problem.

However, this is the logic that inevitably sees abusers enabled, if not rewarded with status and position, while their victims – usually marginalized people – are run out of the community. This happens either tacitly, when marginalized victims “pro-actively” opt not to participate in communities that include their abusers. However, it also happens more actively – when victims of prominent abusers speak their truth and are actively run out of a community for creating conflict. When you make excluding people an unforgiveable sin, the only way to keep a community energized and active is to persecute people who question the unjust structures that protect abusers.

And of course, the people who are most vigorous in persecuting marginalized people who question the unjust status quo are those with the most privilege, who naturally don’t see anything hypocritical about holding the belief that “ostracizers are evil” while actively ostracizing marginalized victims of abuse. Because these “defenders of the community” are inevitably cishet white dudes with an extraordinary amount of unexamined privilege who have convinced themselves that the childhood bullying they experienced for their geeky interests is exactly the same as the experiences of marginalization faced by queer people, women, people of color, and people from other marginalized groups.

These assumptions calcify into immutable laws that create patterns of behavior, patterns that long-term members of the community have seen repeat endlessly, with little to no variation in the ultimate results. And this endless cycle creates learned helplessness even in those who are aware enough to realize the injustice being perpetrated, because it all feels too big to be changed. What could possibly be done that hasn’t been tried before? What could be done to make this time, this instance not another repetition in the endless cycle? People, especially people with privilege, become so mired in that sense of futility that they lose sight of the incredibly obvious answer, the answer that victims of abuse have been shrieking all along:

REMOVE. PREDATORS. FROM. YOUR. COMMUNITIES.

The inability of communities to see this solution is willful blindness. Because when someone is a known abuser, there are always people agitating for that person’s removal.

In the case of Z, we knew what he was. Dozens of people spoke about his abuse for more than a decade. We begged for the community to take us seriously and to stop empowering his abuse. But we were the ones who were prosecuted. We were told we were lying. We were demonized for not being “nice” about our abuse. We were told we were the real problem, because we were the ones creating conflict.

But when push came to shove, when the community finally, FINALLY came together and removed Z, EVERYONE BENEFITED. Not just his victims, not just marginalized people, but everyone. Even my friend, the cishet white guy who was never directly targeted by Z, could notice and enthuse on the new positive dynamic created by Z’s removal! Because removing predators from communities creates a space where people feel safe and included, and safe, inclusive communities attract enthusiastic participation. And when that happens, the community as a whole benefits. How could it not?

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[From the archive] On whiteness

[This is the first post taken from things I’ve said elsewhere in the intervening time between shutting down GMMaS in 2016 and relaunch. In this case, this is taken from a Twitter thread on whiteness, edited to add back in grammar and proper spelling. I might post one or two more while I’m recovering from GenCon, but I’ve got three pages of scribbled notes about things I want to write. So – until then, enjoy.]

Hello, fellow white femmes, women, and AFAB enbys. Call-in time. Pull up a seat. Today, we’re going to talk about exclusion, and how whiteness teaches us to prioritize our feelings over the well-being of people who experience either more or different marginalizations than we do.

So being someone who’s not a cis dude in patriarchy sucks, yeah? It means feeling excluded – be it from representation in media, representation in government, or simply exclusion from social groups, professional organizations, or opportunities. And it SUCKS. Being excluded because of gender sucks. Which is why a lot of feminist language centers around “inclusion” as always good and “exclusion” as always bad. Our goal is always to create inclusive spaces, not exclusionary spaces. We internalize that exclusion is bad, because we’ve felt the pain of exclusion.

BUT.

As white people, society has trained us to center our own feelings at all times. Even the “wokest”, most progressive of us who have worked to unlearn this programming still do it. And we lose sight of the fact that feeling excluded ISN’T ALWAYS BAD. As not-cisdudes, we get frustrated about cisdude entitlement, yeah? Why do cisdudes feel entitled to literally Every. Space. And why can’t they understand that a safe space requires excluding people who look like our oppressors, even if they’re One Of The Good Ones?

We roll our eyes at entitled cisdudes whining about being excluded, because we should. Because their feelings of exclusion say more about their entitlement and privilege than anything else. And because their hurt manfeelings don’t obligate us to violate our boundaries.

AND YET.

Us white notcismen can still get pretty fucking entitled to shit and spaces that aren’t ours. We get bogged down in all of the times when feeling excluded is bad and forget to be self-aware that sometimes we’re feeling excluded because of privilege and entitlement. As a white person, if I feel excluded by a group or product that features only PoC, that’s on ME for feeling entitled to representation in that space. The same goes for any other marginalization that others experience and I don’t!

The more majority groups you belong to, the more likely you are to center yourself and your own experiences of exclusion – at the expense of being an ally to people who are more marginalized than you.

And it’s okay to have those impulses! We’re all works in progress. But if you can’t or won’t get past the impulse that EVERY instance of you feeling excluded is Bad and Wrong, then you’re engaging in White Feminism, because your goal isn’t to make sure that all people are included. Your goal is only to see yourself included.

So white notcismen, we NEED to get self-aware about this shit. When you find yourself getting angry over feeling excluded, take a second to STEP BACK and ask yourself:

  1. Who is doing the excluding?
  2. Why? And…
  3. What is the outcome?

If, say, you’re a cis person who is being excluded by notcis folks who are trying to create a space that is safe from cis nonsense, then the outcome of that exclusion isn’t harmful to you, so that would be a case where you need to sit on those feelings and keep them to yourselfAnd, look. Sure. There will be just as many, if not more, times when you’re being excluded by shitty dudes because patriarchy. Patriarchy sucks. But patriarchy goes hand-in-hand with white supremacy, and we have to stop advocating for our rights on one axis while oppressing on another axis.

If you take nothing from this, white folks, take this: SOMETIMES OUR EMOTIONAL PAIN AND DISCOMFORT IS GOOD, BECAUSE UNLEARNING PATRIARCHY AND WHITE SUPREMACY IS PAINFUL.

I say all of this as someone who grew up conservative Catholic in the Midwest, okay? I speak from experience. I won’t claim to be perfect at this either. But the past few years, as I’ve drifted further out of the mainstream – from cishet to cishet-by-default to ace biromantic genderqueer nonbinary mentally ill neuroatypical person – I’ve become more and more aware of the ways in which white people fail to ally.

So. Let’s do and be better, white notcismen, okay? Our pain is real, because patriarchy sucks, but not everything needs to or even should be about us. And making room for others who don’t look like us means taking up less space, which can be painful at first, and that’s okay.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: on the relaunch of Go Make Me a Sandwich

Well, it turns out I don’t know how to quit, because I’ve tried it twice and here I am, getting back on this horse again. But just to make it official, sound the trumpets or throw confetti or whatever, because I’m relaunching Go Make Me A Sandwich.

What the hell happened to change my mind?

When I shut down my blog in 2016, I was not in a good place. I was tired from years of beating my head against a wall and feeling like I wasn’t making a difference.

I was broken down from years of trying to juggle too many commitments.

I was isolated from the fallout of men who decided it was easier to exile me from communities than it was to confront the reality of their own toxicity.

I was traumatized by years of harassment and being terrorized for committing the crime of being a woman-appearing-person who had opinions on the internet.

I was unsupported by a community that thought it was more important to have “good art” than it was to listen to marginalized people and finally do something about known abusers, and that told me I was the villain for not being “nice” in talking about my abusers.

I was unheard by people in power who knew what was happening but did nothing because action would have required personal inconvenience.

I was burned out. Because. Damn. That’s a lot.

I was also newly diagnosed with PTSD, and wow did I not have a handle on how to deal with that.

It also turns out I was extremely gay. Yeah, shocker. Turns out when you spend years loudly and frequently proclaiming how cisgender and hetero you are, that maybe you are in denial. Straights, you’d be surprised how many spoons pretending to yourself that you aren’t extremely gay can eat up.

So what’s changed? Well. I’ve put in a hell of a lot of work since then.

I’ve done so much fucking therapy, y’all. All of the therapy. And I’m definitely not done. (Sidebar: EMDR is fucking revelatory and changed my goddamn life. If you have PTSD, go get you some sweet sweet EMDR if you have access to it.)

I’m (slowly) recovering from burnout by learning to say no. And I’m learning not to use activism as a form of self-harm, because I feel like everyone else’s needs must be seen to before I can see to my own. I’ve spent time rebuilding relationships damaged by illness and neglect. But I’ve spent even more time removing toxic people from my life who were compounding my trauma. It was hard, messy, painful work and I cried. Like wow. So much.

I learned to vocalize what I need and prioritize the people in my life who won’t use that against me. (Yay therapy!)

I’ve done a fuckton of emotional labor behind the scenes to make the communities I am part of more equitable. I’ve had hard conversations with people about how to build better and more just communities, how to work toward equity and justice for everyone, not just the people with the most privilege.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the largest obstacle to me blogging is. Well. No longer an obstacle that I have to worry about.

But. You know. So what? The absence of obstacles isn’t a reason to write. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean that I should. So why do it? Why come back to a thing that has harmed me? Well. My asshole mental illness has a sense of irony, because my anxiety and PTSD – which once drove me away from blogging – is now driving me back to it. It turns out that writing is how I put my thoughts in order, and very often when I am dealing with anxiety about trauma or sexism or other patriarchal bullshit, the only way I can get my brain to leave me alone is to vomit my thoughts onto a page and rearrange them until they make sense. Quite often, this is the only way I can get my brain to goddamn leave me alone. And once a thing is written, what’s the point of sitting on it?

I’ve spent a lot of time the past two years composing epic tweet rants, but using Twitter to write about nuanced social justice topics is like trying to draw the Mona Lisa on a beach – the nature of the format causes your words to erase themselves. The impermanence of the format started to bother me. I wanted to blog again, but fear kept me silent. Or at least it did until Mandy and the other women spoke out.

So here I am. In a place where all the reasons I had not to blog have been removed, and where I have these words that have to escape me, that need to be voiced. And I want them to be heard.

I’ve been thinking about this for several months, but life has been busy. I have a job and a partner (who has been amazing and supportive about how extremely gay I am) and a six year old and I do theater. It’s a lot. But preparing for GenCon seems like as good a time as any to begin.

What does this mean?

1. New content

I’ve got a lot of old content that has previously been screamed at Twitter and Google+. So for the next while, I’ll be converting and posting the old stuff. I’ll be writing new stuff, but I’m honestly not sure what form that new stuff will take yet. Right now I feel pretty certain I won’t be doing the sort of deep dives and research that I used to do, but who the fuck knows? Three years ago I thought for sure I would never want to blog again, and four years ago I was convinced that I was a cisgender straight woman, and look where that got me.

2. No comments

Many of you are lovely, and I thank you for the support I’ve received. However, I simply can’t deal with the people who aren’t. So. No comments.

3. Patreon?

It probably won’t happen until after GenCon, but I’ll be re-branding my Patreon. Again. It’s going to stay monthly, though. I can’t commit to a consistent level of output, but even when I’m not writing, I’ve got lots of meatspace activism on the boil, and sometimes that has a way of eating up dollars. If you want to support my blog, you’re welcome to pledge, or not. Just as last time, everything I post to my blog will be public and freely available to all.

Something worth acknowledging.

I’m a very different person than the person who shut down this blog in 2016. (Obviously) I’m an even more different person than the person who started this blog in 2010. That person said some seriously ignorant stuff, which I’ve left up because accountability is important, but also as an acknowledgement that people learn and evolve. I’m going to think about how best to flag the content that I no longer agree with or stand by. But. You know. Please don’t be a jerk about shit that I said when I wasn’t the me I am now.

Self-Promotion Sidebar: The Watch is live on KickStarter

It is perhaps an indication of how busy I’ve been juggling school and running a KickStarter that I forgot to make a post here linking to the KickStarter – which is an oversight since I posted here several times about The Watch while it was development. So!

The Watch is funding on KickStarter through March 19th!

As for what is The Watch? Well:

The Watch is a tabletop roleplaying game set in a “light fantasy” setting known as The Clanlands. It takes place during a dark and horrific war between the now-united ten clans who live there and an invading force, known only as The Shadow.

The Shadow is a powerful and insidious enemy that is able to enter the minds of its opponents and slowly turn them to its side; twisting them into unnatural foes. For reasons unknown, The Shadow is able to more easily influence the minds of men, and has turned a great deal of the clan’s soldiers against itself.

With most of its fighting force crippled or worse, the clans have joined together and begun enlisting new warriors to defend their homes. Women and non-binary femme people who seem better able to resist The Shadow’s hold have been recruited, trained, promoted, and formed into a new order: The Watch.

In The Watch, you’ll play a group of elite soldiers who are called upon time and time again to defend villages, attack The Shadow’s forces at key locations, scout the enemy’s lines, and much more. Each mission comes with its fair share of costs and compromises and you’ll need to navigate them in order to be ready to heed the next call to action.

It’s in these in-between moments where the rules for The Watch focus themselves: What do you do to unwind from the pressure that threatens to pull you down? Who do you spend what little free time you have with, and why? How will you hold off The Shadow’s influence so that you can see the end of this war? That’s what you’ll have to find out for yourself…

For more information, you can check out the campaign page. You can also join our community over on Google+, if you have any questions for either of us before you back! (We encourage that.) Additionally, I can promise that the finished book will be chock full of instructions and examples, for people new to PBTA roleplaying games or who are unsure what they should be aiming for when running the game. (Because I was the one who wrote the entire book. Phew.)

As of the time of this post, our campaign is at 65% with 24 days to go. I’m not too worried about funding, but I do very much want to start opening up stretch goals, because I am SUPER excited about opening up our exciting stretch goals – which will involve, among other things, expanded content and hiring more art from the fantabulous Claudia Cangini! Seriously, here’s what we hired her to do for the KickStarter page:

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absolutely cannot wait to see what she comes up. I hope you’ll join us in making this project absolutely awesome!

You say hello

I don’t tend to be someone who dwells on my achievements and accomplishments much. In fact, I have friends who like to troll me by telling me statements of fact about myself and watching me writhe in discomfort as I attempt to disclaim those facts. There’s also the issue that I prefer to avoid things that could be seen as gloating, because there are lots of people (dudes) out there who already think I’m “conceited” and “arrogant” enough without me adding fuel to the fire. But today marks the sixth anniversary of my very first post on Go Make Me a Sandwich, which is the sort of landmark that provokes a fair amount of introspection. And while I can deflect compliments with the best of them, it’s impossible to deny that this blog has made a difference, and that I have achieved a number of things through writing it that I will always be proud of.

In the six years since I started it, Go Make Me a Sandwich has amassed more than 2.3 million views. Since ending my hiatus in 2014 and restarting this blog as a Patreon-supported blog, I’ve gone from an initial 17 patrons to a current count of 105 patrons – which puts me in the top 4.7% of all creators on Patron (43,788 total creators at the time of writing this post, according to Graphtreon) by number of patrons. The things that I’ve written here have been read and promoted by a variety of industry thought leaders – publishers, activists, and critics.

The visibility gained through this blog has helped me accomplish a number of things outside of this blog that I’m even more proud of:

  • The things I’ve written here have affected how publishers approach art direction. I’ve worked directly with Paul and Shannon Riddle on improving art for Undying and am currently doing art direction for Katanas & Trenchcoats. I’ve also done consulting work for Wizards of the Coast regarding portrayals of women in D&D products. And those are just games that I’ve talked directly with the creators about.
  • The post that I wrote about my experience of sexual assault at GenCon led to me being able to connect with GenCon leadership, who subsequently implemented a harassment policy. I’ve also worked with Pelgrane Press and co-authored their 13th Age event harassment policy.
  • While I certainly can’t take credit for something that took years and the hard work of many to accomplish, I know that the posts that I’ve made here and the conversations that I pushed around diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider lineup were part of the reason why GenCon was able to smash the old gender disparity of its Featured Presenters in such dramatic fashion this year.
  • My work here also enabled me to actually be an Industry Insider this year, where I sat on panels with game industry and culture luminaries like Wes Schneider, Katherine Cross, Ken Hite, and Nicole Lindroos.

All of that is great! And incredibly satisfying! But that stuff isn’t nearly important to me as the conversations I’ve had with women who have given me their sincere thanks while telling me heartbreaking stories about themselves and their experiences in the community. I struggle with imposter syndrome and lack of self-esteem, so in my lowest moments I have a tendency to dismiss my own work as angrily yelling my feelings at the internet – which is something that anyone can do. (I mean, just look at Twitter.) But that is doing myself a disservice, because there is something inherently radical about being a woman who expresses feelings about games openly and without apology. I know, because there are so many women who have told me that I have said things that they either didn’t have the ability to say, the courage to say, or the words to say it in. And that means more to me than all the rest, because those big quantifiable achievements feel remote and abstract, whereas the real human feeling behind these conversations I’ve had is something that feels “real” and important.

However.

While it is undeniable that my blog has resulted in positive change in some parts of the games industry and community, that change has come at tremendous personal cost. First and foremost, it’s cost me my reputation; because of this blog, I will always be “controversial”. Go Make Me a Sandwich started as a personal project, something that I started as a hobby because I wanted to write about something that was a growing area of interest for me. By the time it took off, the damage was done; my Google Rank has inextricably tied my name to feminism forever, and that can be dangerous. It’s certainly translated into a level of difficulty in my meatspace life that I never anticipated before starting this blog.

Writing this blog has also taken a tremendous toll on my mental health. The backlash that I’ve faced because of what I do here has been terrifying. When the level of rhetoric being used against you is the same as what was sufficient to launch a hate movement against Zoe Quinn, that is incredibly unnerving. When there are men who seriously argue to their fans that I am a bigoted anti-gay lunatic, that I am literally destroying gaming, that I am an evil cancer on the games industry that no moral person should support… When professional artists sic their fans on me to get me to shut up and stop criticizing a thing that they like and I get 29,000 views in 24 hours from people desperate to tell me what an ignorant judgemental cunt I am… When someone hates me so much that they write 11,000 words in a single week about what a terrible person I am… It’s impossible not to look at women like Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and know that however bad what I’ve gone through feels, it has the potential to get a million times worse. And really, there are only so many times that you can read horrible things about yourself before it starts to take a toll – especially when the things people say are so detestable. The misogynist backlash I’ve gotten isn’t the only thing that caused my anxiety, but it was definitely a primary factor in me developing anxiety. Anxiety which I now get to keep, which will be with me for the rest of my life.

For those of you with no experience of anxiety, it would be impossible for me to convey to you how immense a cost that is. Anxiety is a hole I have spent two years climbing out of. It has damaged friendships, tested my marriage, and at times makes me too physically sick to function or take care of myself for weeks on end. I wrestle daily with wanting to get back to the person that I was before anxiety and knowing that person is gone forever. The genie is out of the bottle, and anxiety is my life now.

So the question becomes: how do I weigh the good that this blog has achieved in the face of everything that it has cost me? And increasingly, I’ve been feeling like the benefits that this blog achieves are not worth the costs, and I know that it shows in my work. When I first started writing Go Make Me a Sandwich, I wrote because it was a subject that I was passionate about – and my earliest work, while it reflects a lot of problematic ideas and lack of education around certain issues – reflects an energy and enthusiasm for the subject I haven’t felt for a long time. Over time, however, that passion was eroded in the face of misogynist hatred, and comedy became a tool that I used less and less, because it just got too hard to find the humor most of the time. When that happened, I still stuck with it, because I believed that my blog was important and because I was helping to make a difference. And when that stopped holding water as a reason to keep moving forward, I tried to hang on to my sense of obligation to my daughter – to make gaming a safe space for her to exist in and play games in – as a motivation to keep going.

But the reality is that I’m only one person. The years of sexist abuse for the simple crime of being a woman who has opinions about games have taken their toll, and for the past several months I have been wrestling with the dilemma: do I go or do I stay? Because much as I believe in what I do, I’m only one person, and my resources are finite.

Wrestling with all of this is why I recently observed on Twitter:

Real talk: the gaming community is misogynist. It grinds down women and spits them out. Especially women who do work as creators or critics. The backlash you get as a woman for daring to take up intellectual space is horrific. Inevitably, some women reach a point where they can’t take anymore and they quit and/or leave the community altogether. But it’s not a “loss” when a woman decides to leave. She is not obligated to sacrifice her health for the perceived greater good.

To which I received this incredibly cogent response:

And friends? That is some cold, hard, brutal, honest motherfucking TRUTH right there. And it is exactly why the idea of trying to keep up the good fight feels hopelessly futile. The known abusers? They’re all still here. They’ve harassed people out of the industry, or out of the community entirely – lots of people. Good people, whose voices I still miss keenly and whose absence is a blow to the state of game design. But the abusers are still here. Still lionized, still engaged with, still celebrated, still excused. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard apologists for my primary harasser begin a sentence in his defense with “he’s an asshole, but…” I certainly wouldn’t need to worry about pinching pennies quite as often as I do now.

There are SO. MANY. PEOPLE. Who know that the harassers and abusers are harassers and abusers and just don’t care. Because, you know, they do good work and it’s not a problem that affects them. You have to separate art from the artist and all that. Anything to justify the fact that they are actively rooting for the status quo, and the status quo is one that harms and traumatizes women and other marginalized people right out of gaming.

Or because they just don’t have a horse in the race. They don’t want to pick “sides” or get wrapped up in “another argument on the internet”, so they say nothing and their silence speaks for them. My internet is full of the silence of men who can’t be bothered to defend the targets of this kind of abuse. There are so many men in our community who know about the treatment I have received and who have never said anything publicly, not even once. In their ringing silence, I hear only indifference to my suffering and am reminded that I will always be seen as less because of my gender, and I will never be able to change that. And because of that, it will always be my responsibility to fight my own oppression.

There are also those who know about the abuse and choose to believe that the abusers aren’t the problem. The real problem is me: my feelings about my experiences of marginalization and harassment and how I express them. There are many in our community who think that it’s a bigger problem that I’m not nice about my feelings toward my abusers than it is that I’m being abused. So instead of holding the abusers accountable for their abuse, which is known and well-documented, they instead decide to publicly castigate me for committing the womanly sin of having feelings about a thing incorrectly.

All of that shit right there is why writing this blog feels like pissing into the wind. Because for the abusers, there are no negative consequences. They’re able to leverage the controversy generated by my existence into increased sales and awards, while for me the consequences are always negative. There is only ever a progressive, steady toll on my health, sanity, and relationships. I might succeed in changing things behind the scenes at a few gaming companies, or at affecting the lineup of speakers at a single convention, or seeing harassment policies implemented at a handful of conventions and events. But none of that does anything to change the daily lived reality of what it means to be a woman in games.

People have told me more times than I can count that I’m “brave” for writing this blog. I’m “brave” for being open about my feelings and experiences, and I’m “brave” for saying what I think without apologizing or minimizing in any way. And to them, I always say the same thing: I’m not brave! I’m stupid. Doing what I do is like beating my head against a brick wall on a daily basis. Every once in a while, I might knock a tiny chip off the wall, and people may applaud and say, “look! Progress!”. But ultimately, nothing I do is every going to seriously harm the wall, but it will seriously harm me if I keep at it long enough.

Worse than the abusers, the indifferent, and the apologists, however, is getting blindsided by people I trusted. People who I thought had my back, who told me that they wanted me to succeed and then threw me under the bus because it was politically expedient. I’m controversial, after all. And a self-admitted crazy person. And I’m not nice.

At least with the abusers, the indifferent, and the apologists, I know what to expect. After a while, it gets easy to prepare yourself emotionally to read what someone is going to write about you when you know what camp they fall into. “Oh okay, that’s just the abuser party line with a few new tweaks. No big.” Or, “oh look, silence from that whole corner of my internet again, despite everything going down right now. I see where their priorities are, but whatever.” Or, “oh sure, whatever you need to tell yourself to be okay with the fact that you’d rather support a known abuser than possibly maybe have to be uncomfortable or actually do something.”

But when you think you know where someone stands, you think that they wish you well and they unexpectedly side with your abusers… that pain is indescribable. And, unfortunately, not unique. It’s happened many times in the past, nor do I have any reason to believe that it wouldn’t also happen many times in the future.

All of which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: I can’t keep doing this. It is bad for me. I have to stop.

Before Origins, I ended up crying in a bathroom as I chatted with friends online about the vitriolic response to a thing that I’d written. It made me doubt myself so much that I actually wondered if it would be worthwhile going to Origins. Would I even be welcome there? (Spoiler alert: I was.) Fast forward two months to a different crisis before a different convention, which saw me crying for more than a week in the runup to that convention. Truth is, I’ve done a lot of crying about my blog in the past year. But I didn’t let myself think about that, because I had to keep moving forward. I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had to keep my head above water and just. Keep. Fighting.

Or at least that’s how I was approaching things until several weeks ago, when the final straw happened. As is the way with such things, it was so small. Such a quiet thing those most community insiders, even, probably missed. Really, it doesn’t even matter what the event was. What matters is that it represented a tipping point – the moment in which I finally had to confront the fact that I haven’t felt passionate about what I do here for a long, long time. And for most of this year, I’ve felt only resentment. That this stupid blog has cost me so much, and I feel trapped by it. A victim of my own success – forever tarnished by my connection to it, and yet dependent on the income it provides, that I require because of the damage it’s done to my reputation. (See what a vicious cycle that is?) The final straw made me realize that I don’t want to do this anymore, and indeed, that I was rapidly approaching a point where I couldn’t do it anymore.

Of course, this is made harder by the fact that I hate losing. And there will be people who will celebrate, people who call this a victory, which only intensifies my feelings of defeat. My feelings of weakness. I feel like I’m giving up, and it kills me because I’m competitive! I’m contrary! Telling me not to do a thing is enough to make me want to do the thing. I don’t give up on things and I hate losing. But in this situation, I have to accept that there is no winning play. No win condition. I’m one person at war with an entire culture, and there just aren’t enough people who give a damn, and I’m not willing to continue sacrificing my health and well-being on the altar of moral obligation. If this fight is so important, then let someone else fight it for a while.

I hate feeling like I’m letting my patrons down. My patrons are wonderful, amazing, supportive, generous people, without whose support I never would have been able to accomplish half of what I’ve done here.

I hate feeling that I’m playing into a generational story of defeat. My mother was run out of STEM because of sexism, ruining a career as a brilliant research chemist. She has her name on 12 patents! And the fact that I couldn’t persevere makes me feel hopeless. How can I tell my daughter that she can achieve anything of meaning when I have only stories of defeat to offer her? How can I tell her that she can beat the odds when her mother and her grandmother are both strong women who have been ground down into silence?

MY WHOLE GODDAMN LIFE I’ve been told that I was “too much”. Too loud. Too opinionated. Too brash. Too arrogant. Too abrasive. Too bossy. My whole life, people have been trying to shove me into a box that I just don’t fit in, no matter how hard I try – the box of proper womanhood. This blog was my place where I could be ME. Unapologetically. Loudly. Defiantly! And walking away from that feels like walking away from part of myself.

It feels like climbing into the box voluntarily.

It feels like capitulation. Like surrender.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be stronger.

A short Q&A with Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, co-creator of Bluebeard’s Bride

Bluebeard’s Bride is a game that I have been following from a distance with a good deal of excitement. Co-designed by three awesome women, Bluebeard’s Bride is an amazing tabletop game of feminine horror, and is currently funding on KickStarter. I’m excited about the game and wanted to help boost visibility, so I was happy when Whitney let me ask her a few questions:

First of all, can you give an elevator pitch of Bluebeard’s Bride for those who haven’t been following the game in development?

The game is based on the originally grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, which was meant to be an object lesson to women to obey their husbands. We’ve turned it on it’s head and made the game an exploration of feminine horror. We’ve taken back the story as our own. Gothic feminine horror is great genre and we think it’s about time tabletop got a piece of it.

In the game you explore themes of agency (or lack thereof), delicious, ephemeral horror, and scathing sacrifice while playing an aspect of the Bride with your fellow players. These aspects are like pieces of her mind, for instance; the Witch the Virgin, the Mother, the Animus. Maybe they all work together, but maybe they don’t. It’s up the players. Together as the Bride you are trying to figure out who Bluebeard really is, and if he loves you or is simply a danger to you. SPOILER: Yeah, he’s a super bad guy.

I find it really interesting that you can choose to believe in Bluebeard or not, but if you don’t the text presents that as a moral failing on your part – it reads to me as a reflection of the social pressures that women feel to stay with abusive men. Was that your intention?
It was definitely intentional. What society wants from you and the pressure it puts on you does not always align with what is actually good for you. We wanted to evoke that trapped feeling of having no good ways out.
This game is a game of feminine psychological horror that forces the players to play cooperatively, which is really interesting and unique in tabletop gaming. In light of that, can you talk about the genesis of the game and the design decisions that were made to reinforce those themes?
I’m one of three co-designers on Bluebeard’s Bride. The other two being Marissa Kelly and Sarah Richardson. This game originated out of a game jam for women two years ago. We wanted to tell the story of Bluebeard from the Bride’s point of view, from our point of view as women who live in a a sometimes untenable world. We wanted to encapsulate our own lived experiences authentically. That meant challenging the notion of agency that players often bring to the table. This is not a game that you can “win” by beating up the bad guys. Hurting them hurts you too, and it’s not a sustainable action. We baked our worldview and our experiences into the mechanics themselves. There aren’t any “just because” moves in Blueabeard’s Bride. We also made the game very transparent. You know how it’s going to end, and it’s not going to end well. We were purposeful in making this decision, and many others.
I’m very interested in games that de-center violence as a resolution mechanic, so I was very excited by how Bluebeard’s Bride handles the issue of violence. What are your thoughts on re-framing agency in ways that gamers aren’t used to, ways that – as you say – don’t make “beating up the bad guys” an automatic solution to any problem?
There’s lots of ways to play games. This is just one, but I think it’s an important one. When you can’t solve your problems through violence, what is your world like? That simple question opens up a whole bunch of experiences that you can have in a game that you wouldn’t get in the traditional “I stab it with my sword” ethos. For me, games are about explorations of experience, and it’s my goal to make all kinds of experiences more accessible, especial those that align with the lived experiences of minority groups. I’ve said a lot about this elsewhere. I’d suggest reading my article over at Tor, “Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter.”
Bluebeard’s Bride is a game about critically examining female roles, and there is a lot of language in the text designed to put a presumed female reader in her place. What was the thinking behind that?
We’re making a point and setting the mood. We’re attenuating the players to how the game is going to treat them. We’re getting them in the right space. This is important There were so many times when we were drafting this that we would stop, and we would collectively feel squicked out, or we would go “ewwww,” and then we would grin maniacally and keep plugging away. We are inviting people into a space, and helping them be brave enough to occupy it.
What is it like being a game designer who is a woman of color, and how does that affect your approach to design? How has it affected your work on Bluebeard’s Bride specifically?
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve written for a lot of other people’s games. This game was the first game that was mine. I wasn’t writing to any one else’s vision or bottom line, but my own and my co-creator’s. Our work is informed by who we are and how we see the world, and my approach was to be as authentic as possible. Honestly, I think it’s worked out. The small circle of indie gamers that I surround myself with have all been amazingly supportive, enthusiastic about the game, and willing to be our playtesters. In fact, we’ve immediately sold out of playtesting spots at all the cons we’ve brought this to.  I couldn’t ask for more than that. I’ve kept my Bluebeard work unplugged from whatever else was going on in the larger gaming scene. For me, Bluebeard is led by it’s own voice and spirit, and I’ve let that guide me above industry trends.
Have you found that groups with different gender compositions approach the game differently? For instance, would a group with all or mostly women tend to play differently than a group of all or mostly men?
I think some folks are intimidated by this game. They get nervous about “doing it right.” There are definitely ways where you could play this game in bad faith on purpose, and it would make me sad if I heard about people doing that. But if you trust us, the designers, to lead your experience you’re going to have a good time. As I said, it’s all there baked into the rules and moves. Some of the most excellent experiences I’ve had with this game has been when men were running it and playing it. That being said, I do see some typical reactions. Keep in mind that I’m painting in very broad strokes here. Women often feel jazzed. They feel validated, some sense of catharsis, or like, SEE, do you see this? This is real. They have a thing to point to that maybe they didn’t before, to give shape and context to things that were undefined for them. Women will also feel more comfortable with more extreme content. Men will sometimes feel a little more overwhelmed. They’re not used to feeling so hemmed in and aggressed upon without being able to take effective action to stop it. They’ve also been some of the most moved. The bottom line though is that the game is very, very fun if you like horror, no matter where you’re approaching it from with your own lived experiences.
Thanks to Whitney for her time, and if you want to learn more, you can check out the Kickstarter here.