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.

Wednesday Freebie: An interview with the creators of Lovecraftesque

Today’s post is an interview with Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, the creators of a game called Lovecraftesque that is currently KickStarting with (by the time you will probably read this) slightly less than seven days to go.
Lovecraftesque is, as the title might imply, a story game about telling stories in the Lovecraft style without adhering to the specific Cthulu mythos. What got me excited about the project is the fact that the creators were both committed to addressing the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s work head-on in their game, with some very interesting stretch-goals that tackle the issues of race and mental health in Lovecraft’s stories in depth.
They’re currently at a bit more than 200% funding with some very exciting stretch goals in the works. So if what you read here interests, you, I’d definitely advise checking out the campaign, since it’s all gravy from here on out!
1. One of the things that jumped out at me right away is that you explicitly call out H.P. Lovecraft’s issues with race, and are getting Mo Holkar (who has done some really excellent writing about race in roleplaying games) to write about ways to tell stories that have the Lovecraft feel without the problematic racism. This is something that, honestly, I haven’t seen from many Cthulu mythos-inspired games. How much did these concerns affect the design of the game and planning for the KickStarter?
[B] We couldn’t have done a Lovecraftian game without addressing his racism and making a concerted effort to keep it out of our game.  We were really concerned (and we still are) to make sure our game isn’t extending his racism either explicitly or subtlely. But we are also really lucky – there is a huge community of people including Mo Holkar, Chris Chinn, yourself and many others who have been talking and writing about representations of race in RPGs for a long time.  There is a lot of help and resources in the RPG community in navigating this problem and I hope we’ve done the best job we can.

Part of the problem is that, while Lovecraft was bigoted in really obvious ways, he also weaved racist ideas into his stories in much more insidious ways – like, some of his stories look like they’re just about monsters from beneath the waves or ape-gods living in hidden jungles, but they’re actually not-particularly-subtle metaphors for his hatred. We read around the subject to understand it as much as possible.

[J] Design-wise, the game doesn’t copy Lovecraft, but instead attempts to help you to create a Lovecraft-like story, with your own terrors. Unless you use one of the pre-written scenarios available in the final version of the game, the players will be creating their own settings for Lovecraftesque at the table. So we focused on giving players the tools they need to deal with the racism in Lovecraft’s work.

We start with techniques for:

– Putting in place safety measures that allow players to effectively veto racist themes. There’s a step in the game setup where players can ban elements from the game, with explicit prompts in the text and on the play aids to consider banning in-character racism (and simplistic “going mad”-style depictions of mental illness), but also recommending the use of the X-Card technique by John Stavropoulos to catch the stuff that you couldn’t have anticipated at setup.

– Including a section discussing Lovecraft’s racism, how it might come up in the game, and how you can avoid it and diversify your game. We take the opportunity there to encourage groups to discuss these issues, because that’s our bottom line: if anyone in your group will be made uncomfortable by something, it’s best to avoid it, and you only find that out by talking about it. And of course, that’s now going to be supplemented by Mo’s essay which will go into this in more detail.

[B]  This is supported by art and flavour text that attempts to represent a diverse range of people, and which tries to avoid example text from Lovecraft which contains racist themes.

We mentioned all these themes in the Kickstarter, and of course, we wanted the sample art for the Kickstarter to exemplify our approach.

2. As someone who struggles with both anxiety and depression, I also really appreciated the fact that you plan on addressing how to respectfully portray mental illness. Was that something that was difficult to write about, and did it pose any challenges during playtesting?
[J] I guess just about everybody has either struggled with mental illness themselves or knows people who have. Lovecraftian stories are replete with simplistic, offensive depictions of mental illness, which much of the time boils down to portraying characters that have simply “gone mad”, an idea which doesn’t bear any relation to actual human psychology. But of course, the idea that the horrors of the mythos have a baleful effect on the human mind is a pretty core theme in Lovecraftian tales – you can’t completely abandon that and stay true to those stories.

We tried to analyse the ways that mental illness (or, more often, something that looks like mental illness but actually isn’t) might come up in a cosmic horror story. We found there’s actually a lot of ways to represent these themes without being offensive or perpetuating negative stereotypes. Writing about it was a huge challenge because there is far less discussion on mental health representation in RPGs than representations of race.  Shoshana Kessock’s original article is still the most comprehensive discussion piece on the themes – though there’s been a surge in discussion recently which we’ll be paying close attention to.

We both sometimes struggled to describe some of Lovecraft’s themes, such as the worldview-shattering effects of the mythos, or the presence of characters who have been deeply traumatised by an encounter with the horror. It was easy to unintentionally slip into casual ableist language in our game text and we have tried to correct that.

[B] You asked about playtesting. I don’t remember this being a particular problem in playtesting save that it was a new direction to ask people to directly think about using the word “mad” as a descriptor in a Lovecraft game.

There aren’t any sanity mechanics in the game which would push players in the direction of depicting mental illness. There were moments in playtesting when characters justifiably behaved with an element of temporary hysteria. I hope those didn’t come off as offensive and I certainly believe and hope they didn’t cross any lines. But my conclusion from all this is that, lacking an explicit mechanical push, most players will tend to default to playing their character as a person and not suddenly lurch into bizarre stereotypical behaviour.

 On the other hand we provide other routes for people to express their character’s mental discomfort. Because there’s just one central character – the Witness – we ask the players to provide their inner monologue; speaking out loud the Witness’s fears and rationalisations. Every time they do that, they’re effectively saying “fuck, that was scary/weird/what is happening here????”. So, instead of having their character giggle hysterically, you can just have them think appropriately terrified thoughts and/or vainly attempt to rationalise it all away. Again, this encouraging a style of play that portrays the character first, symptoms second.
3. I LOVE the preview pieces of art posted on the KickStarter. Do you have any strategies in place for your art direction to ensure that the art as a whole is diverse and inclusive?
[B] Thank you – we are so excited about the art for Lovecraftesque.

We knew going into this project we wanted to have a really diverse approach in the artwork.  Diversity in the text doesn’t mean much if it isn’t reflected in the art. A lesson we’ve learned from you and others!

When we looked for an artist we asked the RPG design community on G+ for recommendations, and especially encouraged people who were not white, cis, het, men to contact us.  Not that we didn’t want submissions from those men, but we figured we’d get plenty of responses from those guys anyway (and we did which was cool!) but we wanted to make sure we got plenty of other people being recommended as well.  We specifically put a note in saying we wanted to encourage submissions from people who might have imposter syndrome or otherwise assume they weren’t professional enough – because lack of confidence is often a problem for people and we wanted the widest possible pool of artists to choose from.

[J] We were really lucky to have Robin Scott as our artist. Robin was on exactly the same page as us when it came to making our art diverse – we were incredibly impressed with the diversity of models in her Urban Tarot work.

Right from the start, we said to her (and come to think of it, we said this to all the artists we shortlisted) that we wanted to portray diverse characters, from all genders, ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and levels of ability and disability, with a ceiling on the number of white dudes portrayed in the art. We also asked to avoid portraying all the white men as heroic action types with women and people of colour as passive victims or other stereotypes. Robin’s response was that she would have done that anyway, so it was great to know we were working together on this.

We didn’t stop there, of course. We created a list of concepts for images, and once we had whittled them down to the ones we wanted putting in the book, we went through character-by-character to identify what they ought to look like and make sure we were meeting those diversity objectives. So, while the art isn’t yet done (Robin has just started work on the art the Kickstarter is funding), we already know where we’re headed.

[B] I don’t think we can conclude this question without saying that we took a lot of inspiration and direction from your articles about game art. We have made our own (modest) contributions to promoting debate on this issue over the years, and we are committed to making sure that we practice what we preach to the best of our ability.

Terra Mystica: a terrain-based Eurogame with puzzlingly bad art


My husband and I are board game aficionados, to the point where we actually try not to buy board games; we have a games closet that has already overflowed into basement storage, not to mention the fact that with a toddler in the house we just don’t have the time for board games (or really any kind of games) that we did pre-child. However, the exception to this rule for the last few years has been my yearly trip to GenCon, when Kit sends me with a shopping list of things to acquire – which is how I wound up purchasing Terra Mystica.

It’s not something that I would have purchased on my own; Terra Mystica is a eurogame[1] – which I tend to find hit or miss. (Also, I was annoyed at my husband for making me buy something full of hundreds of wooden tokens that I had to carry around all day. Terra Mystica is HEAVY!) More importantly, though, the art is pretty bullshit. Each of the game’s 12 factions is pictured on the box, and only 3 of 12 are gendered as female. And of course, the female-gendered art is some grade-A bullshit:



Great. So the two choices for the Green faction, which is tied to Forests and is thus the most “nature-ish” are both flavors of breastacular. And of course we have Mermaids, because Mermaids.

This is something that I actually found sufficiently irritating in our initial game (which has a suggested setup for faction selection when you’re playing with people who have never played the game before) that I refused to play female-gendered anything and played the Halflings instead as I didn’t want to deal with having to look at this bullshit cheesecake right in the middle of my damn play mat while I was trying to make decisions about how best to allocate my resources.

Now to be fair, the Witches do almost manage not to be bullshit. The fur bustier is pretty ridiculous, but she’s got a cloak and hasn’t been twisted into some ridiculous pose meant to show off her feminine “attributes”. It really wouldn’t have taken much for the witches to be actually not-terrible, unlike the Auren. She has the stiffest, most rigid breasts that are completely unaffected by gravity, and the drape of her garment only obscures enough to make things even more confusing. Like, where is her left leg? Does she have a left leg? What about her spine? What is it doing? And why is her torso such a perfect cylinder? That’s really not how ribcages work.

Even the Auren can’t compete with the Mermaid, though, who is so very broken that I decided it was time to do a redraw[2], since it’s been a while since I’ve done one of those. Looking at her, it seemed pretty clear to me that the artist had one priority in mind – show her breasts front and center and don’t let anything like “anatomy” or “perspective” get in the way of that.

I realize that the perspective of the pose does make it a bit difficult to tease out what’s going on here, so first let’s start with a draw-over:


Looking at this, I imagine the artist’s inner monologue while drawing the Mermaid went something like this: “Face. Okay, hot, because no ugly chicks. Also, she’s a mermaid so we gotta see her tits. Arms? Eh, I dunno, let’s just half ass some shoulders and slap some arms on there. I can hide the one arm behind her hair and nobody will pay attention, because boobs, right? And then, I dunno. A tail. Who cares about that, you can’t have sex with that part, so whatever.”


So there are a lot of things that are just flat-out wrong, and all in the name of putting TEH BREASTS front-and-center. First, how about her face, which looks to be sliding down and to the left? Because if she is looking UP and to the RIGHT, her face should not be DOWN and too the LEFT. I know this may seem like a minor quibble, but given the number of factors that seem to point to the artist literally not caring about anything other than her tits…

Her arms are an even bigger problem, and seem to be tacked on mostly because that’s a thing that people are supposed to have, right? At first look, it looked to me as though her right arm was bending backwards, but now I honestly can’t tell which way it’s supposed to bend. I do know that with her upper arm at that angle, that degree of foreshortening on the lower arm wouldn’t be possible, because human elbows just don’t bend in such a way that her arm could possibly be correct. Her left arm is even worse – the artist just hid it behind her hair, waved his hands and said “foreshortening”. Which. No. Given that the hand on that arm appears to be the same size as the hand on her right arm, which is supposed to be much closer to the viewer, there’s no way that foreshortening would account for what is going on with that arm.

The biggest problem of all, however, is her damn spine. In order for the viewer to have that full a view of her breasts and for her tail to be at that angle, it would require actually snapping her spine in half at a ninety degree angle, not to mention that it would also require not actually giving her a sufficient ribcage in which to store vital internal organs.

Now part of any redraw involves actually correcting the pose once the flaws have been pointed out. However, back bends are difficult – sufficiently difficult that I’m turning to pictures of yoga from Wikimedia Commons to help me cheat:


This level of back bend is just about the limit of human bending ability, short of actual contortionism[3]. I happen to think that it’s pretty damn unlikely that a swimming Mermaid is going to voluntarily twist herself into this sort of position while swimming, but it is important when doing these exercises (at least it is to me) to honor the spirit of the pose and replicate it as close as possible.

Now this picture is a side view, rather than a 3/4 front view, but it was still useful as a reference of what should go where, once I flipped it around to the appropriate angle:


There are several things worth noting here. First, regarding her breasts – when breasts hang – they become elongated and DO NOT retain a spherical shape. Admittedly, water would diminish this effect, but not eliminate it completely.

Second, when her spine is arched properly and NOT snapped in half, you should be able to see her rib cage clearly underneath her breasts. The breasts are flesh sacks hanging off the pectorals, which are attached to the front of the rib cage. They would not completely obscure the thing to which they are attached.

As for her arms, I can’t guarantee that they are totally correct – I would have needed to get assistance in having someone take my picture while I was twisting my arms around in front of a mirror, and as my neck and shoulders haven’t been too happy with me of late I figured I wouldn’t push it. However, while I’m not sure about her left arm (foreshortening is haaaard), her right arm should be pretty close to correct.

Lastly, her tail is where I’m on the weakest footing, given that I know human anatomy but am not not conversant on fish anatomy. Still, it seems that most artists draw the lower half of mermaids as though they were two legs fused with fish skin, so that’s the approach that I have taken – which means that her tail would not be able to fold in on itself to such an extreme degree.

Interestingly, when you look at my redrawn version, it doesn’t look all that much different – sure lots of things have been tweaked but the general structure has been retained, right? Well… Look what happens when I plunk the original pose (outlined in red) over top of the newly redrawn pose:


In deciding how to line her up, I made her head the same size as the redraw for the purposes of aligning the two versions. I nearly decided to use her breasts as the point of alignment, but that would have inflated her head to somewhat freaky proportions, so I left it as is. Which really emphasizes how incredibly squished this poor woman was. Anything that didn’t contribute to TEH SEXAY was either an extreme afterthought or completely removed.

Which, you know, call me crazy but if you’re going to sexually objectify women in your game art, can they at least look like real people? Because random assortments of ill-fitting body parts assembled in a haphazard fashion aren’t just unsexy, they’re creepy and unsettling. Which is distracting, when I am trying to figure out how to allocate my SEVENTY BILLION DIFFERENT RESOURCES in order to take my turn.

[1] Hundreds and hundreds of tokens! So many moving parts! Badly translated rulebooks that are confusing to parse! Super-complex strategy!
[2] And of course, having decided this I could NOT find my tablet’s stylus, so this was done using my old monoprice tablet. I apologize for the shakiness of the lines.
[3] As a matter of fact, I do know an actual contortionist who can sit on her own head. It’s weird and I refuse to call that a human ability, regardless of the fact that she is human and can do it. That level of contortionism requires some serious monkeying around with all sorts of stuff that usually does not get monkeyed with.

Reflections on Autonomy and embodied experiences of patriarchy [LONG]

This post is fragmented, and maybe bit disjointed, because my thoughts are similarly fragmented and disjointed; my apologies if it’s a bit hard to follow. I’ll also note that the people named in this post are all friends who were very influential over the initial game and my thoughts in the aftermath. So many thanks to Mikael, Aaron, Drew, and Amelia for agreeing to let me write about them.

Several months ago, I came up with a game concept that started out as an elaborate misandry joke. I’m honestly not sure what inspired it, beyond the fact that something happened to remind me of the debacle that was the House panel on contraception and religious liberty that actually featured an all-male lineup of witnesses, after the one female witness – Sandra Fluke – wasn’t allowed to testify. And suddenly it occurred to me that taking that entire scenario and simply swapping the genders would make for a gloriously misandrist LARP. I could teach men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then we could sit around and torture a bunch of men for an hour of so of hilariously misandrist entertainment.

It was an idea that I wound up sitting on for several months, mostly because I thought it was a joke idea for a joke game and the games I’ve been working on lately have all been quite a bit more serious. That is, until there was a flap about game design and gender in a gaming community that I am a part of that made me think, “hey wait – maybe this isn’t a joke game I’m thinking about. Maybe this is a thing that needs to exist”. So I started tentatively talking about it to a few people in my gaming circles, and was surprised when it was men who were the most vehement about this needing to be a thing. It was over dinner at GenCon, after talking about my idea for the game and how I didn’t know if I should write it, that Mikael told me very earnestly that I should write the game because men needed to be uncomfortable.

Ultimately, we made a deal that led to me writing the first draft of the game. He agreed to run a different game I’d played at GenCon (and really wanted to play back in Canada) if I would finish Autonomy and run it at an upcoming mini-con we were both attending at the end of August. And it’s a good thing that he got me to make that deal, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing it.

Anyone who has read my blog for any amount of time knows that I love misandry jokes – and with good reason. Men are shitty to me online (no, of course not all men, but enough), and to other women that I care deeply about. There’s only so many times you can be called a fat, ugly, jealous, man-hating feminazi before you start needing to find ways to distance yourself from the abuse that people are hurling at you. And misandry jokes are a way to do that, at least for me. KILL ALL MEN, amirite?

The problem is that at the heart of the joke, there’s a kernel of truth. The people who have hurt me the worst, that I am most afraid of, that I have to be most careful around are all men. There’s a reason why I used to describe myself as a misanthrope and now mostly describe myself as a misandrist. Because I realized that I don’t actually hate humanity, I just hate patriarchy.

I knew that in order for Autonomy to be successful, I would need to force players to have an embodied experience of gender opposite to their own daily lived experience[1]. And for that I knew I was going to need help, because while I was sure that I could teach men to assume typically feminine posture and body language, I knew that I needed help in knowing how to do the reverse.

Which is how I wound up having coffee with Aaron, as the two of us chatted about typically masculine body language and how to describe it. He wound up surfing PUA blogs (so I didn’t have to) to mine them for material, and the two of us were laughing and groaning and generally having a good time as we talked about “OH MY GOD that is a thing that men do isn’t this hilarious”.

At some point, Aaron observed that a lot of typically masculine body language is simply being willing to take up space – to say this space is mine, and that space in front of you is also mine. And then he abruptly leaned forward, keeping his spine very straight and looking straight at me as he planted his elbows so that he was occupying two thirds of the small table we were sitting at. And it was incredibly threatening.

As soon as I said so, he backed off immediately, but that feeling of threat was itself a revelation. Aaron is someone who describes himself as “approximately mannish”. Despite being tall he tends to slouch, and generally does a lot to not seem terribly masculine. As such, he is one of the least threatening men that I know. So the idea that he could intentionally perform masculinity at me and make me feel threatened was a bit unnerving.

After talking for a minute, Aaron said that he’d like to try it again, but a slightly different way. When I said it was all right, he repeated the gesture, but that time he made it slow, deliberate. Lean, plant one elbow, plant the other – keep eye contact the whole time. And despite knowing that it was going to happen, knowing that he was going to try to make me uncomfortable, it still worked. The slow, deliberate display of masculine body language was actually more menacing than the first time.

Running the game at the mini-con was quite an experience.

Despite being completely terrified (I had never written or facilitated a LARP before), I made a point of taking charge and not showing my discomfort. I took up space. I performed physical dominance and verbally dominated men, using the social power that the LARP’s scenario gave me to shut them down and humiliate them for the simple “crime” of playing real people with real emotions. The essence of the idea for Autonomy was creating a situation and social dynamic that would make men feel the way that I have felt, and I ran with that. I pushed the men to their limits, and beyond in a few cases – something I regret intensely.

Because contrary to my initial conceptions of “oh hey, wouldn’t it be fun to turn this around and be the one with all the power for a little while”, it wasn’t fun. While having coffee with Aaron, the two of us had giggled gleefully about his suggestions for sadistic things that could be done to the male players. (Make them apologize for introducing their characters! Have them introduce their characters while the female players listen with silent expressions of disgust!) But actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling. And teaching other people to do the same is even worse. And being the person who had conceived of what seemed like this horrible idea? That felt the worst of all.

Autonomy consists of three distinct phases. There is a workshop on gendered body language, a workshop on gendered speech, and then there is the actual roleplaying portion where the hearing itself is played out. And the game did exactly what I thought it would do, which was equal parts surprising and not. (Imposter Syndrome Me was worried about running an alpha draft of a game, while Game Design Me was fairly certain it would do what it said on the tin.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it would be to facilitate as the person who designed it.

I spotted cracks in facades almost right away. Amelia played the lone Democrat. She had the unenviable position of trying to play a clueless privileged person who still got crapped on by the less progressive people in power, and I knew that she wasn’t doing okay. I tried to keep an eye on her, but it was hard; it was raining and we all had our hoods up and she’s pretty good at keeping up a stone-face when she wants to. Then there was Aaron, who almost inverted himself over the course of play, taking the instruction to not occupy space as literally as possible. Near the end of the LARP, he actually called brake, which I’ve never seen him do. And Drew…

I’d actually talked over the design with Drew, and once play began he started out by giving me little smirks to acknowledge well-delivered twists of the knife. But as things kept going, the looks he gave me got less amused and more angry, and I could watch the wall he had set up to distance himself from the experience crumbling until I had to stop looking at him all together because it was just too hard to keep punishing him for his gender when I could see how it was making him feel.

When play ended, Amelia went and hugged Aaron and sobbed. Once she’d calmed down some, Aaron bowed out of the debrief – when he came back he said that he’d almost puked. Drew couldn’t even speak when it was his turn – he asked to be last and we skipped over him until he was able to talk about it. And yet all three of them, indeed everyone there, thanked me for running the game and told me that it was important, and I hated hearing them say it.

“I should have known,” he said. He was crying, and before that day I’d never seem him so much as tear up outside of a game. “It was only 35 minutes and I never want to feel that way again, and I have that option and you don’t.”

We were crammed in the backseat of a too-small-for-that-many-people car on our way home from the mini-con where we’d played Autonomy. As with any trip home from a convention, we were tired, slap happy, and in that sleep-deprived state where everything feels simultaneously too real and not real at all. The driver hadn’t played Autonomy, but was curious to hear about it since the rest of us had. And though this friend had been guarded in his responses during the debrief, now he was crying.

The same friend for whom arm punching and trolling were signs of affection, with whom I had joked about emotions being something that you bury behind humor and try not to acknowledge. And here he was crying about his sorrow about what his female friends experienced, and his shame that he hadn’t known, hadn’t understood, despite seeing it every day.

Part of the gendered speech workshop involves getting men to state an objective fact as personal opinion while women state a personal opinion as objective fact. In play, this devolved a bit into men saying things that were true and women telling them they were wrong – which was simultaneously hilarious and sad.

The day after the game, Drew turned to me and jokingly said “I think, I might, you know, be sort of hungry?”. He was smirking at his use of hedging statements, another part of the gendered speech workshop.

“No.” I said firmly. “You’re wrong. That’s not how hunger works”. And then I lost my shit as the two of us laughed uproariously.

Two weeks later, I found myself having dinner with some friends – a man and a woman. The woman asked what I’d been up to, so I started updating her on what was going on in my life and some of the convoluted bullshit I’m dealing with right now. Or at least that’s what I was trying to do, except the man kept interrupting me to explain “the context”. Of my life. That he hadn’t lived. And it kept getting more and more flagrant until I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom, where I texted Drew about how angry I was about how I can’t even be trusted as an expert about my own fucking life. And suddenly my joke about “that’s not how hunger works” was a lot less funny.

[1] It’s worth noting that elements of the design of Autonomy are problematic with regard to issues of trans and nonbinary gender identity, in that there are only two choices of character gender: male and female. Autonomy also encourages the use of gender essentialist language and the equating of biology with gender. These are all intentional design choices; it is definitely a design goal that the flipping of this problematic language should highlight issues of cissexism as much as “vanilla” sexism, and that is something I am definitely focusing on playtesting.

Rape is not edgy, creative, or original [TW][CW]

[Trigger/Content Warning for frank discussions of awful portrayals of rape]

This isn’t the post that I was going to write today.

Originally, I had been planning on writing about my experience facilitating a game (that I wrote) called Autonomy, which centers around forcing men to have an embodied experience of sexism and gender-based injustice. It was a powerful, cathartic, and borderline traumatic (in a good way!) experience that I do very much want to share.

But all of that was before a friend linked to this piece by Emma Boyle on Gadgette, in which she writes about the character Quiet in the new Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and the many and sundry ways that Quiet is very much not an empowered feminist-friendly character:


And now there are so many fucked up things about her design that I want to yell at the internet about! So very, very many fucked up things! Like:

  • Quiet is arguably the least clothed female character in the MGS series (it’s a little hard to tell in this screenshot, but those are ripped nylons that Quiet is wearing, not pants), which is – frankly – sort of impressive, given how very not clothed many female characters in the MGS series are.
  • Quiet doesn’t dress that way because she chooses to; she dresses that way because she has to. Her backstory is that she’s photosynthetic, so wearing clothes would LITERALLY SUFFOCATE HER. You know, BECAUSE SCIENCE.
  • Speaking of BECAUSE SCIENCE, there is another character in the MGS series – The End – who is also photosynthetic, who does actually get to wear clothes. You know, on account of him not being a woman. (Funny, that.)
  • Quiet also DOESN’T TALK. At all. Because really, isn’t it just so hard to objectify a woman when she goes and opens her mouth and reminds you that she’s a human being with thoughts, feelings, and an inner life of her own? Yeah. Better to have her just not talk at all.
  • And let’s not forget the shit cherry on the shit sundae: the series creator, Hideo Kojima, tried to shame people who expressed concern about the problematic design of the character by saying that once the full story was released, critics would “feel ashamed of their words and deeds”. Because it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that of course people who are expressing criticism of a fictional character who embodies many problematic tropes are the bad guys, not the guy who actually created the character in the first place.


All of those things are fucked up, and any of them are things that I could easily get a full-length post out of. However, the thing that I am angriest about is the disturbingly scripted near-rape sequence that Quiet is only able to save herself from because sexualization:

At a later point in the game there’s a distressing scene where Quiet is attacked. Quiet is taken captive and dressed in prisoner clothing, which, in covering her skin, causes her to slowly suffocate. In this scene, a guard grabs Quiet by the throat and forces her head into a tank of water, holding her head under the surface until she stops resisting him. The camera zooms in on her lifeless face, holding there whilst the player can hear the sound of a zip being undone and Quiet’s clothing being removed. It’s with this removal of her clothing that Quiet’s skin is once again exposed and, able to breathe, she overpowers her attackers and escapes a grotesque rape. There’s a video, but we’re not going to link to it because it’s triggering and horrible. — Emma Boyle, Gadgette – A games company just came up with the worst excuse ever for their half-dressed female character

It’s bad enough that the BECAUSE SCIENCE that is used to justify Quiet being so undressed in the first place actually extends to the point that wearing clothes will actually kill her. Because as much as I hate choice feminism (“what I choose is automatically feminist because I identify as a feminist and I choose it”), that would still actually be better than a female character created by men whose only two choices are 1) wear revealing clothing or 2) die. But the near-rape on top of all that is, honestly, repellant. Repugnant. Horrifying.

And sadly, I’m pretty positive that Hideo Kojima thought that he was being “edgy” and “creative”. “Hey look! I set up a character who needs to expose skin to live, so that later when the villains think she is powerless and they want to victimize her they’re actually giving her what she needs to get the power to save herself! What a reversal! Hot damn, I am a genius!”


And here’s why:


“Edgy” is the word that a lot of (male) creators like to use when they describe work that contains rape or attempted rape as a plot point. But here’s the problem with that.

Work that is legitimately edgy is either at the forefront of a trend or the start of an entirely new trend. It is experimental or avant-garde, and by fucking definition definitely not mainstream.

Now I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but rape is kind of an epidemic in our society, and it’s been that way for, I dunno, just about all of fucking human history. Still, one might be able to make a claim that art featuring rape was “edgy” if our media and culture actually recognized the horror of the prevalence of rape in our society and it was taboo to portray rape and sexual violence in art. But rape in media, especially geek media, is depressingly common.

And yet, there are all these creators, these male creators who think that using rape to make their work DARK and GRITTY somehow makes their work “edgy” – because somehow they all lose sight of the fact that GRIMDARK is the new mainstream. You see it from creators like Hideki Kamiya’s portrayal of Bayonetta as a sexually “empowered” and “liberated” woman who still suffers rape as a penalty for mechanical failure. Or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which is often touted as this revolutionary work of “realistic”, “edgy” “dark fantasy” – and yet everything about the books only reflects the power dynamics of patriarchy as it exists in the real world. Even Joss Whedon, whose work I am actually a fan of despite his tendency to fall into the same problematic traps regarding gender and race repeatedly, tried with Dollhouse to write a series that would be challenging and thought-provoking and wound up just being uncomfortably rapey.

In order to be truly, legitimately edgy, Phantom Pain would have to actively subvert and reverse common gender tropes and stereotypes. Instead, everything about the game, writing, and character design only serves to reinforce the status quo of patriarchy – which makes it about as far from edgy as it is possible to get.


The reliance of geek writers on rape isn’t creative. Creativity is experimenting with new thoughts, ideas, and processes to create something original. It’s taking something familiar and using it in a way that it wasn’t intended for, or using it in a way that it’s never been used before. It’s throwing out ideas about how a problem “should” be solved and trying approaches that “shouldn’t” work just to see what happens. Creativity is not reaching for the same tool every time you have a problem that needs solving, even if that tool is not the ideal tool for the problem at hand. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. And the problem is that for a depressingly large number of (usually but not exclusively) male writers, their go-to hammer is rape.

But when the default answer to “I need to show this person is evil, how do I do that” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer is “I need to have this female character had to have overcome adversity in the past, what is it that she has overcome” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer to “I need this female character to suffer a setback, what should happen to cause that setback” is “rape”, that is not creative.

I could write thousands, if not tens of thousands of words about how unbelievably fucking common rape is in geek media. But I’ve already done that, or tried to, and I was only able to just barely scratch the surface. It would be entirely possible to devote this blog to only writing about rape in gaming, and I would still never run out of material because seriously gaming is legit kind of obsessed with rape and it’s depressing.


It’s to the point where my advice to creators is now – does your idea include rape? Great. Scrap it and start over. Because I have literally never seen an instance of rape in any piece of media that I have consumed that I would say was handled well.

Every time I have seen rape in a piece of media, it has been about deprotagonizing women, either by punishing them for being strong or explaining their strength by victimizing in their backstory. It is about reducing women to plot objects that can be violated for the sake of story whenever it is convenient.

And it’s always about the reactions OF THE MEN to the rape, and never about the victim’s experience and journey. What’s important when someone (almost always a woman) is raped in a piece of fiction is how that rape gives strength of conviction and tragic purpose to the male protagonist in achieving their Plot Objective. You never get to experience stories about the experiences of the victim, of trying to navigate a system that blames and re-victimizes women for their own rapes, or of trying to balance recovery with the expectations of how “good” victims should behave – expectations which are often at odds with what will actually help in recovering.

Even when you have a character get raped and then get revenge on their rapist, that is such a simplistic, reductive take on rape that just isn’t helpful. The reality of rape is that in many cases, women have social, practical, or emotional ties to their attackers and violently attacking or killing their rapist would only be further traumatizing. That sort of story line also comes with the implication that women who don’t want to lash out violently at their attacker feel that way because they are weak. And if they were truly strong and “empowered”, they would hurt their attacker just as bad as they themselves were hurt, if not worse.

So despite the fact that I’m really not a fan of blanket “just don’t write about [x] in [y]” type rules, I’m calling it. We’re done. We all had our chance and we proved we couldn’t handle the responsibility. So from now on, JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE.

D&D 5E Core Books: Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses

Well folks, I lied when I said that I was going to focus exclusively on specific pieces of art in today’s post, because there is one very important meta-trend that I forgot. So, since I’ve already sunk more than 3800 words into this series already, let’s just jump straight to business.

Art Trend #3: Smurfette Syndrome

In the first post in this series, I talked about representation of women in group shots and how on the face of it the core books tended to do better  remembering to represent women in those than in the single-character shots – in which women were greatly underrepresented. However, the difference in representation between group shots and single-character illustrations is greatly exaggerated by the way that I counted, because I wasn’t actually looking at gender balance of figures within a group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

And depressingly, there were a significant number of group images that only contained ONE female character:


The first image might be a little unfair, given that there are two prominently placed female hero characters getting into a serious brawl in the foreground. However, if you take a look at the rest of the figures in the bar, ALL of the patrons shown in the background are men and the only other woman is a goddamn barmaid. The far right image, however, is more typical of what I’m talking about. On the face of it, I like the design of the female thief – she’s an interesting-looking WoC who looks like she’s a pretty capable lady. However, when you look at the image as a whole, the other characters all have discernable character traits – like “bruiser” or “mastermind”, whereas the female thief’s only discernable character trait is “woman”, which just exemplifies the problem with the Smurfette approach to group shot composition. Men can be anything you can imagine while women can be pretty.

The most ridiculous example, however, is the middle image which depicts a battlefield teeming with heroes and monsters, and only contains ONE figure that is discenably female. Because apparently it is easier to conceive of a titanic battle against ogres and skeletons and other monsters than it is to imagine a world where more than one woman might be found on a battlefield.

And it’s sad, because in some regards D&D has made great strides; when it comes to illustrations that are meant to depict a party of adventurers (ie player avatars), it’s clear that a lot of thought and care is being taken to balance gender and other factors. But that same level of care obviously isn’t being applied to the world itself, and the end result is a world creepily devoid of women. (Seriously. Where are they??)

Specific Things That Are Messed Up #1: Conditions

There are lots of specific illustrations that I could rant about, but instead I’m just going to hit the lowlights, as it were. Going from least to most fucked up, we’ll start with the illustrations done for conditions, found in the PHB:


This is some of the worst “heroes are always men” bullshit that I have seen in a fucking long time. Sure it includes women, but take a look at what roles they occupy. You have a princess, a witch who is obviously not a PC, and a woman who is too scared of a monster to fight. Way to implicitly tell women that they can’t hack it as adventurers, WotC.

…please excuse me while I go punch the world in the face.

Specific Messed Up Thing #2: Vampire and Vampire Spawn

Perhaps my least favorite pair of illustrations in the Monster Manual are the illustrations for Vampire and Vampire Spawn respectively:


To be honest, when I sat down to try to explain just why this made me so angry, all I could muster was the urge to furiously bang my keyboard.

Thankfully, aggressively curating my circles means that I have some wonderfully intelligent friends on G+, and they were more than happy to point out a whole host of reasons why this was pretty fucked up. (Paraphrasing their words here):

  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me out on this one.)

Specific Messed Up Thing #3: Women as nurses and sexy corpses

The set of images that most raised my ire were these images from the DMG. These are the only three images in the core books that deal with the aftermath of battle from a PC perspective (there are several of a party of PCs surveying the damage after they have obviously murdilated a bunch of dudes and/or monsters):




Looking at the image on the far left, you have a woman being cradled in the arms of a man. She’s suffered a gut wound, and there don’t seem to be any clerics or other sources of divine healing nearby, which reads to me as though she’s dying. I’ll admit that I do appreciate the way that he’s comforting her – there’s some real tenderness there which isn’t something that you often see in fantasy artwork of this nature. But given how the woman’s arms are raised and she’s clearly about to deliver some Touching Last Words That Will Imbue The Hero With Tragic Purpose To Achieve The Plot Point And Avenge The Woman He Couldn’t Save, it still leaves a bad fucking taste in my mouth.

But AT LEAST as awful as the subtext in the first image is, the woman isn’t being depicted as a SEXY CORPSE, like in the middle illustration. Yes she’s about to have (presumably) a scroll of resurrection recited over her, so she’ll get to not be dead, but look at how she’s twisted around to emphasize the sexy bits, especially that ridiculous fucking boobplate. (Which isn’t as bad as the boobplate in my previous post, but is still pretty fucking bad.) And of course, the cherry on the shit sundae is how she died by getting STABBED IN THE BOOBS.

Which. Seriously. What? NO.

First, the wound depicted would require her to have been stabbed through the sternum, which is one of the hardest points to penetrate on the human body – and with good reason. Your sternum protects some pretty important shit. Second, in order to penetrate BOTH her armor AND sternum with sufficient force to cause lethal damage, there would have to be a much bigger hole in her armor than that tiny-ass hole. I understand wanting to depict sanitized violence, but come on. It’s obvious that the artist just wanted to draw a dead lady who was dead from getting stabbed in the tits because tits.

So it isn’t so much the last image that I am angry about as the contrast between the last image and the first two. Those are some pretty fucking serious wounds that our male warrior friend is getting seen to; the chest wound especially could have been potentially very serious depending on the amount of blood lost. But don’t worry, ladies! He’ll live to fight another day. That is, after he grits his teeth and gets to be all stoic and stuff, and maybe talk a little about how being a hero is a hard job and somebody has to do it and he’d rather it be him than some kid who’s totally unprepared. And then maybe he’ll stare broodingly into the middle distance for a long while before banging that hot elf nurse chick.

I wanted this to be better

The depressing thing about writing this series of posts is that I wound up having so much material to work with. Hell, I have things in my notes that I may come back to and write about later, because it turns out there’s a surprising amount of messed up material enshrined in Forgotten Realms canon that doesn’t come across from just flipping through the books and looking at pictures. But I’d rather not beat a dead horse, so if it’s something I write about I will have to come back to it later.

And that’s not a great feeling, because frankly D&D 5E is still so much better than an awful lot of games out there! Because for all that I can point at specific pieces of art and rant about why they are messed up, at least doing better at depicting women is a priority for the D&D team and they are working on getting better at it. Which is, sadly, more than can be said for a pretty fucking huge portion of the industry.

So as much as I’ve gone on at length about things that D&D has gotten wrong, I feel it’s important to close by noting that they are moving things in the right direction and I hope that they continue to do so.

D&D 5E Core Books: Numbers Aren’t the Whole Story [LONG][MANY IMAGES]

In my last post, I wrote a detailed breakdown of the representation of women in the 5th Edition D&D core books, along with a basic analysis of what those numbers meant. However, as is the case with any numbers post that I do, it’s also important to note that numbers inevitably don’t capture the nuances of depiction that can be important to consider:

Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.

…I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.

To be honest, in going through the images (and there are a lot of them), I would be hard-pressed to nail down a definitive reason for why the numbers appear so much more equitable than the reality. But I can at least speak to some broad trends:

But first, an aside

As mentioned last time, one of the things that struck me about the imbalanced depiction of women was that it was “best” (ie most balanced) in the PHB and “worst” in the Monster Manual, with the DMG falling squarely in the middle. But once I took some time to reflect on that, it actually wasn’t all that surprising.

Consider that the PHB is aimed at depicting characters that would make appealing avatars in a game. Since WotC is taking greater pains to not alienate women, it makes sense that the art direction would be strongest with regard to cutting down on bullshit depictions of women in the PHB. In a very real sense, the art in the PHB is a reflection of what the players can aspire to be in the context of the D&D universe, so art that only depicts women as sexy objects to be consumed by a presumed male viewer would be counterproductive to the goal of getting more women to play the game.

The DMG, however, is focused just as much as on depicting the world and opposition that the PCs will face as it is on depicting avatar characters. And the Monster Manual is used pretty much only as an aid to the GM in fleshing out antagonists the PCs will face. (There are some circumstances, say if you play a shifter druid, where the Monster Manual can be used as a player supplement, but those circumstances are comparatively rare.) Consequently, the less explicitly player-focused the book is, the worse the art seems to get.

And, obviously, that sucks! Because honestly, yes it’s nice that D&D is doing better at portraying female characters who function as player avatars. But only doing well at player-avatars is it’s own special brand of fucked up, because you’re essentially saying that women who are heroes (PCs) are special snowflakes who have somehow managed to transcend sexism and oppression by just, I don’t know, shaking off patriarchy. Which just isn’t how it fucking works.

Art Trend #1: The men are men and the women are sexy

One thing I will say for the PHB is that as irksome as I find the lack of female representation, there were only five illustrations in the PHB that I found really objectionable, and those were mostly because it was obvious that the artist in question was doing their best to thwart art notes that called for characters that weren’t gratuitously sexualized:


All of these (except the woman in the middle) were counted as suggestively attired, owing to what the artist chose to reveal, though some of these are a bit more obviously egregious than others. For instance, the woman on the far left, and the druid with the tiger? Those are obviously bullshit. Leather bustiers as armor are one of the most common of cheesecake fantasy art sins, and sexy ladies with tigers is it’s own special subspecies of fantasy art bullshit I wish would go away forever. However, looking at the others, it’s still obvious that the artists were determined to squeeze in the maximum sexiness that they felt they could get away with.

Frex, look at the contorted pose that the elven mage is twisted into – I don’t care that she’s not human, that is an unnatural degree of spine bend, for no other reason than to emphasize her… attributes. Her top is also completely strapless and I’m not sure how she’s keeping it up, since double-sided tape isn’t exactly something you can find on an item table in the DMG. Or take the ranger on the far right – the artist was clearly hoping that no one would notice that she’s not actually wearing pants. (“It’s called barkskin, so clearly she’s gotta show some skin, right?”)

Lastly, check out the druid in the middle. This is one of the clearest cases of “draw naked, add clothes with extreme reluctance” that I’ve seen in a while. What the fuck is up with that ass perspective? And that ridiculous ass-leaf is only emphasizing how we can aaalmoooost see some rear-camel-toe, rather than doing anything to actually preserve modesty. But despite being worse than the pantsless ranger on the far right in terms of degree of sexualization, she is still counted as not suggestively attired while the ranger is.

It’s also important to consider that characters counted as fully-covered were also depressingly prone to being sexualized, even when they weren’t counted as being suggestively attired. Take, for instance, these four illustrations from the DMG which all depict women counted as fully-covered.:

The half-orc on the far left is the only one counted as suggestively attired, owing to the ridiculous cleavage window (which wasn’t even well done, why are her breasts so weirdly shaped, what the hell). And yet, out of all of these women, she’s actually the least egregious because at least she’s not overly objectified or distorted, and seems to be having an actual character moment. Whereas the left-middle woman and the far-right woman are both wearing some of the most fucking ridiculous boobplate I have ever seen[1] and are both shown in poses that I can only describe as “boob perspective”.

And while the right-middle woman isn’t wearing boobplate, the artist clearly got so wrapped up in drawing her strange armored stripper boots that he kind of forgot to pay attention to how the middle bits all go together, and then just kind of said “fuck it, I’m going to add a naked fire lady because who cares?”. So once again, despite the fact that the criteria for “fully covered” is clearly defined, sometimes images that technically fail to meet that criteria are better than the ones that do!

And of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that even when there are male and female figures that are both meant to be sexy, the women are clearly more objectified than the men, as is the case with this illustration of an incubus and a succubus in the Monster Manual:


As a matter of fact, in all of the 5E core books, there was only one illustation of a male character that I would be willing to say was as equally sexualized as most of the sexualized women:


If even half of the male characters that were counted as suggestively attired looked like this guy, I don’t think I would have found the unequal sexualization nearly so bothersome. But unfortunately, what so many people fail to grasp (as witnessed by the fact that people commonly think that Conan is “as bad” as Red Sonja) is that simply not wearing a shirt/pants is not the same thing as being sexualized. Which brings us to…

Art Trend #2: Male figures counted as “suggestively attired” are almost never sexy; female figures almost always are

This is something that I have written about extensively on this blog in the past (you can find this point mentioned in pretty much all of my numbers posts); the prevailing trend in fantasy artwork is to use otherwise suggestive attire to make a statement about the “bestial” or “savage” nature of a culture being depicted. Because almost universally, characters shown in attire that would count as suggestive (no shirt, no pants, etc) are clearly not intended to be found sexually appealing.

There is also a tendency for “savage” characters to be depicted in hordes, which given that I am basing my figures on the numbers of distinct individual figures, throws off the numbers quite a bit. Goblins most especially tend to wreck my results, given that there’s always tons of them, and they’re never wearing any goddamn pants:


Now, I feel pretty strongly that none of the goblins in the above illustrations were intended to be viewed as sexualized. But since I realize that some people could still make an argument to the contrary, here are some even more extreme examples of male figures that were counted as suggestively attired that are really really not sexy:


All of these were figures that were counted as male, and all of these are really, really not sexy. Especially the two on the left! And yet just like the goblins, all of these are characters that counted as suggestively attired, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look as if the numbers of suggestively attired characters are close to balanced, when they’re really really not.

Of course, the worst book with regard to this trend was the Monster Manual, where any creature you might face is assumed to be male, unless it is female – and then it is sexy. Here are just a few of the my least favorite examples:



What the fuck is up with the black-armor demon’s broken spine pose? Why are the marilith and the ghost both making duckface? Why did they give A GODDAMN ROCK cleavage? Why would a drider wear midriff-exposing scale male when she’s a fucking spider? Why does the sea hag have so much goddamn sideboob?? I swear to god I couldn’t go more than about 10 or 20 pages without seeing some bullshit that reminded me of how much gaming hates women, which is just depressing.

The contrast only gets more ridiculous on the rare occasions when you have male and female depictions side-by-side (something which is surprisingly rare in the Monster Manual, but only because the Monster Manual doesn’t contain very many women at all). Take, for example, these merfolk:


With the male figure on the right, the artist clearly put a lot of thought into how this human-fish hybrid would work. There is a lot of detail put into the musculature of not just the torso as it joins with the lower half, but also the neck, shoulders, and arms. Whereas with the female figure on the left? About the only real anatomical considerations are giving this poor woman some sexay fish boobs.

However, the award for the absolute worst example of this goes hands down to the Yuan-ti:


Seriously? SERIOUSLY? What the fuck is this shit? What the hell happened that the general art directive was something along the lines of “make D&D suck less at women” and then this happened? Because the two male yuan-ti are side by side in a full page spread, and the Yuan-ti Pureblood is LITERALLY ON THE NEXT PAGE. Which is basically the visual equivalent of “OKAY BUT IF THERE’S ANY CHICKS THERE I WANT TO DOOO THEM!”


But wait! There’s more!

That’s it for larger trends, but believe me, folks, I’m just getting started. I’ve got about another 2,000 words that I want to write about some very specific fucked up things going on in the 5E Core books, but this post is long enough already. So expect more in a day or two!

[1] Seriously, in boobplate that extreme it would only take one reasonably-strong blow to the sternum to kill you. The purpose of armor is to DEFLECT the blow, not to channel force to the most vulnerable parts of your anatomy, for Christ’s sake.

Representation in D&D 5E Core Books: “better than the rest” unfortunately still falls short [CHARTS!!]


Right before leaving for this year’s GenCon, I put up a post about my frustrations with the lack of consistency of art direction between Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons; both product lines are owned and published by Wizards of the Coast, so I’ve always found it confusing that their art directions are so divergent wrt depictions of women. Happily, this actually wound up being a major topic of conversation during my lunch this year with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls, and as a result I found myself wanting to take a more definitive look at the D&D 5E core books to see how they compared to M:TG’s recent art direction in terms of actual numbers. Because while I’ve done some work that I’m very excited about aimed at increasing the diversity of representation in D&D products, there’s no real substitute for looking at actual numbers and getting a clear picture of where something actually stands.

Now, I’ve written about the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook in the past, which can be summed up as ZOMG! SO MANY AWSUM WIMMINZ!! So I was honestly a bit reluctant to go through and examine all of the images in detail, because I was afraid that my overwhelmingly positive feelings would be complicated by the actual reality. And it turns out that I was right to be concerned, unfortunately. (But I’ll come back to that part.)


In writing my initial post about 5th Edition artwork, I only had access to the PHB. However, this time around I decided to examine the PHB, Dungeon Masters’ Guide, and Monster Manual, because those are the three books required to “make the system go” as it were. (Though certainly a large number of players who didn’t plan on GMing would only own the PHB.)

As with all of my other “numbers” posts, I was specifically interested in tracking the following criteria:

  • total breakdown of figures by gender
  • prevalence of fully-covered versus suggestively-attired figures by gender
  • class archetype depicted by gender

(For a more detailed explanation of what I mean by these criteria, you can read my very first such study here – starting with the heading “Determining Methodology”.)

However, because of trends that I noticed flipping through books, I did make some modifications to my criteria and how I counted things. For instance, as there were a large number of illustrations where it was not possible to determine the gender of a given figure, I counted “humanoid figures without discernible gender” separately from male and female figures.

One thing that I also noticed while flipping through the books is that there seemed to be a marked difference in representation between group shots (shots with multiple figures) and shots with only one character; as such I looked at the gender-breakdown of single-character shots as well as group shots that contained male figures and group shots that contained female figures.

Results and Analysis

Looking at such a wide variety of criteria across three books means that I wound up with four pages of hand-written tallies, numbers, and notes. So this section gets a bit chart-happy[1]. Do bear with me.

Base Demographics

As previously mentioned, my fear that women would turn out to not be as well-represented as I had thought they would be was supported by the actual data once I started counting things. (Although interestingly, I will note that one trend that held almost universally across each of the criteria that I examined was that representation was almost always best in the PHB, worst in the Monster Manual, and about halfway in between in the DMG.)


As positively as I had remembered the representation of women in the PHB being, it turns out that female figures accounted for only 30% of figures. The DMG did almost as well, but not quite, with female figures accounting for 26% of all figures, while the Monster Manual was clearly the worst with only 19% female representation.

However, specifically with regard to the PHB… It is true that ungendered figures make up only 7% of all figures, and if these are not included in the overall tally the percentage of female representation does increase. But given that ungendered figures represent a much larger portion of the total number of figures in the DMG and MM, it seemed important to retain this as a separate category.

Now overall, these figures tell a compelling story, but something that occurred to me when I was flipping through the books for a second time[2]. It seemed to me as if the women were being better represented in group shots than they were in single-character illustrations – as if when it came to group and environment scenes it was a no-brainer most of the time for artists to say to themselves “well I gotta make sure I include at least one woman in here”, but when it came to single-character illustrations that the default impulse to depict a man was largely going unquestioned.

And again, the data largely supports that impression:




In both the DMG and PHB, only approximately a third of all multi-character illustrations did not contain women. Which, let me just say is still an atrocious total. If women are 1/2 of the population, it’s pretty terrible when 30% of your environment shots don’t actually reflect that – especially since I wasn’t actually counting the gender balance in each group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

The Monster Manual is a bit harder to draw conclusions about, given that there are only 11 multi-character illustrations in the entire book. However, I’m inclined to say a 2-to-9 ratio is pretty obviously terrible, even given the small sample size. Especially when you consider that the lack of representation is just as bad in the Monster Manual’s single-character illustrations.

The last bit of demographic information I looked at was class archetype:


In fantasy and gaming artwork, it’s still an unfortunately common stereotype to see men depicted overwhelmingly as fighters and women overwhelmingly depicted as mages. Because of course it is the job of the big strong mans to hit things with swords while the women stand safely in the back and twiddle their fingers. [sigh]

This is perhaps the one area where the DMG can be said to have clearly done better than the PHB, because the balance of character archetype depiction by gender was the closest to even in the DMG. With regards to the depiction of fighters, the imbalance in the PHB is disappointingly large – with 61% of all fighters in the PHB being depicted as male and a measly 22% being explicitly gendered as female. Whereas the Monster Manual once again comes in dead last with a whopping 82% of all fighters being depicted as male.

Style of Depictions

The second set of numbers collected were intended to convey data about the differences in how men were depicted versus women. However, the only numbers that wound up being even sort of clear-cut were the numbers regarding active poses versus neutral poses:


The Player’s Handbook had the closest to an even split of active and neutral poses, which I found hugely encouraging. However, things start getting a bit confusing with the DMG – women are actually more likely to be depicted as active than men. And in the Monster Manual, despite that the illustrations in the MM were clearly the worst about portraying women, the numbers of active versus neutral poses are again pretty close to an even split.

Things got even more confusing when I started looking at the results of my tallies of fully-covered and suggestively attired characters. After going through each book so many times, the impression that I got was that the most thought had been put into balancing depictions of women in the PHB, a bit less thought had gone into balancing the DMG, and that the Monster Manual had been very much “business as usual” as far as the artists were concerned.

But the numbers that I collected didn’t tell that story at all:


Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.

It’s about more than just numbers

I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.

For example, in doing such posts in the past, I almost always end up with at least a few corpses counted as suggestive. Often I end up with (male) animal people who are clearly intended to be seen as “bestial” rather than alluring. And once I wound up counting a zombie that had been turned into furniture as suggestive.

So it’s important to point out that the numbers will only get you so far – especially when what is being discussed is something as inherently hard to quantify as art. So, as I’ve already put an inordinate amount of work into putting this post together and it’s getting pretty long, that will be what we take a look at next time.

I should note that all of these charts were made using – since Excel’s chartmaker makes ugly, hard-to-read charts. Sadly,’s embed code doesn’t get along with’s interface and I wound up having to cobble things together on their own

 As it turns out, because I wasn’t exactly sure how I needed to change my criteria around, I wound up going through each book and doing detailed counts FOUR TIMES. Ugh.


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