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.

Beefcake: what it is and what it isn’t [VERY NSFW]

As mentioned in other places on the interbutts, I’ve been hired by Ryan Macklin to assist with art direction for Katanas & Trenchcoats – his love letter to 90’s tabletop roleplaying (“Embrace the dream of ’90s tabletop roleplaying through the darkness-fueled madness of immortals, werebeasts, car wizards, and more!”) – which is down to hours left at the time of writing this post, so really, do go take a look.

Ahem.

Anyhow. Yesterday we put out an artists all-call looking for artists to submit portfolios[1], which contained the following:

Are you interested in drawing beefcake?

Anna and I are in particular looking for two or three artists who are attracted to men and enjoy drawing sexy men to be part of the team. (Note: it takes more than being shirtless to be sexy.)

Being able to draw beefcake is not a requirement for doing K&T art. If this isn’t your thing, say so. You will not be penalized or be taken less seriously. We’re looking for a lot of artists to draw a variety of things.

Ryan and I are very much in agreement that we want there to be sexy men in the book because [ahem] equality.

Importantly, did you catch that we asked for artists who are attracted to men who would be interested in doing beefcake? That’s because we’ve both learned through previous industry experience that a lot of artists do not know the difference between male power fantasy and beefcake. So a lot of the time if you ask an artist (who, if you’re working in the games industry is more likely to be cishet and male than not) to draw you some sexy dudes, what you’ll get is a whole lotta shirtless dudes that… aren’t actually all that sexy.

And certainly, several of the artists who have contacted me so far have said “oh yeah, I’m not into dudes, but I don’t mind doing beefcake”, and then the pieces that are used as examples are emphatically not beefcake.

So! Pull up your chairs and gather round, folks. Because we’re going to take a look at art that gets confused for beefcake versus actual beefcake and break down the difference.

[The rest of this post has been placed behind a jump cut because WOW I found some, uh, empowered dudes to use as examples.]

Read more of this post

Creating while female & mentally ill: the difficult intersection of bias and disability

I’ve been pretty quiet the last few weeks. Partly that’s because I’ve been dealing with the end of my school term (final exams were last week).  However, it’s partly because I was dealing with some pretty frightening mental health issues, and between the two it took a while before I had energy to deal with normal “adulting” things, let alone having energy to do creative things.

My most recent experience has gotten me reflecting on the difficulties of trying to function as a creative person while also dealing with the lived realities of being a woman and someone with mental illness. A lot of the time, difficulties that arise from one of these factors spill over and aggravate the other. And sometimes it’s easy enough to pick apart all the inputs and discern what’s going on and what the underlying causes are when things get tough. But sometimes when things are bad, everything is a jumbled up mess and it’s too difficult to tell if it’s just my mental illness, or if there are other factors at work.

[Note: You’ll probably need to click through for some of the text to be readable]

comic part 1 comic part 2 comic part 3

Drawing this comic was an interesting exercise. The last comic I did about mental health, I started with a script that was meticulously written out, where the precise wording was very important. This time, however, I had a general outline of what I wanted to cover, but for the most part the ideas that I had were more about the pictures than the words.

Of course, the thing that BOTH comics have in common is the fact that this time, as with last time, I can’t really shake the idea that posting this can only be a bad idea. That someone I respect will lose respect for me for being honest about my mental illness. That talking about my difficulties will only further establish me as a “toxic” “negative” person that people need to stay away from in order to be happy. Or that I’ll be giving ammunition to anyone who wants to discredit me in the future, because after all, why should anyone listen to someone who admits to being crazy? I’m lucky to have a lot of support, both here and other places, but I’d be lying if I said that being honest about my difficulties with mental illness didn’t sometimes come with painful consequences.

It’s a question that I’m not likely to find conclusive answers to anytime soon.

Monday freebie: Shit you need to read about harassment

Hey, folks

Last week saw a ton of amazing pieces about gendered harassment online. At the time, I didn’t have bandwidth to do more than hit reshare, but looking back at the wealth of well-researched and written articles that shed light on a phenomenon many people would prefer not to think about, I’m retroactively declaring this required reading. These are long pieces, so save them for when you have some bandwidth to process – don’t just skim them, because these pieces all deserve more than just a perfunctory read.

First, this actually dates back a couple of weeks, but if you haven’t seen this piece by Tumblr user latining about the white male terrorism problem in tabletop gaming, then go read it right now. Don’t let the strong headline put you off, because the experiences that she recounts in stark detail are not all ones that I’ve had personally, but many of them are. And the ones that I haven’t experienced directly, I’ve seen them happen to other women, or talked to other women who have had those experiences after the fact.

Second, The Guardian did a week of pieces about gendered harassment last week, and each one of them hit it out of the park. The first entry in the series was this post where they talked about the trolling that happens in their own comment section, their moderation policies and process, and how it can be difficult to apply in real life. But more importantly, they also have a lot of great interactive graphs which show the data of which writers for which sections face the most harassment, so you should make sure to read on desktop rather than mobile.

The next piece in The Guardian’s series is this look at how, in the face of indifference and lack of action on the part of major social network companies like Facebook and Twitter, women are starting to build their own tools for fighting back against online abuse.

Following that was this piece by Jessica Valenti, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the most-harassed writer for The Guardian, about why writers shouldn’t be expected to put up with insults and rape threats as “part of the job”. (It sounds like stating the obvious, but I promise it’s an excellent read.)

Last in the series was this piece that takes a look at the current state of laws and company policies that are supposed to deal with cyber-harassment, and the gaping holes in those policies that prevent them from being anything resembling useful.

Third, this long read by The Atlantic looks at how concerns over “free speech” have been used to turn social media into a space where harassing speech by users becomes the default, and is seen as worth protecting – moreso than the feelings of safety of those whom the harassing speech is directed at.

Last, make sure to read this piece on Broadly about why nerds are so sexist, especially as it features male tears about how Star Wars is being taken over by women.

Go! Read! There may be a quiz later.

 

Life is Strange Chapters 4 & 5: The Villain is Patriarchy [TW]

Okay, folks. So before I start, this post is CHOCK FULL of spoilers for Life is Strange. Episode 5, the final episode, has been out since last October, so I figured that now would be a good time to finish playing and write about the experience, but if you haven’t finished Life is Strange yet, or if you haven’t played it but intend to, I’m going to emphatically recommend not reading this until after you’ve played it. Normally I’m pretty spoiler-agnostic, but the twist at the end of Chapter 4 is one of the most genuinely surprising and unsettling twists I’ve encountered in a game and I would really hate to ruin that for anyone invested in playing.

Also, it’s important to note that this post comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of unsettling depictions of gendered violence, harassment, and graphic rape metaphors.

So, now that that’s been said…

Here there are only spoilers for Chapters 1-3:

I’ve written about Life is Strange previously; last year I binged Chapters 1-3 in rapid succession and wrote about the experience here. What drew me into the series was the complex portrayal of a wide variety of female characters – all of whom have complex motivations and characterizations, and the explicit centering of women’s stories.

What I came to appreciate after playing the first three chapters, however, was how the writers very purposefully led the audience through a narrative that builds a very clear picture of the lived emotional reality of being a woman who has to live in a patriarchal society and the awful choices that can happen as a result. Further, while a lot of media can include depictions of online harassment or sexual violence in the name of being “topical” or “edgy”, the developers at DONTNOD impressively manage to make both harassment and sexual violence central plot points in such a way that doesn’t cheapen the narrative or demean the characters who suffer from this violence. The gendered nature of both the harassment and the sexual violence is made very clear, and while the player is given a choice in how to respond when stories of violence are recounted, choosing to respond in ways that blame the victim results in having those responses thrown back at you in ways that highlight the injustice and horror of blaming women for their own victimization.

Importantly, as the player begins to uncover more detail about the strange and terrible things happening at Blackwell, a situation is set up where all of the possible villains are men with status and power. At the end of Chapter 3, Max finds herself in an office with all of them as she is being pressured to point fingers and assign blame.

And each of the men is, in his own way, a different toxic manifestation of internalized male privilege:

  • David Madsen, the chief of Blackwell security, is the male representative of authority who takes it upon himself to govern the women around him in the name of law and order.
  • Nathan Prescott is the platonic ideal of violent toxic masculinity, who threatens violence freely against women who get in his way and who serially drugs and sexually victimizes women without ever showing remorse for his actions.
  • Principal Wells is the institutional authority who recognizes Nathan for the violent sociopath he is, and yet continues to cover up his actions to protect both the institution he serves and to materially benefit himself and his personal finances, allowing Nathan free reign to continue victimizing women as he sees fit.
  • And Mark Jefferson, the enlightened mentor figure who has so many positive things to say about encouraging women to step forward and take risks, is the disappointing ally – the man who you thought Got It until he revealed the extent of his internalized misogyny by blaming Kate Marsh for what happened to her and escalating an already untenable situation.

All of this is left implicit, however, in the first three chapters. In Chapter 4, however…

Commence spoilers for Chapters 4 and 5!

Chapter 4 is when the gloves come off, when the developers make it explicitly clear that HEY – IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE VILLAIN IS PATRIARCHY.

First, there is Nathan. If you choose to blame Nathan for what happened to Kate Marsh, he continues to escalate his sexist abuse – which began as just calling Max things like “dyke” and “bitch”, but graduates to “feminazi” in Chapter 4 – a slur that you hear a few times from this point on. Perhaps the most chilling of which is when you receive an “anonymous” text from what you already know to be Nathan’s phone saying only “feminazis will be exterminated”.

Chapter 4 is also when Nathan is revealed for the entitled, misogynistic monster that he is – an unapologetic sexual predator who is a danger to any woman around him. Through Max and Chloe’s investigation, it becomes clear that Nathan is, if not a serial rapist, then definitely someone who has serially sexually assaulted women – there is the video of him with a drugged Kate Marsh, in which he encourages people to take advantage of someone too drugged to consent to sexual activity. There is also Chloe’s story of Nathan’s attempt to drug her with similar intent. Both of these events actually occur after Nathan killed and secretly buried Rachel Amber, resulting in her disappearance two months before the events of the game take place.

[Sidebar: Relative to Nathan, for all the fact that he is an unstable, paranoid, borderline psychotic sexual predator, I actually really appreciate what happens if you attempt to warn Victoria to stay away from Nathan during the Vortex Club party in Chapter 4. Victoria reacts with disbelief and anger, accusing Max of saying that Nathan is dangerous out of jealousy or other personal motivations. She defends Nathan as being her best friend, and that she couldn’t possibly believe that he could be both her best friend and a predator to be avoided.

vicky

Which. Oof. This was such a powerful and true-to-life portrayal of conversations that actually happen – the danger that keeps women from attempting to warn other women about “missing stairs“, because there is always the risk that your warnings will not only not be received, but that you will be punished socially for it.]

But Nathan, as it turns out isn’t the real villain after all. The villain behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance, the drugging of Kate Marsh, and the whole sordid mess going on at Blackwell turns out not to be David Madsen – who has been established up to this point as a creepy, borderline domestic-abusing, teenage-fetishizing weirdo, or Principal Wells – who has explicitly used his institutional authority to protect a sexual predator. In what is one of the most genuinely shocking and upsetting twists I have ever encountered in a video game, it turns out to be Mr. Jefferson – the trusted authority and mentor figure who up until the reveal at the end of Chapter 4 has been an entirely sympathetic character.

[TW: If you want to skip discussion of rape metaphor, skip to where I tag the end of the trigger warning]

The reveal of Mr. Jefferson at the end of Chapter 4 is harrowing, but the opening of Chapter 5 takes that horror to an entirely new level when Max wakes up in a secret bunker that she discovers with Chloe in Chapter 4, but had assumed to be Nathan’s, as it is on old property belonging to Nathan’s family. Jefferson has drugged Max, just as he did with Kate, so that he can photograph her while unconscious – without that inconvenient free will and personhood that would only screw up his photographs.

Jefferson_uses_Max_for_his_photography

The dialogue that he gives while photographing Max, as he enthuses about how pure, beautiful, and “innocent” she is in her unconscious/semiconscious state, is chilling, as is the rage that he shows when Max – who is groggy as she wakes up from the drugs – attempts to move and “ruins” his shots. It is at this point that Mark Jefferson becomes the literal embodiment of patriarchy.

The way that he crouches over Max as he photographs her, at times even straddling her for the sake of a shot… Let’s just say that obvious rape metaphor is obvious. The camera angles that the developer chooses, the ways in which Jefferson defines the space around Max and physically moves her in the space, the things that he says as he is waxing rhapsodic about her special qualities — it a horrifying violation.

The level of remove that the writers provide by writing the scene as “obvious rape metaphor is obvious”, however, is deftly done in that it evokes feelings of terror and threat without being a portrayal that would be triggering for most survivors with trauma surrounding real-life assault. But critically, it also provides an additional layer of critical commentary about the attitudes about women that make Jefferson’s monstrous behavior possible.

[/Trigger warning]

Just to leave some space after the next session, have a picture of a baby rabbit in a coffee mug.

Mark Jefferson LITERALLY objectifies women for the purposes of subjecting them to his male gaze. By drugging women he finds sexually appealing, he turns them into objects incapable of asserting their agency or desires, so that he can photograph them the way that HE WANTS TO SEE THEM.

The level of meta-narrative happening is deafening, even as it manages to do what I have literally never seen any other video game do – tell a story about sexual violence against women in ways that centers the survivor of that violence, without being done in such a way that it comes across as being done for easy “shock” value or to make the story “edgy”.

That, in and of itself, is an impressive achievement in game writing. As is the scene where David rescues Max from Jefferson, or rather, assists Max in rescuing herself, and the conversation that follows – in which it becomes clear that David has been trying to be an ally all along, although he has been going about it in the dumbest, most wrong-headed fashion possible. And he acknowledges his failings without flinching from the fact that he failed, and that he acted in ways that were inappropriate, and would need to try make amends for his behavior.

But the nail in the coffin, the final layer of “HEY, BTW, THE VILLAIN IS TOTES PATRIARCHY” is the nightmare level where all of Max’s cumulative changes warp reality and trap her in a combination of alternate dimensions that she has to find her way out of. As reality continues falling apart around her, Max finds herself trapped in a maze in which all of the major male characters become villains – monsters that she has to hide from in order to survive. That in itself is unnerving, but the things that the men shout out as they patrol, looking for Max, hammers home the gendered nature of the threat they represent.

106949480

Nathan hurls gendered insults like “feminazi” and promises violence when he finds Max. Principal Wells makes threats about how he will use his power to punish Max, blaming her for everything that has happened. David similarly hurls insults and promises retribution. And Jefferson maintains the level of imminent threat by trying to convince her of the merits of his artistic vision, even as he says some truly vile things like, “Max, Rachel not only gave great headshots, she gave great head”. Just as frightening, however, is the fact that men who are actual allies also stalk the maze. Frank – who can become either an ally or an enemy in Chapter 4 (I made him an ally), is there – blaming Max for what happened to Rachel and promising retribution. Samuel, who is only ever gentle and kind, is there too. And Warren, who is only ever sweet and earnest and eager to help Max stand up to Nathan, alternately pleads for and demands Max’s attention.

In the end, Max escapes and what leads her back to reality and sanity are her memories of Chloe and the moments of real happiness and female companionship that they’ve shared in the last week – which is what makes the final choice at the end so agonizing. But for all that I sobbed my way through the ending after choosing to sacrifice Chloe, that wasn’t the part that has been sticking with me since finishing the game.

I keep finding myself on the power and resonance of the nightmare maze, because I have never played a game that so accurately reflected the experiences that I have had since starting my blog that have led to me being afraid of men as a class of human being. Despite the fact that some of my closest, deepest, most intimate ties are with men, spaces that are heavily marked as male are spaces that I am not able to feel safe in. And this game, THIS FUCKING GAME, made by (from what I have been able to gather) a team of mostly-white-dudes, is the first time in my whole goddamn life that I have seen a game FUCKING NAIL my emotional truth.

Which, you know, given that I’ve been playing video games since I was about 6, it’s about fucking time.

Fuckable female robots in video games – a timeline [LARGE][maybe-NSFW]

Recently, my brother sent me a screenshot from a MOBA in development – Paragon – of a female android character named Muriel. When I saw it, I promptly headdesked:

Paragon_Muriel.0.0

I was furious. Furious! ROBOT CAMEL TOE?? THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! Which is what I yelled at Twitter, only to be promptly reminded that Mass Effect had gotten there previously, with EDI – a fact that I had forgotten because the very first thing I made EDI do was PUT ON SOME GODDAMN CLOTHES.

That got me thinking about female androids, and video gaming’s problem with wanting them to always be fuckable. So I started doing some digging, and Wikipedia handily provided me with a list of fictional female robots in video games! Huzzah! A lot of them I had heard of, but there were a lot that I hadn’t, and… jeez. Some of them are really bad. I struggled for a bit on how to actually present what I came up with, until I just decided to arrange them all in chronological order. So I plunked my screenshots into Illustrator and promptly… uh… got a bit carried away:

Timeline

CLICK THROUGH FOR MORE READABLE VERSION

(Note that some results from the Wikipedia list have been omitted. I chose not to include characters from visual novels, since those feel like their own distinct thing. I also, FOR THE LIFE OF ME, could not find any screenshots of the character from Doreamon worth using.)

Now because this is me, while I was staring at all of these screenshots of (mostly) incredibly sexualized character designs, I started wondering exactly how I could quantify “bad” for the purposes of determining the overall level of badness. After all, when going through the Female Armor BINGO, a lot of the points like “how does it attach” or “almost naked for an adventure in a cold climate” don’t really apply to characters that are robots. So instead, I compiled a “hierarchy of sins” (to steal a term from Dogs in the Vineyard) of sexualization, starting with things that represent not being sexualized at all (“Nonhumanoid”, “Humanoid, fully covered”) and going all the way to totally objectified (“actually naked”, “camel toe”).

Then I went through for each character I plotted on the timeline and counted the highest criteria that they met on the “hierarchy”, at which point I made some loose categorizations to see what would happen, and I got this:

androids

I realize statistics don’t mean as much when you invent the criteria and kind of half-ass the definitions, but two thirds of the designs counted are at least moderately sexualized, and only 18% of the designs weren’t sexualized at all. So, you know. SURPRISE! Most female android characters in video games are sexualized! What a shock!

Next time, I’ll write about something equally surprising. Like, character creation in RPGs is important, or video games require an input device in order to play them.

Epilogue: On “KickStarter Diversity” – problems, but not many potential solutions

[Note: I know I’ve been a one-note blog these last few weeks. This is going to be my last post about KickStarter for a while, promise.]

I would be remiss if I did not mention the tremendous response that I got to last week’s post. So thank you to everyone who said positive things in response, or who offered words of comfort, or who tried to offer assistance.

Thanks also to people who bought one of my games, or who became a patron. Not gonna lie, I’m feeling a bit guilty about the spike in sales that I saw – it wasn’t my intention to guilt people into buying my games or becoming patrons, I can understand how me opening a window onto some of the harsh, ugly feels that I’ve been having would seem like me yelling at you, my readers, which wasn’t my intention.

Of course, not all of my responses were that friendly and receptive. Like these, for example:

comments

There was also someone who popped up on my G+ and commented using the hashtag for GooberGate, which freaked me the fuck out for a few minutes when I saw it. (Thankfully that crowd doesn’t seem to be very active on G+?) So that was fun. Nice to know that after all of the word count that I devoted to gathering data on proving how fucked women publishers are, talking about feelings in gaming is still the biggest sin you can commit when writing about games while female.

Lastly, I feel like it’s worth addressing that a lot of people had questions about how I handled The Starlit Kingdom specifically, when honestly the second half of the post was by far the more “serious” of the two situations. The lack of response to TSK was an irritant, not the crushing disappointment and maddening frustration of being able to prove that people don’t buy games by women and still trying to find a way to be successful anyway. I lost a lot of time and effort, and that sucks and is discouraging. But it seems like that’s what a lot of people focused on because that’s the part that could be “fixed”.

So, you know, yeah I acknowledge there’s more I could have done to promote TSK. I probably threw in the towel a bit too quickly. But it’s also important to remember that the best places to promote an anime-themed game (Reddit, YouTube, and 4Chan) are virulently unfriendly to women and my anxiety just couldn’t deal with venturing into those spaces. As I pointed out in a comment:

There’s a REASON I never approached 4Chan. The NICEST thing anyone from 4Chan has ever called me when linking to my material is a “jealous lesbian”, so you’ll understand that sort of reaction isn’t exactly motivational for me to engage with 4Chan. Likewise, given the shit that gets leveled at me here on my own blog, the idea of putting a demo of play up on YouTube gives me HIVES, given the things that people say about women there. Likewise, I never did an AMA on Reddit because Reddit is where men call me things like “ignorant judgemental cunt” and compare rape to a sport in threads about things I’ve written.

So that’s a thing. Moving on.

In which I disclaim:

(It’s important to note here that I am going to talk about this in terms of women, but this goes double for people who are visible minorities, queer, disabled, etc. It just gets a bit laborious trying to include all of that, so please just remember that we’re not just talking about white ciswomen like me here.)

(Also I’m perfectly aware that I am presenting problems without solutions. I KNOW that. With the huge volume that I have written in the last month+ about the complexity of issues surrounding being a female publisher, this isn’t something where I can write a 2000-3000 word post about “here are the problems and here are the solutions”.)

(Also, I just KNOW that some people are going to read this and say “she doesn’t think white men should make money on games!” or “she thinks that recruiting diverse teams for game projects is bad!” or “she’s saying she should get more money just for being a woman!”. Which. Um. No. I am talking a problem that exists at a SYSTEMIC LEVEL. It’s important not to get bogged down in specific examples, even if specific examples are what I’m using to illustrate my point.)

KickStarter Diversity

Okay. So basically what we’ve been covering here for the last month and a bit is that being a female publisher sucks. And part of the reason you don’t see many female-fronted KickStarters is because of all the structural and cultural barriers that are placed in front of women designers and publishers. The result is that the games publishing industry tends to look a whole lot more homogeneous than their customer base actually is; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the big companies or at the scrappy indies, the tRPG industry is overwhelmingly white and male.

Now this is something that certain publishers are starting to be aware of. It’s also something that tRPG gamers are beginning to care about. As a result, it’s becoming more common to see efforts to have diverse creative teams for KickStarters. However, all too often the “diversity” that you end up seeing is what I think of as “KickStarter Diversity” – it’s disappointingly shallow at best, and outright deceptive at worst.

What do I mean? Well, here are two of my personal experiences that I feel serve as pretty solid examples of what I’m talking about.

Case Study 1: Deceptive Diversity

Pretty early in my game writing “career”, I happened to sign on as a freelancer to a pretty mammoth project – I was going to be one of a large number of co-authors writing a monster game book for a Really Big Name Publisher. The lead developer (who, I want to be clear, was also a subcontractor and not employed by the Really Big Name Publisher) wanted to put together a diverse team of writers to do a truly inclusive project. I was really excited about that! And it was early enough in my efforts to be a “real” game designer that the “legitimacy” of being able to say I’d written for Really Big Name Publisher was appealing.

And in the end, the work that I did for RBNP was some of the best work I’ve ever done. I’m proud of the work that I did, and of the book that we created. But here’s the thing, RBNP’s terms were outright abusive.

First, they only paid 3 cents per word. Even for small assignments of 1000-2000 words, you end up being underpaid when you do the math of how long it took you to write those words versus how much you’re getting paid. But when you’re talking the massive wordcounts that most members of the team were pulling in order to put together this mammoth tome? 10 thousand, 15 thousand, or even 20 thousand word assignments require time, research, and planning. A lot of it! Even with the advantage of plenty of my previous writing experience, with the amount of time that I spent on my assignment I miiiiiiight have gotten (American) minimum wage for it. Barely.

There’s also the issue that RBNP’s contract terms were (and as far as I know still are) half on acceptance (which I’ll come back to) and half pay-on-publication. Given the length of time that your average game book spends in development, this means that writers are putting in time and effort without any guarantee of payment; books do get delayed, and even canceled. Not often, but it does happen! Now yes, game development is an expensive process; there are illustrators and layout artists to be paid, as well as production and shipping costs to consider. But given that KickStarter is now the default publication model for any seriously large game book, it’s even more abusive that a company would still make their payment terms pay-on-publication, because a few weeks after the campaign ends, they already have all that money sitting in the bank.

In the case of the project that I worked on, it broke six figures on KickStarter, and yet I didn’t get the second half of my money until eighteen months after I’d completed and turned in my drafts. And don’t even get me started on how hard it was to get a copy of the book, which was also in my contract.

The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth, because again – I truly believe in the product that we made and am grateful to the lead developer for his hard work in putting together such a wonderfully diverse team of writers and in pushing some hard conversations to make sure that we got things right, from a standpoint of being inclusive. But the fact is that the lion’s share of the profit from the six figures that were KickStarted are going to owners who are white and male, whose business model seems (at least from the subcontractor end of things) to  to revolve around getting marginalized writers who crave legitimacy to sign on to projects, because they don’t have expectations they should be treated better.

It is great that RBNP is publishing games that are inclusive, and it makes me happy that that is something that audiences are excited about. But when their business model is predicated on achieving that inclusivity by getting a diverse team of writers, treating them like shit, and then stuffing all of the money into the pockets of some white guys? That sucks. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the owners don’t deserve to profit! Publishing is a fucking huge job and it’s expensive. But it is possible to be a publisher AND treat your freelancers well, which they are not.

Case Study 2: Shallow Diversity

After my experiences writing for RBNP, I swore off of spec writing for big game projects. Especially when I ended up making more money per word on SexyTime Adventures, which isn’t even a real game, than I did on my writing for RBNP. And I definitely earn more money per word here on my blog, even on the long posts. The return on investment just wasn’t worth it.

However, subsequently a friend of mine contacted me about a KickStarter for a game by Another Big Name Publisher that was written around themes of diversity and inclusion that was looking to put together a diverse team of stretch goal writers to reflect the themes of the game. Because of the reputation of the game in question, and because the request came through this friend who had done a lot to support me as a publisher, I decided to sign on. But unfortunately, I wound up regretting that decision.

To be fair to Another Big Name Publisher, their terms were objectively better – 5 cents a wordand pay on acceptance. However, “on acceptance” turned out to be unexpectedly vague – the contract didn’t specify what “on acceptance” actually meant – on acceptance of my draft? On acceptance of everyone’s drafts? How soon after “acceptance” would we get payed? And how was I supposed to know when “acceptance” had happened? None of these questions came up until after I turned in my draft (on time) and… then didn’t see any money. It ended up being three months between the deadline for drafts and the date that I actually got paid. When I started asking about payment and timelines at about the two month mark, it was generally a week between emails. All in all, it was not a happy freelancer experience.

Now admittedly, 3 months is still a hell of a lot better than 18. But the amount of money that I was owed didn’t even break 3 digits, and again, this was for something that already had many thousands of dollars in the bank thanks to the KickStarter.

There’s also the problematic element that ABNP is a company that is mostly male and almost entirely white is using diversity as a selling point for this game. Given that the diversity of participation was through fairly small stretch goals, it makes sense that the profits would go to the company (and the writers) making the game. But as with RBNP, you have the very people who are contributing the diversity that is desired being the people who are least compensated.

Case Study 3: The Forgotten – Progress!

Andrew Medeiros is the co-designer of Urban Shadows and, in the interest of full disclosure, my co-designer on The Watch – recently finished his KickStarter for The Forgotten – a card-based LARP about people trying to survive in a city under siege by doing whatever it takes to stay alive. His second stretch goal (also full disclosure, extra photography by me was the first stretch goal) was actually to commission Kira Magrann to write a variant game based on The Forgotten that would be available to backers.

I found that idea hugely interesting! Because it goes beyond the standard approach to diversity of “if we get $4000 more we’ll add $100 worth of cost and maybe a bit more in terms of development costs for a stretch goal by a not-white-guy”. Because that model of KickStarter diversity is only ever going to be shallow by definition, and the demographics of game development logically dictate that shallow models of KickStarter diversity are always going to funnel the most money to white dudes. Which, you know, fuck that. Diversity should be more than just a wallpaper selling point!

Instead, what is happening with The Forgotten is that the designer is taking a share of his games profits and saying to a not-white-dude game designer, “I want you to create a game”. It represents taking a share of the extra profits earned by male-fronted games and funneling toward a female creator in a way that results in MORE compelling content, not less. (Kira’s variant game is going to be about patriarchal dystopia, a la The Handmaid’s Tale, and I am RIDICULOUSLY excited to play it.) And of course, the devil is in the details. The game hasn’t been written yet, and there are lots of details to be ironed out. But the potential for this sort of arrangement is HUGE.

And sure. This sort of arrangement wouldn’t work for every KickStarter. It would be a nightmare for something the size and complexity of 7th Sea (which also just ended, and raised 1.3 million). But part of why I’m writing this is to start a conversation. Publishers are a smart lot, used to solving a lot of complex problems. So, publishers, what can we do about this? How can we start creating meaningful diversity in publishing that isn’t just wallpaper on a mostly-white product?

Publishing while female: 2 vignettes of bafflement, frustration, and humiliation [long]

Last time I wrote about the many and sundry reasons why it sucks being a female publisher, and how that suckitude is driving women out of publishing, and how the only way to fix the problem is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN, and it was a very difficult piece for me to write. The entire time I was writing it I was afraid that people would read it as sour grapes on my part and use that to dismiss what I was saying, because unfortunately my personal lack of success as a female publisher is of course the very thing that will most commonly be used to dismiss what I am saying when I try to talk about the lack of success of female publishers in general. So because I didn’t want what I was saying to be dismissed entirely out of hand, I worked very hard to keep that post’s tone more distant and less emotional – despite wanting nothing more than to yell my hyperbole-laden and profanity-laced anger at the internet.

As it turns out, wrestling with fear about how people will react to what you are saying while trying to perform a tone-balancing act is difficult and emotionally draining! (Amazing! Who’d have thought!) So it was nice that I did get some sympathetic commentary about my last post. Some.

But I also got dudes commenting on my Plus about how they “agreed” with what I was saying, but, well, you know. The kinds of games that they like to play are the kinds that are more likely to be produced by men, and WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY DO? It’s just too bad that the situation for female publishers is so messed up, and they want to do more, but HOW could they possibly make any personal contributions to changing things? HOW?

And let me tell you, that kind of willful helplessness in the face of what is a pretty damning and clear picture of how fucked things are in our hobby? It’s pretty goddamn frustrating having the biggest perpetrators respond with willful obliviousness while simultaneously trying to get credit for acknowledging that there is a problem and that they feel bad about it. “Wow. You’re right! This is terrible! It’s such a shame that this is all inevitable and that there is nothing more that can be done!”

… BRB, setting the world on fire.

You know what? Given that the wage gap is still DEFINITELY A THING (and actually getting worse here in Canada – so much for being a liberal community utopia), why don’t you men spend some of those extra 22-28 cents on the dollar on buying a game or two by women every now and then that you don’t actually want to play, just to show some support for women designers and publishers? You know, especially since you don’t have to worry about the extra gendered costs of inequal healthcare or products made for your gender or places to live.

JUST A THOUGHT.

So. Because my mostly dry, logical analysis didn’t seem to quite hit home for some people, let me attempt to put things in perspective by sharing two vignettes with you from my personal experience.

Case #1: The Starlit Kingdom, Andy Kitkowski, and Magical Girls

Andy Kitkowski, the brain behind Kotodama Heavy Industries (which is a game company, not a Japanese industrial company), has been doing pretty well with publishing translations of Japanese anime-themed RPGs for… quite a while now. Tenra Bansho Zero – the gonzo “throw literally every anime trope in a blender” game that I actually wrote Ruined Empire as a setting for – KickStarted for $129,000+; Ryuutama, a gentle and “heart-warming” game about traveling and adventure, KickStarted for $97,000+; and recently Shinobigami, a game which seems to be about schoolgirls having ninja battles (I admit to skimming the description on that one and going by the art, since it didn’t seem like my thing) just KickStarted for $87,000+. Even before KickStarter was a thing, I remember Andy going to GenCon and selling absurd numbers of copies of Maid RPG to anime fans who were dying to try out anime-themed roleplaying games. He pretty much created the market for English-language translations of Japanese, anime-themed tRPGs.

So I had all of that very much in mind when I first started developing The Starlit Kingdom. The Starlit Kingdom was inspired by the launch of a Sailor Moon reboot – Sailor Moon Crystal. There was a lot of excitement about that in my circles, and given that the idea seemed timely and that Andy had been doing quite well at publishing anime RPGs for several years, I figured than a game about magical girls as inspired by Sailor Moon would be a good investment in terms of time to eventual dollars returned. If even only a small number of the people who threw money at Andy to translate all sorts of anime-themed games bought copies of The Starlit Kingdom, it would still pay off since I was doing everything – from writing to playtesting to illustration to layout – myself. I might not make a lot of money, but certainly I’d make a nice little sum – enough to justify the effort, right?

Well…

I should have seen the writing on the wall at GenCon last year and just walked away.

You see, at GenCon in 2014, I ran 4 sessions of The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts (my light setting hack of the Shab al-Hiri Roach to take place in the Harry Potterverse) and sent more than 10 people over to the IPR booth to try to buy copies of a game that they hadn’t stocked because it’s so ancient. So in 2015, I was determined that I would run my own games and actually, you know, PROMOTE MY OWN WORK. Only… no one wanted to play my games. Out of the four 4-hour slots I was scheduled for, two of them didn’t happen due to lack of interest. The third, I wound up running the other game I was playtesting, and the fourth? Well, I did get to run The Starlit Kingdom. Once. BARELY. But it only happened because I ambushed another GM (a man) whose slot had also fallen through and begged him to play it with me so that I could run it for the one person I’d met at Games on Demand who actually wanted to play it. The con variant of TSK is supposed to run with four people. I made it work with 3.

Still, the game went so well and was so great, and both my players said that they had a ton of fun – even the male player who I’d had to beg to play, who admitted after that it wasn’t something he would have chosen to play on his own given the subject material. So, falsely encouraged, I went home and did more playtesting and spent time polishing, editing, rewriting, and illustrating the game before releasing it in November. To… crickets. (Fun little aside: To date, TSK has made half as much money as SexyTime Adventures: the RPG – which is silly, stupid parody game in which character creation involves paper dolls, and players are encouraged to get rerolls by making inappropriate pornface while narrating their actions.)

It took finishing and releasing the game, which I am still incredibly proud of, to make me realize the ugly truth: it doesn’t matter how much commercial appeal Sailor Moon has; no one wants to play a game about magical girls. Because, you know, cooties.

As you might imagine, this realization was hugely discouraging. As a result, I decided that I wasn’t willing to pour even more time and effort into trying to revive a game that had been such a dismal failure; maybe it could be done, but the amount of time and effort it would take could be spent more profitably on other endeavors. So I walked away from TSK and turned my attention to other things. That is, until it came time to do signups for GM slots for Dreamation; I wanted to get my badge comped, and I was reluctant to go back to running other peoples’ stuff, just because I didn’t have anything newer than The Starlit Kingdom that I wanted to try running. So I signed up to run TSK, since it was finished – hoping I could maybe move maybe one or two copies. Except this time I refined the pitch to remove anything that would signal “inspired by Sailor Moon” to an observer not already intimately acquainted with Sailor Moon.

This met with… moderate success. I got enough people to run one session of TSK; the other session, no one signed up for. The session I did get to run went very well! There were two women and two men, and the men were just as into the game, if not moreso, than the women. It was intense and emotional and hard-hitting and horrible in all the ways it was supposed to be, which was great!

But then, when we were finished, one of the male players – the one who had been not at all familiar with Sailor Moon – admitted that if he’d known that The Starlit Kingdom was a game about magical girls, he wouldn’t have signed up. He’d gotten the impression that TSK was a game about “space tragedy fantasy”, which is what interested him. And, you know, retroactively he was glad that he’d played and had fun and stuff – because actually enjoying a game about magical girls turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

And that moment right there killed the last vestiges of my willingness to promote the game, because how fucked is it that the only way to effectively promote my game is to pretend that it’s about SOMETHING ELSE. Especially when I KNOW that it succeeds at making men actually care about and enjoy playing a game that forces you to tell stories about powerful women? And when the reason that I wrote the game is because I have INCREDIBLY POWERFUL FEELS about the feminist value of Sailor Moon (and about magical girls as a genre) and the value of stories that depict heroic women working together and getting shit done while also being apologetically feminine, it really fucking hurts getting confirmation that the things that give me those POWERFUL FEELS are the very reasons why gamers don’t want to play The Starlit Kingdom.

And it makes me wonder, what is it about magical girls that people are so “uninterested” in exploring? Is it the idea of playing a story where most of the protagonists are necessarily women? Is it the idea of exploring stories that are marked as being “for girls”? Is it as simple as seeing a woman’s name on the cover of a game about women? I’ll never know, and that sucks.

Case 2: PLEASE SIRS, MAY I HAVE SOME LEGITIMIZING MALENESS?

As frustrating as the situation with The Starlit Kingdom is, that’s not nearly as humiliating and upsetting as an experience that I’ve been suffering through the last few weeks.

You see, I have an alpha draft for a game that I’m pretty sure would have a lot of commercial appeal… but not if I published it. And the numbers that I gathered on the statistics of KickStarter funding of roleplaying games support me in that assessment! By looking at both the statistics that I collected and also examining trends regarding the revenue earnings of various kinds of games KickStarters, I determined that a medium-sized game studio could gross 4-5 times more than I would be able to make if I were to attempt KickStarting the game on my own. And when I showed my numbers to other (male) friends who do game publishing, they agreed with my assessment!

I decided that what I needed was a publishing partner that was:

  1. not a huge company that would screw me out of my IP and keep the lion’s share of the profits for themselves
  2. a company that I had either worked with before or knew enough by reputation to trust their ethics
  3. published the same kind of games that I was writing and…
  4. could confer legitimizing maleness

As you might imagine, that set of criteria rather severely limited my options – there ended up being only 2.5 publishing companies that fit all of the criteria. (The third company mostly didn’t fit #3, but sorta did? A little?) It was not at all encouraging, but still. I put on my grown-up pants, polished the alpha draft of my game into something professional-looking, wrote up a business proposal showcasing the commercial viability of the game that I wanted to publish, and started approaching potential publishing partners.

…who have all officially turned me down.

And to be fair, each of the companies that I approached had legit business reasons for not accepting my proposal. Publishing-Me understood and agreed with the reasons that each of the companies laid out (and each company did have different reasons) for why it didn’t make sense to work with me on that project. CREATOR-Me, however… Creator-Me has spent a lot of the last few weeks crying and trying to deal with rejection in a calm, competent, professional manner that wouldn’t result in any burned bridges while dealing with a whole lot of harsh, ugly feels.

Firstly, it is incredibly, profoundly depressing that I can prove with numbers that female publishers operate at a disadvantage in terms of net profits as compared to their male publishing peers. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, have been publishing games since 2008, and have freelanced for some of the biggest companies in the industry – Green Ronin, Onyx Path, and Wizards of the Coast. But knowing that none of that matters, that no amount of hard work and hustle will overcome the gender penalty that female publishers operate under in the current publishing landscape… it makes it hard for me to feel pride in my abilities and accomplishments as a game designer and publisher. Worse, it is incredibly humiliating having to go hat-in-hand to male-led publishing companies, present my research findings calmly and clearly, and ask in perfectly calm and neutral tones for them to confer some legitimizing maleness on my project while also trying to convince them that there are good business reasons to want to do so. Because doing so requires admitting that no matter how hard I try, without a male business partner I am never going to be anything other than a third-rate micropublisher.

And getting the rejections themselves? …there is so much that I want to say about how that felt that I don’t know how to assemble into a clear picture. All I have is fragments.

Like crying in a school computer lab, my hands shaking and a friend patting my shoulder as I typed calm and professional-sounding assurances that I understood their situation and didn’t bear them any ill-will, because of course this was business. Or being terse and distant with my husband when he was trying to get me to talk about what was wrong, and then crying over the dishes when he got me to open up. Or crying on a friend’s shoulder and feeling ashamed that I couldn’t just act like a damn grownup and get over the disappointment already. (And of course, the fact I can’t stop crying about these disappointments makes me feel like a fake and a failure, because crying is for girls and if I was a “real” publisher, I would be able to roll with the punches and move on. THERE’S NO CRYING IN GAME DESIGN. See how that works?)

This leaves me trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this game that I still believe in. The last thing I want is to invest hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into developing, writing, testing, and publishing a full-length game only to have it fail as badly as all of my recent projects have. But without a male-fronted publishing partner, what options do I have?

Publishing under a male name? That’s all well and good for someone just getting started, but what about the 8 years of work that I’ve done as a game designer? I have an established reputation, no matter how small. Walking away from that would be cutting my nose off to spite my face. Do I give up and walk away? Even knowing that this is the most commercially friendly idea I’ve had in a very long time? Do I find, as some of my female friends put it, a KickBeard – a Totes Legit Male Micropublisher willing to put his name on the cover and promote it as a project he’s associated with (despite having nothing to do with development) in exchange for a tiny percent of the profits? It would increase my profits, but inevitably some people would see it as “his” game, no matter how open he is about his lack of actual involvement in writing and development.

I honestly have no fucking idea what I’m going to do. All I know is that I am TIRED. I am tired of beating my head against this wall and it not moving. I am tired of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and FAILING and NEVER having any hope that next time will be different. I am SO FUCKING TIRED that sometimes all I want to do is lie down and never get up again, because men get to “fail forward” and “find fruitfulness in failure”, but all women get is ground down, chewed up, and spat out. It makes me want to give up, throw my hands in the air, and quit altogether. Except I’ve been painted into this corner by own small amount of never-quite-enough-to-survive-on success, and I don’t have any damn choice but to keep trying, because all of the other options I’m faced with are even worse.

Even now, writing this. My throat feels tight, my eyes tingle, and my teeth are clenched. I am in mourning for the me that never got to exist – the me that was a “real” publisher, and who was able to build her audience such that she could stop falling into a series of abusive dead end jobs and realize her dream of being creative full time. But no amount of blood, sweat, and tears is going to bring that me into existence, and so it’s time to let her go.

So to those of you who “feel bad” that the games you like “just happen” to be made by men and there’s “nothing” you can really do about that? Why don’t you stick that in your pipe and smoke it?

KickStarter Part 2: The Only Way to Fix the Problem is to BUY GAMES BY WOMEN

Okay, folks. Today’s post is a 301-level post, in that it builds on a lot of things that I’ve written previously here. I know I’m shooting myself in the foot in terms of expecting anyone to read this by linking to a bunch of stuff right off the bat, but…

So here goes.

In the past, I’ve written about

Importantly, I’ve also written about the statistics of crowdfunding while female for both Patreon and KickStarter – although looking back I can see that my stats for Patreon were not as in-depth as I would like. (I may go back and correct that, but probably not.)

Everything I write here in this post is going to be predicated on the assumption that you have read those posts, or at least understand the concepts that I’ll be addressing. If I get any questions or comments referencing something covered in one of the above posts, I’m going to moderate your comment.

Again, this is NOT a 101-level post, so fair warning.

WHY IT SUCKS TO BE A FEMALE GAME DESIGNER/PUBLISHER: A SUMMARY

One of the classes I’m taking, now that I’ve gone back to community college (Canadians call it “college, which confuses the shit out of me, still), is Operations and Supply Chain Management. I never expected to get much out of it, but surprise! I am. And one of the things that we’ve spent A LOT of time on is various types of flow charts, or “process charts”. Which is sort of what I’m starting with here.

…so to tl;dr everything I just linked to in the most reductive way possible, if you are a female game designer and/or publisher, you will face the following barriers to designing, producing, and publishing your own games:

  • lack of community support (passive): fewer reshares of promotional posts on social media, less “buzz” around the development of projects you are working on, etc etc
  • lack of community support (active): gate-keeping, misogynist backlash against your games because… reasons (it’s a thing folks, it really is), marginalization of your work as “for women” or “niche”, etc etc
  • internal cognitive: especially Imposter Syndrome – this one is the biggest
  • practical realities of being a woman, and miscellaneous RL shit: the wage gap, second shift labor that disproportionately affects women, losing emotional/mental bandwidth to having to deal with microaggressions on a daily basis

If you struggle and persevere and actually start publishing games, you will attract:

  • less community buzz/support: Yes I listed it twice. It’s that important. Buzz translates into post-crowdfunding sales. Without it, you can’t expect anything substantive with regard to post-campaign sales
  • fewer backers/patrons: which when combined with less support leads directly to
  • fewer long term sales and lower overall revenue

These factors translate directly into:

  • women designers having to set lower goals and take on less ambitions projects: which is itself an ugly catch 22, because over time this perpetuates an unconscious view of women designers are people who make scrappy little games and niche projects and men as designers capable of pulling down the big bucks ($50,000+). Look at all of the $200,000+ RPG KickStarters in the past two years. It’s not a coincidence that every single one of them was fronted by a man.
  • projects by women designers attaining their goals with much lower margins of success (which is stressful): look, I’ve done it. I didn’t think Ruined Empire was going to fund, to be honest. It’s stressful, and it sucks, and that stress was the main reason why I didn’t do a KickStarter in 2015.

Over time, this has long-term consequences:

  • Women become less active or simply produce less over time: You can’t afford to produce what you won’t get paid for. Designing for the “passion” or “the love of the hobby” just doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about something that takes as much work as designing games
  • Talented and amazing women leave the hobby: Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat leaving tabletop gaming, or Leigh Alexander leaving video gaming are just two of my least favorite depressing examples of this. Not everyone is as amazingly hard-headed and contrary as I am, and that’s mostly a good thing, because sometimes choosing to leave is the only objectively sane course of action.
  • Women become 2nd class designers: Women resign themselves to being 2nd class designers who write freelance for larger projects on which they won’t earn any royalties (this is distressingly common), or who write small games that might make a couple hundred here or there, but nothing else

All of which translates into A PAY GAP FOR FEMALE GAME DESIGNERS. And unless you ACTUALLY BELIEVE that men just do better work than women, that is a problem, not just for the women but for the hobby itself. Because logically, if male game designers aren’t better at game design than women, it means there are a whole lot of amazing games that could change the face of the hobby entirely that just won’t ever get written, because women don’t have the time, energy, and bandwidth to write them.

The only way to fix this is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN

It doesn’t matter if you personally buy games by women. I mean, of course YOU do, gentle reader, because you’re lovely and progressive and are invested in the betterment of the hobby and all that. Now be quiet and don’t interrupt.

Look, the numbers are stark, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is as bleak as it is inescapable: as a community, WE ARE NOT BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN.

Obviously that needs to change. So what can you, personally, do? Well…

1) TAKE A HARD LOOK AT WHO YOU FOLLOW AND HOW YOU BUY GAMES

First, look at your social media: Who is in your circles on G+? Who do you follow on FB/Twitter? What is the breakdown of the space where you go to talk about games? How many women are in those spaces?

Second, look hard at who are the designers whose work you follow most closely? How many of those designers are women?

Third, look really hard at how much money do you give to men versus how much to women? (I’ll admit that I’m not so great about this, myself. My personal games collection is hugely unbalanced, and I don’t feel great about that.)

Note that I am NOT saying “don’t buy games by men”. FFS, that’s some straw-manning bullshit, so don’t even do that shit.

What I am saying is this: if the if the people you talk about games with are mostly white dudes, expand your circles to include more people who aren’t white dudes.

If the designers you follow are mostly white dudes, start following designers who aren’t white dudes.

If the people you buy games from are mostly white dudes, try to buy more games from people who aren’t white dudes.

I’m not saying that you’ll reach perfect parity overnight, but being aware that your spending is skewed isn’t enough. You need to actively look for ways to support projects by women.

2) PROMOTE WOMEN’S WORK

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I felt like was a solid, appealing project and tried to promote it and gotten… crickets.

This goes DOUBLE for you, whites dudes with community “cred”. Your word carries more weight than mine ever will, because that’s how bullshit identity politics work. You may not like it, you may not want to hear it, but it’s the truth.

3) MAKE GENDER A TIPPING POINT

How many times have you thrown money at a game you know you probably won’t ever play but want to read? Shit, I’ve done it. I’ve got half a shelf of game books that looked appealing but I knew I probably wouldn’t play, and most of them are by men.

Make “IS IT BY A WOMAN” part of that calculus. If you’re not sure if you want to buy a thing, and it looks interesting but you’re not sure if you’ll play it, check the gender of the author. And if it’s by a woman, and you have the money to spare anyway, consider actually buying it – because that supports that game designer in making more games down the line.

This got longer than I was expecting, so next time: I’ll look at examples of what I’m talking about “in the wild”

KickStarter Part 1.5, by way of the #Feminism anthology, nano-games, and gate-keeping

[Before I start: I know that I said I was going to come back and do the second part of my look at the gender breakdown of KickStarter campaigns, and I really am! But what I wound up writing about here felt very germane to that post that I am going to write, in that writing this felt like laying the groundwork for that.

Also, I reference A LOT of names and specific games, but if you’re not involved in the world of indie tabletop, don’t let that put you off. The sorts of bullshit identity politics I’m talking about exist in ANY scene.

ETA: The first version of this post got completely fucked up by wordpress. I fixed it as fast as possible; many apologies to those who saw it in its accidentally unfinished state.]

First: #Feminism and why it’s cool

Last week was Dreamation, which I went to for the first time this year, and it was an amazing experience. There were SO MANY [women and visible minorities and visibly queer folk] in attendance that it felt really wonderful and safe and welcoming.

One of my favorite things that I got to experience while at Dreamation was #Feminism, an anthology of feminist nano-games that was funded through IndieGoGo and (so I hear) will be available for sale very shortly. What is a nano-game? Well, to quote Misha Bushyager (the campaign coordinator):

For our purposes, a nanogame is an analog roleplaying game that lasts less than an hour. Our games are for 3 to 5 players, and are playable with simple tools like paper, pens, paperclips, timers, or other things you can find in the bottom of your bag.

Because the games were short, and so many authors of the games were in attendance, they offered a “smorgasbord” of a subset of games from the anthology on the last day of the convention. About thirty people showed up and split into groups and most people got to play two games in a two hour slot. There were so many great games on offer from the anthology that it was difficult to choose!

Some of the games that were there that I did not play: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Commandos – a game that involved a scavenger hunt of sorts that required doing stereotypically MPDG activities. There was a game about the orgasm gap in which you play a couple on a first date (unfortunately the title escapes me First Date). There was another game that was actually a trio of even SMALLER games about breaking down taboos around talking about female anatomy, Mentioning the Unmentionables, the first of which is literally just replacing words in movie titles with the word vulva. (ie Dances With Vulvas, Octovulva, Vulva Wars) Lizzie Stark (who is amazing) was describing the game to me and a friend, and I giggled the entire time out of horrid, visceral nervousness. (Hooray for being a recovering Catholic!)

The two games I did get to play from #Feminism were Curtain Call – a game about the horrifying sexism that women celebrities in the entertainment industry face, and Shoutdown to Launch – a game about gendered interruption humorously disguised as a game about troubleshooting a last minute mechanical problem before a space shuttle launch. Both games were very intense and hard-hitting, and the conversations that were had afterward were important. And playing those two games made me really excited about picking up a copy of #Feminism and playing through the games to see what other interesting and important conversations might be prompted by the other games in the collection!

Which leads directly into…

Gatekeeping and why it’s bullshit

(I’M SO GOOD AT SEGUES YOU GUYS.)

Ironically, the first night I was at Dreamation, I wound up having a conversation with a couple male game designer friends who I hadn’t seen in several years, since they stopped going to GenCon. One of them started complaining about nano-games and how he doesn’t understand why they’re “trendy”. Most of his complaints revolved around format and presentation – Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast and Starlit kicked off a bit of a fad for writing games that could fit on a business card, and it was such a novel idea several game designers were intrigued by the challenge and wrote games with similar space constraints. And sure, the text on Vast and Starlit is hard to read, and yeah, it’s not convenient to refer back to you if you need to clarify something. But using a particular attribute (ie fits on a business card) of a subset of a genre of games (ie nano games) in order to dismiss an entire genre of games? That’s shitty!

In this particular instance, it’s shitty because there are people doing hard-hitting, important work within the format of nano-games! #Feminism is an amazing collection of games! Moreover, that designer’s complaints about format don’t even apply, because the anthology is beautifully presented – large text and headings, very readable, icononography that clearly classifies each game and conveys at a glance what sort of play experience you can expect. (For example, each game has x out of 5 teardrops that are labeled “feels”. PERFECT.) So dismissing work like #Feminism “because nano-games” is doubly shitty because 1) #Feminism is hard-hitting, important, and DESERVING OF ATTENTION and 2) the reason being given to dismiss nano-games (and thus #Feminism) doesn’t even apply.

It’s this kind of behavior such a classic example of the sort of gate-keeping behavior that keeps women’s work from being regarded as “important” or “noteworthy” or even just “worth paying attention to”, which sucks! (And is surprising, given that this designer has a history of publicly butting heads with certain people in the hobby who like to gatekeep hardest.)

Or, to provide another, more personal example… I am a game designer who “only” writes hacks. It wasn’t until recently, with the runaway success of Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark that what I do was even universally acknowledged to be “real” game design. Previous to these games, it was pretty common for people to dismiss hacks as not “real” game design. Hell – I did it to myself; I argued with people who tried to call me a game designer for two years after publishing my first game because I had “just” written a hack. However, since anything that makes $179,000+ on KickStarter (as Blades in the Dark did) can’t possibly not be “real”, the goal posts have since been moved. Hacks are now game design, but designers who write “new and original” systems are doing “better” work, because they are helping “progress the state of the hobby”.

And this is ALSO shitty gate-keeping. Because ANY time you have a person or group of people who believe that they have the ability to draw a line around what work is “real” game design and what work is less valuable, or doesn’t contribute to the hobby, or just plain isn’t game design… Inevitably the boundaries of the space defined as “real” privilege whiteness and maleness, and the space defined as “not real” is where not-white-dudes end up being greatly over-represented. The fact that it took the legitimizing male-whiteness of John Harper, Sage LaTorra, and Adam Koebel to shift that conversation is just the latest example in a long line of shitty examples of white men re-drawing the boundaries of game design in ways that include MOSTLY JUST WHITE DUDES.

So yeah, I get pretty damn annoyed with people who dismiss projects like #feminism “because nano games”, and it’s why I look at games like this. If the author calls it a game, then it’s a game. Period.

Because the existence of spaces like Dreamation, that are wonderful, and inclusive, and safe feeling  does NOT change the fact that tabletop gaming is a hobby with A LOT of shit to unlearn, and women’s work just ISN’T TAKEN SERIOUSLY. And that’s not just my personal bias opinion. You can argue with opinions, but you can’t argue with data, and the data is that 6% of all KickStarters for tabletop games in 2015 were female-fronted but raised only 3% of total revenue. And that’s just one of many statistics that I’ve gathered recently that show how deeply, DEEPLY fucked it is to be a female game designer, let alone a female publisher.

And here’s the thing. There’s no such thing as a game, or a game type, that everyone likes. The importance of #Feminism as a group of games with powerful things to say doesn’t mean that you have to LIKE the games it contains.

Hell, I HATE super-trad dungeon crawling games. Torchbearer and Dungeon Crawl Classics push every single one of my “HOW THE HELL IS THIS EVEN FUN” buttons. But I have friends who do love them, and I’ve even gotten to play a couple of these games with them, and their enjoyment and enthusiasm was infectious and wonderful, and doesn’t in any way invalidate my opinion that I REALLY HATE playing Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Similarly, your personal gripes about nano-games doesn’t in any way invalidate the worth of a collection like #Feminism. And moreover, I might suggest that if your grumpiness about a particular genre of game is leading you to dismiss wholesale a collection of work about the real-world, lived experiences of marginalized people, as written by a pretty-damn-diverse group of people – many of whom are writing from their own lives and experiences? You might be the sort of person who would benefit most from playing a few of the games in #Feminism.

I am not a perfect victim because there is no such thing as a perfect victim

[I know I said that my next post was going to be one in which I took a bit more of an in-depth look at why women are doing so badly on KickStarter. However, when I sat down at my computer to write, what ended up coming out was something very different. So bear with me. I do have that post outlined, and it will be the next blog post I write. I apologize for the interruption.]

The last week+ has been very difficult for me, media-wise. I live in Canada, which means coverage of the trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi has been damn near inescapable. (But wundergeek, what the hell does this have to do with gaming, you might ask? I’m getting there. Be patient.) Simply avoiding radio and television news would not be enough to avoid being exposed, because on every single social network there are shares and links and stories – all with commentary, and all with quotes or transcripts of particularly odious things being said to and of alleged victims. No matter who you are, it makes for harrowing reading. But for me – as someone who has been sexually assaulted by a nerd-famous man and who didn’t speak out because of concerns over being treated… pretty much exactly how the witnesses are being treated now? It hasn’t been a fun ride.

[Explanatory sidebar: For those of you who aren’t Canadian or have otherwise missed the scandal, Jian Ghomeshi is the former host of a wildly popular national radio show and a former NATIONALLY BELOVED media figure. He was fired by the CBC when allegations started to emerge that he had sexually assaulted a number of women. He initially tried to sue for wrongful dismissal, but the suit was withdrawn as more and more women spoke out. So far 23 women have spoken out, and the current trial includes only 3 of those women as witnesses.]

Attorney for the defense Marie Henein has made headlines for simply eviscerating witnesses on the stand, using Ghomeshi’s comprehensive archives of communication to attack the credibility of the witnesses. And while it’s true that Henein certainly can’t be held responsible for inventing the standard defense playbook for sexual assault trials, she has been disgustingly effective in deploying it. Puzzlingly, the crown prosecutor has not included any testimony about the psychology of abuse victims, because all of the so called “inconsistencies” in the witness testimonies are pretty fucking consistent with the psychology of abuse. But it looks like they’re not going to, and the common media consensus is that Jian will probably get off now that the three witnesses have been so publicly “discredited”.

Listening to the coverage summarizing Henein’s arguments has been harrowing, and more than a little triggering, because the defense’s devastatingly effective attacks on the “credibility” and “reliability” of the witness testimony, and the popular media narrative accepting that these witnesses can’t be held as “credible”… all of it highlights just HOW FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE it is for women to live up to the standard of the “credible victim”, because being “credible” requires being PERFECT, and THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT VICTIM.

(Here’s where we get back to how this relates to the topic of this blog. Thanks for bearing with me this far.)

Several years ago, I wrote about my experience of being sexually assaulted at a gaming convention by a man I have jokingly described as “nerd famous” – someone who is famous and universally (well, almost) respected as one of the top minds in game design and publishing. And I know, I KNOW in my heart of hearts that my decision not to name that person was the correct one, because there are so very many reasons why I am also not a perfect victim.

A perfect victim would never have agreed to share a bed with a man that she did not know well. A perfect victim would have said something when she first began to get uncomfortable. A perfect victim would not have allowed him to restrain her, or would have removed his arm from restraining her once it happened. A perfect victim would have removed herself from the situation once it grew intolerable instead of waiting until morning.

A perfect victim would have openly removed all of her belongings from the room and left to report the incident right away instead of sneaking back up and moving her stuff while her attacker was absent in order to avoid a confrontation. A perfect victim would have told her attacker to keep his distance. A perfect victim would NOT have had breakfast with her accuser. A perfect victim would have told friends, of which there were many present, that something was wrong and that she was not okay. A perfect victim would have asked for help in reporting the incident and making sure that action was taken.

But I was NOT the perfect victim. Hell, I didn’t even KNOW I was a victim until later that day when my attacker wanted to join a group of friends and myself in going for dinner, and I started to have an anxiety attack. I got a male friend to intercede and tell my attacker that he needed to keep his distance, but it wasn’t until afterward when I was explaining to the male friend in private what had happened and why I had made the request that I realized that what had happened was sexual, and was abuse, and was not okay. And it took SOMEONE ELSE SAYING IT TO ME in order for me to realize that it was true.

But the moment in which I accepted that what happened was abuse was also the moment in which I knew that I would NEVER be able to name the man who attacked me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone knows the standard defenses, explanations that can be deployed to convince victims of abuse that they are to blame. “She was dressed like a slut.” “She was out alone at night.” “She was drunk.” “She was asking for it.” The tragedy is that we live in a society that provides scripts for abusers, but not for victims. Often, victims of abuse don’t even realize they’ve been abused until well after the fact, because the only script that exists – the HORRIBLE RAPIST IN THE BUSHES – barely even resembles the reality of sexual assault, that in 9 out of 10 instances of sexual assault, the attacker is someone that the victim knows and trusts.

And so we hide, we victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We hide from what we KNOW the consequences will be if we speak out, but it also means that we hide from each other. Each victim becomes an isolated island of suffering. And maybe you manage, like I did, to make peace of a sort with what happened. But things like the Ghomeshi trial stir up the waters, leaving all sorts of garbage and debris on the shore of our lonely islands – trash that we have to pick up ourselves because the abuse is OUR PROBLEM. It is always only ever OUR PROBLEM.

And yet, incidents like this also help victims to chart the waters of victim-hood. In the storm, we catch glimpses of shores of suffering that are not our own and add new islands to map, although the boundaries of those islands can only be charted in the vaguest manner – guesses at best. And one can’t help but wonder – what of the islands that are too well hidden to be found? How many are there? And how are they affected by their seclusion?

Lest you think that my metaphor is getting tortured, this weekend, in talking to a female friend about the agonies of the Ghomeshi trial coverage, she confessed to me that she had experienced a similar incident to the one that I had described in my previous blog post, and that it wasn’t until reading that post that she had the language to describe what happened to her as assault. And in a way I was glad that being even partially open helped her to be able to describe an experience that wasn’t okay. But the encounter was also depressing, because this is always what happens.

Cosby. Ghomeshi. Assange. Woody Allen. Damn near every time the waters get stirred up, I learn of a new story. Of a woman that I respect and admire who has been the victim of harassment, abuse, and assault. And yet sitting here, I can’t say that I know of a single woman who has ever gone public with her story, or has tried to take legal action over it.

So here I am, shouting my despair at the internet yet again, which I seem to do at regular intervals. Because as laudable as the work that is being done to implement anti-harassment policies at game events and conventions is, it doesn’t mean a damn thing until we start fighting back against the need for women to be “perfect” victims.

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