At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Manveer Heir, a senior gameplay designer for BioWare, gave a talk about the need for increasing diversity in games. It was a great talk! If you have an hour, I recommend watching it. (GDC has posted the talk in its entirety here.)
But here’s the thing. As a long-time BioWare fan, it’s refreshing to see someone at BioWare come out and say that they need to stop treating women and minorities like shit. (I’m still pissed about the atrocity that was that Liara statue. And don’t even get me started on bullshit fanservice character design like Samara the Space MILF.) And listening to the talk, I was totally cheering Manveer on.
The coverage of the talks? The coverage made me furious. In talking about Heir and his delivery of the speech, here’s how Heir was described:
BioWare developer Manveer Heir challenges colleagues to combat prejudice
Notice a trend? The coverage of Heir’s speech was 100% positive. Every gaming outlet that covered the speech described Heir in only the most laudable terms. Because of course Heir is deserving of praise for making such a clear and cogent call for increased equality of representation in video games. The more pieces I read praising Heir’s speech, the more betrayed I felt.
Bitches, I’ve been saying the same damn things for two-and-a-half years, and it’s not like feminist games blogging was exactly a new endeavor when I started. But no matter how much research I do, no matter how many facts I cite, no matter how well-reasoned my posts are, the best response I can hope for is mixed. Mixed as in some people tell me they love my work and they totally agree, some people politely disagree with me, and some people periodically start hate campaigns calling me a fat, ugly, lesbian, whore, feminazi, cunt, dyke, etc etc etc. You get the idea.
Hell, it was just last month that J. Scott Campbell and Mark Brooks sent their legions of angry comic fans to tell me what a fucking ignorant bitch I was, resulting in nearly 30,000 views in 24 hours. (Something, I’ll note, that they appear not to have suffered any professional consequences over. Not that I ever expected them to.) All because I had THE GALL to criticize a comics artist for prioritizing sexual objectification over actual human anatomy.
I know. God. What a fucking cunt I am.
Well you know what? I wasn’t going to write about my sour grapes. It fucking sucks that once again a man has said something that a woman has been saying all along, but considering the importance of the message it felt really petty of me to say “well sure Heir gave a great speech but here’s why you should feel sorry for me“. So I kept my mouth shut and resolved not write about it.
That is until this happened:
Jeff Atwood, who writes the blog Coding Horror, stole content from Shanley, a female tech blogger, tone policed her, and then sicced his followers on her to shut her up when she spoke out against the theft. (You can find Shanley’s original post here, Jeff Atwood’s post is here.) And ironically, the content that was stolen was about how men can be effective allies in the tech world. He even used the same title – “What Can Men Do?”.
So, uh, okay. Yeah that sucks, but what am I getting at? Am I crazily accusing Manveer Heir of stealing my feminism?
Uh, no. Heir’s talk was about basic human decency, and also objective facts about the industry, which you can’t really “steal”. No, the point that I’m trying to make is that I am PISSED. I am pissed about the fact that feminism only seems to be palatable when it comes from MEN.
I am pissed about the fact that what matters isn’t the message, but the messenger. I’m pissed that despite the fact that people are falling all over themselves to praise men like Heir and Atwood for being positive voices for change within their respective communities, while women like me have to expect abuse for saying THE SAME DAMN THING. And I’m pissed that there are strong, vibrant women who are silenced everyday by the fear of becoming the next Anita Sarkeesian.
Here are just a few excerpts from the many comments I’ve deleted since starting my blog:
If you call yourself an artist then [sic] your a total moron.
Your critique smacks of jealousy and transference.
I think whoever wrote this has too much time on their hands and needs to go get laid.
You review and correction is full of ASS like your FACE
If I was you, I’d take this post down before you become an embarrassing meme.
Now you can delete this post if you want cause that seems to be what you do but hopefully you’ll read it first and take note to turn down the snob factor a notch or two
You post inflammatory comments, then try to play the victim when you’re called out on it.
In the end, whatever you think of yourself, all you’ve done here is to show that you are one of those who “can dish it, but not take it.”
You’re just another “angry feminist with an axe to grind.”
If she does not want people to say negative things about her, then she is in the wrong line of work.
And it’s not like I had to look very hard to find these. All of these comments were deleted from just two posts on my blog. TWO.
So you know what? It’s great that men are starting to realize that gaming has a problem and are beginning to speak out about it. But let’s not go patting ourselves on the back, not when the women who have been saying THE SAME THINGS ALL ALONG are still here and still getting harassed. If Heir’s talk was “challenging” but my blogging is “whining”, then we still have a long fucking way to go.
 And let me just make clear here that I’m not comparing Heir and Atwood here. Heir is awesome and I support him 100% and am happy that he is where he is doing what he’s doing. Atwood is gross and used his audience to harass a woman in an attempt to silence her, which is never okay, especially when it’s supposedly in the name of “equality”. So basically Heir =/= Atwood is what I’m saying here. Got it? Good. Moving on.
 Okay, I’ll admit that this one actually made me laugh.
Well, folks. This is just a quickie update on what all I’m working on. Things are picking up at work as we enter the busy season, not to mention the fact that my KickStarter is wrapping up and I’m spending a lot of energy stressing about that. (Seriously, KickStarters are so stressful. So, so stressful.) But although the recent lack of volume might make it look like I haven’t been blogging much, the truth is that I’ve been working pretty hard on a number of things.
Currently I’m in the middle of assembling posts about: Manveer Heir’s GDC talk, this year’s roster of Guests of Honor at GenCon, and creepy guys who are nice but still creepy. The problem is that none of them are quite ready yet. Call it one of the hazards of my ADD approach to blogging – I get work done, but when I get blocked on one thing I jump on to another and another until I can continue working on the first thing. It has advantages, in that the overall volume of work is greater. But it means that I sometimes come up with dry spells when I’m getting blocked on multiple things at once.
I’m also plugging away at my two patron-sponsored posts. I’ve nailed down how I want to tackle sex workers in games. Unfortunately (for me, that is), it’s going to be a numbers-based post which is going to involve a ton of tedium since I need to gather a lot of data points. Also, because of the nature of the post this is something I have to do entirely from home, when my toddler’s not awake. So I hope that me saying I hope to complete that one before GenCon doesn’t come off as lazy procrastinating. It’s not!
As far as the post about disability in games, that one’s giving me more trouble. I’ve done some research but I’m just having trouble nailing down how I want to approach it. So if anyone wants to offer some suggestions on angles, I’m all ears!
So that I don’t leave you entirely empty-handed, here’s some things worth reading:
Places that aren’t here
This isn’t game-related, per se. But this wonderful comic turns the typical “rescue the princess” damsel narrative on its head. Also? The princess is a beautiful woman of color. Also? They are adorable. Totally worth a read.
And now that it’s funded (at nearly $100,000, or 1000% of their initial funding goal), I can link to this piece on Cracked on what is definitely the worst game KickStarted… in the past two weeks. Read and despair over the fate of humanity.
[Okay, folks. I’ve stayed pretty quiet here about my KickStarter, but filthy capitalism like the KickStarter and my Patreon is what supports me in being able to do art in the first place. So this is a filthy capitalism interlude.]
We’re in the home stretch. 4 days and we’re 48% of the way to unlocking our stretch goal to add a series of books about Princess Fayola. I’m very happy to have unlocked our initial funding goal, but I can’t even describe to you how badly I want to hit this stretch goal. I want so very badly to help tell a story in which a queer black trans woman gets to be the hero! But we’re going to need a last minute push to get there, because at the current pace we’re just not going to make it.
This isn’t me asking for money (although if you haven’t backed and want to go do that, I certainly won’t complain). What we desperately need is signal-boosting to try and get us over the finish line. You don’t even need to have kids to support us! If you’d like, Josh and I will happily donate any books to an organization that will get them into the hands of actual children.
I’ve already done a fair amount of the art and design that will go into Fayola’s book. Here are some previews of pages I’m quite happy with:
Okay, folks! I’d been thinking of ways to wrap up this series of posts on how not to fail at making inclusive works, and then coincidentally happened to see a bunch of things cross my social media streams that managed to fail a lot at portraying Asian cultures. I mean, A LOT. And honestly, when you look at all of the RPG products out there that fail at real-life cultures, it’s most probable that the culture a given specific RPG product will fail at is an Asian culture.
And. Guys. GUYS. Seriously, I’ve been seeing SO. MUCH. ASIA FAIL lately. SO. SO MUCH.
Now I could write an entire post on my own and probably not get anything wrong. But this is the sort of the thing that seemed to call for a “guest lecturer”, as it were. So I thought I’d let Chris Chinn start us off (image insertions are purely mine), and then I’d highlight a few especially egregious examples.
1. First off, can you introduce yourself for the benefit of my newer readers and patrons?
Hi, I’m Chris Chinn, a long time blogger and game critic. Most of my writing can be found at Deeper in the Game. At this point, I’m probably best known for writing The Same Page Tool, a tool help gamers coordinate what kind of game they want to play.
2. What are the things you most commonly see games get wrong with regards to portraying Asian people and culture? What the fail that you hate seeing most?
The big thing to realize is that printed game materials – books, settings, etc. are media. They usually get the exact same things wrong that other white produced media does in terms of racist tropes, except that roleplaying games seem to consistently be much further behind other media.
So the usual things we see wrong in rpgs are:
– Fetishization of East Asia (light skin, etc.) usually while making South Asia disappear (ignoring darker east asians, etc.)
– Monolithic cultures
– Weird projections of ultra conservative Confucianism as either an ideal to uphold or a sign of the complete alien dysfunction of a whole culture
– Hyper sexualized women, often “demure, submissive” etc.
– Projection of sexism as being worse than European cultures
– Terrible mishmash or less-than-back-of-coffee-book understanding of major religions
What’s probably the most frustrating is that I’m not asking for historical realism, just not racist stereotypes. The fact that this is particularly hard to find…. says a lot about how far rpg culture still needs to go.
3. What game, not counting Oriental Adventures, do you think fails the most at being awful toward Asian people and culture?
It’s pretty hard to say WHICH particular thing is the worst. I know Wolsung’s horrid Yellow Peril imagery is fairly ugly, though Glorantha’s fake-China where the culture is built on monolithic obedience is also pretty messed up.
I dunno, I mean, if it’s a toss up between things that look like 1800s propaganda that gave us the Chinese lynchings in California or the stuff that gets spewed by modern day xenophobes who are joining militias and stockpiling guns, I feel like it’s kind of the same thread of ugly?
4. What are the top three things you would say to white people who want to write game material that portrays a culture that isn’t theirs?
If you want to make a game about something you haven’t grown up with? I strongly suggest getting to know about the culture a bit by interacting with those actual people and imbibing a lot of the media they create for themselves.
It kind of says a lot about folks who are looking to make media talking ABOUT a group, but unwilling to hear that groups’ views or ideas.
Wow, good stuff. Thanks, Chris!
Specific Examples: Less Recent
Because I think we could all benefit from some examples of Shit Not To Do, here is a TOTALLY NOT EXHAUSTIVE list of shit you should strive to NOT emulate.
1. Oriental Adventures is REALLY THE WORST
These are all images that I pulled from different Oriental Adventures titles. YES IT WAS A SERIES.
But wait! The shitty racist stereotypes weren’t just in the art! Nooooo. There was shitty racist stereotypes written into the rules! For instance, the first illustration there, the yellow-peril-wizard there, was for a class called the Wu Jen. Well, as this conversion of the Wu Jen for use with later editions of D&D shows, the Oriental Adventurers were just a vortex of shitty, shitty racism:
Certain taboos must be abided by in order for the Wu Jen to sustain his magic. Examples include:
Must bathe frequently (at least every other day)
Cannot sit facing a certain direction
Cannot touch a dead body
Cannot wear shoes
Cannot drink alcohol
The DM and player should feel free to create their own taboos, as long as they are as restrictive as the examples above. Taboos should relate to purity or cleansing of the body.
“Let’s see. I like Oriental Adventures. What would make that better? Steampunk? Sure. Everybody loves Steampunk, right? But what would I call it? Steam Oriental Adventures? Oriental Adventures Steampunk? OH WAIT.”
For this point, I’m going to be a bit vaguer because I’ve actually seen these offenses in multiple recent works, some of which have current crowdfunding efforts or sites that I don’t want to direct traffic to. So forgive me while I quote myself while simultaneously remaining intentionally vague:
1. Don’t use symbols with religious or spiritual meaning to another culture – it belittles the meaning behind the symbol and dilutes the importance of the symbol
2. Don’t reinforce negative stereotypes. That just adds to the toxic background radiation that forms the dominant view of minorities
3. Be mindful of your place in a system where white artists routinely profit off of performances of cultures that aren’t their own. See Katy Pary’s geisha performance, or Miley Cyrus using black culture like a costume.
Coming back to number 1 – religious and spiritually significant symbols. The use of Vishnu, Shiva, and Bodhisattvas – these are all things that are part of living religions currently being practiced in India. Add in stereotypical “monsters” like cannibal sorcerers, which play right into #2 and reinforce a whole host of ugly stereotypes about “savage” Indian mysticism and thugee cults and the like. And then for good fun, maybe you could add in some Untouchables, and maybe give them some magic powers. Because what could be wrong with saying that a group of real-life people who face real-life oppression get oppression superpowers so in fact their oppression is actually good for them?
There are a lot, a lot, A LOT of white authors who publish lazy pastiches of “awesome” stereotypes of foreign cultures because they think it’s “awesome” and they can make a quick buck. And what we NEED more of in gaming is inclusive settings that manage to portray non-European cultures as complex and HUMAN, not just as a collection of stereotypes
Actually, you know what? If you’re writing a game setting based in India, it probably would be best to avoid mentioning Indian religion at all.
5. Anything that uses the word exotic.
Exoticization of foreign cultures, especially Asian cultures, has a long and troubled past in gaming. Exotic is not a compliment. Period. Full stop. End of sentence. Have you used it anywhere in your game material? Well go remove it. And then go remove all the synonyms. And then go remove all of the sections that read as OOOOO EXOTIC. That shit is toxic. Cut it out.
 Seriously, I could write an entirely separate blog about the fucked up ways in which Asia and Asians are portrayed in games
 Because HEAVEN FORBID that shit piles like Oriental Adventures remain unconverted for use with later editions of D&D. THAT JUST WOULDN’T DO.
This post is part 3 in a series of posts looking at how not to fail at writing inclusive settings. Part 1 sets out general guidelines of how not to fail. Part 2 expands on terrible stereotypes centered around gender and sexuality.
As mentioned in my previous post, I had a lot of help putting the outline of this series together. Thanks again to: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Magrann, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. Also worth noting that TV Tropes was used heavily as a resource when assembling the outline for these posts.]
So much of the awful racism that you see in games comes back to this. White people do not have a monopoly on individuality. Humans are complicated and messy and weird, no matter what race you are born into. But all too often, games are incredibly reductive in their handling of race. All orcs are ugly savages. All elves are graceful nature-lovers. Are dwarves are socially inept and greedy.
But wundergeek! You’re talking about fantasy! And everyone knows that orcs and dwarves and elves aren’t real. So what’s the harm?
The harm is that it can tend to reinforce patterns of thinking that dehumanize people of color. When all of your gaming campaigns turn out to be White People’s Murder Adventures In the Land of the Evil Darkies, that’s not exactly contributing to a healthy outlook on race and racial diversity.
Of course, in addition to being just plain harmful, the sheer lack of exceptions when it comes to fantasy races is also astoundingly lazy writing. If you’re relying on tired storytelling techniques that paint all members of Group X as being the same, the stories that you will find yourself limited to will involve cardboard cutouts instead of living, breathing characters. As such, your story will be less compelling.
Subfail: This group of POC is 100% EVIL (ie the Drow)
But wundergeek! They aren’t ALL evil! What about Drizzt? HUH?!?!?? He’s a Drow and he’s totally not evil!
One exception does not automatically make your group diverse.
Quite often, a character like Drizzt serves as the exception that proves the rule. Because you are getting an “insider’s perspective”, the reader is given to understand that all of those nasty Drow/orcs/trolls/whatever really are super evil. And it’s totally okay! It’s not like it’s stereotyping, because the Reformed Outcast of an Evil Race is telling us that it’s not. And why is he an outcast? Because he’s good and noble and valorous and compassionate, unlike all those other members of his Evil Race.
Look. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have analogues of non-white cultures in your fantasy settings. In fact, I’d say that it’s something fantasy needs more of! But have those analogs be groups of real people, with good people and bad people and lazy people and everything in between.
You see it in television all the time – shows that feature exclusively white main characters, with minority characters being limited to incidental, minor, or supporting roles. The same thing happens quite often in games. Take, for example, Dungeons and Dragons. While the 4th Edition books have made small strides – they are demonstrably more diverse than previous editions – the heroes depicted are overwhelmingly white.
Obviously, this is shitty for all the same reasons that having your cast be all-male is. It devalues the importance of stories that reflect non-white characters and plays into cultural narratives of the inferiority of non-whites.
As the gaming audience grows more diverse (and consequently less white and male), game companies have grown (begrudgingly, sometimes) more aware of the need to at least pay lip service to diversity with the characters in their games. Unfortunately, much of the time the diversity is just that – lip service – with token minority characters included so that developers can say that their characters aren’t exclusively white.
Even worse is when you have developers who treat LGBT minorities as checking two diversity boxes. If your attitude toward diversity can be described as – “I’ll include a gay latina! Then all of my diversity boxes are checked and the rest of my characters can be straight white dudes! Diversity win!”
…then fuck you.
Please, for the love of god, if you are writing a game scenario, please do not have it revolve around having a white character (or a character who reads as white, or is an obvious analog for whiteness) save a group of backwards non-white characters (or characters who read as non-white, or who are obvious analogs of non-whiteness). The “white man swoops in to save the poor benighted non-whites from all their problems” story is one that has been repeated quite often in our culture and is, frankly, offensive.
Let me frame it in terms of personal experience. Quite often when I talk about feminism with regards to gaming, I am informed by thoughtless dudebros that I am doing feminism wrong, and that clearly all of my problems with sexism in gaming would be solved! if I only were to do [X], where [X] = write my own games, draw my own art, stop talking about sexism, choose not to be offended, don’t seek out offensive material, etc etc etc. And you know what? It PISSES. ME. OFF.
Do you really think, random dude-type person, that you know my lived experience better than I do? That you understand the experience of sexism so well that you can tell me how to solve sexism in my daily life? Let me assure you, Mr. Dudebro, that anything you can spout off of the top of your head, I have already thought of. And this solution that you want to share with me out of the generousness of your heart is not helpful.
Yeah, that’s how that kind of story can come off to people who aren’t white dude gamers. Except WORSE! Because that neglects the fact that the narrative of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems” completely ignores the crucial fact that we live in a society that has been institutionally designed to facilitate the economic success of whites and to prevent the economic success of non-whites. So when you write stories that revolve around thinly-veiled analogs of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems”, you’re erasing the fact that many of the problems faced by real-world minorities were originally caused by white people, and are still perpetuated by white people. Which is a dick move.
Too Brown/Not Too Brown (ie Using Real World Racial Traits to Differentiate Your Fantasy Races)
The typical handling of fantasy races is shitty in a lot of ways, but one of the most cringe-inducing is the seemingly-requisite description of racial characteristics. A lot of the descriptions hinge on the stereotype of black features as being “coarse” and “ugly” while white European features are “fine” and “pretty”. So when you have evil races that are dark-skinned and ugly, their features are described as “coarse” and “harsh” and “brutish”. Contrast this with “pretty” evil races like the Drow** who are described as being beautiful with dark skin and “fine” features. Because even in a universe with magic and dragons, the only standard of beauty that matters is a European standard of beauty. FUUUUUUUUCK.
(I know this might seem monotonous to keep picking on the Drow, but it would be pretty much impossible to write anything that would be a bigger shitpile of privilege, entitlement, and awful sexist and racist stereotypes than the Drow. …please don’t take that as a challenge.)
Try letting your art do the heavy lifting of description for you. And if you must write something descriptive, avoid language that falls into the aforementioned stereotypes.
Even better – you know what would be awesome? Write your racial descriptions from the point of view of a member of that race, not from the point of view of some omniscient European observer. Have a troll describe what is beautiful to trolls. Have an orc describe what is beautiful to orcs. That would be awesome.
So basically, if you’re going to write a fantasy race and have what differentiates them from other races be a characteristic that is usually ascribed to an ethnically distinct group of people in real life? DON’T DO THAT.
Sub-Fail: Superior Species with Real World Racial Traits
Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.
Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.
DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies mentioned above.
That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! Because, shit. Superhumans are the best! There’s a reason I’ve played an elf in nearly 100% of the D&D games I’ve ever played, because why would I be a boring-ass human when I could be a goddamn elf? However, you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft:
Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.
Subfail: Evil halfbreeds (Miscegenation! OH NO!)
You know what’s also terrible? Always having mixed-race characters be evil, even when those races are made up. I’M LOOKING AT YOU SEYMOUR GUADO. That’s some seriously messed up racial purity nonsense, okay? So don’t do that.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious – the society we live in is pretty sexist.
I KNOW, RIGHT??
And yet something that a lot of game writers love to seem to do (that is, when they’re not applying SEXISM BECAUSE HISTORY to eveeerrryyyythinnnngggg) is to have the good and just and awesome white society that is egalitarian and not at all oppressive that clashes with a society of evil darkies that totally hate women because they are unenlightened savages.
And. Um. Yuck.
Firstly, this has some pretty horrifying white supremacy implications – you’re pretty much saying that non-white cultures can’t treat their people properly because they’re either less evolved or less human, which should be gross for reasons that are self-evident if you have even the smallest modicum of human decency. But second – and here’s where I know that I’ve turned into a parent – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Look. Society sucks for everyone. EVERYONE. But you know what sucks more? When artists create work that only perpetuates the ugly stereotype that people of color come from cultures that are morally and intellectually bankrupt. That not only erases all of the harm that white people have done to create and perpetuate systematic oppression against people of color, it adds a healthy dose of “well you deserved it anyway”, which is a nice bit of shit icing on that particular turd cake.
Look, I’m going to be short and to the point here because Tassja of Irresistible Revolution covered this better than I ever could. EXOTIC IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.
Are you writing about a POC culture (or a culture that reads as POC, or a culture that is an obvious analogue for POC) in a way that makes them “exotic”? Well don’t. It’s a shitty thing to do. Exotifying a culture takes away it’s humanity. If you want to write about a culture that is not your own, write about that culture as a group of people with merits and flaws and traditions and weird hangups. Write about a group of PEOPLE. Not a bunch of brightly colored cardboard cutouts.
Subfail: Sexy “Gypsies”
The Roma are a real-life group of people who still face real-life oppression today. Do a little Googling and you’ll dig up more than you ever wanted to read about the horrific treatment of the Roma by EU countries, particularly France and Hungary.
When the only “gypsies” that appear in games are SEXY “gypsies”, that only dehumanizes real-life Roma and erases the violence that Roma face on a daily basis. Also? It’s a tired fucking stereotype, so don’t use it.
A lot of fantasy fiction has hordes as the generic force that must be opposed – an implacable IMPOSSIBLY LARGE army that’s, you know, evil and stuff because they’re foreign and they’re an army. The thing is, a lot of how these fantasy hordes get written about is pretty much the same way that people write about the Mongol hordes.
Now let’s face it, the Mongols were pretty much the bad-assestest of all invading armies from history, so they do make a pretty good historical model for an antagonistic invading force. And they also make great villains! What with their lack of bathing and overcoming enemies through sheer force of numbers and their rampant misogyny… oh. Wait. No. That’s not the mongols, that’s racist stereotyping.
Guys, the Mongols were actual super, super awesome. As in were ruled by badass lady Mongols, invented an efficient postal system, were masters of tactics, and created a Pax Mongolica. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s just a few of the awesome-tastic things they did. So if you’re going to have an antagonistic invading horde, why not have it be an army of foreigners who are just better than you. Better tactics, better technology, better society – more tolerant and progressive. And then have a campaign about trying to repel that force while some of your own people say, wait we like those guys better. That would be pretty damn sweet, now that I think about it.
But please, no more cardboard cutout unwashed barbarian raping hordes please.
Subfail: The Noble Savage
Are you writing a game with a group of primitive Natives who have a simple-but-beautiful culture and a connection to nature and they are beautiful and irresistible despite their primitive nature? Congratulations, you’ve just written a group of noble savages, which is really, really terrible. Bonus points for being screwed up if their connection to nature gives them magic powers (TENRA BANSHO ZERO) because now you’ve just given them oppression superpowers. (It’s totes okay that we oppressed you because you got superpowers out of the deal so shut up.)
Look, the myth of the noble savage is exactly how the stories of real-life Native peoples are subverted and/or erased. It’s a way of saying it’s okay that we destroyed their culture and committed genocide, because, you know, they’re a bunch of damn savages. And the noble part? That might have been something that originated from a sense of guilt about the horrible stuff we did to native peoples. But more probably it came about as a result of companies commodifying the image of the “Indian brave” as a brand to be sold. And it’s hard to sell something if it’s not seen as laudable in some way.
If you want to have a group of Native people or a group that reads as an analogue for Native peoples, cool! But find a way to turn the trope on its head. PLEASE.
 People Of Color
 Drizzt is a Drow ranger from Forgotten Realms who turns against his people because he doesn’t want to murder a beautiful white girl. …no, really. I wish I was making that up. (And then he winds up murdering her anyway later. Only it’s okay because he really didn’t want to, and he feels really bad about it.
 Furthermore (just to pile a little hate on Drizzt), it’s worth noting that Drizzt is a man who comes from an Evil Matriarchy. Because obviously the Evil Evil Wimminz in power aren’t capable of reforming because they are wimminz. (Yes I just footnoted a footnote. Shut up.)
 Think I’m exaggerating? Listen to any Republican talk about crime and watch them immediately start using racially coded language. OH YEAH I JUST WENT THERE.
[The last part of my series on writing inclusive games is still in progress! Have no fear. But in the mean time, it’s spring, that wonderful time of year when a geek woman like me begins to think of conventions, and by extension convention harassment. Be warned that I will mod comments on this post with extreme prejudice and without fucking mercy.]
Decide mostly on a whim to go to a large gaming convention in a nearby city with your husband and a male friend from your gaming group because you like games and it sounds fun.
Lurk nervously around a game designer you desperately want to talk to while he runs a demo, clutching a manila envelope while you feel stupid for being such a fangirl. Feel bad that you are making your husband and friend wait for this. Talk with another game designer at the booth while you wait, who drags you over to the game designer you’re here to fangirl over after you drop a reference to a fan animation you made. Feel simultaneously embarrassed and thrilled when he interrupts his demo to enthuse about the fan animation and exclaims happily about the fanart you give him.
Have your luggage stolen from the sketchy motel you stayed in outside the downtown area to save money. End up crashing (along with husband and the friend) with friends of your friend (all male) for a few hours before driving back home the next day, two days on your convention badges unused.
Have your father get diagnosed with incurable cancer while applying to move to Canada. Move to Canada anyway.
Express a desire to attend the convention next year, despite the much-increased distance. When your husband decides to pass, buy a badge anyway.
Email the friends of the friend who let you crash on their floor after last year’s luggage heist. Be angry when they won’t let you buy into their room because you’re a woman. Make lots of half-jokes about cooties.
Angrily post on the gaming forum that you’re looking to buy a spot in a room with people who don’t mind girl-cooties. Find a spot in a not-outrageously-priced downtown hotel with four men, two of whom are moderate-level Big Names in the indie tabletop scene. Feel nothing other than relief that you’ll have a place to stay.
Arrive after 11 hours of driving. Sleep in a (king) bed (at opposite ends) with a man you have never previously met or spoken to. Afterwards, say truthfully that your only complaint was your bed-mate’s unbelievably potent snoring.
Make lots of new friends, play lots of games, talk to a lot of game designers. Resolve to come back the next year.
Win a setting design contest on the gaming forum. Turn it into a hack of a popular game by the game designer (not the one you fangirled at, the other one) you met at your first time at the big convention. Playtest, develop, and publish it. Insist that you’re not actually a game designer.
Spend two consecutive years pitching your game as a publisher at the big convention. In your second year of doing this, manage not to punch a smug male game design celebrity when he tells you that he thinks it’s so cute that women are designing games now. Feel disgusted that you actually give him money for a copy of the game that made him famous even after that.
Continue attending the big gaming convention. Each year you attend, reconnect with friends you made in previous years.
Become friends with the game designer who you’ve never stopped being a fangirl for. Develop a habit of always going for lunch together the years when he attends.
Make new connections each year and stay in contact after you go back home. Look forward each year to seeing this group of friends you only see at the big game convention. Begin to describe them as your tribe. Etch the spaces of the convention deep in your subconscious, to the point where walking into the convention center feels like home.
Become part of a vibrant community of artists and game designers who are passionate about games. Learn to call yourself a game designer, if grudgingly. No longer feel self-conscious that you have so many friends who are game designers and publishers.
Meet someone new. When they ask how many years you’ve been coming to the big gaming convention, look embarrassed when you realize that you don’t know. Five? Six? Maybe?
Share rooms with men you have never met in person previous to the convention every year you attend the convention. Continue not to think this is weird. This is part of convention life. Explain to friends who are concerned for you that you have a black belt and could snap pretty much any of those nerds in half whenever you feel like it anyway.
Start a blog about sexism in gaming. Expect it to have a very small following, if any. Be flabbergasted when you start getting thousands of views each month. Try to understand why so many people think your loudmouth opinions about gaming are worth reading.
Have another lunch “date” with the game designer you are a fangirl of. Confess that you and your husband want to try to start a family in the next year or so. Be surprised when he asks if he can hug you, feel genuinely happy afterward.
Meet (for the first time, in meatspace anyway) a game figure who is Kind Of A Big Deal. Don’t think anything of it, because you know lots of them now. He is charming and friendly, just like many of your game industry friends. After that year’s convention, add him to the mental file of “guys who mostly get it”, sub-filed under “not creepy mouthbreathers”, sub-filed under “safe to be around”. Completely fail to recognize that this mental filing system exists at all.
Get blindsided by losing your job – the first (and only) job you’ve ever enjoyed – because someone framed you for a mistake you didn’t make.
Be angry when a friend’s wedding is scheduled for the same weekend as the big convention. Make arrangements to attend the big convention for a day, sleep on the floor of a male friend’s room, and leave the next day for the wedding. Grumble about the sacrifice you are making.
Go home to visit the family. Go back to Canada. Come back the next day because your father has been admitted to hospital for the last time. Stay for several weeks while your father dies. Help arrange his funeral. Say nothing to anyone online but “family emergency”. After returning home, swear that you are going to the big game convention come hell or high water, even if you are broke. You don’t care what it takes.
It is six weeks after the funeral. Show up for the convention, then find out the wedding is canceled. Be glad when the friend you were crashing with for one night agrees to let you buy into the room so you can stay for the entire convention.
Be pleased to see Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when you run into him again. Think nothing of it when he puts his arm around you. It’s the big game convention – everyone is friendly here. This is nothing unusual.
Try too hard to have fun. Mostly succeed.
Make the standard complaints about the discomfort of sleeping on floors. Don’t be surprised when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to help you make arrangements that are more comfortable – that’s what people do here. Fail to think it is weird even when he keeps offering even after you refuse the first few times. Tell yourself that he is a friend who is trying to help.
Finally accede to his suggestion to switch rooms. Continue to think that this is a benign offer.
Discover that the promised bed is not empty as promised. Tell yourself that your discomfort is unfounded. You’ve always been fine before.
Tell yourself that you’re not concerned when he says “don’t freak out”.
Manage to fall asleep.
Become physically confined.
Feign sleep, maintaining exhausting hyper-vigilant awareness of exactly what is and is not being touched. At no point realize that you have the power to say no or to stop this in any way.
Lose track of time.
Wait to hear signs of life outside the room. Pretend to wake up and want to get an early start.
Emerge from the bathroom fully dressed. Manage to claim believably that you don’t want to waste time cuddling when there’s so much to do in so little time. Don’t cringe when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure chuckles and says “how practical of you”.
Intentionally get separated in the breakfast line, only to have him pull you over to be introduced to a woman who is really, really cool. Eat breakfast with the two of them. Pretend nothing is wrong. Manage not to act relieved when he leaves for an early panel.
Go back upstairs. Furtively move all of your stuff back to the room you were originally staying in.
Play lots of games with cool new woman throughout the day and enjoy them thoroughly. Succeed in not spending a single moment of the day alone.
Go through the usual song and dance of figuring out where to go for dinner and who to go with. Be unhappy when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to join your group in going out for dinner.
Realize that you are not okay.
Pull aside the male friend with whom you are staying. Tell him that you need Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure to not come with you to dinner. Dither over male friend making a scene before giving him permission to say something.
End up sitting on the stairs in a different room with male artist friend of the male friend you are staying with, (unknown to you before this year) who is a super nice guy. Try to hide the fact that you are shaking. Fail. Cry. Hate yourself for crying. Cry anyway.
Talk with male artist friend-of-friend about art as he flips through his sketch book. Be grateful when he pointedly doesn’t ask any questions about what is going on and is very sweet and gentle about the whole thing. Wonder if he knows who this is about. Suspect that he does know but refuse to ask. Become friends with male artist friend-of-friend afterward. Never speak of that exchange again.
Leave with group of people for dinner. Be relieved that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure is not coming along.
Trail behind on the way to the restaurant. Tell male friend you are staying with the details of what happened. Hate that you are upset about something that sounds so stupid and petty. Be surprised when male friend expresses disgust, says something to the effect that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure just wanted to touch a pretty woman. Allow yourself to realize for the first time that what happened was sexual and was not okay.
Rejoin the group at the restaurant. Be grateful when male artist shows you pictures of his then-toddler and talks about happy things. Try your best to be charming and not weird. Be convinced that you are failing. Drink.
Go to bed early (midnight) to avoid running into Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure at the usual after-hours gathering, even though you never go to bed early. Refuse to talk to Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when he relays a request to talk through male friend you are staying with. Drive home the next afternoon without talking to him.
Stop to have dinner with family on the way home. Talk vaguely about having a good time. You don’t know if you are lying.
Tell your husband about what happened. Flail for words to describe what happened. Cry.
Decide that you are going to blog about what happened. Be angry that you can’t ever say who it was. No one will believe that he would do something like that. Know in your soul that naming him would be the same as exile from this community that you’ve built a place for yourself in. Know that you are not capable of dealing with that kind of fallout. Know that you are not able to find out the hard way who will side with you and who will not and not have it destroy you.
Argue with your husband about whether you should blog about the incident. He only wants you to be safe, you are determined not to be silent. Tearfully convince him that you are right. Blog about it with all identifying details omitted. Hate yourself for being a coward.
Have a complete fucking meltdown about losing your job, losing your father, and being sexually assaulted within three months. Yell at a friend. Subsequently feel both terrible and completely justified. Try to apologize only to realize that you’re being weird and creepy about it. Never mention the incident to that friend again.
Become obsessed of the definition of harassment versus assault. Reluctantly decide to call it assault, even though you weren’t raped – mostly because of the physical confinement. Continually minimize your own trauma by telling yourself it wasn’t that bad.
Have panic attacks whenever his name comes up in your gaming-related social media streams, which is often. Learn to look like you are being productive while you are, in fact, doing your best not to hyperventilate.
Get pregnant. Cry. Have more panic attacks. Cry.
Worry that your silence will make you culpable the next time he does something.
Get therapy. Get your shit together. Finally accept that you didn’t say no because your entire life you have been socialized not to.
Become an advocate of anti-harassment policies. Help implement three in one year.
Finally contact him through email. Find out that he has been in therapy, that what happened in that hotel room put him in a downward spiral he is still picking up the pieces from. Derive absolutely no satisfaction from this. Fail to feel anything other than relief that he won’t hurt anyone else.
Return to the big convention after a year off (you were too pregnant to attend the year before). Maintain a constant low-level of your physical surroundings and threat possibilities. Regret that this is your reality now.
Have a great time. Make plans to come back next year.
[You might have guessed by this point that this is more than just a hypothetical piece. I’ve thought many times about telling the story of my experience with sexual assault at a gaming convention, but I wrestled with the fact that I could never manage to wrestle it into a tidy narrative. There were too many caveats, too many “this is what I’d always done”s. This is as close as I can come to making it feel like a story, and even then it is still messy. Trauma is a weird thing. Everything I wrote here feels germane to me, even though some of it (my father’s illness, the job) probably seems irrelevant to readers who aren’t me.
I also wanted to wait enough time that the details of this particular convention would blur from memory. Despite that this experience traumatized me, I have never wanted to punish my attacker. What I wanted was a conversation and acknowledgement of that harm, and assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, which has happened. Writing this piece wasn’t about revenge. It’s about telling my story – a story that I kept silent because I was afraid people would tell me I was to blame for what happened. It’s about me saying that I was not able to say no because the sum of my experience up to that moment in time was me being taught not to say no. And it’s about me saying that the only people responsible for sexual harassment and assault are the attackers, not the victims.]
Hey, folks! Just a freebie here to address a few things that I wanted to give some attention to.
Transparency: My Patreon numbers so far
So far, I’ve been super pleased with how well Patreon has worked for me! Blogging is something I’m passionate about, and being able to do it without having to worry that I’m “stealing” time and creative bandwidth from projects I could get paid for is a god-send. One of the unfortunate realities of not living in a hippie utopia like Scandinavia is that I have to hustle to make my dollars count, especially with a toddler in the house. So Patreon is great in that it gives me the freedom to allocate my mental bandwidth more to my liking.
The patron-supported relaunch only happened six weeks ago, so I only have a month and a half of posts and two payouts (Patreon processes pledges and issues payment the first week of each month for the previous month) as data points. But here are some preliminary numbers and my initial thoughts. (I should state the obvious here – I love spreadsheets. Like, unhealthily.)
amount pledged (processed)
total fees (credit card + Patreon fees)
Total # Patrons
# Pledging Patrons
# Patrons Gained
Last of Us: women
Last of Us: Joel
Difficulty of satire
Male protag bingo
Circle of Hands
How not to fail pt 1
I didn’t start tracking patron numbers and levels until recently, so I think I missed out on some good data. But an interesting picture is emerging so far. My initial thoughts?
The most positive features result in an unpredictable revenue stream. The ability to initially pledge at one amount and adjust later is great, because it lets people feel in control of the amount they want to spend as a patron and thus actually attracts patrons. But sometimes it can result in weirdness.
Like, there’s an interesting thing that happens where people pledge very highly to start with and then adjust downward later. It’s actually a positive thing, because every time I got a backer pledging at a high amount per post they actually messaged me to say “hey, I really want to support what you’re doing, but won’t pledge at this rate forever because of budget reasons”. And that is GREAT for me as a creator. Really, really great! But it has resulted in a couple weird downward dips. So I was appreciative that these patrons warned me in advance, because otherwise I would have been stressing about WHAT DID I DOOOOOOO.
Monthly caps, similarly, result in an unpredictability of revenue stream. And again, monthly caps are something I totally support! They’re a tool to help people feel confident that they won’t pay more than they want to, which is ultimately good for me. But it means that there’s a weird thing where a spike of new patrons in the second half of a month seems like a good thing, because they’re coming in fresh with no monthly caps that have been hit. But that’s a phenomenon where I feel like I need a lot more data points before I can analyze properly.
Hate spikes are actually pretty awesome. In advertising, there’s the idea that there’s no such thing as negative attention. Well, in social justice blogging circles that tends to be emphatically untrue. Hate-spikes like the one J Scott Campbell and his ilk sent my way are frightening, time-consuming, and mentally exhausting to deal with. When I was blogging for free, I would pretty much say I’d rather have a dearth of traffic than a massive hate-spike. And yet…
While the hate-spike was three of the un-funnest (yes it’s a word, shut up) days I’ve had in a long time, it also had a very concrete monetary benefit as it directly resulted in 10 new patrons. That’s almost a quarter of the patrons that I have now! As they say, the best revenge is living well. And I can’t think of a better “fuck you” than “I’m going to convert your hate directly into money”.
That said, I’m not about to go taunting Reddit or anything because I’m not stupid.
Status report! Posts requiring in-depth reporting.
I’ve mentioned previously that I was working on some posts (series of posts? not sure yet) about sex workers in games and disability in games. (Two SEPARATE topics, mind.) Work on these posts proceeds slowly – I’m still assembling an outline of how I’ll tackle this and the research needed is… daunting. The research file (a word doc where I dump links, quotes, and images) I have for disability in games is up above 10,000 words, with no sense of order emerging yet.
So if you’ve said to yourself, hey! I wonder what’s up with those posts… Working on it! But it’s a big task.
Self promotion! Our KickStarter funded the initial goal!
So yeah. Pleased as punch, and I hope our momentum continues so I get to do more awesome books about awesome princesses.
Toddlers are EXPENSIVE. It costs a lot of money to feed them, and even more money to pay people to make sure that they don’t kill themselves while you’re off earning money to keep the lights on. Sometimes I’m kind of amazed that we’ve survived this long as a species, because. Man. Toddlers.
 (I don’t know why I think this is hilarious. It just is.)
[A brief note before I start: this particular post has been many, many months in the making. I used TV Tropes extensively in putting together the outline for what I wanted to talk about. Thanks also to the following for their contributions and suggestions: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Magrann, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. You were enormously helpful.
This was turning into a loooooong post, so I wound up splitting this into parts. This post will tackle awful gender and sexuality-related stereotypes. The next post will look at awful racist stereotypes, since that’s probably going to wind up being as long as this already-extensive post.Also, a brief technical note – the new WordPress.com interface SUPER HATES captions. Sorry for the resulting ugly.
When you’re looking to write inclusive game material, actively avoiding offensive stereotypes is pretty much one of the most important things you can do, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s important for anyone looking to create a product with a broad appeal. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that when I see games that are riddled with sexist stereotypes, I almost always dismiss that game as “not for me”. There are exceptions, true. (I’mlookingat you, BioWare!) But the exceptions have to be particularly exceptional in other areas. For the most part, games that are blatantly sexist are games that I don’t buy.
Secondly, it’s important for anyone looking to improve their craft as a writer. Stereotypes are easier than taking the time to craft a well-rounded, nuanced view of something (a person, a group of people, a society, etc). But that’s what makes stereotypes lazy writing. Anyone can mash a bunch of stereotypes together into an unoriginal pastiche. The writers who stand out are those who bring something new and different into their writing. Lastly, avoiding stereotypes is important simply from the angle of not being a shitty human being. Do you want to write a setting riddled with offensive stereotypes and hide behind “creative license”? (If you know, if you answered yes, then perhaps you’re not the target audience for this…) You could do that! After all, there’s certainly many game writers and developers out there who have blazed that trail for you. But consider that using harmful stereotypes of marginalized groups perpetuates cultural narratives that continue to damage members of those groups. But, wundergeek! How do I know what stereotypes to avoid? This stuff is hard, and I might be using something that I’m not even aware is a stereotype! Well, fictional internet writer. I’ve put together a collection just for you of shitty stereotypes to avoid in your game writing. All of these are stereotypes that are pretty common (and by pretty common I mean, I see them so often it makes me want to flip tables) in the game world, and all of these are troublesome. This isn’t intended to be a substitute for getting second opinions from people who don’t share your privilege (BECAUSE YOU SHOULD ALWAYS DO THAT), but it’s a good place to start. I will warn you now, this list is looooooong. SO. LONG. Because, surprise surprise, there are a lot of shitty stereotypes that are common in gaming. (Say it isn’t so!) So grab a drink (I’m partial to margaritas) and let’s get started.
Men are from Mars, women are from venus
Please, unless it is your intent to write something that is truly subversive with regard to commonly held gender roles, avoid falling into the trap of writing men and woman as being completely different species that are incapable of relating to one another. And even then, consider that the likelihood of actually succeeding in your work being read the way you want it to is vanishingly small. That well has been poisoned. You see this in pop culture all the time: women want romance while men only want sex, women want to talk about their feelings while men pretend not to have any, men are perverts and women are prudes. This stereotype is incredibly gender essentialist and doesn’t do justice to just how varied a spectrum gender really is. Subtype: Men are generic, women are special How many games have you played where the NPCs wandering around are all or mostly male? For that matter, how many games have you played where the cast of characters is entirely male except for “the chick”? Can we all agree that the implications of this kind of thing are creepy and horrible? If women are 50% of the population, why would you make a world in which almost none of the people who actually get to be in public doing things are women? That is some creepy awfulness right there, so please. Just don’t.
Straw feminists (so named because they are a common subset of the straw man) are stereotyped, two-dimensional characters that exist to mock feminists and feminist ideals. Straw feminists are usually depicted as rabidly man-hating, to the extent that they want to overthrow patriarchal society and establish a fascist male dictatorship in its place. Also, very often they are lesbians, because nothing says misandry like lesbianism AMIRITE LAYDEEZ?
This is a stereotype that is more commonly used than you’d think in gaming. Take, for example, Purna from Dead Island, who had a skill that let her do increased damage… only to men. And let’s not forget the shitstorm that erupted when it was revealed that this skill was called “Feminist Whore” in a test build. Charming.
Or how about the Drow? They tick pretty much every straw feminist box and still have plenty of fail left over. The Drow are a matriarchal society (check) that hate men (check) and enforce the status of men as second class citizens (check). Naturally, because they are ostensibly a “feminist” culture, they are all evil. Really evil. Like worshipping an evil spider god evil. (Check, check, and check.) Oh, and let’s not forget that despite the fact that they hate men, they still all dress sexy…. for men? Because the only matriarchy worth writing about is a sexy matriarchy? And all of this isn’t even touching on the race fail wrapped up in the Drow. (We’ll come back to that.) So don’t ever write the Drow. Or anything like the Drow. Basically, if anything you’ve written looks even a little bit like the Drow, nuke it and start over.
Femininity is Evil
This is one of the most over-used stereotypes in gaming. Fantasy games are especially guilty of this, but non-fantasy games use this stereotype heavily as well. It’s rooted deeply in the patriarchal belief that female sexuality is evil. Any woman who is not pure and virginal is necessarily dirty and evil. The idea that femininity is itself evil is just a logical (if depressing) extension of that assumption. So women who show any hint of sexuality are evil, and women in general are evil, and men who are gender-nonconforming with feminine traits are especially evil. Because, you know, cooties. You can see this at work when you see evil eunuchs (a man without a penis? EVIL!), or super-beautiful women being sneaky (because super-beautiful = super-feminine = sneaky. EVIL!), or queens who are always evil (a woman in charge? EVIL!). And let’s not forget the “femme fatale” – a stereotype with many of it’s own sub-cliches, all of which I wish would die in a fire. Like the sexy evil sorceress, or the sexy evil queen, or the sexy thief, or the sexy spy. All of these are characters who use sex to get what they want, which of course makes them evil. Because, as we know, women who have sex are evil, and women who have lots of sex are really evil. And women who have lots of sex and ENJOY it? Well shit. They might as well be Satan. /headdesk The most screwed up example of this, however, is the vagina dentata stereotype – the most extreme extension of “the female is more deadly than the male”: monsters who literally consume their prey with their evil evil ladybits. (Fair warning, that link is pretty gross.)
Women as property
[TV Tropes calls this stereotype “Entitled to Have You”, but I’m not a fan of the gender-neutral phrasing as this is a heavily gendered stereotype that almost 100% applies to women.] All too often in games, women get to be plot devices, not people. And sometimes, even when they are depicted as people, they’re people without any real agency or freedom. There are many ways that this stereotype gets written into games, like the MacGuffin Girl – the woman who is herself the goal that must be attained. Or the female love interest who is nothing more than an extension of the hero because her most defining trait is being “owned” by the hero. And especially the “woman as standard hero reward” that you see in just about everything. One of the many reasons I have always hated Princess Peach is that she manages to hit all three of these.
Congratulations! You have just saved the village /castle/ kingdom/ nation / planet / galaxy / universe! Here is a beautiful woman as your reward! It’s like a slot machine that dispenses women, only more fucked up.
If you’re going to write a romance in your game, make it between two people with feelings, desires, and agency. Don’t write a romance between a male hero and a woman-shaped object. And if your hero hooks up at the end of the story, make it the result of a developing relationship between two characters, not as an auto-reward for saving the day. That kind of “insert coin, receive woman” plot device is kind of horrifying.
Women are only important because of their relationships with men
This is technically a subset of the “woman as property” stereotype, but is so unbelievably, massively endemic that it deserves to be expanded upon. All too often, female characters are depicted as only being significant to the story in so far as they are important to the story’s lead male characters. This has a whole host of problematic implications (women aren’t “real” people, women can’t be heroes, the only people whose stories matter are men, just to name a few. And the outcomes that this sort of thinking leads to are even worse. Starting with the least awful, when your writing adheres to this stereotype, you’re going to wind up with a cast of characters that is overwhelmingly male. Any women present are likely to be either a “lone macho chick” (the only woman on a team of men who is competent by completely divorcing herself from traditional femininity), a “team mom” (the female member of the team who coddles male egos and devotes herself to their best interests), or a “Smurfette” (a character who serves no purpose other than decoration). This sort of thing is both awful and stupefyingly boring. If your game’s story is nothing more than The Masculine Adventures of Manly Men, I’m going to find something else to play, because been there, done that. Despite that Gears of War is a game I’d probably enjoy in terms of gameplay, I’m not ever going to play it. When I want to play a fun third-person tactical shooter, I’ll load up Mass Effect instead and enjoy killing things in the face with my awesome LadyShepard. Of course, the much more awful cousin of the Smurfette is the “disposable female”, or – as Gail Simone has popularized the concept – “women in refrigerators”. All too often, the few female characters that exist are written out of the story – killed, brainwashed, maimed, etc – for the sake of giving a male character “tragic motivation” to come after the villain and emerge triumphant. See Kerrigan in StarCraft II, Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, Marian in Double Dragon II… Actually, you know what, just go watch the second installment in the Tropes Versus Women series by Anita Sarkeesian.
Women are passive/men are active
While all games tend to fail at this, fantasy games tend to fail especially hard because of the stereotypes that have long been held about magic, magic users, and who gets to participate in the action of a story. All too often in fantasy games, the heavily armored melee fighters are big, manly men and the magic-users are frail, delicate (usually scantily-clad) women – the underlying assumption being that the men are the ones putting themselves directly in danger while the women are slinging spells from a position of safety. Which sucks, because on its face the concept of magic-users is awesome – someone who uses arcane arts to bend reality to their will. But the execution almost always leaves something to be desired. An interesting subfail of this stereotype often pops up in those fantasy settings that mix magic and technology together. All too often, you wind up with your magical nature-loving people and your scientific technology-loving people, and never the twain shall meet. And because magic = female and nature = magic, then nature = female. Sometimes this extends to nature = passive, but most of the time you just wind up with nature = sexy. See, for instance, Dragon Age: Origins when the spirit of the forest is a hyper-sexy green lady with no clothes. (Because the physical manifestation of a forest is obviously going to be a sexay naked human. OF COURSE.) Or every irritating piece of druid or ranger art ever that shows them with no damn clothes while posing next to a large, intimidating animal. Or Final Fantasy XII, who went one step further and made their nature lovers both sexy and passive; the viera are a race of lingerie-wearing bunny girls who lounge around in the forest and don’t ever leave or do anything interesting ever. Wanting to actually DO SHIT is, you know, evil and foreign and stuff, so the magical bunny women actually excommunicate anyone who ever leaves the forest, no matter the reason. And yes, Final Fantasy XII also has the Jahara, who are a race of shamanistic male nature lovers. But the Jahara, notably, are fully clothed and are minor characters in a story about the struggle against the evil techno-empire ruled by manly men. (And yes, the techno-empire turns out to be manipulated by weirdo god-like spirits, and then the main villain turns into a robo-angel and… you know what, even by the standards of Final Fantasy, FFXII’s story was pretty goddamn gibberish, so let’s not go too deep with our analysis here.)
Sexism because history
This trope is mostly applicable to fantasy games, which are almost universally set in various incarnations of white crypto-Europe. What happens frequently such games is that the writers fall into the trap of assuming that naturally a crypto-European setting would be sexist because history was also sexist. You know, because it’s not like historians have actively ignored and/or erased the contributions of anyone who wasn’t a white dude for centuries. This leads to female characters who, by and large, stay in the kitchen and pursue only acceptable feminine goals (finding a man, having a baby, marrying some man that is not this other man that other people want her to marry, etc etc). You know, because history! Meanwhile, the heroes of these stories are always white men, because history! Sometimes a writer might make transparent attempts to somewhat circumvent this by having an Atypical Awesome Lady Character – otherwise known as the chick to whom all that awful sexism doesn’t apply because she is just SO. VERY. AWESOME. Unlike all those other awful girly girls who clearly would be able to rise above all that nasty sexism if they just tried harder.
The glaring hole in this sort of logic is that why should fantasy settings necessarily include sexism? If your setting includes dragons, wizards, demons, fantastical beasts, other planes of existence that routinely intrude on our own, and a pantheon of deities who routinely empower servants with supernatural powers, clearly we’re already talking about a universe vastly different from our own. (Either that, or history is actually way more awesome than I was led to believe.) Also, it’s pretty nonsensical to argue that gender equality in a fantasy setting would be “unrealistic”, because honestly. DRAGONS.
The most obvious stereotype and most pervasive stereotype of all. It is the low-hanging fruit of how not to fail, and yet almost no one seems interested in even attempting not to do this. Stupid chainmail bikini art in game books, lingerie ninja characters in video games, female characters whose sole purpose is as an object of sexual desire for a male audience… People. PEOPLE. This isn’t rocket science. Women are people. Not collections of sexy ladybits. People. Not only that, but they come in all shapes and sizes and races. There are tall women and short women and fat women and thin women. There are young women and middle-aged women and old women. So represent that diversity! Even if your female characters get to wear clothes, are they all under 30 and built like supermodels? If so, you still fail.
Queerphobia and Cissexism
[Before I continue, you’ll notice that this section is shorter than the previous. That’s not because it’s less important! It’s because a lot of homophobic tropes overlap heavily with your more “traditional” sexism. The one’s I’m calling out here go above and beyond the garden-level sexism and veer into heterosexism and cissexism. However, pretty much everything in the previous sections can apply to queer and non-binary characters as well.]
Gay (and/or trans) people are evil
Thankfully, due to changing attitudes with regard to marriage equality, this stereotype is less prevalent than it once once. But game culture is not exactly a terribly enlightened place, and there’s still an awful lot of this one out there. And often when you see an Evil Gay Villain in a game, that character will be the only gay character depicted. I don’t need to explain why that’s awful do I? That it’s bad to have your only representative of an already marginalized group be evil? Because this is the sort of thing that you see in “real life” all the time by certain groups – the insistence that all gay/queer people are promiscuous and evil people who want to either molest your children or make them gay/queer. So by using this stereotype, you’re simultaneously reinforcing harmful cultural narratives and writing an unoriginal character. Hooray!
There’s a watered down version of this that is also pretty common – that of the male evil cross-dresser. Of course anyone who doesn’t adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity gots to be evil! Because cooties? This stereotype manages to not only be sexist and homophobic, but transphobic as well. If you’re after checking as many “awful human being” boxes as possible, then by all means pack your cast with evil cross-dressers. Otherwise, please for the love of god can we let this stereotype die already?
Making excuses for gay
Game companies are getting better about representing gay characters in their games that aren’t Evil Gays, but an awful lot of the time there seems to be an impulse to need to be able to rationalize the gay. Gay characters aren’t allowed to just be gay and have it not be a big deal. It has to be explained somehow to make it more palatable for your typical dudebro audience. The Asari from Mass Effect are the perfect example of having your lesbians and eating them too. They’re a race of totally hawt lady space elves that are totally lesbians. Oh, except for how they’re not supposed to mate with each other because stigma. But they can mate with women from other species, so lesbians! Oh, but they also mate with men from other species, and they could theoretically mate with intelligent squid-things too. But when you go to a club, all the hawt lady space elves are all dancing sexy with each other! And there are totally cut scenes of an Asari bumping female uglies with LadyShep, so… Lesbians, brah!
Look, it just gets tiresome, okay? If you want gay characters, just let them be gay and move on with your life for gods sake.
No happy endings
So you’ve written a gay character that isn’t evil, that isn’t the lone gay character in a cast of straight characters, that gets to have an on-screen romance. Awesome. Now how can you heighten the tension in your story? By killing the gay love interest?
Now you’re just using the disposable woman stereotype and slotting in “gay” instead of “woman”. (Unless we’re talking about killing a gay woman, in which case you’re actually doubling down on your awful.)
For whatever reason, gay characters rarely get to have happy endings. Either they or their love interest gets killed or otherwise removed from the story, or their relationship falls apart, or they find true love and happiness with the opposite-sex partner they were clearly meant to be with all along. Too many times, gay characters in relationships have a giant narrative target painted on their chests.
And honestly, I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I game is to escape my real-world stressors for a while. So how much would it suck to sit down to play a game and have to choose between either not being represented or being represented but never getting to have a happy ending. LGBT people have to put up with enough bullshit in their daily lives already. How about we let them have the occasional story where the gay characters get to be not evil, gay, and still in a happy relationship at the end of the story, huh? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Erasure of nominally “invisible” populations
As much as there are some pretty awful portrayals of gay characters, the fact remains that remains that representations of gay characters are increasing in games. Which is great! Unfortunately, however, there is no commensurate increase in representation of characters that are trans, bi, poly, what have you.
And if you’re not sure how to write a good trans character, for example, one thing you can try is writing the character as a man (since men are who we’re conditioned to see as protagonists) and later going back and changing the character. It’s an excellent way to turn what would normally be a traditional character type into something new and compelling. For instance, Fang in Final Fantasy XIII was originally written as a man and later switched to a woman, and she remains one of my favorite female characters I’ve yet encountered in gaming.
And that’s all for now. Next time: awful race stereotypes to avoid
—-  And then watch the rest of it.  See what I did there?