GenCon’s GoH are “diverse as the industry itself”? NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Credit Where It’s Due

Thanks to the people who helped me vet initial drafts of this post. I had harsh feels and made things tense and I’m sorry about that. Thanks also to Kimberley Lam, who is awesome and you should go buy Atop A Lonely Tower, which is an awesome RPG designed to be played online.

Before reading, it’s super-important for me to note that there are some words and ideas here that aren’t mine. In some cases, where people have commented publicly, I’ve quoted them here. In many other cases, I’m summarizing thoughts and ideas that came from behind-the-scenes discussions on Google+. As incidents like the J Scott Campbell/Mark Brooks-incited hatesplosion illustrate, you should not ever force someone to speak publicly on the internet. Especially when someone is making critical statements about a venerable geek institution like GenCon. When I am quoting or paraphrasing other people, those sections will be clearly marked.

Disclaimers. Several of Them.

1. Everything I write here is as someone who is a long-time attendee of GenCon. This year might be my eighth time attending GenCon. I say might because I’ve lost count, to be honest. Nothing I say here is meant to say that GenCon is terrible and must be destroyed with fire. I love GenCon. I love it and I don’t think I’ll ever stop going. So please don’t flame me. Okay?

2. This is not meant as an attack on or a question about the merits of any of the Guests of Honor chosen for 2014. Wait. That was important so I’m going to say it again. I AM NOT ATTACKING ANY OF THE GUESTS OF HONOR FOR THIS YEAR, NOR AM I SAYING THEY DON’T DESERVE TO BE GUESTS OF HONOR.

I’ll admit to not knowing a lot of people on the list. But the people I do know are eminently worthy of respect – especially the women[1]. When I express anger in this post, it is anger at the big picture, anger at the outcome, and anger at the decisions that the organization made to get to this point. I AM NOT AM NOT AM NOT expressing anger at the people who are choosing to participate in this year’s GoH program. PERIOD.

3. One thing I’m not even going to talk about here is the lack of queer diversity. That’s also a thing. It’s also a thing I don’t feel prepared to talk about, because that gets too much into discussing private things about real people which I really don’t want to do. 

Down to Business: The Lineup

GenCon recently announced the complete lineup of Guests of Honor for this year. As someone who has been pushing for increased diversity of Guests of Honor at GenCon, this is something I was very eager to see revealed. So I was pretty disappointed when the lineup looked like this:

  • Keith Baker
  • Lillian Cohen-Moore
  • James Ernest
  • Bruno Faidutti
  • Matt Forbeck
  • Andrew Hackard
  • Steve Hensley
  • Kenneth Hite
  • Jon Hodgson
  • Steve Kenson
  • Eric Lang
  • Nicole Lindroos
  • Jay Little
  • Jeff Martin
  • Ryan Miller
  • Luke Peterschmidt
  • David Preti
  • Mike Selinker
  • Greg Stafford
  • Elisa Teague
  • Richard Thomas
  • Allen Varney
  • Jordan Weisman
  • Ray Winninger

It felt like a punch to the gut. How. HOW could this happen? In 2011, a mere 1 out of 16 GoH was female – Margaret Weis. When the GenCon has made noise about wanting to increase the diversity of the GoH program, HOW IS IT that in three years they’ve gone from a humiliating 6% representation of women to a still-pretty-goddamn-embarassing 16% representation of women?

THE WORST PART, however, is this completely fucking tone deaf blurb that they included at the top of the page announcing the GoH lineup:

Our Industry Insider Guests are as diverse as the industry itself and have extensive knowledge and expertise.

That’s the part that REALLY has me seeing red. So here’s where I where I start tearing shit down. (But remember #2, folks. This is about the BIG PICTURE.)

Demographics: Why This is Really Not Okay (Gender)

So first, let’s take a look at the gender breakdown of this lineup.

Gender-wise, is this as diverse as the industry itself? Well. Unfortunately. Yes.

It’s really hard to find current demographics of the North American game industry, especially given that it’s so fragmented across different platforms. But this 2005 International Game Developers Association survey pegged the number of female game developers at a mere 11%. And while this post on Gama Sutra collects data about students currently in game design programs, the numbers seem pretty consistent with the IGDA survey, despite being 8 years later. So depressing as it is to contemplate, 16% is probably a pretty accurate percentage when you’re looking at game industry professionals.

HOWEVER.

Women account for FORTY-SEVEN percent of gamers. FORTY-SEVEN. It is absolutely ridiculous to have this kind of a lack of representation when women comprise such a huge part of the audience that you’re actually attempting to attract. Furthermore, while the percentage of women in the formal game industry is relatively low, there are a lot of fantastic women doing work related to games that would make them worthy of being a GoH.

And of course all of this is ignoring the fact that this year’s lineup is actually less inclusive of women than 2012! What happened? Did they look at 2012 and think, whoa! Clearly too many women up in here. We have to do something about that?

Well, considering that any conversation with more than 20-30% involvement by women is perceived to actually be dominated by women, that might actually be the case. (Science! It’s depressing.) Is this the “equality” that GenCon is shooting for with it’s GoH lineup? If so, that’s pretty fucking terrible if the most amount of space women can hope to occupy is a miserable 20%.

Demographics: Why This is Really Not Okay (Race)

All right. So this is where I’m going to step back and let some other people talk about their feelings on this. I think POC voices are more important than mine on the issue of racial diversity; there’s also the unfortunate complication that it’s not easy for me, as someone who is whiter than white, to decry lack of racial diversity without looking like I’m judging the racial identity of the people chosen to be this year’s GoH, which would be shitty.

So instead, I asked the previously-mentioned Kimberley Lam if she’d be willing to offer comment, which I place here without additional comment of my own.

I am a big fan of supporting self-identification and parsing ethnic backgrounds can be really hard. I’m the kind of person who uses, predominantly, “Asian” or “European” and hopes that the person I’m trying to figure out isn’t offended that I can’t get much more specific than a continent – and even then I stand a decent chance of getting it wrong.

So, saying that the Industry Insider GoH roster isn’t ethnically diverse isn’t exactly something I’m willing to commit to since I don’t know how the Guests of Honor identify. I will say, though, that it’s disappointing (and yet, utterly unsurprising) that there aren’t many visible minorities on the roster. Being able to pass as white, no matter how you identify, can lead to a lot of differences in your experiences. Passing as white affords the privilege of being able to put down the social burden of your ethnicity.

I’m ethnically Chinese. I can’t pass, so I’ve had the pleasure of being complimented on my English speaking skills, asked where I’m from (and then asked again when I answer that I’m from Canada), asked about insulting Asian stereotypes and assumed to have some sort of insight on the inner workings (and faults) of every Asian government or person in existence. I don’t ever get to put that down because I don’t get to decide when these interactions happen – the people who intrude on my life do.

When Gen Con touts the GoH roster as diverse as the industry, I’m worried that they’re telling the truth. That the industry really doesn’t have people who might understand what it’s like, even in a general sense, to never be able to pass as white and to have your ethnicity come up in the most surprising and often irrelevant places. People who might understand how hard it can be to feel like I have to represent a whole culture even though the one I grew up with is Canadian (and to feel like I’m never allowed to represent Canadian culture because of the way I look). People who try to maintain their cultural heritage in the face of rampant stereotypes and misinformation.

I’m not searching for sympathy. I’m searching for empathy, and empathy comes from a place of shared experiences.

Additional Context: Some Miscellany Worth Addressing

Note: some of this content will be cited. Some of it won’t, for previously-mentioned privacy concerns. Anything that’s not my words or original ideas will be italicized in green. Sorry for any confusion that might cause.

GenCon’s GoH are not like any other con’s GoH

Now of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that despite the fact that GenCon calls its program a Guest of Honor program, it’s really not anything that most people would recognize as a Guest of Honor program. Travel costs, lodging, food, incidental expenses – none of these things are covered. All that Guests of Honor receive are a badge and some marketing and possibly some other tiny perks.

Now recently, GenCon has started calling it the Industry Insider Guest of Honor program to reflect that GoH are industry professionals who would have attended the convention anyway. But that change doesn’t really go far enough, as “Guest of Honor” is a pretty well-defined thing in convention culture and comes with pretty concrete expectations.

One of the people behind the GoH program said that the program name should be changed further to something like “Industry Insider Select Speakers“, which I would certainly support. If GenCon has no intentions of changing the program, which it really sounds like they don’t, then it shouldn’t be called a Guest of Honor program AT ALL.

But perhaps a better middle ground would be something like having the program split into the Industry Insider track, which would basically represent what the GoH program is now, and adding an actual “traditional” Guest of Honor track for diverse speakers, new voices, and people working to expand the boundaries of the gaming community. Because it is disappointing to look at a program that is being advertised as a Guest of Honor program and see that what is being honored is whiteness and maleness. Such a program doesn’t represent gamers of color, who are made to feel unwelcome and ostracized by things just like this.

Lackluster enthusiasm for diversity of recruitment

Over on Google+, Nicole Lindroos – one of the GoH and also someone responsible for helping run the GoH program, commented publicly on the selection process, saying [emphasis mine]:

I personally reached out to female game professionals this year and last in an effort to get them to submit themselves for consideration. Many of them did not plan to be at GenCon (the first hurdle to participating). Many others gave some variation of the “I’m really not qualified” response, as I’d done myself in previous years (despite over 20 years of working in the game industry). Many very interesting, very qualified professionals aren’t represented because of those first two hurdles. I can’t bring people to GenCon, the participants on the Industry Insider track have to be pulled from attendees. I can encourage them to put themselves and their seminars up for consideration but again, we need to pull from people who are self-motivated to participate, not from reluctant speakers who have to be convinced it’s worth their time. There are enough people who are willing, eager even, to participate to fill the seminar slots several times over. 

(You can read the entirety of her post here)

Here’s the thing. I appreciate where Nicole is coming from, on a certain level. As someone who is working to increase diversity in a volunteer organization that I’m involved in, it’s disappointing when your efforts don’t have immediate results. But “well we tried” is NOT an adequate response. There are reasons, many of them, for why women are hesitant to even attend GenCon, much less put themselves forward as a potential GoH. The overwhelming white-maleness of the GoH program is in itself a large part of that, and if GenCon is serious about meaningful change, they’re going to have to do some serious work to overcome that.

The industry insiders who were going to attend anyway can pay their own way, save the money and support for the people who need the assistance to get there.[2] GenCon is a great convention, but it is also FUCKING EXPENSIVE. And hand-waving and saying “well we have to choose from the people who want to attend” is ignoring the fact that that privileges a certain class of attendee.

One thing that I’ve appreciated about Avonelle Wing and the rest of the Double Exposure crew is that the conventions they run have made a real effort to increase diversity. Their lineup of panelists for Metatopia in 2013 included 4 men, 3 women, and 1 non-binary transperson. Their schedule of panels was very much diversity-focused as well! And if a small convention that’s being organized by a handful of people can manage to put in the work required to have balanced gender representation, what is stopping GenCon from doing the same?

Well, it might be an unwillingness to talk about issues that would be uncomfortable for the majority of their convention attendees:

“One of the GoH sessions I proposed more than once was about tips on including more diverse characters in your games (even historical/medieval-based fantasy ones), which was turned down without comment each time. The only diversity panel was about SFF artists.” –a former GenCon GoH

Now I’ll admit that I don’t know Nicole or the other people behind the program, nor do I have any way of knowing how recently this was supposed to have taken place. But I would hope that a profit motive isn’t preventing these sort of conversations from happening publicly on the part of GenCon organizers, because there is A REAL HUNGER to see that sort of thing.

In conclusion

All right, I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll wrap this up by saying this:

We are here, women and gamers of color and queer people and non-binary people. WE ARE HERE. And we deserve to be reflected.

IT’S TIME TO STOP ERASING US.

[1] I was quite happy to see Lillian Cohen-Moore on the list. I think her project to collect the history of women in gaming is super-interesting and I’d like to see more of that sort of thing promoted!

[2] Not to mention that it’d be nice to see some NEW faces as Guests of Honor. Is Ken Hite cool? Yeah. Does he really need to be Guest of Honor again? Nope. Not really. He’s coming to GenCon no matter what, and it’s not like he needs the exposure.