Crowdfunding platforms: why I use KickStarter and why you should too

[In the interest of transparency, I’ll disclose that I’m currently running a campaign on KickStarter; I also sort-of-know two people who work for KickStarter, so, you know, #corruption or #ethics or whatever[1].]

[ETA: The officer who murdered Michael Brown was Daren Wilson, not Darren Watts. I am a tremendous moron, and that mistake has been corrected. I deeply apologize for the confusion.]

One of the biggest and, to my mind, best changes to alter the indie tabletop publishing landscape in the last few years is the advent of crowdfunding. Prior to things like KickStarter, publishing even small book projects required a substantial investment, one that might not pay off for the first few months of a new project. That privileged people with the ability to tie up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in dead-tree books for months at a time until they saw a profit.

True story, the first edition of Thou Art But A Warrior that I published cost me about $400 for the initial print run, and I did everything myself. EVERYTHING. Writing, art, layout (that was a mistake – I’m terrible at layout), the only things I had to pay for were printing and shipping. I had a pretty successful debut at GenCon in 2008, for indie values of success that is, but even so it took two and a half months to earn back my investment and start making “profits”, as it were.

Luckily, I could afford to do that. When I published the first edition of TABAW, I was a DINK[2] living in an apartment with no significant ongoing expenses. I had the financial ability to write off that $400 knowing that it would come out in the wash. Eventually. Probably.

Now obviously, that sort of publishing landscape is going to privilege a certain class of creator, and serve as a bar to entry to other classes of creators.

So KickStarter was revolutionary, in that it allowed designers to make games without the painful initial investment. It also took away the financial worries behind publishing a new project. Was this going to be a flop? What if no one bought it? What would you do with 200 copies of a game no one wanted? With KickStarter-style crowdfunding, you can know if your project isn’t commercially viable before sinking massive funds into it, which again is a huge, huge deal for people who want to make games but can’t afford to waste money on a failure[3].

(Sidebar: Patreon has been even more revolutionary in lowering the barrier to publishing paid content, because the ability to get funding on an ongoing basis for creating a stream of content is really just the best and so much less stressful than project-based platforms like KickStarter. And I think it’s not a coincidence that I’m seeing more women and PoC and queer designers putting out work since Patreon became a thing, but that is maybe a post for another time.)

The success of KickStarter has spawned a legion of crowdfunding platforms, however some of KickStarter’s biggest competitors have not adhered to KickStarter’s high ethical standards. So since ethics in gaming seems to be “a thing” right now, I thought I’d provide a publisher’s-eye view of the ethical concerns behind my decision to switch to KickStarter for my most recent crowdfunding campaign.

The ethical quandaries inherent in running a crowdfunding platform

The thing about KickStarter and other crowdfunding platforms is that they make money on each campaign that funds successfully. So as a business, it’s in their best interest to see lots of campaigns funding successfully so as to make lots of money. However, the fact that KickStarter and similar funding platforms are what is enabling the projects being funded to exist adds an interesting ethical wrinkle. KickStarter is not itself a publisher or creator, but it profits from the works that are created through their campaigns.

Ergo, there’s a balance that has to be struck when considering projects – where does a crowdfunding platform draw the line of content they won’t publish, or do they even draw one at all? Being willing to deny or shut down campaigns for projects that are harmful in some fashion also means turning down potential income.

So how do different crowdfunding companies balance these two concerns?  I’m not going to look at every crowdfunding company, because that would be insane. But I thought it would be worth comparing KickStarter and IndieGoGo – the two most popular sites for crowdfunding games right now.

KickStarter

Until very recently[4], KickStarter’s campaigns were 100% curated – meaning that they had to approve every campaign before it was allowed to go live. So a lot of the worst (ie offensive/harmful) campaigns were simply not allowed to fund on KickStarter.

Even when something truly awful managed to get through the approval process, KickStarter has been willing to shutdown harmful campaigns in clear violation of their ToS, such as in the case of Tentacle Bento – a truly awful game about aliens abducting school girls and sexually assaulting them. Thankfully, KickStarter stepped in and shut that one down. (Though it didn’t stop the game from being produced, depressingly.)

But even more tellingly, KickStarter is also able to admit when they get something wrong. Take this example of a campaign for a PUA manual that instructed men in how to get around clear refusals in order to coerce women to sleep with them. This repugnant manual was at the very least advocating sexual harassment, and at the worst advocating sexual assault. KickStarter staff were alerted to the campaign and were faced with making a decision a mere two hours before the funding deadline and they decided to not shut down the campaign.

However, in the wake of that campaign they repented and wrote this blog post called “We Were Wrong” in which they explained the motives behind their decision and how they got it wrong. They then pledged to donate $25,000 – which was more than the offensive campaign raised in the first place – to RAINN.

Which, you know, kudos. They took it on the chin, admitted they got it wrong, and took action as a result. Which is more than can be said for…

IndieGoGo

IndieGoGo’s main selling features as a competitor of KickStarter were that they didn’t curate campaigns and that creators have the option to run “flexible funding campaigns”, which means you can choose to keep all of the money you raise even your campaign fails (though the fees for this type of campaign are higher than the all-or-nothing campaigns). And in theory, the lack of curation isn’t a terrible thing, so long as they’re willing to enforce their own ToS, which prohibits: “Bullying, harassing, obscene or pornographic items, sexually oriented or explicit materials or services”.

The problem is that they’re willing to let pretty much anything fly, ToS be damned, because sweet sweet filthy lucre. Take, for example, the case of Tentacle Grape Soda – a truly repugnant campaign for rape-joke-themed grape soda. (Yes really)

Here is a copy of what I sent to IndieGoGo staff when I reported the campaign:

This item promotes rape and sexual harassment through the trivialization of rape. They have a disclaimer at the bottom saying that they don’t support rape, but this is belied by the following:

* their artwork depicts a woman about to be raped by a tentacle in a rather playful light
* the campaign creators FREELY ACKNOWLEDGE that the name of their product is a play on “tentacle rape”
* the campaign includes unused label designs that show women in mild to extreme distress about their impending tentacle rape
* this alternate art is being sold as a premium reward level, allowing the creators to profit off of a graphic depiction of a woman clearly in distress
* their reward levels include not-at-all-veiled rape jokes, such as the $25 Get Graped level or the $6000 A Ton of Grape level.
* the promo descriptions of their reward levels imply that women enjoy and actually look for rape, such as: “$25 – Get Graped – We all know why you’re here and what you really want…”

These are the sort of rape jokes that normalize rape culture and promote the harassment of women. Simply saying “we don’t support rape” DOES NOT obviate the fact that this campaign is seeking to profit on rape jokes at the expense of survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – which continue to be a HUGE problem in the geek community these campaign contributors claim to represent.

There are only 10 days left. Please act quickly to remove this campaign and send the message that Indiegogo will not support creators that promote rape and sexual violence, even as a joke.

Unfortunately, what I got back was a whole lot of boiler plate weasel words. And sure enough, not only did IndieGoGo not remove the campaign, THEY FEATURED IT ON THE FRONT PAGE TWO DAYS LATER. So not only was IndieGoGo NOT willing to enforce their own ToS, but they were totally okay with officially endorsing a rape-joke-themed-product! WOO! RAPE JOKE SODA! DRINK UP EVERYONE!

But, guys, guys! It’s okay, because Tentacle Grape Soda totally does not support rape:

Tentacle Grape Soda does not support rape

Rape is a serious subject. The makers of Tentacle Grape (Cosplay Deviants, LLC) do not, in any way, shape, or form condone the despicable act of violence towards women. While we are open minded about the nature of sexual relationships and respect the variety of ways that people choose to express these things, we do not (and never have) supported the idea of unwilling participation… the difference between fantasy and flagrant violence.

That said, Tentacle Grape is a play on the phrase “tentacle rape” – a staple in popular Japanese animated pornography aka “hentai.” The facts are these:

  • The drink is a parody of a parody. (A play on words based on a fictional animated sexual cliché.)
  • The drink doesn’t promote an act of violence – it mainstreams a phrase that already exists in a popular adult subculture.
  • It’s a cartoon image. No actual schoolgirls were assaulted, hurt or violated in the creation of the soft drink. In fact our Mascot Murasaki is quite happy in ALL images of her and her tentacle companion.
  • There have not been, to date, any reported cases of tentacles raping women that we know of. *

While we respect (and agree with) the firm stance opposing sexual violence, we feel strongly that Tentacle Grape soda does not condone this unspeakable act.

*We reserve the right to revoke this bullet point in the event of an impending alien invasion… just in case

Oh, yes, of course. Us awful feminists are just being hysterical and over-sensitive again for thinking that rape jokes – even tentacle rape jokes – shouldn’t fucking be mainstreamed.

And of course the campaign succeeded +$8000 and I hated life and was totally not surprised when I found out later that they’d initially tried to fund on KickStarter, only KickStarter didn’t approve the campaign and they noped on over to IndieGoGo, because IGG is awful. The end.

All of which is why I switched to using KickStarter for my most recent campaign, because seriously. Fuck those guys.

But hey, at least IndieGoGo isn’t GoFundMe

As bad as IGG is, at least it can’t compete with GoFundMe for the crown of The Biggest Asshoe of Crowdfunding Sites. Because GoFundMe, among many other dubious decisions lately, has the distinction of hosting a campaign to give money to Daren Wilson – the #Ferguson cop that murdered Michael Brown. And not only did they not shut the campaign down, but they actually issued a Cease and Desist to Color Lines – an advocacy organization that was pressuring GoFundMe to honor their own fucking ToS and shut down the campaign.

So congratulations, IndieGoGo! You may be willing to profit off of the sale of products that normalize rape jokes and perpetuate rape culture, but at least you’re not literally profiting from the murder of children.

[1] It astounds me that #GamerGate is still a thing. STILL. Like, Jesus. Don’t any of them actually, you know, play games?

[2] Dual Income, No Kids

[3] Although no negative judgement on publishers that prefer and can afford to avoid the crowdfunding model of publishing. It is time-consuming and STRESSFUL, and certainly not how I would like to put out major projects if I had another choice.

[4] That has since changed, owing to the growth of the platform and number of campaigns. It’s too early as of yet to say if this will have an effect on the quality of campaigns on the site.

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