Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

Necessary disclaimers

This post might seem a little arcane, since it is rooted in a Twitter dustup that stemmed from a misunderstanding (funny how 140 characters makes it easy to lose context…). However, I also think it’s a good look at the messy what-goes-in-the-sausage side of game development, and how increasing diversity in game development isn’t as straightforward or as easy as it sounds.

(Before I get started, let me assert that this post isn’t meant to be seen as taking sides, in any form or fashion. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation! I know the internet doesn’t like nuance, but that’s what’s being expressed here, so deal.)

Let me explain… No. Is too long. Let me sum up.

So here’s how it all went down. Tumblr user teal-deer made a post called “There are now Zero Women working on Dungeons and Dragons“. From that post:

Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, an editor who previously worked both on Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, was laid off on January 28th.

This means of the mere eight remaining employees working on Dungeons and Dragons, zero of them are women. This is a huge problem. –teal-dear (follow link for full post)

Subsequent to this post, rollforproblematic made a post about WotC D&D demographics as compared to Paizo’s demographics. Which is where Jessica Price, a project manager at Paizo, stepped in to provide comment about demographics at Paizo and the realities of uncredited work that might add to the perception of lack of female participation. Jessica’s post is classy and professional, only commenting on her direct experience at Paizo and not mentioning WotC or D&D even in passing.

However, Jessica Price has her tumblr set to push tumblr posts to Twitter, which – because of the format restriction – only includes the first line in the tweet; when making a response to a threaded Tumblr post, what appears in the pushed tweet is very often not written by the replying person in the first place. So it’s pretty understandable that there was some confusion about what it was that Jessica Price was actually saying. Unfortunately, how people reacted to that confusion was to start making angry posts on Twitter.

Mike Mearls got the ball rolling by making this rather combative tweet:


Now to be fair, he did follow up his tweet with this one:


…which is a sentiment I agree with! And plan to blog about in the future! But wow is this not the way to express that sentiment. Especially when you follow it up with a series of tweets listing women on the team in non-design positions without actually mentioning their names in the tweets. (This is something that happens to women all the damn time, where we are credited by position as “a woman” and not actually by name, and it sucks.)

So what could charitably[1] be seen as preventing the erasure of women in development suddenly starts look a lot more like an ally using the mere existence of women as a shield against criticism, which is the “I have coworkers that are black” of feminism. Furthermore, you have a male developer using the existence of these unnamed female coworkers as a bludgeon to demand an apology from a female developer for criticism that wasn’t actually hers. Which reads as an ally demanding feminism cookies at best and a man in a position of authority using their status to silence a woman making unwanted criticism at worst.

All of which is… incredibly problematic.

Even so! Jessica Price kept it classy and responded with:

…But the original post isn’t mine, and my responses are addressing comments about Paizo’s demographics. I have no expertise/interest in commenting on WotC’s demographics; if you want to talk about that, please remove me. … –Jessica Price (you can read the full thread here, or most of it)

And Mike Mearls apologized for the discussion, and that was pretty much that. (At least as far as I’m aware. Phew.)

All in all, pretty short-lived for a Twitter dustup. However, it left me with… well… a lot of complicated feels.

The feels and their complications

1. Mike Mearls’ response was not okay.

Regardless of the intent behind his tweets, the response that Mike Mearls chose to make was not okay. Women in the industry already have to deal with a bewildering array of harassers, trolls, and sea lions. So this kind of belligerence directed at a prominent female industry figure by one of the luminaries of the TRPG world is just not okay. Even if Jessica Price had been the one making the original criticism, this kind of combative defensiveness is not an appropriate response to what was actually a civilly expressed criticism, despite Tumblr’s shortening of the post making it appear otherwise.

Mike Mearls has expressed a desire to be an ally in that he wants to work for increasing diversity and inclusion within D&D products and the industry as a whole. Well part of being an ally is being able to take criticism on the chin. Yeah, it fucking sucks. But as a person of privilege, you do not get to prioritize your feelings over a marginalized person’s expression of marginalization. That is allying incorrectly.

2. Women in gaming who assume non-design roles are valuable

There is a weird cult of the Game Designer in TRPG circles, which sucks because there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

Furthermore, we need to erase the myth of the Solitary (Male) Game Designer, because game design is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a craft that requires community to be successful. And so often it’s women providing vital first feedback and design advice who aren’t even recognized for the importance of their contributions to the final work.

2a. Credit where credit is due

If women are going to start having their contributions recognized, men in positions of power need to vigorously highlight the participation of women.

2b. Women often get pushed out of design and into support roles

Over on Google+, David Hill made the point that very often, women working in non-design support roles don’t want to be working in those roles.

Gosh, I think I’ve heard this story before. One of my good friends was hired for design and concept work at a major video game studio. Immediately upon relocating and starting, they decided she’d be a better fit off the design team, and as a community manager. With a pay cut.

Wait. This isn’t one of my friends. This is a lot of them.

Which still doesn’t change the fact that there are no women on the game design team. That’s a fact. Yet, people have to apologize for saying this empirical fact, because it erases all the non-game design people working on the property. –David Hill, (entire post here)

I know women who do great work in non-design support positions, and who are passionate about what they do. But it’s undeniable that women do get shunted away from design positions because of gendered workplace expectations.

And unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which is the case here. Because a bunch of internet people descending on them to demand that they talk about their job satisfaction for the purposes of resolving an internet argument isn’t exactly going to elicit honest responses.

3. Silencing women is not okay, community that demands our silence is toxic

I’m going to quote myself from a rant I made on Twitter (albeit lightly edited for grammar) that was partly inspired by this Twitter dustup, but also by a messily complicated situation I’m dealing with in my real life:

It is important to recognize that the work that women do in building community IS work and that it IS valuable. Women who build community are not less valuable because they are performing the role they were socialized to adhere to.

But it’s also important to recognize that women also serve and foster community in other ways than building community structures/supports. Most women I know have at some point chosen to be silent on an issue that harms them in the interest of community. Community is often a thing that is not built FOR women, but built ON women. A thing that requires their complicity and silence.

The penalty of not remaining silent is not being allowed to participate in the thing that they helped build/grow/foster. I make the choice to remain silent on certain things every day. Some days it is easier than others. Some days it’s an eyeroll and a whatev – nbd. Some days it’s a weight on your chest that makes it impossible to breathe or ask for help.

And I don’t know how to fix it, any of it. My silence won’t fix it. But I can’t deal with the consequences of not-silence. Community that requires the silence of the women who perform labor in its service is not healthy community, but how do we move on from that? I wish I had more than just questions.

4. Female and non-binary designers exist. There are lots of them.

Something that Mike Mearls failed to address is the fact that the core design team is exclusively male. And that is absolutely something he should have acknowledged instead of handwaving about ‘well look at all these women over here!’. Yes, I’m sure that the men on the design team are all eminently qualified and have an impressive roster of design work. But you know what? There are a lot of smart, talented, and experienced non-male designers out there who would be more than qualified to take on designing for D&D.

So getting defensive about the fact that they do have women… who aren’t designers? It feels like moving the goal posts. 0 out of 8 is a shitty ratio, and at the very least it should be acknowledged that, yeah, they could have done better wrt diversity.

4a. No I’m not saying fire Mike Mearls or any of the other male designers and hire a woman

FFS, don’t even start with the strawmen, okay?

5. Fucking up is inevitable. What matters is how you respond when called out.

Seriously. I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times – it’s something that happens to everybody. You’re going to fuck up. Period. And it sucks being called out. Because dammit they should know that you’re not the enemy, and that you had good intentions, right?

Thing is, intent isn’t some magical cure-all. You can’t say “well that’s what I meant was…” and expect that to solve everything, because it won’t.

6. Lastly, walk the fucking walk

This past year, I had an encounter with a Big Name Game Industry Figure that highlights the kind of bullshit that game industry women have to deal with. First he belligerently make mocking comments about positions I’ve taken on my blog, then he attempted to silence me by making dismissive sarcastic remarks. It was an obvious show of power and status wielded against a woman who said things that he didn’t like, and IT FUCKING SUCKED.

And this guy? Someone who has said that he wants diversity in the industry. Someone who has worked to bring in more female writers and designers. And yet when faced with a woman who expressed opinions he didn’t like, he too thought it was totally okay to weaponize his superior status in order to shut up a woman having opinions he didn’t agree with.

It made me furious! Hell, I’m still mad about it! That kind of thing is the kind of shitty microaggression that piles up and drives women out of the industry. So if you’re a dude working in the game industry, you HAVE TO be conscious of the fact that you are always operating from a place of privilege and status, and that weaponizing that status is just not fucking okay.

In summary

It’s a complicated situation! And again, this isn’t intended as a personal attack against Mike Mearls. I’ve written previously about how I like the new direction of D&D and how meeting Mike Mearls gave me hope for the future of the hobby!

Still, this was a giant red flag for me, and yet another check mark on my list of “Reasons Why I’m Glad I Publish My Own Fucking Games” ie “I’m Glad This Is Shit I Don’t Have To Deal With”. Because if I had been Jessica Price, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been so classy in my response.

[1] I’m a bit fan of always making a strenuous effort to read charitably. Mostly because so much of what I say here gets deliberately quoted out of context elsewhere.

14 thoughts on “Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

  1. “There are a lot of smart, talented, and experienced non-male designers out there who would be more than qualified to take on designing for D&D.”

    If you are smart, talented and experienced game designer you don’t want to associate yourself with the trainwreck that is D&D and its derivatives (Pathfinder).

  2. Mike Mearls has struck me as kind of a jerk and some of his duplicitous marketing-related statements have been a big part of what has kept me away from D&D’s current iteration.

    But speaking of women in design roles in the field of fantasy, I’ve been seeing a lot lately about Margaret Brundage and her influence on fantasy art and, more significantly, her influence on the male writers who would write to better match her art style. The publication she worked for originally hid the fact that she was a woman until they felt the need to address to the accusations of sexism leveled at them for their lurid covers. At some point, I’d love to hear your thoughts on her (or other women in the field like her) within context of women designers in fantasy & science fiction who put sex at the forefront of their work today.

    So, you end up having something that is easily labelled as “bad for women”, but when it turns out that it is a woman who is creating it, some people end up calling for the silencing of women for the benefit of women. Like, recently I watched an old Extra Credits video (Video Games and the Female Audience), by the end of the video, the guy complains “it’s worth noting that certain women – you know who you are – have been contributing to this problem [of sexism in gaming culture]”, and I’m just “whoa, you went from making good points to being a dude who is telling women what they should and shouldn’t do to be ‘down for the struggle’!”

    A lot of what I’ve seen of men trying to be allies of feminism ends up being awkward bungling and dudes telling women how they should behave.

    So, yeah, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Man, being a woman is NOT defense against accusations of sexism. It’s just not.

      I’m not familiar with Margaret Brundage or her art, so I won’t comment on her specifically right now. But I’ve gone after Echo Chernik on this blog before for an RPG cover that she did that I thought was just terrible; I don’t take issue with her pinup work, per se, it’s just not what I think we need EVEN MORE OF on TRPG covers. (Funny story, she found the blog post later and left the most epicly BITCHES BE CRAZY comments ever.)

      Internalized misogyny is a thing, and I think we HAVE to be able to criticize women who continue to prop up sexism in the industry. Granted, we should be sensitive about the context of that criticism, but honestly I think the whole “but it was made by a woman” is one of the most bullshit derails out there.

      • Yeah. The “made by a woman” defense kind of creates a paradoxical mess, though, I think, so long as “silencing women” is an issue. If silencing women is bad, then silencing all women is bad; if anything, I think if all works and all creators would be open to criticism, the “made by a woman” defense would lose a lot of its cache.

        Pixie Jenni a long time ago wrote up a really good article about portraying women as being sexy without being sexist, but I’ve found that what people define as sexist vs. sexy is so far across the spectrum that what is and is not problematic would be impossible to nail down.

        • Here’s the thing about cheesecake art for me.

          It doesn’t upset me. I’m not angry about it. I’m annoyed that it’s the majority of art in books. But I’m annoyed by that regardless of if it’s made by a woman.

          I have a friend who illustrates game art and who also illustrates pinups/porn. She works very hard to keep the two separate unless she’s specifically being paid to draw pinups for games. I want more of that.

          • To deny the appeal of attractively portrayed women would be to deny my sexuality, but at the same time, there’s certainly a difference between artistic depiction of allure and shameless pandering (especially when it’s poorly done, whether stylistically or anatomically).

            One of the reasons why I love Wundergeek’s page here is when she highlights just how BAD a lot of the pandery fantasy art (in mainstream, big name, lots of $$$s involved!) out there is.

  3. Point 5 is so important. People get so absolutist about their arguments and responses with this and many other hot-button issues. They speak from the assumption that someone is either all right or all wrong, which means if someone they like has been right once then they are infallible, and if someone they dislike has been wrong once then they cannot ever be trusted.

    And when people think in absolute terms, they assume you do as well, which completely shuts the door on criticism. It becomes impossible to even suggest that someone made a mistake without having your comment straw-manned into ridiculousness. This becomes particularly true if you are confronting someone directly, because people are basically insecure and defensive.

    No one should be above criticism. But people also need to understand that criticism of a single thing is JUST criticism of THAT THING. Absolutism hurts our ability to listen and understand how to actually improve.

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