I’ve never been a fan of status games, but my least favorite is this: there’s this thing that happens in the tabletop world where designers occupy the top of the status pyramid and are considered to be solitary geniuses who pull games fully formed from their brain meats.
This is deeply problematic, because it erases the contributions of women in many ways. Game design is not a solitary pursuit, you cannot make a good game without the input of other smart, insightful people – and I know a lot of women who rock at giving playtest feedback that helps to solve design problems for games still in playtesting! It also sucks because there is an ongoing impulse by certain high-status members of the community to gatekeep what “counts” as “a game”, and coincidentally a lot of the work done by women somehow manages to consistently get disqualified in these “conversations”.
But mostly it sucks because it plays into gendered narratives surrounding what is important to our hobby and what is trivial. Game design is seen as a male activity and is thus valued more highly than stereotypically “female” activities – even when those activities improve the hobby as a whole!
…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.
And it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Event organizing is vital because event organizers are literally creating the spaces where gamers can meet new people and interact with new ideas – which is what is needed to keep our hobby innovative and vibrant. So I’ve been wanting to talk about the work they do and maybe counter some of that for quite a while now. Because the gendered narratives surrounding whose work is valued in our community suck!
The problem that kept me from doing so is that I’m most decidedly Not An Event Organizer. I do pretty okay at keeping myself organized and on task, but event organizing is not (nor is it likely to ever be) one of my skillsets. So I decided that I would recruit some of the awesome women that I know who do event organizing to have a roundtable to highlight their experiences and why what they do is important. (Spoiler alert: it went super well!)
Normally this is the sort of thing that one might publicize beforehand, but honestly this was agonizing for me to put together as I was dealing with all of the imposter syndrome. Which is why I put this together, made it happen, and decided to publicize after. Thankfully, all I had to do was let the awesome ladies I assembled talk and say really smart things. It went really well, even if I did say “awesome” too much.
Of course, the process of putting this together made me really appreciate just how much work event organizers do and how invisible that work usually is. This is something that I started trying to put together in January and only just managed now, and I can tell you that even for something this simple there were a fair number of things that I overlooked. (Thankfully everyone was super gracious about it.)
The team that I assembled to help me talk about this ended up being:
Many thanks to the ladies who made this possible. Given how well this went, I might consider doing this in the future if I find myself wanting to spotlight a topic that I don’t have a lot of personal expertise in!
The sun shining weakly through dirty mini-blinds wakes you. You grunt stoically and get out of bed, not paying attention to the stunningly gorgeous blonde sleeping next to you. She meant nothing. She could only ever mean nothing because you are hollow and empty inside.
You shuffle into the bathroom and lean on the sink, moodily looking into the mirror. Your grizzled reflection stares back at you, the image of a man who has seen too much and done terrible things. Handsome, generically white features and a square jaw twist into a scowl as you look at yourself. It is the beginning of a new day, and you are alone – except for that gorgeous blonde, who doesn’t count because she is not your wife, who is dead.
The gorgeous blonde sits up when you return and she is naked because that is how people have sex when they are heterosexual, manly men, and you definitely had sex last night because you are so very manly.
“Last night was great,” she purrs. “But I never did get your name.”
“That doesn’t matter.” You scowl. “None of it matters now.”
She sighs and motions for you to come back to bed, but you turn away and scowl. “The sex that we had last night was great, but it mean nothing because I am hollow and empty inside. No one can ever replace my wife, who is dead.”
The gorgeous blonde frowned. “I thought you said she was kidnapped and you were going to rescue her.”
“Yeah. That. Whatever.” You stare broodily into the middle distance for several minutes until she gets up to take a shower. No one understands you.
Guns. You have guns but you need more. You scowl as you think about how much you need guns. You always need more guns.
“I need more guns,” you growl to that annoying person who insists on tagging along with you, whom you definitely are not emotionally attached to because your wife is dead.
“More guns? You already have ten guns. How are you going to carry that many guns?”
He doesn’t understand. They never understand. Your life is void of meaning or joy and you just want to shoot things. “I have to avenge my wife, who is dead. They killed her in front of me and now my life is void of meaning and joy because she is dead.”
That annoying person rolls his eyes. “She’s probably not even dead, she’s just been kidnapped.” He adds something else, a pithy comment to lighten the mood but you don’t hear it because you are too busy thinking about guns.
“JUST GET ME MORE GUNS OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU,” you snarl, cursing because you are gritty and edgy and definitely not for kids. “I’ll kill you because I’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t care if it makes me a monster because morality is for people with wives, which I don’t have because she was killed.”
“You mean kidnapped.”
“Whatever. I’ve moved past that now.” You have too many people to shoot to worry about the small stuff now. “Just get me more guns.”
At last you’ve made it to where your enemy is making his last stand. It’s been a long road full of violence and death, and your hands are covered in blood but none of that matters.
You storm in, guns blazing, murdering everything that moves. One of the guards throws down his gun and holds up his hands, sobbing as he begs you to just let him live. You shoot him in the face and move on. He feels nothing now that he is dead, just like you. Your wife is dead.
You lose track of the number of people you kill before you finally make it to the room where your enemy is. There is a woman behind him who is tied to a chair, but you don’t pay any attention to her because she is not important. You have to avenge your wife, who is dead.
“I am here to get revenge for my wife,” you grunt. “Who is dead.”
“I’m not dead,” the woman in the corner says. “I’m right here.”
You grit your teeth, too focused on your enemy to listen to some woman. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t deserve her because she was a shining being too good for this sinful world, and I will make you pay for killing her.”
“I’m quite alive, actually.”
Your enemy smirks. “Don’t you realize? This was all just a test. A test which you passed with flying colors.”
You scowl, mostly because that’s the only facial expression you’re capable of anymore.
“Yes, that’s right. I created you in a lab to be the perfect soldier. And now that you’ve come back to me, we will–”
“Shut up,” you say as you shoot him in the face. He falls over, gurgling, and dies. After everything that has happened, your enemy is gone and your journey is over, but you feel nothing. You haven’t felt anything since your wife died.
“Aren’t you going to untie me?” the woman in the chair asks.
You think about your lost wife and wish she could be here to share this moment with you. You almost shed a tear, but you clench your fists and think about punching kittens until the feeling passes, except that you don’t have those anymore now that your wife is dead.
“Nathan? Are you even listening?”
“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” you rasp. “He is dead, like my wife.”
“Except I’m not dead.”
You look sternly into the middle distance. She doesn’t understand. No one can ever understand. “Allison,” you whisper as you turn to leave.
“Hey! Hey! Untie me already!”
There is blood on your hands that can never be removed, and you are alone. So, so alone. “I will never forget you,” you promise as you walk back down the hallway toward the stairs that will take you to the surface.
Hey, folks. I’ve got a bunch of irons in the fire right now and it hasn’t left a lot bandwidth for blog stuff in the last week. But I do have some super amazingly awesome stuff coming up that I cannot wait to be able to talk about! And I will totally blog about it when it happens!
In the mean time, however, I’ll just drop in and share some stuff that I’ve said elsewhere. I do promise that I will do my best to get something substantial up by the end of the week, so thanks for your patience.
PSA Time: Calling women scary is not a compliment
[I’m quoting myself from Twitter here]
I am tired of being called scary because I express opinions unequivocally and am capable of advocating for myself. I have had people legit try to gaslight me into thinking I am a toxic ragemonster because I don’t apologize for having opinions. (Which is hilarious, because if anything in meatspace I am pathologically avoidant to the point of self-harm.)
So the jokey “remind me not to make you mad” stuff? I hate it. HATE. IT. Because it makes it HARDER for me to speak out, not easier. Every time I advocate for myself, I have to make it funny or self-deprecating, because I don’t want to tip over to being scary. It’s exhausting.
Mostly it comes from dudes who are well-intentioned and think they’re being complimentary. But they need to be aware that abusers do this too. So tl;dr – unless a woman is, like, threatening you with a knife just don’t call her scary, even if you think it’s a compliment. Just don’t.
Games I don’t want to write so shut up brain I mean it
Talking about baking patriarchy explicitly into a game gave me an idea to turn that on its head by doing the following:
Set the game in an explicitly matriarchal society. The game takes the form of a US Senate hearing on reproductive freedom for men. The Senators are all female, or all female and one man who has made the devil’s bargain and explicitly sides with matriarchy.
The men have to argue for their right to bodily autonomy, and all the while the female Senators are doing things like (wo)mansplaining, interrupting, and derailing. Particularly, they should be sure to tell the men not to get angry whenever they show hints of emotion, because we all know how testosterone prevents men from thinking rationally, etc etc.
I don’t want to write this game, but my brain keeps ambushing me. Stupid brain.
Over on Twitter, the ever-flawless Chris Chinn talked about the psychology behind derailing bullshit like “if you don’t take the time to educate me, how will I learn” and why people who use that logic are abusers, plain and simple. Check out this wonderful storify of it, it’s amazing.
I almost never promote KickStarters here (mostly because it’s impossible for me to promote everything that I think needs promoting), but Julie Dillon is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy artists of all time; her work is amazingly diverse and inclusive in addition to being fucking gorgeous. So considering that I spend so much time talking about what awful game art looks like – THIS is what I mean when I talk about what game arout COULD be. This is her second KickStarter, and she’s already well past her initial funding goal, but there are some nifty rewards so it’s worth checking out if you’re hunting for some more art in your life.
Lastly: because it’s worth repeating
Over on Google+, a friend kindly gave me the opportunity to pontificate about the proper use of semicolons (she did ask). Then I thought I would share my answer more widely, because I do love the semicolon. Consider this a PSA:
Semicolons are for joining two complete sentences that are related. If separated, each sentence COULD stand on its own if it had to. But the semicolon is to designate a clear connection.
Alice carefully removed the rest of the monitors and unhooked herself from the machine. It was a clumsy operation; her hands shook, and the pods had not been designed for self-removal.
The semi-colon acknowledges that “it was a clumsy operation” and “her hands … self-removal” are complete thoughts that are still dependent on one another. Plus, a period between sentences two and three would make this section feel clunky.
That’s a pretty simplistic explanation, but if you’re interested in more I’d recommend tracking down a copy of Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss; it’s an amazingly accessible book on the use of punctuation that also manages to be entertaining and a quick read.
(See what I did there?)
Now go forth and sin against the semicolon no more!
There’s this weird thing that happens where something I wrote a year ago (or two, or three) doesn’t get much attention at the time that I write it, but then someone on Reddit (or Twitter, but usually Reddit) finds it and posts a link and all of a sudden I get a flurry of views and nasty comments about GOD HOW WRONG AND AWFUL I AM.
This has actually happened a few times with my post about the ways in which The Last of Us could have been better, which is especially amusing given that I wrote that post after writing my post about the reasons why I loved The Last of Us to little bitty pieces. But apparently, expressing criticism of a thing completely invalidates any other statements you might make about the thing and I should have known that. Because saying “here’s how thing thing I love could have been even better” is the same as saying “here is a thing that should be destroyed with fire and if you like it you should feel bad because you are bad.”
And I thought that if people are determined to misread me writing about a thing that I actually really, really liked, well shit. Why don’t I at least give these guys some decent ammunition?
So with that in mind…
Unpopular opinion the first: Violence is boring
VIOLENCE IS BORING.
And games where the system or mechanics exist only to create violence? Those games are boring as shit. Hell, I’ll go even further and say that any piece of media centered on violence and/or murder and nothing else is just really, really dull.
For example – this weekend, at the insistence of a friend, I watched John Wick, which is basically 20 minutes of Keanu Reeves being sad about his dead wife (always with the dead wives…) and then like 1 hour of Keanu Reeves just straight-up murdering like a jillion guys, interspersed with people speaking subtitled Russian. Except it was even more boring than how I made it sound, because he didn’t even go on a murderfest because of his wife, it was because someone killed his dog and stole his car – which for some reason inspired this total murderpalooza that happened while Keanu Reeves displayed absolutely no facial expressions. ACTING! And Christ it was So. Goddamn. Boring. It wasn’t shocking or edgy or any of that. It was just the dullest fucking thing I’ve watched in at least a year.
Increasingly – how I feel about John Wick is how I also feel about games.
I’m not saying because I think violence in games is evil and it should go away forever! I was part of the first generation of people to grow up playing video games with explicitly graphic violence beyond just a few red pixels – so it’s certainly something I’m used to seeing. Plus I’m addicted to Final Fantasy and BioWare games, which means I’ve played a lot of games that feature violence. But unless a game brings some significant not-violence gameplay to the table along with the “murder a ton of [bandits / orcs / demons / robots / aliens / zombies / whatevers]”, I’m just plain not interested.
Call of Duty? Counter-Strike? Hell, even any of the Hitman games? Yeah I have less than zero interest in ever playing them. BioWare at least brings relationships, romance, sex, diplomacy, and alliance-building to its games, and advancing the game means you have to take breaks from murdering all the things in order to deal with the talky bits – which are just as important as the murdery bits. And even despite my deep-seated love of BioWare games, I’m finding the gameplay of Cities: Skylines more engaging and compelling than Dragon Age: Inquisition right now.
The same goes for tabletop games. If the rules support only killing things and maybe taking their stuff? I’m just not interested. So things like Warhammer? War Machine? Yawn. No thanks. And even D&D I find I’m increasingly bored with. There’s very little room for innovation in tabletop murder/violence-simulators these days. The design stuff that excites me are the people working on different ways of telling stories that aren’t centered on violence.
But wait, there’s more!
Now that I’ve said I don’t like violence in games, that’s pretty much the same as admitting that I’m not a real gamer, right? However, I’m still concerned that these might not be grounds enough for you to dismiss me, here are some additional opinions that I hold that you can use to completely discount anything I have to say from now on.
I am bad at being a gamer (in the spirit of #badatfandom)
We ❤ Katamari is a better game than anything made by Ubisoft
For that matter, so is Bejeweled Blitz.
So is Angry Birds.
Hell, so is Triple Triad.
I hate every Final Fantasy before 7.
I didn’t finish FF6 because I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.
Final Fantasy X-2 is a fucking masterpiece and I will cut anyone who says it’s not.
Payne forever and always.
I would rather play Chocobo Hot and Cold for three hours than play a tabletop minis game.
I would rather do laundry than play Warhammer.
I would rather clean my bathroom than play StarCraft.
I hate playing D&D and wouldn’t be sad if I never played it again.
That said, point buy all the way. Random stat rolling is for chumps.
Larry Elmore’s art is okay, I guess, but it’s really not my cup of tea.
Despite having written for Vampire, I’ve never played a tabletop WoD game and I don’t really mind that.
Steampunk is not a genre, it’s an aesthetic, and a baffling one at that.
No BioShock isn’t some deeply philosophical journey. It’s just Ayn Rand plus bazookas.
I enjoy things inspired by Cthulu far, far more than I enjoy anything that actually adheres to the mythos. For that matter, I don’t ever intend to read any Lovecraft.
I only buy one or two roleplaying games per year, and I’ve only ever backed two KickStarters.
I think origin stories are tedious and boring.
I would kill Ashley every time. In a heart beat. EVERY TIME. Don’t like Kaidan? Don’t care. At least he’s not some xenophobic asshole.
I romanced Kaidan.
Peter Molyneux’s games aren’t that great.
The last decent fighting game was Soul Calibur 2. Everything after that is dead to me.
I’ve never played a Zelda game.
Kirby is more interesting than Link.
I only played 3 hours of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I found it tedious and boring.
I played 10 hours of Skyrim. I found it tedious and boring also.
I played in a Vampire LARP for 12 years and I still think that the system is complete fucking gibberish.
The “dumbed down” gameplay of Civ 5 (before the expansions) was better than any of the Civ games that came before it.
Xenogears/Xenosaga are terrible terrible games and I would rather do just about anything than play them.
The exploration in Dragon Age: Inquisition is way, way more fun than the combat.
Describing something as “gritty”, “dark”, or “grim” is the perfect way to get me to never ever play it
 Jesus. It’s enough to make me say that any movie where a wife/mother dies in the first 20 minutes is automatically a bad movie. That shit is so overused it’s just plain BAD WRITING.
 I remember specifically promising my mother to never become an axe murderer if she would let me buy Mortal Kombat.
 Though to be fair, that’s probably because DA:I is hands down the worst PC port I’ve ever played. The UX is SO SO BAD.
[Note that this is not being published as a patron-supported post, lest I be accused of “playing the victim” to attack someone.
It’s also important to note that there is A LOT of extra reading linked to from this post. Like, no really. A lot. I erred on the side of exhaustive, simply so I don’t need to revisit this again in the future.]
This is a blog post I swore I’d never write, let alone publish, since any controversy created by such a post is not ever going to help me. However, nearly four years of staying silent on this issue hasn’t done any good either, and I’m running out of cope. So here we go.
There is man in the indie TRPG community, with quite a larger following than mine, who has been determined to tell the games community at large what a terrible, awful person I am. It has been nearly four years since all of this nonsense started, and the strain of remaining silent is beginning to be a bigger burden than anything else. Remaining silent hasn’t done anything to prevent the abuse directed my way. If anything, the frequency and level of rhetoric has only continued to escalate over time. So I’m finally doing the thing I swore I would never do and naming names:
I have been the target of trolls, haters, and randos for quite a while now. But none of them have been as persistent, vitriolic, and prolific in their hatred for me as Zak S.
At first Zak confined himself to calling me an anti-porn, sex-hating, fascist uber-conservative akin to Phyllis Schafly. But at last count, according to Zak, I am now: anti-porn, anti-sex in games, homophobic/queerphobic, transphobic, fascist, legit crazy aka delusional aka should be involuntarily remanded to mental health care, a liar, a chronic attention-seeker who has fabricated harassment evidence, a chronic harasser myself, and legit evil.
…needless to say, in a post-GamerGate world this is a terrifying level of rhetoric to have reached. So what I am doing here is documenting for once and for all the substance of this thing, and yes providing sources and links and evidence – since my silence all these years has been used as ammunition against me. There are people in my own circles who have spoken about this as an issue with “sides”, as in “well there’s been bad behavior on both sides”, and just. No. There are no “sides”. There is Zak’s continued hatred versus my silence, always my silence.
But before I get started with that, an important aside:
This is fucking important
The real tragedy of this situation is that on an objective level, I have a lot of empathy and heartbreak for Zak and Mandy (his girlfriend/partner who has a serious genetic condition). And not in a condescending “I feel sorry for them for being so crazy/awful/evil” kind of way, because fuck that noise. (I hate it when people pull the “I feel sorry for you for being such a bitch” card on me, because that is 100% bullshit.)
I can’t fully imagine what Zak is going through as primary caretaker of someone with a terrifying genetic condition that is making her body cannibalize itself. Not completely. But I can have empathy for that situation; my own father died nearly four years ago from bone marrow cancer. I wasn’t even a primary caretaker – I had already made irrevocable plans to move to Canada when he was diagnosed. But watching my father grow gradually sicker as his skeleton literally tried to consume his insides, watching him fade more and more as the meds he needed to keep the pain under control grew stronger and more frequent…
Yeah, it fucking messed me up. I didn’t live with my father during his treatment (I did come home as often as I could), but I will never be able to watch Breaking Bad. Wild made me ugly cry for the whole damn movie, and any kind of media featuring parents with cancer is shit that I avoid whenever possible.
So I on an abstract level, I admire Zak for continuing to remain creative in the face of what is surely a painful struggle. And I admire Mandy for not being silent in the face of legit bullshit behavior she has faced, and for her recent hospital glam photos she’s posted. I wish that I’d tried something similar with my father, because it kills me how dead he looks in every photo taken while he was sick and how his spirit was completely broken by his diagnosis. And I hope for both their sake that her prognosis is better than my father’s. I really do.
So I am absolutely not saying that you should boycott Zak’s work if you were otherwise likely to buy it. Nor am I saying not to buy his art. And I am especially not saying you should go hurl abuse at Zak, and especially not at Mandy, because seriously it makes me fucking mad that she has been harassed for being the wrong kind of gamer and I don’t want to be part of perpetuating that kind of toxicity. Support them if you want, don’t if you don’t. Whatever. Everyone draws their line somewhere and it’s okay if you draw it differently than me or anyone else.
In writing this post, I speak for no one but myself. And what I want personally is simply to be left alone, without constantly having to feel like I have to look over my shoulder. (I know that sounds hopelessly naive, but that really is all I want.)
Okay? Okay. Aside over.
Down to business: a chronology of my interactions with Zak
Because this is a thing that has spun out over the course of 3.5 years, first I’ll provide an overview of the timeline of events from my perspective. (It’s lengthy, and I’m sorry about that.) It’s important to note that this only includes publicly available postings, as that’s all I have access to. It’s possible that there’s more in more private locations, like closed G+ threads, that I’m not aware of.
Pre-hostilities interactions on my blog
1) January 2011
Interestingly, our earliest communication was one that I had entirely forgotten about. (Whoops.) I wrote a post about how some dudes had devoted 20 minutes of their podcast to talking about why I was fat, ugly, and crazy. Zak popped into the comments to ask for responses to a survey of female gamers on his blog, as well as to contribute what I thought were actually some pretty cogent points.
2) February 2011
A month later, I wrote a post about Hyung Tae Kim in which I expressed some nuanced opinions about his art and the degree of sexual objectification it displayed. There was a spirited conversation in the comments, which Zak was pretty active in, and which I didn’t participate in very actively because I was frankly too stressed out to attempt having a nuanced conversation about something on the internet.
Looking back on the comments, there’s several of Zak’s comments that seem pretty… sea lionish. (Though of course I didn’t have the language to describe it as such then.) He also engaged in a fair bit of straw-manning other commenters by accusing them of calling HTK “pro-rape”, which got a fair amount of pushback – from myself as well as other commenters, as the opinions being expressed were complex and nuanced, not simple and black-and-white.
I ultimately tried to bow out of the conversation, because the following two things happened within a day or two of making the post:
1) I was laid off from a job that I loved and had felt secure in
2) my father’s cancer took a turn for the worse (he died just over four months later).
Still, Zak kept baiting other commenters and I wound up getting involved again before things ultimately died down. And even then, for like a year after that, my memory of Zak was “oh we disagreed that one time, but our conversation was pretty civil and respectful so that’s cool with me”.
2a) February 2011
What turns out to have been the most significant interaction with Zak actually… wasn’t… an interaction… at all? Twelve days after making my post about HTK, I wrote this post about Japanator’s then-editor who had a history of making crass rape jokes and then hiding behind his female friends and fans who told him he wasn’t sexist.
In the comments of my post, conversation turned to sexism in anime, and in the comments, I had cause to say: “That being said, harem anime is pathetic and disgusting. Fetish anime ditto. Hentai anime ditto.”
Which, sure. That is pretty harsh, and I’ll admit it could have been better phrased. But what I was trying to express is that I have yet to see a harem anime that hasn’t made me feel incredibly uncomfortable about creepy behavior by the male protagonist being played for laughs, because I have been creeped on by geeky guys and it’s really not funny. Similarly, my experiences with hentai have not been with anything depicting anything resembling consensual sexual encounters, and the lack of consent was fetishized just as much as the bodies involved. Which, uh, yuck.
The conversation moved past that point onto other things, and I didn’t realize that my lack of clarification would become such a big deal, because Zak never even posted in that thread. Not even once.
3) June 2011
Apparently, at the time Zak hadn’t thought that my post about HTK was such a big deal either? Because four months later I wrote an admittedly ham-handed post about how the shit I love about fantasy is racist.
And actually, Zak popped in again briefly with some stuff that was actually super on point about the difficulty of trying to be a critic and artist who doesn’t fall into the same traps that I criticize here on my blog. (Again, I’d entirely forgotten about this until I went searching my comment archives.) And even looking back on it now, it seems pretty pointed, but also like something that needed to be said.
So whatever the dynamic now, we had had what I had remembered as pretty civil, respectful interactions in the past.
Hostilities begin: 2012/2013
1) April 2012: It begins
I honestly couldn’t tell you when it happened now, but at some point in maybe 2009 or 2010, I moved all my gaming-related conversations to G+ and rage-quit talking on game forums, because I was done with accepting sexism, erasing, and mansplaining as the price for participating in conversations about games and game design online. (And G+ is fantastic at letting you aggressively curate your conversations to be fuckhead-free.)
So when Zak dropped into a Story-Games thread to make an attack on me in which he called me a fascist ultra-conservative akin to Phyllis Schafly (I am paraphrasing, as the link I have archived seems to be brokenETA: the thread moved! you can find it here), I didn’t even know this had happened until a few people emailed me to let me know what had happened. I wasn’t even notified that this attack had happened until after Zak had already been banned for it, but I remember being bewildered.
What had happened? I mean, where the hell had this come from? I even went back through the comment logs on that old HTK post and couldn’t find any one moment that made me say – ah. That. That is where this emnity is coming from.
I made a response on Gaming as Women in which I was careful not to mention Zak’s name or any identifying details of the incident, and I also asked that people refrain from naming Zak if they knew who I was talking about. Partly this was because I wanted to use my personal experience to highlight the visceral fear that women face when interacting on the internet. But it was also partly because I actually was scared by the anger of that attack and didn’t want to give Zak any further ammunition to use against me.
My previous experience of trolls had been that they would make one or two isolated attacks and then go back to doing… whatever. I honestly thought that would be the case this time too.
2) July 2013: AoE’d
The next time I was targeted by Zak, it was part of a shotgun-style attack against a whole host of people that he didn’t like. Rather than rehash what I’ve already written about here, go to this post and scroll down to the section called The Edgy Game Designer, in which I detail how I came to speak out against a gaming organization’s choice to lend someone with a known history of misogynist views their platform to voice those views.
I was one of a few women who spoke out, and in so doing I was careful to focus on my personal experiences and feelings and how this person’s views directly affected me as a marginalized member of the gaming community. And the other women who spoke out all pretty much stuck to that same script. However, there was also one man who spoke out with far more fervor, and far more aggressively than any of them women did.
He made one post in particular that said that the problematic game designer was responsible for rape and death threats against people who disagreed with him. Now I knew what he was talking about – that he was talking about how some nerd-famous men shut down criticism against them by riling up their followers and pointing them at a target (I’ve written about it more in depth here, under the section called “How It Works”). The person who made this post is someone who I respect, someone who got me into game design in the first place, and without whose support I would not still be making games today. I also knew that he was speaking from a place of deep personal trauma, so I plussed the post in support of what he was feeling.
…which turned out to be a huge mistake. This all happened in July of 2013, but in December 2013 Zak necro’d the whole issue to make a shotgun attack against pretty much everyone included on his enemies list. (See the screenshot included here in this post under “The Rebellious Artist”.)
Zak demanded that everyone who had plussed the post retract that plus and make a public apology. I certainly wasn’t about to apologize for talking about my personal feelings and life experiences, and I’d already gotten sick of Zak’s growing vendetta against me. Also, I still really did understand what the person making the original post had meant and agreed with it. So I didn’t un-plus, and I didn’t apologize. I just kept my mouth shut and waited for it all to go away again.
Which brings up to 2014, when things started getting really out of hand.
2014: the year things got kind of bonkers
July of 2014 is when things got weird. First there was what came to be known as ConsultancyGate – a scandal over the inclusion of Zak and another highly-controversial figure as paid consultants on the 5th edition of D&D. I kept my fucking mouth shut about this, aside from a few private conversations on G+. I knew it was going to be a shitstorm (it was) and I wanted no part of it.
My one contribution: Tom Hatfield wrote a piece about the issue for Fail Forward, and I retweeted two things said about the piece while not directly linking to it or naming any names. The first is this tweet here by Tom Hatfield which simply addresses the fact that harassment exists and it is larger than one community. The second is this tweet here about not wanting people to boycott D&D 5e. Those two re-tweets are the sum total of my involvement in ConsultancyGate. Period. (Case in point: this is a pretty thorough summary of ConsultancyGate that is also totally pro-Zak, which fails to mention me at all.ETA: Oh jeez – so the Seebs summary is actually part of a larger effort to harass a trans game developer out of the industry and off the internet. I didn’t know that and wouldn’t have linked to it if I had, so I’m very sorry for missing that.)
That didn’t stop Zak, however. He’s written 6 posts about me on his blog, and five of them are from 2014. (Number six is from this year.) One of those posts is a question-and-answer charity ransom in which he wanted people he’d previously attacked to let him ask them questions, and if their answers were “acceptable” (according to his definitions of acceptable) he would donate to charity. As the mere idea of interacting with Zak directly has become enough to trigger feelings of anxiety, I did not participate. In August, I also found out that he’d been hate-following me on Twitter, after which I blocked him but otherwise said nothing.
In November, there was a thread that was started on TheRPGSite about a promotional post I’d written highlighting the progressive design work done on V20:Dark Ages, which Zak turned into a 32-page hatefest against me. In that thread, his posts alone total over 22,000 words (although approximately half of those words are quotes from other people or sources). In a thread with a total of 311 posts, he wrote 43. (I’ve also backed up Zak’s posts in that thread in a paste on pastebin, since I’m not sure if RPGSite lets you edit/delete posts. The backup consists solely of the text of Zak’s posts along with a link to each post.)
Unfortunately this year looks like it’s just going to be more of the same. On January 6th he put up what can only be described as a conspiracy theory infographic that mentions me, using my quote from a comment thread on my own personal blog (that he hadn’t even participated in) entirely out of context, to claim that I was harassing Mandy. (It’s also important to note that while I have freelanced for Onyx Path twice, I have never been an employee of Onyx Path.)
Only 3 days after that, he made this tweet that thanked the people he had attacked, or parhaps more accurately the controversy he’d used his attack to generate, for helping him sell so many books.
And on February 23rd, the official twitter for I Hit It With My Axe, Zak’s webseries about running D&D for porn actresses, made attacks against some noteable progressive game devs that also included me. (Note: the tweet boxed in red appears to have been deleted later. This screenshot was taken by someone else, whereas when I looked at the I Hit It With My Axe timeline the next day the tweet was gone.)
…so all of this brings us to now, when I am tired of feeling angry, silenced, and afraid every time he attempts to convince people what a miserable human being I am. I am running out of cope.
However, since I’m also aware that it could be said that none of the above actually addresses the substance of the charges against me…
The specific charges against me, and why they’re untrue
(I am not including every instance of every specific charge leveled at me, because that would be tiresome and this post is way too long already. However, I will provide specific links to additional material under each section.)
1) I have publicly, repeatedly attacked Zak and/or Mandy
Before we cover anything else, it’s important to realize that a lot of Zak’s accusations against me are predicated on the idea that I have been making repeated public attacks against Zak and/or Mandy. And that is simply not true.
If you use Google do even a modicum of verification, you’ll see that the only search results for his name on my blog are in the comment section of posts that he himself commented on. There is nothing attached to his name on the blogspot iteration of this blog (from before I moved to WordPress). There is nothing on my tumblr. Nothing on my twitter. And especially never, ever, ever anything public on G+. (My facebook is not public and never has been.) And as previously stated, I quit visiting games forums before I’d even met Zak.
I have from time-to-time written about Zak in an anonymized fashion, such as my original Gaming as Women post. But in each instance I attempted to file all of the serial numbers off of the incidents, and have always said when doing so that people SHOULD NOT name the person being discussed if they are aware of the circumstances being discussed. I have also taken people to task after the fact when they have done so anyway. (Seriously, people, if someone writes about a person that they want to remain nameless, linking to the post and naming them anyway is an asshole move.)
Until right now, this post, here, I have never written anything in a publicly-available space attached to Zak’s real name or any of his aliases. Ever.
However, here is what Zak has to say on the subject, for starters:
…To be clear: in any way supporting a product made by Wundergeek or people who are still supporting her is pretty fucked up considering what she’s done and the attacks she’s made. — RPGSite thread, post #80
…And no matter what you think of Anna’s position, her endorsing the attacks on me and the women in my group and claiming she was harassed by us is straight-up falsehood with no possible defense. —RPGSite thread, post #91
…Her blog entry claims the JDes controversy is “manufactured” and associates me with intentional harassment and with Elliot Rodger. —RPGSite thread, post #171
…You will continue to be causing distress (to, for example, Mandy) until you admit “Yes, Wundergeek is a liar and yes, Mandy, you are right, it isn’t good that Wundergeek lied in public about being harassed” until then, your contention that you feel contrition about causing distress (while causing it) are as hollow as Wundergeek’s contention that she is an advocate of inclusion (while her rhetoric plainly excludes people) and non-judgmental (while her rhetoric is clearly judgmental).
Furthermore, after all you just said, unless you firmly state that you know Wundergeek, David and Filamena are lying your statements here are promoting the harassment (including the death threats) that their claims caused. —RPGSite thread, post #165
…Yeah that’s maybe because you weren’t sitting in a hospital room this August watching Mandy hooked up to a heart monitor and watching her heart rate spike and the monitor begin to crazily beep as every new accusation of your (and her) alleged hate crimes rolled in day after day after day linking Wundergeek as “evidence” on more and more sites in bigger and bigger media wondering when it was all going to end, all because, you made people mad by talking about playing the games you like (which everybody else does) — RPGSite thread, post 270
…that last quote, man.
You know what? I’m sorry that Mandy has been the target of vile abuse. Anyone who attacks a woman, any woman, for not being the “right” kind of woman to play games needs to fuck off to a dark corner forever. But claiming that I’m behind any of the abuse that Mandy has received either in the past or in the present is factually incorrect. Period.
1a) I attacked Zak and/or Mandy by retweeting the Fail Forward article
I’ve already established previously that my only relation to the Fail Forward article which has become such a rallying cry for Zak was to retweet two tweets making commentary on the issues surrounding the article. These tweets did not actually specify who is being discussed, where, or why. However, this is a specific charge that Zak makes very often, so it’s worth addressing:
Everyone who forwarded the attacks on us is enabling and supporting their harassment. And you need to go beyond ”Well we don’t support harassment of anybody” and stand up and admit you were wrong and you’ve been ignoring it and these are the people who have been doing it. — Mandy on the Anatomy of a Harassment Campaign
…ALSO ANOTHER WAY TO PROVE SHE’S A LIAR: She retweeted the FailForward article and claimed to agree with it. —RPGSite thread, post #141
…And, while we’re at it, let’s look at the most obvious evidence of shit-headdery: she retweeted the (known to be all false allegations) hit piece article about me. — RPGSite thread, post #108
I never retweeted the article. I never said I specifically endorsed it and all of the content therein. I especially never retweeted a link while also naming Zak as a harasser.
One of the side effects of me wanting to avoid anything to do with Zak is that it also means I haven’t commented specifically on harassment directed at Mandy. And yeah, that’s unfortunate! But I have consistently, constantly worked to end harassment of women in gaming, and I have always maintained that there is no one “right way” to be a female gamer.
Nevertheless, I get accused of either not caring or welcoming the abuse Mandy has gotten from people who are upset to see women who are in charge of their sexuality enjoying TPRGs. Which. Fuck. I feel like I just can’t win:
…So why don’t gaming gadflies and big indie designers like Fred Hicks (at Evil Hat), GeekyLyndsay, David A Hill Jr (Machine Age Productions), Ryan Macklin (Paizo), Bruce Baugh (Onyx Path), Elizabeth Sampat, Wundergeek, Christopher Allen and Shannon Appelcline (who employ Something Awful members Ettin and Kai Tave at RPG.net) and Tracy Hurley care that these attacks and the people inflicting them originated in a troll forum?
Because long ago we irritated them by playing a different game than them and refusing to let them lecture us about how we’re wrong and because we wear chainmail bikinis on Halloween and aren’t ashamed. Because, for example, Wundergeek and David Hill have real problems with tentacle hentai—and I made a live action tentacle porn because I wanted to. So who cares if I get harassed? I’m the wrong kind of feminist. — Mandy on the Anatomy of a Harassment Campaign
…because I got death threats and can prove it and unlike me you have never addressed those death threats I got and neither has Wundergeek. EXAMPLE: http://oblivionnecroninja.tumblr.com…ng-harrassment — RPGSite thread, post #141
(Please note, this is the only time I will touch directly on things said by Mandy. No I AM NOT saying that she’s a sock puppet, or invented by Zak, or that she has Stockholm Syndrome, or any of that bullshit. I just find the idea that I don’t care about the harassment of female gamers who aren’t like me very hurtful and want to provide context.)
One of Zak’s go-to accusations against me is that I am a liar: I lie about being harassed myself, I lie about not harassing Zak and/or Mandy, and I lie about the plussing of the contentious post on G+ (previously mentioned), in that I knew that it was a lie and by endorsing it am lying myself:
The matter of the contentious G+ post has been dealt with previously in this post, so I won’t beat a dead horse.
However, there’s also the issue of the fact that I later referred to the flap as a “manufactured controversy”. And given that the timeline that is a matter of public record, I stand by that. It had been five months, and no one was talking about it anymore before it was necro’d again.
And as for lying about my own harassment, this blog is itself an archive of some of that. I didn’t start saving records of harassing communication I’ve gotten prior to 2014, but I’ve written about it here, and here, and here (which post contains even more links). And that’s not to say anything of the occasional email that I get, like this one which dropped into my inbox shortly after the resurrected flap over DidIPlusAThingThatOneTimeGate:
Lastly, he also frequently accuses me of libel. How exactly I am to have committed libel when I have never previously attached commentary to his name in public before is… uh… well I’m not too sure about that, actually.
Zak has repeatedly claimed that I am anti-porn and anti-sex-in-games, mostly because of that conversation that wasn’t about porn, that happened in the comments of a post which was also not about porn, in which I expressed a personal opinion about my personal discomfort with harem and hentai anime.
However, the other thing he frequently brings up as proof that I am anti-porn is something I said in the comment thread for my post about Hyung Tae Kim (again, previously mentioned):
…Quote: Wundergeek is openly anti-porn
That isn’t an ok position. That’s like being anti-pictures-of-two-guys-kissing: it’s a thing only bigots are.
But being ideologically against erotic imagery itself and the people who make it is Max Nordau territory. It’s coding wanting to look at sexualized women as a “male” activity–which ten minutes outside will tell you is not a healthy or realistic assumption and one that erases LGBT experience. — RPGSite thread, post #91
Quote: Originally Posted by jhkim View Post
Essentially, you seem to be saying that no one can say anything bad about a sexy outfit, or else they are “slut shaming”.
Absolutely that’s what I’m saying–how is it in any universe remotely ok to tell a woman that the miniature she wants to use to represent her character is inappropriate or wrong?
We’ll come back to anti-porn = bigot in the next section. But first, Zak also characterizes his first encounter with me this way:
Wundergeek : Hyun Tae Kim should be pushed to the margins of the industry because he paints fetishy art and hentai is disgusting!
Zak : WTF?
Wundergeek : Why are you so mean, Zak?
Did Jessica Hammer or anyone at Gaming As Women or anybody else that Wundergeek worked with or talked to never explain to Wundergeek that other peoples’ taste in porn is not her business and pin-up art is not the problem,art gatekeepers are? Why is she bothering artists with this shit? —The Teachable Moment From All This
Which. [sigh] No.
Zak wants to characterize this as him minding his business and me somehow attacking him by expressing an opinion in the comments thread of my own blog.
Lastly, I have always been 100% consistent that what I write here is not about judging people for their individual tastes – that what I am doing is criticizing an industry that profits from the dehumanization of women. It’s in the damn sticky that I wrote when I went on hiatus from blogging here in November 2011.
I have only ever said that it is 100% okay to like what you like, that it is totally okay to like something other people find offensive, and that I know I like things that other people find offensive. (Like my love of pretty much anything by Joss Whedon.)
3a) I am a bigot
Zak’s reasoning behind this claim is this: by criticizing sexualized character design and game art as well as an industry that values the commodification of female body parts over depictions of actual women, I am somehow erasing the preference of female-or-nonbinary-identified queer people who are attracted to women, which makes me a bigot. Most of his argument that I am a miserable human being comes back to this idea:
Quote: Does she constantly say homophobic statements?
Yes. Absolutely and we already went over this. I laid out an example on a previous page.
A._You (unknown gender and orientation) claim that kind of speech is not homophobic
B._I (straight male) claim it is
C._Norton (bisexual male) says it is not homophobic but is insenstive
D._The women I’ve asked about this (bisexual females) say her rhetoric is unequivocally homophobic (on basically every post where she talks about scantily-clad women, which is a great many of them) whether or not she herself wants it to be (a detail you, again, keep pretending doesn’t exist). She does this through a rhetoric which (like so many RPG morons of your acquaintance so often do) fails to acknowledge the existence of people with tastes unlike her own and grants to her own taste an unwarranted moral dimension.
While you may not be inclined to grant Group 4 more moral authority than anybody else so far asked, I defer to their judgment since they’re the affected group. — RPGSite thread, post #229
So because there are women who agree with him that my feminist criticism of games is the same as queer erasure, I am homophobic and therefore a bigot. Which. Wut .
This also means that Zak is placing himself in a position to judge whose expression of marginalization is most valid. So the irony is that while Zak accuses me of bigotry, the very fact that he putting himself, as a white man, in a position to choose which womens’ opinions count and which do not. And how is that not erasure, which by Zak’s standard would be bigotry?
The writing I do here is not scholarly. I write about my feelings, my experiences, and how these things impact me and the women I know. Yes I bring my training as an artist and my experience in the industry to what I write. But I also bring the hurt, the unwelcome, the scorn, the feeling that my body is not enough, that it will never be enough and therefore I will never be enough.
But somehow he has decided that my expressions of marginalization don’t count, and therefore I don’t count.
…I’m saying: since she’s a liar and a bigot, supporting her in any way instantaneously makes you a shitty person that nobody else should ever deal with. Just like supporting a known homophobe would make you a shitty person. Whether you want to be a shitty person is your business, not mine. — RPGSite thread, post #98
…Although calling someone who is a bigoted a bigot does not constitute harassment, publicly lying about them does constitute harassment. — RPGSite thread, post #141
…Also: I’d willingly put it to a vote. If I gave Wundergeek’s stuff to every lesbian and bi woman on the planet, and they voted, I’d accept their verdict. As I don’t have access to that, I am deferring to people I trust — RPGSite thread, post #232
…So something something is sexist if you can find enough women who agree with you?? What if I can poll my bi/pan female friends and find more who agree with me than who agree with Zak? Does that mean I win? Because… I’m pretty sure that feminism doesn’t work that way.
I’m not going to claim that I ally perfectly, because pride goeth before the fall. But I certainly put a lot of work into not erasing queer people, and getting other people to stop erasing them as well.
4) I am omniscient/I have not written about everything that needs writing about
Sometimes Zak will criticize me for never having written about a specific thing, and often seems to have the idea that I both follow everything he talks about and does and that I am aware of every game book that he has ever encountered.
I really don’t know how else to address things like this, in which he says that I am picking and choosing who to criticize because I have never written about an obscure thing featuring rape-nagas:
There are 40 naga-kin in Pralaj and about 200 villagers and revived corpses held prisoner while slowly being raped, tortured, and drowned into a susceptible state for transformation into naga-kindred. ... From here, they prepare the coming of the Naga into her kingdom, and send naga-kin down the River to rape and drown the people into following her.
Now one reason he (I’ll call him Doc Respectable, I hope he won’t mind) has not been called out by Wundergeek or anybody else in a coterie of people that, largely gets very het up about rape in games and about what is in the world’s most popular RPG is because he is a professional. And by that I don’t mean he maintains a responsible and professional demeanor (although he does) I mean that, unlike the RPGPundit (the other consultant who pissed people off) and I, Doc Respectable’s daily bread relies on tabletop roleplaying games. — The Teachable Moment From All This
Uh, and you know what, if I’d known about that being a thing that existed before Zak decided to criticize me for never writing about it, maybe I might’ve! I’ve certainly written quite a bit about the rapey tropes inherent in D&D and other geek media before – including the rapeyness of half-orcs and the drow.
He also seems upset that I have not written about everything that could ever need writing about:
Wundergeek’s friend Vincent Baker–designer of Apocalypse World and the most important designer in a scene whose members came out in force against me and (especially) the RPGPundit, is perhaps the epitome of a Male Game Designer Who Writes About Rape (in both Seclusium of Orphone and Poison’d) And Is Praised For His Creative Vision.
But they don’t talk about it–at least not publicly. … And so we get lots of trenchant Concerned Gamers re-posting Wundergeek’s I Am Tired litany and re-posting Vincent Baker’s latest project in the same day and there is no good public conversation about the cognitive dissonance and how to resolve it. Like: How you handle rape and why, in public, with examples from Respectable figures in the field given first-hand and input from affected groups. — The Teachable Moment From All This
Uh, okay. I do own a copy of Seclusium of Orphone, from that one time I was part of a failed IndieGoGo for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I’ve never done anything more than skim it. I didn’t look at it any closer than – hey! Lists! And neat art! …okay these lists are neat, but there are… a lot of them.
To be honest, the collective game output of my design friends is just too damn large to ever be consumed by only one person. I only have so much time, and sometimes I can think that a designer is totally killing it with design ideas and still not really be into the end result of the thing that they made.
Now obviously I can’t claim to have never read Poison’d. That would be a little hard, since I illustrated it. But Poison’d was published in 2009, two years before I started writing this blog. So it honestly never occurred to me to write about Poison’d, because it’s an older game. Not to mention that there’s a lot of rapey stuff out there that I haven’t written about, simply because man is rape common in games and I don’t want to turn into That Blogger Who Only Writes About Rape. (…World of Darkness, tho…)
5) I am legit crazy
Last, but certainly not least, Zak has accused me of being legit crazy. As in a-danger-to-myself-and-others crazy:
But she needs to get help, not just constant random reification of whatever aggressive anti-sex delusion she’s pushing that day. —RPGSite thread, post #88
“Wait my friend is mentally ill and as someone they trust I need to intervene” . So people like Wundergeek keep doing breathtakingly evil, stupid and dishonest things because people like you, basically, let them and there is no point at which you go “This person is crazy, let’s make sure they can’t hurt anyone else”. —RPGSite thread, post #229
Wundergeek will never listen to anything I say–but if you have even a single person who is friends with her who hasn’t told her she desperately needs therapy by now, every fucking problem she causes is on their head. As it is on yours for defending her. —RPGSite thread, post #229
And let me just say that internet-diagnosing someone of a mental illness as a way of dismissing everything that they have to say, or even their worth as a human being, that is some grade-A ableist bullshit.
There’s a lot of shit I don’t talk about here, like the trauma surrounding the loss of my father and my lifelong struggle with mental illness. But I’ve also been pretty open about things in the gamecommunity that do affect my mental health, as well as things that I am doing to try to take care of myself.
So yes, I am “crazy”. But I missed the part where the details of my medical history, including treatment, medication, prognosis, or interventions are anybody’s fucking business but my husband’s.
(If you’ve made it this far, uh, congratulations? You deserve a medal or something.)
So here we are, at the end. I have laid out everything I have, as exhaustively as I could while also trying to preserve some readability and coherency. I hope I struck the right balance. I might not have. Ultimately, you, the reader, must decide how well I did.
What do I intend to do from here? To go back to what I have been doing. Blogging about the things that I’m passionate about, writing games that I want to write, and making art that makes me happy. This isn’t something I intend to write about again. The purpose of this post was to end a three-and-a-half year silence that was only growing larger, more oppressive, and more suffocating the longer it went on.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m fucking Mother Theresa about this. I have a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, and a lot of anger over this. I also have a lot of anxiety and fear. I am going to do my level best to forget this, but do I have it in me to ever forgive? I’m not sure. I hope that posting this will help me let some of that hurt go.
Do I expect or even desire anything from Zak? No. I hope he has lots more adventures with confident women and nonbinary folk who are in charge of their sexuality, and I hope they keep playing games. Me, I just want to live my life, and I want him to live his without constantly broadcasting his hatred of me. That’s all. That’s all I’ve only ever wanted.
 Zak is a professional artist with art in the MOMA. So his entire argument hinges on the idea that he is somehow completely unfamiliar with the idea of “the male gaze”, which was a concept I learned about in art school, waaaaaay before feminism was even a thing I thought worth pursuing. There is, frankly, a shitton of scholarship supporting the existence of the (heterosexual) male gaze as a major influencing force in our culture, so, I’m not going to waste time here by having an argument that is the intellectual equivalent of “should I vaccinate my kids”. (Spoiler alert: YES.)
[This is a terrible title, but it’s the best I could come up. I hate titles.]
I started writing this post because I recently played a game that made me bored, and I enjoyed it. And then I played it again, and this time it made me bored and made me cry, and that time it was even better. And what’s more? I’d totally play it again.
And that’s weird, right? Like what other medium would even lead someone to say that? Okay, so it’s not so weird that I enjoyed something that made me cry since I am a champion at crying at movies that no one else cries at. But actively enjoying being bored? Folks, I have some pretty extreme ADD – boredom is almost physically painful for me, and I will drop something like a hot rock if I get more than a little bored with it.
Even as a hard-core devotee of fantasy and sci-fi novels, where exposition infodumps are often part of the genre’s buy-in, I have a hard and fast rule that I will only read the first 75 pages of a novel and if it’s not interesting by then, I’ll stop reading. Similarly, I didn’t see Alien until a few years ago, and the first forty-five minutes of the movie were almost painful in how slow the pacing was – the only thing that kept me going was the nerd-shame of never having seen Alien in the first place. And even as a hardcore Joss Whedon fan, it took two attempts for me to get into Dollhouse. The first episode left me completely cold when it was on the air, and I wound up not actually watching it until it went up on Netflix.
So what gives? How is it that games have the ability to affect us in ways that would be seen as negative in other mediums and still create an experience that is seen as rewarding? And what does that say about our ability to use games as a medium to promote empathy by getting people to engage emotionally with ideas or stories they’d normally rather not think about?
Let’s back up and start from the beginning
So here’s what got me started thinking about all this stuff: I was lucky enough to help Andrew Medeiros playtest The Forgotten – a LARP that he is fine-tuning about civilians desperately trying to survive in a city under siege, based on the actual experiences of survivors of the siege of Sarajevo. The game itself is very simply structured: there are day scenes and night scenes. During the day, everyone is trapped inside because there are snipers everywhere and it is too dangerous to go outside. At night is when the survivors establish a guard and send people out to scavenge.
During the day scenes, often toward the beginning when things hadn’t gotten too bleak yet and we hadn’t had to make too many hard choices, the players wound up sitting around with seven or eight minutes to kill and no game tasks that needed doing, just waiting for the day to be over. And that time… got kind of boring. So we’d wind up reminiscing, or shooting the shit, or picking fights just for something to do, or even just staring at the wall and just wanting the day to be over already.
Later in the game when the bleakness had had a chance to ramp up, day scenes flew by, but everyone was stressed and frazzled. How would you use limited resources when there wasn’t enough to keep everyone alive? The game forced you to make decisions when the only decisions that could be made all fucking sucked – and sometimes made you feel like a bad person just for making the choice in the first place. And worst of all, sometimes (rarely, but it happened) during the night scenes the people that went out at night got killed by snipers. Which is a fucking gut punch, especially when (as happened in our second game) they’ve gone out to scavenge for supplies to save you and then… just don’t come back.
So the result this game that shouldn’t be enjoyable by any of the standards we would apply to other forms of media. By turns, it’s boring, stressful, and horribly agonizing – I jokingly described it as “punching yourself in the feels for two hours”. But the mechanics that produce these feelings create such a great story, and for a lot of people that’s what separates a good game from a bad one.
Which is awesome and exciting! Because if games can make otherwise painful or unpleasant experiences enjoyable, that opens up so many possibilities to tell the stories that get overlooked, or are even intentionally ignored – stories that are hard and painful and maybe a little traumatizing, and stories that challenge our personal beliefs as players and human beings.
Modeling more than just violence
Something that I’ve seen popping up more as a topic of conversation in the design circles that I inhabit is the problem of getting game designers to see game design as more than just building different types of violence simulation engines. A whole heap of brainpower gets devoted to modeling just about every type of violence imaginable. As a result, a lot of mainstream gaming just winds up producing games that let you play different flavors of murder hobos.
Fantasy murder hobos! Cyberpunk murder hobos! Steampunk murder hobos! Murder hobos in space! Mainstream gaming is a little bit addicted to murder hobos. Thankfully, however, as games mature as an artform, we’re finally starting to expand the boundaries of mainstream gaming beyond simply “mostly murder hobo simulation”.
The indies, of course, have always been out there doing their own thing. I’ve written previously about how indie TRPG designers have managed to handle the issue of sex, sexuality, and relationships in a far more sophisticated manner than pretty much any AAA video game title out there. There are also a lot of smart and talented designers working in both tabletop/LARP design and in video games to expand the boundaries of what is traditionally considered to be a “game”, and in so doing are creating what might just be a new genre – empathy games.
In the past few years, games like Depression Quest; Papers, Please; and That Dragon, Cancer are increasingly becoming part of the conversation about the future direction of games. And while they’re still not doing business on a scale approaching anything close to the volume that the AAA video game industry puts out, the fact that Papers, Please – a game often described with words like “tedious”, “grim”, and “affecting” – had sold more than half a million copies as of March 2014 argues for an increasing appetite for games that provoke empathy.
Excitingly, the advent of incredibly accessible game development tools like Twine and Unity mean that new designers from traditionally unrepresented backgrounds are getting into game development and doing all sorts of new, compelling, and weird things with the medium.
As far as analog gaming goes, the future is a bit harder to predict. Tabletop gaming is a far, far smaller industry that employs far fewer people than the AAA video gaming industry, and the majority of tabletop gaming’s “mainstream” game lines could still arguably be called violence simulators. D&D, Pathfinder, World of Darkness – all of these are game lines that will devote hundreds of thousands of words in a book to modeling violence and either neglect or completely ignore rules that help model relationships, or empathy, or emotion – assuming that that will sort itself out in the fiction.
Of course, the tabletop gaming industry is also an industry far less dependent on its “mainstream” anchor companies. Indie trpg publishing has been around for a long time. And I’ll admit to some bias as someone who designs for tabletop and not video games, but it often seems to me that the conversation surrounding the design challenges of creating games centered around things other than violence is considerably advanced from that in the video game world, simply because creating these sorts of games hasn’t been marginalized as a fringe concern. (Or at least not to the degree that is the case in the video game world.) And maybe that’s because there’s a whole lot less money in analog gaming? It’s hard to say.
What I can say is that games like The Forgotten make me excited about the future of analog game design. I’ve been following analog design and designers for… well, a long time now. Long enough that I’ve watched some ideas previously dismissed as “hippie” or “indie” slowly creep into even the trad-est of trad games. As indie analog designers continue to create new ways of telling stories, those tools will inevitably creep into “mainstream” games.
Admittedly, the creep is… slow. And empathy games are certainly never going to replace violence simulators, because let’s face it – sometimes when you’ve had a really shitty day, it can feel therapeutic to sit down and shoot zombies in the face for a while. (Or aliens. Or demons. Whatever.) But could they become their own legitimate subgenre? Something without the weird stigma associated with things like Nordic LARP or American Freeform, games that people either dismiss or don’t see themselves as “brave” enough to play? I sure hope so.
 Yes, yes, I know he can be kind of awful, and his stuff is super problematic. I just can’t help but love it, though. (At least it’s not Game of Thrones.)
 And don’t get me wrong. I do love me some murder hoboing from time to time. I am greatly enjoying playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, which does have a fair amount of “quick, kill those guys! Because [mumblemumble] reasons!