The importance of good art direction

So the big secret project that I’ve been working on has had me thinking about the importance of good art direction in tabletop games recently. Good art direction can make an already fun game compelling and engage new audiences. However, even art direction that is simply mediocre can have the opposite effect by alienating potential customers before they even get a chance to explore what your game is about.

There are a lot of things that go into what makes for good art direction – is the art well-crafted? Is it relevant to the game you’re trying to sell? Is it evocative and inspiring? Does it reflect the play experience you are trying to create? All of these are important goals to strive for in good art direction. But just as important, and sadly almost universally overlooked by major game publishers, is overall inclusiveness of artwork. And I say this not as a feminist culture critic, but as a game publisher.

The reason tabletop RPGs are so art-heavy is because good art sells more games. Quality art by artists capable of doing professional-looking work is not cheap, and acquiring art assets is expensive both in terms of dollars and time spent. Companies like WotC, Paizo, and the rest are ultimately in it for the profit, even if individual employees might happen to be passionate about the medium; they wouldn’t go through the tremendous hassle of procuring such large numbers of art assets if it weren’t ultimately profitable to do so.

By that metric, inclusiveness is every bit as important as craft or any of the other common standards of what makes for good art direction. I can’t tell you the number of times my very first exposure to a game has been through some piece of bullshit sexist art – usually a cover or promo image – that has completely turned me off ever wanting to purchase or otherwise support the game[1]. Given that women account for nearly half of tabletop gamers, this is a pretty huge failure of art direction. Good art direction should only ever expand your potential audience, not eliminate potential customers right off the bat – especially when those potential customers account for nearly half of your market.

The problem is that good inclusive art direction can be a lot more challenging than it looks. Even if you have a design and development team who want to create an inclusive product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be stereotype-free. The sheer number of illustrations that most finished games contain means that most development teams will be working with multiple artists. Each artist will bring their own entrenched attitudes and biases, and none of the artists will be looking at the overall picture, so without a concerted effort to keep an eye on the big picture even a well-intentioned development team can wind up simply replicating the industry standard in terms of unfortunately stereotyped art.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at two of the most common pitfalls that get in the way of inclusive game art.

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

First, defaultism is a bit of a tricky thing to define, so I’m going to quote the excellent Strix:

Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. … Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play. — Whitney Strix Beltrán

(Really you should read Strix’s entire piece on Tor.com about defaultism, it’s quite wonderful.)

Given that the population of people working in professional game development skews overwhelmingly white and male, it shouldn’t be surprising that defaultism is a major problem in roleplaying games. Every numbers post I’ve ever done shows that across all sectors of gaming, depictions of men consistently outnumber depictions of women, and that when women are depicted they are often stereotyped in harmful ways. Defaultism at work, friends.

The problem with defaultism is that even when you’re aware that you have a problem and need to increase inclusiveness in your product line’s art, attempts to take action can have mixed results. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind both D&D and Magic: the Gathering, is a great example of this. With the new edition of D&D, WotC has done a fantastic job of making the new core books inclusive across both racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said of Magic.

While it’s true that recent expansions have gotten much better in terms of reducing the number of horribly stereotyped and objectified women, it’s also the case that the reduction in depictions of objectified women has probably directly resulted in a much lower number of female characters overall. Unfortunately, it seems that for a fair number of artists working on Magic, the priority is: 1) men 2) sexay wimmenz 3) men 4) non-objectified women with agency.

However, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to the team handling art direction for Magic! Many of the artists illustrating for them are artists they have worked with for years, with known habits, tendencies, and preferences. Given the extreme willingness of some Magic artists to throw card concepts to the wind in favor of sexay laydeez, it’s actually depressingly predictable that an effort by WotC to crack down on depictions of bullshit sexism would result in artists just saying “fine, I won’t draw women at all then”.

Thankfully, there is a way to get around this: always plan for the big picture! Rather than leaving variables like gender and race up to chance or the whim of your artists, make a master plan of all of the illustrations that will be needed for a given project and assign gender/race to each spec before handing out specs to artists. In all likelihood, it will feel silly the first time you plan a project this way. But the reality is that each of us carries biases and stereotypes that require conscious effort and planning to counter.

Of course, taking steps to counter defaultism will likely mean that you’ll encounter…

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

A nontrivial subset of established game industry artists are men with, shall we say, entrenched views on how women should be illustrated[2].  And quite often, when these artists are handed a spec that calls for a female character, they will find a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense. I’ve taken to calling this Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, as the eponymous Wayne Reynolds is a goddamn master at sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized:

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Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

Now look, I understand that the idea of telling legendary artists like Wayne Reynolds to go back to the drawing board (see what I did there) when they hand in a sketch with sphereboobs and gratuitous cleavage can be off-putting. And sure, Wayne’s women might be overly sexualized, but at least they are also powerful and have a real sense of agency – and that’s no small thing, right?

But again, that is a failure in art direction. Is it extra work having to send drawings back to be revised? Absolutely! Can artists accustomed to drawing objectified women be truculent about making appropriate revisions? You bet! Is it a hassle to have to write emails saying things like “can we have this without ridiculous cleavage” or “please get rid of the nipples” or “give her pants and also make this less crotch-ular”? For sure! But guess what, if you’re responsible for art direction, it’s also your job.

Thankfully, while rogue artists can be an irritating to deal with, they don’t present an insurmountable hurdle. As the publisher, you have all of the power in the employer/employee relationship – artists work for you and not the other way around! When an artist hands you a draft that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t accept it. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive or embarrassed. Don’t make apologies or justifications, either. Simply be firm and say “this doesn’t meet our needs, these are the revisions that need to be made”. That’s why they call it art direction – you are there to provide directions for your artists.

Caveat: There are more obstacles to inclusive art direction than just these

…which should be obvious, right? One of the biggest problems with making game products that have truly inclusive art is the demographics of the industry and the terrible reality of privilege. Even with the best intentions, sometimes some nasty shit is going to slip right on through thanks to the effects of privilege. When harmful stereotypes don’t affect you, it can be really hard to see them even if you know you have to watch for them!

However, by taking steps to plan against defaultism and taking a firm hand with rogue artists, you will already have a huge leg up on the competition. Because the sad reality is that the bar is already so low that even a moderate attempt at inclusive art direction will still be a huge improvement over most of what’s already out there.

[1] Case in point: there are several people on my G+ talking up Smite right now. Apparently it’s solidly reliable fun! But with character design like this, there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to give it a chance.

[2] Although, honestly, there are a lot of amazing not-dude artists out there. And while there are women who do pinup style artwork as their primary focus, generally I’ve found that female artists tend to be a lot more receptive to not automatically sexualizing all female characters.

15 thoughts on “The importance of good art direction

  1. Okay, since I’m not understanding I’m going to ask. The way I’m reading this is that cleavage in art, and especially in rpgs, is always a bad thing. Why is that? Also, why is the pirate lady’s hip circled? What’s wrong with it?

    • The problem is one of sexualized versus sexy. There’s nothing wrong with sexy! Sex is part of the human condition and can be FUN to bring in at the table, assuming people are on board for that. But art like Wayne Reynolds’ is art that depicts sexualized women – women who are objectified for the purposes of a straight male viewer. Neither of these women are anatomically possible, and the pirate is especially egregious since her breasts, torso, and spine have all been broken to arrange her bits in a way designed to titillate.

      Basically, sexy women who are PEOPLE = good. Sexy collections of female bits of anatomy = bad.

      (The pirate is bad because Wayne snuck in a panty shot, which. [sigh])

  2. Hi!

    I am a little leery of posting this because I am a guy and you already have another guy asking you questions and, having just read through your last year’s worth of posts (“This Might Be Too Personal” in particular), I can imagine that you would be on your guard against that. Nevertheless, I have issues with this post and I would like to raise them with you.

    You have attempted here to classify here a new type of threat to sexual equality, the Rogue Artist (as I understand it, you are defining a Rogue Artist someone who is employed to create images for game companies but then puts tits in them despite being asked not to). However, you have not provided any references with which to prove this phenomenon exists. You have not cited any discussion between the artist and their employer, nor any relevant documents, merely speculated and proceeded to judge from there.

    You have also named another threat to sexual equality, the Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, which you define as when an artist “find[s] a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense.” This is an issue of style and personal preference, and it is entirely your right to discuss it.

    However, you appear to have conflated Rogue Artists with Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, and begun to accuse Wayne Reynolds and his syndrome (painting sexy ladies) with Rogue Artists (Artists working against the wishes of their employers) and accused Wayne Reynolds of “sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized.” This is unfair and incorrect. And, looking through your “Wayne Renolds” tab, I see that this is not the first time that you have made this accusation. “The ones that make me the most frustrated though are the ones where the art direction was pretty obviously for a strong, FULLY-COVERED female character and Wayne gave them cleavage anyway” -from Industry Artist Fail: Wayne Reynolds.

    You should be more careful when attempting to name and shame those with whom you disagree. Especially as you are someone who has felt attacked by people in the online community, made money from her art. And you were paid for this. The banner that proclaims “This post is patron supported through Patreon”, right next to two footnotes that cite nothing, on a post that sets out to dirty someone’s name is ridiculous.

    The cause of sexual equality is obviously very dear to you, and for this reason, above all the others I have already mentioned, you should be delivering more concise, thoughtful, correct content. Looking through your posts to find some context to this baseless and boring article, I read through post after post where you very earnestly attempt to oust the patriarchy by posting meme after meme, positing your opinions as if they are facts, and failing to include any actionable information at all. This is not the right way to represent your cause. Eventually, after over a year of posts, I got to this meme: https://gomakemeasandwich.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/fcf7ff4eb6dd2a95d90aa140d80111dde55744a3113f0e0aa8077ad628cf8dd6.jpg
    and decided that was enough for one night.

    • 1) I linked extensively in this piece to other things written here on this blog that support the thesis of my argument. I name Wayne Reynolds in particular because I have written about him extensively in the past.

      2) I wrote this piece from my perspective as both a game publisher AND freelance illustrator who has worked on RPGs

      3) After seven years as a game publisher, I have a lot of connections with a lot of publishers. And I have heard A LOT of stories about their struggles with artists who insist on handing in art that doesn’t meet specs in favor of sexxay.

      4) Basically, all of this means that I have experience, inside knowledge, and background in this subject matter.

      So don’t EVEN come to my blog and start cred-checking my arguments, because that makes YOU the asshole. If you’d like to have a civil discussion, I’m happy to have one. But further such belligerent comments will be trashed.

      • This is a civil discussion, just one that touches on a number of very personal and important topics. I spent a lot of time reading what you’ve written this evening, and I wouldn’t be typing this to you now if I didn’t really want to communicate with you. As you say, you can delete these posts whenever you like.

        Everything linked is for your discussion of defaultism. The second part of your post has no links, and is what I thought required them. You do not say anything like “After seven years as a game publisher, I have a lot of connections with a lot of publishers. And I have heard A LOT of stories about their struggles with artists who insist on handing in art that doesn’t meet specs in favor of sexxay.” in the article, and I was confused. I did not know about your work in the industry.I should have added “and you are part of the industry” to reasons that you shouldn’t be writing this way.

        I will have to defer to your experience in this matter, but it seems to me that if a publisher didn’t want to have boobs, they wouldn’t get boobs. However, even if you had personally commissioned art from Wayne Reynolds, told him not to put boobs in it, and he had delivered you art full of boobs and panty shots, and could prove it, you would still not be vindicated in trashing him like you do throughout your blog. I do not see how that can possibly change anything.

        Our patriarchal culture is shit. It deserves to be questioned, and fought. It is a difficult fight though, and it must be fought well. Poorly explained, poorly written, misguided, hand-wringing articles like this do not help.

        • I’m not going to waste time every time I write a post establishing and re-establishing my credentials. If I had to do that each time I wrote a post, I would never get anything done.

          I hope you can appreciate that your comment came across as cred-checking, something which happens to me a lot and something which I largely refuse to spend time engaging with anymore. Either you believe that I have the background, knowledge, and expertise to know what I’m talking about, or you don’t. And most of the time, me spending time defending my credentials doesn’t do any damn good, since cred-checking is almost always a way of moving the goal posts.

    • “You should be more careful when attempting to name and shame those with whom you disagree. Especially as you are someone who has felt attacked by people in the online community, made money from her art.”

      Umm, screw you? I pay the patreon so wundergeek can continue pointing out bullshit in game art WITHOUT reservation, with LESS fear that she’s pissing off a potential future employer. That is kind of THE WHOLE POINT. At least for me.

      And pointing out when people are doing shitty things isn’t “setting out to dirty someone’s name”. This isn’t some absurd comedy of manners where everyone know’s who the asshole is and no one is willing to say his name so we just allude to everything. If wundergeek did that it would lead to speculation about who she’s talking about, and it would be even worse, and probably the real subject would continue being oblivious.

  3. As someone who worked on art direction for a project this past year, I can say how important these points are. I had very good intentions of including diverse art going in but found myself falling into the ‘defaultism’ trap several times. I was lucky to be working with someone who was better trained at catching these mistakes and we were able to meet that goal. It’s important to keep all these steps in mind, review your work and then make sure that you ask others (especially non-white men) to review them to make sure you haven’t missed anything. We all make mistakes, but we can work on that and strive to do better.

    Thanks for the post Wundergeek, it was a good read.

  4. As someone with no training or knowledge of art really – Have you looked at doomtown: reloaded (ECG based on the deadlands: reloaded RPG setting), and if so what are your thoughts on the art direction there?

    If you haven’t looked at it at all, don’t feel the need to go dig it up if your busy, its more curiosity from someone who has a totally different lens than you.

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