GenCon Follow-Up: Mike Mearls and D&D Consulting

Before Getting Started:

GenCon was, as always, an amazing experience and I have quite the list of topics that I want to write about – in some cases rather extensively. It may take me a bit to work through everything that I have to say; the things that I intend to cover include the economics of GenCon and how that privileges a certain class of attendee, the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and what that says about the future of the industry, and reflections on excellent games and conversations that gave me a lot of food for thought. (There are a few more things rattling around that I may yet shake loose as well.)

However, before I get to any of that, what I’m writing about today is something that I actually laid the groundwork for at last year’s GenCon, and which I’m very pleased to have gotten permission to talk about now that it’s over…

Recap: Last Year’s Lunch and an Exciting Offer

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will be aware of this, but due in part to a bunch of internet asshattery that happened in the run-up to last year’s GenCon, Mike Mearls invited Tracy Hurley and I to lunch and we got to have some really great conversation about our experience as feminist games bloggers and publishers in an industry that is overtly hostile to both of these things:

Mike was very open about the difficulties that he’s faced in trying to push inclusivity in the game products he’s worked on. He talked about how he’d been assuming diversity of representation was the default, only to realize later that there were many others who had assumed the opposite, who feared they might face consequences if they pushed their content “too far”. And now he’s working to actively make D&D products more inclusive going forward (something which I will write about in further detail later).

All in all, it was a really great conversation in which both Tracy and I were encouraged to be honest about our feelings and personal experience, which – let me tell you – is not always the case when talking with male industry professionals.

It was a great experience – not feeling as though I had to walk on eggshells when describing my feelings about everything that had happened was both cathartic and encouraging. However, what I didn’t write about at the time – as I didn’t want to jeopardize it from actually happening – was the fact that I came out of that lunch with an offer to do some (paid) consulting work regarding issues of inclusivity for the D&D team. It wound up taking many months to set in motion – personal real-life stuff for both of us delayed matters, as did the fact that WotC is part of Hasbro, which is a big company and not all that inclined to move quickly on anything. But this past spring I finally got a chance to do some of that consulting work! (Though of course I was under an NDA and wasn’t sure until I talked to Mike what all I would be allowed to talk about.)

The Work: How to Portray Women (and Visible Minorities)

In the end, I wound up doing research and writing that culminated in the creation of a (somewhat) brief document on guidelines designed to aid in the creation of positive depictions of women in D&D products. It was a tough project! Essentially, I was being asked to distill everything that I’d been thinking about since starting this blog into only a few pages – which seemed a Herculean task. Especially as I felt that I would be remiss if I were to write such a document and not say anything about the positive depiction of both visible (ethnic) minorities and invisible (people with disabilities, LGBT people, etc) minorities! The outline for the initial draft was… formidable. It required a lot of hatchet work to get it down, and writing the actual draft was a challenging exercise in brevity – something I’ve never excelled at. Still, the end result is something that I am proud to have written, especially knowing that it will get used.

Much of it is fairly dry and specific to the publishing processes of a large game company like WotC – ways to plan the structure of new products in ways that would challenge default white-and-male assumptions that tend to go into world-building, ways to write art notes and plan art direction that would do the same. But in the end, the document that I created was well-received, and the few revisions that Mike and his team suggested were super on-point. Even better, speaking as a freelancer, it was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had doing work-for-hire writing. The work that I contracted to do reflected a fair rate for the amount of research and revision that needed to be done, rather than being a simple flat per-word rate. In fact, even though I would have liked to have been paid a bit quicker (again, Hasbro is a big company), it stands as one of only two freelance assignments I’ve ever taken where I felt that the total compensation is a fair reflection of the time, effort, and energy invested into it. (Which is no small thing, as recent conversations in the indie-sphere have helped to highlight.)

I did get permission to share part of that document (not a done deal, since WotC owns the rights to what I wrote, per the agreement that was signed when we were negotiating the work) that is totally accessible and useful and not dry and publisher-specific! But I’ll come back to that in a minute since first I’d like to talk about…

Lunch: The Sequel! (or if you prefer – Mike Mearls and Tracy Hurley: The Revenge!)

Convention season is a busy time for publishers, and what with this year’s GenCon falling extra early in the calendar it wasn’t a done deal that we’d be having lunch until about a week beforehand. (And for the second year in a row, I showed up in costume. But that’s a different story.)

Once again, it was a really great experience. We did talk a bit about the circumstances that had lead to our original gathering the year before and how those circumstances were currently playing out at this year’s convention. But mostly we talked about things pertaining to the need for diversity in the industry, such as the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and the forces working against the push for increased diversity of voices. I’d also sent Mike a link to my recent post about the… uh… inconsistent art direction coming out of WotC. Quite happily, he’d actually had a chance to read it, and we had some excellent conversation about that issue specifically. A lot of the points that I raised were things he hadn’t been aware of (not surprising, since he works on D&D and not Magic), and I’m cautiously hopeful that this year’s lunch might also see some positive change! I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

All in all, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. Just as with last year, Mike, Tracy, and I had some really great and positive discussion. And given that last year’s meeting led to real, honest, actual work that can be used to help create change, I’m hopeful that things will keep moving in that direction. Moreover, it’s heartening to see a major company like WotC taking up the banner and pushing for positive depictions of diversity in their products. WotC has the sort of customer base that most indie publishers can’t ever hope to match, so their commitment to doing the work is something that really matters.

Last: The Excerpt – Do’s and Don’ts of Inclusive Writing and Art Direction

Because I said that I’d post an excerpt, and because it’s work that I’m proud of, and because I really do think that it will be helpful to publishers looking for metrics to use in ensuring that their games/settings/scenarios aren’t riddled with unfortunate stereotypes, here are the starting DOs and DON’Ts that were included in the document. Though it references fantasy-specific tropes, these are guidelines that can be applied to just about any game product.


 

Basic Dos and Don’ts of Writing Inclusive Characters

This is far from an exhaustive list of guidelines (many volumes could be written about specific stereotypes, their tropes, and examples of their usage “in the wild”). However, it is a good general framework to help get started in writing inclusive material:

DO… DON’T
…ensure equal representation of major and minor NPCS. Women are 50% of the population, they should be 50% of your NPCs….portray female characters with a wide range of ages, professions, outlooks, and power levels.

…especially make sure that women are represented as authority figures, leaders, and other NPCs integral to a plot or setting.

…write female characters that are important in their own right

…ensure that hero NPCs are racially diverse.

…consider representing typically invisible minorities such as people with disabilities or LGBT people.

…write your first draft, then look for where you have inadvertently included harmful stereotypes.Question your use of every one of them. Are you missing the chance to introduce a more memorable, noteworthy character? Are you passively using harmful stereotypes rather than making an active choice to support diversity? Can you defend the use of a stereotype in each instance?

…replicate stereotypes about women or other marginalized groups….portray female characters who are exclusively young, attractive, romantically available, and/or passively depicted.

…include women in only stereotypical fantasy roles such as barmaids, healers, and prostitutes.

…write female characters who are only important because of their relationships to men

…write heroic NPCs who are all white and antagonists who are all black, or analogues for blackness (Drow, Orcs, etc).

…have your only instance of a character from an invisible minority be a villain.

…assume that you are too open-minded to include stereotypes in your work. We are all the product of a flawed culture and each of us carries unconscious stereotypes.

 

 

Basic Dos and Don’ts of Inclusive Art Direction

DO… DON’T…
…be specific about age, gender, body type, and ethnicity for each art note

…ensure an equal balance of sexualized character illustrations. If there are sexualized women, there should be an equal number of sexualized men.

…be firm with artists in insisting on revisions for art that does not meet the specs requested

…ensure that female characters are interacting with their environment and other characters around them

…depict a wide variety of ethnicities and gender expressions across all character types

…include fat women as non-monstrous characters. Healthy, strong, heroic women can also be fat.

…consider writing your art notes “backwards”: age, body type, description, attire, action, pose, and only THEN gender and/or ethnicity.

…leave the details up to the artist. Defaultism means that your illustrations will come back predominantly white and male.

…confuse “sexualized men” with “male power fantasies”. When in doubt, confer with someone attracted to men.

…accept illustrations that objectify or dehumanize. Sexy people are fine, collections of sexy body parts are not.

…allow more than a few pieces of art depicting passively posed female characters not interacting with the world around them.

…portray angelic or explicitly good-aligned beings as exclusively blond. (This is problematically Aryan.)

…allow the only depictions of fat women and/or mothers to be inhuman or monstrous.

 

 

(Phew!)

3 thoughts on “GenCon Follow-Up: Mike Mearls and D&D Consulting

  1. Congratulations and thank you! As an LGBT person who loves WotC games, I am ecstatic that they are listening to voices like yours about inclusivity. It is also really great of you to share the dos and don’t says a resource for game designers.

  2. I’ve had a lot of poor things to say about Mr. Mearls direction with the D&D game in the past…after reading about your lunches, I have to say I’ve got a much higher opinion of the man. Thanks.

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