GenCon followup: On “Industry Insiders”, Recognition, and Unequal Access [LONG]

Part the First: GenCon’s “Industry Insider” Program

The lack of diversity of GenCon’s Guest of Honor lineup is something that I’ve written about before, and rather stridently so. After the complete embarrassment that was 2011, in which the lineup of 16 Guests of Honor included only 1 woman – Margaret Weis – GenCon has been making noises about wanting increased diversity in it’s GoH rosters. Their track record on that front, however, hasn’t been all that great. 2014’s lineup was actually LESS inclusive of women than 2012. And a lot of the changes that have been made, supposedly in the name of greater inclusiveness, have been pretty fucking tone deaf.

Take, for example, the name of the program – which used to be the “Guest of Honor” track. It was pointed out by myself and others that having Guests of Honor that were almost exclusively white and male was hugely problematic! Because, as I said in my first post on the issue:

A convention as large and as venerable [as GenCon] can be seen as affirming the status quo of a male-dominated games industry. Even worse, it seems to lend credence to the idea that women just aren’t doing work worth honoring in the games industry, which isn’t true – though there are (I’m sure) plenty of people who would like to believe that’s the case so that they can continue to justify the sexism that runs rampant in game marketing and development.

So how did GenCon respond to these concerns? Well, aside from some half-hearted attempts to get more women to apply, they just… changed the name of the program. First to the “Industry Insider Guest of Honor Program” in 2014, and this year to “Industry Insider Featured Presenters“.

On the surface, it’s nominally a good change – and is something that I actually pushed for in last year’s post on the matter. The problem is that the name change was suggested as a way of having a two-track Guest of Honor program – one for the startlingly not-diverse pool of Industry Insiders, many of whom are honored several years in a row, and an actual Guest of Honor track that would allow for not-hetciswhitedude GoHs that would be able to actually bring diverse programming to GenCon. And that’s the part that GenCon has completely failed to follow through on. (You know, the part that actually matters.)

Changing the name of the program doesn’t actually do anything to resolve any of the concerns that have been expressed about lack of diversity. Call the program what you will – Guest of Honor, Industry Insider, whatever. But functionally speaking, the Industry Insider program is indistinguishable from what any other convention would call a Guest of Honor program. What is being honored by GenCon is whiteness and maleness, and that is something that a name change simply can’t fix. Changing the name on the box doesn’t actually fix any thing if what’s in the box is THE SAME FUCKING THING IT ALWAYS WAS.

Now have some improvements been made? Certainly. This year’s lineup featured 8 women out of a pool of 26 GoHs, which means that women made up 30% of the lineup. And sure that’s still a depressing minority, but at least it’s moving in the right direction with regards to gender equality. However, acknowledging that it’s incredibly fucking difficult and hugely problematic to make assumptions regarding someone’s racial identity based on their appearance, the fact remains that range of skin tones is still monochromatic! If the only meaningful representation that is increased is the representation of white women, then it cannot be claimed that diversity has been achieved.

A defense that has been raised “against” these concerns by some has been “well women aren’t applying to the program”. Which. Just. NO. I’ve already written a couple thousand words about why “women aren’t applying” is NOT an acceptable response to concerns about lack of diversity in an organization, and they’re all on-point so rather than quote myself I’ll just say go here and read if you haven’t already.

Part the Second: Recognition

I had what felt like an important moment at the Diana Jones Award ceremony (which I enjoy going to because I always meet at least one cool person and I also get to see friends I wouldn’t see otherwise). When Matt Forbeck got up onstage to announce the winner of this year’s award, I was talking with Ajit George and Mark Diaz-Truman, who are both visibly not-white guys who have done a lot of work to increase diversity in gaming.

So the winner is announced (Guide to Glorantha, if you’re curious), and six white guys got up on the stage and had their moment of recognition. I honestly can’t remember which of us said something first, but I do remember observing that this year was my fourth year attending the DJAs and I had never seen anyone other than a white guy on that stage to win the award. After which there was a moment of depressed reflection, because Jesus. It’s such a sad indictment of this fucking industry.

The games industry has this fucked up masturbatory circle of recognition that only includes men recognizing the work of other men – the overwhelming majority of whom are white. And it’s fucking HEARTBREAKING, because I know so very many amazing people who are women, queer, nonbinary, PoC, and various combinations of some or all of those traits who are doing amazing and valuable work that enriches the game industry and game design as a whole. And yet year after year AFTER YEAR, the people who get recognized are most often white guys who have been part of the old boy’s club in the industry for decades. And I KNOW someone is going to say that I think all work by white guys is garbage and should be killed with fire, and that’s not what I’m saying at all. But when the only people winning awards are white guys who are getting awards from other white guys and this is a pattern that persists, you gotta admit that it’s pretty fucked up.

And yet, the people who attempt to point this out are reviled, castigated, and demonized.  Last year, I found myself having to send the following email to someone about an industry dude who was really unhappy with what I’d written about the Guest of Honor program and used his status in an obvious show of power meant to make me feel bad: (serial numbers filed off to protect the guilty)

I was meeting up with some folk in the dealer’s room at the end of the day when I happened to encounter a Really Big Deal Industry Guy. And RBDIG? Apparently not happy about things I’d said about about GenCon and it’s GoH program – specifically the part where I was arguing that we need to decrease the representation of hetwhitecis dudes. He was very aggressive and made me very defensive as I tried to explain the context of my comments, that I wasn’t disputing the merit of any individual, that I know and respect and look up to a good many people on the list.

So then RBDIG aggressively declared that if women don’t apply to the program, there’s nothing to be done. End of story. Still feeling defensive, I tried to explain how women can be made to feel like they’re not really welcome to apply (I didn’t even try to broach the topic of how economics is a barrier for a lot of women, what with the wage gap, lack of accessible childcare options, and the expensiveness of the con) and offered some of my personal experiences where I had been made to feel unwelcome in the gaming community.

Finally after about fifteen minutes of back and forth, RBDIG just said sarcastically “well I’m going to go own my privilege and have a steak”. And it made me really, really angry.

This was a situation where RBDIG, as the industry professional with the big name, had all of the power. And despite the fact that I was polite and re-explained the context of my remarks and stuck solely to discussing my personal experience and feelings, he was aggressive and rude. And he closed our interaction with a passive-aggressive remark seemingly intended to drive home the power imbalance between us. I literally had not exchanged more than two words with RBDIG before this, but I’d only ever heard good things about him and people that I know in our community have expressed respect for him. And again, nothing about my remarks were intended to question anyone’s qualifications or merits as a Guest of Honor. They were simply intended to address the fact that in order to increase diversity, they need to stop including so many white guys.

It fucking sucked. And yet that’s the BEST of the sort of bullshit that not-hetciswhitedudes get when they have the temerity to question the status quo regarding recognition in the industry. At least because I’m white, no one was actually afraid of me for being angry, which is a thing that actually happened in real life. One of the people who also spoke out against the lack of diversity in 2014’s lineup had an industry person actually express fear of them when they met face to face this year.

Part the Third: Access

GenCon, unlike pretty much every other convention on the planet, doesn’t actually offer any monetary support for GoHs beyond providing a badge and some marketing – so the Guests of Honor they attract are mostly industry people who would have attended anyway. The Guest of Honor program essentially gets no budget, and when the issue of providing a budget for travel expenses for GoHs arises the response tends to be a lot of helpless shrugging. “It’s not in the budget”, you see – the implication being that GenCon couldn’t afford to provide travel expenses for it’s GoHs since it’s such a large program.

And to that, I say bullshit. Here are this year’s numbers from GenCon’s own website:

Gen Con 2015 has set an all-new attendance record with a unique attendance of 61,423 and a turnstile attendance of 197,695, creating a six-year span of record growth. Since 2010, Gen Con has more than doubled in attendance. Year-over-year, Gen Con has experienced 9% attendance growth, primarily driven by 4-Day and Family Fun Day badge sales.

The growth in badge sale revenue alone is staggering. DOUBLE the unique attendees in five years, with the largest growth seen in the most expensive badge types? GenCon badges are not cheap. There’s also the revenue that GenCon earns selling booth space in the Dealer’s Room. Prices for booth space have risen nigh-exponentially year over year, with no ceiling in sight because vendors are still fighting for the space – there are always more interested vendors than available space, and they’re more than happy to continue paying whatever GenCon wants to get that space. As an indie publisher, I’ve witnessed it first hand. Over the past five years, indies have been almost entirely pushed out of the dealer’s room, with the only vestiges of indie presence being Indie Press Revolution and the Indie Game Developers Network. And prices for booth space will only continue to rise, with no ceiling in sight.

So the idea that GenCon somehow “can’t afford” a budget to support travel expenses for GoHs is laughable at best, and borderline offensive at worst. Because the economics of the thing are actually the largest barrier to increasing diversity!

Getting to GenCon is expensive because Indy is far from fucking everything, hotels are expensive, the badge is expensive, and the food is expensive and not even remotely nutritious. (By the end of the convention, I’m desperate for anything resembling a vegetable.) And the wage gap is still a very real thing, which puts convention attendance out of reach of the sorts of people that the program would most benefit from including! (To say nothing of the issue of childcare, which is a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women and is its own barrier to convention attendance, but that’s a separate issue. Mostly.)

To use a personal example, in my conversation with Ajit George, he asked me why I hadn’t applied to be an Industry Insider for this year’s convention. For me the answer was simple – I had to do too many GM hours to get my room and badge covered for the convention, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without that support. I didn’t want to do yet another 4-6 hours of panels on top of my already-pretty-bonkers GMing commitment, because then when would I actually play any fucking games? Or have time to eat? Or sleep? Or enjoy hanging out with awesome folk? I’m not getting paid to come to GenCon, and despite that it is as much business as pleasure, I wouldn’t go if it was actively unpleasant or stressful.

And here’s the thing, I joked about doing PovertyCon whenever people asked if I wanted to go get drinks, but the uncomfortable reality is that being in Indy made me blindingly aware of my privilege. Here I was at GenCon, with the ability to spend what I saw as “a bit” of money in the dealer’s room. And yet all of the bathroom attendants? Hispanic and South-Asian women. The porters at the hotel? Overwhelmingly black and brown. The employees at the food court in the mall? More brown and black than white. I may have had to “pinch pennies” to get to GenCon, but I still fucking got to GO TO GENCON.
So if the economics keep me as a white, cisgender, middle class as fuck woman with enough connections to get a room and a badge for free from applying as an Industry Insider, you can sure as shit bet that there’s a whole lot of WAY LESS PRIVILEGED PEOPLE who are going to look at the program, what it’s offering, and say “nope, not even a possibility”.
So, if GenCon wants to put its money where its mouth is in regards to increasing diversity of it’s GoH lineup? It needs to… Well. Put it’s money where its mouth is. Give the GoH program a fucking budget and start actually giving money to qualified applicants who wouldn’t be able to be part of the program without economic support. It won’t fix the problem overnight, but it’ll remove the largest barrier to continuing to move in the right direction.

8 thoughts on “GenCon followup: On “Industry Insiders”, Recognition, and Unequal Access [LONG]

  1. As one of the people on the committee that helps choose the Industry Insiders each year, I understand where you’re coming from. We made a push for diversity this year, and while it fell short of any kind of parity, it made for a large improvement over last year.

    Part of that was changing the name of the program from Industry Insider Guests of Honor to Featured Speakers. When many people — including a lot of potential speakers — see “Guest of Honor” they think of people who have been in the industry for years. Historically, the vast majority of those people have been white men, of course, so changing the name hopefully nudges the door open a bit wider to encourage applications from people who have wonderful ideas and experiences but haven’t been part of the industry for decades. Yeah, in one sense, it’s a token gesture, but it’s also the recognition that words matter.

    We actually did reach out to women and minorities to apply to the program. As you mention, it’s hard to discern much about people from their names alone, and the application doesn’t request any demographic information. However, Bryan Tillman and Ajit George were both part of the program this year, which kept it from being lily white, and Ajit in particular did a good job of encouraging others to apply to the program. We also had LGBTQ participants, and a number of the panels centered on inclusivity and diversity. While the program clearly has a long way to go, this was a massive improvement over past years, and I hope we can continue moving in that direction.

    All that said, I’m saddened to hear about your encounter with your anonymous RBDIG, and offended for you. What a jackass.

    As for Gen Con helping fund people coming out, I don’t have any control over that. Maybe, though, we could get creative about it. If you become an Industry Insider Featured Speaker, you’d have your badge covered, of course. Featured Speakers also get a discount on their rooms, although they’re still far from free. Perhaps we could convince Gen Con to count any panels you’d be on toward any volunteer hours required to help cover room costs.

    In any case, thanks for your post, and please keep calling out problems when you see them. Otherwise, nothing ever changes.

    • Hi, Matt

      First, thank you so much for dropping by and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully. I was greatly encouraged to see the inclusion of Ajit George in the program this year – he’s someone whose work I greatly admire and the presence of both him and Bryan Tillman was a huge step in the right direction.

      I’m also aware that you don’t have any control over funding assistance at your level in the organization, but that’s part of why I’m writing this post. It’s great that you’re reaching out to women and minorities to apply, but I’m not optimistic that real diversity would be achievable without economic support for the most marginalized voices. I do, however, really like your idea of counting Featured Speaker panel hours toward volunteer hours – being able to take on a reduced GMing commitment in exchange for running panels very likely would have made the difference in my decision not to apply to the program, and I suspect others would feel the same way.

      Thank you for being willing to engage with what I’m saying despite harsh words and feelings.

      • As the RBDIG in question, reading the description of my behavior a year later, I do indeed sound like a jackass, as Matt put it. In my paltry defense, part of my irritation was because as a member of the Industry Insider GoH committee, I’m an automatic IIGOH/IIPP regardless of my merits — which I did point out during that conversation.

        In your post a year ago, you said “Why does Ken Hite get to be a guest of honor again?” and my answer was “As you could tell from looking at the IIGOH website, I’m on the committee that picks them.”

        I’m absolutely willing to believe that my remarks in that vein on post-set-up-Wednesday-before-GenCon-2014 were more aggressive and less nuanced than I would have liked them to be.

        I’m absolutely willing to apologize for causing you anger with what at the time seemed like a half-humorous conversation-ender so I could get to dinner, rather than the fairly naked — and jackass-like — expression of power that it was. I am sorry for my mean behavior.

        For a further defense of GenCon’s efforts to increase diversity, I must refer you to my learned colleague Matt’s post. Including the part where he calls me a jackass.

        • Ken,

          First, thanks for being willing to reexamine and apologize, and for being willing to own your comments.

          For my part, I made the comment that I did because I honestly wasn’t aware of how the IIGOH was structured or how it was determined who was on the panel. The IIGOH/IIFP process isn’t terribly transparent and while there is the note that you were on the IIGOH Advisory Panel, there’s no real indication of what that means or the nature of the connection of those on the Advisory Panel to the GenCon organization.

          I also had heard only good things about you through shared contacts and didn’t consider that the context of my remarks might not be understood, because they honestly weren’t intended as an attack. What I was trying to get at was the fact that not being a GoH wasn’t going to change the fact that you’re one of like 3 names that EVERYONE in the industry knows, and in order to make room for more diversity there’s going to have to be some reduction in the prevalence of white guys. (Again, not understanding how the IIGOH was structured.)

          Unfortunately, the reality of being a woman in the game industry – especially “just” being a small-fry one-person publishing outfit, is that I am almost always assumed to be operating from a position of lower status. And I am especially conscious of this at GenCon, which – despite the efforts of some – is very heavily marked as a male space. So given the nature of the space and the personal experiences that I (and other female game designers) have had of shitty power plays made by male designers, it was impossible for me to not view remarks that you had intended as a joke through the lens of gendered power dynamics and industry status games.

          So thank you for saying something.

  2. The part about hotel workers piqued my curiosity, as I’m a union guy (NewsGuild/CWA) and union hotel workers tend to make a decent wage no matter their ethnicity. But, according to UNITE HERE, Indianapolis is used as the worst example city for hotel worker wages; workers are paid under the national average, about $8.50/hr. (national average is $9.21/hr.), as opposed to $16.40/hr. in unionized Chicago.

    Combined with what you’ve said about GenCon, it sounds to me like it would be better for the world to stop going and find a better venue.

    • I have a lot of complex feels about this! When the legal-LGBT-discrimination law came into effect, there were a lot of people who pushed to move GenCon out of Indianapolis. But I also saw native LGBT Indianans saying “uh, guys, this would actually hurt us”. Similarly, I know that tourism is a lot of how Indianapolis makes it’s money – the convention industry is huge there and there’s a reason why GenCon has been based out of Indianapolis for so long despite being in the middle of fucking nowhere. So while I absolutely agree that the working conditions for minorities are deplorable, I worry that a push to pull up stakes would hurt the people that most need help.

      So yeah. I feel completely unqualified to have an opinion about the issue of GenCon moving, I guess.

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