Gender swap: SMITE’s newest character – Sol

I’ve done a lot of writing about serious subjects recently, and in trying to find something more light-hearted to post about it occurred to me that it’s been quite a while since I’ve done a gender-swap. And really, I do love doing gender swaps, if only because I think that attempting to objectify men as much as women are objectified in games is both 1) an interesting intellectual exercise and 2) hilarious.

In which I pick on SMITE

Several months ago I wrote about SMITE, a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) that has been gaining in popularity. At launch, it had three million players, and as of July they have passed the ten million mark. Unfortunately, its character designs are impressively, almost comically sexist, not to mention racist and culturally appropriating.

(And let me be clear, when I say that SMITE has some of the most sexist character designs that I’ve seen in video games outside of kMMOs, that really means something given that the base level of sexism in video games is really fucking high. I mean, this is a character that actually happened in a major video game release by a major game studio in 2015: )

Quiet
Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Anyway, when I was thinking of where I should look for material for a new gender swap, SMITE was the first game that came to mind. Since I’ve been criticized in the past for going after “older” skins in previous critiques of similar games, I wanted to make sure I got something current. So I loaded up the SMITE website, not with any particular character in mind, and this is what I got:

Smite-Website

…okay then. At least they solved the problem of which character I was going to gender swap without me having to actually bother looking through their website. If they’re going to be objectively awful, I do at least appreciate them being upfront about it so as to save me tedious minutes of research.

So, meet Sol. Sol is a gender-swapped interpretation of the Roman sun god for whom our sun is named. Since driving the solar chariot across the sky is still a thing that has to happen, Sol-the-character is an elemental manifestation of fire, a projection of the sun god’s will, or some such nonsense. To be honest, I really didn’t bother reading her background that closely, since it was a blatantly transparent attempt to design a female character that is completely naked:

Sol-screens

“She can’t wear clothes because she’s made of fire” “Those aren’t actual breasts, she’s just using her power to look human” “She’s an elemental being, she doesn’t care about human morality”, etc etc etc. I could come up with more such justifications if I cared enough to try, but I don’t.

Now to be fair, her anatomy at least isn’t all that terrible. She’s got a moderate case of sphere-boob, and given the width of her hips, her waist is improbably narrow. (It’s not impossible, but in many people it would require a certain degree of corseting to achieve.) In fact, her anatomy is actually less improbable than some of the goddesses who wear more clothing (I’m looking at you, Aphrodite!). Though now that I mention it, “goddesses who wear more clothing” is still setting the bar depressingly low.

Despite being generally okay in terms of non-distorted anatomy, it’s hard to deny that the rest of her design conveys nothing but “sexy fire girl”. The “tattoos” on her shoulders point RIGHT AT her creepy nippleless breasts, and the “tattoos” on her thighs draw attention to the fact that YUP she is TOTES NAKED. But really, it’s fine, because she has a Barbie-doll crotch, and, you know, fire. Right? Except for the fact that her quotes only emphasize that she is meant to be seen as a sexual character that you could totes have sex with, because she is WAY HOT:

Sol-quotes

“Let’s make it hot”? “Oh I look hot… If I do say so myself”? “If you play with fire it enjoys it”? Seriously, the last one is just kind of creepy, not to mention awkwardly worded. Can’t they hire an editor to vet their creepy innuendos? Ugh.

And now the Gender-swap

So my mission was clear. Gender-swap Sol. Which I knew, even with her complete lack of clothing, was going to be a challenge:

Sol-genderswap

First, you’ll note that I gave male-Sol a g-string. That’s pretty much entirely because game studios are dominated by the sorts of dudes who have no trouble having a naked female character in their game, but a naked man? With full frontal nudity? Well they can’t have any of that, because that would make them gay. Because REASONS. Or cooties. Or something.

So right off the bat, male-Sol winds up losing a lot of the punch that female-Sol has. But even without the g-string, I think male-Sol still would have lost a lot in translation. The original portrait of female-Sol is intentionally in what I call “boob perspective”, to emphasize her, uh, feminine attributes. You still get a little of that, what with male-Sol’s junk being thrust toward the viewer, but a lot of the objectification inherent in the camera angle gets lost, since male-Sol doesn’t have breasts to be emphasized by that perspective.

There’s also the issue that, unfortunately, in our culture there are a lot of shitty gendered assumptions surrounding nudity. For female-Sol, being posed in this manner from this perspective combined with her nudity, the implication is that she is sexually available and is being presented for the enjoyment of a (presumed) straight male viewer. Because we don’t have the same assumptions surrounding men, male-Sol, ridiculous g-string and all, doesn’t convey the same level of sexual availability.

And yet, had male-Sol actually been put forward as a character design by the developers as a new character, doubtless there would be hoards of gamers decrying the design for being too gay, or for pandering to women, or any other number of homophobic and/or misogynist reasons. Character designs that cater to the straight male gaze in games are A-okay, but heaven forfend if someone actually attempts to cater to the the gaze of people who are attracted to men. Because at the heart of it, things that present men in ways that are objectifying threaten the sexist assumption that men are people and women are sexual objects, and not the other way around.

Gaming’s misogyny-induced brain drain

I know a lot of my readership is American, and given the American media’s complete lack of interest in, I dunno, your biggest trade partner and the country with whom you share the largest open border in the world (no big), you may not be aware that Canada just had a major federal election that resulted in a new Prime Minister (which is like a President, but fancier) after more than 10 years of having Stephen Harper as our national leader.

If you’re American and have heard about the election results, it’s probably because Justin Trudeau – our new Prime Minister – is young (43) and ludicrously good looking. (Seriously, Stephen Harper’s party actually campaigned against Justin Trudeau’s hair. That’s how good his hair is.) I, personally, have been greatly enjoying the media coverage that has been objectifying the shit out of him, because for once the shoe is on the other foot and it is glorious.

Now what does any of this have to do with games? After all, isn’t this a blog specifically about games and gaming? Well! One of the benefits of having a young PM who is “hip” and “with the times” (as the kids say these days) is that Justin Trudeau is actually up on cultural issues that affect people younger than 50. Case in point, in an interview, Trudeau owned the label of feminist and specifically called out GamerGate!

best-memes-star-trek

GamerGate, of course, being GamerGate, they wasted no time in declaring war on Justin Trudeau in retaliation. Because declaring war on a major head of state because he expressed an opinion about misogyny in gamer culture isn’t a bad idea at all:

TrudeauGG

And because I was feeling good and riding high on the election results, I thought that – hey, maybe I could write a silly post about Justin Trudeau waging war against GamerGate with CSIS (think CIA) and drones and shit, and I could make it dryly satirical and it’d be a funny little interlude after a string of way too fucking many serious posts that I’ve written. I could even put in a lot of jokes about Trudeau’s hair, and how GamerGate is terrified of him because they know their trilbys just can’t compete with the majesty of Trudeau’s glorious mane.

But all of that was yesterday, before a terrible thing happened that hurt some people that I really care about, and I was forcibly reminded that GamerGate is not a joke. Yes the furor may have died down, and most of those who were tweeting under the hashtag have moved on. But those who have remained committed are the extremists, and their commitment to doing whatever it takes to silence people they see as enemies is truly frightening. So suddenly all the jokes I’d been brainstorming about drones powered by hair product, and squirrels and moose dressed in CSIS uniforms storming basements, and blowing up bunkers full of Code Red and Doritos – they stopped being funny.

So because I do legit feel bad about being such a downer of late, before we move on please do enjoy some of my very favorite social media reactions to our new Prime Minister:

 

Trudeau

And now, moving on…

Gamers: we’re our own worst enemy

[Before I go any further, let me note as always that I am taking great care not to name names here. This is not just for my safety, it’s for the safety of others, so for fuck’s sake if you know who I’m talking about DO NOT link to this piece and name names. That is an asshole move.]

This morning I woke up to the news that someone I have great admiration and respect for was closing down his public social media presence because of harassment from gamers. And distressingly, instead of being shocked and amazed that this was happening, my very first thought was “oh Christ, not again”. Because this shit is like clockwork – it’s so regular you can practically set a clock by it.

This time it’s happening to some people that I feel very privileged to have been able to meet and spend time with. People who helped me get started with some of my first “legitimate” work in the games industry, and who helped me find confidence in my ability to write professionally. People who have done interesting and cutting-edge work, and from whom I have learned a lot about the business of being a publisher. And aside from sending some messages of support, I felt angry and powerless to do something, anything to help. Which is what prompted me to take to Twitter with the following rant:

Real talk: There are some terrifying people in our hobby. People I have legit lost sleep over, and people who I avoid talking about. Thing is: I know a lot of people who follow/circle/talk to these people, because they have good ideas, or they like the debate. Whatever.

The terrifying people are obviously problematic, because the shit that they do isn’t okay by any objective standard of behavior. But to the people who KNOW that someone is terrifying and problematic and continue engaging anyway? YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. YOU are the reason why our hobby is having such a brain drain. Why the best and the brightest with the most to offer are leaving. And our hobby is poorer for it. It is less smart, less innovative, less creative.

A lot of people talk big about wanting to make the hobby more diverse. About wanting more women and PoC and LGBT doing the work. But when it comes to being willing to call out terrifying people when they do ACTUAL TERRIFYING THINGS? The silence is deafening.

People will choose content over morality, because it’s comfortable. Because they don’t want to have to sacrifice things they like. Meanwhile there are people who have changed how they live IN REAL LIFE because these people are THAT TERRIFYING.

I am so tired, so very very tired of people that I look up to leaving gaming because of toxic entitled assholes who harass them out of loving a thing that they used to be passionate about. Gaming has lost so many voices, rich, vibrant, brilliant voices that contributed so much – people that moved the state of game design in new and fascinating directions. And our hobby is objectively poorer for it.

And yet this behavior is tolerated, even tacitly encouraged, by so many. People who say they want to separate the work from the creator, or that “sure [Person X] may be an asshole, but…”. Whatever the reason they espouse, the people who continue to engage are a huge part of the problem, because they are creating a space in which harassers and abusers are tolerated (and sometimes even celebrated) while those same harassers and abusers victimize people with impunity. So people leave. Brilliant, funny, talented, passionate people whose contributions can’t be replaced, and they will keep leaving as long as this is the case.

A lot of people try to stay away from these discussions, saying that they don’t want to “choose sides”, but that is the coward’s way out. A vote for neutrality is a vote for the status quo, and the status quo is a culture of misogynist and racist harassment that drives the brightest and best out of our hobby altogether. Not to mention the fact that there is no such thing as “sides” in a hate campaign, because the idea of “sides” implies that the parties involved are somehow equal, that there is somehow an equal amount of wrong being committed.

But the only wrong being committed is that people are daring to express opinions about games and gaming that someone else doesn’t like. And gamers, largely, are perfectly fine to sit back and watch other gamers harass and abuse them for the crime of saying things that someone didn’t like. (Or making a game that someone didn’t like. Or simply existing in a gaming space in a way that someone didn’t like.) And until our hobby steps up and starts taking this sort of behavior seriously, starts making gaming as unfriendly to harassers and abusers as the harassers and abusers have made gaming for smart and progressive voices, this will only continue. And many brilliant and innovative games will simply never get written.

So, gamers. If you can’t find it in you to act out of altruism, consider doing so out of enlightened self-interest. It’s a numbers game. The content being produced by harassers and abusers is greatly, greatly outweighed by the content that would have been produced by those who have left, or who are trying to leave. But please, for the love of god. Say something. ANYTHING. Because the silence of good people hurts even more than the abuse of people who are objectively terrible anyway.

White People: please stop crowdfunding super racist games. It’s embarrassing. [CW]

[Content warning: This post contains, among many other things discussion of anti-Native ethnic slurs.]

So there’s thing that happens semi-regularly to me in my G+ circles; someone links to a game that is being crowdfunded (usually on KickStarter) that is cringe-inducingly racist, and there’s a discussion thread where people say things like – shit, this is so bad. How is this this bad? But a lot of the time, these discussions happen in more private circles, since nobody wants to risk accidentally giving exposure to a terrible thing that shouldn’t exist. And I avoid writing about it here for the same reason, and then it sort of slips away and I forget to write about the issue again until yet another cringe-inducingly racist game KickStarter pops up in my feed, and the cycle starts all over again.

So. Enough is enough.

White game creators, it’s time to have a talk – white person to white person – because seriously. This has to stop. You’re killing me over here.

Before we start: Ground rules

Quite a while ago, I wrote a very basic set of rules that you should look to follow in order to create inclusive games.

Last year, I wrote about the basic rules you should follow when looking to write inclusive games. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just going to concentrate on the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit – rules #1 and 2:

  1. Cultural appropriation is bad
  2. Don’t erase marginalized groups
  3. Don’t combine #1 and #2

Of course, there’s more to it than that. A LOT more. As in, 10,000 words more. If you want to read my entire series on writing inclusive games and how to avoid offensive stereotypes, you can find it here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part3. But for the purposes of this post, that’s what we’re going to focus on, with some examples of what this shit looks like in the wild, since I went to the trouble of digging up some examples of things that a) have already funded or b) won’t actually fund. That way I’ll be able to illustrate what I’m talking about instead of attempting to talk in generalities.

Depressingly, I will note that all of the examples that I dug up for this post center on anti-Native racism. The game that prompted me to write this post was racist against a different group of people entirely, but sadly it seems even easier to find games that are racist about Native and Aboriginal peoples on KickStarter than any other group. (At least anecdotally speaking.)

Also: yes this shit does actually fund sometimes

Thankfully, most of the examples that I have to talk about are things that people emphatically did not vote with their dollar to see produced. Unfortunately, games based on racist tropes and stereotypes do still find audiences, and they do still fund. Case in point:

Going NativeI’ve written about Going Native on this blog before, so I’ll just quote myself rather than attempt to rehash something I already stated well and succinctly:

Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. (Really, even just the title should be a giant red flag.) Going Native: Warpath is a minis war game in which players have armies that are based on real-life native and aboriginal cultures which has been written and developed by (of course) a white dude.

Because nothing says “sorry for that one time we committed genocide against your people and then forced the survivors into institutionalized poverty” like casual cultural appropriation. Bonus points for managing to convey the added baggage of “well killing your people wasn’t as bad as it could have been since you were already doing it to yourselves”.

So let this be a cautionary tale. Just because I’m intentionally picking examples that will not be getting their target funding doesn’t mean that KickStarters for racist games aren’t still a huge damn problem.

Now: Down to the nitty gritty

I have three examples to discuss, which I will cover in order of least offensive to dear god what the actual shit how did you spend this much time creating a KickStarter without ever once critically examining what you wanted to KickStart?

The first is a game called Indigenous, whose tagline is: “In an uncharted jungle you have to hunt animals, build shelters, collect ingredients and fight other tribes to ensure your survival.”

Okay. A bit dodgy, but possibly not so bad right? However, here’s the very first sentence in their campaign description:

“With this game we try to achieve something realistic and entertaining enough, to let you immerse into the rough land of primitive indigenous people.”

[headdesk]

PRIMITIVE. INDIGENOUS. PEOPLE.

indigenous_comp

Now I will at least give these developers credit: they did at least describe them as people – something the next two games certainly can’t lay claim to. But, given that this is a game being KickStarted by a team from Germany which is composed of (as much as I was able to discern) decidedly white-appearing folk… the execution is tone-deaf at best, and really gross even if you’re attempting to look at this charitably (which I don’t really think this game deserves). Thankfully, as they are currently sitting at 1.4% funded with about a week to go, there’s no real danger of this KickStarter succeeding.

Of course, clueless and tone deaf is at least still better than games that intentionally fail at not being offensive. Like Deadskins: a game that managed to actually gain $6000 in pledges, despite incorporating an actual goddamn ethnic slur in the name of their game[1]:

download

And again, unsurprisingly, the KickStarter was created by a decidedly white-appearing dude[2]. Because this shit is so predictable you can practically set a watch by it.

Unlike Indigenous, Deadskins also was Greenlit by the Steam community, proving once again that Steam is depressing and will Greenlight just about anything. (Hell, if it’s REALLY depressing, Valve founder Gabe Newell will apologize for people trying to censor your project if it gets too much blowback.)

And honestly, it’s hard to know where to even begin in explaining just why this game is so awful. I mean, look at this screenshot:

deadskins-screens

So… Let’s start with the fact that this whole damn game is a pastiche of offensive tropes and stereotypes. Deadskins combines Romero-type Hollywood zombie antics with awful stereotypes about natives in that awful way that a lot of game creators do when they want to cherry pick the most “awesome” elements of a real world (usually) non-white culture for their game. For instance, the zombies in Deadskins actually defeat their enemies by scalping them. Also, the above screen shot is an example of a zombie spirit animal. That you can ride. You know. Just because.

There’s also the fact that all of this undead Native crap is a super casual perpetuation of the Vanishing Native myth – the idea that that Native peoples are disappearing and that their total disappearance is a foregone conclusion. Which is fucking horrific, because. You know. We (ie white people) enacted genocide against them so that we could take their land and resouces. Not to mention that the Vanishing Native myth is still causing very real harm today.

And I don’t care HOW sheltered you are, after the continued, persistent, ongoing controversy over the Washington R*dskins’ team name, even the most dedicated of non-sportsball-fans should be aware of the fact that the term “redskin” is an offensive ethnic slur[3].

And yet, as awful as Deadskins is, it still doesn’t manage to beat out the campaign for a game called Tap N’ Trap, OF COURSE BY WHITE MEN, which manages to combine cluelessness, horrible racism, and casual dehumanization quite catastrophically:

Tap N Trap

Yeah, I knew it was going to be bad when it started with “help ABORIGINALS”. Not help aboriginal PEOPLE. Help ABORIGINALS[4]. Worse, they mix terms and portrayals pretty freely. (Because, you know, why bother with research or any of that when you can just combine a lot of primitive looking shit from different cultures, right? Who cares as long as it ends up looking cool?) In the description of their campaign, they refer to the non-white characters as “aboriginals”. But in the captions for their character designs, they’re referred to as “Natives”.

Which. You know. Okay. In Canada the terms are used somewhat interchangeably, so maybe I could give that a pass if it weren’t for the character designs:

Tap-N-Trap-chars

The description makes it sound like they’re talking about Native or Aboriginal peoples, but the skin tones and character designs – especially the masks – visually reference a pastiche of African cultures. Which. Uh. At the risk of stating the obvious, Native people and African people aren’t even from the same continent. They’re entirely separate ethnic groups with completely different languages, cultures, and traditions.

The nail in the coffin? The magical power-up item for your “Natives” is a GODDAMN WATERMELON:

watermelon

BRB SETTING EVERYTHING ON FIRE. (If you’re not familiar with the history of why watermelon imagery associated with black people is seriously not fucking okay, especially when it’s being created by white people, then just follow this link to this Google Image search. Just be warned, it’s so racist it’s probably NSFW.)

Honestly, this is the sort of “ironically” awful games that I could see being published by a certain Edgy Game Designer. But the game creators actually seem pretty earnest about using this game as a springboard for social change. Unfortunately, the cause that they are espousing isn’t anything like, say, (to name a few Canada-specific issues affecting Native populations) the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, or the lack of access on reserves to adequate housing and education, or hell even the lack of access on reserves to clean drinking water. No. The cause that they want to espouse is environmentalism and disappearing endangered species.

So all of that horrible racist shit. The conflating nonwhite cultures that have nothing to do with one another, the casual dehumanization, the perpetuation of fucking horrible racist stereotypes… all of that shit is just the creators using PoC as PROPS to talk about what really matters. ANIMALS.

Which is why Tap N’ Trap wins the award for THE MOST RACIST SHIT I HAVE SEEN ON KICKSTARTER, yes even worse than Deadskins. Because congratulations, when you perpetuate harmful racist bullshit while simultaneously prioritizing animals over actual goddamn people, that makes you a shitty human being.

White people: It’s time to get our act together

Look, white people. I say this as a white person who writes games about non-white people[6]. I get it! It’s hard! Writing games about non-white people is hard! It takes a lot of time, effort, and research. It also requires talking to people who come from the group of people that you are writing about. And most importantly, it involves being willing to dismantle your own bullshit and a willingness to look for where you fucked up (because I promise you, you will always fuck up somewhere). All of which requires the willingness to be uncomfortable, and to sit with that discomfort. And all of that is HARD. And uncomfortable, and unfun. And isn’t making games supposed to be about having fun?

But we aren’t not even talking about making games that are truly inclusive and promote diversity here, because frankly we suck at that, white people. (Yes, including myself in that. There are things that I could do better.) So, babysteps. Let’s just work on not crowdfunding shit entirely based on horribly racist stereotypes, okay? Please?

[1] Although it’s worth noting that the actual percentage of funding is almost the same as Indigenous, given that goal was a ludicrous $365,000.

[2] That’s not to say people who aren’t white men don’t make racist games. But the ones that I’ve seen that get as far as KickStarter tend to have been created by white men.

[3] If you’re interested in reading more, the Wikipedia entry on the team name controversy actually provides a pretty good starting point as to why the term is problematic and its history, even if it is a bit too focused on remaining “balanced” for my liking.

[4] Given how fucking common it is for native populations to be portrayed in ways that dehumanize them, it’s important to always refer to native people in ways that emphasize their humanity. Native people, not Natives. Aboriginal people, not Aboriginals. It’s the same reason why we say “transgender people” instead of “transgenders”, frex[5].

[5] Although I have heard people say “transgenders” as a noun and seriously. Just. Don’t.

[6] Because seriously, if there’s one thing that gaming DOESN’T need, it’s more games about white people.

Wednesday Freebie: An interview with the creators of Lovecraftesque

Today’s post is an interview with Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, the creators of a game called Lovecraftesque that is currently KickStarting with (by the time you will probably read this) slightly less than seven days to go.
Lovecraftesque is, as the title might imply, a story game about telling stories in the Lovecraft style without adhering to the specific Cthulu mythos. What got me excited about the project is the fact that the creators were both committed to addressing the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s work head-on in their game, with some very interesting stretch-goals that tackle the issues of race and mental health in Lovecraft’s stories in depth.
They’re currently at a bit more than 200% funding with some very exciting stretch goals in the works. So if what you read here interests, you, I’d definitely advise checking out the campaign, since it’s all gravy from here on out!
1. One of the things that jumped out at me right away is that you explicitly call out H.P. Lovecraft’s issues with race, and are getting Mo Holkar (who has done some really excellent writing about race in roleplaying games) to write about ways to tell stories that have the Lovecraft feel without the problematic racism. This is something that, honestly, I haven’t seen from many Cthulu mythos-inspired games. How much did these concerns affect the design of the game and planning for the KickStarter?
[B] We couldn’t have done a Lovecraftian game without addressing his racism and making a concerted effort to keep it out of our game.  We were really concerned (and we still are) to make sure our game isn’t extending his racism either explicitly or subtlely. But we are also really lucky – there is a huge community of people including Mo Holkar, Chris Chinn, yourself and many others who have been talking and writing about representations of race in RPGs for a long time.  There is a lot of help and resources in the RPG community in navigating this problem and I hope we’ve done the best job we can.

Part of the problem is that, while Lovecraft was bigoted in really obvious ways, he also weaved racist ideas into his stories in much more insidious ways – like, some of his stories look like they’re just about monsters from beneath the waves or ape-gods living in hidden jungles, but they’re actually not-particularly-subtle metaphors for his hatred. We read around the subject to understand it as much as possible.

[J] Design-wise, the game doesn’t copy Lovecraft, but instead attempts to help you to create a Lovecraft-like story, with your own terrors. Unless you use one of the pre-written scenarios available in the final version of the game, the players will be creating their own settings for Lovecraftesque at the table. So we focused on giving players the tools they need to deal with the racism in Lovecraft’s work.

We start with techniques for:

– Putting in place safety measures that allow players to effectively veto racist themes. There’s a step in the game setup where players can ban elements from the game, with explicit prompts in the text and on the play aids to consider banning in-character racism (and simplistic “going mad”-style depictions of mental illness), but also recommending the use of the X-Card technique by John Stavropoulos to catch the stuff that you couldn’t have anticipated at setup.

– Including a section discussing Lovecraft’s racism, how it might come up in the game, and how you can avoid it and diversify your game. We take the opportunity there to encourage groups to discuss these issues, because that’s our bottom line: if anyone in your group will be made uncomfortable by something, it’s best to avoid it, and you only find that out by talking about it. And of course, that’s now going to be supplemented by Mo’s essay which will go into this in more detail.

[B]  This is supported by art and flavour text that attempts to represent a diverse range of people, and which tries to avoid example text from Lovecraft which contains racist themes.

We mentioned all these themes in the Kickstarter, and of course, we wanted the sample art for the Kickstarter to exemplify our approach.

 
2. As someone who struggles with both anxiety and depression, I also really appreciated the fact that you plan on addressing how to respectfully portray mental illness. Was that something that was difficult to write about, and did it pose any challenges during playtesting?
 
[J] I guess just about everybody has either struggled with mental illness themselves or knows people who have. Lovecraftian stories are replete with simplistic, offensive depictions of mental illness, which much of the time boils down to portraying characters that have simply “gone mad”, an idea which doesn’t bear any relation to actual human psychology. But of course, the idea that the horrors of the mythos have a baleful effect on the human mind is a pretty core theme in Lovecraftian tales – you can’t completely abandon that and stay true to those stories.

We tried to analyse the ways that mental illness (or, more often, something that looks like mental illness but actually isn’t) might come up in a cosmic horror story. We found there’s actually a lot of ways to represent these themes without being offensive or perpetuating negative stereotypes. Writing about it was a huge challenge because there is far less discussion on mental health representation in RPGs than representations of race.  Shoshana Kessock’s original article is still the most comprehensive discussion piece on the themes – though there’s been a surge in discussion recently which we’ll be paying close attention to.

We both sometimes struggled to describe some of Lovecraft’s themes, such as the worldview-shattering effects of the mythos, or the presence of characters who have been deeply traumatised by an encounter with the horror. It was easy to unintentionally slip into casual ableist language in our game text and we have tried to correct that.

[B] You asked about playtesting. I don’t remember this being a particular problem in playtesting save that it was a new direction to ask people to directly think about using the word “mad” as a descriptor in a Lovecraft game.

There aren’t any sanity mechanics in the game which would push players in the direction of depicting mental illness. There were moments in playtesting when characters justifiably behaved with an element of temporary hysteria. I hope those didn’t come off as offensive and I certainly believe and hope they didn’t cross any lines. But my conclusion from all this is that, lacking an explicit mechanical push, most players will tend to default to playing their character as a person and not suddenly lurch into bizarre stereotypical behaviour.

 On the other hand we provide other routes for people to express their character’s mental discomfort. Because there’s just one central character – the Witness – we ask the players to provide their inner monologue; speaking out loud the Witness’s fears and rationalisations. Every time they do that, they’re effectively saying “fuck, that was scary/weird/what is happening here????”. So, instead of having their character giggle hysterically, you can just have them think appropriately terrified thoughts and/or vainly attempt to rationalise it all away. Again, this encouraging a style of play that portrays the character first, symptoms second.
3. I LOVE the preview pieces of art posted on the KickStarter. Do you have any strategies in place for your art direction to ensure that the art as a whole is diverse and inclusive?
[B] Thank you – we are so excited about the art for Lovecraftesque.

We knew going into this project we wanted to have a really diverse approach in the artwork.  Diversity in the text doesn’t mean much if it isn’t reflected in the art. A lesson we’ve learned from you and others!

When we looked for an artist we asked the RPG design community on G+ for recommendations, and especially encouraged people who were not white, cis, het, men to contact us.  Not that we didn’t want submissions from those men, but we figured we’d get plenty of responses from those guys anyway (and we did which was cool!) but we wanted to make sure we got plenty of other people being recommended as well.  We specifically put a note in saying we wanted to encourage submissions from people who might have imposter syndrome or otherwise assume they weren’t professional enough – because lack of confidence is often a problem for people and we wanted the widest possible pool of artists to choose from.

[J] We were really lucky to have Robin Scott as our artist. Robin was on exactly the same page as us when it came to making our art diverse – we were incredibly impressed with the diversity of models in her Urban Tarot work.

Right from the start, we said to her (and come to think of it, we said this to all the artists we shortlisted) that we wanted to portray diverse characters, from all genders, ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and levels of ability and disability, with a ceiling on the number of white dudes portrayed in the art. We also asked to avoid portraying all the white men as heroic action types with women and people of colour as passive victims or other stereotypes. Robin’s response was that she would have done that anyway, so it was great to know we were working together on this.

We didn’t stop there, of course. We created a list of concepts for images, and once we had whittled them down to the ones we wanted putting in the book, we went through character-by-character to identify what they ought to look like and make sure we were meeting those diversity objectives. So, while the art isn’t yet done (Robin has just started work on the art the Kickstarter is funding), we already know where we’re headed.

[B] I don’t think we can conclude this question without saying that we took a lot of inspiration and direction from your articles about game art. We have made our own (modest) contributions to promoting debate on this issue over the years, and we are committed to making sure that we practice what we preach to the best of our ability.