Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Gender and Sexuality [Part 2]

[A brief note before I start: this particular post has been many, many months in the making. I used TV Tropes extensively in putting together the outline for what I wanted to talk about. Thanks also to the following for their contributions and suggestions: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Magrann, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. You were enormously helpful.

This was turning into a loooooong post, so I wound up splitting this into parts. This post will tackle awful gender and sexuality-related stereotypes. The next post will look at awful racist stereotypes, since that’s probably going to wind up being as long as this already-extensive post. Also, a brief technical note – the new WordPress.com interface SUPER HATES captions. Sorry for the resulting ugly.

Part 1 of this series can be found here. Part 3 is now up and can be found here.] 

When you’re looking to write inclusive game material, actively avoiding offensive stereotypes is pretty much one of the most important things you can do, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s important for anyone looking to create a product with a broad appeal. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that when I see games that are riddled with sexist stereotypes, I almost always dismiss that game as “not for me”. There are exceptions, true. (I’m looking at you, BioWare!) But the exceptions have to be particularly exceptional in other areas. For the most part, games that are blatantly sexist are games that I don’t buy.

Secondly, it’s important for anyone looking to improve their craft as a writer. Stereotypes are easier than taking the time to craft a well-rounded, nuanced view of something (a person, a group of people, a society, etc). But that’s what makes stereotypes lazy writing. Anyone can mash a bunch of stereotypes together into an unoriginal pastiche. The writers who stand out are those who bring something new and different into their writing. Lastly, avoiding stereotypes is important simply from the angle of not being a shitty human being. Do you want to write a setting riddled with offensive stereotypes and hide behind “creative license”? (If you know, if you answered yes, then perhaps you’re not the target audience for this…) You could do that! After all, there’s certainly many game writers and developers out there who have blazed that trail for you. But consider that using harmful stereotypes of marginalized groups perpetuates cultural narratives that continue to damage members of those groups. But, wundergeek! How do I know what stereotypes to avoid? This stuff is hard, and I might be using something that I’m not even aware is a stereotype! Well, fictional internet writer. I’ve put together a collection just for you of shitty stereotypes to avoid in your game writing. All of these are stereotypes that are pretty common (and by pretty common I mean, I see them so often it makes me want to flip tables) in the game world, and all of these are troublesome. This isn’t intended to be a substitute for getting second opinions from people who don’t share your privilege (BECAUSE YOU SHOULD ALWAYS DO THAT), but it’s a good place to start. I will warn you now, this list is looooooong. SO. LONG. Because, surprise surprise, there are a lot of shitty stereotypes that are common in gaming. (Say it isn’t so!) So grab a drink (I’m partial to margaritas) and let’s get started.

Gender Fail

Men are from Mars, women are from venus

Please, unless it is your intent to write something that is truly subversive with regard to commonly held gender roles, avoid falling into the trap of writing men and woman as being completely different species that are incapable of relating to one another. And even then, consider that the likelihood of actually succeeding in your work being read the way you want it to is vanishingly small. That well has been poisoned. You see this in pop culture all the time: women want romance while men only want sex, women want to talk about their feelings while men pretend not to have any, men are perverts and women are prudes. This stereotype is incredibly gender essentialist and doesn’t do justice to just how varied a spectrum gender really is. Subtype: Men are generic, women are special How many games have you played where the NPCs wandering around are all or mostly male? For that matter, how many games have you played where the cast of characters is entirely male except for “the chick”? Can we all agree that the implications of this kind of thing are creepy and horrible? If women are 50% of the population, why would you make a world in which almost none of the people who actually get to be in public doing things are women? That is some creepy awfulness right there, so please. Just don’t.

Straw feminists

Straw feminists (so named because they are a common subset of the straw man) are stereotyped, two-dimensional characters that exist to mock feminists and feminist ideals. Straw feminists are usually depicted as rabidly man-hating, to the extent that they want to overthrow patriarchal society and establish a fascist male dictatorship in its place. Also, very often they are lesbians, because nothing says misandry like lesbianism AMIRITE LAYDEEZ?

[I will never get tired of blogging this panel from the Hark! A Vagrant! about straw feminists. Kate Beaton is brilliant, the end.]

This is a stereotype that is more commonly used than you’d think in gaming. Take, for example, Purna from Dead Island, who had a skill that let her do increased damage… only to men. And let’s not forget the shitstorm that erupted when it was revealed that this skill was called “Feminist Whore” in a test build. Charming.

Or how about the Drow? They tick pretty much every straw feminist box and still have plenty of fail left over. The Drow are a matriarchal society (check) that hate men (check) and enforce the status of men as second class citizens (check). Naturally, because they are ostensibly a “feminist” culture, they are all evil. Really evil. Like worshipping an evil spider god evil. (Check, check, and check.) Oh, and let’s not forget that despite the fact that they hate men, they still all dress sexy…. for men? Because the only matriarchy worth writing about is a sexy matriarchy? And all of this isn’t even touching on the race fail wrapped up in the Drow. (We’ll come back to that.) So don’t ever write the Drow. Or anything like the Drow. Basically, if anything you’ve written looks even a little bit like the Drow, nuke it and start over.

Femininity is Evil

This is one of the most over-used stereotypes in gaming. Fantasy games are especially guilty of this, but non-fantasy games use this stereotype heavily as well. It’s rooted deeply in the patriarchal belief that female sexuality is evil. Any woman who is not pure and virginal is necessarily dirty and evil. The idea that femininity is itself evil is just a logical (if depressing) extension of that assumption. So women who show any hint of sexuality are evil, and women in general are evil, and men who are gender-nonconforming with feminine traits are especially evil. Because, you know, cooties. You can see this at work when you see evil eunuchs (a man without a penis? EVIL!), or super-beautiful women being sneaky (because super-beautiful = super-feminine = sneaky. EVIL!), or queens who are always evil (a woman in charge? EVIL!). And let’s not forget the “femme fatale” – a stereotype with many of it’s own sub-cliches, all of which I wish would die in a fire. Like the sexy evil sorceress, or the sexy evil queen, or the sexy thief, or the sexy spy. All of these are characters who use sex to get what they want, which of course makes them evil. Because, as we know, women who have sex are evil, and women who have lots of sex are really evil. And women who have lots of sex and ENJOY it? Well shit. They might as well be Satan. /headdesk The most screwed up example of this, however, is the vagina dentata stereotype – the most extreme extension of “the female is more deadly than the male”: monsters who literally consume their prey with their evil evil ladybits. (Fair warning, that link is pretty gross.)

Women as property

[TV Tropes calls this stereotype “Entitled to Have You”, but I’m not a fan of the gender-neutral phrasing as this is a heavily gendered stereotype that almost 100% applies to women.] All too often in games, women get to be plot devices, not people. And sometimes, even when they are depicted as people, they’re people without any real agency or freedom. There are many ways that this stereotype gets written into games, like the MacGuffin Girl – the woman who is herself the goal that must be attained. Or the female love interest who is nothing more than an extension of the hero because her most defining trait is being “owned” by the hero. And especially the “woman as standard hero reward” that you see in just about everything. One of the many reasons I have always hated Princess Peach is that she manages to hit all three of these.

Congratulations! You have just saved the village /castle/ kingdom/ nation / planet / galaxy / universe! Here is a beautiful woman as your reward! It’s like a slot machine that dispenses women, only more fucked up.

If you’re going to write a romance in your game, make it between two people with feelings, desires, and agency. Don’t write a romance between a male hero and a woman-shaped object. And if your hero hooks up at the end of the story, make it the result of a developing relationship between two characters, not as an auto-reward for saving the day. That kind of “insert coin, receive woman” plot device is kind of horrifying.

Women are only important because of their relationships with men

This is technically a subset of the “woman as property” stereotype, but is so unbelievably, massively endemic that it deserves to be expanded upon. All too often, female characters are depicted as only being significant to the story in so far as they are important to the story’s lead male characters. This has a whole host of problematic implications (women aren’t “real” people, women can’t be heroes, the only people whose stories matter are men, just to name a few. And the outcomes that this sort of thinking leads to are even worse. Starting with the least awful, when your writing adheres to this stereotype, you’re going to wind up with a cast of characters that is overwhelmingly male. Any women present are likely to be either a “lone macho chick” (the only woman on a team of men who is competent by completely divorcing herself from traditional femininity), a “team mom” (the female member of the team who coddles male egos and devotes herself to their best interests), or a “Smurfette” (a character who serves no purpose other than decoration). This sort of thing is both awful and stupefyingly boring. If your game’s story is nothing more than The Masculine Adventures of Manly Men, I’m going to find something else to play, because been there, done that. Despite that Gears of War is a game I’d probably enjoy in terms of gameplay, I’m not ever going to play it. When I want to play a fun third-person tactical shooter, I’ll load up Mass Effect instead and enjoy killing things in the face with my awesome LadyShepard. Of course, the much more awful cousin of the Smurfette is the “disposable female”, or – as Gail Simone has popularized the concept – “women in refrigerators”. All too often, the few female characters that exist are written out of the story – killed, brainwashed, maimed, etc – for the sake of giving a male character “tragic motivation” to come after the villain and emerge triumphant. See Kerrigan in StarCraft II, Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, Marian in Double Dragon II… Actually, you know what, just go watch the second installment in the Tropes Versus Women series by Anita Sarkeesian[1].

Women are passive/men are active

While all games tend to fail at this, fantasy games tend to fail especially hard because of the stereotypes that have long been held about magic, magic users, and who gets to participate in the action of a story. All too often in fantasy games, the heavily armored melee fighters are big, manly men and the magic-users are frail, delicate (usually scantily-clad) women – the underlying assumption being that the men are the ones putting themselves directly in danger while the women are slinging spells from a position of safety. Which sucks, because on its face the concept of magic-users is awesome – someone who uses arcane arts to bend reality to their will. But the execution almost always leaves something to be desired. An interesting subfail of this stereotype often pops up in those fantasy settings that mix magic and technology together. All too often, you wind up with your magical nature-loving people and your scientific technology-loving people, and never the twain shall meet. And because magic = female and nature = magic, then nature = female. Sometimes this extends to nature = passive, but most of the time you just wind up with nature = sexy. See, for instance, Dragon Age: Origins when the spirit of the forest is a hyper-sexy green lady with no clothes. (Because the physical manifestation of a forest is obviously going to be a sexay naked human. OF COURSE.) Or every irritating piece of druid or ranger art ever that shows them with no damn clothes while posing next to a large, intimidating animal. Or Final Fantasy XII, who went one step further and made their nature lovers both sexy and passive; the viera are a race of lingerie-wearing bunny girls who lounge around in the forest and don’t ever leave or do anything interesting ever. Wanting to actually DO SHIT is, you know, evil and foreign and stuff, so the magical bunny women actually excommunicate anyone who ever leaves the forest, no matter the reason. And yes, Final Fantasy XII also has the Jahara, who are a race of shamanistic male nature lovers. But the Jahara, notably, are fully clothed and are minor characters in a story about the struggle against the evil techno-empire ruled by manly men. (And yes, the techno-empire turns out to be manipulated by weirdo god-like spirits, and then the main villain turns into a robo-angel and… you know what, even by the standards of Final Fantasy, FFXII’s story was pretty goddamn gibberish, so let’s not go too deep with our analysis here.)

Sexism because history

This trope is mostly applicable to fantasy games, which are almost universally set in various incarnations of white crypto-Europe. What happens frequently such games is that the writers fall into the trap of assuming that naturally a crypto-European setting would be sexist because history was also sexist. You know, because it’s not like historians have actively ignored and/or erased the contributions of anyone who wasn’t a white dude for centuries. This leads to female characters who, by and large, stay in the kitchen and pursue only acceptable feminine goals (finding a man, having a baby, marrying some man that is not this other man that other people want her to marry, etc etc). You know, because history! Meanwhile, the heroes of these stories are always white men, because history! Sometimes a writer might make transparent attempts to somewhat circumvent this by having an Atypical Awesome Lady Character – otherwise known as the chick to whom all that awful sexism doesn’t apply because she is just SO. VERY. AWESOME. Unlike all those other awful girly girls who clearly would be able to rise above all that nasty sexism if they just tried harder.

[Taken from Hey, Khaleesi]


The glaring hole in this sort of logic is that why should fantasy settings necessarily include sexism? If your setting includes dragons, wizards, demons, fantastical beasts, other planes of existence that routinely intrude on our own, and a pantheon of deities who routinely empower servants with supernatural powers, clearly we’re already talking about a universe vastly different from our own. (Either that, or history is actually way more awesome than I was led to believe.) Also, it’s pretty nonsensical to argue that gender equality in a fantasy setting would be “unrealistic”, because honestly. DRAGONS.

Gratuitous sexualization

The most obvious stereotype and most pervasive stereotype of all. It is the low-hanging fruit of how not to fail, and yet almost no one seems interested in even attempting not to do this. Stupid chainmail bikini art in game books, lingerie ninja characters in video games, female characters whose sole purpose is as an object of sexual desire for a male audience… People. PEOPLE. This isn’t rocket science. Women are people. Not collections of sexy ladybits. People. Not only that, but they come in all shapes and sizes and races. There are tall women and short women and fat women and thin women. There are young women and middle-aged women and old women. So represent that diversity! Even if your female characters get to wear clothes, are they all under 30 and built like supermodels? If so, you still fail.

Queerphobia and Cissexism

[Before I continue, you’ll notice that this section is shorter than the previous. That’s not because it’s less important! It’s because a lot of homophobic tropes overlap heavily with your more “traditional” sexism. The one’s I’m calling out here go above and beyond the garden-level sexism and veer into heterosexism and cissexism. However, pretty much everything in the previous sections can apply to queer and non-binary characters as well.]

Gay (and/or trans) people are evil

Thankfully, due to changing attitudes with regard to marriage equality, this stereotype is less prevalent than it once once. But game culture is not exactly a terribly enlightened place, and there’s still an awful lot of this one out there. And often when you see an Evil Gay Villain in a game, that character will be the only gay character depicted. I don’t need to explain why that’s awful do I? That it’s bad to have your only representative of an already marginalized group be evil? Because this is the sort of thing that you see in “real life” all the time by certain groups – the insistence that all gay/queer people are promiscuous and evil people who want to either molest your children or make them gay/queer. So by using this stereotype, you’re simultaneously reinforcing harmful cultural narratives and writing an unoriginal character. Hooray!

Alexia/Alfred Ashford from Resident Evil
Does this dress make me look evil?

There’s a watered down version of this that is also pretty common – that of the male evil cross-dresser. Of course anyone who doesn’t adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity gots to be evil! Because cooties? This stereotype manages to not only be sexist and homophobic, but transphobic as well. If you’re after checking as many “awful human being” boxes as possible, then by all means pack your cast with evil cross-dressers. Otherwise, please for the love of god can we let this stereotype die already?

Making excuses for gay

Game companies are getting better about representing gay characters in their games that aren’t Evil Gays, but an awful lot of the time there seems to be an impulse to need to be able to rationalize the gay. Gay characters aren’t allowed to just be gay and have it not be a big deal. It has to be explained somehow to make it more palatable for your typical dudebro audience. The Asari from Mass Effect are the perfect example of having your lesbians and eating them too[2]. They’re a race of totally hawt lady space elves that are totally lesbians. Oh, except for how they’re not supposed to mate with each other because stigma. But they can mate with women from other species, so lesbians! Oh, but they also mate with men from other species, and they could theoretically mate with intelligent squid-things too. But when you go to a club, all the hawt lady space elves are all dancing sexy with each other! And there are totally cut scenes of an Asari bumping female uglies with LadyShep, so… Lesbians, brah!

not-lesbiansLook, it just gets tiresome, okay? If you want gay characters, just let them be gay and move on with your life for gods sake.

No happy endings

So you’ve written a gay character that isn’t evil, that isn’t the lone gay character in a cast of straight characters, that gets to have an on-screen romance. Awesome. Now how can you heighten the tension in your story? By killing the gay love interest?

*bzz* WRONG!

Now you’re just using the disposable woman stereotype and slotting in “gay” instead of “woman”. (Unless we’re talking about killing a gay woman, in which case you’re actually doubling down on your awful.)

For whatever reason, gay characters rarely get to have happy endings. Either they or their love interest gets killed or otherwise removed from the story, or their relationship falls apart, or they find true love and happiness with the opposite-sex partner they were clearly meant to be with all along. Too many times, gay characters in relationships have a giant narrative target painted on their chests.

And honestly, I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I game is to escape my real-world stressors for a while. So how much would it suck to sit down to play a game and have to choose between either not being represented or being represented but never getting to have a happy ending. LGBT people have to put up with enough bullshit in their daily lives already. How about we let them have the occasional story where the gay characters get to be not evil, gay, and still in a happy relationship at the end of the story, huh? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Erasure of nominally “invisible” populations

As much as there are some pretty awful portrayals of gay characters, the fact remains that remains that representations of gay characters are increasing in games. Which is great! Unfortunately, however, there is no commensurate increase in representation of characters that are trans, bi, poly, what have you.

And if you’re not sure how to write a good trans character, for example, one thing you can try is writing the character as a man (since men are who we’re conditioned to see as protagonists) and later going back and changing the character. It’s an excellent way to turn what would normally be a traditional character type into something new and compelling. For instance, Fang in Final Fantasy XIII was originally written as a man and later switched to a woman, and she remains one of my favorite female characters I’ve yet encountered in gaming.

And that’s all for now. Next time: awful race stereotypes to avoid

—- [1] And then watch the rest of it. [2] See what I did there?

How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings [Part 1]

[ETA: This is a three part post! Part 2, offensive gender and sexuality stereotypes, is here. Part 3, offensive race stereotypes, is here.]

So let’s say that you’re a writer looking to do some game writing. Maybe you’ve got a game you’re looking to design, or a setting or piece of game fiction to write, or an adventure to create and you’ve decided that you want your next project to not fail at being inclusive. (Hooray!) But how exactly do you go about doing that?

Inclusive game writing is something that takes practice, and sadly you’ll probably never get it one hundred percent right (almost everyone has some sort of privilege). But it’s a habit that can be developed over time and mostly boils down to simply checking your privilege while you create.

Oh god. There it is! I said it!

A lot of people freak out when they hear that phrase, but do try not to get your knickers in a twist about this. When I say “check your privilege”, I simply mean that you need to be aware of the ways in which you benefit from the unconscious assumptions that come packaged with living in our society. All of us have privilege of some sort. All that I am saying is a moderate level of self-awareness is beneficial when you’re trying to avoid creating work that is shitty toward your fellow human beings.

With that said, here are some basic ground rules:

1) Cultural Appropriation is bad

There can be a tendency in game design to look to real world cultures for inspiration. That’s all well and good! But if you’re going to use a real world culture as the basis of a game or game setting, what have you, it’s important to do your homework; half an hour on Wikipedia cherry-picking the stuff you think is “awesome” isn’t going to cut it. And it’s especially important that your use of a particular culture doesn’t bring with it any unfortunate implications when paired with the other game elements.

Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. [FOOTNOTE: 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”.

Now does that mean you shouldn’t attempt to portray cultures aren’t white and European for fear of getting something wrong? Absolutely not! Gaming is full of white crypto-European settings, which not only erases the importance of non-white cultures but is also hella boring to boot. (Seriously. I am just so. Damn. Tired. Of white crypto-Europe.) Just don’t do things like setting out to write a game and then making it about Natives (or Japan, or any other culture that’s not yours) simply because it’s “cool” without ever stepping back to critically examine the implications of your creative decisions. You’re not going to catch everything, but even a modicum of critical thinking will weed out the really awful stuff.

 2) Don’t erase marginalized groups

One of the problems with the culture we live in is that it conditions us to want to tell the stories of white het cis men at the expense of… pretty much anybody else. Even when this imbalance is remarked upon, it’s often explained away by saying that white het cis men are more “relateable” and “universal” than other groups.


This is bad from a creative standpoint because it can cost you a potential audience; those of us who are not white het cis men (ie, most of us) get pretty sick of not seeing ourselves well represented. Honestly, if I encounter a piece of media in a genre that I enjoy that is well reviewed and features a not-fail-worthy female protagonist, I’m probably going to throw at least a few bucks at the creator because it doesn’t happen all that often. It’s also bad from a ‘shitty human being’ standpoint because you’re helping to reinforce the cultural narrative of the supremacy of the white het cismale, which sucks.

Include members of marginalized groups in your settings. Include women, and LGBT, and people of color, and the disabled because their stories also have value. And absolutely don’t write about a real period from history and erase a group of traditionally marginalized people. This kind of revisionist history is especially damaging.

That’s how you wind up with games like Into the Far West – a game that mashes up Wild West and Wuxia tropes and which doesn’t include Native people at all. Which is awful, because our culture has been erasing the history of Native peoples for centuries. And we’re not just talking about stupid bullshit like casting a white woman to play Tiger Lily here. (Although that is indeed stupid and bullshit.)

We’re talking about killing people, taking their land, forbidding them to practice their culture or speak their language, taking children away from their families, abusing and murdering those children, segregating the survivors of that abuse, and perpetuating systems of government that allow for unfettered violence – physical, sexual, economic, you name it – against their modern descendents.

2a) Don’t combine #1 and #2

This is depressingly common.

Simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen was Scarlet Heroes. I came across it when it was linked by someone on my Google+ as a project with “cool Asian flair”, a phrase which never fails to set off alarm bells. Sure enough, when I check out the KickStarter, there are no characters in the preview artwork that I would peg as definitely Asian and only two non-focal figures that I would peg as maaaaaaaybe Asian. But there are a whole lot of white people in traditional Asian outfits!

And then of course there’s the boobs. So many boobs. So very many boobs. Because, you know, boobs sell games, doncha know. (/HEADDESK)

Most egregious, however, is the image of a white-seeming (at least to me) daimyo-type guy in a Throne of Asianness +1 (seriously, it’s like the illustrator kept looking at the chair and was like NEEDS MOAR ASIAN) who is watching WHITE WOMEN BELLY DANCE in clearly Middle-Eastern belly dance costumes. Because, you know, belly dance has become popular in China in the last decade, so good enough, you know?

Jesus. When are publishers going to stop throwing together stupid pastiches of awful Asian stereotypes for a quick buck and marketing as “cool Asian flair”? This is fucking awful.

Of course, the cherry on top of this fail-cake is that this is the same publisher behind Spears of the Dawn – which was actually something that looked like it was done pretty well. Spears of the Dawn is an African-themed game, and the preview art features people who don’t look gratuitously sexualized and who actually look African. So it’s a little hard to understand what the hell happened with this one.

3) Don’t reinforce stereotypes of marginalized groups

When representing members of marginalized groups, don’t let yourself be drawn into portraying them as nothing more than a flat stereotype. Make sure to portray them in ways that contravene existing stereotypes.

This one is HUGE. So huge, in fact, that I’m going to come back to this point in a bit.

4) Don’t include -isms in historical settings “because history”

When you’re writing a historical setting, don’t fall into using -isms and using history as a justification. A lot of what you might know as the “established facts” of history are, in fact, heavily biased. History is written by the victor, and as demonstrated by the white-centric patriarchal nature of our Western society, white men are the clear victors. A lot of what we think of as history is the recorded experience of white men, whereas the experiences and stories of women, non-whites, LGBT, etc were either not recorded or actively removed from history books.

Most people tend to think of medieval Europe in terms of the “Dark Ages”. But the narrative of the Dark Ages belies the fact that there was a thriving Muslim empire on the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain). Muslim Iberia was a highly cosmopolitan society full of art, beauty, and scholarship. Scholars from the Middle East, Africa, and China came to be part of the cultural flowering that happened there. But despite that Islamic rule in Iberia persisted several centuries, their story is ignored and erased. And that’s just one example!

The truth of the matter is that history was far more diverse than most history books would have you believe. Fantasy settings based in medieval Europe are almost always depicted as being overwhelmingly white, but medieval Europe was actually much more racially diverse. Similarly, despite what history books would have you believe, women did have important roles to play in society, and not everyone was heterosexual. (Seriously, gay people didn’t just pop out of a hole in the ground fifty years ago, people.)

History is not an excuse to make your setting revolve around the stories of white het cismen. Ditto for crypto-historical fantasy settings. Calling it “fantasy” doesn’t absolve you either.

5) Write fantasy settings that aren’t based in crypto-Europe

It has always baffled me that with the wealth of time periods and cultures available to use as inspiration for fantasy settings, fantasy as a genre seems stuck in medieval crypto-Europe. Yes, admittedly, it’s a time period that we’re all familiar with. But fantasy based in medieval Europe is so omnipresent that it’s pretty much impossible to do anything with such a setting that would make it stand out from the crowd.

Instead, do some reading about non-European history. You’re bound to find something that would make an interesting jumping-off point for a setting. (Remembering, of course, to keep #1-3 in mind.)

6) Over-represent if you feel comfortable with that (optional)

To use an example from my gaming life: there are several writers I enjoy who make a point of including LGBT characters in everything that they write. Sometimes you hear the counter-argument that such authors inevitably wind up over-representing LGBT people when compared to their percentage of the total population. But that’s really not such a bad thing when you consider just how invisible LGBT people are in gaming and in the media in general.

This isn’t a commandment to write only characters that represent marginalized groups. But certainly, don’t get bogged down in worrying that you’re including “too many” minority characters.

7) Write a first draft, then look for where you failed (Hint: you did.)

You’ve finished your first draft! Hooray! Now set it aside for a day or so so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look for the places where you failed. Because the odds are pretty damn good that you did. And that’s okay! Everybody fails. What’s important is where you go after that initial failure.

For instance, despite the fact that I blog about feminist issues in game design on a regular basis, I still catch myself unintentionally writing sexism into my settings. When I was writing the Ruined Empire campaign setting for Tenra Bansho Zero, I did a first pass of writing NPCs, assigning gender mostly at random. When I came back to look at what I had written, I realized that I had written all the passive, diplomatic characters as female and all of the powerful warriors as male.


Or how about the time when I was proposing a setting based around a village that was being harassed by bandits, and my initial draft contained the note that the bandits were demanding a tribute of the village’s young women? …Yeah. That’s why it’s important to keep a critical eye on your work, because no matter how “aware” and “enlightened” you may be, you will still make mistakes.

Fear not. A lot of the time, the awful things that slip through will be minor and easily fixable without “ruining” the core of your idea. That’s the thing about using -isms in your work. So often, falling back on stereotypes is actually lazy writing. A lot of the time, eliminating stereotyped representations from your work will actually make your work stronger.


This is probably the scariest part of the process, but it’s also the most important. If you’re going to write about a group of people that you don’t belong to, it is imperative to speak to members of that group. This can be nerve-wracking for those who have privilege, because so often people in positions of privilege are fearful of examining that privilege. But it’s important because without this step, you’re just engaging in more thoughtless cultural appropriation.

So get a second opinion. And more importantly, listen to that opinion. They might tell you something that you don’t want to hear. You need to hear it anyway. Or they might give you the thumbs up. You don’t know until you ask!

9) If someone from the group you’re writing about says you screwed up, LISTEN

Back to Into the Far West for a second. Back when the KickStarter was still running, blogger Bankuei wrote about how messed up it was to write a game about the Old West that completely erased native peoples. So what did Gareth Skarka, the game’s author do? Say – hey, you’re right, maybe I need to consider re-working my idea? Or double down on the douchery and try to start a public witch hunt against Bankuei?

If you guessed B, you’re (sadly) correct. Gareth really went for the gold, too, saying things like CHARACTER ASSASSINATION and LIBEL and complaining about his FEEEEEEEEELINGS. Because, shit. He wrote something that had genocidal implications, but criticizing it made him FEEL BAD so clearly Bankuei was the villain in this scenario!

Next time: Offensive stereotypes to avoid

The Impossibility of Satirizing Game Art [NSFW!]

Those of you who follow my art blog over on Tumblr will already know that I’ve been working on publishing a new tabletop game, a satire hack of Dungeon World that I’m calling SexyTime Adventures – meant to parody all of the awful sexism that gets included in just about every fantasy dungeoneering game ever[1]. For instance, here is my description of the Cleric:

Others may be ambivalent in their faith, worshipping whichever god in the pantheon most serves their needs in the moment. Some have no faith at all, citing the existence of monsters, demons, and war as proof that there are no gods. But you, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a god, and that god has touched you deep in your soul. Your bosomy, voluptuous soul.

You have been called to bring faith to a faithless world, to smash down the unrighteous and stand triumphantly over them without any pants on. For pants are the work of the devil. So sayeth the lord.

(You can find plenty more previews of the game text here.)

Satire is always challenging. No matter how hard you work, how carefully you craft it, how blindingly obvious you think it is that no one would ever actually say or think this, someone (or multiple someones) will always think that you’re being serious. Always. It’s one of the sad, immutable truths of satire. But that’s not to say that satire isn’t worth doing. Shows like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report illustrate the continuing relevance of satire as an important form of social commentary.

And honestly? Satire can be so much fun. Everything that’s in SexyTime Adventures makes me giggle. I especially had a blast with names for character abilities – “The Male Gaze”, “I Said Lesbians”, and “Which Way to the Beach?” are just a few of my favorites.

But then there’s the problem of art.

Any decent tabletop product has to have art. It’s something that people expect to get when they pay for a new game or setting book or supplement. And to be fair, a weighty tome of dry rules with no art would be a pretty unappealing product. But the problem of SexyTime Adventures that plagued me was the art. The text has been finalized for months now, but I hadn’t made any headway on finishing it because the question of how to tackle illustrations had me completely stumped. How the hell do you satirize something that is already its own satire?

My first attempt: well-meaning, but a dismal failure

Eventually I made myself a checklist of terrible things that I wanted to hit in each illustration and went to work. As it turns out, given that I actually have an education in anatomy, I wound up referring to Escher Girls as a reference in how to “correctly” break anatomy. Because honestly, getting it as wrong as some professional game illustrators get it on a consistent basis is, um, HARD. Really, really hard.

The problem was that when I looked at the finished products, they made me… uncomfortable. Despite the skull-sized anti-gravity basketball breasts, the broken spines, the stick arms, and the anatomically impossible poses – the art that I’d made still looked too… believable.

This was supposed to be satire. It failed.
These were meant to be illustrations for the Amazon and the Thief.

While I was doing the initial pencils, I was giggling to myself because it all seemed so ridiculous. Look at her waist! And the ridiculous breasts! No one could fire a bow like that! No one can possibly ever take this seriously! But the finished product wound up being completely indistinguishable from the real thing!

Illustrations taken from Dragon Magazine – an official D&D publication.

And therein lies the problem. The games industry is so tragically, deeply invested in its bullshit sexism that it is practically impossible to out-ridiculous anything that has already been published. How can I possibly make art more ridiculous than a magic-sword-wielding bikini luchador? I CAN’T. I JUST CAN’T.

Because the important thing to remember about satire is this: what makes something successful satire is how it is viewed by the audience, not what the author or creator’s intentions behind the creation were. When you create art, you don’t get to tell people how they will respond to it. They bring their own feelings and experiences to the table, and the best intentions in the world won’t make offensive art any less offensive. And of course, that’s the trap that so many artists and creators fall into. YOU CAN’T GET MAD BECAUSE I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY.

Unsure of original source, image found here (tumblr sucks at attribution, sorry)

Sorry, folks. Artistic intent just doesn’t work that way.

At the end of it, I had a set of illustrations that I’d worked rather hard on that I couldn’t use because they didn’t read as satire, which sucked because that was the point of the whole damn exercise. So I figured a second attempt was warranted.

Attempt number two: satire achieved!

When I started drawing a second set of illustrations, I recycled poses from the first set. But this time around I threw out any pretense of anatomy. These weren’t human women I was drawing, but plasticine statues, twisted nearly beyond recognition. More importantly, I also changed the style. Instead of making my style more realistic, I deliberately went as cartoon-y as possible.

So much of the worst RPG art also has some of the most nicely rendered anatomical shading out there. Because even though the vast majority of pornified game women are not even remotely anatomically possible, the illusion of “realism” is important. Because sexy.

This time around, I was much, much happier with the results:

So sexay.
New illustrations for the Thief, Amazon, and Druid.

I think the tipping point (for me anyhow) are the ridiculous expressions, especially paired with the cartoon-y style. But even then, I didn’t know that I’d feel comfortable publishing something with just these depictions of women and nothing more. I needed something that would be an equally ridiculous treatment of male stereotypes in gaming…

Such masculine. Very muscles. Wow.
Illustration for The Dude. This is my fucking magnum opus.

The key to successful satire of awful stereotypes is context. And what could provide a better satirical context than a muscle-y Conan-type hero literally festooned in beautiful women? Especially women who don’t mind Conan stabbing them in the boob, or stepping on their head?

Lesson Learned: Satire takes work, it doesn’t just happen

So many times, game creators use offensive humor in their work, and then hide behind the defense of satire, because some people think “it was just a joke” gives you an automatic pass. All too often, people think that ironic sexism (I know that you know that I know I’m being sexist, therefore it’s funny!) is automatically satire because it’s ironic. But the problem that ironic sexism (or racism, or whatever) is still sexist because it does nothing to actually challenge sexism. In the end, ironic sexism and “actual” sexism have the same result, because both only serve to perpetuate a harmful cultural narrative.

By the same token, satire is only successful when deliberate thought and effort go into deconstructing the thing you are attempting to satirize. And even with thought and effort, it’s possible to fall short if you don’t find a way to make your work obviously distinct from the thing that you’re satirizing.

And now for something humorous

Just so I don’t end on a ponderous, pontificating note (I do hate doing that), here’s the first few paragraphs of the introduction to SexyTime Adventures. Enjoy!

The land of Sexonia is a dangerous place, a land of fantasy and adventure beyond your wildest imaginings. Maybe you got into adventuring because your village was destroyed by orcs, or to prevent fire elementals from taking over your kingdom, or maybe just because it was better than staying at home and settling down with that nice boy that your parents wanted you to marry. Whatever the reason, you can’t go home now. The kingdom needs you. And more importantly, that chain mail makes you look totally hot. Are you seeing anyone right now? Could I maybe buy you an ale some time?


Who can say what dangers you might face? What’s important is that you pick up your sword and set out to defend what’s important to you and yours while also looking sexy, because it’s important to always put your best foot forward, am I right? And because the world is a scary place, who better to go adventuring with than some of your closest (and hottest) friends? And if maybe some night you find yourself camped on a glacier with no fire wood and you have to cuddle together in one sleeping bag with no clothes on…

…I’m sorry, where was I?

Adventure! Danger! Sexy outfits! Come, fellow adventurers. It’s sexytime.

[1] I wrote this game entirely for my own amusement, but I admit it will be nice to have something to throw in dudebros’ faces when they get all angry and tell me to MAKE UR OWN GAME THEN. Make my own game, you say? Well! I already did!

The Last of Us: My thoughts on Joel [SPOILERS]

As with last time, SO MANY SPOILERS.

Okay, folks. Last time I went a little crazy talking about all of the things that make The Last of Us awesome. But now it’s time for some more nuanced feels. So today I’m going to talk about two things that sucked, and then more generally about ways that de-stereotyping Joel’s character would have made the game even better.

Things that sucked #1: Joel’s daughter gets fridged

Remember how I said it was refreshing that there was no creepy womanless dystopia? Yeah, it’s because I’m really not fond of the Disposable Woman trope. The game started off so promisingly by having you play as Sarah, Joel’s 13-year-old daughter. Sarah is engaging and “spunky” (much as I usually hate that cliche), someone I could see growing up to be a badass zombie-killer in a post-apocalypse. But no! Joel and his brother Tommy get Sarah out of immediate danger only to have Sarah get shot dead by a trigger-happy soldier and she dies in Joel’s arms. At which point, according to the backstory, Joel pretty much goes on a 20 year murder rampage. And then when the action starts up and he murders a bunch more people because he’s, you know, a bad person on account of his daughter dying (and oh yeah zombies).

Which. Honestly. Yawn. I’m sorry, but girl-shaped-person-death-inspiring-murder-rampage is just about the most commonly used trope ever. EVER. And it just gets fucking old.

Did I cry when Sarah died? Of course I did. But I have a baby, so pretty much anything even tangentially related to the death of a kid makes me cry. Hell, there is a Raffi song on one of my daughter’s favorite CDs that makes me cry every. Damn. Time. Sarah’s death still made me mad.

Yes Joel’s relationship with Ellie is predicated on the loss of his daughter. But there are so many ways that Joel could have “lost” Sarah that didn’t require adherence to the “daughter dies in arms, goes on murder adventures” cliche. Sarah could have grown up to join the Fireflies and gone missing in action. She could have grown up and joined the government forces, forcing Joel to stay away from her or get thrown in prison. She could have simply parted ways after she grew up, unable to deal with the painful memories that Joel evoked of a pre-apocalypse world. There are so many ways that it could have gone that taking the lazy way out was almost a deal-breaker for me.

Things that sucked #2: Joel is the platonic ideal of toxic masculinity

Okay, so don’t hate on me too hard when I say this. I did find the relationship between Joel and Ellie really endearing. I thought it was sad when he told her in anger that she wasn’t his daughter and touching when he called her baby girl. I enjoyed their relationship as it unfolded because it was a nice portrayal of family that you choose for yourself. And yeah, the relationship between them felt like something fresh – new ground for an old genre. But that new ground was entirely broken by Ellie. Joel? Joel is pretty much incapable of expressing any emotion that isn’t stoicism or anger.

Man of many emotions

Meet the new video game male hero, same as the old video game hero.

And you know what? I get it. I get it that game studios don’t want to make games without a white male masculine power fantasy as the lead character. I know that it was a problem for Naughty Dog, and that they were even asked to move Ellie to the back cover and (thankfully) refused. And because of the excellent writing, the relationship between Joel and Ellie manages to shine despite Joel’s status as an emotional cripple. Of course, it certainly helps that we’re culturally conditioned to admire “shitty human beings” (as Tess refers to him) as “anti-heroes”.

Things that would have made Joel a better character: make him a woman

There’s a long and proud tradition of amazing female characters that were originally written as men and then gender-flipped at the last minute. In movies you have Ellen Ripley and Salt – roles that were originally written as male and then flipped. In games you have characters like Final Fantasy XIII’s Fang, who again was written as male and then flipped. Generally, it’s a great way to make an interesting, stereotype-free female character. But Joel specifically would have been so much better as a woman, and here’s why.

1) Ass-kicking grandmothers: Pretty much every Action Girl you see in games or movies is somewhere between 18 and 35 tops. It is a truism[1] that ass-kicking grandmothers can make anything awesome. Female-Joel would be certainly be old enough to be a grandmother, which automatically makes Female-Joel 100% more awesome than canon- Joel.

Photo by Sacha Goldberger, Website here (select “Mamika”)

2) At last! Something new!: Man, aren’t you just so, so tired of stories about mothers who lose their child, become traumatized and emotionally stunted, and go off to have morally ambiguous murder adventures? Man, I am. Because don’t you just see that story everywhere? Except for how you don’t. Female-Joel would be something entirely new in the world of character types for women.

It also would make the relationship between Ellie and Joel way more interesting. Think about it, women are always stereotyped as nurturing and overly-emotional. So a Female-Joel who lashes out at Ellie for not being her daughter, who tries to cut herself off from her emotions where Ellie is concerned but develops a loving (if profoundly fucked up) relationship with her anyway? Especially in light of the fact that their relationship is explicitly a parent-child relationship, as Joel sees Ellie as a replacement daughter? That’s some awesome stuff right there.

There’s also the fact that Joel’s training Ellie to be a capable hunter would also be way more interesting between Ellie and Female-Joel. When you think of “mother-daughter bonding”, I’m sure that “teaching your daughter to be a sniper” or “crawling through zombie-infested tunnels” aren’t activities that would usually come to mind. Heck, the closest you can get to a stereotyped activity would be “shopping”, ie, rummaging around in junk piles for useful crap.

Lastly, why is it only men who get to go on murder adventures after the loss of a child? Let’s see a woman get in on the murder adventure action, thanks.

3) Men aren’t the only ones who want power fantasies: There are some days when I come home worn down by a shitty day at work, or by personal stress, or by a day full of micro-aggressions that I don’t have the power to respond to. When that happens, I often find myself wanting to get away from my problems by shooting a bunch of stuff in the face for a while.

Female-Joel would have made TLoU a much more entertaining experience for me, because I wouldn’t have had to do the mental work of shoehorning myself into a representation that doesn’t fit me. Yes canon-Joel is a well-written character, and yes the writing and level design make TLoU an engrossing game. But I’m not a middle-aged, tall, muscular dude with Video-Game-Hero-SameFace[2].

It would be pretty cool to be able to play a game where someone who actually looked like me got to star in their own power fantasy. And I’m sure that such a game, done well, would have sold well to the 44% of gamers that are women, if nothing else.

But I guess that’s probably too much to ask for.

[1] First brought to my attention by Elin Dalstal of Gaming as Women, among other things

[2] I could NOT track down an original source for this image. Anyone able to help out with that?

>Better character designs: Sophitia

>My plans are to make this a semi-regular feature. I won’t promise a regular schedule of these, since my muse is a fickle creature these days, but I will promise that this won’t be the last.

Okay, remember Soul Calibur VI’s freakishly proportioned jiggle-fest Sophitia? Of course you do. (Who could forget? Brr.) But just for the sake of comparison, here she is again:

If one considers that the human head weighs around eighteen pounds (thank you, Google), then it looks like she’s carrying around 54 to 72 pounds of boob around there. Just for a little perspective, guys, you can understand how difficult fighting with those bazookas would be by strapping a nine-year-old to your chest and trying to swing a sword while so encumbered. At that size, the boobs would be about as rambunctious as the nine-year-old.

So here’s my take on Sophitia as she should have been. (And apologies for the sketchiness and the somewhat ghetto coloring job. I didn’t feel like taking the time to make it a finished piece.)


My Sophitia is regularly proportioned, but still quite sexy. Her proportions are athletic without being waifish. My Sophitia has never had breast enlargement, and she isn’t averse to eating a freaking burger now and then.

The other huge problem besides the anatomy is the white-washing. How about the fact that she’s explicitly Greek by her story and costume, and yet she’s a paragon of Aryan beauty? Seriously, wtf? Mediterranean people are brown. (In fact, my Sophitia might not be quite brown enough. I struggled getting the right skin tone with only photos for reference.)

Lastly, I also changed her costume. If she’s a Greek warrior, why invent some bullshit faux toga for her to fight in? Why not clothe her like an actual hoplite? Hell, the hoplites pranced around with no pants on and short sleeves, so you’d have a historical excuse to put her in a fanservice-y outfit. Make the skirt on that bad boy a little shorter and you’d still be within the realm of accuracy.

So that’s Sophitia. Any suggestions on who I might tackle next?