[Edit to add July 2020: I am leaving this post up because it covers some important topics. However, regarding the third part of this post, I feel it’s important to mention that Drew abused me and others, and I don’t wish to be seen as promoting his games or boosting his reputation. You can read my account of that experience here.]
[Note: I know I’ve been a one-note blog these last few weeks. This is going to be my last post about KickStarter for a while, promise.]
I would be remiss if I did not mention the tremendous response that I got to last week’s post. So thank you to everyone who said positive things in response, or who offered words of comfort, or who tried to offer assistance.
Thanks also to people who bought one of my games, or who became a patron. Not gonna lie, I’m feeling a bit guilty about the spike in sales that I saw – it wasn’t my intention to guilt people into buying my games or becoming patrons, I can understand how me opening a window onto some of the harsh, ugly feels that I’ve been having would seem like me yelling at you, my readers, which wasn’t my intention.
Of course, not all of my responses were that friendly and receptive. Like these, for example:
There was also someone who popped up on my G+ and commented using the hashtag for GooberGate, which freaked me the fuck out for a few minutes when I saw it. (Thankfully that crowd doesn’t seem to be very active on G+?) So that was fun. Nice to know that after all of the word count that I devoted to gathering data on proving how fucked women publishers are, talking about feelings in gaming is still the biggest sin you can commit when writing about games while female.
Lastly, I feel like it’s worth addressing that a lot of people had questions about how I handled The Starlit Kingdom specifically, when honestly the second half of the post was by far the more “serious” of the two situations. The lack of response to TSK was an irritant, not the crushing disappointment and maddening frustration of being able to prove that people don’t buy games by women and still trying to find a way to be successful anyway. I lost a lot of time and effort, and that sucks and is discouraging. But it seems like that’s what a lot of people focused on because that’s the part that could be “fixed”.
So, you know, yeah I acknowledge there’s more I could have done to promote TSK. I probably threw in the towel a bit too quickly. But it’s also important to remember that the best places to promote an anime-themed game (Reddit, YouTube, and 4Chan) are virulently unfriendly to women and my anxiety just couldn’t deal with venturing into those spaces. As I pointed out in a comment:
There’s a REASON I never approached 4Chan. The NICEST thing anyone from 4Chan has ever called me when linking to my material is a “jealous lesbian”, so you’ll understand that sort of reaction isn’t exactly motivational for me to engage with 4Chan. Likewise, given the shit that gets leveled at me here on my own blog, the idea of putting a demo of play up on YouTube gives me HIVES, given the things that people say about women there. Likewise, I never did an AMA on Reddit because Reddit is where men call me things like “ignorant judgemental cunt” and compare rape to a sport in threads about things I’ve written.
So that’s a thing. Moving on.
In which I disclaim:
(It’s important to note here that I am going to talk about this in terms of women, but this goes double for people who are visible minorities, queer, disabled, etc. It just gets a bit laborious trying to include all of that, so please just remember that we’re not just talking about white ciswomen like me here.)
(Also I’m perfectly aware that I am presenting problems without solutions. I KNOW that. With the huge volume that I have written in the last month+ about the complexity of issues surrounding being a female publisher, this isn’t something where I can write a 2000-3000 word post about “here are the problems and here are the solutions”.)
(Also, I just KNOW that some people are going to read this and say “she doesn’t think white men should make money on games!” or “she thinks that recruiting diverse teams for game projects is bad!” or “she’s saying she should get more money just for being a woman!”. Which. Um. No. I am talking a problem that exists at a SYSTEMIC LEVEL. It’s important not to get bogged down in specific examples, even if specific examples are what I’m using to illustrate my point.)
Okay. So basically what we’ve been covering here for the last month and a bit is that being a female publisher sucks. And part of the reason you don’t see many female-fronted KickStarters is because of all the structural and cultural barriers that are placed in front of women designers and publishers. The result is that the games publishing industry tends to look a whole lot more homogeneous than their customer base actually is; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the big companies or at the scrappy indies, the tRPG industry is overwhelmingly white and male.
Now this is something that certain publishers are starting to be aware of. It’s also something that tRPG gamers are beginning to care about. As a result, it’s becoming more common to see efforts to have diverse creative teams for KickStarters. However, all too often the “diversity” that you end up seeing is what I think of as “KickStarter Diversity” – it’s disappointingly shallow at best, and outright deceptive at worst.
What do I mean? Well, here are two of my personal experiences that I feel serve as pretty solid examples of what I’m talking about.
Case Study 1: Deceptive Diversity
Pretty early in my game writing “career”, I happened to sign on as a freelancer to a pretty mammoth project – I was going to be one of a large number of co-authors writing a monster game book for a Really Big Name Publisher. The lead developer (who, I want to be clear, was also a subcontractor and not employed by the Really Big Name Publisher) wanted to put together a diverse team of writers to do a truly inclusive project. I was really excited about that! And it was early enough in my efforts to be a “real” game designer that the “legitimacy” of being able to say I’d written for Really Big Name Publisher was appealing.
And in the end, the work that I did for RBNP was some of the best work I’ve ever done. I’m proud of the work that I did, and of the book that we created. But here’s the thing, RBNP’s terms were outright abusive.
First, they only paid 3 cents per word. Even for small assignments of 1000-2000 words, you end up being underpaid when you do the math of how long it took you to write those words versus how much you’re getting paid. But when you’re talking the massive wordcounts that most members of the team were pulling in order to put together this mammoth tome? 10 thousand, 15 thousand, or even 20 thousand word assignments require time, research, and planning. A lot of it! Even with the advantage of plenty of my previous writing experience, with the amount of time that I spent on my assignment I miiiiiiight have gotten (American) minimum wage for it. Barely.
There’s also the issue that RBNP’s contract terms were (and as far as I know still are) half on acceptance (which I’ll come back to) and half pay-on-publication. Given the length of time that your average game book spends in development, this means that writers are putting in time and effort without any guarantee of payment; books do get delayed, and even canceled. Not often, but it does happen! Now yes, game development is an expensive process; there are illustrators and layout artists to be paid, as well as production and shipping costs to consider. But given that KickStarter is now the default publication model for any seriously large game book, it’s even more abusive that a company would still make their payment terms pay-on-publication, because a few weeks after the campaign ends, they already have all that money sitting in the bank.
In the case of the project that I worked on, it broke six figures on KickStarter, and yet I didn’t get the second half of my money until eighteen months after I’d completed and turned in my drafts. And don’t even get me started on how hard it was to get a copy of the book, which was also in my contract.
The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth, because again – I truly believe in the product that we made and am grateful to the lead developer for his hard work in putting together such a wonderfully diverse team of writers and in pushing some hard conversations to make sure that we got things right, from a standpoint of being inclusive. But the fact is that the lion’s share of the profit from the six figures that were KickStarted are going to owners who are white and male, whose business model seems (at least from the subcontractor end of things) to to revolve around getting marginalized writers who crave legitimacy to sign on to projects, because they don’t have expectations they should be treated better.
It is great that RBNP is publishing games that are inclusive, and it makes me happy that that is something that audiences are excited about. But when their business model is predicated on achieving that inclusivity by getting a diverse team of writers, treating them like shit, and then stuffing all of the money into the pockets of some white guys? That sucks. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the owners don’t deserve to profit! Publishing is a fucking huge job and it’s expensive. But it is possible to be a publisher AND treat your freelancers well, which they are not.
Case Study 2: Shallow Diversity
After my experiences writing for RBNP, I swore off of spec writing for big game projects. Especially when I ended up making more money per word on SexyTime Adventures, which isn’t even a real game, than I did on my writing for RBNP. And I definitely earn more money per word here on my blog, even on the long posts. The return on investment just wasn’t worth it.
However, subsequently a friend of mine contacted me about a KickStarter for a game by Another Big Name Publisher that was written around themes of diversity and inclusion that was looking to put together a diverse team of stretch goal writers to reflect the themes of the game. Because of the reputation of the game in question, and because the request came through this friend who had done a lot to support me as a publisher, I decided to sign on. But unfortunately, I wound up regretting that decision.
To be fair to Another Big Name Publisher, their terms were objectively better – 5 cents a wordand pay on acceptance. However, “on acceptance” turned out to be unexpectedly vague – the contract didn’t specify what “on acceptance” actually meant – on acceptance of my draft? On acceptance of everyone’s drafts? How soon after “acceptance” would we get payed? And how was I supposed to know when “acceptance” had happened? None of these questions came up until after I turned in my draft (on time) and… then didn’t see any money. It ended up being three months between the deadline for drafts and the date that I actually got paid. When I started asking about payment and timelines at about the two month mark, it was generally a week between emails. All in all, it was not a happy freelancer experience.
Now admittedly, 3 months is still a hell of a lot better than 18. But the amount of money that I was owed didn’t even break 3 digits, and again, this was for something that already had many thousands of dollars in the bank thanks to the KickStarter.
There’s also the problematic element that ABNP is a company that is mostly male and almost entirely white is using diversity as a selling point for this game. Given that the diversity of participation was through fairly small stretch goals, it makes sense that the profits would go to the company (and the writers) making the game. But as with RBNP, you have the very people who are contributing the diversity that is desired being the people who are least compensated.
Case Study 3: The Forgotten – Progress!
Andrew Medeiros is the co-designer of Urban Shadows and, in the interest of full disclosure, my co-designer on The Watch – recently finished his KickStarter for The Forgotten – a card-based LARP about people trying to survive in a city under siege by doing whatever it takes to stay alive. His second stretch goal (also full disclosure, extra photography by me was the first stretch goal) was actually to commission Kira Magrann to write a variant game based on The Forgotten that would be available to backers.
I found that idea hugely interesting! Because it goes beyond the standard approach to diversity of “if we get $4000 more we’ll add $100 worth of cost and maybe a bit more in terms of development costs for a stretch goal by a not-white-guy”. Because that model of KickStarter diversity is only ever going to be shallow by definition, and the demographics of game development logically dictate that shallow models of KickStarter diversity are always going to funnel the most money to white dudes. Which, you know, fuck that. Diversity should be more than just a wallpaper selling point!
Instead, what is happening with The Forgotten is that the designer is taking a share of his games profits and saying to a not-white-dude game designer, “I want you to create a game”. It represents taking a share of the extra profits earned by male-fronted games and funneling toward a female creator in a way that results in MORE compelling content, not less. (Kira’s variant game is going to be about patriarchal dystopia, a la The Handmaid’s Tale, and I am RIDICULOUSLY excited to play it.) And of course, the devil is in the details. The game hasn’t been written yet, and there are lots of details to be ironed out. But the potential for this sort of arrangement is HUGE.
And sure. This sort of arrangement wouldn’t work for every KickStarter. It would be a nightmare for something the size and complexity of 7th Sea (which also just ended, and raised 1.3 million). But part of why I’m writing this is to start a conversation. Publishers are a smart lot, used to solving a lot of complex problems. So, publishers, what can we do about this? How can we start creating meaningful diversity in publishing that isn’t just wallpaper on a mostly-white product?
Last time I wrote about the many and sundry reasons why it sucks being a female publisher, and how that suckitude is driving women out of publishing, and how the only way to fix the problem is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN, and it was a very difficult piece for me to write. The entire time I was writing it I was afraid that people would read it as sour grapes on my part and use that to dismiss what I was saying, because unfortunately my personal lack of success as a female publisher is of course the very thing that will most commonly be used to dismiss what I am saying when I try to talk about the lack of success of female publishers in general. So because I didn’t want what I was saying to be dismissed entirely out of hand, I worked very hard to keep that post’s tone more distant and less emotional – despite wanting nothing more than to yell my hyperbole-laden and profanity-laced anger at the internet.
As it turns out, wrestling with fear about how people will react to what you are saying while trying to perform a tone-balancing act is difficult and emotionally draining! (Amazing! Who’d have thought!) So it was nice that I did get some sympathetic commentary about my last post. Some.
But I also got dudes commenting on my Plus about how they “agreed” with what I was saying, but, well, you know. The kinds of games that they like to play are the kinds that are more likely to be produced by men, and WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY DO? It’s just too bad that the situation for female publishers is so messed up, and they want to do more, but HOW could they possibly make any personal contributions to changing things? HOW?
And let me tell you, that kind of willful helplessness in the face of what is a pretty damning and clear picture of how fucked things are in our hobby? It’s pretty goddamn frustrating having the biggest perpetrators respond with willful obliviousness while simultaneously trying to get credit for acknowledging that there is a problem and that they feel bad about it. “Wow. You’re right! This is terrible! It’s such a shame that this is all inevitable and that there is nothing more that can be done!”
… BRB, setting the world on fire.
You know what? Given that the wage gap is still DEFINITELY A THING (and actually getting worse here in Canada – so much for being a liberal community utopia), why don’t you men spend some of those extra 22-28 cents on the dollar on buying a game or two by women every now and then that you don’t actually want to play, just to show some support for women designers and publishers? You know, especially since you don’t have to worry about the extra gendered costs of inequal healthcare or products made for your gender or places to live.
JUST A THOUGHT.
So. Because my mostly dry, logical analysis didn’t seem to quite hit home for some people, let me attempt to put things in perspective by sharing two vignettes with you from my personal experience.
Case #1: The Starlit Kingdom, Andy Kitkowski, and Magical Girls
Andy Kitkowski, the brain behind Kotodama Heavy Industries (which is a game company, not a Japanese industrial company), has been doing pretty well with publishing translations of Japanese anime-themed RPGs for… quite a while now. Tenra Bansho Zero – the gonzo “throw literally every anime trope in a blender” game that I actually wrote Ruined Empire as a setting for – KickStarted for $129,000+; Ryuutama, a gentle and “heart-warming” game about traveling and adventure, KickStarted for $97,000+; and recently Shinobigami, a game which seems to be about schoolgirls having ninja battles (I admit to skimming the description on that one and going by the art, since it didn’t seem like my thing) just KickStarted for $87,000+. Even before KickStarter was a thing, I remember Andy going to GenCon and selling absurd numbers of copies of Maid RPG to anime fans who were dying to try out anime-themed roleplaying games. He pretty much created the market for English-language translations of Japanese, anime-themed tRPGs.
So I had all of that very much in mind when I first started developing The Starlit Kingdom. The Starlit Kingdom was inspired by the launch of a Sailor Moon reboot – Sailor Moon Crystal. There was a lot of excitement about that in my circles, and given that the idea seemed timely and that Andy had been doing quite well at publishing anime RPGs for several years, I figured than a game about magical girls as inspired by Sailor Moon would be a good investment in terms of time to eventual dollars returned. If even only a small number of the people who threw money at Andy to translate all sorts of anime-themed games bought copies of The Starlit Kingdom, it would still pay off since I was doing everything – from writing to playtesting to illustration to layout – myself. I might not make a lot of money, but certainly I’d make a nice little sum – enough to justify the effort, right?
I should have seen the writing on the wall at GenCon last year and just walked away.
You see, at GenCon in 2014, I ran 4 sessions of The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts (my light setting hack of the Shab al-Hiri Roach to take place in the Harry Potterverse) and sent more than 10 people over to the IPR booth to try to buy copies of a game that they hadn’t stocked because it’s so ancient. So in 2015, I was determined that I would run my own games and actually, you know, PROMOTE MY OWN WORK. Only… no one wanted to play my games. Out of the four 4-hour slots I was scheduled for, two of them didn’t happen due to lack of interest. The third, I wound up running the other game I was playtesting, and the fourth? Well, I did get to run The Starlit Kingdom. Once. BARELY. But it only happened because I ambushed another GM (a man) whose slot had also fallen through and begged him to play it with me so that I could run it for the one person I’d met at Games on Demand who actually wanted to play it. The con variant of TSK is supposed to run with four people. I made it work with 3.
Still, the game went so well and was so great, and both my players said that they had a ton of fun – even the male player who I’d had to beg to play, who admitted after that it wasn’t something he would have chosen to play on his own given the subject material. So, falsely encouraged, I went home and did more playtesting and spent time polishing, editing, rewriting, and illustrating the game before releasing it in November. To… crickets. (Fun little aside: To date, TSK has made half as much money as SexyTime Adventures: the RPG – which is silly, stupid parody game in which character creation involves paper dolls, and players are encouraged to get rerolls by making inappropriate pornface while narrating their actions.)
It took finishing and releasing the game, which I am still incredibly proud of, to make me realize the ugly truth: it doesn’t matter how much commercial appeal Sailor Moon has; no one wants to play a game about magical girls. Because, you know, cooties.
As you might imagine, this realization was hugely discouraging. As a result, I decided that I wasn’t willing to pour even more time and effort into trying to revive a game that had been such a dismal failure; maybe it could be done, but the amount of time and effort it would take could be spent more profitably on other endeavors. So I walked away from TSK and turned my attention to other things. That is, until it came time to do signups for GM slots for Dreamation; I wanted to get my badge comped, and I was reluctant to go back to running other peoples’ stuff, just because I didn’t have anything newer than The Starlit Kingdom that I wanted to try running. So I signed up to run TSK, since it was finished – hoping I could maybe move maybe one or two copies. Except this time I refined the pitch to remove anything that would signal “inspired by Sailor Moon” to an observer not already intimately acquainted with Sailor Moon.
This met with… moderate success. I got enough people to run one session of TSK; the other session, no one signed up for. The session I did get to run went very well! There were two women and two men, and the men were just as into the game, if not moreso, than the women. It was intense and emotional and hard-hitting and horrible in all the ways it was supposed to be, which was great!
But then, when we were finished, one of the male players – the one who had been not at all familiar with Sailor Moon – admitted that if he’d known that The Starlit Kingdom was a game about magical girls, he wouldn’t have signed up. He’d gotten the impression that TSK was a game about “space tragedy fantasy”, which is what interested him. And, you know, retroactively he was glad that he’d played and had fun and stuff – because actually enjoying a game about magical girls turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
And that moment right there killed the last vestiges of my willingness to promote the game, because how fucked is it that the only way to effectively promote my game is to pretend that it’s about SOMETHING ELSE. Especially when I KNOW that it succeeds at making men actually care about and enjoy playing a game that forces you to tell stories about powerful women? And when the reason that I wrote the game is because I have INCREDIBLY POWERFUL FEELS about the feminist value of Sailor Moon (and about magical girls as a genre) and the value of stories that depict heroic women working together and getting shit done while also being apologetically feminine, it really fucking hurts getting confirmation that the things that give me those POWERFUL FEELS are the very reasons why gamers don’t want to play The Starlit Kingdom.
And it makes me wonder, what is it about magical girls that people are so “uninterested” in exploring? Is it the idea of playing a story where most of the protagonists are necessarily women? Is it the idea of exploring stories that are marked as being “for girls”? Is it as simple as seeing a woman’s name on the cover of a game about women? I’ll never know, and that sucks.
Case 2: PLEASE SIRS, MAY I HAVE SOME LEGITIMIZING MALENESS?
As frustrating as the situation with The Starlit Kingdom is, that’s not nearly as humiliating and upsetting as an experience that I’ve been suffering through the last few weeks.
You see, I have an alpha draft for a game that I’m pretty sure would have a lot of commercial appeal… but not if I published it. And the numbers that I gathered on the statistics of KickStarter funding of roleplaying games support me in that assessment! By looking at both the statistics that I collected and also examining trends regarding the revenue earnings of various kinds of games KickStarters, I determined that a medium-sized game studio could gross 4-5 times more than I would be able to make if I were to attempt KickStarting the game on my own. And when I showed my numbers to other (male) friends who do game publishing, they agreed with my assessment!
I decided that what I needed was a publishing partner that was:
not a huge company that would screw me out of my IP and keep the lion’s share of the profits for themselves
a company that I had either worked with before or knew enough by reputation to trust their ethics
published the same kind of games that I was writing and…
could confer legitimizing maleness
As you might imagine, that set of criteria rather severely limited my options – there ended up being only 2.5 publishing companies that fit all of the criteria. (The third company mostly didn’t fit #3, but sorta did? A little?) It was not at all encouraging, but still. I put on my grown-up pants, polished the alpha draft of my game into something professional-looking, wrote up a business proposal showcasing the commercial viability of the game that I wanted to publish, and started approaching potential publishing partners.
…who have all officially turned me down.
And to be fair, each of the companies that I approached had legit business reasons for not accepting my proposal. Publishing-Me understood and agreed with the reasons that each of the companies laid out (and each company did have different reasons) for why it didn’t make sense to work with me on that project. CREATOR-Me, however… Creator-Me has spent a lot of the last few weeks crying and trying to deal with rejection in a calm, competent, professional manner that wouldn’t result in any burned bridges while dealing with a whole lot of harsh, ugly feels.
Firstly, it is incredibly, profoundly depressing that I can prove with numbers that female publishers operate at a disadvantage in terms of net profits as compared to their male publishing peers. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, have been publishing games since 2008, and have freelanced for some of the biggest companies in the industry – Green Ronin, Onyx Path, and Wizards of the Coast. But knowing that none of that matters, that no amount of hard work and hustle will overcome the gender penalty that female publishers operate under in the current publishing landscape… it makes it hard for me to feel pride in my abilities and accomplishments as a game designer and publisher. Worse, it is incredibly humiliating having to go hat-in-hand to male-led publishing companies, present my research findings calmly and clearly, and ask in perfectly calm and neutral tones for them to confer some legitimizing maleness on my project while also trying to convince them that there are good business reasons to want to do so. Because doing so requires admitting that no matter how hard I try, without a male business partner I am never going to be anything other than a third-rate micropublisher.
And getting the rejections themselves? …there is so much that I want to say about how that felt that I don’t know how to assemble into a clear picture. All I have is fragments.
Like crying in a school computer lab, my hands shaking and a friend patting my shoulder as I typed calm and professional-sounding assurances that I understood their situation and didn’t bear them any ill-will, because of course this was business. Or being terse and distant with my husband when he was trying to get me to talk about what was wrong, and then crying over the dishes when he got me to open up. Or crying on a friend’s shoulder and feeling ashamed that I couldn’t just act like a damn grownup and get over the disappointment already. (And of course, the fact I can’t stop crying about these disappointments makes me feel like a fake and a failure, because crying is for girls and if I was a “real” publisher, I would be able to roll with the punches and move on. THERE’S NO CRYING IN GAME DESIGN. See how that works?)
This leaves me trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this game that I still believe in. The last thing I want is to invest hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into developing, writing, testing, and publishing a full-length game only to have it fail as badly as all of my recent projects have. But without a male-fronted publishing partner, what options do I have?
Publishing under a male name? That’s all well and good for someone just getting started, but what about the 8 years of work that I’ve done as a game designer? I have an established reputation, no matter how small. Walking away from that would be cutting my nose off to spite my face. Do I give up and walk away? Even knowing that this is the most commercially friendly idea I’ve had in a very long time? Do I find, as some of my female friends put it, a KickBeard – a Totes Legit Male Micropublisher willing to put his name on the cover and promote it as a project he’s associated with (despite having nothing to do with development) in exchange for a tiny percent of the profits? It would increase my profits, but inevitably some people would see it as “his” game, no matter how open he is about his lack of actual involvement in writing and development.
I honestly have no fucking idea what I’m going to do. All I know is that I am TIRED. I am tired of beating my head against this wall and it not moving. I am tired of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and FAILING and NEVER having any hope that next time will be different. I am SO FUCKING TIRED that sometimes all I want to do is lie down and never get up again, because men get to “fail forward” and “find fruitfulness in failure”, but all women get is ground down, chewed up, and spat out. It makes me want to give up, throw my hands in the air, and quit altogether. Except I’ve been painted into this corner by own small amount of never-quite-enough-to-survive-on success, and I don’t have any damn choice but to keep trying, because all of the other options I’m faced with are even worse.
Even now, writing this. My throat feels tight, my eyes tingle, and my teeth are clenched. I am in mourning for the me that never got to exist – the me that was a “real” publisher, and who was able to build her audience such that she could stop falling into a series of abusive dead end jobs and realize her dream of being creative full time. But no amount of blood, sweat, and tears is going to bring that me into existence, and so it’s time to let her go.
So to those of you who “feel bad” that the games you like “just happen” to be made by men and there’s “nothing” you can really do about that? Why don’t you stick that in your pipe and smoke it?
So here’s the deal. My comments policy is not all that complex: 1) no insults 2) no derailing 3) my house, my rules. And yet, this is something that a lot of commenters seem to struggle with – especially #3.
Since re-opening my blog, I’ve taken a much more liberal approach to enforcing the comments policy. I pretty much have zero fucks left when it comes to people coming into my space and behaving like an asshat; I don’t feel bad in the slightest about summarily trashing comments that insult myself or others, and I’ve grown to quite enjoy replacing derailing comments with sarcastic memes. Because again, see #3 – this is MY house where I make the rules.
But of course, there are certain types of people (men) who think it is LITERALLY JUST THE WORST that I don’t run an open forum for them to insult, abuse, and generally dispute everything I’m saying here. And those people get really. Fucking. Tiresome.
Because I’m getting real tired of this shit recently, I figured that it’s probably time to clarify the comment policy, just for the sake of transparency, so that when people whine about me removing their comments, I have something to point to instead of having to repeat the same five responses over and over again. I will also be updating the comment policy in the sidebar accordingly.
So. FAQ first, and then updated comment policy.
Frequently Asked Questions and Complaints
While this is not a comprehensive list of the terrible comments I get here on this blog, these are definitely the worst offenders. You’ll note that there are a lot of links in my answers to these questions. That’s because Go Make Me a Sandwich is not and never has been a 101-level feminist blog. I do not have the time, interest, or obligation to educate you if you have not done the basics of self-education with regards to feminism as it applies to geekdom.
1) BUT ALL THE MENZ GET OBJECTIFIED TOO
[sigh] No. Just… no.
First, attempting to dispute that game art is sexist by saying that men get objectified too completely misses the point. I have written extensively on how game art in every segment of gaming consistently under-represents and over-sexualizes women as compared to their male counterparts. This is not speculation – this is based on careful analysis and data collection of a wide variety of sources.
2) THAT CHARACTER IS STRONG AND EMPOWERED AND WANTS TO SHOW HER TITS, YOU ARE SLUT SHAMING
For this, I am going to straight up quote myself from this post I wrote about the first Bayonetta game, since Bayonetta is a pretty classic example of a character that is frequently cited as “strong”, “liberated”, and “sexually empowered”:
If Bayonetta were an actual person, then it would make sense to proclaim that her sexuality is a choice and that she’s an empowering female figure. But she’s not a real woman. Everything about her was designed to be sexually appealing by a man who in his own words thinks that all women should strive to be as sexual as Bayonetta. …
It all comes back to the male gaze. (Seriously, please visit that link if the male gaze is a concept you’re not familiar with.) When looking at fictional characters like Bayonetta, you can’t disregard the creator. It’s not enough to say that she embraces her sexuality, because at no point did Bayonetta ever get to make a choice. Her creators made the choices for her. So I totally agree with Jonathan Holmes in his assessment of Bayonetta:
she’s an empty shell of a character; a shell made from here creators’ sexual fantasies, negative stereotypes, and misconceived notions of the female gender.
As for the people who claim you are somehow sexist or slut-shaming when you hate on Bayonetta, the same point applies. Bayonetta is not a person with agency, she’s a fictional creation devoid of any free will or choice. It is not slut-shaming to decry Bayonetta as a hollow stereotype whose sexuality is nothing more than a harmful perpetuation of the stereotypes surrounding female sexuality. It is a judgement on the designers and writers who created her to be what she is. Bayonetta is not for women, plain and simple. She is designed by men for men. As such, I feel no need to pretend that she’s a positive role model.
3) WHAT’S WRONG WITH CATERING TO MEN’S SEXY DESIRES
Nothing! Nowhere have I ever said that I think that there should be no games ever that include sexy women, for cishet-normative values of sexy. What I object to is the idea that every woman in every game must be designed to appeal to the cishet male gaze, because that makes no goddamn sense.
And that sucks! It would be like going to a restaurant that purports to serve people of any gender, but any cisman who walks through the door gets punched in the face. And if you try to complain, the restaurant staff deny punching you, and the other patrons form a lynch mob and run you out of the restaurant.
Further, this kind of thinking assumes that all men are a monolith, which they are not (of course). As shocking as this may be, not all men who play video games are straight. So the hyperfocus on the hetero-normative view of game development also does a disservice to men who don’t really care about sexy women, thanks.
4) GAMES ARE MADE FOR MEN
See the above response.
5) WHY DO YOU WANT TO CENSOR ART AND STOP ARTISTS!
Again, see #3. Also, stop being stupid.
6) IT’S THE ART DIRECTORS YOU SHOULD TARGET
Art direction is definitely a huge piece of the puzzle; I’ve written about the inconsistent art direction coming out of WotC, how internally inconsistent Magic: The Gathering’s art direction is within their own product line.
“The number of times over my 10-year career in this industry that I’ve had to send back an image with a note like “um, thanks, but can I get this without hard nipples showing through the leather armor, please?” would shock just about everyone.”
So does art direction need to get better? Absolutely. But the artists are just as culpable.
One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.
Or if you’re too lazy, the TL;DR is: I’m not against all sex ever in games. I’m not against all sex ever in art. I’m not against all people ever who like sexy art, or who like sex, or who like sex and games. The end.
9) WHY ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT THIS INSTEAD OF [X]?
Where do I even start…?
First, asking this question somehow implies that I can’t care about more than one thing about the same time. Frex, if I care about Cause Y, then why would I devote time to writing about Cause X? Which is silly, because the vast majority of humans are capable of being passionate about more than one thing. Odds are, you don’t spend all of your free time pursuing ONE activity. So assuming that me taking time to write about something that I feel passionately about – feminism in games – completely precludes the possibility of me engaging in other sorts of activism is… odd. (For more on this, see Derailing for Dummies)
Second, in application this question is almost always racist. Every time I have seen it used, people are asking things like “why are you writing about feminism in video games when you should be writing about female genital mutilation”. Or the violence against Afghan women and girls attempting to access education? Or poverty of women in the Asian subcontinent? Which becomes really awful when you think about the context.
I am a white, middle class, cishet, able-bodied Christian-ish woman living in Canada. I am privileged as fuck, and I acknowledge that. So for me to devote myself to some crusade to save “foreign” brown women from the evils of their own culture would be the height of White Feminism. And while I am a feminist who is white, I do my damndest not to be a White Feminist. (I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I really do try.) And not attempting to save brown women from their own culture is the low-hanging fruit of not being a goddamn White Feminist.
Third, asking this question is really just trivializing my passion. I write about feminism in games because I am passionate about games, and sexism in games is something that impacts me personally. So for you to say “well actually, this thing you’re passionate about isn’t really all that important” makes you the asshole.
10) IT’S JUST A GAME
Refer to point number three of the previous response.
11) WHY DON’T YOU PLAY SOMETHING ELSE OR MAKE YOUR OWN GAMES?
Telling me to play something else if I don’t like a particular game is predicated on the assumption that there are a cornucopia of games out there that are perfectly enlightened and not at all sexist. Which, uh, yeah. Yeah that’s not even close to being true.
Usually, my game selection process involves finding the games that are the least sexist and still appeal to my play preferences. It’s a lot like the Monty Python spam sketch – “how about the spam eggs sausage and spam, that’s not got much spam in it” – in that one my primary criteria is always “is this game at least only minimally sexist?”.
It’s not my place when I feel constantly challenged to assert my expertise on the matters I’m discussing, when I feel that I must always re-affirm my credentials.
It’s not my place when people come here to tell me that I’m crazy, ugly, irrational, stupid, ignorant, or a fascist.
It’s not my place when they tell me that harassment against women doesn’t matter.
It’s not my place when they tell me to lie down in front of a train rather than continue to speak out.
I can’t handle the volume of negative comments that I get anymore – it drains my energy, wastes my time, and sucks air out of the conversation. This was never intended to be a forum for other people to vent their hatred, and I’m tired letting toxic comments stifle real conversation in the name of welcoming free speech. Fuck free speech. This is not a democracy, and I am not obligated to give you a soapbox.
If you want a forum to tell me that I am wrong, or stupid, or even to just vent your hatred of women, that’s called THE REST OF THE GODDAMN INTERNET.
13) YOU’RE AFRAID OF REAL DISCUSSION
A lot of the time when I replace a comment with a meme, said commenter whines that I’m not “interested in real discussion”. Which, uh. Yeah. You’re right!
The sort of thing that I have zero interest in, however? Shit like sea lioning, insults, cred-checking, or mansplaining. Especially since a lot of what people (men) attempt to mansplain is my own goddamn feelings.
So, you know. Not interested in real discussion? Yes! Way to hit the nail on the head! Where you go astray is thinking that I somehow actually give a shit or think that’s a bad thing.
Policy: Removing and Replacing Comments
If you violate rule #1 (no insults), your comment will be trashed. Period.
If you violate rule #2 (derailing), your comment will be replaced with an appropriate meme of my choosing.
If you complain about rule #3 (my house, my rules), your comment will be replaced with a meme on the first offense, with summary deletion thereafter. You don’t get to come into my house, trash my shit, and whine when I tell you to get the fuck out.
NEW RULE #4
WRT #2, any comment that resembles one of the above questions will be removed and the commenter will be instructed to see the FAQ for reasons why their comment is a waste of everyone’s time. Further, comments on the FAQ itself will not be allowed. This is not a democracy, it is a dictatorship.
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!
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:
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:
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 ofthe 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.
[I’m starting off with an anecdote about my kid, but this is by no means a post about my kid, so bear with me.]
My daughter is two-and-a-half, which is an interesting age in that we’re starting to get out of the “what is the word for this” mode of language teaching and into the “social norms behind use of language” mode of language teaching. Granted, we still have hilarious arguments sometimes about what something actually is (“no, sweetheart, that’s a carrot, not a pineapple”). But more and more we’re starting to get into teaching things like manners.
You know, things like, “say please when you want something instead of pointing and screaming” or “if you kick someone, you have to say you’re sorry”.
Of course, that’s not all that goes into a good apology. My daughter is a bit young to start teaching her the difference between a good apology and a bad apology; after all, she still struggles with the difference between zebras and tigers so that’s perhaps something a little beyond her. It’s enough for us for now that we are teaching her that when she transgresses a social norm (like, say, kicking someone) she has to say that she’s sorry.
Pretty basic shit, right? So why am I even talking about this? Well, as basic and just-plain-obvious as this should be, lately a nontrivial number of men with status in the games community keep fucking up and not fucking apologizing. And as one of the people who continually gets hurt by these sorts of shenanigans, I’m just. So. Tired. Of it. So even though this is something that you all should have mastered a long time ago, we’re going to have a little talk about apologies.
It’s important to note here that I’m primarily going to use the term “high-status person of privilege”, because it is important to acknowledge that people who are not white and/or not men can and do fuck up. But make no mistake that I am primarily aiming this at white dudes in positions of power and status within the game community. And if you don’t like that, white men? Then start taking other men to task when they fuck up and maybe I won’t have to make with the condescending lectures anymore, okay? Then we all win.
First: What makes a good apology
There’s a lot of great writing on this subject, so I’ll keep this pretty brief. What counts as a good apology is actually fairly specific:
1. Expressing Regret – Saying, “I am sorry.”
2. Accepting Responsibility – Admitting, “I was wrong.”
3. Making Restitution – Committing, “I will make it right.”
4. Genuinely Repenting – Promising, “I will not do that again.”
5. Requesting Forgiveness – Asking, “Will you forgive me?”
“I’m sorry that you were offended” is never a good apology. Neither is saying “sorry” only to then go on at length how you didn’t actually mean to hurt someone. If you want to apologize well and have it accepted gracefully, you need to follow the above structure.
Wait – why are apologies so important anyway?
Why are apologies important? Because you fucking hurt someone, you asshat. And when you hurt someone, you need to apologize.
But I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, they’re just being oversensitive
Contrary to what you’d like to believe, the intent behind an action that hurts someone doesn’t actually matter, and here’s why:
Let’s say that you live in a society that rigidly codifies hair lengths. In this society, people with long hair are allowed to punch short-haired people in the face as hard as they want, as often as they want. And not only are long-haired people not punished for punching short-haired people in the face, but often long-haired people will reward you for it.
Now you? You’re a person with long hair. Maybe you used to punch short-haired people, and maybe you didn’t. But either way you’ve come to realize that punching people of any hair length in the face is wrong and have decided not to do it anymore. However, you can’t overcome a lifetime of conditioning, and sometimes you react out of fear or anger or weakness, and the old instincts kick in before you can stop them. For that matter, a lifetime of being allowed to punch short-haired people in the face has made you a bit oblivious about short-haired people’s personal space, and sometimes you just plain smack a short-haired person in the face without meaning to.
Whatever the reason, the end result is always going to be the same. They, a short-haired person, have been hit in the face by a long-haired person. And if they don’t know you personally, they have no reason not to assume that you’re just another long-haired person who likes to go out and punch short-haired people in the face – because long-haired people are always fucking punching them in the face.
Their hurt and pain is real, because they’ve been punched in the goddamn face. Does the fact that you punched out of habit, or societal condition, or even accidentally… does that actually matter? No, because their face still hurts, and no amount of explanations about the context of that particular punch to the face will make their face hurt less.
Is the short-haired person allowed to be angry in this situation? You bet your ass they are. Not only have they been punched in the face, but people like you go out of their way to punch them in the face on a daily basis. You demanding that they not be angry because you didn’t mean to punch them in the face is the height of entitlement, because you are trying to put your defensive desire to not feel shame on the same level as the short-haired person’s bruised face.
The context surrounding the punch doesn’t fucking matter in that moment. What matters is the short-haired person’s face hurts and you need to apologize for hitting them in the fucking face.
But they don’t want to believe that I’m being sincere!
Unfortunately, that’s always going to be a risk that you run as a person of privilege and status. To continue the previous example, if you were a short-haired person would you be able to 100% trust someone who punched you in the face if they said they didn’t mean it? When people who looked liked like them punched you in the face on a daily basis? Gleefully and unrepentantly?
Marginalized people get hurt by allies all the damn time. Speaking to my own personal experience, as much as I hate and fear trolls, sometimes dealing with someone who calls themselves an ally and turns out to be a secret misogynist is far, far worse. Because these fake-allies get behind your guard, earn your trust and respect and even friendship. Which just makes it all that harder when someone you thought was an ally turns around and punches you in the face with their deep-seated misogyny.
Over time, that has a tendency to wear away your trust in the fundamental goodness of humanity. I love gaming and find going to conventions energizing. But anymore, I find actually meeting new gamers to be terrifying, because gamers have proven over and over and over that they are not a safe group of people to trust. Individual gamers? Yeah they can be okay. But gamers as a whole are a group that I cannot trust, because they have hurt me too many times for me to be able to trust them.
Look I said I was sorry privately. Why do I have to make my apology a public thing?
Did you fuck up in public? Then your fuckup hurt more than just the person you were aiming it at. In order to even begin to make amends, you need to own your fuckup just as publicly.
If I say I won’t do it again, why is it bad if I don’t apologize?
Aside from the fact that you’re hurting people, you mean? Well, it’s simple.
When you hurt people and refuse to apologize, that compounds the hurt. Sometimes the people that you hurt will decide to brush off the abuse and remain part of the community. However, sometimes the people that you hurt will leave, because they will (correctly!) perceive that the lack of an apology reflects their lack of worth in the eyes of the community. Further, other members of the group that you hurt will refuse to even join the community that you are a part of, reasoning that there’s no reason they should have to put up with a group where they have no reasonable expectation of emotional or physical safety.
Worst of all, however. YOU MAKE THE ABUSERS THINK THAT THEY HAVE YOUR SUPPORT.
Each time you, as a person of status and privilege, use that power to lash out at someone and hurt them, and you refuse to own that screwup and apologize? The abusers in our community, of which there are MANY, see that and assume that YOU ARE ON THEIR SIDE. Because you are yet another person like them who is using your power to quash and silence marginalized voices.
And it doesn’t matter that it’s not your intention. It doesn’t matter that you don’t agree with the abusers. It doesn’t matter that you are working either publicly or behind the scenes to end abuse in the community. It doesn’t matter what you have done or are doing to get marginalized people into positions of status in the community. What matters is that you are being complicit in reinforcing the cultural standard that it is okay for people of privilege and status to use their power to abuse people without power.
But apologizing is hard and painful and makes me feel bad about myself
You are a person with status and privilege. If the worst you have to deal with is occasionally feeling shitty for metaphorically punching people in the face? Count yourself lucky.
When you fuck up and hurt someone, the only thing you can control is how you respond. You can choose to be defensive and double down on your hurtful action or statement, or you can apologize sincerely, listen to what they say about why what you said/did was hurtful, and do your best not to do it again. It’s human nature to not want to have to do any of that, and privilege conditions you to believe that we shouldn’t have to!
But that’s when we come back to the notion of social norms and apologies. If my two-and-half-year old who can’t tell the difference between zebras and tigers can understand the idea that she needs to apologize when she hurts someone, what is so fucking hard to understand?
There’s this weird thing that happens where something I wrote a year ago (or two, or three) doesn’t get much attention at the time that I write it, but then someone on Reddit (or Twitter, but usually Reddit) finds it and posts a link and all of a sudden I get a flurry of views and nasty comments about GOD HOW WRONG AND AWFUL I AM.
This has actually happened a few times with my post about the ways in which The Last of Us could have been better, which is especially amusing given that I wrote that post after writing my post about the reasons why I loved The Last of Us to little bitty pieces. But apparently, expressing criticism of a thing completely invalidates any other statements you might make about the thing and I should have known that. Because saying “here’s how thing thing I love could have been even better” is the same as saying “here is a thing that should be destroyed with fire and if you like it you should feel bad because you are bad.”
And I thought that if people are determined to misread me writing about a thing that I actually really, really liked, well shit. Why don’t I at least give these guys some decent ammunition?
So with that in mind…
Unpopular opinion the first: Violence is boring
VIOLENCE IS BORING.
And games where the system or mechanics exist only to create violence? Those games are boring as shit. Hell, I’ll go even further and say that any piece of media centered on violence and/or murder and nothing else is just really, really dull.
For example – this weekend, at the insistence of a friend, I watched John Wick, which is basically 20 minutes of Keanu Reeves being sad about his dead wife (always with the dead wives…) and then like 1 hour of Keanu Reeves just straight-up murdering like a jillion guys, interspersed with people speaking subtitled Russian. Except it was even more boring than how I made it sound, because he didn’t even go on a murderfest because of his wife, it was because someone killed his dog and stole his car – which for some reason inspired this total murderpalooza that happened while Keanu Reeves displayed absolutely no facial expressions. ACTING! And Christ it was So. Goddamn. Boring. It wasn’t shocking or edgy or any of that. It was just the dullest fucking thing I’ve watched in at least a year.
Increasingly – how I feel about John Wick is how I also feel about games.
I’m not saying because I think violence in games is evil and it should go away forever! I was part of the first generation of people to grow up playing video games with explicitly graphic violence beyond just a few red pixels – so it’s certainly something I’m used to seeing. Plus I’m addicted to Final Fantasy and BioWare games, which means I’ve played a lot of games that feature violence. But unless a game brings some significant not-violence gameplay to the table along with the “murder a ton of [bandits / orcs / demons / robots / aliens / zombies / whatevers]”, I’m just plain not interested.
Call of Duty? Counter-Strike? Hell, even any of the Hitman games? Yeah I have less than zero interest in ever playing them. BioWare at least brings relationships, romance, sex, diplomacy, and alliance-building to its games, and advancing the game means you have to take breaks from murdering all the things in order to deal with the talky bits – which are just as important as the murdery bits. And even despite my deep-seated love of BioWare games, I’m finding the gameplay of Cities: Skylines more engaging and compelling than Dragon Age: Inquisition right now.
The same goes for tabletop games. If the rules support only killing things and maybe taking their stuff? I’m just not interested. So things like Warhammer? War Machine? Yawn. No thanks. And even D&D I find I’m increasingly bored with. There’s very little room for innovation in tabletop murder/violence-simulators these days. The design stuff that excites me are the people working on different ways of telling stories that aren’t centered on violence.
But wait, there’s more!
Now that I’ve said I don’t like violence in games, that’s pretty much the same as admitting that I’m not a real gamer, right? However, I’m still concerned that these might not be grounds enough for you to dismiss me, here are some additional opinions that I hold that you can use to completely discount anything I have to say from now on.
I am bad at being a gamer (in the spirit of #badatfandom)
We ❤ Katamari is a better game than anything made by Ubisoft
For that matter, so is Bejeweled Blitz.
So is Angry Birds.
Hell, so is Triple Triad.
I hate every Final Fantasy before 7.
I didn’t finish FF6 because I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.
Final Fantasy X-2 is a fucking masterpiece and I will cut anyone who says it’s not.
Payne forever and always.
I would rather play Chocobo Hot and Cold for three hours than play a tabletop minis game.
I would rather do laundry than play Warhammer.
I would rather clean my bathroom than play StarCraft.
I hate playing D&D and wouldn’t be sad if I never played it again.
That said, point buy all the way. Random stat rolling is for chumps.
Larry Elmore’s art is okay, I guess, but it’s really not my cup of tea.
Despite having written for Vampire, I’ve never played a tabletop WoD game and I don’t really mind that.
Steampunk is not a genre, it’s an aesthetic, and a baffling one at that.
No BioShock isn’t some deeply philosophical journey. It’s just Ayn Rand plus bazookas.
I enjoy things inspired by Cthulu far, far more than I enjoy anything that actually adheres to the mythos. For that matter, I don’t ever intend to read any Lovecraft.
I only buy one or two roleplaying games per year, and I’ve only ever backed two KickStarters.
I think origin stories are tedious and boring.
I would kill Ashley every time. In a heart beat. EVERY TIME. Don’t like Kaidan? Don’t care. At least he’s not some xenophobic asshole.
I romanced Kaidan.
Peter Molyneux’s games aren’t that great.
The last decent fighting game was Soul Calibur 2. Everything after that is dead to me.
I’ve never played a Zelda game.
Kirby is more interesting than Link.
I only played 3 hours of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I found it tedious and boring.
I played 10 hours of Skyrim. I found it tedious and boring also.
I played in a Vampire LARP for 12 years and I still think that the system is complete fucking gibberish.
The “dumbed down” gameplay of Civ 5 (before the expansions) was better than any of the Civ games that came before it.
Xenogears/Xenosaga are terrible terrible games and I would rather do just about anything than play them.
The exploration in Dragon Age: Inquisition is way, way more fun than the combat.
Describing something as “gritty”, “dark”, or “grim” is the perfect way to get me to never ever play it
 Jesus. It’s enough to make me say that any movie where a wife/mother dies in the first 20 minutes is automatically a bad movie. That shit is so overused it’s just plain BAD WRITING.
 I remember specifically promising my mother to never become an axe murderer if she would let me buy Mortal Kombat.
 Though to be fair, that’s probably because DA:I is hands down the worst PC port I’ve ever played. The UX is SO SO BAD.
[Note that this is not being published as a patron-supported post, lest I be accused of “playing the victim” to attack someone.
It’s also important to note that there is A LOT of extra reading linked to from this post. Like, no really. A lot. I erred on the side of exhaustive, simply so I don’t need to revisit this again in the future.]
This is a blog post I swore I’d never write, let alone publish, since any controversy created by such a post is not ever going to help me. However, nearly four years of staying silent on this issue hasn’t done any good either, and I’m running out of cope. So here we go.
There is man in the indie TRPG community, with quite a larger following than mine, who has been determined to tell the games community at large what a terrible, awful person I am. It has been nearly four years since all of this nonsense started, and the strain of remaining silent is beginning to be a bigger burden than anything else. Remaining silent hasn’t done anything to prevent the abuse directed my way. If anything, the frequency and level of rhetoric has only continued to escalate over time. So I’m finally doing the thing I swore I would never do and naming names:
I have been the target of trolls, haters, and randos for quite a while now. But none of them have been as persistent, vitriolic, and prolific in their hatred for me as Zak S.
At first Zak confined himself to calling me an anti-porn, sex-hating, fascist uber-conservative akin to Phyllis Schafly. But at last count, according to Zak, I am now: anti-porn, anti-sex in games, homophobic/queerphobic, transphobic, fascist, legit crazy aka delusional aka should be involuntarily remanded to mental health care, a liar, a chronic attention-seeker who has fabricated harassment evidence, a chronic harasser myself, and legit evil.
…needless to say, in a post-GamerGate world this is a terrifying level of rhetoric to have reached. So what I am doing here is documenting for once and for all the substance of this thing, and yes providing sources and links and evidence – since my silence all these years has been used as ammunition against me. There are people in my own circles who have spoken about this as an issue with “sides”, as in “well there’s been bad behavior on both sides”, and just. No. There are no “sides”. There is Zak’s continued hatred versus my silence, always my silence.
But before I get started with that, an important aside:
This is fucking important
The real tragedy of this situation is that on an objective level, I have a lot of empathy and heartbreak for Zak and Mandy (his girlfriend/partner who has a serious genetic condition). And not in a condescending “I feel sorry for them for being so crazy/awful/evil” kind of way, because fuck that noise. (I hate it when people pull the “I feel sorry for you for being such a bitch” card on me, because that is 100% bullshit.)
I can’t fully imagine what Zak is going through as primary caretaker of someone with a terrifying genetic condition that is making her body cannibalize itself. Not completely. But I can have empathy for that situation; my own father died nearly four years ago from bone marrow cancer. I wasn’t even a primary caretaker – I had already made irrevocable plans to move to Canada when he was diagnosed. But watching my father grow gradually sicker as his skeleton literally tried to consume his insides, watching him fade more and more as the meds he needed to keep the pain under control grew stronger and more frequent…
Yeah, it fucking messed me up. I didn’t live with my father during his treatment (I did come home as often as I could), but I will never be able to watch Breaking Bad. Wild made me ugly cry for the whole damn movie, and any kind of media featuring parents with cancer is shit that I avoid whenever possible.
So I on an abstract level, I admire Zak for continuing to remain creative in the face of what is surely a painful struggle. And I admire Mandy for not being silent in the face of legit bullshit behavior she has faced, and for her recent hospital glam photos she’s posted. I wish that I’d tried something similar with my father, because it kills me how dead he looks in every photo taken while he was sick and how his spirit was completely broken by his diagnosis. And I hope for both their sake that her prognosis is better than my father’s. I really do.
So I am absolutely not saying that you should boycott Zak’s work if you were otherwise likely to buy it. Nor am I saying not to buy his art. And I am especially not saying you should go hurl abuse at Zak, and especially not at Mandy, because seriously it makes me fucking mad that she has been harassed for being the wrong kind of gamer and I don’t want to be part of perpetuating that kind of toxicity. Support them if you want, don’t if you don’t. Whatever. Everyone draws their line somewhere and it’s okay if you draw it differently than me or anyone else.
In writing this post, I speak for no one but myself. And what I want personally is simply to be left alone, without constantly having to feel like I have to look over my shoulder. (I know that sounds hopelessly naive, but that really is all I want.)
Okay? Okay. Aside over.
Down to business: a chronology of my interactions with Zak
Because this is a thing that has spun out over the course of 3.5 years, first I’ll provide an overview of the timeline of events from my perspective. (It’s lengthy, and I’m sorry about that.) It’s important to note that this only includes publicly available postings, as that’s all I have access to. It’s possible that there’s more in more private locations, like closed G+ threads, that I’m not aware of.
Pre-hostilities interactions on my blog
1) January 2011
Interestingly, our earliest communication was one that I had entirely forgotten about. (Whoops.) I wrote a post about how some dudes had devoted 20 minutes of their podcast to talking about why I was fat, ugly, and crazy. Zak popped into the comments to ask for responses to a survey of female gamers on his blog, as well as to contribute what I thought were actually some pretty cogent points.
2) February 2011
A month later, I wrote a post about Hyung Tae Kim in which I expressed some nuanced opinions about his art and the degree of sexual objectification it displayed. There was a spirited conversation in the comments, which Zak was pretty active in, and which I didn’t participate in very actively because I was frankly too stressed out to attempt having a nuanced conversation about something on the internet.
Looking back on the comments, there’s several of Zak’s comments that seem pretty… sea lionish. (Though of course I didn’t have the language to describe it as such then.) He also engaged in a fair bit of straw-manning other commenters by accusing them of calling HTK “pro-rape”, which got a fair amount of pushback – from myself as well as other commenters, as the opinions being expressed were complex and nuanced, not simple and black-and-white.
I ultimately tried to bow out of the conversation, because the following two things happened within a day or two of making the post:
1) I was laid off from a job that I loved and had felt secure in
2) my father’s cancer took a turn for the worse (he died just over four months later).
Still, Zak kept baiting other commenters and I wound up getting involved again before things ultimately died down. And even then, for like a year after that, my memory of Zak was “oh we disagreed that one time, but our conversation was pretty civil and respectful so that’s cool with me”.
2a) February 2011
What turns out to have been the most significant interaction with Zak actually… wasn’t… an interaction… at all? Twelve days after making my post about HTK, I wrote this post about Japanator’s then-editor who had a history of making crass rape jokes and then hiding behind his female friends and fans who told him he wasn’t sexist.
In the comments of my post, conversation turned to sexism in anime, and in the comments, I had cause to say: “That being said, harem anime is pathetic and disgusting. Fetish anime ditto. Hentai anime ditto.”
Which, sure. That is pretty harsh, and I’ll admit it could have been better phrased. But what I was trying to express is that I have yet to see a harem anime that hasn’t made me feel incredibly uncomfortable about creepy behavior by the male protagonist being played for laughs, because I have been creeped on by geeky guys and it’s really not funny. Similarly, my experiences with hentai have not been with anything depicting anything resembling consensual sexual encounters, and the lack of consent was fetishized just as much as the bodies involved. Which, uh, yuck.
The conversation moved past that point onto other things, and I didn’t realize that my lack of clarification would become such a big deal, because Zak never even posted in that thread. Not even once.
3) June 2011
Apparently, at the time Zak hadn’t thought that my post about HTK was such a big deal either? Because four months later I wrote an admittedly ham-handed post about how the shit I love about fantasy is racist.
And actually, Zak popped in again briefly with some stuff that was actually super on point about the difficulty of trying to be a critic and artist who doesn’t fall into the same traps that I criticize here on my blog. (Again, I’d entirely forgotten about this until I went searching my comment archives.) And even looking back on it now, it seems pretty pointed, but also like something that needed to be said.
So whatever the dynamic now, we had had what I had remembered as pretty civil, respectful interactions in the past.
Hostilities begin: 2012/2013
1) April 2012: It begins
I honestly couldn’t tell you when it happened now, but at some point in maybe 2009 or 2010, I moved all my gaming-related conversations to G+ and rage-quit talking on game forums, because I was done with accepting sexism, erasing, and mansplaining as the price for participating in conversations about games and game design online. (And G+ is fantastic at letting you aggressively curate your conversations to be fuckhead-free.)
So when Zak dropped into a Story-Games thread to make an attack on me in which he called me a fascist ultra-conservative akin to Phyllis Schafly (I am paraphrasing, as the link I have archived seems to be brokenETA: the thread moved! you can find it here), I didn’t even know this had happened until a few people emailed me to let me know what had happened. I wasn’t even notified that this attack had happened until after Zak had already been banned for it, but I remember being bewildered.
What had happened? I mean, where the hell had this come from? I even went back through the comment logs on that old HTK post and couldn’t find any one moment that made me say – ah. That. That is where this emnity is coming from.
I made a response on Gaming as Women in which I was careful not to mention Zak’s name or any identifying details of the incident, and I also asked that people refrain from naming Zak if they knew who I was talking about. Partly this was because I wanted to use my personal experience to highlight the visceral fear that women face when interacting on the internet. But it was also partly because I actually was scared by the anger of that attack and didn’t want to give Zak any further ammunition to use against me.
My previous experience of trolls had been that they would make one or two isolated attacks and then go back to doing… whatever. I honestly thought that would be the case this time too.
2) July 2013: AoE’d
The next time I was targeted by Zak, it was part of a shotgun-style attack against a whole host of people that he didn’t like. Rather than rehash what I’ve already written about here, go to this post and scroll down to the section called The Edgy Game Designer, in which I detail how I came to speak out against a gaming organization’s choice to lend someone with a known history of misogynist views their platform to voice those views.
I was one of a few women who spoke out, and in so doing I was careful to focus on my personal experiences and feelings and how this person’s views directly affected me as a marginalized member of the gaming community. And the other women who spoke out all pretty much stuck to that same script. However, there was also one man who spoke out with far more fervor, and far more aggressively than any of them women did.
He made one post in particular that said that the problematic game designer was responsible for rape and death threats against people who disagreed with him. Now I knew what he was talking about – that he was talking about how some nerd-famous men shut down criticism against them by riling up their followers and pointing them at a target (I’ve written about it more in depth here, under the section called “How It Works”). The person who made this post is someone who I respect, someone who got me into game design in the first place, and without whose support I would not still be making games today. I also knew that he was speaking from a place of deep personal trauma, so I plussed the post in support of what he was feeling.
…which turned out to be a huge mistake. This all happened in July of 2013, but in December 2013 Zak necro’d the whole issue to make a shotgun attack against pretty much everyone included on his enemies list. (See the screenshot included here in this post under “The Rebellious Artist”.)
Zak demanded that everyone who had plussed the post retract that plus and make a public apology. I certainly wasn’t about to apologize for talking about my personal feelings and life experiences, and I’d already gotten sick of Zak’s growing vendetta against me. Also, I still really did understand what the person making the original post had meant and agreed with it. So I didn’t un-plus, and I didn’t apologize. I just kept my mouth shut and waited for it all to go away again.
Which brings up to 2014, when things started getting really out of hand.
2014: the year things got kind of bonkers
July of 2014 is when things got weird. First there was what came to be known as ConsultancyGate – a scandal over the inclusion of Zak and another highly-controversial figure as paid consultants on the 5th edition of D&D. I kept my fucking mouth shut about this, aside from a few private conversations on G+. I knew it was going to be a shitstorm (it was) and I wanted no part of it.
My one contribution: Tom Hatfield wrote a piece about the issue for Fail Forward, and I retweeted two things said about the piece while not directly linking to it or naming any names. The first is this tweet here by Tom Hatfield which simply addresses the fact that harassment exists and it is larger than one community. The second is this tweet here about not wanting people to boycott D&D 5e. Those two re-tweets are the sum total of my involvement in ConsultancyGate. Period. (Case in point: this is a pretty thorough summary of ConsultancyGate that is also totally pro-Zak, which fails to mention me at all.ETA: Oh jeez – so the Seebs summary is actually part of a larger effort to harass a trans game developer out of the industry and off the internet. I didn’t know that and wouldn’t have linked to it if I had, so I’m very sorry for missing that.)
That didn’t stop Zak, however. He’s written 6 posts about me on his blog, and five of them are from 2014. (Number six is from this year.) One of those posts is a question-and-answer charity ransom in which he wanted people he’d previously attacked to let him ask them questions, and if their answers were “acceptable” (according to his definitions of acceptable) he would donate to charity. As the mere idea of interacting with Zak directly has become enough to trigger feelings of anxiety, I did not participate. In August, I also found out that he’d been hate-following me on Twitter, after which I blocked him but otherwise said nothing.
In November, there was a thread that was started on TheRPGSite about a promotional post I’d written highlighting the progressive design work done on V20:Dark Ages, which Zak turned into a 32-page hatefest against me. In that thread, his posts alone total over 22,000 words (although approximately half of those words are quotes from other people or sources). In a thread with a total of 311 posts, he wrote 43. (I’ve also backed up Zak’s posts in that thread in a paste on pastebin, since I’m not sure if RPGSite lets you edit/delete posts. The backup consists solely of the text of Zak’s posts along with a link to each post.)
Unfortunately this year looks like it’s just going to be more of the same. On January 6th he put up what can only be described as a conspiracy theory infographic that mentions me, using my quote from a comment thread on my own personal blog (that he hadn’t even participated in) entirely out of context, to claim that I was harassing Mandy. (It’s also important to note that while I have freelanced for Onyx Path twice, I have never been an employee of Onyx Path.)
Only 3 days after that, he made this tweet that thanked the people he had attacked, or parhaps more accurately the controversy he’d used his attack to generate, for helping him sell so many books.
And on February 23rd, the official twitter for I Hit It With My Axe, Zak’s webseries about running D&D for porn actresses, made attacks against some noteable progressive game devs that also included me. (Note: the tweet boxed in red appears to have been deleted later. This screenshot was taken by someone else, whereas when I looked at the I Hit It With My Axe timeline the next day the tweet was gone.)
…so all of this brings us to now, when I am tired of feeling angry, silenced, and afraid every time he attempts to convince people what a miserable human being I am. I am running out of cope.
However, since I’m also aware that it could be said that none of the above actually addresses the substance of the charges against me…
The specific charges against me, and why they’re untrue
(I am not including every instance of every specific charge leveled at me, because that would be tiresome and this post is way too long already. However, I will provide specific links to additional material under each section.)
1) I have publicly, repeatedly attacked Zak and/or Mandy
Before we cover anything else, it’s important to realize that a lot of Zak’s accusations against me are predicated on the idea that I have been making repeated public attacks against Zak and/or Mandy. And that is simply not true.
If you use Google do even a modicum of verification, you’ll see that the only search results for his name on my blog are in the comment section of posts that he himself commented on. There is nothing attached to his name on the blogspot iteration of this blog (from before I moved to WordPress). There is nothing on my tumblr. Nothing on my twitter. And especially never, ever, ever anything public on G+. (My facebook is not public and never has been.) And as previously stated, I quit visiting games forums before I’d even met Zak.
I have from time-to-time written about Zak in an anonymized fashion, such as my original Gaming as Women post. But in each instance I attempted to file all of the serial numbers off of the incidents, and have always said when doing so that people SHOULD NOT name the person being discussed if they are aware of the circumstances being discussed. I have also taken people to task after the fact when they have done so anyway. (Seriously, people, if someone writes about a person that they want to remain nameless, linking to the post and naming them anyway is an asshole move.)
Until right now, this post, here, I have never written anything in a publicly-available space attached to Zak’s real name or any of his aliases. Ever.
However, here is what Zak has to say on the subject, for starters:
…To be clear: in any way supporting a product made by Wundergeek or people who are still supporting her is pretty fucked up considering what she’s done and the attacks she’s made. — RPGSite thread, post #80
…And no matter what you think of Anna’s position, her endorsing the attacks on me and the women in my group and claiming she was harassed by us is straight-up falsehood with no possible defense. —RPGSite thread, post #91
…Her blog entry claims the JDes controversy is “manufactured” and associates me with intentional harassment and with Elliot Rodger. —RPGSite thread, post #171
…You will continue to be causing distress (to, for example, Mandy) until you admit “Yes, Wundergeek is a liar and yes, Mandy, you are right, it isn’t good that Wundergeek lied in public about being harassed” until then, your contention that you feel contrition about causing distress (while causing it) are as hollow as Wundergeek’s contention that she is an advocate of inclusion (while her rhetoric plainly excludes people) and non-judgmental (while her rhetoric is clearly judgmental).
Furthermore, after all you just said, unless you firmly state that you know Wundergeek, David and Filamena are lying your statements here are promoting the harassment (including the death threats) that their claims caused. —RPGSite thread, post #165
…Yeah that’s maybe because you weren’t sitting in a hospital room this August watching Mandy hooked up to a heart monitor and watching her heart rate spike and the monitor begin to crazily beep as every new accusation of your (and her) alleged hate crimes rolled in day after day after day linking Wundergeek as “evidence” on more and more sites in bigger and bigger media wondering when it was all going to end, all because, you made people mad by talking about playing the games you like (which everybody else does) — RPGSite thread, post 270
…that last quote, man.
You know what? I’m sorry that Mandy has been the target of vile abuse. Anyone who attacks a woman, any woman, for not being the “right” kind of woman to play games needs to fuck off to a dark corner forever. But claiming that I’m behind any of the abuse that Mandy has received either in the past or in the present is factually incorrect. Period.
1a) I attacked Zak and/or Mandy by retweeting the Fail Forward article
I’ve already established previously that my only relation to the Fail Forward article which has become such a rallying cry for Zak was to retweet two tweets making commentary on the issues surrounding the article. These tweets did not actually specify who is being discussed, where, or why. However, this is a specific charge that Zak makes very often, so it’s worth addressing:
Everyone who forwarded the attacks on us is enabling and supporting their harassment. And you need to go beyond ”Well we don’t support harassment of anybody” and stand up and admit you were wrong and you’ve been ignoring it and these are the people who have been doing it. — Mandy on the Anatomy of a Harassment Campaign
…ALSO ANOTHER WAY TO PROVE SHE’S A LIAR: She retweeted the FailForward article and claimed to agree with it. —RPGSite thread, post #141
…And, while we’re at it, let’s look at the most obvious evidence of shit-headdery: she retweeted the (known to be all false allegations) hit piece article about me. — RPGSite thread, post #108
I never retweeted the article. I never said I specifically endorsed it and all of the content therein. I especially never retweeted a link while also naming Zak as a harasser.
One of the side effects of me wanting to avoid anything to do with Zak is that it also means I haven’t commented specifically on harassment directed at Mandy. And yeah, that’s unfortunate! But I have consistently, constantly worked to end harassment of women in gaming, and I have always maintained that there is no one “right way” to be a female gamer.
Nevertheless, I get accused of either not caring or welcoming the abuse Mandy has gotten from people who are upset to see women who are in charge of their sexuality enjoying TPRGs. Which. Fuck. I feel like I just can’t win:
…So why don’t gaming gadflies and big indie designers like Fred Hicks (at Evil Hat), GeekyLyndsay, David A Hill Jr (Machine Age Productions), Ryan Macklin (Paizo), Bruce Baugh (Onyx Path), Elizabeth Sampat, Wundergeek, Christopher Allen and Shannon Appelcline (who employ Something Awful members Ettin and Kai Tave at RPG.net) and Tracy Hurley care that these attacks and the people inflicting them originated in a troll forum?
Because long ago we irritated them by playing a different game than them and refusing to let them lecture us about how we’re wrong and because we wear chainmail bikinis on Halloween and aren’t ashamed. Because, for example, Wundergeek and David Hill have real problems with tentacle hentai—and I made a live action tentacle porn because I wanted to. So who cares if I get harassed? I’m the wrong kind of feminist. — Mandy on the Anatomy of a Harassment Campaign
(Please note, this is the only time I will touch directly on things said by Mandy. No I AM NOT saying that she’s a sock puppet, or invented by Zak, or that she has Stockholm Syndrome, or any of that bullshit. I just find the idea that I don’t care about the harassment of female gamers who aren’t like me very hurtful and want to provide context.)
One of Zak’s go-to accusations against me is that I am a liar: I lie about being harassed myself, I lie about not harassing Zak and/or Mandy, and I lie about the plussing of the contentious post on G+ (previously mentioned), in that I knew that it was a lie and by endorsing it am lying myself:
The matter of the contentious G+ post has been dealt with previously in this post, so I won’t beat a dead horse.
However, there’s also the issue of the fact that I later referred to the flap as a “manufactured controversy”. And given that the timeline that is a matter of public record, I stand by that. It had been five months, and no one was talking about it anymore before it was necro’d again.
And as for lying about my own harassment, this blog is itself an archive of some of that. I didn’t start saving records of harassing communication I’ve gotten prior to 2014, but I’ve written about it here, and here, and here (which post contains even more links). And that’s not to say anything of the occasional email that I get, like this one which dropped into my inbox shortly after the resurrected flap over DidIPlusAThingThatOneTimeGate:
Lastly, he also frequently accuses me of libel. How exactly I am to have committed libel when I have never previously attached commentary to his name in public before is… uh… well I’m not too sure about that, actually.
Zak has repeatedly claimed that I am anti-porn and anti-sex-in-games, mostly because of that conversation that wasn’t about porn, that happened in the comments of a post which was also not about porn, in which I expressed a personal opinion about my personal discomfort with harem and hentai anime.
However, the other thing he frequently brings up as proof that I am anti-porn is something I said in the comment thread for my post about Hyung Tae Kim (again, previously mentioned):
…Quote: Wundergeek is openly anti-porn
That isn’t an ok position. That’s like being anti-pictures-of-two-guys-kissing: it’s a thing only bigots are.
But being ideologically against erotic imagery itself and the people who make it is Max Nordau territory. It’s coding wanting to look at sexualized women as a “male” activity–which ten minutes outside will tell you is not a healthy or realistic assumption and one that erases LGBT experience. — RPGSite thread, post #91
Quote: Originally Posted by jhkim View Post
Essentially, you seem to be saying that no one can say anything bad about a sexy outfit, or else they are “slut shaming”.
Absolutely that’s what I’m saying–how is it in any universe remotely ok to tell a woman that the miniature she wants to use to represent her character is inappropriate or wrong?
We’ll come back to anti-porn = bigot in the next section. But first, Zak also characterizes his first encounter with me this way:
Wundergeek : Hyun Tae Kim should be pushed to the margins of the industry because he paints fetishy art and hentai is disgusting!
Zak : WTF?
Wundergeek : Why are you so mean, Zak?
Did Jessica Hammer or anyone at Gaming As Women or anybody else that Wundergeek worked with or talked to never explain to Wundergeek that other peoples’ taste in porn is not her business and pin-up art is not the problem,art gatekeepers are? Why is she bothering artists with this shit? —The Teachable Moment From All This
Which. [sigh] No.
Zak wants to characterize this as him minding his business and me somehow attacking him by expressing an opinion in the comments thread of my own blog.
Lastly, I have always been 100% consistent that what I write here is not about judging people for their individual tastes – that what I am doing is criticizing an industry that profits from the dehumanization of women. It’s in the damn sticky that I wrote when I went on hiatus from blogging here in November 2011.
I have only ever said that it is 100% okay to like what you like, that it is totally okay to like something other people find offensive, and that I know I like things that other people find offensive. (Like my love of pretty much anything by Joss Whedon.)
3a) I am a bigot
Zak’s reasoning behind this claim is this: by criticizing sexualized character design and game art as well as an industry that values the commodification of female body parts over depictions of actual women, I am somehow erasing the preference of female-or-nonbinary-identified queer people who are attracted to women, which makes me a bigot. Most of his argument that I am a miserable human being comes back to this idea:
Quote: Does she constantly say homophobic statements?
Yes. Absolutely and we already went over this. I laid out an example on a previous page.
A._You (unknown gender and orientation) claim that kind of speech is not homophobic
B._I (straight male) claim it is
C._Norton (bisexual male) says it is not homophobic but is insenstive
D._The women I’ve asked about this (bisexual females) say her rhetoric is unequivocally homophobic (on basically every post where she talks about scantily-clad women, which is a great many of them) whether or not she herself wants it to be (a detail you, again, keep pretending doesn’t exist). She does this through a rhetoric which (like so many RPG morons of your acquaintance so often do) fails to acknowledge the existence of people with tastes unlike her own and grants to her own taste an unwarranted moral dimension.
While you may not be inclined to grant Group 4 more moral authority than anybody else so far asked, I defer to their judgment since they’re the affected group. — RPGSite thread, post #229
So because there are women who agree with him that my feminist criticism of games is the same as queer erasure, I am homophobic and therefore a bigot. Which. Wut .
This also means that Zak is placing himself in a position to judge whose expression of marginalization is most valid. So the irony is that while Zak accuses me of bigotry, the very fact that he putting himself, as a white man, in a position to choose which womens’ opinions count and which do not. And how is that not erasure, which by Zak’s standard would be bigotry?
The writing I do here is not scholarly. I write about my feelings, my experiences, and how these things impact me and the women I know. Yes I bring my training as an artist and my experience in the industry to what I write. But I also bring the hurt, the unwelcome, the scorn, the feeling that my body is not enough, that it will never be enough and therefore I will never be enough.
But somehow he has decided that my expressions of marginalization don’t count, and therefore I don’t count.
…I’m saying: since she’s a liar and a bigot, supporting her in any way instantaneously makes you a shitty person that nobody else should ever deal with. Just like supporting a known homophobe would make you a shitty person. Whether you want to be a shitty person is your business, not mine. — RPGSite thread, post #98
…Although calling someone who is a bigoted a bigot does not constitute harassment, publicly lying about them does constitute harassment. — RPGSite thread, post #141
…Also: I’d willingly put it to a vote. If I gave Wundergeek’s stuff to every lesbian and bi woman on the planet, and they voted, I’d accept their verdict. As I don’t have access to that, I am deferring to people I trust — RPGSite thread, post #232
…So something something is sexist if you can find enough women who agree with you?? What if I can poll my bi/pan female friends and find more who agree with me than who agree with Zak? Does that mean I win? Because… I’m pretty sure that feminism doesn’t work that way.
I’m not going to claim that I ally perfectly, because pride goeth before the fall. But I certainly put a lot of work into not erasing queer people, and getting other people to stop erasing them as well.
4) I am omniscient/I have not written about everything that needs writing about
Sometimes Zak will criticize me for never having written about a specific thing, and often seems to have the idea that I both follow everything he talks about and does and that I am aware of every game book that he has ever encountered.
I really don’t know how else to address things like this, in which he says that I am picking and choosing who to criticize because I have never written about an obscure thing featuring rape-nagas:
There are 40 naga-kin in Pralaj and about 200 villagers and revived corpses held prisoner while slowly being raped, tortured, and drowned into a susceptible state for transformation into naga-kindred. ... From here, they prepare the coming of the Naga into her kingdom, and send naga-kin down the River to rape and drown the people into following her.
Now one reason he (I’ll call him Doc Respectable, I hope he won’t mind) has not been called out by Wundergeek or anybody else in a coterie of people that, largely gets very het up about rape in games and about what is in the world’s most popular RPG is because he is a professional. And by that I don’t mean he maintains a responsible and professional demeanor (although he does) I mean that, unlike the RPGPundit (the other consultant who pissed people off) and I, Doc Respectable’s daily bread relies on tabletop roleplaying games. — The Teachable Moment From All This
Uh, and you know what, if I’d known about that being a thing that existed before Zak decided to criticize me for never writing about it, maybe I might’ve! I’ve certainly written quite a bit about the rapey tropes inherent in D&D and other geek media before – including the rapeyness of half-orcs and the drow.
He also seems upset that I have not written about everything that could ever need writing about:
Wundergeek’s friend Vincent Baker–designer of Apocalypse World and the most important designer in a scene whose members came out in force against me and (especially) the RPGPundit, is perhaps the epitome of a Male Game Designer Who Writes About Rape (in both Seclusium of Orphone and Poison’d) And Is Praised For His Creative Vision.
But they don’t talk about it–at least not publicly. … And so we get lots of trenchant Concerned Gamers re-posting Wundergeek’s I Am Tired litany and re-posting Vincent Baker’s latest project in the same day and there is no good public conversation about the cognitive dissonance and how to resolve it. Like: How you handle rape and why, in public, with examples from Respectable figures in the field given first-hand and input from affected groups. — The Teachable Moment From All This
Uh, okay. I do own a copy of Seclusium of Orphone, from that one time I was part of a failed IndieGoGo for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I’ve never done anything more than skim it. I didn’t look at it any closer than – hey! Lists! And neat art! …okay these lists are neat, but there are… a lot of them.
To be honest, the collective game output of my design friends is just too damn large to ever be consumed by only one person. I only have so much time, and sometimes I can think that a designer is totally killing it with design ideas and still not really be into the end result of the thing that they made.
Now obviously I can’t claim to have never read Poison’d. That would be a little hard, since I illustrated it. But Poison’d was published in 2009, two years before I started writing this blog. So it honestly never occurred to me to write about Poison’d, because it’s an older game. Not to mention that there’s a lot of rapey stuff out there that I haven’t written about, simply because man is rape common in games and I don’t want to turn into That Blogger Who Only Writes About Rape. (…World of Darkness, tho…)
5) I am legit crazy
Last, but certainly not least, Zak has accused me of being legit crazy. As in a-danger-to-myself-and-others crazy:
But she needs to get help, not just constant random reification of whatever aggressive anti-sex delusion she’s pushing that day. —RPGSite thread, post #88
“Wait my friend is mentally ill and as someone they trust I need to intervene” . So people like Wundergeek keep doing breathtakingly evil, stupid and dishonest things because people like you, basically, let them and there is no point at which you go “This person is crazy, let’s make sure they can’t hurt anyone else”. —RPGSite thread, post #229
Wundergeek will never listen to anything I say–but if you have even a single person who is friends with her who hasn’t told her she desperately needs therapy by now, every fucking problem she causes is on their head. As it is on yours for defending her. —RPGSite thread, post #229
And let me just say that internet-diagnosing someone of a mental illness as a way of dismissing everything that they have to say, or even their worth as a human being, that is some grade-A ableist bullshit.
There’s a lot of shit I don’t talk about here, like the trauma surrounding the loss of my father and my lifelong struggle with mental illness. But I’ve also been pretty open about things in the gamecommunity that do affect my mental health, as well as things that I am doing to try to take care of myself.
So yes, I am “crazy”. But I missed the part where the details of my medical history, including treatment, medication, prognosis, or interventions are anybody’s fucking business but my husband’s.
(If you’ve made it this far, uh, congratulations? You deserve a medal or something.)
So here we are, at the end. I have laid out everything I have, as exhaustively as I could while also trying to preserve some readability and coherency. I hope I struck the right balance. I might not have. Ultimately, you, the reader, must decide how well I did.
What do I intend to do from here? To go back to what I have been doing. Blogging about the things that I’m passionate about, writing games that I want to write, and making art that makes me happy. This isn’t something I intend to write about again. The purpose of this post was to end a three-and-a-half year silence that was only growing larger, more oppressive, and more suffocating the longer it went on.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m fucking Mother Theresa about this. I have a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, and a lot of anger over this. I also have a lot of anxiety and fear. I am going to do my level best to forget this, but do I have it in me to ever forgive? I’m not sure. I hope that posting this will help me let some of that hurt go.
Do I expect or even desire anything from Zak? No. I hope he has lots more adventures with confident women and nonbinary folk who are in charge of their sexuality, and I hope they keep playing games. Me, I just want to live my life, and I want him to live his without constantly broadcasting his hatred of me. That’s all. That’s all I’ve only ever wanted.
 Zak is a professional artist with art in the MOMA. So his entire argument hinges on the idea that he is somehow completely unfamiliar with the idea of “the male gaze”, which was a concept I learned about in art school, waaaaaay before feminism was even a thing I thought worth pursuing. There is, frankly, a shitton of scholarship supporting the existence of the (heterosexual) male gaze as a major influencing force in our culture, so, I’m not going to waste time here by having an argument that is the intellectual equivalent of “should I vaccinate my kids”. (Spoiler alert: YES.)
[This post is part of a series! Click here for Part 1 and Part 2 respectively]
First, in the comments on my last post, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.
It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.
I’ve gone back and edited part 2 to add both of these concerns to my post.
Lastly, Rachel Kahn – the artist and creator of By Crom! – linked me to a talk that she gave about her experience of self-publishing as an indie comics artist. It’s not games, obviously, but she covers a lot of useful topics that still apply to game publishing, so it’s definitely worth a listen.
So far I’ve covered the thinky stuff about why you should consider self-publishing and common cognitive pitfalls to avoid. I’ve also talked about the economics of various distribution models and the pros and cons of each approach. However! I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room – crowdfunding! Nor have I talked about alternative content models and creative partnerships. So I’m going to do my best to address those three topics in this post.
I know that this doesn’t exactly make for scintillating reading, so this is the last post in the series and after this I will return to more entertaining things.
Economics of making the thing
It is literally impossible to possess all of the skills needed to make a polished and professional game without needing the input of another human. If you are fantastically lucky, you might be one of the rare humans who can also make art and do layout in addition to writing and designing a game. However, you will always need a human that isn’t you to edit your work.
Yes always. You are legit not capable of editing your own work because your brain is an asshole and will lie to you about what is actually on the page.
So at the very least, you will need to find an editor. Depending on your skillset, you may also need a layout person and an artist. (Sometimes artists can do layout as well. But in my experience, it’s far more common that these would be separate people.) And of course, any editor, artist, or layout person capable of putting out professional-quality work is going to want to be paid for their time.
With that in mind, let’s look at different options available to you. Although it’s worth noting beforehand that generally, the less money you’re willing to spend, the more time you can expect to spend yourself.
1)Shoestring everything yourself
Admittedly, this is a lot easier if you are an artist or layout-capable person yourself. However, it is possible, and is something I have done in the past.
First, you’ll need an editor. If you’re trying to avoid needing to pay people, consider your network of friends. Do you have any friends who are competent editors? English or Journalism majors? Compulsive grammar nerds? Ask if they’d be willing to edit your draft! A lot of the time, friends will be willing to trade favors for favors. Can you help your prospective editor move? Provide free babysitting? Something else tedious and time-consuming?
Be creative – friends will be a lot more flexible in what they’ll accept as compensation. Just make sure not to screw your friend over by not following through on your end of the bargain. Few things sour friendships faster than screwing over someone in a business arrangement.
Next, artwork. Are you an artist yourself? Cool beans! Congratulations on being a lucky human! If not, however, don’t despair. The Prismatic Art Collection is an excellent collection of RPG stock art featuring inclusive and diverse artwork by a lot of fantastic artists.
If that doesn’t meet your needs, consider getting creative. If you can’t draw, are you any good with a camera? Consider using photography instead of illustration. J. R. Blackwell’s work on Heroine is a fantastic example of how well this can work out.what this can look like.
Lastly, layout. It is possible for the layout-inexperienced to do their own layout, but you need to be prepared for the massive time expenditure this will entail. How long do you think laying out your book will take? Great. Now quadruple that estimate. And maybe double that estimate. Essentially, you’ll be teaching yourself a new skill, and that takes time.
That’s not to say it’s impossible! If you want to go that route, grab several of your favorite game books whose look you want to emulate and crib (without plagiarizing!) from the elements that make those books pleasing. This will require trial and error. Persevere! (On no account, however, should you attempt to do this using any Microsoft product. Period. That way lies madness and despair.)
1a) Shoestring everything but art, source art cheaply
If the Prismatic Art Collection doesn’t fit your needs, stock art can be an inexpensive alternative – although it’s important to note that you’ll be sacrificing specificity if you go this route; you may need to go with something that approximates what you were looking for if you can’t find something that precisely fits what you had envisioned.
Your other option is to license stock art from a big stock photo site and then modify it yourself. One great example of this is Apocalypse World – Vincent Baker did traceovers of photos he found on stock photo sites and the end result is fantastic. Going this route will also represent a significant time expenditure! Because I can guarantee that you’re going to spend a fair amount of time on trial-and-error before you settle on something you like.
2) Assemble a team of freelancers, do a KickStarter to raise the funds to pay them
Increasingly, this is what the face of game publishing is looking like. If you go this route (and I’d say any project over about 20,000 words, you should definitely consider this as an option), look at what it is you need that you’re prepared to pay for.
Then go recruiting people to fill those needs. Pitch the project and explain what you want to hire them to do, then ask about their rates and availability. (Availability is important! Putting together a team of awesome people who can’t start working as soon as the campaign is over is going to lead to massive delays and headaches.) Add all that together and that’s your creative budget.
I have more to say about KickStarter, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
3) Creative partnerships
The middle ground between option 1 and option 2 is a creative partnership. Say you have a project that you want to do, and you have about half of the needed skills. Consider shopping around for a creative partner who has the skills that you lack for the purposes of entering into a creative partnership in exchange for a mutually agreed-upon split of the profits (usually 50/50).
A great example of this is my partnership with Josh Roby on Princess Charming. Josh wanted to write a series of books for children; he was capable of handling writing, layout, and production logistics. However, he needed someone to do art as well as character and setting design. So he pitched the project to me and we became partners on this project. And it worked out really well for me! I did a bunch of fun (albeit time-consuming) art things, and then gave them to Josh and didn’t have to think about it anymore while he did all the work of turning them into physical books. Sucker.
If you go this route, it’s super important to put down in writing who is expected to perform which tasks and what the desired timeline is going to be. It’s also very important that you work with someone you can get along with, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time interacting with your partner. Don’t be tempted to partner with someone who rubs you the wrong way simply because you like their work, because trust me – that will never end well. Also, consider working together on a small project as a trial run before committing to working on a large project with someone who haven’t partnered with previously. It’s no fun discovering halfway through that you like your partner as a person but they drive you crazy as a collaborator.
You will need to figure out how to monetize the thing you want to make and plan accordingly. Consider signing a contract as to how profits will be split and how and when royalties will be paid to the person not receiving the monies. It is absolutely vital that you be on the same page with your partner about money things.
Serial content: Patreon
Everything that I’ve said about self-publishing so far has been predicated on the idea that what you are looking to do is sell a game. But maybe that’s not what you’re after, and maybe you’re open to alternative content models? So here I’m going to divert a little to talk about Patreon, since it would be a massive omission to not talk about Patreon as a way of funding game content.
Patreon is a great way to create small serial content; with traditional publishing models you can invest hundreds of hours in a project before it’s ready to publish. Patreon helps level out the revenue stream by providing income for content delivered in smaller, manageable chunks.
Most people use this to create content in discrete, self-contained chunks. Josh Roby uses Patreon to create “steampunk ports of call”, which are basically steampunk mini-settings. Mark Diaz Truman is using Patreon to create a monthly ezine called the Fate Codex.
Some people, like Caitlynn Belle and Topher Gerkey use it to fund the creation of small game projects. However, it can also be used to fund the development of larger projects; Quinn Murphy has been using his Patreon to fund the development of Five Fires – a hip hop RPG. You can also release games by the chapter, as this Patreon for the development of a Mexican RPG about killing angels. (I know I’m not doing it justice with that description, so please do check it out.)
Alternatively, some people use a per month model to fund the development of a larger project, or to enable more nebulous, hard-to-quantify work such as activism. Avery McDaldno is a good example of this; she makes games, coordinates events, gives talks, and does all sorts of awesome gameish things.
It’s worth noting that generally if you’re just starting out in game design, you should consider sticking to a per-content model rather than a per-month model. Without a proven reputation or established audience, a per-month model can be a hard sell; there are too many great Patreons out there to ever be able to support them all. You need to make potential patrons feel secure about seeing a return on investment, and a per-content model is a great way to do that. If you don’t create content, they don’t pay you anything! You’ll also need to invest effort in promoting your Patreon. Simply creating a Patreon and waiting for the money to roll in isn’t going to work. At all.
(And of course, Patreon is still a pretty new platform, so it’s hard to say definitively that these are your only two options. Who knows! There might be other exciting things people are doing that I’m not aware of!)
There are two main crowdfunding platforms for game content: IndieGoGo and KickStarter. I’ve written previously about why I use KickStarter and why you should too, but tl;dr is that IndieGoGo’s ethics leave a hell of a lot to be desired.
Anyhow, this section isn’t going to be about logistics – because there are a ton of people who have written voluminously about the logistics of running a game KickStarter. I could probably do an entire roundup post of KickStarter advice, and now that I think about it I really should. (Hmm.)
Anyway, most of what’s out there is written from the perspective of people who are running REALLY BIG CAMPAIGNS. So here is some perspective from the opposite end of the scale.
Budget, budget, budget
It can be a bit daunting figuring out exactly how to put together your budget, so for illustration here is my budget for Ruined Empire. It does not include an editor! Make sure you don’t omit that.
YMMV, naturally, but this is a pretty good overview of the stuff that you should be thinking about. (Plus editing.) You’ll note that I’ve included payment for myself in my budget. ALWAYS ALWAYS DO THAT. KickStarters are a huge, huge job and you don’t want to wind up going through all that effort essentially for free.
I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, so I put this together using magic formulas to do the math for me. But if spreadsheets aren’t your thing, maybe check out these KickStarter budget calculators I found here and here? (I’m afraid I can’t vouch for their effectiveness in depth, but they looked useful when I was checking them out.)
KickStarter will be your lord and master
Running a KickStarter is like having a baby. No matter how prepared you may think you are, you aren’t ready at all. There will always be tasks that you hadn’t anticipated doing. A KickStarter is like a hungry, angry baby constantly demanding your attention.
Sound annoying? It is! And stressful! And time consuming, if you’re doing it right!
There is no replacement for KickStarter in that it can enable large projects that would otherwise be out of your reach. I would never have been able to put together Ruined Empire in a format that I felt would do it justice without KickStarter. However, KickStarters are a huge time and energy sink. Expect to be able to run 1 per year when you’re starting out; even the really experienced single-person publishers I know only manage 2 per year.
Make sure that your KickStarter revenue and expenses are in the same calendar year
This is actually something covered in pretty much all “mainstream” advice, but it’s important enough that I’m going to say it again here.
I didn’t do that with Ruined Empire and it’s kind of fucking over my taxes. Whoops.
Pay your damn freelancers
The big companies get away with screwing freelancers with unfavorable terms, but you should aspire to a higher standard. Half payment up front and half upon completion of work is a reasonable standard, and paying your freelancers promptly when you determine that their work is the final draft with no further changes needed will endear you greatly to them.
I could say more but I won’t
I know there’s more that I could say about KickStarter, but I’m going to hold off on that until after Ruined Empire and do a detailed post-mortem of that, since it’s the closest thing to a traditional game product I’m probably ever going to publish. Until then, to the Google!
So how much money can I make?
On my previous post, I got asked how much money you can expect to make selling RPGs. But that question is kind of impossible to answer for a number of reasons. To quote myself:
It depends. What kind of game are you trying to sell? What is it about? Is it something with broad appeal, or a weird little niche thing with limited appeal? How polished is it? Is it a standalone product or a supplement that requires another book to play?
How long have you been working on building an audience? Are you part of a community of gamers/game designers who can help promote your game? Have you been going to conventions to run your game? Have you been making an effort to get your games into game retailers?
I can’t give you numbers. Game design is like ANY business in that you have to put time IN to get money OUT.
So that is what I leave you with, my lovelies. I can’t promise you great fame or riches, all I provide here is a roadmap of what self-publishing can look like and how to get there. However, self-publishing is a business, and like any business you can’t expect the money to come in by itself. Businesses take time and effort sustained over years in order to build – they’re not something that just happens overnight.
Still, I hope that writing at such length (!!!) is helpful at demystifying the publishing process.
 John Harper is seriously amazing.
 Note that these numbers are in $USD, while the campaign itself funded in $CAD
In my last post, I talked about why it’s not enough to tell women to get involved in game design through freelancing for a major game publisher; it’s important that women know that self-publishing is also an option, and frequently it’s the far more financially beneficial option.
This is going to be a more practical post, talking about the nuts-and-bolts of distribution as a self-publisher. Obviously this is largely informed by my experience as an (admittedly tiny) self-publishing game designer, and everyone’s situation is unique, and YMMV blah blah blah.
Also, I’ll note that this post is information-dense. So if you’re not super super interested in self-publishing, maybe go watch some goat videos.
Lastly, I had intended to also tackle the different funding models of actually assembling a finished game project, from crowdfunding to creative partnerships and all that. But this post ballooned far beyond what I thought it would be, so that will have to wait for my next post because I have a lot to say about that! And I also want to talk about using Patreon to support serial-format game content, which may or may not fit in with my next post, so we’ll have to see what happens.
The changing face of self-publishing
I published my first game (Thou Art But A Warrior) in 2008, which feels like the Dark Ages now that I look back on those experiences. Crowdfunding didn’t exist. Drive Thru RPG was still a nascent force in indie publishing, hardly the juggernaut of market-share that it is now; Indie Press Revolution was the major arbiter of “hip, cool” indie TRPGs. And most importantly, PDF sales weren’t a thing that most indie publishers bothered worrying about; the iPhone had only been out for a year at that point, and the tablet market was still a twinkle in some marketer’s eye.
Determined to save money by doing everything myself, I did my own art and laid the book out myself in Word. (Oh god was that a mistake. Don’t ever ever do that.) Even then, the initial print run of 100 books cost me $400ish (it was a pretty small book), and then I had to take them to GenCon – which is itself no small expense – to spend my convention running endless demos. And even then my costs were comparatively tiny! Being able to do my own art took off a significant expense. And being able to rely on my husband’s editing “for free” removed another significant expense.
(…yeah, yeah. I know how this sounds. Bear with me! This is going somewhere.)
Anyway, the point that I’m making is that publishing “back then” came with a pretty high barrier to entry. In addition to being someone who could afford to take the time to write a game, get it playtested, get it revised through multiple drafts, and have the bandwidth to deal with the nightmare that is printing – you also had to be able to sink a lot of money into a game that had no guarantee of selling. Every time you self-published a game, you were taking the risk that all of your time, effort, and money would vanish and all you’d be left with was a box of books in your living room.
So it’s not terribly surprising that the horde of self-published game designers that were pimping their games at the IPR booth that year were a rather… monochromatic bunch of people.
Thankfully – as new self-publishing tools have been created, that barrier to entry has gotten lower, and lower, and lower. Which brings us to right now, when it has literally never been easier to publish your own shit.
So now let’s talk about how to get that done.
The current self-publishing landscape
(It’s important to note here that I will not be talking about how to make a finished game, for the most part. I’ll touch on art, editing, and layout as expenses that need to be considered and planned for, but as for “how to make a game that is polished and professional” – that’s an entirely different subject that people far more qualified than I have written extensively about.)
Self-publishing in 2015 is vastly different than in 2008, and it can take many different forms. As a publisher, you can put as much or as little time into your publishing as you want. So I’m going to go through the different “levels” of self-publishing as a one-person operation, though please note that “higher level” does not equate with “better”. “Higher level” simply means a greater investment of time, resources, and creative bandwidth.
Level 1: No books, just PDFs
This is what I think of as “entry-level publishing”. With tablets growing increasingly common at the table, PDF is now its own viable market segment – although it’s worth noting that the availability of PDF is never going to replace the demand for books.
At this level, all you really need is a game to publish, a website, and either a storefront or a distributor (or both).
1) The Game
Now when I say “a game to publish”, it’s important to note that I don’t necessarily mean a complete roleplaying game with original setting and mechanical system. Hell no! Instead you could have a fully-fleshed out setting, or a small game that does a small but very specific thing, or a standalone hack of someone else’s game, or even a small hack of someone else’s game that doesn’t stand on its own. Whatever! If it is a game or helps other people play games, it counts.
2) The Website
Thankfully, this too is far easier than it used to be. There are a number of hosting services that use drag-and-drop content management systems that allow you to create slick, professional-looking websites without having to know a lick of HTML. Personally, I use SquareSpace (they are not paying me to endorse them) – their hosting rates are cheap, their templates attractive and easy to use, and if you pay a year at a time it includes a free domain name. I’ve been with them more than 2 years and never had any hiccups in service. (There are other similar services out there if you want to shop around – I just can’t comment on them.)
Even if you are someone who knows HTML and web design, a service like SquareSpace is awesome because it just saves so much time.
3) The storefront/distributor
The easiest and cheapest way to handle this is to put a PayPal button on your website and email PDFs to customers yourself as your orders come in. I do a little of this – right now I’m only selling Thou Art But a Warrior through my UnStore, mostly because I’m also trying to get rid of my last dead-tree copies. However, this option is also the least visible. So either you’ll need to do self-promotion to offset this, or you’ll want to consider using multiple distribution channels. (Which you probably should! But more on that in a second.)
One additional, unfortunate complication to the selling-through-your-website model is that as of January 1st of this year, the new EU VAT rules basically mean that self-publishers can’t sell PDFs directly to their European customers.
Thankfully, PayHip is a storefront service that will handle VAT for you! They’ll take 5% of each sale, but really 5% is more than worth it for not having to deal with the VAT yourself. And what you get is a pretty slick looking storefront with some pretty decent analytics and social media tools built in.
However! PayHip still doesn’t do your self-promotion for you! And if that matters to you, you may want to look into a larger distribution channel like Drive Thru RPG or Indie Press Revolution. (And since they’d be doing the distribution, VAT would ultimately be their problem, not yours.) DTRPG will give you 65% of net profit as a non-exclusive publisher, and 70% if you publish with them exclusively. IPR doesn’t charge as much in royalties – they take 20% of cover price for all PDF sales. But then, their sales aren’t as large as DTRPG, so that’s a judgement call you’ll have to make.
It’s worth noting that DTRPG is huge, and has an enormous customer base. Many DTRPG customers will only purchase game PDFs through DTRPG so that their game libraries are effectively centralized in one location that they have access to away from home. So there are a lot of sales that you will only capture through DTRPG. However, DTRPG also takes a lot more of your money.
A good way to balance this is to launch a new game through your website and/or storefront of choice, and only release on DTRPG after a month or two when initial sales have peaked and started to taper off. (This was the approach I took for SexyTime adventures and I wound up doubling the number of copies sold.)
Of course, if all of that sounds like too much of a hassle, and it might, there’s nothing wrong with publishing exclusively with DTRPG and linking your website over there. Ultimately, you have to do the personal calculus and decide if the return on investment is worth it for anything beyond that.
3a) Important caveats (edited in after initial post)
In the comments, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.
It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.
Level 2: Books
Books are something that are never going to go away, period. So it’s worth considering that as an option, because some people won’t buy a game if they can’t get a book. (Although it’s worth noting that Print + PDF is becoming the standard for a lot of indie outfits, as increasingly people like having an option of owning a book but not having to haul around the extra weight at a convention.) But of course, books means printing as well as shipping, which ups the nuisance factor considerably.
But if books is a thing you want to do, then here’s what that can look like:
1) Sell books through website/storefront, mail them yourself
This is originally what most of self-publishing looked like, and it can still be viable if you’re willing to put up with a lot of hassle. Shipping books yourself means you’re not paying handling fees to someone else to do it for you. However. This also requires you to keep physical copies around your house, as well as mailing supplies. And you need to be able to take time to make semi-regular trips to the post office. It is time consuming, to say nothing of space-consuming. And if you live in Canada, Canada Post’s absolutely ridiculous postage rates are going to preclude you from doing this. (I have someone in the States who ships my print copies of TABAW for me.)
Most importantly, however, this model means that you will have to have gone to the trouble of getting it printed yourself, which is no small task. And that means either sinking in money up front, or funding a print run plus extras through crowdfunding, which we’ll come back to. So increasingly, people are ditching this model in favor of #2.
1a)Print books, send them to a distributor who will sell/ship them for you
There are several distributors who do this for small indie publishers. Indie Press Revolution was the first, and the only distributor I have any direct experience with. (I stopped using IPR several years ago.) However, it may be worth considering if you want to save money on printing costs but don’t want to or can’t mail books yourself.
Importantly, distributors like IPR sell to retailers – which means that you could potentially get your game into local game stores. However, with IPR retail sales are made at 55% of cover, with the remaining profit being split 80/20 – leaving you with 44% of your cover price as compared to 70% of cover for direct print sales. So you may decide that retail sales using this model aren’t worth it to you, since you’re “losing money” as compared to a direct-to-the-customer print sale. Or you may decide that the reduced royalty is worth the extra exposure. It’s your call.
However, while this model saves you from dealing with shipping, it still doesn’t save you from dealing with printers. Which is why more publishers are shifting to…
2) Upload a print-ready PDF to a platform that will print-on-demand for you
Drive Thru RPG is great for this, because you can upload one print-ready file and set different options for how people can buy it. So you set price levels for PDF, for black and white, for color softcover, color hardcover, etc etc etc. And when people order a print copy, DTRPG prints it on demand and mails it for you, and you get the royalties without ever having to go to the post office.
Which, as someone who has dealt with printers, let me tell you this is something you should strongly consider. Printers are either 1) glacially slow or 2) amazingly talented at fucking things up. No exceptions.
Lulu is an alternative for those interested in the “not needing to handle books” model of selling books. They charge a flat price for printing, you set the cover price and get the difference. However, using Lulu comes with the same disadvantage as selling only through your website. If you want your game to sell well, you’re going to have to put extra work into promoting it.
Most dead-tree print runs these days are being funded through crowdfunding, because as noted previously, printing is expensive. And as shipping costs sky rocket, publishers handling dead-tree books need to be able to make sure their costs will be covered. However, this post is already long enough, so crowdfunding will have to wait until next time.
 Being married to your editor is both a blessing and a curse. It’s impossible to grumpily ignore your editor when they give you brutal edits if they live in your house.
 Actually, dealing with printers isn’t any better now than it was in 2008. Even when you’re dealing with a good printer, the process still sucks.
 Much of what I say might not apply to medium sized indie operations like Bully Pulpit.
 No more coding lightbox galleries manually! Whee!
Lately, the issue of women and minorities in game design and development has been a topic of conversation in indie tabletop circles. I recently wrote about the dustup that happened over the level of female representation on D&D’s core design team. Since then, several interesting data points have been added, such that I think it’s worth taking a look at here.
So I’m going to write a 2-part series here about getting started as a woman in indie publishing. Some of what appears here will be “recycled” content, in that it’s repurposed from a Google+ post that I made several months ago. Most of it, however, will be “original” content that has not previously been pulled from my brain meats.
Part 1 is going to handle what I’m calling “thinky stuff” – pros and cons of publishing your own content, as well as common cognitive pitfalls that women face in game publishing.
Part 2 is going to deal in more practical matters. I’ll talk about my experiences as a self-publisher: how I got started, what goes into making a finished game, and the many different avenues available to self-publishers.
So now that I’ve laid that out, let’s get started.
1) The pros and cons of self-publishing
Most of the time when people talk about “breaking into the industry as a game designer”, what they mean is “getting a freelancing gig for one of the ‘mainstream’ publishing companies”. But if that is all that you think of when you think of “breaking in”, then let me tell you YOU ARE SELLING YOURSELF SHORT.
Not to get all “get off my lawn” on folks here, but it has never been easier to self-publish games than it is right now. There are so many tools now that allow people to self-publish exciting and polished games that just plain didn’t exist when I started dabbling in self-publishing nearly seven years ago. It is absolutely possible for a one-person operation (like yours truly) to make and publish games that people want to buy.
There’s also the issue of economics. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press wrote this fantastic look at the economics of publishing from the standpoint of one of the “big dogs”, and it’s a great look at why freelance writing is not well paid, and why it’s not ever going to be well paid in the current market. The fact of the matter is that very often, a tiny self-publisher with a tiny audience can shoestring a game of their own and still make more money than they’d make freelancing for one of the big companies.
More importantly, I own the rights to all of it. My work on V20: Dark Ages was done work-for-hire, which means I don’t own any of the work that I did on that project.
Now all of that said, there are some cons to self-publishing. I’m not going to pretend that it’s all giggles and unicorns! Because there are distinctly unfun parts to self-publishing too. So I’m going to do a good old-fashioned pro-con list here:
You own 100% of your work
Self-promotion and publishing are time-consuming
You don’t have to wait to get paid
KickStarters are NOT for the faint of heart (or the weak of organizational skills)
You don’t have to worry about getting screwed out of a comp copy, or about an employer just not paying you for your work – all of which are very real risks
Building an audience is something that takes hard work over time. There is no substitute for this. None.
The profit margins are much, MUCH larger
Finishing a draft is just the beginning of the process
You are in control of the creative process
You’ll need to find a trustworthy, competent editor. Getting your edits will never be fun, or your editor isn’t doing the job right.
There are no rules for what self-publishing HAS to look like. How much time and effort you put into publishing is up to you
Organizing playtests sucks. Seriously, it’s just the worst. (Except KickStarters.)
There are many alternative funding models and storefront options for people not willing/able to get into the logistics of dead tree books
Personally, I would LOVE to see many more people start self-publishing their own stuff. Tell that voice in your head that’s blasting the litany of reasons why it wouldn’t work to STFU. (It’s lying, but we’re going to come back to that in part #2.) I’m obviously pretty biased, but as someone who has experience with both ends of this? Self-publishing is by far my preferred method of game-writing. BY. FAR.
In the end, you have to do the calculus of what makes sense for you. But don’t let the Myth of the Game Designer fool you into thinking that you’re not “good enough” or “popular enough” or “talented enough” to publish your own content. And don’t EVER let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do freelance writing for “exposure” or to “gain experience”. Because here’s the deal.
As a freelancer, YOU ARE PROVIDING A SERVICE THAT HAS WORTH, or else they wouldn’t be paying you for it! The game companies are NOT in this to help you, the lowly freelancer. They are in this to MAKE MONEY, pure and simple. Working for “exposure” is an endless, useless trap so DON’T DO IT.
2) Self-publishing: common cognitive pitfalls
[This is directed pretty much exclusively at women (misandry!), and is all taken from things I have berated myself for at some point or another.]
You have imposter syndrome, and it is lying to you.
Granted, it’s true that I know lots of male designers and writers with imposter syndrome. But it’s worse for women, because we have the double whammy of starting out a new craft in a hobby that tells women we don’t belong here.
You will feel like you have nothing to contribute, that you have no business calling yourself a game designer. That’s bullshit. Tell your brain the shut the fuck up and keep designing. (You may not ever get rid of that voice, but I promise it gets easier to tell it to STFU with practice.)
Write the game that you want to write
Making games is work and you have to really be excited about a project to see it through from start to finish. Don’t discard a game idea because you think no one will be interested or want to play it. Make it anyway and put it out there. You may be surprised! Hell, I’m still surprised that ANYONE actually bought SexyTime Adventures, let alone played it. But it happened! And I almost didn’t publish it, because I thought no one would be interested but me.
This goes double if you want to write a game about something stereotypically “girly”. You want to write a game about saving kittens? DO IT. A game about teenage girl angst? ROCK. A game about shoujo magical girl anime? OMFG DOOO IIIITTTT.
You do you. It’s okay to design for a niche audience.
Only writing hacks doesn’t mean you’re not a “real” game designer
It took me years to call myself a game designer because I can’t write original systems for shit. But I’ve learned that I’m really good at taking a system that does 75% of what I want it to do and Frankensteining it into doing a particular thing it didn’t do before. That’s game design!
Did you make a game? Then you are, grammatically, a game designer. Own that label.
Not being able to get outside groups to run playtests does not mean that no one will want to play your game
Seriously. It doesn’t mean that you suck, or your game sucks. It means there are too many games and too little time to play them in. It’s okay. Find some friends to play your game with you. It’ll be okay.
Keep your eyes on your own work
I still sometimes beat myself up that I’m not as prolific as Designer X or I’m not as popular as Designer Y. And it’s stupid and pointless. Be the best designer YOU can be.
Perfect is the mortal enemy of good enough
There is a difference between perfect and polished. Your game will never be perfect. Is it good enough? Good. Shove it out the door and move on.
You do not need a middleman. REPEAT. YOU DO NOT NEED A MIDDLEMAN.
Self-publishing is a thing that you are allowed to do. Yes, you with your no previously published games. Yes you with your lack of budget for a professional illustrator. Polish your game to the best of your capacity and put it out there. You do NOT need to shop around for “established” publishers to publish your work before you can call yourself a “real” designer.
That said, self-publishing is work! And maybe you don’t want to do that extra work, and that’s okay. But be upfront with yourself about your reasons – if it’s about validation, then re-consider. Because the economics of freelancing means that even self-publishers with tiny audiences (like me) can often make more money by publishing their own work.
Find a community of designers who you can talk about design with
I’ve learned A LOT about game design from talking with other designers and watching their process. Similarly, I find that talking about my in-process design thoughts helps me refine my ideas. Google+ is a GREAT place for that, because Circles and robust blocking tools make it easy to aggressively curate a discussion space you find productive.
You do not require the validation of assholes
That’s so important I’m going to say that again.
YOU DO NOT REQUIRE THE VALIDATION OF ASSHOLES.
It’s a sad reality of the gaming community that there are assholes, and as a woman you WILL encounter them. Sometimes, it may be someone you’ve heard about, someone who you think of as a Big Name. It can be really hard when that happens to remember that your worth as a designer is NOT contingent on their approval.
Say that the absolute worst case happens and they try to blacklist you. Remember that your audience is NOT 100% of gamers. Your audience is people who like and appreciate your games. And contrary to what they think, Big Name Assholes don’t really have as much power to affect your game sales as they think they do. People who would listen to a Big Name Asshole calling for a boycott of your work? Aren’t sales you should care about losing.
MASTER THE GLORIOUS ART OF NOT GIVING A FUCK, FOR IT WILL SET YOU FREE.
Remember to have fun
You’re making GAMES after all! Have fun! Even if I hadn’t sold a single copy of SexyTime Adventures, I would still consider it a success, because I giggled to myself the entire time I was writing it. Make games that you have fun making.
 Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat, Green Ronin, Onyx Path, etc etc